On Outrage

By John Hatch

Art by Jett Atwood

Every day, I log on to Facebook, Twitter, and a few message boards where I get much of my news. I like these platforms and I like the wit and the humor and the insight and the people I meet; however, it’s become evident to me that a kind of Audrey II (the human-eating plant from Little Shop of Horrors) is suddenly looming very large in social media. But instead of feeding on blood, it feeds on a natural human emotion: outrage.

Outrage affects a broad spectrum of people, respecting neither race, creed, class, nor political party: Donald Trump said something awful. Hillary Clinton had a private email server. Another terrorist attack hit France. Another mass shooting occurred in the United States. A clueless white celebrity posted something insensitive to people of color.

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Outrage feels good. You may object, saying that outrage actually feels bad, that we don’t want to feel outrage, and that we only feel it because something outrageous happens. But the truth is it’s like diving into a bag of potato chips and scarfing the whole thing. It’s empty calories that taste delicious, even if, from a distance, we wonder what we are doing. Outrage makes us feel in control. It makes us feel righteous. It makes us feel like good people. It gives us a chance to admire the precise moral clarity of our judgments. And the adrenaline and dopamine that accompanies these emotions is addictive. It’s like a hit. Like we’re snorting lines off of our phone screens.

Outrage was certainly not born with social media. Read through old newspapers as many centuries back as you care to and you will find no end of outrage, no end to appeals to a reader’s sense of justice in the face of flagrant injustice. But social media has added an explosive new dimension. Back in the TV days, we might see a terrible story on the news about a murder or a robbery and feel outraged. But our outrage was confined. We’d shake our heads and tell our spouses how awful it was. And they would join us in our outrage and reinforce the correctness of our feelings. Yes, this is outrageous.

But today we can share our outrage far and wide, making the drug-like high all the more potent. We take instantly to the Internet and vent our outrage across the globe. The heat from our fingertips connects with the capacitive touchscreen of our phones as we feverishly tap out our outrage. It worms its way into the circuitry of the phone, then through the radio antenna and out of the phone and into the invisible waves that carry it to the nearest cell phone tower. It flits along wires in the ground, passing through dozens of complex systems before it ends up on Twitter or Facebook’s servers, where it’s recognized as our message because we are logged into our account. It’s posted on the Web in a matter of seconds, the vast majority of which came from our lumbering human sausage fingers that just can’t tap out our righteous outrage fast enough.

The gratification is almost instant, as people, without a hint of irony, “Like” our outrage. The thumbs up of Facebook and the heart symbol of Twitter have taken on whole new meanings in the twenty-first century. But in case there are a few people still confused, Facebook recently added an “angry” symbol to further refine our outrage.

And our outrage spreads to more than just our Facebook friends or Twitter followers. We can see that that stupid thing president-elect Trump said is trending on Twitter—in fact, we can see how many times it’s been tweeted about. Apparently it’s not just us who are outraged, it’s hundreds, thousands, millions of others. And we can add our voice to this mighty chorus. We can retweet others’ words. We can Like their snark and sarcasm. We can nod along to their wit in 140 characters or less.

Then we can jump over to Facebook where, if we’re fast enough, we can be the first to post the outrageous story in our favorite groups. How satisfying it is to be the bearer of this news, to paste the link with a snappy remark and watch the outrage come pouring in. We count the Likes and the angry faces and keep track of the emotions coming from other like-minded individuals to see if their outrage surpasses our own. Each new Like tells us that it was our cleverness, our acerbic wit that captured the essence of today’s outrage. We can smirk at pedestrian, witless comments like “I can’t believe it!” or “This makes me so mad!” and know that our formulation was more pithy, more precise, more partaking in the zeitgeist.

Which makes us feel as if we’re doing something! We are taking action—unlike those people wasting away on their couches looking at cat photos or watching YouTube or reading why Kim Kardashian is mad at Nicki Minaj. We are doing something meaningful from our offices or our beds or our toilets or our cars or even from airplanes where we enlist our finely honed powers of screen tapping to share our outrage at tiny seats or knee defenders or stale pretzels.

