Contextualizing Outrage Culture

Cy Burchenal, Opinion Columnist

Public vigilance is a critical part of democracy as a concept, because in order to act via their vote and voice, the public must be both informed and actually care. People, as fallible actors, are prone to failures of character. Bigotry of many kinds exists in prominent positions both in government and among members of the public. The overt critical analysis of these figures has pejoratively been named ‘outrage culture’ by its detractors. Public intervention in the affairs of governmental representatives is divided into two core components: the publications of the free press, and the vigilance of the public.

Outrage culture is a modification of the latter. The press has been a relatively constant presence in American society, keeping the public informed about news. The public, however, has not always cared enough to act on the information they receive from journalists. This is where outrage culture becomes both relevant and productive. What is pejoratively called ‘outrage culture’ is simply a high degree of attention paid to what is actually reported.

Calling this phenomena outrage culture marginalizes it, as the same principle is behind such social movements as the #MeToo movement. The concept of outrage culture, for lack of a better term, I believe is rooted in public opinion that established bulwarks against despotism, or misbehavior by prominent public figures, have failed. In this way public outrage is an essential response to outrageous activity and behavior.

Perhaps outrage culture is a product of its political circumstances – times when American conservatism is the nation’s most prominent political ideology, and American progressivism is on the defensive may make outrage culture more likely. But while political circumstances are contributing factors, outrage culture is a nonpartisan phenomena. Both Republican and Democratic celebrities and politicians have suffered severe repercussions from the intense skepticism brought about by this newfound public interest in political affairs.

If the product of this public interest is a re-emergence of prominently acceptable behavior by those examined, outrage culture has done a prominent and lasting good for society as a whole.

Ultimately, additional skepticism towards public figures and government and criticism of their actions makes for a more just society. The public should be critical of the institutions it supports. Either through business or through elections, critical examination of the things or people one supports is central to a just society. We as a people should absolutely be critical of those we elevate to positions of power. Both government and celebrity personalities are ultimately beholden to the whims of the public who foot the bill for their escapades. As such, the public can and should decide what they deem to be appropriate behavior. Democratic populism defines our government, so why should it not also define our societal expectations of what is appropriate?