August 16, 2018

On Outrage and Superiority: Why It’s OK to Not Be Mad About Politics

Imagine, if you will, the following purely hypothetical scenario:

Something happens in the world of politics. Say, a Supreme Court justice retires. Or our president cozies up to Vladimir Putin. Outlandish, I know.

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You open up Twitter or some other social media platform.

You begin typing, expressing your feelings as cleverly, succinctly, or intelligently as you can given your outrage at the happenings that, just a few years ago, would have seemed unbelievable.

The audience for your opinion is, of course, THE WORLD, but you also subconsciously realize that you’re really speaking to a following, a cocoon, that you’ve built. These people pretty much agree with you on politics. Otherwise, why would they follow you?

When you tweet, if you’re lucky, you are jumping into a satisfying positive feedback loop. People agree with you that what is happening in the world is awful. That the president should be impeached. That we’re all fucked.

Because people agree with you and are also upset, agreeing that what has happened is the new low, the new worst thing ever, you engage more. You tweet more, maybe even at an escalated level.

Of course, this isn’t actually productive. And it doesn’t do any real good or start any productive discourse. But, man, it scratches that itch. It gets those likes and retweets, fueling our dopamine levels and making us feel better.

And if someone disagrees with your post? That’s just as good. Your posse, that cocoon that you’ve built, will come to the rescue, jumping in when someone dissents, again reassuring you that you’re right in feeling outraged.

You’re mad, but it’s alright. You’re making a difference. So, tomorrow, when you wake up and log on, you’ll find another injustice to be outraged about in our imperfect world. You’ll keep fighting the good fight.

But you know who’s really awful? Oh sure, the other side is horrible: Those people on the opposite side of the political spectrum (who are doing the same exact thing as you, btw). They may not be the worst, though.

The NEW WORST are those people who somehow, someway, refuse to engage in this game of escalating outrage. How are you not outraged? Don’t you see what is happening? If you’re not outraged, then you’re simply not paying attention to politics. That much is obvious. Even more obvious, if you don’t pay attention to politics or you’re not upset about what’s happening, you’re only able to not pay attention because your privilege allows you that safety.

That person, I guess, is me.

I’m the bad guy, the person who simply does not have it in them to wake up, scroll through the news for whatever most recent terrible political thing happened, and then tweet about that ALL DAY. Sorry, I can’t do that.

Now, I know that I’ve maybe poked just a little bit of fun at people that do that, but that’s only to show them how silly they look to the rest of us. Really, though, if that’s what you want to do, that’s cool.

Just don’t insist that I’m a lesser person than you because I don’t do that. Because, contrary to current popular belief, there is no rule or law that says #1) that I have to publicly express anger about politics OR #2) that your outrage is beneficial in any tangible way.

That said, let’s get a couple of things out of the way here just to make sure that we have all our cards on the table. Yes, I’m a white male. I’m currently a registered Democrat and have voted for Democrats in every election since 2000, the first year I was eligible to vote. My skin color has not been a hindrance to me in terms of getting a job or an education. I got my Master’s degree in English while focusing primarily on gender studies. I was born to parents that were barely 19 years old when they had me. I grew up on a farm in Iowa. I’m an open book. I’ll own my privilege, and I certainly will not pretend that that privilege doesn’t exist.

And you now have all the the info you need to make some lazy, half-baked “identity politics” argument against my points.

But, because of that background, I feel confident is saying the following: The thing I dislike most about Twitter and other such social media echo chambers is this idea that because I have some privilege that I should, in turn, be using that to topple the system or some such vaguery. My tweets ain’t doing shit. Neither are yours, no matter how many #ImpeachTrump hashtags you drop. This idea that privilege correlates in some way with the expected level of outrage is nonsense.

I certainly don’t need to be admonished by people that have those same privileges. Because you know who insists the most on Internet outrage right now? The answer is overwhelmingly white liberals, which is fine. Do what you want with your privilege, but don’t pretend that you’re morally superior because you’re more upset than me. Not being outraged doesn’t make me apolitical.

