Published on March 15, 2016.
I HAD the privilege of giving a talk at TEDxADMU on Sunday. The topic had seized my imagination: “How to train your outrage.” Here, with your indulgence, is an extended excerpt:
What is this outrage culture we are living in, and what do we do about it?
The Urban Dictionary actually has a definition. The outrage culture is where people “bend over backwards to be as offended as possible.” Ryan Holiday of the Observer defines it by its product, “outrage porn,” and describes it by its characteristic: “perpetual indignation.” Jon Ronson wrote an entire book about its corollary, Internet shaming, which “targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive.”
The outrage culture, then, is that state of constant offendedness, or at least a heightened sensitivity to take offense, which results in what we can call virtual outrage: outrage that is itself insensitive, one-dimensional, skin-deep—and ultimately self-regarding. It is opinion, not as Ego, but as Id.
I want to make a distinction. Real outrage is one thing; the outrage culture built on virtual outrage is another. The first is necessary and vital to public discourse and the democratic project; the second is dangerous and indeed possibly fatal to both discourse and democracy. Criticism should be encouraged; criticism that dehumanizes its subjects, not so.
I also want to make a clarification. Many other factors help explain the lack of civility in the online and social space: Anonymity is convenient, access is easy, the velocity of sharing is ever-increasing, cowardice (like courage) is contagious. But to train our outrage so we don’t aid and abet the outrage culture, let’s focus on the role of opinion.
What do we know about opinion?
Here’s a thought: Nothing in the universe is faster than the speed of opinion. Even before the light from the facts reaches us, we have already made up our mind. Opinion is instantaneous. Why? Because we already know what to think. As a newspaper editor phrased it: We have a media system of preexisting views.
Aside from its speed, we also recognize that opinion attracts similar opinion. It gathers the like-minded, and the more extreme the view, the more it attracts similar views. This leads to the phenomenon known as group polarization. The paradox of our time: In the age of greater connectedness, we are more divided than before.
We also understand that opinion, though expressed only through words or images, can truly hurt us. Its impact is real, measurable in units of trauma or abuse.
We also acknowledge that, while we are all entitled to our opinion, not all opinions are equal. The democratic ideal welcomes all views; sifting through these views to find the meritorious is a republican responsibility.
Last but not least: Opinion can be reasonable; it can be worthy of our trust; it can help heal, build bridges, bring us together. Part of the method used by Aristotle, with Plato the world’s greatest thinker, was his reliance on “endoxa”—what he called credible opinion or reputable opinion. If it’s good enough for Aristotle, it should be good enough for us.
How, then, do we train our outrage? How do we “keep it real”?
I would like to propose a three-step training process, each one involving that hidden, unspoken virtue of doubt.
When we encounter an offensive statement or image or idea, our first reaction must be to doubt everything. Our second must be to go to the opposite end and give the benefit of the doubt. Only then can we do the third, and try to resolve all doubt.
First, doubt everything. When a controversy erupts, we do not rush to publish. Instead, we should first doubt the facts of the issue, doubt our grasp of the issue, doubt whether we even have something to say about the issue.
In a world of preexisting views, of hardened beliefs, of absolutist thinking and polarized opinion, what we need are fewer certainties and more doubt. Doubt is good. It forces us to investigate the experience, to ask the necessary questions.
Pardon my French, but in the sh*t-storm Manny Pacquiao created with his unthinking, unchristian depiction of LGBTs as “worse than animals,” it was very difficult to find common ground for discussion between those who criticized him and those who defended him. Here is one valiant attempt. In this exchange over Pacquiao’s lack of schooling, Inquirer.net reader Alex Alvarez dared to ask: “Does a man really need to go to school to educate himself?”
This is a necessary testing of the assumptions behind a position; it undermines the prejudices of educated critics of Pacquiao by probing their ready certainties. I should point out, however, that the exact reader’s question can also be used to probe the position of Pacquiao’s defenders, too.
Second, give it the benefit of the doubt. When a controversy erupts, we do not rush to judgment. Instead, we should seek first to understand: the nuances, the context, the motives of those involved.
That is how we can slow down the speed of opinion: by coursing it through the glass of reflection.
For instance, in praising the singer Kitchie Nadal’s criticism of Rodrigo Duterte’s “womanizing,” Gab Valenciano also took Duterte to task for his casual statements about killing. At the same time, he said he wasn’t going to vote at all. “My refusal to choose is my own personal protest.” Whatever one may think about that position, it must inform one’s reaction to Valenciano’s original critique. Consider this a necessary attempt to engage with Valenciano’s position as fully as possible.
Third, resolve all doubt. Only then, after subjecting the facts of the issue to searching doubt, and understanding the nuances and the details, do we begin our search for certainties. And that involves a process of trust-testing, of verification.