Living well in an outrage culture

December 4th, 2018

SNL and Dan Crenshaw

On the weekend before the recent midterm elections, comedian and Saturday Night Live cast member Pete Davidson made one of his regular appearances on the show’s “Weekend Update” segment. During his appearance, Davidson made fun of several candidates for their appearance, but one in particular struck a nerve. While showing a picture of Republican congressional candidate Dan Crenshaw, who lost an eye while serving in Afghanistan, Davidson made a joke about Crenshaw’s eye patch. When the joke fell short, Davidson followed up with, “He lost his eye in war, or whatever.” Many felt that his comment demeaned Crenshaw’s service and was disrespectful to veterans in general.

In response to the controversy, SNL invited Crenshaw to appear on the show the Saturday following the midterms for both a public apology and the opportunity to get in a few scripted jabs at Davidson in return. After gracefully accepting Davidson’s apology, Crenshaw added this coda: “There are lots of lessons to learn here. Not just that the left and the right can still agree on some things, but also this: Americans can forgive one another. We can remember what brings us together as a country and still see the good in each other.” It was a rare scene of forgiveness and reconciliation played out in the public sphere.

In an op-ed published the following week in The Washington Post, Crenshaw said he woke up the morning after the original joke with hundreds of texts about what Davidson had said. A lot of Americans weren’t happy and apparently believed that, in Crenshaw’s words, “some lines still shouldn’t be crossed.” While many similar public missteps draw recriminations and calls for dire consequences, Crenshaw’s response was more measured. Crenshaw noted that he, personally, wasn’t really outraged or offended about the comments, and therefore he didn’t demand an apology or that someone be fired. He added, “That doesn’t mean the ‘war . . . or whatever’ line was acceptable, but I didn’t have to fan the flames of outrage, either.” He pointed out that this was yet “another chapter in a phenomenon that has taken complete control of the national discourse: outrage culture.” Crenshaw’s refusal to act offended ran counter to the so-called outrage culture we live in every day. Though you may not have heard the term before, “I’m outraged” or similar expressions of sharp disapproval and anger have become common in our society at large.

Understanding outrage culture

One way to try to understand outrage culture is to try to understand the predictable cycle that each outrage event engenders. In 2014, Slate published a project in which it tracked a specific outrage for every day of the year. In her summary of the project, Julia Turner describes the typical cycle for each event:

anger, sarcasm, recrimination, piling on; defenses and counterattacks; anger at the anger, disdain for the outraged; sometimes, an apology . . . and on to the next. Twitter and Facebook make it easier than ever to participate from home. And the same cycle occurs regardless of the gravity of the offense, which can make each outrage feel forgettable, replaceable. The bottomlessness of our rage has a numbing effect.

As I look back at this project with four years of perspective, very few of the outrages of the day captured by Slate are particularly memorable. Despite this, the cycle continues. It even has a cumulative effect, as warring interest groups seek to push their message into the public square and control the conversation. These tactics have been adopted across the political spectrum, and each side seeks to claim the moral high ground while demonizing their opponents as unthinking, uncaring and less than human. Social media has made the cycle of outrage instantaneous and unrelenting, contributing to the decline of civic discourse overall.

A better way

In his op-ed, Dan Crenshaw points out several ways that we can have a more civil discourse with one another. He writes that he’s under no illusions about political adversaries getting along in harmony simply because of an apology on Saturday Night Live. The events of the week, however, gave him a forum through which he could suggest how we can react in a better way. “Let’s agree,” he wrote, “that the ideas are fair game. . . . But there is a difference between attacking an idea and attacking the person behind that idea.” Name-calling, labeling and attacking the person aren’t helpful and are often, at least to Crenshaw, an indication that the one responding doesn’t have a solid argument.

Crenshaw makes a second key point that these kinds of responses often attack not just an idea but also the motives behind an idea, which raises the emotional stakes of the public discussion. Assuming the worst of the other makes it difficult to have a productive discussion.

Jesus’ words are helpful here: “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you” (Matthew 7:1-2). Assuming the worst of the other’s motives is a form of judging that ramps up the emotional temperature in any discussion. In our outrage culture, both sides typically assume the worst about the other’s thoughts, motives, and actions.

Lastly, Crenshaw writes, “When all else fails, try asking for forgiveness, or granting it. On Saturday, Pete Davidson and SNL made amends. I had some fun. Everyone generally agreed that a veteran’s wounds aren’t fair game for comedy. Maybe now we should all try to work toward restoring civility to public debate.” Notice that neither asking for forgiveness nor granting it is a part of the routine cycle of outrage. It is, however, profoundly Christian.

Though Representative-elect Crenshaw’s interruption of the outrage cycle may be long-forgotten within the month, it’s notable that it can be done and we can have moments of reconciliation. If we can have moments, we can have days. If days, then years. Finally, that will begin to look like the kingdom of God, glimpsed on earth.

We have learned our habits of how we respond to outrage. We have learned to attack in anger, to pile on and to use the tools of sarcasm and demonization. This means we can unlearn them, too, and as Christians we can model a better way.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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