In a recent NPR story, “How Outrage is Hijacking Our Culture and Minds,” Shankar Vedantam reported on research by New York University psychologist Jay Van Bavel that examines the relationship between language expressing moral outrage and viral tweets.
Bavel’s team analyzed more than half a million tweets and discovered that moral and emotional language, particularly negative and highly potent words, increased the rate of retweeting by 15 to 20 percent.
Outrage, Vedantam observes, gets our attention.
In “Moral Outrage in the Digital Age” in Nature Human Behaviour, Yale University psychologist Molly Crocket says moral outrage is traditionally expressed in behaviors such as gossip, shaming and punishment. Social media not only allows us to do this with a tap of a finger but rewards us for doing so. And it limits the risks.
“Expressing moral outrage can be costly,” says Crocket. “Offline, moralistic punishment carries a risk of retaliation. But online social networks limit this risk.” Our chance of backlash is lowered because we tend to sort ourselves into our own echo chambers with like-minded people.
It also reduces our emotional distress at the suffering of others. “Punishing or shaming involves inflicting harm on other human beings, which for most of us is naturally unpleasant,” Crocket says. But online settings allow us to dehumanize people, “whose suffering is not readily visible.”
In Christian Post’s “Outrage Culture: How Did Jesus Model Righteous Rage?” Chanshi Chibwe observes outrage is everywhere — and it isn’t hard to find examples of Christians engaging in aggressive commentary attacking not only issues but the people behind them.
“Some may call this passion, but there’s an underlying, familiar sentiment — hate,” she says.
How do we express a passion for justice? How do we engage in controversial dialogue? What does righteous anger look like?
Turning to Jesus’ outrage in the temple courts in Matt. 21:12-13, Chibwe observes there’s nothing mild-mannered in his approach. But she also cautions us.
“What this is: a template for Jesus’ purposeful protest,” she points out. “What this isn’t: an excuse for Christians to pick fights in online comment boxes.”
She also notes that Jesus was a walking example of the duality of truth and love. He wasn’t afraid to break apart societal norms by speaking truth. “However, it doesn’t mean we are encouraged to be hateful, abrasive and aggressive for the sake of truth,” Chibwe says. “If we aren’t anchored to the sole understanding that every one of us is loved and a child of God, our outrage isn’t righteous, it’s hateful.”
Quoting empathy researcher Brene Brown, Chibwe notes, “Humiliation and dehumanizing are not accountability or social justice tools, they’re emotional off-loading at best, emotional self-indulgence at worst. And if our faith asks us to find the face of God in everyone we meet, that should include the politicians, media and strangers on Twitter with whom we disagree.”
All of this challenges us to examine our own online behavior and motivations. Spiritual disciplines such as silence, control of the tongue and humility can help us make room for the Spirit to not only make us aware of those behaviors and motivations but also transform us into people who can speak truth in love.
Carmen Andres, a former editor of the Mennonite Brethren magazine Christian Leader, lives in Alexandria, Va.