loving attention

On outrage: Contemplation, rightly-ordered love, and loving attention as an ‘outrageous’ response to outrageous events

This is the last in 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, then whether we have a moral obligation to notice or pay attention to disorder, and where we might or might not be culpable for failing to be outraged, then the link between a dead lion and Planned Parenthood — our disordered hearts, we considered the purpose of outrage, then some ancient Greek visions of virtue.

Remember Cecil the Lion?

How about Kony 2012?

What about Aylan Kurdi?

How quickly do we move on from that which outrages?

Cecil the Lion was a shot almost two months ago. His was the story that sparked this series in which I consider why we get outraged, what our tendency towards outrage might teach us about the world and our humanity, and what a more virtuous, loving, and constructive response to our disordered world might look like.

It turns out that outrage has a shelf life. The dentist who shot Cecil is going back to work this week. It also turns out that there’s a saturation point where people stop caring about information released in chunks (probably including this series of posts — but hey, I like to write for the “long tail” not the cheap virality of a sensationalist piece). So onwards into this question of outrage, and how we respond virtuously — with love — to those at the heart of outrageous events — be they victims or perpetrators. Because I think it’s this sort of radical love for people at both sides of something outrageous that defines a Christian response to disorder in the world. Here’s what Jesus says…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:43-48

But what is love? What is love in the face of disorder?

Love and Virtue as attention seeking understanding in a virtually connected world

In the first few posts in this series I’ve basically suggested that outrageous events should propel us towards God and acting virtuously not towards forming lynch mobs or misdirected anger.

How then, should we define what is ‘good’ or virtuous— not just for ourselves, but for the community we’re part of? And what is this ‘community’ in the global age? Aristotle’s view of virtue was very much limited to proximity, you could only be concerned about those in your sphere, and only be assessed as a virtuous/moral agent based on how you treated people in your orbit. This obviously worked in his media culture which was transitioning from exclusively oral to oral and written. You found out about disorder as you experienced it, immediately, or as you were told, a long time after the fact. The media landscape we live in has fundamentally changed because space and time aren’t the limiting factors they once were for us in terms of forming communities or connections with people around the globe, or for being confronted with disorder and given the capacity to respond.

We may feel like solving world events is beyond our control, but the changing nature of ‘connectedness’ or community doesn’t just bring more awareness of problems, it brings more opportunities for us to communicate, relate, and love, beyond geographic boundaries. A solution to something outrageous may involve us sacrificially directing our attention, or love. This direction of love may involve activism, it may involve a movement towards physical proximity via a flight (we’re also more geographically connected than ever before), it may involve us giving money…

But the new media landscape means we’re actually bombarded with outrageous events, almost faster than we can possibly receive them, let alone respond to them. And there’s still plenty we don’t see because media agencies filter the least palatable material from global conflict and disaster so that we don’t have to see things as they really are.

If Aristotle was right about our moral responsibility resting with causes that we’re proximate to, and able to change, what is our moral responsibility when our new connected landscape means we’re just a mouse click away from outrageous events, and potentially a mouse-click away from a solution to these outrageous events?

What does virtuous or moral action look like in this connected and obviously disordered world? What do we need to do in order to be loving? And how do we decide what to love? It’s a question I grappled with in a more specific sense when people were changing their profiles to a ن in response to ISIS persecuting Christians, and tried to apply practically here. But it’s still a question I’m trying to unpack a little more.

In the last post in this series I looked at how Aristotle’s concept of virtue and arete (moral excellence) and the form of virtue promoted in the New Testament revolved around contemplation and knowing, the sort of contemplation and knowing that produces right actions. I’m going to suggest here that contemplation and knowing, via the application of loving attention, is the first virtuous act that we should bring to the table when we’re trying to respond to outrageously disordered events in the world, and that this should form the basis of whatever moral actions we take in response (and this will necessarily mean ‘outrage’ and forming an outraged mob is not the right, loving, response. This sort of love is the foundational virtue we should bring to the table, and because I’m a Christian, I’m going to suggest this love should be understood as “Christlike love.”

