Social media could be the ideal space to discuss our collective rage against an increasingly terrifying world. So why have we turned it into a boxing ring where we’re fighting each other?
Last week, I posted an essay on my Facebook page that was originally published on Medium, written by a white rape survivor who was expressing her frustrations with the trans rights movement. The piece was shared thousands of times on social media. But because I posted it on my page, I was deemed a bigot and an accessory to the horrific murders of trans women who are killed by evil men.
If you believe the internet, that’s what happened.
What really happened was that I shared that article and deliberately withheld my opinion. I wanted to start a substantive discussion among my friends and followers, who share a wide range of opinions. I value dialogue and believe that we can move forward through critical engagement, even perspectives we might vehemently disagree with. I have found my Facebook community to be a space for critical discourse on any number of topics. But, in a culture where people are steeped in emotionalism and where folks don’t read and fully process information, there can be a negative side to the online discourse.
For the next six days, my social-media pages and inboxes were deluged with messages, in which I was called a homophobe, a transphobe, a TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist), and other colorful names. I was even accused me of writing the piece by more than a few people. Still others argued that by sharing it, I was perpetuating violence against trans women and children, despite not being the author of the piece.
Many of us have witnessed these sorts of exchanges on social media, where a friend posts about a difficult topic or poses an uncomfortable question to spark a lively discussion. But before the conversation begins, the poster is attacked, criticized, and vilified and the dialogue is preemptively derailed by a virtual playground fight. New terms, which are concocted and hurled every time folks feel hurt, add more distractions and don’t result in real healing and empowerment.
Whether or not people personally know the targets for their rage, they still tend to project their assumptions onto them. And sadly, others who might want to engage in a constructive discussion about the topic shut down and don’t share for fear of being attacked for simply asking a question or revealing their opinion. People get hung up on semantic distinctions or in-house linquistic/concepts and are very public about every hang up and shout down folks who haven’t kept up. And others launch into protracted public campaigns against people (a.k.a. dragging). Why are we so quick to label and stigmatize others based on our assumptions of what they think, what they feel, or where they stand? This lack of tolerance is not constructive, even dangerous, especially for anyone who is from a marginalized group. In order for us to move forward, we need to reckon with ourselves and understand why we do this.
We are currently living under an outrageous regime that gets more outrageous by the minute. But have we become addicted to our own sense of outrage? Are we starting to alienate ourselves from one another because of our rage at the world?
As a journalist and an academic, I’m all about engaging in rigorous and difficult conversations. But between extreme right-wing lunacy and cannibalistic bullshit that’s happening on the left, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to have the kind of discourse that can help to affect progress and positive change.
Social media at once offers more opportunities for these conversations and makes it harder for them to be deep and nuanced. People swing from thread to thread, onto the next topic. It’s simply the nature of the medium.
And as a result, we lose sight of the fact that while technology evolves faster than we can comprehend, human nature takes time and many steps for true growth to take place and hold. Real growth and learning comes from missteps, and if public displays of missteps or vulnerability result in hateration and value judgment, then how can we evolve and move forward? Are we really listening to each other? Learning? It’s like expecting an infant to come into the world ready to walk and talk rather than allowing them the space to grow into those skill sets. Too many of us can’t be bothered to think critically beyond safe zones, which means that the ability to tolerate other viewpoints or even explore an idea from different sides gets lost in the process.
As one of my professor friends noted the other night, even in academic spaces we’re seeing folks who just declare an enemy without doing the research. People want a target for their rage. They aren’t engaging in a nuanced manner with the subject at hand, nor considering the complexity of the matter or the consequences of the extreme positions they may be taking. I witnessed a sampling of this in the past week: Of course it is easier in the short term to be dismissive and name-call than to pull up your sleeves and do a little research, to listen, to intellectually engage with issues, especially when these issues relate to major shifts in society that require time for us to digest and process if we are to truly grow.
I’m also seeing more people who can’t distinguish between a debate and a personal attack. Which likely explains why I’d been accused of contributing to the harm and murders of trans women for sharing a controversial article written by someone else—they came to the discussion fully armed with preconceived notions, believing that every exploration of tough topics demands a fight for their lives. Maybe your post triggers something, hits a little too close to home. What they are reading is magnified by the past hurts that have nothing to do with you or what you’ve written or shared. And when they strike out in those spaces, others hesitate to weigh in because the attacks coming from so many directions they fear getting caught in the crossfire, or being assigned a role in whatever has been designated the “enemy” camp.
One of my psychologist friends helped me understand how this hypersensitivity in the digital space is connected to trauma and brain damage in early childhood. People who have histories of neglect, abuse, abandonment or some other form of devaluation sometimes have an hyper-reactive amygdala—the part of the brain that helps regulate emotions. They are always on guard and see everything and everyone as a potential threat to their lives. They bring past hurts and untreated traumas into the digital space where they become outrage addicts.
These outrage addicts label you unredeemable and unworthy of engagement. They interpret whatever they’re seeing to confirm what they already believe and they respond from a stance that is so defensive it leaves little room for anything else.
When you’re hurting, when your entire sense of self and life narrative are built around being wounded and the resulting sense of outrage, it’s far easier to block someone or avoid engaging them than it is to have those difficult conversations, especially around triggering topics. It’s more comfortable to disparage someone than actually engage them or attempt to arrive at a bridge of understanding.
