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We seem to live in two worlds.
In the first world, we brush our teeth, make oatmeal, and smile at the person serving us coffee. In this world, we feed our cat (or dog, if you’re one of those people), kiss our lover, hug our friends, and greet strangers “Good morning” and “Good evening” on the streets, at the market, and in restaurants.
The second world is online. In this world, we stare at the latest headlines, wade through streams of tweets, and dodge the steady traffic of Facebook posts. Here, we see photos of children in cages, catch snippets of controversial statements from public figures, view videos of the latest white-on-black police brutality, and read about yet another tragic shooting. And every day, depending on our curated world, we choose another Very Important Issue that outrages us. If I were to live only in the second world, I would seriously believe that our civilization is crumbling, that basic human decency is dead, that people walk around snarling and shaking fists all day.
Consider J, a real-life person who’s my Facebook friend. We met early this year over a common interest in homelessness. In the flesh, J is a smart, genuine, compassionate guy who actually goes out on the streets to befriend the homeless with home-baked muffins. But on social media, J seems like a different person. On a recent post, J asked his Facebook friends if he should ever apologize for using a vulgar word that starts with a “c” to describe first lady Melania Trump. Eighteen out of 19 responders gave J their blessing to use that obscene word. One commenter called herself a “die-hard feminist,” but said the thought of crying Guatemalan children had rendered her “really barely functioning”—and so, she concluded, Mrs. Trump has lost all “feminist protection.”
Then a few days later, Democratic U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters called for public resistance against Trump Cabinet officials, and I saw floods of approval rippling through Twitter and Facebook. “Just make their lives miserable,” one guy wrote on Facebook: “An eye for an eye and soon the whole world is blind, but if that’s the case, at least we won’t look at Trump’s disgusting fat orange cheetoh [sic] face anymore.”The right lashed back. President Donald Trump on Twitter called Waters “an extraordinarily low IQ person,” stirring more outrage on both sides against Trump, Waters, or anyone else on the vendetta list. Last week, Waters said she had to cancel two events in Texas and Alabama because of hostile mail and threatening messages to her office, including one “very serious death threat.”
When the owner of a small restaurant in Lexington, Va., refused to serve White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, outraged individuals from across the nation swarmed the restaurant’s Yelp review webpage to drop negative one-star reviews. Supporters of the restaurant’s owner also visited Yelp to leave positive five-star reviews, but were no match for the hundreds of irate reviewers, who collectively drove down the farm-to-table eatery’s overall Yelp review rating from five stars in May to one star today. Most of these reviewers sputtered their disgust that a restaurant would stoop to such partisan incivility, yet they didn’t seem to see the double standard in mudslinging a business (which they’ve probably never patronized) because of its political expression.
Is bipartisan civility dead? Depending on who you ask, yes—and it’s all the other side’s fault.
Is bipartisan civility dead? Depending on who you ask, yes—and it’s all the other side’s fault. I once sat in a radio station with a prominent conservative writer. He’s a very nice guy in person, polite and friendly, but once he started talking about “those leftists,” his small, wiry body quaked with rage, and his rants crackled with f-words. At one point while off the air, he wondered aloud, “Why doesn’t the right take up name-calling like the left does?” At a time like this when the left is winning the cultural narrative, the right should fight back with equally nasty fighting words, he said, because “it works.”
“At a time like this.” Hmm. Strange, that’s a phrase many liberals use a lot too. To them, it’s the right that’s stoking the fire. “At a time like this” when the Trump administration is basically equivalent to the Nazi regime, left-wingers say, it’s morally reprehensible to turn the other cheek—it’s time to fight fire with fire. One Facebook friend wrote on Facebook, “People who demand civility in politics just don’t feel the urgency and violence of the politics at hand.” Another commented, “There are times for calm and nuance, this is not one of those times.” Is there really ever a time when dialogue and discernment and decency are not necessary?
Of course, not everything on our social media feeds is political. Yet among all the engagement announcements, ads, and photos of food, dogs, and beaches, the posts that sink claws into my consciousness and emotions are the ones expressing outrage. No wonder people call this phenomenon “outrage porn”—it’s addictive, feels good in a perverted sort of way, and incites guilt that leads to more engagement.
Perhaps my reaction to this outrage culture says more about me than about others. But even J—my Facebook friend—says he’s finally feeling the symptoms of outrage fatigue.
In a long Facebook post, J wrote that his personal life is “pretty swell” and he has “nothing to complain about”—yet reading the news every day left him “anxious, depressed, and scared.” He also expressed guilt: As a relatively wealthy, white, straight male with all the attached privileges, he feels a duty to be outraged by issues that might not directly impact him but affect other, less privileged populations. He ended the post with what I saw as a plea: Should he go on a media break? Is that OK, internet friends?
I saw it as problematic that J even felt he needed approval from his online community to take a media break. It doesn’t matter that most of his Facebook friends assured him he should take care of his mental health first. When one friend responded that as a privileged white man J “owes it to everyone else” to stay outraged and engaged—and that comment received the most “likes” and “loves”— that’s enough to keep someone hooked.
The second online world of news and outrage will always exist. That’s the nature of the news cycle and human nature. The danger is when the virtual world bleeds into the real world, coloring our relationships with friends and family into shades of blue and red.
The last time I met J, we shook hands, hugged, laughed, and shared stories over delicious Thai food. Today, if we were to meet again and he found out where I stand on abortion, same-sex marriage, and taxes, would we still be able to look into each other’s eyes and see a decent human being? I don’t know, and that bothers me.