Internet Discourse and Our Culture of Outrage

By Daryl McSweeney

How about that title huh? I’m pretty proud of that title.

After recent news about students finally being forced to take responsibility for their racism by universities, I noticed something in the comments about these stories. While I’m glad these schools took a stand for moral values and did not accept pitiable excuses for such outdated and offensive behavior, a lot of people from the internet felt this wasn’t punishment enough (and yes, just as many felt the punishment was too harsh but we’ll leave those people for another time).

The comments against them were almost as disgusting as the comments people have made about Colin Kaepernick and his efforts to address systemic racism. They really had a striking tonal similarity and I didn’t like it. I wondered to myself, “Will these students really learn anything? Or will they only remember the insults and death threats?”

As we move into one of our most combative election seasons in recent history, racial tensions escalate on a seemingly hourly basis, and congressmen debate our country’s position on refugees, I see a lot of people on the internet expressing their opinions on every issue. Part of this is encouraging. An engaged and active public means a public who can take part in discussions about morality and the actions of their government. How we’re engaging in this discussion though recently has really given me pause.

Dylan wrote a pretty good article last week breaking down our current presidential candidates but more importantly he broke down how the public seemingly views them. Reading it I was struck by how measured his response was to the candidates because honestly, “measured” is not a word that exists anymore on the internet.

 “It’s pronounced G-if like gift you absolute garbage whore!” - Your Average Internet Commenter

“It’s pronounced G-if like gift you absolute garbage whore!” - Your Average Internet Commenter

Let’s get the easy targets out of the way first. Some people are “Hate Fountains.” These are the sexist asshats who need to call a woman a whore in every argument, who argue that freedom of speech should allow them to use any racial slur they like, and people who use the term “liberal (insert swear here)” etc. Obviously these predominantly white guys need to calm down and stop seeing everything as attacks against them personally and work on making the internet a safer place, because for some people, the internet is the one safe place where they can engage in important conversations without threat to their physical safety or in-their-face value (and religious) judgements. Hate Fountains are the bane of the internet and short of burning the whole house down with the bath water, we can’t get rid of them. We just have to accept that. Try your best to ignore them and report them to the proper admins where you can.

Those guys are not going to read this though. They are not going to take in these words and engage them critically and reflect on their own biases and ideals. I’m not talking to them. I’m talking to everyone else. Because the thing is, seeing every person who disagrees with us on the internet as a possible Hate Fountain has caused a modern day “Red Scare” in the internet.

 Pictured here: a 1920’s conception of Communists or a 2016 conception of a Trump supporter.

Pictured here: a 1920’s conception of Communists or a 2016 conception of a Trump supporter.

Somewhere along the way, everyone became the enemy. If you are not with us, you are against us. But who is us? Who defined these battle lines? I know someone who constantly inundates his Facebook feed with articles that are very critical of Hillary and the Clinton Foundation, and almost every time someone comments, “Well are you a Trump supporter?” and he has to clarify that he’s not. “Trump supporter!” they shout at him, causing him to have to defend his right to having an opinion. “Communist!” is what we used to shout (very vintage) and I can tell you, that habit did not lead to good things.

Let’s take Syrian refugees (see what I did there?). I personally know people who are against allowing any refugees into America based on the fact that it might open our country to terrorists. Guess what, so do you! Most polls show the American people being against, or at least having reservations, when it comes to this issue. Is this decision-making racially motivated? Oh hell yeah. Are all these people spewing Hate Fountains? Nope. “Okay, so they are nice racists, that doesn’t make them any better!” you argue. And yes, the “apologetic white person” is a problem, but guess what? Shouting at these people that they are a racist monster who should shut up and go back to their next Klan rally will not convince them of shit.

But boy does it feel good, right?

 “I sure showed that ignorant asshole.”

“I sure showed that ignorant asshole.”

Righteous fury is so addictive. Life is confusing and answers to complicated problems are hard to come by. We all just want to reduce things to one or two answers, pick one, and separate everyone onto sides. It makes you feel like you’re dealing with an issue that you are individually powerless against. Maybe if you’re lucky, you can be on “the winning side.” This thought process led to the Red Scare, it led to Japanese internment, it leads to tribalism and it leads to soccer fights.

Equally addictive is feeling weak, feeling like a victim. This is the other side of it. Every day you live your life, you make decisions, you encounter a myriad of experiences and forces that move you, that all feel very dramatic but mostly very mundane. Then one day someone comes up to you and says, “What do you think of this?” and you express your opinion, an opinion that you might not be super informed on but you made honestly, and the person says, “Oh, okay, then you’re on this side” or rather they say “You rat-faced monster, you’re disgusting, how dare you think that! You should be ashamed!” I should be ashamed? But I’ve just been living my life! “I try so hard every day! I hate this discourse and I hate the people who forced me to have it!” and a new Hate Fountain is born.

If you want more reading, it’s a combination of Choice-Supportive Bias, Anchoring, and Hostile Attribution that makes people more entrenched in their opinions rather than change their mind.

But simply put, no one thinks of themselves of the bad guy. Everyone thinks they’re fighting “against” life, even when that’s objectively not true, that we have numbers proving some people have a harder fight than others, but for some people numbers just don’t stand a chance against the feelings and ineffable experiences that we have literally every day. What are some shapes and charts on a computer screen against your most powerful memory of what you thought was the end of all racism, (most likely when Barack Obama became president, according to YouTube comments)?

So is internet discourse and discussion impossible? No! It’s just really hard and it doesn’t begin with one side shouting at the other. We really have to ask ourselves, are we seeking to educate and convince the other side with new information or are we just looking to shame someone else and feel stronger in our already established opinion?

By the way, I’m also not saying that anger has no place in discourse. Anger is an incredible emotional tool! It rises above the din of apathy and calls to people’s sense of justice to wake them out of the routine and stupor of every day and believe in something greater than themselves. But there’s a time for every tool.

Anger is a hammer, super useful, but nothing was built solely by hammers. Hate Fountains use anger too by the way. It’s the only tool they have. Let’s all agree that it’s time that we try some others now.

 I swear to god this image is relevant.

I swear to god this image is relevant.