Outrage Porn

It has occurred to me that I am a constant consumer of outrage porn. An outside observer might think that I love to be upset about things. In fact, several people (generally Georgians) have told me precisely that, on this very blog, and I have denied it. You may be familiar: I post about something that I am clearly outraged about, pretending that I am not outraged at all or that my outrage doesn’t inform what I have written. Some commenter tells me that I should look on the bright side of life. I reply that that’s bullshit because there are clearly other people in the world who want to read my outrage porn just like I read theirs. In fact, this commenter is also a hypocrite because he or she is just as outraged about what I wrote as I am about what I wrote about. Everyone is outraged and the internet grinds on.

In fact, I generally write this way because I generally read this way. I like to read about people being stupid and/or evil and how it’s dooming us all and how they need to be stopped. I love to read about a lone hero challenging conventional wisdom and coming up with a very slick, easy solution to some bit of evil or stupidity in the world and about how that lone hero suffers and will never be recognized and his brilliance will go to waste and we are all doomed. I identify with that guy. I identify with the city planner who figured out that dedicated express bus lanes will solve traffic if only city politicians weren’t too myopic to agree to implement this solution that worked so well in this one city in Germany. I identify with the scientist who discovered that we could all be happier and healthier if we’d just stop eating gluten, even though we never will because we just love bread too much. I identify with the whistleblower who exposed the secrets of how American soldiers really enjoy gunning down civilians and every reporter who has ever pointed out the simple, obvious truth that American drone strikes kill lots and lots of children. I identify with anyone who has ever been so far in the minority that recognition and validation seemed impossible, and I want them to get that recognition and validation.

I identify with these people, and I want to be like them. I want to solve some problem or expose some evil, but I specifically want to do it in a way that informs the world that the world is full of shit and I’m not. I think I like outrage porn – by which I mean everything from The Daily Show to Glenn Greenwald to radical feminism to articles about how we have no more polar ice caps – because it gives me a large group of people, or a small group of very powerful people, that I can feel morally superior to. “Yes, President Obama is the most powerful man in the world, but I am totally way better than him because he kills children and I have never even killed one child.” How great am I if I’m better than the President of the United States of America? Amazingly great.

I suspect that when Georgians read something I write that is clearly outrage porn masquerading as social commentary, what they are reacting to is the implicit (but disavowed) meaning of “hey, everyone, here’s some aspect of Georgian society that will allow you to feel like you are better than Georgians!” And it’s not that I think that foreigners *are* better than Georgians – that’s not what I’m saying at all – it’s that what I write very definitely *allows* foreigners to *feel* like they are better than Georgians.

But there’s something in it for everyone. Liberal Georgians can say “well I’m not like *those* Georgians” and also feel superior. Other Georgians can be outraged at my use of them as outrage targets, and can write outrage porn about me and what I represent, which is Western imperialism and American arrogance and a breakdown of traditional traditions. Everyone is outraged. Or did you come here for my curry recipe?

And by the way, there’s the flip side to this cross-cultural outrage machine, which is sometimes called Fetishization of the Other. If I can find something about Georgian society that is clearly much better than American society – strong family values, cheap organic food, stoicism in the face of adversity – then I can identify myself with it, take credit for having discovered it, and use it to show all those Americans how superior we (me and other residents of Georgia/me and other world travelers) are to them (those benighted Americans who don’t know how it is outside the country). I got caught doing this around the time Hurricane Sandy hit New York, and someone correctly pointed out that I was being a jerk. Too obvious, have to be more subtle next time.

Either way – whether I’m offering Georgia as a target of outrage or elevating Georgia as an object of envy – I get to play the ultimate moral arbiter all along. I get to decide which qualities are worthy of outrage and which are worthy of envy, and no one ever argues with that frame – only with whether/to what extent Georgians/non-Georgians possess those qualities. Perks of having a blog – even people who hate everything I write end up reinforcing my own sense of moral superiority.

Okay, so we all love outrage so much (by “we” I mean you who is reading this, and me who is writing it), because we all need someone else to feel superior to, for whatever reason, but so what? Is that a bad thing?

Ultimately, I think it’s a little bit of a waste of time. Instead of spending my time making myself feel like I’m a better person, I could spend my time making myself *into* a better person. So I’ve made a resolution (you could call it a slightly belated New Years Resolution, but actually the timing is just a coincidence) to consume less outrage porn – to pay less attention to the bad things in the world that I can’t do anything about. I won’t pretend I can get it down to zero – I mean, the entire media machine of the Western world is one big outrage generator – but I can start by ignoring my facebook feed for a while and stopping whenever I catch myself reading a piece of news that gets me feeling self-righteous.

I’m actually interested to see what it does to my daily life, to my writing, and to my personality. Will less outrage make me a better person? Will I become boring? Happy? Bored? Will I have hours and hours of extra spare time? What on earth will I write about?

Tune in next time…

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4 Responses to Outrage Porn

  1. haha. well, done Neal! I should say I kind of dislike outrage porn but I am *totally* guilty of fetishization of the other… like all. the. time. and its funny because even within that when I see other people doing it about Georgia its like a rallying cry and I’m like, “yeah, that’s right, we’re awesome” and when I see people do it about other places (for example the NC) I get all step-off-my-turf-bitch which is obviously a reaction to no longer feeling superior… additionally this might interest you: http://thoughtcatalog.com/2012/do-you-make-it-a-moral-issue-when-youre-inconvenienced/#apu7dLd6DItof4Wk.01

  2. Katie says:

    Truly self-aware writing is a rare feat. I stopped reading your blog for a bit because I did not have time for any smugness about a few privileged people’s reactions to Sandy in the freaking Twittersphere of all places – considering the people I knew who lost everything and were abandoned by the political system here. Not to mention the upswelling of people who volunteered, donated, and shared their own outrage – but for good, not for superiority. Would the House have passed that aid bill for Sandy relief on time were it not for widespread outrage at their failure to do so?

    So outrage can be good, and I am glad that you use it to show the world things it may have not noticed. But self-awareness about outrage porn is also very good, and I’m psyched to have come back to your blog to find a very thoughtful and, as ever, brilliantly written piece.

  3. Billy Bob says:

    “I’m actually interested to see what it does to my daily life, to my writing, and to my personality. Will less outrage make me a better person? Will I become boring? Happy? Bored? Will I have hours and hours of extra spare time? What on earth will I write about?”

    You wouldn’t write about anything. That’s the secret.

    Oh, and, “the simple, obvious truth that American drone strikes kill lots and lots of children.”

    They said the same thing about dropping payloads out of B-52s into the Vietnamese countryside. We don’t do that anymore. They said the same thing about cruise missiles that hit weapons sites that Saddam chained Shiites to. So what did we do? We invented even smaller missiles, with the express hope of reducing the number of children killed.

    C’est la vie say the old folks, Goes to show you never can tell.

  4. Pingback: The Long Winter | Georgia On My Mind

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