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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. 

Would Anyone Care to Test This?

Besides a useful search function, another thing that I've sometimes wished I had for this blog is a simple way for readers to be notified of new posts. Now that I've given in and set up Google search, the first point is taken care of, and I may have found a solution for the second in a service called follow.it (their capitalization). The form below is supposed to allow you to enter an email address, click "Subscribe," and thereafter get an email for new posts. I think it works but I would be interested in having others try it and let me know if it works and if there are any contra-indications. One thing I'm not sure about, for instance, is whether it requires you to register with follow.it. I was already registered when I tested it. If it's useful, I'll tailor the colors etc. of the form so that it fits the rest of the blog and put it on the sidebar. 

One possible negative is that it seems to send an email for new comments as well, which could easily be annoying. That may be something I can restrict on this end, I don't know yet. 

Get notification of new posts by email:

The Search Button Doesn't Actually Work Very Well At All

I noticed in the statistics for this blog that the search button has been used a lot over the past few days. Don't feel paranoid: it doesn't record any info about who's doing the search, just that the URL has been referenced. So as a public service I must tell you (if you haven't figured it out already) that the search is unreliable. It's almost worse than no search at all, because it often fails to find the most obvious and prominent things. It's very frustrating.

If I really want to find something, I use Google's site-specific search: follow the search term with "site:www.lightondarkwater.com." For instance, a search for "Mary Karr" (or case variants thereof) using the Typepad search fails to find two recent posts which mention her name. But using this search string with Google does:

mary karr site:www.lightondarkwater.com

I think Google offers some sort of search plugin that can be used to implement a local search, but I tend to avoid using Google these days if there's an alternative. My first choice for internet search in general is DuckDuckGo, and then Google if that result is unsatisfactory in some way. It also has the site-specific feature, which doesn't seem to work quite as well as Google's. I just tried the Mary Karr search there and it got the two recent mentions but not a couple of older ones in comments that Google found.

I should probably at least put some kind of disclaimer on the search button if I can't replace the Typepad search with something better, as it can be quite misleading. It hasn't improved for years so I guess it isn't very important to them. 

Sunday Night Journal, December 17, 2017

One of the things that make being a pessimist less enjoyable than it might be is that the pleasure of being proven right about the impending collision with the oncoming train is substantially diminished by the discomfort of experiencing the collision itself. On balance, I would rather be wrong than right about many of my predictions and expectations.

Recently someone remarked that the culture of Catholicism on the Internet seemed to be dominated by those whose motto was taken from Flannery O'Connor's Misfit ("A Good Man Is Hard to Find"): no pleasure but meanness. You can certainly see his point, and of course it's not only the Catholic subculture that has this problem. It's everywhere. I'm not on Twitter, and I don't think I ever will be, so my impression may be distorted, but that impression is that some very large portion of what goes on there consists of people savaging each other, and sometimes of a large number of people attacking one person in what can fairly be described as a verbal lynch mob. 

Almost twenty-five years ago, in the Fall 1993 issue of Caelum et Terra, I published a short piece in which I considered the potential for the world of online communication to increase the level of hostility in the world rather than to bring people together. I don't think I had heard the term "World Wide Web" at that point. It did exist but if its existence was known to me at all I'm fairly sure I hadn't yet experienced it, as the original browser, Mosaic, had not yet been introduced to the world at large. But I'd had five or six years of experience in pre-Web online forums, including Usenet, the text-only discussion groups on the Internet, and at least one of the commercial services which provided similar capabilities by subscription. (America Online, or AOL, you may remember, was pretty big at the time.) And I'd seen the way people could turn on each other with startling viciousness.

That piece was called "Global Metropolis," and I've thought about it often since the Web changed our lives so strikingly. But I don't think I'd read it since it was published, so I decided to dig the magazine out of the closet and, if it still seemed relevant, spend some of the time this evening when I would have been writing typing it in instead. Well, I did find it interesting as a view from 1993, and at least part of it seems pretty accurate. The next-to-last paragraph is the one that seems a fairly accurate prediction of the Internet's potential for exacerbating rather than pacifying conflicts.

