It used to be I caught up on my friends’ and relatives’ headlines thru Facebook but lately I find myself absorbing the toxicity of the latest, subtle addiction to grab hold of our nation: perpetual outrage.

Sometime in the last year Facebook went from a platform for posting family photos and cat memes – and being something that made you feel good (okay, maybe not all the cat memes) – to being the soapbox for a discursive feedback loop of negativity, where confirmations of the “other” side’s immorality/hypocrisy/prejudice are validated and our own moral valor applauded.
While those negative traits most certainly exist in politics, also troubling is how we are reacting – not responding – to one another. Until recently, mindfulness was all the rage, yet that trend hasn’t translated into our politics. Why are we mindful about eating, relationships, work habits, but not political discourse? <Tweet this> When did self-congratulatory moral superiority and demonization of the “other” supplant sane, compassionate, dialogue?

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

As an activism trainer, I love that people are becoming more politically engaged. And there are surely many issues that should arouse a range of feelings, including outrage. But these days it’s as though everyone opens their feed with an unconscious anticipation: what can I become outraged about today. And it’s not like that outrage is winning over the hearts and minds of the other side – or more importantly, the people we ought to be persuading in the middle.
The vilification of the “other” in America, whether the politician or one’s neighbor, dehumanizes them. It makes it easier to name call, bully, and blacklist people we consider morally inferior. Buying into the “other” narrative also shuts down any kind of meaningful dialogue that might actually move the needle in our favor. It makes us appear closed down and unwilling to listen to reason. In the battle for the persuadable voter – people who voted for Barack Obama and Donald Trump; the people who will decide if Trump stays in office – this unapproachability is a recipe for failure.
So aside from being bad politics, this mindlessness also serves as craving in its own right. The American Psychiatric Association characterizes addiction as “a maladaptive pattern of substance use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress” marked by a “need for markedly increased amounts”, where a “great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain the substance”, and it is “continued despite knowledge of having a persistent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance”. Who among us can’t say that the outrage since the election has led to significant distress? That the news, opinions, and memes we share doesn’t feed a loop: a hunger to be right, a drug of negativity, feeding an endorphin of confirmation bias that they’re wrong and we’re right?
Those of us who value self-examination and introspection must ask: am I addicted to outrage? Is my outrage helping make the world (or policy) better? Or is it a form of comfort in a world upended in uncertainty that is ultimately causing me and those around me harm?
Anger is understandable. It’s helpful, even, if it propels us into action. But activism posts meant to encourage continued engagement like “stay angry” aren’t really making the problems we’re passionate about solving go away. They’re just making us feel better. But self-soothing catharsis and effective activism aren’t mutually compatible. The more rigid we are, the less people (including politicians) want to engage with us.
But mindfulness and effective activism are not only compatible, they’re necessary complements for long-term political success. To stay mindful in political discourse on social media, I recommend three steps:
  1. When you see something that outrages you, WAIT before commenting, posting, or otherwise engaging.
Similar to the advice of waiting 24 hours before sending an angry email or letter, you can still contribute to the conversation after 1 day. Ask yourself what feelings are coming up and why. Be curious about what is going on inside of you. Chances are you’ll be more thoughtful and helpful after sitting with it.
  1. Set an intention when opening your newsfeed.
This is a tough one, because for most of us (myself included) social media is a numbing agent we use to distract us from the present. But if we can remember – even once a day – to set an intention of being helpful and adding to the world rather than polluting it with negativity, we can dramatically change the nature of our engagement.
  1. Before you post, identify your goal in doing so.
Are you sharing to release feelings you could deal with privately, without adding to others’ distress and anxiety? Are you sharing in a way people outside of the echo chamber will be able to hear?
Share your experiences working with outrage in the comments section or tweet to @learntolobby or comment on @effectiveactivism on Facebook. 
Learn more about Effective Activism.
%d bloggers like this: