Getting High Off Outrage

Andrew Klavan has a great line about anger being the devil’s cocaine. Among the various outrage addicts is the church-going evangelical who is always outraged by the latest thing said or done by the abstract, statistical evangelical — outrage over the average evangelical.

We should never be complacent about sin, but we can use this never-be-complacent dictum to justify our addiction to being always upset online — our addiction to the slight elation we feel when we have someone to be morally disappointed in.

The world is divided into good and evil and it feels good to think we’re doing our part to fight the good fight against evil. Most people get this by engaging in political struggle against the opposing party. Among the very-online, evangelical crowd, we can also microdose off of the sublime by engaging in party purification. But the party here isn’t primarily a political party. It’s our theological party — evangelical — as it exists in relation to the political or cultural.

This introspective critique has justification in what Jesus said about taking the log out of one’s own eye before picking at the speck in another’s. But this Scripture can be subtly abused like others and it’s worth considering how evangelicals might do so. Jesus’ words apply first to the individual. When it's primarily used against a group, and justified on the basis that we identify ourselves as part of that group, we aren’t really applying Jesus’ command and it can feed into an inappropriate log-picking addiction.

One way in which outrage addiction leads people astray is by dulling their critical thinking. We no longer bother to question whether there may be some truth in what is said or good in what is done. We don’t try to understand why someone might have done or said a particular thing — how it might have made sense to them. The outrage addiction leads to analyzing things in the worst light, highlight all the other wrongs in our memory as the context for this new outrageous event. The log-picking addiction is the same.

The latest example of the very-online, church going evangelical outrage that I’ve seen is in response to this study. Specifically, this graph from the study:

These results certainly look like something that evangelicals should be ashamed of, but they shouldn’t be surprising for anyone who has paid attention to the well studied phenomena of the way the term “evangelical” is used in the culture and how it features in polls. If this has sent you into an outrage and demands for sackcloth and ashes then you might be new here and should read up on the slippery term “evangelical” and how the term breaks down in polling. There isn’t a lot to learn about who is really in your group simply from this label as its used in polling.

But if you’re not new here and you were still sent into an outrage over this then you might want to consider whether the lack of critical reflection might indicate a log-picking addiction. Some critical reflection should caution our outrage in at least two ways. First, the article breaks apart the church-going evangelicals from the broader “evangelical” label in parts and, where it does that, there is a less obvious skew in one direction. But it doesn’t do that for this particular question. It's worth considering what these results would look like if it did. Maybe they wouldn’t be so “outrageous”?

Second, it’s worth considering how the respondents might be cashing out ambiguities in the question, specifically regarding the terms “benefit” and “like me.” If we think “benefit” means something like “helps to flourish in that which is true and good” and we think “like me” means something narrow like “white male” or “evangelical” then it’s understandable how someone might be upset over the results — maybe even outraged. But we shouldn’t skip over some questions for critical reflection.

It’s odd that “everyone” isn’t an option. How would the results turn out if that were an option?

If these same people were asked to identify “People our country has failed” prior to being asked this question, what would their response be and would it change the results of this question? I can imagine a lot of self-identified evangelicals having an at-hand (unreflective) answer that our country hasn’t failed anyone in the last 30 or 40 years and so this isn’t an option to really take seriously unless we are making some progressive assumptions. At the same time, if you first asked them “Who would you say our country has failed?” this might cause them to forego the at-hand answer and with a bit of reflect arrive at an answer different than one they (might unreflectively) arrive at when it’s embedded within another question about voting.

As mentioned above, we should question what the respondents understand by “benefit.” Are they thinking that, say, progressives benefit by achieving their progressive agenda? So what if, prior to the voting question in the graph, they were first asked whether, say, progressives benefit from progressive policies or whether progressives are harmed by progressive policies. Would the answers to the voting question turn out the same?

Maybe the results would turn out the same or maybe we should find these results bad as they stand, regardless of how they might change. But jumping to outrage without taking the time to ask whether the situation may not be as outrageous as we think is a sign of outrage addiction. And we need to be aware of the way in which log-picking can be abused. After all, we can expand or contract the group boundaries as we please and justify them as a bit of in-group criticism: My in group is church-going evangelical or self-identified evangelical or conservative Christian or conservative or white or male or white male or American or human. Now I can engage in all the judgement and outrage addiction I please under the cover of log-picking my own group.

Throwing half-baked ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks.