What if the angrier we become about everything, the less we really care about anything?
Our social mediacentric lives have brought about a whole new rage. But is it real?
One minute we’re furious about the tone-deaf, ill-advised use of a reality-TV star in a protest-themed Pepsi commercial, the next we’re angry about the United Airlines CEO who stood behind his employees but in a way that revealed his arrogance and lack of empathy toward passengers. Then, just as we attempt to catch a yoga breath, our Facebook feed informs us that the Globe and Mail journalist who got suspended for attempting to breastfeed a stranger’s baby at a party has been reinstated. And our collective bile rises.
Once reserved for political and social issues of serious societal consequence (think segregation and lynching), public outrage has become the knee-jerk response to everything from Bev Oda, the cabinet minister who expensed a $16 orange juice, to Beauty
and the Beast’s LeFou, Disney’s first gay character. No transgression is too small, or too personally insignificant, to escape our eager wrath and uncontrollable urge to share it, online and off. Like the ouroboros, the mythological serpent that survives by consuming its own tail, outrage is a self-perpetuating cycle that both invigorates and depletes us.
This cycle, enabled by the immediacy and anonymity of the Internet, is easy enough to map out. Studies, like the one conducted in 2013 by the Beihang University in China, which tracked messages on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter), found that sad stories were less likely to snag shares and, therefore, they’d die on the social media vine. Anger, on the other hand, was shown to be a higharousal state that fired up the desire to share. The intense social media backlash, including horrified Twitter reactions, around the Pepsi commercial in which Kendall Jenner abandons a modelling shoot to join a protest march, for example, resulted in the ad being pulled within hours of its online release, even though it cost millions to produce.
Combine the ease of tweeting your condemnation for #KendallPepsi, the rush of getting instant reinforcement from your online community and the possibility of influencing an outcome and it’s easy to see how indignation can become addictive.
That’s something that David Brin, an American scientist and bestselling author who speaks regularly on topics relating to technology and society, knows all about. He goes so far as to suggest that moral superiority has an addictive quality, triggering an endorphin release that people start to crave. “It feels good to think you’re so right and everyone else is so wrong,” he says. While the health risks associated with chronic anger are well-documented, including a higher risk for heart disease and diabetes, Brin theorizes that, for some, moral outrage may work more like a tonic. “Agitating for a cause you vigorously believe in—like human rights or saving the whales—can give your life meaning and even lead to public accolades,” he says. »