Staying Sane In the Outrage Era

8 min read
Staying Sane

Let’s talk about the business of outrage.

After you finish thinking, “what in God’s name are you talking about,” consider this: What happens when you read something really enraging on the internet? You get a hit of dopamine. And even though it’s a “bad” feeling, you immediately want to feel it again, because anything is better than being bored. Well, people who know how to manipulate this mechanism rule the world. Here’s what you need to know now:

Ignore Headlines Ordering You To Feel An Emotion

What makes a headline complete and total BS? It’s the “should”. About 50% of internet headlines are ordering us to feel some kind of mindless, extreme emotion. But saying their thing “should” terrify / enrage / outrage me implies that if I don’t turn myself into a frightened, cornered animal, there’s something wrong with me. That I’ve failed, that I don’t care enough.

“Are you terrified yet?”


“Well you should be.”

“Well you should be gouging your own eyes out. Why don’t you go do that, you 3 AM car alarm of a human being?”

Enough. My insomnia won’t transport a single refugee to safety, and my stress-vomit won’t feed a single starving child. I can feel these endless hits of outrage frying the circuitry in my brain. Stop it.

People Literally Get Paid To Upset You

That’s the only reason they say what they say. They’re not trying to change your mind or win your vote; they’re only trying to ruin your day.

There are lots of these people in the world. Take Milo Yiannopoulos, the “alt-right” media figure who for several months said things which got him banned from Twitter, booted from CPAC (a conservative conference), lost him a massive book deal, and triggered a riot at a speaking engagement.

What did he say? The same junk that got him those opportunities in the first place. It’s easiest to give you his formula:

  1. Find a group that has historically been abused, terrorized or marginalized
  2. Attack them in the most sadistic way he can possibly think of
  3. Trigger a protective reflex in every good bystander that will cause them to react
  4. Profit from the free publicity

That’s it. Yiannopoulos doesn’t believe any of it. He’s a guy from a Jewish family who stirs up hatred of Jews, an immigrant who rants against immigrants, a gay man who rants against gay rights. Years ago, he tried to get outrage traffic by insulting gamers, then he reinvented himself as their fierce defender, because he realized there was more outrage traffic in terrorizing female game developers. He’s blindly yanking every chain until he finally draws a big enough crowd. It’s an unbeatable business model. Ignoring him (and denying him income) also means we’re okay with him sending hate mobs after minorities, while paying attention to him puts money in his pocket. You wind up in the absurd position of having a moral obligation to support Milo Yiannopoulos’s career.

He phrases his arguments in the most ridiculous, exaggerated, and inflammatory way possible. What else is he going to do? He’s a college dropout with no other skills. He isn’t going to be perfecting cold fusion and whatnot. He doesn’t have an agenda beyond getting eyeballs by selling you the outrage you’re addicted to. He’s a dopamine dealer. If he goes down, another ten will replace him.

Realize If You Can Be Trolled, You Can Be Controlled


Oh, sure, people like Milo have fans. They pay to see him, they’ll follow him to whatever outlet he sets up next. But they don’t necessarily believe what he’s saying either. They also simply like to see you get worked up. You think grown men are using words like “libtard” because they think it’ll win you to their side?

Trolls intentionally antagonize people on the internet because it makes them feel powerful. Merely by typing some words, they are able to reach into your brain and change your mood, ruin your day. Like you’re their puppet. That’s power. The feeling of power is also a high (ask any serial killer), and the angrier the victims get, the better the high.

Wherever you find someone who holds a thing sacred, others grind their boot into it. In the ‘80s, Christian leaders preached that rock music was evil. So trolls piled on the faux Satanism. If the powers that be call it sin, others will commit it right in front of their faces, as loudly and abrasively as possible. It’s about rebellion, defying the elites, weaponizing every aspect of your personality to ruffle the feathers of self-satisfied aristocrats.

In the minds of modern trolls, the church has been replaced with a religion of hyper-aggressive multiculturalism, and bigotry is the only sin. So the Milos of the world do the metal album cover version of bigotry – cartoonish, loud, intentionally abrasive. They see us as the stuffy, pearl-clutching church ladies pretending to be better than them. It’s a power play. The louder you denounce, the further they push the envelope. The harsher their punishments, the more street cred they get.

Your reaction is all that matters, because they caused the reaction, and that means they matter. Lots of them only voted for Trump because he was the one who would upset you the most. And if some minorities and trans people get thrown under the bus along the way, so what? Standing up for those people is so boring. And anything is better than boredom.

Understand The “Firehose Of Falsehoods”

What is the “Firehose of Falsehoods” propaganda model? This is a technique allegedly used effectively by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, taking advantage of the internet and social media to overwhelm the populace with a machine gun spray of false news, inflammatory accusations, and conspiracy theories. It doesn’t matter if the information conflicts, it doesn’t matter if any of it is backed by reliable sources. Sheer volume is all it takes, because the average person has a limited capacity to sift through it.

