Front Porch Republic author Pete Davis has an interesting post on making Facebook outrage more constructive. I admit to a certain amount of suspicion about Front Porch Republic and to a resulting thought that this post is directed partly at those of us on the right of the political spectrum who are filled with righteous anger. There is a little bit too much of the cool, above-it-all moderate saying, "A pox on both your houses" to right and left.
In any event, I do think he has a point when he deprecates some mere venting, whether on Facebook or on blogs. A paradigm (made-up) case would be a news story about a viciously abused child followed by Facebook shares with variants on, "I just feel so terrible about this" or "This is outrageous" as a status update.
It's true: Our social media culture is indeed replacing meaningful action with words on a flickering screen; Facebook shares and expressions of outrage can be an example of the growing impotence of real humans to do real things as they become wedded to their devices.
But Davis is too hard on expressions of outrage as acts in themselves. He even gets into a bit of cultural psychologizing, borrowed from Jody Bottum (that paragon of clear, logical, conservative thought):
Post-Protestant redemption, Bottum argues, comes not from atonement with God or even from actually fighting these societal demons, but rather from “personal, interior rejection” of these evils. What matters for salvation is not what one does, but rather whether one feels that they “oppose the social evils of bigotry and power and the groupthink of the mob.” For example, “the goodness of caring for the poor,” Bottum explains, becomes “much less about actually caring for the poor… and much more about feeling that the poor should be cared for.” If you simply acknowledge social evils and declare your opposition to them, you can rest assured that you are among the redeemed.
Perhaps Bottum’s interpretation of our spiritually “anxious age” explains that deep tension that builds up when the news upsets us. Perhaps we see in those upsetting anecdotes a post-Protestant demon — social sin peeking out from behind the social order. Perhaps the tension that must be vented is our uncertainty in the presence of such sin: Am I going to be tricked by this evil or am I going to be aware enough to see it at work? Am I going to become part of it or am I going to reject it? Am I on its side of the great divide or am I on the side of the redeemed?
Facebook venting resolves this uncertainty. By pasting a link to a news story and properly identifying the social evil at work – “This is racism!” “This is bigotry!” “This is evil!” – you stand at the digital altar and testify to your awareness of social sin. By ranting against the news story, you validate that you have rejected this sin, broadcasting that you belong among the redeemed. When you click submit, your uncertainty about your moral goodness is temporarily washed away: you can proceed with confidence that you are one of the elect.
Please. This is altogether too much conjectural psychoanalysis for my baloney sausage detector. It even has a whiff of Freudianism: If I wish to distance myself from a particular act or event, this must mean that I have a secret angst that perhaps I am not "clean" of this act, that perhaps I sympathize with it at some level of my being, and my distancing is an attempt to wash myself clean of this taint of possible sin. Why should anybody believe this?
One distinction Davis fails to make is between cases (like the abused child example I gave) in which everybody agrees about the entire issue and cases where one is making a controverted point (perhaps tacitly) by expressing outrage. Sometimes there is nothing, either in the story or in its cultural background, that is controversial. Everybody thinks that it's terrible when people die in an earthquake or when somebody beats up a puppy. In those cases, unless you are urging people to donate to help the victims or to support some piece of legislation (which is what Davis suggests), simply sharing a terrible story because it is terrible is not constructive. It harrows your own emotions and the emotions of your friends to no purpose, and that can lead to emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and the inability to do more constructive things.
But in a great many cases there is some controversy in the vicinity of the story, and one expresses outrage about the story as part of one's own work on a particular side of that controversy. Countless examples come to mind: If one shares a story about some Common Core lunacy in the public schools, one is opposing the adoption of the Common Core. One may even tacitly be opposing public schools. If one shares, with outrage, a story about children frivolously taken away from their parents by CPS, one is opposing the overweening power of CPS, which is going to concern public policy and which can be quite controversial. If one shares a story, with outrage, concerning the mistreatment of some Christian florist, baker, or photographer by the shrieking furies of tolerance, one is staking out a position and attempting to influence others in the culture wars.
Sometimes, too, one shares these stories to warn others. I have known of a young couple so naive that they trotted off to a mandatory reporter (a doctor) when their child came home from daycare with a bruise. They deliberately induced the reluctant doctor (who liked them) to report this, thinking that this was "reporting the daycare" and was their duty as good citizens. Naturally, this opened them up to a nightmare of investigation as possible child abusers. It was all eventually resolved, but it should never have happened. Because they did not know that CPS is biased against parents, and especially against fathers, and because they did not know that mandatory reporter laws concern (usually by definition) suspicion of parents, they didn't realize how imprudent it was for them to go to a doctor and insist on reporting a simple bruise that could have occurred in the course of play. Widely sharing outrageous stories about the mistreatment of innocent parents can help such babes in the woods to get wise. The same is true mutatis mutandis for stories about people whom the medical establishment attempts to kill by removing food and fluids. Individuals and families need to be vigilant about these matters. Outrageous stories about filth being taught to school children under the aegis of mandatory "anti-bullying campaigns" can help parents to think again about their assumption that Nice Miss Smith at their local public school would never allow anything inappropriate to be poured into their young innocents' ears.
Let's go back to Davis's talk about "cleansing oneself" by taking a stand against evil. Davis's implication that taking a stand against evil isn't worth doing in itself, and his attempt to psychoanalyze it away, is problematic because there is a lot of evil out there against which one needs to take a stand. Suppose that you have a modest number of Facebook friends--say, three hundred or so. (Which is modest, believe me.) Among these are, let us say, people younger than yourself, or even your own peers, who are finding their way in the culture. What you say and what you share are part of what makes up their cultural atmosphere. It may be that your strongly negative take on homosexual "marriage" is one of the only clear, dissenting voices they hear (even in the evangelical world) among their own acquaintances. It may help to strengthen their spines. It may be that your information about the increasing evils of the medical profession is an important warning to an idealistic young lady who thinks God is calling her to be a nurse. The point is not that one has some sort of anxiety about oneself that one needs to purge (that's just silly) but rather that one has justified anxiety about the culture and that one is attempting to influence it. Speaking does influence. And like it or not, social media is a very influential form of speech.
Even when one might think there is no controversy, sometimes there is. For example, everybody agrees that it's horrible that ISIS is slaughtering Christians, right? Well, sort of and sort of not. American administrations are notably nervous about admitting that what is going on is Muslim persecution of Christians qua Christians. This goes back even before the Obama administration, though it is the Obama administration that has pointedly and disgracefully attempted to bar a Christian nun from testifying to Congress while allowing representatives of other religions facing ISIS persecution to testify. It was the Obama administration that tried to cover up what it was doing, too. In the end, the Obama administration bowed to pressure and allowed Sister Diana Momeka to come, but this probably wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for all the outrage generated by Nina Shea's reporting.
Sharing stories about ISIS persecution of Christians has many functions. It shows the brutality of Islam. It inspires American Christians to be willing to suffer for their own faith. It leads us to pray for our persecuted brethren. It enlarges our sympathies to the Church worldwide. And it serves as a background to foster justified anger at shenanigans like the attempted blocking of Sister Diana's visa. It also might just make a later Republican administration bolder than the Bush administration was in naming persecution of Christians for what it really is. And the position of an American presidency on persecution of Christians has a surprising amount of practical impact in the world at large.
There are plenty of other situations where one might think that "everyone agrees" but where it isn't so simple. Everyone agrees that thuggish looting and burning are terrible, right? Hmmm, but expressing outrage simpliciter over thuggish looting and burning in Baltimore without concomitant expressions of white guilt and calls for "understanding black despair" sends a specific, controversial message. Everyone agrees that driving up with guns and trying to gun people down at an art exhibit is evil, right? Welllll. Expressing outrage over the attempted murders at the Draw Mohammad contest, without simultaneous finger-wagging at the organizers of the exhibit, supports a specific, controversial position.
Davis is right to suggest that we try to find practical outworkings for our outrage. Donating to Samaritan's Purse, for example, either to support relief efforts for Middle Eastern Christians or to support persecuted American bakers, could be one such practical outworking. Another example would be donating to the Alliance Defending Freedom. But expressing outrage can also be, by itself, something other than a pointless enterprise, and it doesn't deserve to be treated as an automatic symptom of psychological problems or social malaise.
By all means, let's make our outrage constructive. But that may mean targeting our outrage to the places where it is most needed.