People are arguing about whether one can be outraged about a dead lion, when they could, alternatively, be outraged about dead babies. I think they’re arguing about the wrong thing, and outraged about the wrong thing, and we should be thankful that people aren’t just outraged about dead squirrels. Ultimately the questions that matter are the questions of what you are paying attention to, and how you’re doing that…
This is a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue. First, we considered that outrage might be a disordered form of loving attention, next, we considered that social media works to show us things calculated to appeal to our selfishness.
Should I pay attention to dead lions? Or dead humans?
It’s silly to pretend this is a dichotomy. That we cannot appropriately care about, talk about, and share stories about, both. But the question of outrage is also a question of attention — a question of which outrage inducing disorder we should pay attention to.
One of the realities of the internet is that there are more things, more outlets, more media, grappling for our attention than ever before. We’ve never been more aware that our attention is finite than we are now. But it’s a cop-out to suggest that this noisy environment provides an excuse for ignorance, as much as its a cop-out to suggest that in such a noisy, confusing, environment we only have the capacity to care about one thing, so all these examples of disorder should be weighed against each other. Remembering back to our outrage equation where X is Cecil the Lion, Y is Planned Parenthood, and Z is our outrage. Can we only care about X, or Y? And is Z the right response if people try to care about what we think is the wrong thing to be giving loving attention to?
No. We can almost certainly pay attention to, X and Y at the same time. Z, our outrage, might also be a product of both, a response to disorder generally, rather than specifically. I’m able to love both my wife and my children, how I apply my time and attention in these relationships is a matter of wisdom and circumstances, and applying that attention is almost always the result of deciding not to pay attention to myself (unless I give attention based on what I think I might get in return).
But what about people who only choose to care about X, or Y, as if their attention is finite, or perhaps because they are ignorant of one or the other, or worse, through wilful ignorance. At what point does ignorance involve the sort of culpability that legitimately invites an outraged response? When is ignorance a failure to love?
Karen Swallow Prior’s question about moral culpability and wilful ignorance is a good one. Ignorance isn’t just a lack of knowledge, it’s a lack of attention. You can’t know things without paying attention to things. But what should we be giving our attention to?
The truth is, I suspect, that everyone actually has a central organising principle, or default setting, or internal algorithm, for choosing what to pay loving attention to — ironically its also the primary source of disorder in the world, causing the outrageous events we experience, and what causes us to wilfully choose ignorance — the love of self. Our primary concern is paying loving attention to ourselves, and having others pay attention to us, above all else. We place self-love as true north on our moral compass. But if this love is misguided and damaging, every direction we take using this compass has the potential to cause damage, because every step we take from that point will be misguided. We need something, or someone, to realign this moral compass, and that happens when something, or someone, realigns or re-orders, our love away from “self” and towards “others”… shared outrage about external things does this, at least in part. If you rely on your default setting you’ll only spend your time burying dead squirrels. It’s, at least in part, an act of un-selfing, of love even, when someone online chooses to care about something that goes beyond their own self-interest — to choose a lion over a squirrel — its just that when we choose a particular form of outrage we’re choosing a disordered way of love.
But what about choosing ignorance? Choosing to ignore Y because we’re exclusively giving attention to X, or vice versa. When we wilfully choose not to pay attention when it is put before us — be it squirrel, lion, or babies— does this choice bring with it a not just some culpability for some of the disorder in the world, but that awkward, uncomfortable, feeling that we are culpable?
And is it possible that when we play the hierarchy of outrage game to dismiss the outrage of others, and the disorder behind the outrage, its because their outrage has brought something to our attention that we want to be able to blissfully ignore, and its easier to shift the focus to something a little more generic, that we can ignore again because it is less immediate. At this point, the hierarchy of outrage game is a refusal to pay attention, or to offer love, in response to a legitimate issue, even if that issue is a symptom. Its a bit like me telling my son he can’t have a bandaid for a graze because I know the solution to the graze, ultimately, is for me to teach him to ride his bike. Bandaid solutions aren’t complete solutions, but they can be part of loving, attentive, treatment for something.
One of the things outrage, especially outrage-at-outrage, does do is point us to a to a problem with our default setting, to our selfish desire to remain ignorant. The desire the squirrel-algorithm exploits. Faced with the choice between ignorance and discomfort, we’ll choose comfortable ignorance more often than not (or have it chosen for us by an algorithm). The algorithmic approach to creating a filter bubble to contain our attention just reflects what we already do, and what we already know about the world. Ignorance is bliss. We’d rather not love some people, or some created things, if doing so will cost us our comfort.
If we are going to make an unselfish decision to focus attention on some person or thing other than ourselves, is it enough to avoid culpability that a person makes this more moral choice, or does culpability result in any choice other than the most optimal choice. Can someone be culpable for giving loving attention to X, if Y is greater than X? How do we assess whether X or Y is greater when we all bring different ethical frameworks to the table? We all approach ethical questions from our own personal vision goodness and virtue. I do believe that there’s often an objective measure that distinguishes the morality of X from Y, but we all make assessments on objective truths using brains riddled with baggage and bias. Its possible, given this subjectivity that a more constructive approach to these competing visions is to find a way to establish a common picture of virtue and vice, that advances the cause of both X and Y, while avoiding Z.