Tim Kreider on the Pleasures and Perils of News as “Outrage Porn”

Imagine if we had chosen the path of retribution and revenge. Our country would have been dust and ashes.

— Desmond Tutu, on the end of Apartheid

Look, I’m mad too. I’m scared too. I’m anxious and exhausted and finding it hard to be kind too. These are dark days. Some fear, some anger, some impatience is certainly justified. So is marching in the streets, I’d say. But our addiction to outrage isn’t helping us get to where we want to go.

Longtime New York Times contributor Tim Kreider knows what it feels like to be hopped up on anger all the time. His classic article about it from 2009, “Isn’t It Outrageous?”, is thus worth a revisit. Here’s how Kreider opened:

I was a political cartoonist and essayist for the duration of the Bush presidency, so I was professionally furious every week for eight years. The pejorative “Bush-hater” always rankled me – presuming that my rightful outrage at that administration’s abuses was as arbitrary and irrational as misogyny or arachnophobia. And yet, looking back at my work from those years, even I am struck by its tone of shrill, unrelieved rancor. No wonder readers who met me in real life seemed surprised to learn that I was personable and polite.

I went to an uber-progressive liberal arts college in the mid-2000s. Like Kreider, I remember being angry about politics a lot in those days. I protested, signed petitions, argued with any peers or relatives who would engage, and dreamed glorious dreams about how things might look different someday. Of course, I had no idea just how bad things could get.

I vividly remember the immense thrill of activism, of righteous indignation, that sense we had that all the momentum of history was on our side and that we were marching with the wind at our backs toward a bright new day. Like it does for so many today, anger then felt to me like the most appropriate, most righteous, most serious-minded emotion. We felt that only those who were similarly filled with righteous outrage and fired up for justice were worth listening to. You down with the revolution?

What I didn’t understand was just how much anger could become an end in itself, a kind of drug that both numbed and made me feel more alive every time I got a hit. It was both a palliative and a stimulant. Here’s Kreider:

A couple of years ago, while meditating, I learned something kind of embarrassing: anger feels good. Although we may consciously experience it as upsetting, somatically it feels a lot like the first rush of an opiate — a tingling warmth on the insides of your elbows and wrists, in the back of your knees. Realizing that anger was a physical pleasure explained some of the perverse obstinacy with which my mind kept returning to it despite the fact that, intellectually, I knew it was pointless self-torture.

Once I realized I enjoyed anger, I noticed how much time I spent experiencing it. If you’re anything like me, you spend about 87 percent of your mental life winning imaginary arguments that are never actually going to take place. It seems like most of the fragments of conversation you overhear in public consist of rehearsals for, or reenactments of, just such speeches: shrill litanies of injury and injustice, affronts to common sense and basic human decency too grotesque to be borne.

I hear lots of different perspectives on anger these days. Some people, like therapists and mindfulness gurus and political moderates, speak disparagingly of anger and try to help us find ways to manage and reduce it, recognizing its destructive power in human relationships and in society broadly, as well as its potential negative impact on our health. But I’ve also heard lots of activists with a very different view. Essentially: get angry, stay angry, and use that to fuel your activism.

There are plenty of good reasons to be pissed off. At this very moment, in my own city of Louisville, thousands of people are marching in the streets to vent their frustration, to try and make their voices heard. And they need to be heard. Anger itself isn’t wrong, any more than any other basic human emotion. It serves very important functions. But, to state the obvious, it is also dangerous—especially when we all get hooked on it and go seeking it out, prowling the internet for it hours on end. Here’s Kreider again:  

Outrage is like a lot of other things that feel good but over time devour us from the inside out. And it’s even more insidious than most vices because we don’t even consciously acknowledge that it’s a pleasure. We prefer think of it as a disagreeable but fundamentally healthy involuntary reaction to negative stimuli thrust upon us by the world we live in, like pain or nausea, rather than admit that it’s a shameful kick we eagerly indulge again and again.

And, as with all vices, vast and lucrative industries are ready to supply the necessary material. It sometimes seems as if most of the news consists of outrage porn, selected specifically to pander to our impulses to judge and punish and get us all riled up with righteous indignation. Think of the tabloids’ punning headlines, wailing and jeering and all but calling for the public stoning of their scapegoats… Let us not even mention talk radio, or the Internet. …

When I scan the daily headlines of [even] prestigious publications like [The New York Times], I’m semiconsciously seeking out stories that will provide fodder for the sadomasochistic pleasures of outrage and vindication, of being wronged and proven right. …

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that all outrage is inherently irrational, that we should all just calm down, that It’s All Good. All is not good. … My reasons for despising the Bush administration were sane and moral and patriotic. Outrage is healthy to the extent that it causes us to act against injustice. But in my passionate loathing… I’m really not much different from the kinds of housewives who write hate mail to the Machiavellian villainess of their favorite soap opera. …

As David Foster Wallace asked in “Host,” his essay on talk radio, “Aren’t there parts of ourselves that are just better left unfed?”

Indeed, there are. In this insanely politicized moment, it feels like we need to turn down the heat just a little. I’m not saying you shouldn’t stay politically engaged—or march or speak out or donate or make calls for your favorite politicians. Please do what you feel is worthwhile. I’m sure at least some of it is. But take a breath sometimes, take stock of what anger is doing to you, maybe even take some intentional breaks from news and social media, and remember that we’re all flawed and limited here, we all see as in a mirror dimly, and we’re all children of the same merciful God.

To conclude his still-remarkably-relevant 2009 essay, Kreider reflected on how his anger occasionally yielded to something else, an uncomfortable sort of empathy. He recalls feeling his customary gall during the infamous Captain Phillips ship-hijacking incident (that same year) when the murderous Somali pirates holding innocent hostages were attempting to negotiate with foreign powers. He felt a sense of triumph and satisfaction when the U.S. Navy was able to storm in and free the hostages, reclaiming the ship and killing most of the pirates. However, as he writes,

My feel-good ending got annoyingly deflated when I saw the lone surviving Somali pirate brought in manacles to the United States — a place where he did not speak the language and knew not a soul. …

I felt the same helpless gut empathy for him that I used to feel, unwelcome and against my better judgment, for George Bush in those moments when he seemed to dimly apprehend that he was in way over his head. And it occurred to me that one reason we rush so quickly to the vulgar satisfactions of judgment, and love to revel in our righteous outrage, is that it spares us the impotent pain of empathy, and the harder, messier work of understanding.

That sounds about right to me. Look, I’m not naïve. I know this next month is going to be bitterness and rancor personified. I know we all tend to make transitory, contingent things into ultimate things. Let’s just get through this election. But then, maybe, let’s see if we can’t go back to trying to live together and understand each other before we all end up being devoured by this addictive outrage. It’s hurting us. As singer-songwriter Noah Gunderson once put it, “hatred is sharp knife held by the blade.”

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