Thomas Wictor

Online outrage porn

Online outrage porn

I just read a piece titled “Why We’re Addicted to Online Outrage,” by Michael Brendan Dougherty. In his essay Dougherty links to “Outrage Porn: How the Need for ‘Perpetual Indignation’ Manufactures Phony Offense,” by Ryan Holiday. According to Holiday all the online outrage is fake, just a way for Websites to get publicity. He doesn’t address the issue of why readers seem so angry.

Dougherty, on the other hand, believes that online outrage is based on the individual’s feeling of powerlessness and meaninglessness, so by getting righteously angry, a person can feel that he or she is taking part in a great crusade.

In addition, Dougherty says this.

Another reason for our outrage addiction may be found in the way the norms of traditional liberalism are dissolving before a more moralized politics. In a perceptive 2001 essay for National Affairs, Thomas Powers argued that traditional liberalism sought “to lower the stakes of politics by removing contentious moral (and religious) opinion to the private sphere. Political life thereby becomes a less morally charged matter of presiding over competing ‘interest groups,’ whose squabbling is amenable to compromise.”

Powers went on to argue that when fundamental justice and morality are reintroduced into politics, and when the beliefs and attitudes of citizens become the potential subject of state action (through amelioration, re-education, or official stigma), people are more likely to fight — and to fight with dread in their eyes.

Well, that’s just historically incorrect. There was never a period of non-moralized politics in the US. In the presidential campaign of 1800, Thomas Jefferson’s staff said that President John Adams had a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

Adams’ people responded that Vice President Jefferson was “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”

I can’t speak for anyone except myself. As a former online flame warrior, I can explain my motivations: hate. I hated the people I attacked, and the reason I hated them was that they presented themselves as smarter, more informed, hipper, and right. They were right about everything. They also viewed any opposition as illegitimate. People like me were idiots, hicks, knuckle draggers, and mouth breathers.

Here’s why I hated people like that.

My father treated any dissent with mind-boggling contempt. No insult was beneath him. His only goal was that I submit to his will. The more obvious it became that he was wrong, the more he pushed for me to agree with him. In the fifty-one years I knew him, the most egregious, prolonged case of this was when he forced Tim and me into building the extension on the house he shared with Mom. The way he forced his sons to help him was to do it by himself if we refused. That always ended up with him in the emergency room.

So here are Tim and me getting up on the roof to install the support beams for the extension.

Extension1

I was enormously fat at the time. After a few weeks I got tired of slathering myself with SPF 50 sunscreen, since it gave me huge zits and was a bitch to wash off. Instead I just wore a long-sleeved shirt and long pants. We worked on the extension through the summer, when it was well over a hundred degrees. Every night I went home crusted in white salt from the sweat that poured out of me.

Dad on the ladder in the black T-shirt, giving Tim and me instructions.

Extension2

In this photo we’re installing waterproof paper, over which will go the siding. Dad stands on the right, supervising. Keep in mind that none of us—including my father—had ever done anything like this. I still can’t believe it passed inspection.

Extension3

Dad stretched this project out to six months. For six months, I couldn’t write and Tim couldn’t take photos or do his art. It didn’t matter to Dad. He used home-improvement projects to fill his time so that he didn’t have to think or feel.

As an adult I never hated my father. He had extreme, fundamental damage that I perceived even as a child. It prevented me from aiming my chronic rage at him. What it came down to was that I knew too much. The stories my mother told me of his upbringing filled me with horror. And he was simply unable to fit in anywhere he went. He didn’t even know how to smile.

1972

Dad’s most effective countermeasure was his rigidity, which made him terrifyingly fragile. When we came close to having an all-out confrontation, he’d panic and say unbelievable things. I had the ability to shatter him, but I could never bring myself to do it. Destroying him would’ve accomplished nothing because he had no understanding of his actions. He could absolve himself of literally everything.

So instead of fighting with my father, I became a flame-war addict online. I instigated long, drawn-out conflicts in which I said horrible, cruel, devastating things to people who imagined themselves to be superior to me. Some of them had breakdowns. They sent me private messages, aghast that I’d been able to unerringly find their weakness and exploit it.

I’m my father’s son. He was a master at exploiting weaknesses. Like me, he felt great rage. It was only after he died that I discovered the extent of it.

My theory about online outrage porn is that it’s all real. It comes from genuinely angry people. There’s only one source of unquenchable rage like that. Yet during the construction of the extension on the house, Dad fell off the roof. I looked out the window and saw him hurtling past, lying on his back in the air, his eyes shut, his mouth open, his legs pedaling, and his arms flailing helplessly.

Tim tells me that my reaction was a good thing. It shows who I really am, despite the many things I’ve done that make me ashamed.

Call 911!” I shouted to my mother as I ran out the back door, expecting to find Dad with his head cracked open on his beloved brick pathway, his brain lying in the grass. To my shock he was already standing, as though he’d bounced upright.

“What?” he said, staring at me blankly. He refused all offers of assistance and told us to get back to work. We had to pretend that he hadn’t just plunged fifteen feet off the roof at the age of seventy-eight and landed on a brick sidewalk.

The main reason I never expressed my rage toward my father is because of photos like this.

1929

It was taken in 1929; he was just one year old. He already looks lost, afraid, vulnerable, and very unhappy.

That’s what helped me give up my attacks on Dad-substitutes. Like him, they were all once children. If a person is a sneering prick who has to present himself as the smartest, the hippest, the greatest, and always right, I shouldn’t add to his burdens by humiliating him.

Somebody else already beat me to it.


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