And I’m going to suggest that the act of love is an act of giving true attention, whether you’re a Christian or not.

From Aristotle to Augustine: Love, contemplation, and order

A few posts back, I suggested that most of the disorder we’re responding to the world is a result of our disordered hearts — our disordered love — hearts that orient humanity towards self-love at the expense of others. Virtue, or re-ordered love, will necessarily break this default pattern and seek order, rather than disorder. There are non-Christian accounts of virtue that seek to break this default, which I’ll get to below, but there’s also a sense that current visions of virtue, in the secular west, are derived from Christian moral philosophers who spent time reflecting on thinkers like Aristotle. If you were handing out jerseys to people who were influential thinkers on this front, after Aristotle and the New Testament, Augustine would definitely get a run in the team. People are still unpacking the implications of the stuff he wrote 1,600 years after he wrote it.

Augustine pinpointed the source of disorder in the world — the sort previously attributed to self-loving hearts — to hearts that reject God’s purposes for creation and humanity because they are hearts that love things in the wrong order. Disorder is a product of us paying attention to, and seeking satisfaction in, things that are not capable of satisfying our desires because they aren’t God. He saw the path to virtue as involving re-orienting, and re-ordering our love of objects in this world — people or otherwise — by loving God first, and having our love for other things ordered by this love.

And thus beauty, which is indeed God’s handiwork, but only a temporal, carnal, and lower kind of good, is not fitly loved in preference to God, the eternal, spiritual, and unchangeable good.  When the miser prefers his gold to justice, it is through no fault of the gold, but of the man; and so with every created thing.  For though it be good, it may be loved with an evil as well as with a good love:  it is loved rightly when it is loved ordinately; evilly, when inordinately.  It is this which some one has briefly said in these verses in praise of the Creator:  “These are Thine, they are good, because Thou art good who didst create them.  There is in them nothing of ours, unless the sin we commit when we forget the order of things, and instead of Thee love that which Thou hast made.”

But if the Creator is truly loved, that is, if He Himself is loved and not another thing in His stead, He cannot be evilly loved; for love itself is to be ordinately loved, because we do well to love that which, when we love it, makes us live well and virtuously.  So that it seems to me that it is a brief but true definition of virtue to say, it is the order of love; and on this account, in the Canticles, the bride of Christ, the city of God, sings, “Order love within me.” — Augustine, City of God, Book 15, Chapter 22

Then, in On Christian Doctrine, basically his version of the sort of ethical/rhetorical work which envisaged the ideal person as the ideal orator or teacher (following in the tradition of people like Cicero who spelled out his own vision of the virtuous person as a seer, knower, and speaker of truth in works like On The Ideal Orator (De Oratore)), Augustine wrote:

“Now he is a man of just and holy life who forms an unprejudiced estimate of things, and keeps his affections also under strict control, so that he neither loves what he ought not to love, nor fails to love what he ought to love, nor loves that equally which ought to be loved either less or more, nor loves less or more which ought to be loved equally. No sinner is to be loved as a sinner; and every man is to be loved as a man for God’s sake; but God is to be loved for His own sake. And if God is to be loved more than any man, each man ought to love God more than himself.”— Augustine, On Christian Doctrine I. 27. 28

When it came to defining what love actually means, Augustine started with the love he saw on display within the Trinity from person to person of the Trinity. His understanding of what love looks like was built from the Trinity up, and so, in a thing he wrote reflecting on the Trinity, called De Trinitate, he unpacked a series of links between knowledge, love, and the will. After establishing this same point about God being the first object of our love, saying “so God is to be loved, not this and that good, but the good itself…” he turns to how this sort of love shapes and defines a mind so that it can be called “good” — our minds, he suggests, are shaped by the things we love, and the things we love are the things we seek, and I’d suggest this seeking, for Augustine, is a sort of attempting to understand a thing accurately within our mind.