Is Trump or his administration carefully crafting some Putin-esque strategy? It’s doubtful. Trump tweets six times a day likely because he has no impulse control and can’t let any perceived insult go unanswered. The news treats every tweet as an official White House press release / policy statement, each one requiring a whirlwind of analysis, debunking, and snide replies from a hundred million citizens eager to fire back. Six a day, on top of the normal flow of real news – the executive orders, Cabinet appointments, legislation, etc. Now add that to the instant outrage headlines over whatever any Trump official said today, the amplification process by which outlets compete with each other to see who can make their alarmism the loudest and most shrill until it’s like that video in which they trick the two voice apps into screeching at each other…

If the firehose metaphor is accurate, don’t picture Trump spraying bullshit on a panicked, unsuspecting crowd. Picture a thirsty crowd fighting to get to the hose to suck from the nozzle.

You Must Separate The Signal From The Noise

As soon as Trump took office, it became a nonstop whirlwind of headlines and reaction, social media channels full of people terrified that they’ll lose their healthcare, be deported, have their marriage nullified, or be incinerated in nuclear fire. Amid all of the noise, very little has actually occurred.

Some of you are so sure that last sentence is wrong that your reaction will be visceral anger. “Uh, have you even glanced at the news, jerk?” Yes. Our disagreement is in how I don’t consider a Donald Trump tweet to be news. I think it’s noise, a barking dog in the distance. I’ve decided to save my anxiety for when there’s legitimate policy. “But he’s signed 45 executive orders or memos in the last month alone!” Yep, and virtually none of them had any effect on anything whatsoever.

He signed an order demanding a reversal of bank regulations, but again, executive orders can’t undo regulations. That’s not how they work. It was a piece of paper telling the secretary of the Treasury to review existing regulations at some point and maybe recommend changing them. This was, of course, sensibly reported by the press in a calm, evenhanded way … oh, wait.

The only substantive order, the one spelling out an immediate shift in policy, was the travel ban on immigrants from certain Muslim countries, which was swiftly struck down by the courts. I said you have to separate the signal from the noise. Well, that one was signal. There was action to be taken, congresspeople to call, groups to donate to.

If you want to stay sane going forward, you’re going to have to figure this out. You’ll have to separate the headlines / tweets / video clips that spur you to useful action from the ones you’re consuming to feed an addiction that puts money in the pockets of reckless carnival barkers. So, for reference, I think the following is noise:

  1. Gaffes – At a Black History Month speech, Trump didn’t seem to know who Frederick Douglass was. At a rally in Florida, he made a vague reference to a terrible event in Sweden that didn’t occur. Sean Spicer accidentally called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “Joe,” and kept saying the Orlando terror attack happened in Atlanta. Each stumble triggers an avalanche of outrage headlines and a cloud of tweets feeding a hundred million “Somebody exterminate these slime-balls” dopamine hits. And it all amounts to NOTHING. We get to feel superior and make our snide little comments, and the world is not impacted in any way.
  2. Trump tweets – Tweets are not legislation. They are not legally binding. Other world leaders know who Donald Trump is. They know this is the same Twitter account he once used to rant about how the stars of Twilight shouldn’t continue dating. “But those tweets offer insight into his crazy mind!” We know all about Trump’s crazy mind. You’re not following it for news; you’re following it for entertainment. You know how those tweets are going to make you feel, and you want to feel it.
  3. Anti-Trump fake news – Obama was the first president of the “Everybody gets their news from social media” era. This gave birth to a whole industry of outlets that dealt in fake Obama outrage stories. That’s how we wound up with Breitbart, The Blaze, Gateway Pundit, and thousands more. In the Trump era, there is now an exploding market in fake anti-Trump outrage stories, and I’m shocked by how many smart people are quick to repeat them. No, Trump supporters didn’t burn down a black church in Mississippi (apparently it was a church member staging it to look like a hate crime). No, an Iraqi woman didn’t die because Trump’s travel ban prevented her from getting to a hospital (her son later admitted he made it up). So in addition to the damage to your mental health, there’s the corruption of your BS Detector. You will judge the value of stories not on whether they are true, but on whether they feed your addiction. Many of you reacted to the stories mentioned above with something like “Well, that may not have happened, but lots of similar incidents probably did.” You need the worst to be true.

There is no playbook for managing this kind of sustained information overload because it has literally never happened before, ever. I don’t think our brains are built to handle it. I think there is evidence that the need for constantly escalating stimulation is a sickness, one we’re all vulnerable to. And that should terrify – oh, screw it.