Well I didn’t call it.
The perpetually indignated lefties at Slate have declared 2014 “The Year of Outrage.” They aren’t wrong; and it’s more than a bit ironic the writers making the claim are also responsible for the madness that now defines the internet news cycle. A handful of the site’s reporters weighed in on the outrage phenomenon, some admirably taking responsibility for it. Jordan Weissmann, to his credit, lamented the “impulse to jump on the outrage cycle” and drive traffic to small pieces of life’s innumerable injustices. He defends the practice however, saying “viral hits help finance other less outraged, more important journalism.” Yes and drug-dealing can also be used to fund soup kitchen operations. The latter doesn’t make the former any less immoral.
Betsy Woodruff does a decent job highlighting the more embarrassing attempts to use outrage machinations by conservatives. But even while well-meaning voices on the right are apt to use harsh-worded demonization, the kind of determined vitriol progressives embrace is another matter altogether. For the left, outrage is a lifestyle instead of a seldom-felt emotion.
The standard liberal activist isn’t fighting for a world of their ideals they can enjoy. More and more, it seems like they are fighting for the sake of fighting, never to be satisfied with the way things are. This, I suspect, is the fuel for the left’s constant, inexhaustible rage fest against all things judged “normal” by contemporary standards. From this dark hole of furry is where we find ourselves heading into a new year of invisible microaggressions, egregious thoughtcrimes, insensitive career-destroying remarks, and metaphysical injustices. Media outlets like Salon, MSNBC, and especially Slate won’t take a break in reminding the country that a battle of furious emotion must be fought every single day.
Where exactly does this gloomy disposition originate from? In the aforementioned “Year of Outrage” piece, Jamelle Bouie (no stranger to manufactured ire himself) admits that it “feels good to express disgust.” “In a world where prejudice and privilege still rule the day,” Bouie attests, “it’s cathartic for a lot of lefties—even straight white dudes—to show outrage, even if it leads to nothing in particular.” Excuse me? I don’t speak for all straight white dudes, but it seems damn stupid to fume without cause. Yet the practice is somehow salutary for liberals. This insight is revealing of the sad disposition held by many progressives.
I’m no psychologist but I’d conjecture the left’s embrace of hathos is linked to an inability to feel at home in reality. Perceived injustices are much easier to handle when one is comfortable in their own environment. If you feel rooted to your hometown, and a neighbor holds a belief you find execrable, it’s much easier to forgive and move on to retain a sense of stability. I imagine this is hard for leftists who feel the implacable need to reform the world in their own egalitarian image.
The lack of belonging is similar to Eugene O’Neill’s character Yank in The Hairy Ape. Formerly content with his coal-shoveling job on an oceanliner, Yank becomes obsessed with one-upping a female socialite who found him brutish and unrefined. After being turned away by both the 5th Avenue crowd and radical unionists, Yank tries to find solace in the company of an ape at the city zoo. The animal, which lacks the ability to empathize with man’s struggle for meaning and place, crushes Yank to death after being let out of confinement. Before succumbing to the enormous strength of the simian, the inarticulate anti-hero tells the creature, “I ain’t on oith and I ain’t in heaven, get me? I’m in de middle tryin’ to separate ‘em, takin’ all de woist punches from bot’ of ‘em.” That kind of listlessness defines the never-ending campaign of fervor the left can’t stop waging.
Progressives, by definition, are neither comfortable with common life or in their imagined future of perfect resource and talent distribution. If all their wishes are granted and the oppressive white patriarchy is smashed to pieces, diatribes about offensive stares on public transportation will still be written. Mind-boggling gender categories will still be invented. Endless discussions about whether a child’s hat should be considered “boy” or “girl” clothing will still ensue. The complaints, trivial as they are, are a recipe for an unhappy life as they form into a blanket of sheer discontent.
Adam Gurri calls this histrionic approach to life looking into the “telescopic morality machine.” Not only is this worldview morally depleting, it draws attention away from the things that can be remedied for the better. Gurri writes that progressives who fret over every little insult end up with a “life spent desperately grasping at fractured and filtered pieces of other people’s stories, a life hardly lived.” To “rage at things you cannot control” he argues, comes “at the expense of time you could be investing improving the state of affairs around you.”
How depressing it must be to be on guard for any slight, no matter how insignificant, just to have fodder for denouncing society over social media. It’s no wonder America is following Europe’s path and losing the moral calculus that comes with a lived religion. What’s the point of prayer and reading Scripture if your gospel is made up of Huffington Post headlines? If all 365 days of the year contain something worthy of complaint – as Slate documents for 2014 – surely the world is not filled with a Creator’s love. The only other explanation is an amoral existence lacking in reason or purpose. This explains why progressives find the need to latch on to grievances, no matter how small or inconsequential. Finding goodness in anger provides an identity to those who preach the message.
The left’s unending dissatisfaction also make sense considering the electoral strategy of America’s home for progressives: the Democratic Party. Democrats, like other parties, use tribalism to win elections. They foster group identity while promoting hatred for competing groups, more often than not made up of middle class, intact families. Basically, they prey on feelings of isolation. Gays, single women, and poor minorities are all targets of F.D.R.’s party. While this strategy works for short-term solidarity, it’s deleterious in the long-run because it constantly berates members with feelings of ill will towards everyone around them. More importantly, it degrades a sense of shared country and common humanity among its adherents. Here, I believe, is the real toxicity behind the left’s identity politics and subsequent crusades of detestation.
Fitzgerald said children “aren’t nomads” and their “hearts must be somewhere.” He’s neither completely correct or wrong. Humanity’s heart longs for place. Adults are just better at hiding their unfulfilled longings. Adolescents cry out when they feel out of balance or too bothered by life’s unstable turns. Perhaps then immaturity best explains the outrage-fueled engine that keeps the liberal hate machine chugging along.