Our need to be outraged

We have many obvious needs in life — food, water, a housebroken puppy, for example. But if there’s one thing that drives Americans, it’s outrage. Without it, our lives lack a certain meaning.

We love our outrage, and that fact is why we should take the considerable amount of time it takes to work though Slate’s fabulous Outrage Project, which it released today.

It documented the year in outrage and while it was often well-founded, the year was also dominated by trivial concern after trivial concern raised to a fever pitch.

And yet it’s hard to pin down exactly what outrage means—what makes it different from garden-variety pique or the simmering thirst for vengeance. Why is your blustery old uncle “outraged” by Obama saluting Marines while holding a latte, but the private incandescence of Achilles in his tent is just “rage”? Outrage, the subjective experience of being furious at something that crosses a perceived line. Outrage, the shocked or indignant reaction, spontaneous or calculated. Outrage, the pickup, amplification, and acceleration of that expression on social and traditional media. Outraged: one answer to the question of how to be in 2014.

The series of essays documents the recipe for outrage, including the removal of context and the addition of an assertion of media mistreatment.

Pick a representative from each demo and place them side by side to reveal the contradictions. When Lena Dunham was accused by right-wing outlets of sexually molesting her sister, Grace, the writer and activist Mikki Kendall argued that Dunham’s racial and gender privilege had attracted her some unearned feminist sympathy. “If Lena Dunham was a man or a WOC I wonder how many folks would be handwaving these stories? Because I can just about guess,” Kendall tweeted, before contrasting the feminist treatment of Dunham with that of R. Kelly. “The gap between the attitudes that let R. Kelly prosper & the ones that excuse Dunham is incredibly thin,” she tweeted. “Nonexistent to be honest.” But there is more separating Kelly and Dunham than just race and gender—in both civil and criminal suits, Kelly has been accused of raping dozens of underage girls and producing child pornography from at least one encounter; Dunham has been accused, online, of touching her sister’s vagina, when she was 7. There is a compelling argument to be made about how black men are criminalized while white women are absolved; this isn’t it.

It all leads to the proper question: What’s the point?

It feels good to express disgust, of course, and when that comes with social affirmation—favorites, retweets, followers, blog posts—there’s an incentive to show more anger. But I think there’s more to it than that. In a world where prejudice and privilege still rule the day, it’s cathartic for a lot of lefties—even straight white dudes—to show outrage, even if it leads to nothing in particular. By raging against something like Colbert’s joke, you can voice your anger at the status quo, which, in the past year especially, seems to have frozen in place. And with a simple retweet, you can signify just what camp you’re in. In a sense, for the social-media left, cultural outrage is a substitute for politics.

BTW, today, I changed the video I used in yesterday’s 10,000th NewsCut post from cats to puppies. I tired of email from cat owners objecting to humor at their expense. Truth is, I don’t really like cats. Puppies and dogs? You can never go wrong with puppies, dogs, and the people who co-habitate with them. There’s less outrage.