And to what can it turn itself that it may become a good mind, except to the good which it loves, and seeks, and obtains? And if it turns itself back again from this, and becomes not good, then by the very act of turning away from the good, unless that good remain in it from which it turns away, it cannot again turn itself back…

For Augustine, truly loving God (and by extension true loving) was a matter of seeking to truly know God in our own minds, by applying our minds to knowing and perceiving God (and by extension, whatever it is we seek to love).

But who loves what he does not know? For it is possible something may be known and not loved: but I ask whether it is possible that what is not known can be loved; since if it cannot, then no one loves God before he knows Him. And what is it to know God except to behold Him and steadfastly perceive Him with the mind?

The sort of love Augustine pictures here — both directed at God and others — is a love that seeks to know the mind of the other, not simply a love that loves another on our own terms. It essentially seeks to picture, or understand, the mind of the other within the mind of the self. This process begins with trying to understand God’s mind, and one’s own mind…

What, then, is love, except a certain life which couples or seeks to couple together some two things, namely, him that loves, and that which is loved? And this is so even in outward and carnal loves. But that we may drink in something more pure and clear, let us tread down the flesh and ascend to the mind. What does the mind love in a friend except the mind?

For the mind cannot love itself, except also it know itself; for how can it love what it does not know? Or if any body says that the mind, from either general or special knowledge, believes itself of such a character as it has by experience found others to be and therefore loves itself, he speaks most foolishly. For whence does a mind know another mind, if it does not know itself?”

For Augustine, perhaps unlike Aristotle, this sort of mindful love occurs as a response to seeing, paying attention to, and knowing those you love, but can also come through hearing about some other person removed from your immediate proximity…

For whence is the ardor of brotherly love kindled in me, when I hear that some man has borne bitter torments for the excellence and steadfastness of faith? And if that man is shown to me with the finger, I am eager to join myself to him, to become acquainted with him, to bind him to myself in friendship. And accordingly, if opportunity offers, I draw near, I address him, I converse with him, I express my goodwill towards him in what words I can, and wish that in him too in turn should be brought to pass and expressed goodwill towards me; and I endeavour after a spiritual embrace in the way of belief, since I cannot search out so quickly and discern altogether his innermost heart…

But those things themselves we either touch if present by the bodily sense, or if absent remember their images as fixed in our memory, or picture, in the way of likeness to them, such things as we ourselves also, if we wished and were able, would laboriously build up: figuring in the mind after one fashion the images of bodies, or seeing bodies through the body; but after another, grasping by simple intelligence what is above the eye of the mind, viz., the reasons and the unspeakably beautiful skill of such forms

This, of course, is interesting where we now hear and see things that we are not physically proximate to almost instantly. For Augustine this hearing could take place generations after the fact, and could also happen as someone received word about the plight of a person who seemed a world away. Our senses are now bombarded in a manner that does away with physical proximity, or time, as a barrier for knowledge. We form images of others — and see images of others — faster than ever before. Faster than we can possible process and understand with the sort of attention Augustine relished. The answer to navigating the complex mix of disorder that hits our eyes, I suspect, is caught up with rightly ordering our loves, and rightly understanding ourselves and our capacity to respond with love to others. We need to choose to weigh up the needs of those who can be pointed out to us by a finger, or who we see with our own eyes, and those whose presence is mediated to us via a screen, and presented to us via algorithms designed to hold our attention by presenting us with things we are likely to be outraged by — be it the dead squirrel in our yard, a dead lion, dead unborn children, or a dead child tragically washed up on a beach, or any number of meaningful or trivial things — the algorithm has an interest in fanning the flames of our hearts, and stoking our imaginations, in order to grip our attention.

This sort of bombardment of things to love, or respond to, leaves us in an interesting web of relationships with those we know and those we don’t.

It’s complicated.

Virtue as love, and love as the acts that flow from unselfish true seeing by paying attention

What’s the best we can hope to do amidst this complication? I think it’s caught up with the idea of the ethical life being the virtuous life — the life that isn’t as much focused on responding out of a sense of duty, but simply caught up with the idea of responding as a virtuous agent. Responding to whatever it is we see with a rightly ordered love. A love, for Christians, that starts with loving God, but moves to loving our (global) neighbour (or enemy) as we love ourselves. And I think the way to love, at least in this complicated world, is to love by paying attention in order to see things, and people, truly.

