Outrage gets viewers, that’s for sure
My mom can tell me the names of Fox News talk show hosts because my dad has it on all the time at home. She’s not an avid-news consumer or hardly a political junkie, but she knows Tucker and Hannity, and honestly, as a result, so do I. When I’ve observed Fox News, it’s clear to me, that outrage sells. In fact, Fox News, in an effort to win back some of its audience after Trump’s presidential defeat, has changed its programming:
In recent days, Fox has taken a sharp turn toward a more extreme approach as it confronts a post-Trump ratings dip — the result of some of its furthest-right viewers moving to outlets such as Newsmax and One America News and some middle-of-the-roaders apparently finding CNN or MSNBC more to their liking.
With profit as the one true religion at Fox, something had to change. Eighty-nine-year-old Rupert Murdoch, according to a number of reports, has stepped in to call the shots directly. Most notably, the network has decided to add an hour of opinion programming to its prime-time offerings. The 7 p.m. hour will no longer be nominally news but straight-up outrage production.
Why? Because that’s where the ratings are.
So Fox News is turning up the outrage in order to sell more. Sensationalist TV news isn’t new, and it is not particularly partisan. Though I will suggest that the polarization it causes is asymmetrical. So much of the misinformation about the election, about covid-19, about vaccination, is fueled not by rationality, but by anger and hysteria. Hysteria sells, that’s for sure. Trump knew that, and that’s why the news networks followed him.
If you can convince your audience to be afraid for their lives because of what their opponents will do to them, it not only makes your viewership easier, it makes a holy war against your opponents necessary. Outrage can also make it seem like the one who is leading you to rage will save you, which is why so many people thought it might be the end of the world if Trump lost the election. Filling an audience with outrage leads to the spread of hatred and violence, and I think we saw that on display on January 6.
When our leaders lead us to rage, it’s very hard to break out of it. This is then not just a matter of personal discipline, but how our leaders disciple us. And so, remember that before you unload on your uncle, a single-handed effort isn’t unlikely to undo the torrent of misinformation he receives. My hope for 2021 is that we might pause before getting enraged.
The outrage cycle spreads
And of course, the outrage doesn’t stay sequestered to viewers of certain TV channels or partisans, particularly. I admit, my viewing of Fox News enrages me too (but for different reasons than most of their viewers)! The rage spreads. But not all rage is useless, but it does have a limited utility, nevertheless.
It’s hard to witness the events of January 6 without getting incensed. It’s hard to view another police killing of a black man without getting angry. But I’ll be honest, while righteous anger, which Jesus seldom demonstrates, is useful at times, it really isn’t the main tool for a Christian disciple. That is to say that sometimes there is a reason to be enraged, and I sympathize with it, as I have written about. I believe Martin Luther King when he says that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” To quote him again he says, “riots are caused by nice white people who refuse to recognize racial justice.” King is empathizing the genuine experience of racial injustice and the response it conjures up. But let it be clear: racial injustice is first sowed by seeds of outrage and violence from enemies of people of color. And while the reaction back to it is understandable, not everything is a worth a riot, and we have many more responses than that. Maybe that’s something the disaffected anarchists in Portland might learn.
If you think back at the last four years, how many times were you enraged? Some of us probably woke up every day angry. And just by the odds of it alone, I doubt we were filled with righteous anger each time we got red hot. I’m not saying that the things enraging us weren’t awful, but they were so common that we needed to come up with a more sustainable response than pure rage. Sometimes, we had to decide to laugh or cry or do something else because the insanity wasn’t just worth our anger. And if everything enrages it, it is like nothing does. We just become angry people. But I am called to more than that.
But rage can be addictive, can’t it? Especially as we are all cloistered away, and way too online, we can keep seeking the worst things. Like the other day, I got onto my cousin’s Facebook page where she was spreading false information and general vitriol, and I engaged with her in a way that wasn’t too kind, and more importantly, essentially pointless. I left angry and she felt more justified. I dug the trench a little deeper, when it wasn’t even my job to get her out of it. You can purpose yourself to be enraged, and thus seek out things that make you mad. And when that rage is your only response to injustice, you fall to despair. You become cynical. You lose hope because all you have is your anger.
