The Death of Outrage… or of Subtlety?

You’ve probably heard of the death of outrage. It’s what happens when people are apathetic concerning important things. Abortion kills three thousand unborn babies a day just in the United States? Oh well. We’re sixteen trillion dollars in debt and the budget shortfall this year is over a trillion dollars? Oh well.

It doesn’t mean people don’t get extremely bothered about certain things. Just read some of the comments on this site. You can usually spot the ones I’m thinking of pretty easily: typed in all caps; emancipated from the strictures of grammar, punctuation, and spelling; and usually fixated on the most trivial contention of a topic only tangentially, if at all, related to the article.

So I think the more important death than the death of outrage is the death of subtlety. We are a sound bite culture. We form opinions on the basis of little information and we have very little capacity to listen for any length of time or comprehend nuanced arguments. Because of this, politicians and power-brokers have learned not to present us with nuanced arguments. Instead, they use buzzwords and abstractions. But even when they choose to try to present the truth (which is rare anyway), they simplify it to such an extent that it regularly ceases to be true. We’ve forced them into this in many ways.

Consider how these statements could be, and are, misconstrued:

  • Obama probably wouldn’t have been elected if he were white. (Racist.)
  • Big corporations are in bed with corrupt government agencies. (Communist.)
  • Neither Republicans nor Democrats listen to their constituency. (Anarchist. Obama-supporter.)
  • We shouldn’t be more harsh with homosexuals than we are with adulterers. (Gay.)
  • Not every accusation of rape is legitimate. (Mysoginist.)
  • The official explanation for 9/11 was not very thorough. (Conspiracy theorist. Quack.)

The list could go on. We live in a world inundated with information, so it is difficult to cut through all the noise to get at “what’s really important.” Because of this, we generalize (generally speaking). Our generalizations, whatever use they may have, often inadvertantly eschew important pieces of information, precisely because we don’t really know what’s important. There’s nothing we can do about this. Not only do we have blind spots… we’re usually unaware of where and what they are.

Further, government education and mass media have really diminished our capacity to think in a straight line. The information we get online, on the TV, and in most schools is broken up into bite-sized factoid packets—little disconnected particles of information as easy to digest as they are to forget, and almost impossible to piece together into a cohesive view of the world. It’s important that we get back to looking at things in depth. I’d rather have good information on something than bad information on everything. Sure, this may mean we’ll have to be silent and listen on very many topics we haven’t studied, but at least when we do feel compelled to speak, our discourse will be a little better-informed. And maybe we won’t be so easily duped by “big-picture” deceptions. And just maybe… we’ll know what we really need to get angry about.