Outrage, On the Internet and Off

I’ve developed a bad habit in the past few days that I think you’ll identify with. This habit leaves me with a knot in my stomach. I end up chewing on my cuticles and the sides of my cheek to relieve the anxiety I experience from it, because one bad habit deserves another, right?

I’ve been reading the comments on the public posts in my Facebook feed.

I read a long thread (posted to a funny dog picture) in which one man argued that dogs are the result of inter-species mating of white women and wolves, and many, many more people told him that he is a moron.

I saw an ACLU announcement about a case they’re involved with – a woman was fired for being on her period at work. I didn’t read the details of the article that they included. Instead, I read a comment thread where a man spoke about not understanding why she couldn’t hold it in or control herself and where a few women said that their period was regular, so this fired woman probably should’ve been able to anticipate her period. And of course, many, many more people told these folks that they are morons.

Another comment thread on the ACLU announcement was about the image that they used, a picture of two unused tampons against a solid color. A woman commented that she would no longer support the ACLU because she felt it was inappropriate to use this picture, and – surprise, surprise – many, many more people replied that she is a moron.

I clicked on announcement of the movie, “It,” and was treated to a slew of people saying that Stephen King is crap and also his politics are crap. For each person talking about King’s opinion of Trump, there was an equal and opposite person calling the original poster a moron.

I have a few thoughts about this.

The first thought is that there is no such thing as catharsis, not as we understand it usually. You won’t feel better if you write that angry post. And neither will the recipient! Why are we doing this to ourselves and to strangers who we just disagree with?

The second thought is that it’s possible that commenting is intended as a signal to a third party, someone like me who has just dropped into the conversation. I’ve commented on posts with this intent before – someone wrote a pretty hateful comment about Muslims on one of my college’s posts, and I wanted anyone who saw it to know that our school was better than his comment. (Fortunately, my alma mater stepped in and deleted the comment thread soon after, because it quickly devolved into name-calling. And even though I still think it was right to push back against him, I hated getting into an argument with a random web stranger! It didn’t make my life better to get into this Internet grudge match.)

The third thought is about the free speech issue on colleges. There’s been a plethora of think pieces about the fragility of Millennials, plenty of hand-wringing about where our parenting went wrong. We can’t stand opinions that we don’t like! We won’t suffer dissent! We are little tyrants! But I have an alternative theory.

What if, “the medium is the message”-style, our new social media has amped up our outrage capacities, in general? What if all of us who use social media on a regular basis are just a bit quicker to tell people that their opinions are shit and maybe they are too? Then, my theory is that the college is a pretty unique environment in U.S. culture. We’re exposed to people who disagree with us more than at other points in life – we talk politics and religion obsessively. At college, you’re encouraged to develop your own stance and act on it. And what’s more, the dissenting opinions that end up on the news – think Charles Murray at Middlebury – are presented in a public forum where you could be making a statement to a third party by being there to protest.

This all to say: I think the “Millennials are a bunch of snowflakes” narrative isn’t fully supported by looking at protests at colleges. Suppose we gave 5,000 Baby Boomers a residential community where their day job was to talk politics – usually in an echo chamber kind of situation – and then occasionally tossed someone in who disagreed with them. How might these new college students behave at the appearance of this dissenter? We can’t just look at how Baby Boomers used to behave when they were in college because the media environment has shifted dramatically since then, and that shift might affect how they’ll react.

We don’t know for sure how Boomers might behave in this situation, but I have a guess about what might happen.

Many, many people are going to tell the dissenter that they are a moron.

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