Attacking others is about finding sense of power in a society, in a moment, where powerlessness is real. So putting someone on blast or questioning their progressive credentials becomes a substitute for real power and for taking responsibility for one’s emotions and life. And this dynamic is epidemic in the clickbait, insta-outrage digital space, where people aren’t allowed to ask questions, to learn, to consider, or to grow. This digital fight club demands that people be READY without going through the work of an actual growth process; that everyone be “perfect” according to someone else’s definition and ideological agenda.
Some of the most visible and vocal outrage addicts are social justice activists who have built strong brands in the digital space. They are addicted to online drama along the lines of ratchet reality show melodrama because they haven’t dealt with the trauma behind their own activism. They displace all of that anger, angst and trauma, and act it out on others. It’s a subconscious process that can be translated as: “here I am going to all these meetings, confronting people, talking about the issues, yet why do I not feel better?” They miss the mark by externalizing everything and avoiding the much messier, more difficult and painful work of healing their internal wounds before venturing into the public warrior space.
A lot of this displaced rage is based in broken childhoods. These people show up on Facebook with their untreated traumas. They see a post or article and they react from this broken place. Psychologically these people feel erased by those who harmed them in their formative years. Thus, anyone who reminds them of that erasure, anyone who makes them feel that way, becomes a target for their unhealed rage and misdirected anger. Because they haven’t done the tough internal healing work, they strike out without understanding that they’re attacking you as a stand-in for their parents or whoever caused their initial trauma.
How can we tell what is healthy outrage for the genuinely horrible things going on in the world and what is transference? The outrage addicts often lead by attacking the person bringing up the topic rather than addressing the topic itself. Their responses are often at a much higher level of volume than makes sense for a discussion, even about the most controversial subjects. They’re completely closed to divergent points of view, and not willing to consider any position other than their own—and that position is deeply rooted in a place of perpetual suffering. They have only one channel on their response meter: code red-level outrage, with attacks at anyone who dares broach the triggering topic. And their outrage is never solution-oriented, but always points back to their role as the one who is harmed, or strongly identifying with the victims in whatever narrative is being considered.
This is the addictive part of this form of activism. The outrage addicts get a rush of temporary relief at striking out; a feeling of having “done something” about their pain—calling somebody a name, cussing at them, accusing them of contributing to death, accusing them of shaming them, etc. They act out until there is no choice but to disengage from them in your digital space. And then comes the publicly boast (in the form of a complaint) that you have unfriended, unfollowed, or blocked them. (Keep in mind that they have to make an effort to find that you’ve blocked them—they have to go looking for that information in order to know).
As part of this temporary fix, they get other people to validate that they are “right,” and then their neglected child feels seen. Validated. Temporarily vindicated. The addiction part is that it’s so much easier to engage in these faux battles online than to actually go out and do real external work (including on social media) that moves people towards levels of understanding that can lead to actual progress. And it’s easier to wave the digital weapons around than to do the internal healing work that can move one from perpetually wounded to more constructive warrior stances.
What we have here is a culture of victimhood, fed by online culture. There are lots of broken people united by trauma engaging in externalizing and projecting. They spend so much time eating their own instead of attacking the real problems—and it’s exactly what our enemies want us to do. They aren’t differentiating between content and process—they believe they’re doing the work when they’re really over-invested in and tricked by the content rather than the process of fighting for change.
What do I mean by content vs. process? Content is basically the story as opposed to the reality of what is actually being done. It’s an evasion of confronting one’s actions. Think of Frantz Fanon’s definition of cognitive dissonance as playing a role in the defense of content:
“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”
In this case, content would be the falsely held belief and the endless rationalizing to keep that belief intact. Process would be the actual evidence that one wants to avoid. In a more traditional sense, content is the lies we tell ourselves to keep rationalizing a behavior and denying the process, aka truth. These people have a lot of denial to defend, and that becomes their focus.
It’s easy to become outraged, especially in social-media spaces. The general culture of non-tolerance, name-calling, public shaming/blaming and attacks coming at us everywhere from our government to many aspects of popular culture feed this dynamic and work against the two kinds of work we all need to be doing: internal personal healing and focused, appropriate approaches to crating positive societal change and progress. No matter how progressive we think we’re being, if we’re attacking each other instead of focusing on the sources of our real problems, we’re opting to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
Name-calling and optic posturing isn’t a substitute for the work that needs to take place in the trenches. Beware of never-ending outrage in your midst and take care not to fall into that trap yourself—it can be tempting and seductive to parade your victimhood for public acclaim, especially in a culture that rewards you for perpetuating that form of self-hating victimhood.
Those of us who are committed to real change don’t have the luxury of these no-win exchanges with time-and-energy-vampires. There are communities to build, lives to save and worlds to change. The digital age gives us great options and opportunities for powerful ways to build real bridges of communication and connections. Outrage without room for mistakes or complexity is one of many distractions thrown up to get us off track. The only cure is for each of us to confront our own inner demons and do the hard work of healing so that we’re not re-creating our wounds on a larger scale. Let’s never forget that we’re all in this together, and resist any attempts to turn us against each other, even when they come from people we might consider friends or allies.
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