You fail to see progress and you get mad about the wrong things. I have a lot of friends who were made so cynical by the last four years, they can’t imagine another hope, and some days I count myself among them. They are sure that their despair and disappointment will continue. Their despair turns to cynicism, and cynicism leads to hopelessness. Never mind that they think that Joe Biden won’t be better than Donald Trump. They think that any cause for hope should be dismissed as naivety, and so Jesus gets the same treatment, too. That vacancy of hope allows what enrages us to win. But I won’t let them take my life from me, I won’t let them steal my joy. I have to find hope.
Hope isn’t naivety, though
What I am calling us to is for hope as an answer to what we are angry about, as opposed to rage. But I’m not asking us to be naïve or ignorant. Once again, there are times to be enraged, but in 2021 may we find times to respond to our disappointment and our disillusionment in another way. May we find hope in the good things, and even if they don’t save us, may our eyes be opened to something other than doom because we cannot succumb to despair.
The truth is, this world is full of dark forces. Violence, hatred, racism, sexism, the destruction of creation are on display. I have lived long enough in this body to know that when I experience those things, it is unremarkable. In fact, in Circle of Hope, we say the sin of racism impacts all we experience. That is to say, it’s a sin that touches everything in the U.S. It’s like salt that seasons every dish, even when every dish may not be salty, necessarily.
And so when we experience what we are naming as something that affects everything, let’s not turn to rage. I don’t know why I got so upset every time Trump acted like he’s proven to act every day of his life. It was entirely unremarkable. I don’t want the frequency of his buffoonery to numb me, just as I don’t want the police who kill black people with impunity to numb me, but I’m moved toward more than just outrage. Furthermore, every microagression that I experience as a person of color isn’t the same as racialized police brutality. People of color, by and large, know this. If we were to get even righteously angry about every instance of racism we experienced, we’d hardly be able to live our lives. And so we cope, we deal, we understand that these things are not remarkable, but just a fact of life.
However, it is amazing that simply naming someone’s inherited prejudice, results in equal outrage back. This world would be a lot different if people of color dealt with instances of racism with as much rage as white people often receive accusations of racism. So my call today is to lower the temperature, and to normalize talking about the sins that plague us.
How to become less enraged
1. Evil is unremarkable, don’t overreact to it
I hope we lower the temperature, and to normalize talking about the sins that plague us. We need to normalize talking about racism since it is something that’s so common. Sometimes it is newly awakened allies that lead us in outrage. If they are white, that may stem from guilt about their complicity in racism, but it also makes every instance of racism remarkable when it isn’t necessarily. Rather than being outraged when we see racism, which is unremarkable, we should celebrate, more loudly, instances of antiracism. I am proud that our church is embarking on this difficult journey of confronting racism within us and outside of us. We have empowered more people of color to lead us and we are listening, and learning to listen better. We’ve created safe places for people of color to relate, and formed a team designed to help us navigate racialized conflict.
2. Log off, occasionally
I’m an online guy. I’m a news junkie. So I get a constant stream of info (and bad news). I carry enough bad news in my body, as a brown man, I don’t need to always add to it. I recommend it to you. Log off. Don’t send that Tweet. Don’t read that news article by that columnist you hate. Avoid that subreddit full of toxicity. Dwell on other things. Read a book of poetry. Take a walk. Paint! Watch a comedy. Do something else.
3. Name the good news
Beyond celebrating antiracism, let’s name the good news when it comes up. Let’s say the good stories when they come up. I’ll give you a few. U.S. involvement in Yemen is ending—the U.S. was supporting Saudi Arabia in its atrocities in Yemen. Trump’s ban against transgender people in the military is ending. The Keystone XL pipeline is halting production, a boon to the native people whose land it was on, as well as for the climate change activists who are longing for a new way to live that doesn’t pillage the earth. But it’s not even just good news in the political arena (even if that’s where much of our rage comes from).
4. Remember faith leads to hope
Just this weekend, we added three new partners to our covenant, three more were baptized. We’re celebrating moments of connection during our at-home Sunday meetings, where we are blessed with amazing stories and artists. I’m impressed by our church’s resilience. Even my cell is a source of hope, as we’ve been meeting on Zoom for nearly a year, and have added new friends too.
And there is more good news. The vaccines are getting rolled out, and covid-19 rates are dropping (for now). If we can hold on for a little longer, we are looking toward a much different summer and fall. The sun will rise again.