(This article was first published in the The American Interest on December 17, 2019.)
In the culture of pervasive outrage, everything is an outrage, so nothing is.
IAM OUTRAGED! And I know you are too. That’s because these days, everyone is outraged. After all, there are so many things to be outraged about. And there are a growing number of people, opinion pages, media outlets, political spam emails, and Russian social media bots to remind us about all of them. How can one not be outraged by cultural insensitivity, the hordes of illegal immigrants pouring into our country, the assault on reproductive freedom, abortion-on-demand, hetero-normativity, transphobia, transgender bathrooms, neo-socialism, neo-fascism, liberal fascism, neoliberalism, micro-aggressions, liberal snowflakes, insensitivity to religious minorities, and the war on Christmas? It is our civic duty to be outraged: To refuse righteous indignation is morally suspicious at best, callous and selfish at worst. Also, one must be outraged by the appalling lack of outrage demonstrated by other people. What kind of cold-blooded monster isn’t outraged by all of these things, as well as many more I haven’t mentioned (omissions that I’m certain some readers will find outrageous)?
Outrage has become the defining emotional state of our era. The French aristocracy in the 18th century prized sangfroid and irreverent wit; the British in the 19th century valued an unflappable composure and the legendary stiff upper lip; Americans in the early 20th century exhibited a hard-bitten stoicism in the face of adversity and, in the mid-20th century, the cool, bureaucratic mastery of the Organization Man; by the 1970s, we aspired to the hipster Zen state of “chilled out.” Today, we display and demand paroxysms of rage. Why? For one, it seems a large and growing share of the national economy is now devoted to ensuring that we are kept in a constant state of rage and frustration. We are encouraged to fuel the engines of outrage with our time and money: by tuning in to ideologically charged television programming and sending donations to Political Action Committees who promise to fight against the latest outrages. The obligation to express outrage helps to stoke the fires of discontent and keep these authors of outrage employed and well-compensated. Welcome to the era of the Outrage-Industrial Complex.
Of course, rabble-rousing for fun and profit is nothing new. What is new is the predominance of outage among people of every social class and profession. Outrage is now a tool of the comfortable establishment conservative as well as of the political radical and the underdog; once the stance of the cliched angry young man, it is now a universally shared orientation toward the world; once an atypical response to extreme circumstances, outrage is now a default reflex.
Of course, there is a good reason we feel an obligation to feel and express outrage: We assume it is a reliable force for social change. The absence of outrage in the face of the outrageous reflects a cowardly quietism, resignation, or apathy. For most of the modern era, the menace of comfortable complacency has been an enduring concern. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of the apotheosis of modern technocratic rationality, the pathetic “Last Man,” motivated only by a bland, passionless utilitarian hedonism. Aldous Huxley imagined a dystopian future of anodyne comforts, bland diversions and narcotically induced bliss. The great urbanist Lewis Mumford worried that the American suburbs of the 1950s were a “retreat from unpleasant realities” where the “self-centered individual” would “shirk public duties” in favor of the cosseted insularity of the nuclear family. Mumford argued that a centralized mass media would lull the common person into a soporific trance with sanitized current events programming (not Fake News, but News-Lite) and bland middlebrow entertainment. He lamented that “all knowledge and direction can be monopolized by central agents and conveyed through guarded channels, too costly to be utilized by small groups or private individuals,” resulting in “the passiveness and docility that has crept into our existence.”
If complacency engendered by mass media was the enemy of liberty, it would follow that political engagement through more accessible media of communication would be the friend of freedom. It hasn’t turned out that way. Today, social media radically decentralizes and democratizes communication, and the docility Mumford feared is nowhere to be seen. Instead of passiveness, we are crippled by indiscriminate rage and reflexive opposition. Ubiquitous outrage is a now a source of political impotence. The rage porn of ideological talk radio, televised political commentary, and political campaign email spam keep us intoxicated by a false sense of urgency and efficacy. But outrage as a constant state of affairs is impotent. The outraged themselves fall victim to the same corrosive anger they hope to direct at the power structure; we are all locked in an arms race of outrage in which stalemate is the only possible outcome. And of course, stalemate favors the status quo. The expression of outrage is no longer a form of effective political protest; instead, it is an aesthetically debased form of entertainment. The Angry New World of the Outrage-Industrial Complex offers the narcotic distraction of a Soma holiday, but without relaxation or pleasure; Nietzsche’s Last Man is already among us, gorging on a diet of Fox News and Facebook.
