You see it first on Facebook or Twitter. Something contemptible: an image, or a video, or a tweet. One accompanied by a furious, snarky caption, highlighting just how awful and unacceptable it is, a dunk fueled by rage. The outrage rises within you. How can it not? You’re primed for outrage. We all are, now. Outrage grenades just waiting for our pins to be pulled.
Usually, if you dig down behind the outrage to its fuel, it’s because our most cherished beliefs, the ones with which we most strongly identify, are – maybe implicitly, maybe implicitly – being attacked.
It was a noise that set one’s teeth on edge and bristled the hair at the back of one’s neck. The Hate had started […] delivering his usual venomous attack upon the doctrines of the Party — an attack so exaggerated and perverse that a child should have been able to see through it, and yet just plausible enough to fill one with an alarmed feeling that other people, less level-headed than oneself, might be taken in by it.
It’s important to point out that this outrage is not caused by fake news. Sometimes, maybe, but not usually. The assholes out there are very real, and often their behavior is indeed hateful. Maybe they’re teenagers; maybe they’re politicians; maybe they’re celebrities; maybe they’re just randos catapulted into notoriety by today’s algorithmic tsunami.
Sure, you don’t have all the context. You never have all the context. But sometimes you don’t need all the context, and sometimes even when you have it, it only reinforces the cries of outrage and hate you see flying in from all sides, from your friends, from your acquaintances, endlessly retweeted and shared.
Before the Hate had proceeded for thirty seconds, uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room […] In its second minute the Hate rose to a frenzy. People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating voice […] The dark-haired girl behind Winston had begun crying out ‘Swine! Swine! Swine!’ and suddenly she picked up a heavy Newspeak dictionary and flung it at the screen.
Are these ephemerally prominent assholes truly the worst people on earth? Of course not. The worst people on earth tend to do their work quietly, or in remote corners of the planet, away from cameras. What matters about these assholes is that they’re emblematic. They become convenient representations of everything we despise. And because emblems aren’t human, they’re just 2-D cardboard cutouts, there’s no risk of any compassion undercutting our hate.
I’m not saying sympathy. Of course you shouldn’t sympathize with assholes. But sympathy and compassion are two very different things. Compassion is the aching recognition that everyone is as human as you, including people who do awful, hateful things, and that their lives too were dictated mostly by forces beyond their control.
But the dark magic of social media is that it strips all compassion from our outrage, as casually and automatically as it strips videos of context or images of EXIF data.
The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.
Each wave of outrage is a little easier than the last, as the pathways of hate in our brain become greased, become smoothed, become automatic like muscle memory. Soon the assholes become unpersons, axiomatically and automatically unworthy of compassion. When you participate in the hate, you become a more hateful person yourself. Of course you don’t intend to. Of course you think yourself better than that, more righteous.
But there’s no disjoint between being more righteous and more hateful. On the contrary. Those two things are very closely correlated. In fact they feed back on one another in a virtuous cycle that grows into a tornado.
On the sixth day of Hate Week, after the processions, the speeches, the shouting, the singing, the banners, the posters, the films, the waxworks, the rolling of drums and squealing of trumpets, the tramp of marching feet, the grinding of the caterpillars of tanks, the roar of massed planes, the booming of guns–after six days of this, when the great orgasm was quivering to its climax […] at just this moment it had been announced that Oceania was not after all at war with Eurasia. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Eurasia was an ally.
There was, of course, no admission that any change had taken place. Merely it became known, with extreme suddenness and everywhere at once, that Eastasia and not Eurasia was the enemy. […] At every few moments the fury of the crowd boiled over and the voice of the speaker was drowned by a wild beast-like roaring that rose uncontrollably from thousands of throats. The most savage yells of all came from the schoolchildren. […] The Hate continued exactly as before, except that the target had been changed.
I’m not suggesting that these tsunamis of online outrage are bad because their targets are invalid. Sometimes they are, but that’s not my point. My point is that participation in them is harmful — to you, and to us all — even though, maybe even especially when, its targets are completely valid.
It’s a weird and crazy and utopian notion, I know, but here’s an odd proposal. Maybe it’s too much to ask that you stop tweeting snd sharing your outrage and hate. But how about this: if you do participate, then for every ejaculation of fury, add another one, a balancing tweet, a quick thoughtful Facebook post, wherein you express some compassion — again, not sympathy, not agreement, but compassion — for someone with whom you bitterly disagree. You never know. It might become a habit.