I sometimes think it might be more accurate to say that we are creating a global metropolis, a violent one like those of the United States, where people perceive each other socially either as naked individuals in isolation from family and community, connected, if at all, by financial ties, or as anonymous components of a class or race. In these great warrens, people live in close physical quarters but without much sense of belonging to the same community; with, in fact, a dangerous sense of having tribal enemies everywhere. What this combination of proximity and anonymity has done for the great cities, television, along with increasing economic interdependencies, may perhaps do for the world at large: to increase both the level of tension and the degree of isolation.

You can read the whole piece here (it's not very long, about a thousand words). I certainly didn't imagine anything like Twitter, which as far as I can tell is an active deterrent to substantial discussion, which is actually intended to reward the quick and superficial remark. The glimpses I get of it make me think of an enormous number of dogs barking hysterically and ineffectively at each other. And if I had imagined it I would never have dreamed that we would have a president who sits in the White House and uses such a ridiculous medium to bark at anyone among the citizenry who annoys him.  

I'm not saying that the Internet in general and "social media" in particular are altogether bad--I mean, here I am. And I even have a Facebook account. Still, it seems that the "bringing people together" effect of it is very often to bring them into tribes united by their detestation of another tribe, and thereby to purify and concentrate their anger. The net did not cause the political divisions in this country, but it is certainly exacerbating them.

Still, when I look at the people around me going about the ordinary business of their lives, I don't see this division, and that's a hopeful thing.


A couple of weeks ago on the first Sunday of Advent our priest made the point in his homily that Advent is as much about the Second Coming as it is about the Nativity. "We await the birth of a sweet little baby who will one day destroy the world," was more or less the way he put it. 


While watching The Crown on a chilly evening last week I discovered that my old dog, who is too blind and deaf to notify us of strangers in the vicinity, still is capable of service as an all-natural toe warmer. 

ToeWarmerI enjoyed The Crown considerably, by the way, and I think my wife enjoyed it even more. It's wise to keep in mind that they filled in some historical blanks with their own speculations and that it's a mixture of fact and fiction, not a documentary. Claire Foy's performance as Elizabeth is extremely convincing. I must say, however, that I remain puzzled to say the least about the function of the British monarchy.

Have I mentioned that we also recently watched the third series of Broadchurch? I suppose it's not surprising that I didn't like it as much as the first two, but it's still very good. There is apparently little to no chance of a fourth series, which might be a good instance of quitting while you're ahead, but this one left an important matter unresolved, which is a little frustrating. Well, maybe it isn't unresolved--maybe that was just the end of...well, if you've seen it you know what I'm talking about, and if you haven't I shouldn't say any more.

Glitches, Maybe

Tomorrow, Saturday the 2nd, I'm hoping to do something that's about five years overdue. I think it was 2010 when I moved this blog from Blogger to Typepad. I have a domain name, www.lightondarkwater.com, which still points to the old blog, though if you go there it redirects you here. I need to point that URL to this blog, and if nothing gets in the way, I plan to do that tomorrow. Those changes can take a day or so to propagate all around the net. So depending on how you go about getting here, there could be some odd behavior till things settle down. 

I would like to post something about the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, but I'm too distracted. By the World Wide Web.

On Hating Twitter

I’ve hated it reflexively since its beginning. But with time’s passage and deliberation, I’ve come to hate it with deeper, more variegated richness.

I have to say that I pretty much feel the same. And when I say "since its beginning," I mean since I first heard its name, which makes it sound trivial and superficial, which as far as I can tell is the case. My experience with it has been confined to reading "tweets" published elsewhere or the occasional Twitter feed on some web site, and has done nothing but confirm my desire to avoid it. I was briefly tempted recently, when a friend invited me to join, but I resisted and suggested Facebook instead. I'm not wild about Facebook, but it's fun in small doses. I don't hate it.

The rant quoted above is by Matt Labash of The Weekly Standard, and you can read the whole thing here. It's a bit long but worthwhile if you have the same reaction to Twitter.