The stately lawns of universities have long been fertile ground for grassroots outrage, left, right, and ideologically eclectic. But today the Outrage Industry exploits youthful energy in an especially diabolical way: By manufacturing deliberate provocations, the authors of outrage managed to profit by making themselves the targets of protest. Professional provocateurs such as Ben Shapiro, Ann Coulter, and Milo Yiannopoulous add nothing of value or interest to political discourse, but they thrive because they are skilled in provoking young people to express outrage. Their strategy is simple: Dangle a few choice offensive comments about sensitive topics such as affirmative action, feminism, or sexual orientation, and wait for earnest undergraduates to rise to the bait and stage a noisy outraged demonstration, thus allowing the provocateurs to wrap themselves in the First Amendment and lament the outrageousness of the heckler’s veto. Thousands of dollars in police overtime later, the speakers enjoy notoriety, not for their ideas, but for the outrage they inspired.
Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearing was a master class in the politics of outrage. The claims against Kavanaugh were easily plausible enough to warrant a thorough investigation, but because the coin of realm had become outrage instead of truth, we got a battle of righteous indignation instead of an inquiry that might have established the facts. First, a flurry of accusations, some much more credible than others, but all equal opportunities for noisy demonstrations of outrage. Then, the counter-punch. Kavanaugh and his handlers understood that this was no time for the kind of judicious temperament one would hope for in, well, a judge—what the emotional ritual demanded was an offering of outrage equal to that of Kavanaugh’s accusers, a demonstration, not of his objective innocence but of his subjective fury at his accusers. Those of us who saw Kavanaugh’s red-faced performance as either laughable or frighteningly unhinged were out of step with the times, applying the etiquette of a bygone era to the outrage economy of today. Kavanaugh may have failed to meet the accusations of his critics while embarrassing himself according to antique standards of gentility and decorum, but he succeeded in evening the score of outrage. As for the hapless Christine Blasey Ford’s calm and careful testimony: She had brought an academic seminar butter knife to a rage-fueled gunfight. Perhaps this was simply politics as usual, but political gamesmanship reflects what the public will respond to and accept. Sadly, today’s politicians correctly surmise that outrage trumps reasoned deliberation.
Our current President is an endless fount of outrage: He deliberately provokes outrage in others and demands outrage on his own behalf from his supporters and subordinates. The most recent example of the latter is the bogus outrage over my colleague Pam Karlan’s innocuous pun that “while the President can name his son Barron, he can’t make him a baron.” Cue the outraged mother Melania, tweeting: “a minor child deserves privacy . . . Pamela Karlan, you should be ashamed”—as if the mere mention of the boy’s name violated the innocence of youth. Soon, in the hands of the architects of outrage, Karlan’s off-the-cuff wordplay had morphed into an “attack” on the child himself and an attempt to “drag a 13-year-old child” into the impeachment process. Faux outrage competes for attention with the truly outrageous, creating an impenetrable fog of roiling anger: A play on words and a power play to influence an election are both equally outrageous, the indignation over one a formal, scripted answer to the outrage over the other. In the culture of pervasive outrage, everything is an outrage, so nothing is.
The great theorist of early American political life, Alexis de Tocqueville, noted the centrality of impassioned political discourse in American culture: “Debating clubs are . . . a substitute for theatrical entertainment,” he wrote. “An American does not know how to converse, he argues; he does not speak, he holds forth.” The ubiquitous outrage of today is a perversion of this American custom of politics-as-entertainment: Now, instead of reflecting sincere and mature political engagement, conspicuous outrage takes the place of it. The difference is that practical concerns and objective considerations anchored the partisan fervor of the past. For Tocqueville, American political discourse, however melodramatic and unrefined, was an extension of a pragmatic engagement with society: An ideological debate would be continuous with a technical discussion of how best to pave the roads or repair a bridge. Today, the complexity of technology and the global economy makes many practical concerns beyond the comprehension of non-specialists, so the Outrage-Industrial Complex channels this once productive impulse into the largely symbolic controversies of the culture wars, where differences in style take on moral importance, imagined slights become a crisis of state, and the difference between a Barron and a baron can be made to seem as important as the difference between a Republic and a kleptocracy.
The merchants of this economy of obfuscation, discord, and malcontent—be they social media executives, talk radio hosts, or the professional provocateurs of television and the college lecture circuit—feed on the withering hull of our democracy while wrapping themselves in the mantle of civic virtue. The Outrage-Industrial Complex debases our politics, swindles us out of our time and money, and makes us miserable. It’s an outrage! But how to fight it without just feeding the monster? Happily, resisting the outrage industry is not only virtuous—it can also be fun. Whenever I talk to students who wish to organize a demonstration against the latest outrageous speaker invited to speak on campus, I advise them to hit back harder—by going to the theater or the movies or by staying at home with a good novel. We should starve the profiteers of outrage by ignoring them: Without our rage, they are nothing.