I think this model actually works without God too. Because I think it’s the most virtuous initial response to something happening a world away, because this true seeing underpins truly loving actions. It helps us know what is best. This is the sort of ‘good’ life that David Foster Wallace called people to live in his speech This Is Water

But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: the only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship… — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

I think it’s a really nice picture of what I understand to be a model of virtuous living without God, and even a model for life with God. David Foster Wallace is the secular world’s CS Lewis. The beauty of his writing, be it fiction or non-fiction, is that it practices the sort of virtue described in This Is Water. He notices things. This virtuous attention to detail, an attempt to describe things and people as they really are, not just as you’d like them to be, is a virtuous and loving approach to writing, and to life. It means we must pay attention to things other than ourselves.

This idea of attention as virtue is interesting, it was a seed planted for me when I was reading something comparing two of my favourite writers— David Foster Wallace and Nicholson Baker — as I grappled with what it is I like about their writing, and the thing I like is that they are attentive to, and bring out, detail. The thing these guys might have in common is that they share a vision of goodness or virtue with novelist/moral philosopher Iris Murdoch. There’s an essay that examines the moral philosophy of This Is Water that suggests a link to Murdoch’s framework, and Baker is an avowed fan. I like the idea that novelists (like Wallace, Baker, and Murdoch) can teach us how to see and perceive the world morally, by asking us moral questions but also by inviting us to pay attention to life through the eyes of their characters, here’s a little paragraph from a Slate article about Baker, its the paragraph that sent me off to read Iris Murdoch because it intrigued me… For context, this comes as the piece discusses Baker’s expressed desire to preserve factoids and articles marked for deletion on Wikipedia (you can read Baker’s Wikipedia essay here).

“That same instinct for preservation underpins the way Baker writes. Ever since his first essays and stories appeared in the early ‘80s, he has always been noting things deemed non-notable by others, gently urging them towards us with his precise, delightful language.  His style is deeply moral—not in a preachy sense, but in the sense that it emerges from the way he sees the world. His ethics are absorbed into his aesthetics, and vice versa.

In all this there is the flavor of one of Baker’s favorite authors, Iris Murdoch, who centered her moral philosophy on the idea of “loving attention”—the idea that looking at a person or situation with intense care and imaginative sympathy is, in her words, “the characteristic and proper mark of the moral agent.” The lovingly precise descriptions Baker offers of even the most fleeting things that he comes across are a way of doing justice to those things—of honoring their dignity, if that’s not too grand and religious-sounding a phrase to use. (Baker is an atheist, and also a pacifist.)”

Murdoch unpacks this vision of virtue and morality in a book called The Sovereignty of Good, like Baker, and perhaps like DFW (nobody can really pinpoint exactly where he landed on the God question), Murdoch sees no need for God to form part of defining morality.

It’s hard for me to go this many words, in any written thing, without quoting Cicero, so here’s how he defined virtue. Which I think is important too. Especially the “habit” bit.

“A habit accompanied by, or arising out of, deliberate choice, and based upon free and conscious action”

Murdoch agrees, but suggests this habit starts with the application of the senses, and the mind, to things beyond ourselves. A conscious act of “unselfing”…

“The love which brings the right answer is an exercise of justice and realism and really looking. The difficulty is to keep the attention fixed on the real situation and to prevent it from returning surreptitiously to the self with consolations of self-pity, resentment, fantasy, and despair…  Of course virtue is good habit and dutiful action. But the background condition of such habit and such action, in human beings, is a just mode of vision and a good quality of consciousness. It is a task to come to see the world as it is.”

“But I would suggest that, at the level of serious common sense and of an ordinary non-philosophical reflection about the nature of morals, it is perfectly obvious that goodness is connected with knowledge; not with impersonal quasi-scientific knowledge of the ordinary world, whatever that may be, but with a refined and honest perception of what is really the case, a patient and just discernment and exploration of what confronts one, which is the result not simply of opening one’s eyes but of a certain and perfectly familiar kind of moral discipline.”

“Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the ‘unself,’ to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness, in the light of the idea of perfection. This is the non-metaphysical meaning of the idea of transcendence to which philosophers have so constantly resorted in their explanations of goodness. ‘Good is a transcendent reality,’ means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.” — Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good

This fits with how Augustine, and the “Augustinian Tradition” understood love based on God’s love within the Trinity, and towards creation, or, as Oliver O’Donovan puts it: “The term by which the Augustinian tradition expressed the idea of an originally committed attention is “love.” This idea of “love as committed attention” means true seeing involves both understanding and being oriented towards a right response. This, I’d suggest, is what virtue looks like in the face of outrageous events in a disordered world. First knowing who we are, and who we are to love, and then acting according to our judgment from this basis. Or, as O’Donovan explains it…

“To know any thing is to grasp its inherent intelligibility, which is its good: but to grasp its intelligibility is to grasp it and, in grasping it, to cling to it in love…”Thinking morally” is a much wider activity than thinking toward decision. It includes an attention to the world which is both affective and evaluative…Our whole world of beings and events is known to us only as we love and hate. At the root of moral thought is a necessary taking stock of the world. a discrimination prior to any decision we may subsequently make to influence the world. We shall call this taking stock “moral reflection,” to distinguish it from moral deliberation, which is directed toward decision. The metaphors contained in these two words suggest the distinction: `reflection” is “turning back” to look on something that is already there, an existing reality, “behind you,” as it were; “deliberation” is “weighing up,” facing an alternative, looking at possible courses of action that have not yet occurred…Moral reflection is not without a practical significance but it is nor oriented to any action in particular, but to the task of existence itself. In reflection we answer the question ‘how shall we live?” not “what shall we do?”

“By relating ourselves cognitively and affectively to the good and evil that we see within the created world around us, we adopt a posture that is the source of all our actions, but is not itself another action, or a summary of actions, but an affirmation of what we are.” — Oliver O’Donovan, Common Objects of Love

David Foster Wallace thought this sort of seeing of the world necessarily produced a freedom from the selfish default, and simultaneously tapped us in to some deeper sense of connection with “some infinite thing” — I’d suggest this infinite thing is caught up with our created telos — the purpose and sense of the divine written on every human heart.

“… The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

So how does this seeing, this giving of committed attention, work? What governs how we understand what we see via our attention, and how we respond? It’s all caught up with the narrative we use to see our lives — the equipment we have for processing outrage — and this is a product of what we worship — what we place at the centre of the narrative.

David Foster Wallace also understood this act of deciding how to see the world as an act of worship, and something which frees us to decide what it is to worship — the thing, other than ourselves (and for some, the self) that helps us not just see the world, but how to interact with it well. This sense of true seeing and true acting being based in something other than ourself is important if we are self-aware enough to believe that we shouldn’t be setting the universal standard of our own accord. And our selfish default, when we recognise it, should be enough to prevent that sort of self-belief. It’s what

Virtuous seeing begins with a realisation that we are people-in-community, or people-in-relationship, not just selves running around existing in isolation. Christian moral philosopher Stanley Hauerwas says:

“The self is fundamentally a social self. We are not individuals who come into contact with others and then decide our various levels of social involvement. We are not “I’s” who decide to identify with certain “we’s”; we are first of all “we’s” who discover our “I’s” through learning to recognise the others as similar and different from ourselves. Our individuality is possible only because we are first of all social beings. After all, the “self” names not a thing, but a relation. I know who I am only in relation to others, and, indeed, who I am is a relation with others.” — Stanley Hauerwas

Hauerwas sees ethics about truly seeing the world, but he locates our ability to do this in looking beyond ourselves to a bigger story, starting with God’s story and what it says about us…

Ethics… is not primarily about rules and principles, rather it is about how the self must be transformed to see the world truthfully. For Christians, such seeing develops through schooling in a narrative which teaches us how to use the language of sin not only about others, but about ourselves

This “language of sin” stuff is really, in one sense, a description of the realisation of our default selfishness, and also the realisation that left to our own devices, we produce outrageous events, we don’t just witness them. The narrative Hauerwas calls us to find ourselves in is the Gospel narrative, the narrative that rewires our default, and reorients our sense of self through that commandment Augustine loved so much (and the one from the start, the words of Jesus that call us to love our enemies).

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.” — Jesus, Matthew 22:37-38

Seeing and acting is the basis for Christian loving that follows in the footsteps of Jesus. It’s what we’re called to do as “children of God” in 1 John. It’s how “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!… This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. — 1 John 3:1, 16-18

For Christians, our response to the outrage we see in the world is meant to mirror God’s response to the outrage he saw in the world, and our lives, sacrificial, costly, getting amongst the mess because we are motivated by love. Love isn’t just about attention, or “words and speech” — outpourings of outrage from behind a keyboard. It’s hard stuff that costs us. Actions. Truth. True seeing leads to true actions, and true seeing, linked with the truth of the Christian narrative — both the outrageous truth it reveals about us, and the outrageous love shown to us to change our narrative — reshapes the way we respond to outrage. We pay attention to the stories and the people involved because they have dignity and are worthy of love, and seeing truly is important for true actions. We avoid outrage and knee jerk reactions. We extend grace and love to those who are disordered, because we were once disordered, and we extend grace and love to those who are victims of disorder, because that too, is how God first loved us.

This doesn’t necessarily help us when there are 1,000 things commanding our attention and our pity, responding to this bombardment involves:

  1. Prayer as our attention is drawn to things, which costs us time, but takes us to the one who can provide solutions, and we’re confident of this because of the solution we found in our own lives,
  2. Seeking truth, and being known to be credible givers of attention, rather than simply believing every unverified rumour shared on social media, and gives us pause to check the truth of what we say before we say it, or post it,
  3. This means looking for truth beyond the headlines and the soundbites. Paying the sort of attention to detail we see in the work of virtuous novelists to the characters in these stories.
  4. Continuing to pay attention long after the attention span of the self-loving community moves on. How many people still have ن pictures as Facebook profile pictures? How many people are still crying out for justice against Kony? How many people care about dead lions? How many people are going to care about Syrian refugees in six months when they might actually be arriving on our shores.
  5. Speaking truth, and thinking about the nexus between love as committed attention and action, and considering what actions might be appropriate for us in the communities we belong to.
  6. It involves discipline and discernment. Knowing our limits and avoiding being desensitised to the chaotic disorder in our world, we actually can’t respond to everything, and outrage will be just about every where we look, so we may need to moderate where we look based on where we are able to act, though this doesn’t mean being interested by geographic proximity, rather it involves being limited by where we’re able to respond. That we can respond with prayer does significantly broaden the geographic scope.
  7. It involves costly action in response.

It’s worth checking out this Centre of Public Christianity interview with the ABC’s Scott Stephens about the moral responsibility that comes from disturbing images.

Here’s the CPX blurb.

“Scott Stephens argues that, in a visually saturated culture, images can both move us and dull us to the plight of others. There exists then a moral dimension to our exposure to images that requires a careful and intentional response.”

On outrage: Disorder and our self-loving attention deficit

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.

cecil

Should I pay attention to dead lions? Or dead humans?

Yes.

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.

On outrage: Dead squirrels and the algorithmic distribution of news and attention

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

“…a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” — Mark Zuckerberg, cited in the New York Times, When the internet thinks it knows you.

It used to be that media moguls would set an editorial agenda based on what they thought would sell papers. Well. They still do. It’s just a dying method for presenting an audience with ‘news’ via media.

That’s what news is. It’s how media works. The traditional broadcast media functions with an editorial agenda and a business agenda built on providing content that is relevant and of interest to its audience. It’s kind of our fault if these businesses choose not to show us shocking and harrowing things from across the globe, but tend to spend more time on dead squirrel issues, or even cute warm fuzzies if you watch The Project. We get the media we deserve.

Now, our media consumption is shaped by the people we connect to, and sources we allow, but more subliminally, its shaped by algorithms designed to give us exactly what it appears we want based on our habits.

