Defeating the Idolatry of Outrage

Much of social media today exists to answer the question: “What are we outraged about today?”

If I open Facebook, I can find the cultural flashpoint angering at least half the nation. Perusing Twitter, I see the political issue that supposedly warrants not simply my attention, but all my emotion as well. I must be offended, and I must be outraged. TV shows, radio, podcasts, books, almost every form of media possible, wants you angry. The invasive outrage culture is relentless.

Social media companies recognize the value in outrage, which is why they program their algorithms to provide you with a constant stream of content that will make you angry. When you see a nice photo of a friend, you’ll smile, like the picture and put down your phone. When you see an article that makes you angry, you’ll scowl, share the content, comment about how wrong this is, and keep scrolling for more.

But why is that? Why are we so consumed with indignation and claiming offense? In a sense, outrage is cultural super glue, binding together individuals quickly and strongly over shared disgust. It’s a shortcut to developing community and finding purpose.

Outrage is cultural super glue, binding together individuals quickly and strongly over shared disgust. It's a shortcut to developing community and finding purpose. Click To Tweet

A study by a social psychologist at the University of South Florida found close friendships most often centered around mutual negative feelings toward others. The study also found people believed they were much more likely to develop a positive relationship with a stranger if they both had the same negative opinion of someone else.

Writing on this study at The New York Times, Teddy Wayne observes:

[O]utrage is lavishly rewarded on social media, whether through supportive comments, retweets or Facebook likes. People prone to Internet outrage are looking for validation, Professor Martin said. “They want to hear that others share it,” he said, “because they feel they’re vindicated and a little less lonely and isolated in their belief.”

Teddy Wayne, “On Social Media, Some Are Susceptible to Internet Outrage” in The New York Times

Notice what people gain from participating in the outrage: Vindication and community, a purpose and a cause. Outrage grants meaning to life. I exist to defeat this ideology or political persuasion. This, above all else, demonstrates why Christians should avoid the outrage culture — it’s a false idol.

Outrage idolatry

Outrage sets itself up as a false god demanding your time, energy and devotion. It promises the right people will accept you and you’ll defeat the wrong people. It whispers in your ear to yell louder and be offended … for a good cause.

Yet, the Christian already has a cause—the gospel. We don’t need acceptance or validation from others, as we have already been granted those through Jesus. Community does not come from a shared outrage online, but shared service in the body of Christ.

Community does not come from a shared outrage online, but shared service in the body of Christ. Click To Tweet

But just like any other idol, outrage sneaks in our life and slithers out in our ear, “Did God really say … to rest in Him? To love your enemy? To trust His plan? To find your identity in Christ and your community in His church?” Far too easily we listen to the lies and give in to the temptation of outrage. Far too quickly we reach for the fruit and sink our rhetorical teeth into the flesh of one created in God’s image.

Like most idols, however, we often worship outrage unaware. As we slavishly follow outrage, we mistakenly believe our service is to Christ. Recognizing this human temptation long before the Internet, C.S. Lewis provided a helpful test in Mere Christianity.

Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process, which if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.

There are times when outrage can be warranted, but it cannot be deserved all the time. The more we succumb to it, the more dangerous it becomes in our lives and the more pervasive it grows in culture at large. Many Christians are unwittingly constructing around themselves online and off a “universe of pure hatred” where outrage reigns supreme and grace is conspicuously absent.

As we investigate our hearts and whether we’ve lost the ability to see anything but black, another practical test is to evaluate what you’ve actually done to beyond getting mad on social media. Think about how the cycle works.

Outrage centers on trivial matters or trivializes important issues. Instead of focusing on how to address a serious matter, the daily outrage highlights a social media post by an unknown person about the serious matter or a questionable word choice by a politician talking about the serious matter. We never get around to solving the serious matter because we are so angry at what the person we’ve never met said about the serious matter.

Often, we aren’t seeking to find ways to work together to solve an issue. We’re just yelling that the “other side” is to blame. We can test ourselves by looking for the positive ways we have moved toward a solution.

How have you educated yourself? If it is a controversial political issue, can you accurately and fairly state the best arguments of those you disagree with? Have you read and interacted with those on the other side? Knowing what someone else actually believes pushes you beyond stereotypes to see the humanity in others.

Being more knowledgeable about other viewpoints can also make your arguments for your perspective more effective because you’re speaking from experience and avoid strawman arguments. If you can’t fairly state the position of those with whom you disagree, then I have to assume you aren’t actually confident in your position.

If your days are constantly spent in anger about the social media topic of the moment, it's probably time for some self-reflection. For the Christian, it may be time for repentance. Click To Tweet

In addition to learning more, what are you doing practically? If you’re angry about a social problem, how are you using your life to address that issue? Are you donating to charities that help meet related needs? Are you volunteering to serve those who are impacted? Are you working to provide better solutions? Or is the extent of your energy on the subject spent complaining about current potential solutions?

Not everyone is called to meet every need, so we may have legitimate reasons why we aren’t working to address issues tangibly offline. If all you do, however, is spend your days angry about the social media topic of the moment, it’s probably time for some self-reflection and evaluation. For the Christian, it’s time for repentance and returning your gaze to Christ.

Perpetual outrage is not healthy, but thankfully it’s not a given. We can reverse the trends. You and I can refuse to allow outrage to govern our lives and our social media feeds. We can acknowledge the image of God in every person and reject the dehumanization of the algorithms designed to stoke the fires. We can invest our time and energy into solutions that enable us to better love God and love others. Online outrage may be winning, but it doesn’t have to win. In the end, it will not win.

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