And woe be unto the person who dares to not share our outrage. If they deign to feel differently, we can put them in their place. We can comment directly: point out the damning flaws in their logic, or their stupendous ignorance of essential facts, or their egregious spelling errors, and then we can sit back as an online army swarms to our defense with comments or Likes of their own. Or we can ignore them altogether, which is fast becoming its own affirmative act on social media. Through our resounding silence, they can know that while we Like every stupid photo they post of their baby or their dog or their food, we are withholding this Like because we are outraged. And when their behavior gets really outrageous—whether because it is nonstop, too much, or unforgivably egregious—we can solemnly take extreme measures: unfollow, unfriend, or even—yes—block them, depending on the seriousness of their transgression. This issue is simply too important to allow someone to not understand what we understand. There are people hurt or dying over this issue and thus our actions are right and correct.

And now we enter the meta-outrage phase. Now we are not only outraged at the horrible thing, we are outraged that they are not outraged by what’s outraging us. How can they not understand how awful this thing is? How can they not understand that that thing they posted about isn’t nearly as important as this thing we posted about? Stop being mad about that one thing because you should be mad about this other thing because this thing is more outrageous than that thing! And that’s the deal about outrage. There is no need to explain it, to deconstruct it, analyze it, weigh it, heft it in our thoughts. Outrage is a priori. It is axiomatic. It is self-evident. The very requirement that we explain our outrage tells us there is something wrong with the person in need of the explaining, further fueling our outrage. They should just know. How do we know something is outrageous? Because we feel outraged! Why do we feel outraged? Because something is outrageous! And those who feel differently are not just incorrect, they are insidiously wrong, deliberately choosing to walk with evil, not just misguided people acting in good faith but Philistines wallowing in mala fides.

We are certainly aware of all the psychological terms that explain all of this: phrases and words like fallacy, confirmation bias, naive realism, cognitive dissonance, fundamental attribution error, anchoring. And those failures are obvious in others, even if they are not so obvious in ourselves. We reserve our sound judgment for how others are violating the rules of logic and reason. And then, without a single hint of irony, we wonder how we got so divided as a country.

Our addiction to outrage, our boundless frustration that people don’t see the world correctly—the way we do—hardens us, calcifies our beliefs, and bakes intractable divisions into our souls and psyches. And that is what I see happening in the world of Mormonism.

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Every day, on Facebook, message boards, Twitter, blogs, and every corner of the Internet, outrage plays out in microcosm among ex-Mormons, former Mormons, transitioning Mormons, post-Mormons, and has-been Mormons. Their outrage follows all the same conventions. If a general authority says something outrageous, it gets picked up and shared, over and over and over, and people Like the wittiest comments and the cleverest put-downs. Our outrage becomes multi-layered. We’re outraged at how insulated these men are, how clueless they are. That they were so stupid to say this thing in the first place is almost as outrageous as what they actually said.

I understand this outrage. I used to feel it myself. This outrage arises from the fact that ex-Mormons often inhabit a world that mirrors the Mormonism they lived in for so many years. The same black-and-white mentality of their Mormon years is still intact, but now apologists have gone from being heroes to villains; history has gone from being faith-promoting to faith-destroying; the Book of Mormon has gone from proving the Church is true to proving it’s false; Church leaders, both historic and modern, go from being the greatest men on earth to some of the most evil; the temple goes from being beautiful to sinister; Joseph Smith goes from being a prophet to pedophile, the Church goes from being a selfless charity to a money-hoarding corporation; Mormons go from being the most enlightened people on earth to the most sheltered. On and on and on it goes. We’ve only flipped the switch, turning black into white and up into down.

I recognize that this “switch flip” often arises from pain, and it’s not my place to tell anyone what their pain should be, how long it should last, what it should look like, or how it should resolve. It is a rare person who can just shrug and walk away from something that has been the center of their identity for their entire lives. I’m not one of those people. I went through my own traumas and periods of bitterness. The pain is real. The time from my realization that I did not believe in Mormonism to when I finally (mostly) made peace with that realization was not a couple of weeks. It was years. And during those years, I engaged in plenty of outrage at the Church. But I see now that my outrage was a form of intellectual laziness. I tossed aside my rational understandings of human nature in favor of oversimplified portrayals of Mormons as good guys or bad guys. I hurled words like lying, fraud, deception, and delusion like a circus knife thrower.

