Breaking the Outrage Porn Habit
It was only fairly recently that I became aware of the term "outrage porn," but I just learned from Wikipedia that it's been around since 2009, when a New York Times writer said:
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.
The Wikipedia article reveals that the phenomenon has been the object of study and analysis, mainly on the question of why and how journalists use it to attract and keep the attention of readers and/or viewers.
But I didn't need anyone's analysis to recognize the phenomenon as soon as I encountered the term. I recognized it because it obviously referred to a tendency which I long ago noticed in myself: a perverse pleasure in being outraged, normally by someone else's misdeeds. Never mind the whole question of deliberate manipulation; I don't need to be manipulated into it, because I do it to myself.
I first noticed it many years ago in reading the Catholic press. For as long as I've been a Christian the struggle between orthodox and progressive theology has been a highly visible fact of life in the Christian world. (I'm using "progressive" as a convenient way of referring to the tendency to reduce the faith to a matter of literature and psychology.) Given two items in a Catholic publication, one offering a meditation on some aspect of the faith and the other exposing some cleric or theologian's manifest heresy, it was the latter that I wanted urgently to read. The justification for the impulse--that it was important to know about these malign influences--was pretty thin. How much of my reaction was a genuine desire or need to know, and how much of it was the pleasure of thinking Isn't that awful? Aren't the people doing it terrible? I must read more, so that I can better understand how awful and terrible it all is.
Self-righteousness is certainly part of it, but it's much more than the normal "Lord, I thank thee that I am not as this sinner." It also includes personal anger provoked by a sense of being attacked; the sinner is not just doing something wrong which you, in your righteousness, are not doing, but engaged in something which damages you, or something or someone you love.
I did recognize it as an unhealthy tendency, but I don't know that I resisted it very hard. And that was before the internet, which, as we all know, has given that unhealthy impulse an injection of some kind of growth hormone. Thinking about it now, I see that I've sometimes, or often, forgotten even to recognize that it's unhealthy, or to be restrained by that recognition.
Culturally speaking, it has become a monster. We live in an angry and unhappy culture now, and the impulse that makes us propagate and enjoy--yes, that is the word--outrage porn is making us even more angry and unhappy than we would otherwise be.
This is on my mind because Rod Dreher's blog at The American Conservative has ended, and I'm trying to decide whether or not to follow him to his Substack site, Rod Dreher's Diary, which requires a paid subscription ($5/month or $50/year) for much or most of what he posts there. Dreher has a lot of worthwhile things to say, but he also, as I think he admits, has a tendency to revel in outrage porn. And I know that's the reason why a new post from him has always been the first thing I read at TAC. I can afford the subscription, but should I? Shouldn't I perhaps just try to break myself of the outrage porn habit, or at least make a continual effort to suppress it?
Here are two current Dreher stories:
The ‘Idyllically Sex-Positive World’
Crackpot therapist showcased by BBC calls for self-drugging women for fetish freaks
Stanford Law Students Are The Enemy
By humiliating federal judge, ruling class shows contempt for liberal democracy
The second article is available to non-subscribers, so you can read it if you want to. You may have read about the incident he's referring to: the usual shout-down of an unwelcome speaker by our version of the Red Guards. It's alarming and infuriating. Dreher says:
I cannot bear these people, these Stanford Law students and their grotesque Dean Steinbach. These people are the Enemy. I will vote for anybody who will stop them. They are destroying our liberal democracy. Every one of those students are going to go into the ruling class, and will spend their careers in the law trying to oppress the people they have decided don’t have a right to be free, or respected, or anything but crushed as wrongthinkers and Bad People.
And I agree with him, all too vigorously. But is any purpose served by my reading about this? It's not as if I can do anything about it. Is it not better that I tend my own garden, reading good books, listening to music, participating in the world as it presents itself directly to me, in general pursuing the good in the ways that are available to me? Obviously one can do both: tend one's garden and stay informed about what's happening in the world. And if one's culture is collapsing one ought to be aware of it. But where is the right balance? As things are going now, it's more or less impossible to be aware of current events and not be disturbed.
I still haven't made up my mind about Dreher's Substack, but thinking about it has made me realize that I need to resist more strongly the somewhat sick impulse to seek out things that anger and offend me.
I think I would be correct in saying that for most of my adult life Christians have more often than not been the villains in popular culture. I don't have any hard data for that, of course. And it's not uniform; I think immediately of the reasonable and not unsympathetic treatment of the clergyman in Broadchurch. But I watch a lot of (too many) British crime dramas, and generally when an identifiably Christian character appears he or she is probably going to be somewhere between obnoxious and wicked. This may well be worse in American film and television.
Well, okay, as I say it's been that way for decades. Still, I was unprepared for something I ran across the other day. I have a mild taste for certain video games, and was reading this article about indie games (more likely than the big names to interest me) when I encountered a description of a game called The Binding of Isaac Rebirth:
The game follows Isaac through an unknown world, as he makes a quick escape into a trap door hidden in his bedroom to flee his devout Christian mother hellbent on sacrificing him.
That opens a vista of ignorance and malice beyond anything I had imagined.
More and more it seems that a great many people, especially young people, have somehow absorbed a great hostility to Christianity without having any clear idea of what it is.