Outrage versus change

We need outrage, but we need it to be useful not performative.

Earlier this week, I wrote on the connection between speed and wisdom and hinted at a related connection between wisdom and outrage. The old adage that if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention has perhaps never felt more true in America. The groundhog-day feeling of loss and corruption make our various crises all feel both emergent and somehow sadly inevitable.

The speed of information teaches us to think of knowledge as instantaneous but leaves us with unrealistic expectations of wisdom as equally fast. As our media systems have evolved and accelerated the pace of information and distributed the power of storytelling, political and cultural power have converged — but not merged. The type of power at work used to be easy to distinguish in part by where it was expressed. It has become easy to confuse them especially in this moment of constant outrage.

When it comes to outrage — both its expression and optimization — Facebook and Twitter are, perhaps, too good as release valves for our collective outrage. It has become too easy to express outrage, too easy to go from 0 to 100 in seconds. All that outrage blows off in ways that remain in cultural spaces and with that relief, makes it hard to sustain the social pressure needed for actual change. If that cultural pressure is not effectively and efficiently harnessed by or converted to political power, then our outrage is potentially wasted — or at least underutilized. That cultural pressure is essential to drive cultural change, but many political institutions are insulated from cultural change by the anti-democratic forces in our political process from redistricting to campaign finance to primary processes to the filibuster. So cultural change does not necessarily lead to leadership change to policy change to systems change. But it can be a bridge, a conduit to political power. While the policy process remains obscure for most, as we create more real-time transparency via storyteller-leaders like AOC into its processes, it could become more susceptible to cultural pressure even if we fail to sustain traditional political pressure.

The overly effective outrage release valve is also what makes performative outrage so appealing and so dangerous. We become sensitized to the performance of outrage, to the cultural demand of its expression such that we lose track of its connection to political power. And actual political power operates under the surface of cultural warfare essentially insulated from and seemingly immune to its effects — and often working at cross purposes to sustain inequity and injustice.

Our cultural sensors are alerted by outrage but relieved of the burden, the sustained weight of that outrage. We are outraged and that outrage demands expression. AND if we want change, we must sustain that outrage connected to both cultural and political power. If we don’t, the tools of storytelling that we rely on for information and knowledge that rob us of wisdom and that ought to be empowering individuals are merely complicit in redirecting us toward the distraction of performative outrage as a mechanism of insulation for political leaders and systems disinterested in actual transformation.


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