Zero? Meet 60.
That seems the rate at which we accelerate these days from being irked to outraged.
The server was late with your salad, your boss breezed right by you, coach pulled your daughter in the third quarter, the grocery ran out of rotisserie chicken — it doesn’t take much to make people erupt.
We used to get over it, maybe kvetch to our spouse, then move on. Now, though, there’s a compulsion — some call it an opportunity — to share our outrage on Facebook, on Twitter, on Yelp, from behind the wheel or by unloading on a clerk.
What’s going on?
Many things, according to those who track cultural shifts. Among them:
• A looming sense of powerlessness, often economic, which can make outrage feel righteous.
• A sense of community among online commenters who, individually, may not be so venomous.
• A growing tolerance for outrage, driving the bar higher for those striving to be heard.
• Social media, which reward impulsive emotions while spreading them at lightning speed.
• Finally, a perverse quirk of human nature: It’s simply easier to be angry.
“Anger is also more easily shared,” said Jim Printup, who counsels companies on their interactions with employees, and sees how perceived power and powerlessness collide. He’s not sure that we’ve grown angrier, but knows that anger is a safer emotion to voice rather than exposing ourselves as worried or anxious.
Anger also can give you a sense of purpose, even fellowship. “When you’re with other angry people,” he said, “you’re almost justified to be angry.”
An example: A few years ago, a woman named Justine Sacco tweeted a comment about AIDS in Africa in that “you-know-me-I’m-kidding” way to her 170 Twitter followers. Then she boarded a plane for an 11-hour flight.
She landed to find that her tweet was the top worldwide trend on Twitter due to tens of thousands of outraged tweets damning her comment as racist. Then the vicious attacks turned to gallows humor as the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet anticipated her firing, which indeed followed.
What fueled the viral attack?
A sense of moral purpose, and a bit of image buffing, according to Yale researchers with a new study about outrage in the journal Nature.
“Whether or not they were conscious of it, these attackers were most likely advertising to their Twitter audiences that they were not racist,” the researchers wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times.
Moral outrage, they continued, is a part of human nature. But “the punishment that it triggers is sometimes best explained not as a fair and proportionate reaction, but as a result of a system that has evolved to boost our individual reputations — without much care for what it means for others.”
In 1999, linguist Deborah Tannen wrote in “The Argument Culture” that Americans prize contentiousness and aggression more than cooperation and conciliation, bolstering people who believe that “the best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate. The best way to show you’re really thoughtful is to criticize.”
In that light, today’s Internet is incredibly thoughtful. But its critical commenters are complex, said Gary Fine, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University in Chicago.
Take hate speech, he said, which almost always targets a group — amorphous, symbolic — rather than a specific person. At the “ritual gatherings” of political rallies, Fine said, a crowd mentality may disparage immigrants. But when it comes to your bowling league or your IT department, Amit and Jakub are great guys.
As the new ritual gathering place, the Internet’s anonymity spawns a rhetorical courage that rarely migrates to the office water cooler.
“In the Twitterverse, or in comments, people, because of their anonymity, can say some pretty obnoxious things,” Fine said. Plus, we’re growing accustomed to people saying some pretty obnoxious things.
Various presidential candidates, in debates and in interviews, have said what may be called “some pretty obnoxious things” and, unlike fake-named Internet commenters, want full credit.
With every ensuing flap, the thinking goes: Surely, they can’t survive that gaffe. So far, they have. Those candidates who have dropped out have been dunned by analysts for, among other things, not being “mean enough.”
August 2015, when Donald Trump took heat for declaring model Heidi Klum “no longer a 10,” seems a long time ago.
The comments experiment
Nowhere is outrage so accessible and so self-perpetuating than in online comment forums that offer readers the opportunity to weigh in, the goal being the sort of civic conversation that enlivens and engages.
But the noble intention is coming under scrutiny.
Several newspapers in the U.S. and Canada have closed their online forums. Only paid subscribers can comment on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s site. In December, Canada’s Toronto Star killed its online commenting function after seven years.
“Here in Canada, we think this sort of polarization is an issue for south of the border, that Canadians are more polite,” said public editor Kathy English. “But it turned out we’re no less prone to verbal mudslinging.”
Most readers applauded the decision, she said, adding that they still want to use comments from social media, letters and e-mails.
“We don’t want to go back to the days when it was just us talking back at people,” she said. “But neither should a discussion be the equivalent of standing in a schoolyard and yelling at each other. I don’t think we really understand how social media fundamentally changed things.”
Adjusting to shifting sands
“Social media is still such a new thing,” said Zizi Papacharissi, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois. She doesn’t think we’re more outraged, “but our rage has become more visible.”
Still, she said, “think of all the positive emotions we see on social media, as well — the outpouring of support for Syrian refugees, even for David Bowie’s passing,” she said.
Papacharissi is right. There still is much goodwill in the world. Yet, like gawkers driving past a car accident, mayhem mesmerizes us.
So, the question stands: Are we really more outraged, or do we just sound more outraged?
Fine, the sociologist, said that great change can make some people feel powerless, and sometimes victimized. Consider the history of the marriage equality movement.
“Most of us of a certain age can remember a time when same-sex marriage was unimaginable,” he said. “Now it’s entirely imaginable — and legal. How do you feel when what you’ve taken for granted becomes unmoored?”
Similarly, the ditch between the haves and the have-nots is being dug with alacrity by political candidates from the left and the right. They expound on “the ‘others’ which are not ‘us,’ that we can’t get access to those who are running society and we need to put a stop to that,” Fine said. “And there’s some truth to that.”
All is not lost
Do we ever learn?
Despite the advice not to read the comments, many do. Despite the instinct to back off from the erratic driver, many don’t. Despite Taylor Swift’s sassy counsel to “shake it off,” many cling to the players, haters, fakers and heartbreakers.
If you’re sniping at forgetful servers, honking at slower drivers or undercutting a busy boss — and realize that your outrage does little more than make you feel self-righteous — Jim Printup has an idea.
Printup, who’s president of the Upper Midwest chapter of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association, advises his clients to assemble an imaginary board of directors.
A board of directors, he said, is there to give good advice.
His own board consists “of people I learn from, that I’m willing to try to impress. It includes my wife, my kids, my late parents, a few friends and,” he added with a smile, “Kwai Chang Caine,” the martial arts monk who fought for justice in the 1970s TV show “Kung Fu.” (Seriously.)
His point? Before responding with outrage, think what your board of directors would advise.
Maybe you’ll ease off the metaphorical gas, deciding that accelerating from zero to 60 isn’t necessary, that bystanders and small dogs needn’t fear for their lives, that there’s a better route to follow.
The scenery just might improve.