Friday, February 8, 2013

I've lost my taste for recreational outrage

The title of this blog post comes directly from something I said in a conversation I had yesterday with someone who would probably like to remain anonymous.  But the context was this: we were talking about how we no longer "get" those people we know who live and breathe certain types of books, documentaries, TV shows, radio programs, blogs or newspapers, etc. which are centered around clarifying how we are the solution to every problem, while they are the ones causing the problem in a number of shadowy cabalistic conspiracy-oriented ways that, if we only knew the whole truth (the way your host or author or blogger does!) would horrify us.

Now some people will read the above paragraph and automatically jump to the conclusion that I'm bashing conservatives.  I'm not.  Recreational outrage is a right-and-left wing problem.  For every person who is convinced that President Obama is going to stage a military coup or alter the Constitution so he can run for a third term on his way to becoming a king after he's confiscated all of our guns, there is a person on the other side of the political spectrum who sincerely believes that hidden in the Republican agenda is a carefully crafted policy of extermination to be unleashed against women, gays, and various small Middle Eastern countries, should the Republicans ever unlawfully seize power (by pretending to win an election) again.  For every Republican who thinks that totalitarianism a la Nineteen Eighty-four is just around the corner, there is a Democrat who thinks that the future depicted in The Handmaid's Tale is lifted directly from the secret Republican Party platform--the one they don't share at conventions.

For Catholics, though, taking either of these extremes as the truth is problematic.  At the very least it is dangerous to the virtue of charity to assume that your political opponents are enemies hell-bent on oppressing you or even killing you.  At the worst, consuming this kind of recreational outrage uncritically can lead to a temptation to a kind of gnosticism, wherein you become one of the few whom God is warning (via your favorite blog writer or radio host) about the perils of the impending collapse of civilization, so that you can be one of the people prepped to survive it all.  The reflections of the late Pope John Paul II on the theme "Be not afraid!" do not go well with the mindset that stashes a bug-out bag by the back door.

And one danger of seeing either left or right wing style totalitarianism lurking around every corner is that we might lose our ability to recognize real dangers.  The HHS mandate is a case in point: there is a framework within that directive that would pose a specific and definitive danger to freedom of religion, which is why arguments against the mandate are proceeding in courts, and why the administration has tried twice now to convince people of faith that they won't be asked to compromise their values (when, in fact, they will be).  If the administration had full faith in the mandate's ability to hold up in the federal courts, they wouldn't even be making fake offers of concession at this point, but that they are doing so just shows that even they realize that they've probably gone too far and crossed the line between the separation of church and state in the direction they never seem to think possible (because, yes, the state also has a duty to stay out of church business, and that includes not being able to force religious orders of nuns to pay for contraceptive coverage for the sisters, which ought to be patently obvious to anyone with actual brain cells).

So: is the HHS mandate something worth fighting against?  Of course.  Is recreational outrage about the HHS mandate which downplays the actual danger of the mandate in order to capitalize on some hypothetical future danger that might be much worse the same thing as fighting against the mandate?  No, not really.  If you're a promoter of recreational outrage, all actual attempts to curtail liberty are only useful in ginning up the proper levels of anger, frustration, and subscription or advertising sales which flow from the first two.  If the Supreme Court comes along at some point, reads the HHS mandate, looks over their collective eyeglasses and says, "Really?  You tried to enforce this against the churches and other religious citizens?" and gives the thing the smackdown it deserves, the recreational outrage types will spend the first several inches of their blog columns or the first half-hour of their radio program telling us why the good news is much less good than we'd like to think, and why the next danger to the Republic is already so grave that it will take at least 10% more subscribers before the details can be released.

And though I've used the HHS mandate as the example here, there are plenty of other nonpartisan examples out there (yes, nonpartisan, because even many left-wing Catholics find the HHS mandate outrageous, even the contraception dissenters).  We could use the example from yesterday regarding giving the president--any president--the power to order drone strikes against American citizens.  The point would be the same: for those who want to fight against threats to liberty, victory is defined as overcoming the particular threat, but for those who want to prolong the culture of recreational outrage, there's always something else to get lucratively angry about somewhere down the line.