The internet as we know and experience it is built on our desires and our curated network of relationships. The platforms we use online make their money by matching up our desires with solutions, or content.

Major platforms like Google and Facebook earn their keep based on shaping an experience of the Internet that is the experience of the Internet that most appeals to you. Our algorithmic experience of the Internet is a subjective experience, not an objective one. It becomes more objective only as we seek out truth through the application of our attention and our minds, going beyond what has been called the “filter bubble.”

These algorithms are coded to care about, or present to us, what they calculate matters to us in an immediate attention-hooking way, rather than what might be said to matter objectively. This filter bubble means we’re likely to be served things that engage our emotions, or even outrage us, based on how an algorithm understands who we are.

The filter bubble means we’re unlikely to be confronted with all the things that matter objectively, or even subjectively to others, if they compete with the subjective things that matter to us. Or as Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, put it when describing how Facebook decides what to put in your newsfeed (see above)… dead squirrels.

The media is like a mirror being held up to the things we care about. The media, including social media, plays a part in determining what we get outraged about, and now, also, where we get outraged about it.

This filter bubble raises a question about our moral culpability for attention, or inattention, are we really to blame for being outraged at the wrong thing if the thing we’re predisposed seeing is not X or Y, dead lions, or dead babies, but dead squirrels? What is our responsibility, as online citizens, if we’re aware of X and Y, when the default setting is ignorance?

It’s interesting how the question of attention, and default settings features in David Foster Wallace’s famous insights from This Is Water, a speech in which he is arguably extrapolating from and applying Iris Murdoch’s system of virtuous loving attention… He suggests our ignorance is the product of our decision to worship some thing, to give it our attention, and often that thing is our self.

The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I wonder if our tendency towards outrage in the face of disorder is also a product of a “constant gnawing sense,” but in this case its the sense of paradise lost. Of a world without disorder. But more on this soon…

I’m interested too, in the idea of being morally culpable for not knowing, or not being outraged — for not paying attention — to something beyond whatever else we do know about or are outraged about. Is it immoral to only care about a dead squirrel when there are lions and babies out there? Is it immoral to care about a lion, if you’re unaware of the babies? If we know about the babies, and know that most people only know about squirrels, is it immoral not to raise people’s attention via our own outrage? Are we culpable for never moving beyond the default settings? For not looking beyond our backyard, and paying attention to those in our neighbourhood, or around the globe? Where do we draw a line?

Karen Swallow Prior wrote this helpful opinion piece, Is Cecil the lion more devastating than the Planned Parenthood videos?, for the Washington Post, asking this sort of question about the relationship between ignorance and culpability. She particularly emphasised wilful ignorance, but what about algorithmic or default ignorance?

On social media, many have connected the two stories through mutual finger-pointing at the perceived lack of outrage for one story or the other. But there is a stronger connection between the two events.

While elective abortion and trophy hunting are different issues surrounded by different ethical and political questions, both news stories offer — regardless of one’s views on either issue — an opportunity to consider the moral responsibility that comes with knowledge — and the moral responsibility that comes with willful ignorance…

…So perhaps the more important question is, when does one become morally culpable for ignorance?

… We readily accept that with knowledge comes responsibility. But both the Planned Parenthood and the lion slaying controversies show that at some point, even our willful ignorance confers the weight of moral responsibility.

How do ignorance, and the alternative, loving attention, work in terms of morality and ethics in a new media world? Do we need to deliberately seek knowledge, seek to pay attention to things, beyond a dead squirrel to be acting with virtue? Our eyes have the capacity to be more globally connected than ever before thanks to the Internet, but our hearts and minds are still as self-interested as ever. Does outrage serve some sort of ethical purpose in that it forces us, and others, to pay attention to things beyond ourselves, or is it simply an expression of selfishness, a knee-jerk defence when something attacks what we hold to be sacred, what we have chosen to worship with our attention?

Outrage seems to be one of the natural responses to paying attention to the disorder in our world. Just what can we give our attention to? Just how much attention do we have to go around?

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