The moment I realized how ticked off I was last week at a certain group of Facebook homies for criticizing Kate Middleton’s postpartum pumps, I knew my personal rage-o-meter had moved too far into the red.
Seriously, I thought, you folks are salty with Middleton for her stylish choice of modest nude pumps as she leaves a London hospital in front of millions? She’s a princess, for crying out loud!
The particularly cantankerous news cycle of the last few weeks has included sitting while black in Starbucks, golfing while Negro in York, Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction, Kanye West’s social media meltdown, and the fallout from Michelle Wolf’s controversial White House Correspondents Dinner performance. It inflamed my nerves so much even an innocuous posting of hip-hop legend Sandra “Pepa” Denton (of Salt-N fame) irritated the bejesus out of me. Why? Because Pep, although still pretty, just doesn’t look like the “Push It” Pepa of my youth anymore. How dare she!?
How dare I?
The truth is that just because I have 24-hour access to my Facebook account, my opinion is no more or less valid than the next human’s on social media — and I write a column for a living. So what if my suburban mommy friends and I have a difference of opinion? Does this honestly require so much raw indignation?
But if you are anything like me, and you shout from your social media perch daily, this last week has left you pretty exhausted by rage — the world’s as well as your own.
“We are definitely all more outraged now,” said David Bryce Yaden, a research fellow and doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center. Yaden cited social media as the No. 1 driver behind our 24/7 frustration. Not only do we have the ability to comment on everything, people are always asking us to, and we’re validated by it.
The problem, Yaden said, is that the superficial celebrity outrage stories — the princess’ shoe choice — are in the same mix as the serious stories — like racial profiling at Starbucks. And our gossipy rancor “distracts us from the big important social problems we should be working harder to correct, like: racism, sexism, inequities, justice reform, environmental issues, education, and health care,” Yaden said.
This means that although I find the once-conscious rapper Kanye West’s professed love for his fellow “dragon blood”-having brother President Trump — who at best is tone deaf when it comes to issues involving people of color and at worst is a flat-out racist — sickening, how I feel about this alliance really isn’t the issue.
The issue is that our condemnation of West is flagrantly turning our backs on mental illness — especially among black males, who are the least likely to get treatment — because we don’t like how this illness is manifesting. That’s not to say being a Trump supporter is an indicator of being touched. But the out-of-context tweets followed by West’s out-of-left-field comments, is all the proof I need that he’s still healing from that 2016 mental breakdown. To make matters worse, on Tuesday, he went so far as to call slavery “a choice” in an interview with TMZ. To me, that doesn’t sound like a black man who has all his marbles.
“It’s worth exploring the possibility that when we feel helpless about the big problems, it’s easier to get outraged about the superficial stuff instead,” Yaden said. “We feel like we might be able to do something about it.”
The tricky part is that some of the issues we deem minor annoyances in the grand scheme of things are actually symptoms of these larger problems.
On Monday, biracial singer Halsey took to Twitter to say she was frustrated with the shampoo in hotels. “I can’t use this perfumed watered down white people shampoo. Neither can 50 percent of ur customers. Annoying,” she wrote in a since-deleted tweet. Shampoo may seem trivial, yes, but it’s about the larger picture of inclusion. Why should half of Americans have to tote their own shea butter conditioner?
Moral outrage is as old as civilization itself, writes Molly Crockett, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University. Believe it or not, there are social benefits for voicing your opinions on issues that burn you to your core that include motivating those around you to stop the offensive behavior. Also — and this is where our social media feeds fit in — it signals something about your own character to your group. It proves to them you are down for their cause. So if your political crew is all about conservative spending and you advocate for shutting down after-school centers, you bolster your reputation within that crew.
“There is a lot of research supporting this idea that people are more willing to trust someone if they are willing to punish the person they deem as unfair,” Crockett said. Outrage signals something about your moral character to others, Crockett said. And that makes it personally rewarding, so it becomes a social thing.
Now, however, social media provides us with a much broader and larger audience, so, naturally, some of those who don’t agree with us might be mixed in our friend pool. And they, eager to win the approval of their own like-minded group, might chime in. Now we have a problem — anger.
“Expressing outrage can have social benefits by holding bad actors accountable,” Crockett said. “But in political contexts, rival groups my try to provoke outrage in one another deliberately. So political outrage might counterproductively reinforce the very behaviors we are trying to regulate."
In other words, everybody starts to double down and the anger becomes a hot coal — we pick it up and it burns us.
Learning the effects of social media is still in its infant phase. Are we really that angry, or are we just letting off steam? What are the long-term effects of being agitated every time we scroll through our feeds? People are still studying the answers to these questions.
But, Crockett said, one of the more concerning aspects of social media is that because these platforms are built to monetize our attention, the most outrageous stories are often shared. And those, she said, are more likely to elicit rage.
In the meantime, Yaden says, it’s important that we don’t let this anger fester because it can create a learned helplessness, which he describes as a passive paralysis in the face of injustice.
“If we get caught up in the negative, we will start believing that nothing we do matters and we’ll stop working hard to make things better.”
That said, the next time I feel like my pissivity levels are on the verge of being lit, I’ll try not to engage and save my energy for the things that matter — unless, of course, it’s about shoes.