Computers and Gambling

In a comment on the previous post, Marianne quotes an Atlantic article which compares the stimulus and reward pattern of using a computer to playing a slot machine. This is a topic of great interest to me, since I spend all day at a computer and have done for many years, and I really see that effect in myself. In fact, like an alcoholic or a compulsive gambler, I have had to admit that I have a problem. The effects are not clearly destructive in the way that alcoholism and gambling are, amounting mostly to a great deal of distraction and wasted time. But considering that one only has so much time on this earth, and that much less remains to me than has already passed, it's pretty bad.

Going further back, computer science pioneer of the 1960s Joseph Weizenbaum, in a book called Computer Power and Human Reason that made a big impact on me when I read it back in the '70s when I was just beginning to study programming, made the same connection. At that point nobody except programmers dealt with computers interactively, the way everybody does now. He had an extended reflection on the similarity between programming and gambling, quoting Dostoevsky's "The Gambler." I particularly remembering him describing the sensation that this what one was meant to do: I felt it, too, for a short time, though I soon got over it. Back then only a very small number of people were affected, but now almost everyone is. I think I still have the book. If I have time in the next few days I'll try to find that passage and post some excerpts.

An Interview with the Creator of xkcd

It's more about his new venture, which is a series of carefully researched answers to questions like "What would happen if you pitched a baseball at 90% of the speed of light?"  But interesting for fans of the comic as well: A Conversation with Randall Munroe.

(Short answer to the baseball question: 'The answer turns out to be “a lot of things”, and they all happen very quickly, and it doesn’t end well for the batter (or the pitcher).')

(I have actually often wondered about that question involving rain.)

Speaking of xkcd, here's something to mess up the minds of those pesky election pundits (click to enlarge):



My World

And yours, too, though you may not know it, every time you read a blog, log on to Facebook, or use a service like Gmail or Hotmail. From an IT trade publication:

Cloud computing builds on automated virtualized infrastructures by using extended management software to deliver environments where users can define, provision, and operate their own services in service models such as IaaS [infrastructure as a service], PaaS [platform as a service], or SaaS [software as a service].

Someday I won't have to think about this stuff anymore. 

The industry likes the term "cloud computing," because it sounds nice and sweet and dreamy and simple. It's anything but. Considered from top to bottom, it might be the most complex thing the human race has yet constructed. The quote above is part of a discussion of a particular set of sub-problems associated with the technology.

Be wary of that free WiFi

I don't know how many people who read this blog are in the habit of bringing their laptop or phone to places like Starbucks and using the free wireless Internet. But if you are one of them, you should read this. If you don't want to bother, here's the crucial part:

Firesheep is an incredibly easy to use add-on for the Firefox web browser that, when invoked while connected to any open and unencrypted WiFi hotspot, lists every active web session being conducted by anyone sharing the hotspot, and allows a snooping user to hijack any other user’s online web session logon with a simple double-click of the mouse. The snooper, then logged on and impersonating the victim, can do anything the original logged on user/victim might do.

"open and unencrypted WiFi hotspot" describes the services offered in many coffee shops and restaurants. If you're able to simply walk into the place and connect without any sort of password, this is probably what they have. 

Here's a blog post by the author of the program explaining that he wrote it in hope of forcing web developers and providers to take the fairly elementary precautions required to prevent Firesheep from working. It includes a few screen shots that will make clear what he's talking about, in case you aren't sure.

There is an important exception to what it can do: if you're accessing a web site that encrypts all traffic, which you can ordinarily identify by the fact that the URL displayed in the browser begins with "https" rather than "http," intercepting the data doesn't accomplish anything for the would-be hijacker, because the data is heavily encrypted. So Firesheep is probably not a danger to your bank account, because financial data is almost universally handled with HTTPS now. But Facebook, for instance, does not. Your email provider may not. Etc. If you're just surfing around, reading the news and whatnot, not doing anything personal or embarrassing, on any site that doesn't require that you log in, this doesn't matter--there is no "session" to hijack.

(Hat tip to my wife, who is becoming quite the technologist.)