Are You Tired of the Social Justice Outrage Machine?

by R.L. Stephens II on January 6, 2014

I’m exhausted. I can’t keep up with the latest social justice outrage. In any given week, the internet will be in an uproar over the latest sensational headline. Ani DiFranco’s racism. Beyonce’s feminism. Duck Dynasty’s bigotry. It doesn’t stop. We condemn or defend the person, and in about a week we move to the next controversy. Justine Sacco who?

Media outlets have got this viral internet craze thing down to a science, literally. It’s not really about creating quality content; the internet game is all about getting as many readers to view and share the story as possible. In this context of shareability and hair-trigger publishing, outrage is one of the most reliable ways to draw attention to a story. In social justice circles, like many other places on the web, the outrage machine often operates at a fever pitch.

In a way, it makes sense that a lot of our political energy is wrapped up in these outbursts of outrage. Mainstream culture is very powerful, and how your identity/ideology is represented within it can have a tremendous impact on your political success. Though cultural representation certainly matters, I can’t escape the feeling that we’re simply posturing, moving from outrage to outrage without ever building any committed practices to intervene and dismantle the systems that we claim to oppose. Outrage within social justice circles grabs attention, but is outrage enough?

Is The Outrage Machine Working?

I first began to question the social justice outrage machine during the Rick Ross fiasco in spring 2012. Rick Ross’ lyrics were certainly evangelizing for rape culture, and it was more than right to oppose his efforts.

Yet, the majority of the outrage essentially asked Reebok to discipline Rick Ross over rape culture, with almost no one noticing that rape culture is something that Reebok itself also perpetuates.  Reebok uses sweatshop labor. Sweatshop labor is disproportionately made up of young women (and girls) who are often beaten and sexually assaulted on the job. Here is a video of women in Thailand standing up against Reebok’s exploitation:

By firing Rick Ross, Reebok got to appease 1st world activists while continuing to abuse 3rd world women. They came out as the “good guy”, a real PR coup. Something is deeply wrong with this picture, and I don’t think it’s just a failure of “intersectionality”. Oh well, within a week, we had already moved to the “accidental racist” controversy.

More recently, we have the Ani DiFranco drama. Yes, public outrage shut down her ridiculous retreat at a slave plantation. Yet Nottoway Plantation remains open, emerging from the PR wreckage largely unscathed. The plantation was even able to continue portraying itself as a benign educational site, despite the fact that it’s nothing more than a racist shrine to the “good old days”. For Nottoway Plantation, a successfully managed scandal is just free publicity.

I don’t want people to stop talking about these issues, they are important. However, are these discussions providing us with real analysis of oppression, or is it just shallow posturing? I’m not entirely sure.

Reacting Without A Purpose?

Outrage isn’t bad. Outrage is a weapon. When I went to Occupy Wall Street in September 2011, I was plenty outraged. For years, social justice organizers mobilized our outrage and channeled it into political movements. Yet, it seems that many social justice circles have traded mass movements for massive traffic. Media outlets are manipulating our good intentions in order to boost their web traffic, and the aimless outrage has many social justice circles spinning their wheels and going nowhere. We can’t build transformative change that way.

Cultural critiques are important (I enjoy them), and I support people standing against injustice wherever they find it. However, a knee-jerk reaction is not the same as a thoughtful criticism, and outrage without understanding is futile. Don’t forget, “there are levels to this shit“. I want to find ways to accurately describe and dismantle oppression, and that doesn’t happen if we’re constantly reacting to shenanigans. In my opinion, we’re looking for politics in the wrong places.

17 responses to “Are You Tired of the Social Justice Outrage Machine?”

  1. This article is great. Thank you.

    I have been developing similar sentiments, noticing how my own outrage isn’t really helping me (unless I can get it to sufficiently motivate myself into action), and watching the Social Justice Outrage Machine of Reddit, /r/SRS, embarrass itself and hamper meaningful discourse.

  2. Lauren says:

    This is incredibly accurate. I have found myself almost addicted to the “outrage machine” and have, at times, seemed to come to a stand still due to the exhaustion that comes from feeling so passionate about so many headlines.

    • robtheidealist says:

      how do we translate the personal passion into collective politics? That’s what I’m struggling to figure out

  3. […] essays, personal reflections, or similar material, we highly recommend a close reading of “Are You Tired of the Social Justice Outrage Machine?” [or try this mirror]  The fact that class inequalities or discrimination are outrageous […]

  4. msaimeed says:

    pushing myself beyond reactionary outrage toward thoughtful critique, while also making room for other voices to inform my understanding of a given occurrence/not dominating the conversation but reflecting on others’ take on it, can often ultimately tip me into the realm of ambivalence. i see this or that piece of the structure but am overwhelmed by the task of dismantling it and so i stand still.
    i think on the Invisible Man who retreated from the system that controlled him, knowing he could not live within it w/o being further manipulated and w/o perpetuating its efficacy. but what to do w this understanding?

