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Point at something with outrage!

By Scott Tibbs, September 7, 2016

If there is one thing that social media users tend to be guilty of doing, it is the tendency to "point at something with outrage." This habit (PASWO for short) is one I have personally engaged in both on social media and in my blogging, and I need to do a better job of limiting PASWO to where it's really needed. A friend of mine said when he was running a multi-person blog fifteen years ago that one of his goals was to focus on policy and argumentation, rather than PASWO, and it was his Facebook status message that inspired this post.

One of the worst things about PASWO is that it is very easy for a large group of people to be whipped up, creating various incarnations of what I like to call the Social Media Outrage Machine. (SMOM.) The SMOM is almost always wildly disproportionate to whatever has offended the people feeding it, especially on Twitter. How many times have we heard stories about people getting death threats for what is in reality a very minor transgression? Mob mentality is very scary, even if the majority of people are just blowing off steam. You never know when a real wacko will follow up on an outraged Tweet with real action.

This is a complicated issue with many layers, and it is basically impossible to address every single permutation of what is and is not PASWO in a blog post. If I was writing a doctoral thesis, I would come closer but even that will not cover everything that can be covered. This is more of a general overview.

PASWO is easy to do, especially for those of us who are passionate about public policy, politics, moral and cultural issues, ideology and philosophy. If you have strongly-held beliefs, it is very easy to PASWO when a more measured approach is appropriate. I know I have personally been guilty of this on many occasions. I would be more effective if I was less shrill, and it would lead to fewer arguments. But we should be a little more tolerant of PASWO when it comes from a root of genuine passion for what is right.

Where we should have less sympathy is when PASWO is done for click-bait or to make the writer feel morally superior. Virtue-signaling on the Internet is the modern version of the Pharisees, and we see this at every point of the ideological spectrum. Neither the Right nor the Left has a monopoly on virtue-signaling. PASWO as click-bait is less respectable, because often that is done not because someone legitimately is offended but to increase someone's visibility or following. It is worse than insincere - it is hypocrisy.

Furthermore, as my friend pointed out, when we are constantly PASWO it lessens the gravity of things that we really should be outraged about. It is easy to shrug and think "Oh, there goes Scott again. What in the world is he angry about this time? The dude needs to chillax." Focusing our outrage where it really belongs makes the outrage mean more. It is sort of like yelling. If you yell all the time, you are just loud. If you are soft-spoken most of the time, then people take notice when you need to raise your voice.

We should be careful, though, to not lump all PASWO as virtue-signaling or click-bait. And there is another danger: Those who are committed to avoiding all PASWO can become self-righteous Pharisees themselves, looking down their noses at the ignorant rubes who cannot calmly explain why certain things are wrong and offering an alternate solution. No, you are not superior because you never get outraged. You are just a snob.

Basically, it comes down to this: I need to do better at limiting PASWO posts.