It surprises me to think that I was once a regular consumer of recreational outrage.  What surprises me even more is the humble reality that I sometimes still am--especially the Catholic sort.  I may have lost my taste for endless battles about the identifying color of the political handbasket our nation will ride to the underworld in, but I've not yet learned to apply the same sort of discretion to endless battles about whether the Novus Ordo is a real Mass, or whether treating women as equals is somehow defined as removing their right to vote.  Perhaps in another decade I'll wise up a little more.


Barbara C. said...

I don't know if it was "recreational outrage", but I think I know a bit of what you're talking about. I realized about six months ago that I am more likely to engage in an online argument if I'm tired and stressed out about other things. Some people drink; I let other people's ignorance irritate me too much.

The past few years I've given up commenting on blogs and facebook during Lent because I was losing hours of my life that I need to use elsewhere. It was like a two-year weaning process off of "recreational outrage".

John Henry Lamming said...

Hey Erin,
I don't have much to add. I've been going through my own version of this. But I appreciate reading all your blog posts. I'm not commenting much right now, but I'm reading.


freddy said...

Erin, you are wise.

As a member of an FSSP parish (EF Mass only) I run into my share of the "professionally aggrieved." I realized that I don't have the time or energy for recreational outrage (great phrase!).

I'm learning - slowly - to let the things that get my dander up go to Our Lord in prayer, and to look more carefully at arguments before diving in!

LarryD said...

I went through a similar exasperation a few weeks ago, Erin, and unfollowed about ten people on Twitter that routinely engaged in R.O. Resulted in a lot more peace.

Tony said...

I'm fed up with the media who tells me: "Are you going to believe me, or your lying eyes?".

When I see a president and his administration:

1. In the wake of a horrific shooting, try and ban the a subset of rifles all of which amount to less than 3% of the murders.

2. During his inauguration parade, forced all the marines to have the bolts removed from their rifles, and be searched for ammunition.

3. Homeland security has purchased in the last 7 months more than 7000 fully automatic assault rifles, and over a billion rounds of hollowpoint ammunition. Since they only operate domestically, who are they going to be using all that ammo on?

4. The president allegedly has a litmus test for high level military leaders: "If asked, would you order your troops to fire on American citizens".

And so on...

If you see this stuff, and you don't ask questions, you're a moron in my opinion.

John Parker said...

while this wasn't the broader point of your post, i'll admit i don't really see the (real, not technical) difference between an American affiliate of al Qaeda who spent most of their time in Yemen, and a Yemeni affiliate of al Qaeda who spent most of their time in Yemen. if you're a traitor who's a direct threat to us, and are operating in a way that makes normal apprehension difficult...well? how is this meaningfully different from a person who defects to an enemy army and is in direct combat with us?

i know people are worried about the _precedent_, which i suppose would be a concern of mine if i thought Pol Pot or Benito Mussolini were running for president in 2016, but as far as the actual people targeted i haven't seen an effective argument for why stalling in this situation is a good thing.

John Parker said...

on the broader point of this post i agree. ironically, as a lapsed Catholic (i know this is a liberal stereotype but the contraception issue does trip me up, i don't fully comprehend it -- not talking the mandate, but "hard cases" i.e. between married couples where one has an STD -- i have thought about asking someone for a better understanding of this if i go back,) i often feel simultaneously more conservative and more liberal than the anti-Obama right blogosphere, which seems solely focused on economic issues. i don't really have a problem with critiquing Democratic economic policy, but the focus on Obama as some kind of uniquely destructive, socialistic figure, when universal healthcare and Keynesian stimulus have been part of Democratic ideology forever, doesn't make sense to me.

people seem to think saying "this is bad policy" is somehow too tepid, not an effective critique, but the problem with these unique totalitarian theories of Obama isn't their tone, it's that they're inaccurate and cause people not to take his opponents seriously. if Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid were president, would their policies differ all that much? no, and that's where i think the "Obama as a Kenyan Marxist anti-colonialist communist fascist whateverist" argument doesn't make sense vs. the much simpler "Obama as a liberal whose policies we oppose."