    • robtheidealist says:

      Thanks for your comment. You bring up a good question, what do we do next? I’m not entirely sure. I think raising political awareness is very important, and so sharing stories is a positive practice, but the outrage for the sake of outrage is just not working for me. Perhaps I will return to this issue later. Do you have any ideas?

      • msaimeed says:

        I’ve certainly endeavored to come up w some constructive ways of working toward a change following the Lao Tzu “to have peace in the world there must be peace in the nations/towns/among neighbors/within families/in the heart” that is: Begin Within. As a white American, “begin within” is a lot of opening my eyes to how this dominate culture of whiteness has subverted my internal striving to be a good person, not beholden to a structure that benefits my whiteness while undermining me as a female and relegating PoC and the LGBTQ community to a lower status and citizenry.
        So how do we organize this nebulous non-community of individuals (mainly present online) who are passionate about enacting meaningful and permanent change into a cohesive and effective force w/o being hijacked by special interests (a la Occupy) or browbeaten into obscurity by the status quo? Maybe some sort of charter, or new Bill of Rights, a common set of standards and values to bring together those who tire of outrage and hope to precipitate real transformation?

      • ghanderman says:

        what are the criteria you are using to assess whether someone’s outrage is being experienced or voiced just for the sake of itself?

        • robtheidealist says:

          I don’t think I can comment on a specific person’s motivation. I’m looking at a general trend.

          • Vive108 says:

            The general trend sure seems to be about dissipating outrage by having folks focused on story-crawling and petition-signing rather than forming effective resistance. It’s so bad that just today in the Guardian newspaper (Ahmed’s Green section) there’s an article citing a US Army Colonel who’s saying that people are sleepwalking when it comes to the climate catastrophe!

            Indian Independence and Irish Independence and the early suffragists and slavery emancipation resisters did not just churn outrage. They formed resistances for effective action – 90% of which was aboveground and non-violent civil disobedience & community ed – and 10% of which was violence directed against property and/or key points of the “Architecture of Oppression” as Snowden recently stated it. Some early American suffragists not only did civil disobedience – they were political arsonists. Bhagat Singh’s militant worker groups in India damaged colonially-owned factories and inspired ordinary people to come out on the streets for Gandhian marches, Irish hunger strikers emboldened people to demand freedom more militantly. This is all in the book Deep Green Resistance.

  5. Dan Feidt~hongpong says:

    excellent take on the situation. Also quite related Glad people are reflecting on the dynamic this winter. let’s start thinking in terms of OODA loops (and halting them, i.e. your reference to shutting down the plantation is dead on) rather than satisfying identities or etc. [Observe Orient Decide Action, many hierarchies can be modeled as interlocking OODA loops]. keep it up!!

  6. Francisco Nejdanov Solomin says:

    Here are my thoughts on socialist anger mgmt.:

    • Francisco Nejdanov Solomin says:

      Please note, this “anger mgmt.” page is updated from time to time as I learn and ponder more about this important topic from a socialist perspective. So, if you’ve looked at it before and appreciated it, you might look again, as I try to make it better, not to generate repeat clicks but to see the most recent version. I don’t care about the clicks, but I do care deeply about socialism, “the great social project,” and so do you. In solidarity, Francisco

  7. Rigoberto O'Higgins says:

    Jodi Dean has a very smart discussion of this sort of fake activism as part of communicative capitalism, which encloses our very dissent for Big Data. See her “The Communist Horizon” (Verso, 2012).

  8. Carwil Bjork-James says:

    Some proactive suggestions on making cultural critiques that last beyond the linkbait moment:

  9. Christy says:

    The outrage machine is just a way of getting well intentioned people interested in celebrity culture – for pageviews, as you point out. Perhaps done right it could help bring some of the people immersed in celebrity culture into a bit of awareness about bigger issues, but for anyone already concerned with racism, poverty, injuustice, etc, its just a waste of time and energy. We need to focus on those things we can commit to putting real energy towards… find our causes, work towards them with all the dedication it takes to bring around long-term change.

  10. metroeco says:

    Translating outrage into power takes serious effort and risk. “How to Take Power” book explains how: