The Great American Outrage Machine

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Resentment and indignation are feelings dangerous to the possessor and to be sparingly used. They give comfort too cheaply; they rot judgment, and by encouraging passivity, they come to require that evil continue for the sake of the grievance to be enjoyed. — Jacques Barzun, Science: The Glorious Entertainment

The level of incivility in American political discourse has ebbed and flowed over the years, but it probably reached its high-water mark in 1856 — the year that South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks walked into the main chamber of the US Senate and beat Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner senseless with a cane.

The triggering event for Brooks was a speech titled “The Crime against Kansas” that Sumner, a fiery abolitionist, had given several days earlier in the same chamber. At the time, Kansas was the focal point of the national debate over slavery. Under the highly controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, Kansas could choose for itself whether to enter the Union as a slave or a free state. Two different state legislatures convened and produced two different constitutions — one that supported and one that opposed slavery. To nobody’s surprise, pro-slavery president Franklin Pierce insisted on accepting the pro-slavery constitution.

Brooks, whose second cousin, Senator Andrew Butler, was attacked by name in the speech, heard the first part of the speech in the gallery and read the second part in the newspaper the next day. Predictably outraged, he felt that he had a special, personal responsibility to punish Sumner for attacking his state and his kinsman. On May 22, 1856, Brooks walked into the Senate chamber and beat Sumner with a wooden cane until he was unconscious.

Several important things happened next. First, Sumner recovered and became a hero throughout the North. He portrayed himself as a martyr to conscience and the principles of freedom and equality. Moderate northern politicians who had originally condemned the speech for its incivility had no choice but to rally behind Sumner when he became the victim of a brutal beating. The caning incident helped to galvanize northerners and westerners around the fledgling Republican Party, which held its first nominating convention less than a month later.

Second, Preston Brooks also became a hero. Grateful southerners cheered him wherever he went, celebrated his actions in public forums, and sent him hundreds of canes to replace the one that he ruined by almost killing the senator from Massachusetts. After censure by the House of Representatives and barely surviving an expulsion vote by his colleagues, Brooks resigned his seat in Congress and was overwhelmingly elected three weeks later to fill the position that he vacated. When he stood for the seat again in 1856, he ran unopposed and attracted not a single write-in vote of opposition

Third, the United States moved substantially closer to the Civil War, with the two regions of the country even more entrenched in their positions than ever before. Both Brooks and Sumner became celebrities because the story fit so well into each region’s existing narratives about the other. To southerners, it seemed to confirm that violence was the best way to deal with hostility to their “peculiar institution.” And to northerners, it seemed to prove that southerners could not be reasoned with, so there was no point in trying.

From beginning to end, the caning of Charles Sumner illustrates the way that outrage functions in public discourse. Both Sumner and Brooks trafficked in the politics of outrage — Sumner expressed his outrage in a five-hour speech full of personal attacks and sexual innuendo that energized his friends, incensed his enemies, and persuaded nobody to adopt an opinion not already held. Brooks responded with an act of violence that made him a hero to his friends and an outcast among his enemies — but also didn’t change anybody’s mind about anything.

Outrage blurs the lines between political disagreement and personal attack. It causes us to see every challenge as a personal affront that we must respond to forcefully and publicly if we don’t want to lose our status in the community. We perceive the objects of our outrage as something not quite fully human, and we no longer feel bound to treat them as we think human beings should be treated. These are not people who must be understood or protected but enemies who must be destroyed — or, at the very least, unfriended.

Outrage can be a useful emotion. It has adaptive advantages for groups, who get the increased cohesion that comes with shared values, and for individuals, who get the social and material benefits that come with increased status. And like most things that convey adaptive advantages, outrage feels good. Feeling righteous indignation gives us pleasure. It makes us feel morally superior, important, engaged, and connected to a greater cause. And we especially enjoy the positive feedback that we get from our friends when we represent their opinions to others in adversarial ways.

Modern media outrage is basically a pleasure technology, like pornography or cocaine. It punches pleasure centers in our brains in pure, highly distilled ways that do not occur in nature. Essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider coined the term “outrage porn” in 2014 to describe the news and commentary that we read, click on, or forward specifically because we enjoy the self-righteous anger that it allows us to feel. Outrage, he writes, “is like a lot of other things that feel good but over time devour us from the inside out. And it’s even more insidious than most vices because we don’t even consciously acknowledge that it’s a pleasure. We prefer to think of it as a disagreeable but fundamentally healthy involuntary reaction to negative stimuli thrust upon us by the world we live in, like pain or nausea, rather than admit that it’s a shameful kick we eagerly indulge again and again.”

The Great American Outrage Machine has been with us for a long time. It reared its head in 1800, when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams squared off in a contest that each man truly believed would determine whether or not America endured as a republic. We saw it throughout the Civil War Era, and, without it, there may well not have been a Civil War. And it is operating at full strength in our own media culture, where venting outrage for the benefit of people who agree with us is allowed to pass as political discourse and debate.

The endpoint of the Outrage Machine is always the same: a nation of silos and echo chambers. Modern social media platforms give us tremendous filtering capabilities. We can decide what kind of information we see, whose messages get through to us, and who will be able to read our posts. And we can change the filters every time we send or receive a message. This gives us a high degree of control over what we see and whom we interact with — which very often leads to an environment in which we spend much of our lives surrounded by virtual voices that amplify our resentment and isolate us from opinions, and even facts, that challenge our existing beliefs.

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