On Viral Outrage, and Outrage Fatigue

This post grew out of a question I asked a fairly private group of friends on Facebook, all of whom responded with really great and thoughtful answers (unusual, I know!) and made me think about this issue on a larger scale.

My original question was something like this:

Sometimes I wonder if “outrage fatigue” is a real thing–if it’s possible to raise so much Facebook awareness and bombard people with so much “helpful discomfort” that we begin to turn off the people we need to reach most, and build walls where we had thought to build bridges.

The answers were all thoughtful ones, but went different places because the question itself is so open-ended. This has prompted me to clarify, a little bit.

By “outrage fatigue,” I”m less talking about the arguments that offend us–rather the arguments we agree with, yet continued to get hammered with. This happens especially on Facebook, but it’s occasionally the province of “non-event-based journalism”–the stuff that airs on CNN during the 20 hours a day when specific things aren’t happening to report on. When a school shooting happens, for instance, 10% of the airtime is spent reporting on the shooting, or the shooter, or the response. The other 90% is spent on talking about shootings in general–which is useful programming in many ways, but it’s not “reporting.” Mostly, though I’m talking about Facebook and its tendency to run rich with the stuff in fadlike cycles of moral outrage and social justice. Any number of valid and serious issues qualify: rape culture, gay marriage, the muzzling of Canadian scientists, the continued Mordorization of Alberta, electoral fraud, and so on.

Outrage, unlike offense, is sometimes a GOOD thing to raise in people. Here’s an expanded of what I mean from the above list: I’m of the mind that “rape culture” is a real thing, at least in several places among several people, and that women’s rights over their own bodies and the depictions thereof are still laughably, weepably insufficient, in a way that the strides we have made in some sectors (say, the workforce and education) haven’t done anything to correct. I am outraged, and should be outraged, that if you’re a woman, going to college in the U.S. makes you more likely to get raped than going to prison. I am angry, and should be angry, that people invent imaginary consent by the most ludicrous means–the slutty dress argument, for instance. (“She obviously wanted it. Why else would a woman go to college?”)

I’m outraged that this continues to happen, and I do think that everyone of all genders has an obligation to do what they can to prevent it and shut it down. I’m unconvinced that male privilege is the only cause, and unsure of exactly where it fits in, but it’s in there somewhere; and the corresponding argument of “female privilege” in certain cases (affirmative hiring, better tips going to female servers, female offenders getting lighter sentences) doesn’t erase the male privilege. In many places in Canada, I will pay 30% more for car insurance than an identical person who is a woman–that is unfair and increases gender unfairness, but it doesn’t somehow make us “even” for the 23% higher salary I’ll make.

These things are good to be outraged about. Someone who’s not outraged by the systemic, groundless violation of a group of people is not someone I want to be friends with. But now we get to the problem….

Rape culture exists, and is a thing, and is bad. And then, suddenly, after the Steubenville rape trial became a media circus, our awareness had the living daylights raised out of it. For weeks on end, I couldn’t turn on Facebook without it being RapeCultureBook. At one point I counted, and 6 of the top 8 items on my news feed were designed to raise awareness and make me angry that this was going on, and that wide-scale responses to it by many people were so utterly disgusting.

The other 2 items had something to do with what’s going on in my friends’ lives, how they’re doing, interesting things they’re reading or thinking about, every other cause to get outraged over combined, cute cat pictures, arguments and discussions on non-rape-culture topics, events I’m invited to, and so on. Essentially, everything else in the world of importance was getting 25% of the airtime.

Here’s where I get into the question of “outrage fatigue.” It’s a question of saturation leading to complacence–in other words, the exact opposite effect these calls-to-arms are supposed to have. I was sick of being disgusted, and was spending too much time responding, weighing in, sniping at Internet idiots, and not enough doing the things that make a difference in the real world. As a cis-male, and especially as a teacher, I make a very small but critically important contribution to combating rape culture in the ways that I think, live, act, love, and challenge others around me to do. I found, in the end, that all this Facebook outrage had prompted me to make was a very large, but much less important contribution: they had turned this lofty life goal into a frivolous Internet hobby.

There is a belief and an expectation out there that you can’t criticize the glut of blog posts, infographics, statistics, forwards, petitions, memes, open letters, rhetoric, and rage on the subject. It is implied that to suggest you’re sick of reading about it is to exercise a veto that comes with male privilege. Women in the Congo are sick of rape culture, but can’t just walk away and turn their computers off, right? There’s a persistent belief–persistent enough that even I feel guilt over it–that taking certain people and their problems off your News Feed amounts to ignoring the problem–a serious problem that privileged people, especially, shouldn’t be ignoring. There’s a belief that if you correct the grammar of a lazily photoshopped image telling you that “YOUR PART OF THE PROBLEM,” you are undermining the message, and thus being part of the problem, by insisting on literacy. And yet withdrawal, rather than engagement, is the ultimate effect that these causes, even extremely worthy ones, have on people once they go so viral that they become insistent and inescapable. That’s why serious and urgent social issues behave like any other fad on the internet, operating by the same principles that govern planking, or #YOLO, or the dreaded Harlem Shake. Rather than provoke the serious and sustained criticism that results in real change, this viral outrage is the sugar-high of social justice, prompting a moment of hyperactivity followed by a crash of fatigue.

The shape of Rape Culture Viral Outrage (RCVO) has definitely taken this form: why else would something so important that it once occupied 75% of my News Feed now not appear anywhere at all in the first 90 posts? Has the problem gone away? Have we successfully blogged it out of existence? Has rape culture been forever vanquished by a week-long, sustained, Care Bear Stare of admittedly heart-felt, well-written, thought-provoking Internet conversation?

Or has the torrent simply stopped because the people who cared the most about it got tired? 

I venture the people who care the most about rape culture aren’t spending their time proselytizing on Facebook. They’re out volunteering, or teaching people, or participating in walks and fundraisers–or, most importantly of all, they’re living their lives in such a way that the office or school or store or home they spend their time in is a safe space where this culture has a harder time flourishing, and gets stepped on the minute it rears its ugly head.

Rape culture existed, and was something we should have been fighting, before it had its own #hashtag, before Steubenville made fighting it an Internet fad. The same could be said for other things that are damn well worth getting outraged about. Currently, I think, it’s gay marriage, or as I like to call it “marriage equality.” Before Steubenville, it was (for Canadians) that pesky Keystone pipeline, which, by the way, is still bad, and still threatening our environment and our future, even though we don’t blog incessantly about it anymore. Before that, it was robocalls and electoral fraud–though we’ve all given up on that, at least online. Before that, it was the One Percent.

I don’t know if the Internet has a long enough memory to recall the Occupy Movement. When Zucotti Park was occupied back in November 2011. Remember that? It was less than 18 months ago. I bet most of you can remember a really amazing dinner you had once that was longer ago than that. It was a Big Thing. And man, was Facebook ever full of Occupy outrage, mine included.

I remember one of the things I blogged or linked or commented on was what I considered, then, the most valuable statement of any of the speakers. It was by Slavoj Žižek, an infamous Slovene philosopher and general shit-disturber in academic circles. On October 9, 2011, he read a 15-minute manifesto through the People’s Mic, that ended with the following (fast forward to 6:40 of this clip):

“The only thing I’m afraid of is that we will someday just go home, and then we will meet once a year, drinking beer and nostalgically remembering what a nice time we had here. Promise ourselves that this will not be the case.”

I wasn’t sure, then–though I had my suspicions–that this would come to be the definitive statement of the entire Occupy movement. And if anything, it prompts me to go a little easier on Facebook and on people who use it as a platform for the outrages that, in their turn, each seem to be the only one worth talking about–the one whose end is in sight, if we all just get outraged enough. Maybe Occupy, as Žižek implies, is a sign that outrage fatigue is not limited to the Internet, but happens in the real world too.

In the interest of avoiding such fatigue, I’ll blog about something else next time.


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