But people don’t see themselves as villains, as liars, as deceivers, or as delusional. Life isn’t a movie where the clearly labeled antagonist is either vanquished or has a moment of clarity and mutters, “What have I done?” When I hear ex-Mormons insist, “I was lied to,” I have to wonder who did the lying? The apostles? Your bishop? Your Sunbeam teacher? Aren’t these people as convinced of the truthfulness of the Church’s claims as you used to be? As embarrassing as it may be, take a trip down memory lane to when you believed as they did. Were you evil? Did you lie to your ward members? Or were you telling them the truth as you perceived it? It’s true, we now see these orthodox Church members as being wrong. But we can think someone is wrong and still understand basic human nature—principles even you and I operate under. We needn’t assign nefarious motives to them.

For those of us who have chosen to leave the Church, shouldn’t our end goal be to find some peace? Isn’t the point of not being Mormon to—you know—not be Mormon? If your identity is based on “I’m an ex-Mormon,” or “I’m a transitioning Mormon,” you’re still kinda Mormon. The Church is still at the root of your identity. If the Facebook groups you’re a part of and the conversations you have and the things you focus on still revolve around Mormonism, you’re letting this institution you seem to really despise continue to write the story you live your life by.

Those years when I furiously pecked out my own outrage, I felt like I was doing good in the world by speaking out. And some of the things in Mormonism I was critical of were definitely worthy of criticism. But I’m here to tell you that there is something after being an ex-Mormon, where you are no longer on Team Ex-Mo or Team Prog-Mo or Team Trans-Mo or any other team. Where you’re just on Team Me. That may sound bad, like you become concerned only with yourself, but Team Me is a team that, after rejecting Mormonism, had to do the long, hard work of building a new identity, a new value system, a new meaning set, from the ground up.

It is simultaneously a pleasant and frightening team to be on. Pleasant because you’re finally free of the fear of divine punishment for your petty little sins; free of the practices you found more burdensome than helpful; free of thinking habits that caused dissonance, in your mind and in your relationships; free to pursue happiness in your own way. But frightening because now, in your pursuit of happiness, you have to take full responsibility for what happens. You no longer have a group of leaders, or a book, or a god to hand your agency over to. But that means you’re becoming a real person—present and alive, committed to encountering life as it is rather than as you insist it should be.

So when you see people who have left the Mormon Church and are now on Team Me declining to share in your outrage, it’s not that we’ve sold out or gone soft, rather, we have a different story now. And Mormonism is not at its foundation.

None of this is to minimize the reality of the world we live in. Outrageousness is still very real. Truly horrible things will happen today. Somewhere a young girl will be a victim of female genital mutilation. Somewhere someone will die from hunger while my kids dump food that “looks gross” into the trash. Someone will die because of the color of their skin or because of their religious beliefs or because they don’t have a Y chromosome or just because someone did not like them.

These horrible, awful things happen day in and day out, and the earth does not stop on its axis to let us pick up the pieces and make things right. So we tap out our outrage, reaching for a brief sense of power. But that power is an illusion. Instead of strengthening us, it weakens us. It makes us forget that we’re all messy, screwed up, broken people trying our best to navigate the human condition. We desperately want to be understood, perhaps even more than we want to be loved. Life is often cruel and hard in ways that feel deeply, irrevocably unfair.

The opposite of outrage used to be indifference. Indifference is just as insidious. But in this brave new world of social media, it feels like the opposite of outrage is charity. We take a moment to pause, to give another the benefit of the doubt, to reflect that they probably aren’t a monstrous person. If we reflect long enough, we might even come to understand that we jumped to conclusions—we assumed the worst about another human being at a moment when they needed us to be there for them.

I am an atheist who has no sense of divinity in the world and who has little hope that there is some kind of life after mortality. But I think the Book of Mormon does offer a bit of wisdom to those of us who are seeking a way out of outrage into something more constructive.

. . . charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things . . . Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail. (Moroni 7:45–46)

Including—perhaps even especially including—outrage.


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One comment

  1. Steve Warren says:

    Excellent thoughts. Very timely in America’s season of outrage.

    When it comes to belief or atheism, I like the words of Marcus Aurelius: “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

    A question for John Hatch: How does an atheist account for the existence of chapter 5 of Jacob? I realize that sounds like a strange question, but chapter 5 seems so out of time and out of place from America 1829 that for someone like Joseph Smith or any of his contemporaries to have written it would have been a greater miracle than for it to have come forth (as they claimed) by the power of God.

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