Americans are addicted to outrage
People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture taken Sept. 27, 2013.
Source: David Von Drehle
Addiction compels you to chase a high that only makes you feel worse; it reduces you to a lesser version of yourself. And you can’t stop because deep down you don’t really want to change.
Too many Americans are controversy junkies.
Almost every day brings new evidence. The website Memeorandum.com is littered with empty baggies and syringes. Using an algorithm to survey the internet’s motley collection of news and opinion sites, along with that inextinguishable garbage fire known as Twitter, the website offers a reasonable approximation of the buzz levels around news of the day. The result is eye-opening, though rarely edifying. On Monday — as the country was coming to grips with the massacre in Las Vegas — the hottest story for much of the day involved a social media post by a careless executive in the legal department of CBS.
The appalling and stupid post prompted her immediate firing. Completely justified. A large corporation can’t have a person who reasons at the level of an emotionally stunted second-grader handling delicate mergers and acquisitions.
I’m torn about repeating what she said, since my point is that the post didn’t deserve wide circulation. But not everyone shares the controversy addiction, so here it is: The lawyer reckoned that country music fans are mostly Republicans, so she couldn’t regret the nearly 600 people killed or wounded.
Like I said: appalling and stupid. But the larger question is how and why a heedless remark by an obscure private citizen would sweep to the top of the Memeorandum rankings. That’s where the supply side of the addiction comes in. The people who mined and published that comment at the Daily Caller and other websites weren’t appalled by it. They were delighted to find it, because they knew it would give a rush to their addicted customers. On a day when most Americans were united in shock and grief, the CBS lawyer’s impulsive idiocy allowed controversy peddlers to inject a speedball of conflict pitting country-music lovers against snobby media elites. Tens of thousands, or perhaps hundreds of thousands — maybe even a few million — conflict addicts would enjoy a brief high of righteous outrage.
And the dealers know that, rather than endure the misery of withdrawal, the junkies will return again and again for future fixes.
This is a business. An ugly business, but a lucrative one. Controversy, real or manufactured, juices ratings at cable “news” networks. It drives readers to partisan websites and listeners to talk radio. It pumps up speaker fees and inflates book advances. When Russians wanted to mess with the heads of American voters, they trafficked in hyped conflict, Facebook informed Congress this week.
No ignorant remark by a city council member or grade-school teacher concerning guns, God or gays is immune to exploitation. No hurtful graffiti scrawled by drunk teenagers is wiped away without a round of internet hand-wringing. The oversupply of controversy is bottomless, because some human somewhere is always indulging a thoughtless blurt, and social media seduces us to publish our blurts for the world to overhear.
In better times, our leaders would model a more sober discourse. Unfortunately, President Donald Trump is the El Chapo of addictive controversy, the kingpin of ginned-up division.
So we’re left to get ourselves sober. Switch away from the televised outrage orgies that masquerade as news. Resist the urge to get worked up about stupid stuff that knuckleheads say. Spend more time among reasonable people doing healthy things — as I had a chance to do the other day.
More than a year after its long-overdue opening, I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall in Washington. It was a weekday morning, but the place was packed. It always is. Visitors can waltz freely into most Smithsonian museums, but here you need a visitor pass. These are snapped up online months in advance. The average visit lasts more than six hours.
Americans — black and white, young and old — quietly immersed themselves in the deepest, most substantive reflection of the African-American experience ever gathered in one place. I spent more than three hours yet barely skimmed the surface; still, I was moved to sorrow, revulsion, admiration and joy as I absorbed a history that ranges from torture and murder to Leontyne Price and Ray Charles and Oprah. There is an eloquence of artifacts, from child-sized manacles to Sammy Davis Jr.’s first pair of tiny dancing shoes, and an eloquence of words, from the rawness of early accounts of the Middle Passage to the refinement of Alain Locke.
The museum is the greatest intellectual endowment the American people have been given in many years. And the tremendous popular response gives proof of good faith. In this world of cynical distractions, thousands each day choose to focus on a deeper understanding of our past, our future and ourselves. It felt clean to join them.
David Von Drehle is a Washington Post columnist, where he writes about national affairs and politics from a home base in the Midwest.