Does that make me selfish? Probably, but I want to be happy. I have four kids. I don’t have the time or energy to be upset all day long. If that means I don’t want to engage in the Great Outrage Machine of 2018, there’s no shame in that. For those that have the time (and it seems like some people have A LOT of free time), feel free to spend it how you want. Just know, before you cast stones on my selfish ways, that there’s ample evidence to suggest your supposedly altruistic motives are also largely self-serving according to research.

Those supposedly looking to create a more inclusive, tolerant society are actually creating a more divisive society that tends towards “othering.” As Amy Chua notes, “When groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism. When groups feel mistreated and disrespected, they close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them.”

Barack Obama touched on this during a speech on Tuesday:

Most of us prefer to surround ourselves with opinions that validate what we already believe. You notice the people who you think are smart are the people who agree with you. Funny how that works. But democracy demands that we’re able also to get inside the reality of people who are different than us so we can understand their point of view. Maybe we can change their minds, but maybe they’ll change ours. And you can’t do this if you just out of hand disregard what your opponents have to say from the start. And you can’t do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you — because they’re white, or because they’re male — that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.

Well said, Mr. President.

It seems to me that the outraged become martyrs in their own minds, not susceptible to silly things like happiness, especially when the world around them is burning, or at least not going the way they want it.

This is nothing new or revolutionary. Over 50 years ago, Thomas Merton wrote of those outraged people seeking to change the world: “In doing so he will overwhelm them with his own unhappiness. He seeks to find himself somehow in the work of making others happy. Therefore he throws himself into the work. As a result he gets out of the work all that he put into it: his own confusion, his own disintegration, his own unhappiness.”

Even music (and liberal) icon John Lennon, in his 1968 song “Revolution” penned with The Beatles, took young people to task for having “minds that hate,” saying that you can “count me out” because, at the end of the day, “you know it’s gonna be alright.” Obviously, Lennon should have checked his privilege and used his position as a superstar to encourage outrage and uprising.

So, before you get all pissed off about this article or some other piece of news that signals the end of humankind, let me say this: We’re in this together, even if we’re all a bit selfish. And, just spitballing here, we have a much better chance of success if we’re nice to each other. Christian Thoroughgood, an assistant professor of psychology at Villanova University, argues that “part of the reason we are so quick to be outraged, yet slow to offer gratitude at work and in life, more broadly, is because of the widespread finding that human beings possess a negativity bias.” In short, negative experiences (like political headlines) resonate much more deeply and potently than positive events. This is especially troubling when we’re bombarded with so many things each and every day.

“But it’s impossible to be happy or grateful when terrible things are happening in the world.” Nonsense. That outlook is a choice, and it’s not tied to privilege. You could literally be doing anything else with your time. Go watch baseball for 50 hours a week. Work out. Read something that doesn’t enrage you. Love someone. Look for things to be grateful for. There are options, people.

You can do what you want, but I’d urge you to take another cue from Obama’s most recent speech: “Love comes more naturally to the human heart, let’s remember that truth. Let’s see it as our North Star, let’s be joyful in our struggle to make that truth manifest here on earth.”

When tragedy or hard times strike a community, people band together to make things right. Not start fires and fights.

If, however, that’s a little too mushy for you, I’d encourage you to do something really meaningful, like vote in a midterm election. It seems that millennial turnout for midterm elections, which matter greatly, plummets by half compared to presidential elections. Those votes work better than tweets, I’ve heard.

Basically, I’d ask you to consider this: Are you happy being outraged? Are you any fun to be around? It’s like Hunter S. Thompson once said of political junkies: They’re “totally hooked and like any other junkie…a bummer to have around.” Do what you want. Just don’t ask me to be a bummer too.

Jason Mitchell
Jason Mitchell 32 Articles
Staff Writer

Jason grew up in Iowa but couldn't bring himself to like Iowa or Iowa State. Instead, he married a Cornhusker. Jason has taught junior high, high school, and college English but is now a stay-at-home dad to four kids. He also has an encyclopedic knowledge of reality shows and 1990s professional wrestling.

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