Matters Of Debate | Issue 26

Matters Of Debate | Issue 26

The rise of an outrage culture online is regrettable

The Otago University Debating Society meets every Tuesday at 6pm for social debating—new members are always welcome! Join our Facebook group for more information:

Affirmative, by Dr. Frank-N-Furter

The prevalence of outrage culture creates an environment where one doesn’t discuss ideas with any real meaning or clarity, but rather believes whatever the first headline in their newsfeed tells them. 

You only have to look to the recent death of now immortalised “Harambe” to realise the problem. When the Gorilla was shot to save the child that had fallen into his enclosure, the news spread like wildfire through online forums. Regrettably, instead of a nuanced and sophisticated discussion about the issues underpinning the situation (animal rights, captivity and parenting to name a few), society took away a new trap remix and some “dank-ass memes”. 

The reality of online outrage is that it is often fueled less by genuine moral horror than by the simple desire to participate online and to be seen to be “putting ten cents in.” Although, there will always be people who engage in dialogue for entirely superficial reasons, in a world where you can scream outrage into the echo chamber and bear little to no accountability, the opportunity becomes infinitely more inviting. The desire to be fashionably angry hinders real social change by turning discourse into more of a competition than a dialect.

Matters of outrage often detract from more deserving issues because they are artificially awarded importance on the basis that they are outrageous. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy in that, the prioritisation of outrageous content implicitly sells (and literally sells) a distorted idea of what is important and as a result people buy into that conception. This is increasingly harmful where the hierarchy of outrage is entirely meaningless and it can appear, for example, that the population is more upset by the pomposity of Greg Wallace on MasterChef than the torture of Syrians.  Also, deserving cases can be quickly demonised in response to misleading click-bait, and the reputation damage can be impossible to undo. A classic example is big game hunting. Though there are legitimate reasons to oppose it, the “kill shots” are rarely accompanied by information about the (equally legitimate) justifications for it. The practice of allowing only old, senile animals to be killed and investing the money made into local communities or conservation measures, for example, is arguably less outrageous.

Outrage culture comes at an overwhelming cost, and there’s not enough resources in the world to rescue people stuck on the moral high ground. It is entertainment masquerading as activism and should be regretted.

Negative, by Admiral Ackbar

There are some things in society so bad that the only proper reaction to them is outrage… and, when that outrage results, it acts as a powerful and persuasive condemnation of the event that is, in many cases, the only way of achieving social change.

As much as the affirming side want to assume that “nuanced discussion” is valuable that’s not necessarily true for all contexts. Racists or bigots, for example, hardly ever hold their views on reasoned or rational grounds—in fact, they’re entirely contrary to scientific explanation. The only way to change those perspectives is through social pressure.

Furthermore, even if nuanced discussion doesn’t immediately or directly follow outrage, the outrage gives huge momentum and exposure to issues that would otherwise never be discussed at all (at least by most people). In fact, outrage lays an essential foundation for those more intellectual conversations to then take place. The logic behind this is simple: most people don’t engage with serious, well-reasoned articles unless they are particularly interested in something, but they do engage with emotive, click-bait headlines. Those headlines stimulate interest and lead people to find out more about the issue.

It’s just not true that, generally speaking, people will be content to believe whatever a click-bait article tells them. Humans have an innate desire to understand and justify things, meaning they naturally seek explanations for outrageous information. This is especially true where such articles tend to provide noticeably limited information; leaving people with plenty of unanswered questions to contribute to more constructive forums.

Outrage culture, in many ways, represents the empowerment of minorities. For the longest time, only a select few in society had a platform to share their thoughts-  money, the fame, and influence got you heard. Today, marginalised groups in society have a voice. They can speak up with immediacy on Twitter, Facebook, news sites, and more. Moreover, and just as important, these oppressed groups have found that they are not alone.

Outrage produces social change in a way that is unique and exclusive to other mechanisms. Though, like anything, it can be abused, the majority of outraged folk are simply empowered individuals with legitimate concerns who now have a way to express and explore them. 

This article first appeared in Issue 26, 2016.
Posted 11:37am Saturday 8th October 2016 by Otago University Debating Society.