You’re probably addicted to outrage porn

Newsletter #8

Yes, I made this term up. 

Now, let me explain what I mean by it: Outrage porn is indulging in what Buzzfeed would classify as something you love to hate. It’s that nasty thing you knowingly feed on that leads you down an outrage spiral – Trump’s tweets are a great example of this. Oftentimes, social media algorithms get a whiff of your interest and keep serving you more, thus fuelling your addiction.

Once you see the offending piece, you feel compelled to Google for more, read (and perhaps reply to) comments, and share all of this with your friends both online and off. Wittingly or not, you fan the flames of your outrage. For a brief period in your life, this outrage consumes you. Then, just like that, it’s gone and forgotten. That is, until the next time the urge strikes and you seek your next hit. 

I’m not exempt from this. I recently caught myself feasting on outrage porn, the result of which inspired this week’s newsletter. My outrage porn took the form of me binge watching the Netflix mini-series “Unbelievable“. Unable to escape my outrage spiral, I finished the entire series in a night. The show was great, but this wasn’t the main reason I couldn’t tear my eyes away. Instead, I was trapped by my outrage. Briefly, the show is a true story about a girl who was raped. Unfortunately, the police didn’t believe her and not only pressured her to retract her statement, but also charged her with false reporting.

The rape was one thing, but the unjustness, sanctimoniousness and bullying by an authority figure was what really triggered me. And by then, it was hard to unwind that feeling.

While, bullying might not trigger you, I’m sure you’ve also succumbed to outrage – whether it’s due to LGBTQ rights, global warming, anti-vaxxers or simply that inconsiderate person who cut your queue this morning.

Because we’re all guilty of this, I thought it’d be interesting to unpack it a little bit. What makes outrage so universally addictive? 

Why we’re all addicted to outrage porn, and what we can do about it.

  1. It lets us feel superior –> We can temper this by practising empathy, remembering that superiority is subjective, and acknowledging that we likely lack context.
    “LOL! sooo dumb!” How good does it feel to comment that to a friend, or on IG in reference to something you just saw online? I’m no sociologist but the only thing humans seem to seek more than to know our place in this world, is to know there’s people placed below us. In other words, other people’s stupid, anti-social behaviour helps us feel better about our own insecurities. 

    The solutions are easy to say, and kind of trite, yet they’re so difficult to do. Recently, there was a woman in Singapore caught driving the wrong direction into oncoming traffic in Chinatown. My first instinct was to head online to read more and revel in her stupid and dangerous behaviour. But then I remembered a friend’s father who did exactly that because he was having multiple heart attacks while driving. He drove in the wrong direction because he was desperate to get to the hospital as fast as he possibly could. By keeping that context in mind, it was possible to remind myself that I knew nothing of the woman’s situation and my outrage was quickly calmed. 

     
  2. Us vs Them mentality helps us feel closer to our tribe –> Practise inclusivity and acceptance 
    Not all outrage is fuelled by our inferiority complex. Sometimes, we just want to feel like we belong, and nothing does that better than a common enemy. Feminists have glass ceilings, queer people have homophobes, and, ironically, homophobes have queer people. Currently, Singaporeans have united against our mutual outrage against the haze. 

    If you’re trying to build a team, rallying against a common enemy is the quickest and surest way to unite your team members. Note though that it’s also a steady path towards destruction. You’ve tied your team’s fate and potential to its enemy – your team will never have the motivation to progress any further than simply beating your enemy and quickly runs out of steam once it does so. 

    Again, the solution sounds like a platitude, but is insanely hard to put to practice. Recall that story of the black man who, through befriending KKK members, taught them not to be racist. Daryl Davis could’ve chosen to hate those KKK members the way they hate him, but he chose inclusivity and acceptance instead. I don’t have a self-congratulatory personal anecdote here, I’m trying to get better at practising inclusivity myself. 

     
  3. Sometimes life is dull and we seek the drama –> Remind ourselves that drama at the expense of someone else isn’t great. Literally, find better things to do with our lives.
    Ok, this is the lamest reason, but I have to admit this is my reason for binge watching Unbelievable. Unfortunately, “life is dull and we seek the drama” doesn’t always manifest in relatively harmless Netflix-ing; it can also be the reason for outrage-fuelled netizen vigilantism, and that definitely destroys lives. 

    And, for that matter, passive media consumption isn’t all that harmless. By racking up the views, we signal to content creators that outrage is what we want. In recent years, this is what led us down the dark path of click-bait echo chambers, from which social media platforms are now back peddling furiously away.

Outrage isn’t always bad

It’s important to acknowledge that many a movement, company and person, fuelled by outrage, have gone on to accomplish amazing things. The #metoo movement is one example that comes easily to mind. Having said that, it’s important to be clear of our motivations. While indignation is a great galvaniser, we must quickly attempt to mature and seek meaning beyond that. If not, the catalyst for that initial spark quickly becomes the fuel for our own demise.  

Final thoughts

Personally, I don’t always succeed in avoiding outrage porn. In fact, I often fall for its irresistible allure when I’m tired. My intention in writing this wasn’t for me to sanctimoniously call you out from my outrage-free ivory tower, instead it was an attempt to explore the reasons for its attractiveness, and in doing so, identify and reduce its hold over me (and hopefully, you). 

Lastly, I’m no outrage porn expert. So if there are angles I’ve failed to explore or if your experience differs significantly from mine, please reach out and share! 


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