As American social and political discourse grows increasingly contentious, a variety of theories have been advanced to explain and explore the source and root causes of our current division. In his excellent piece “The Outrage Epidemic”, economist Russ Roberts begins with a succinct overview of the situation and a warning of the seriousness of the problem.
The deterioration of civil discourse is not simply unfortunate, Roberts asserts, it is dangerous. “When you can’t imagine that your political opponents might possibly be right it dehumanizes them. It justifies the worst atrocities human beings are capable of.”
From this admonition, the article proceeds to examine the underlying forces that are contributing to the conflict in the hopes of identifying opportunities to decrease and resolve it. Roberts attributes much of the problem to the way that our news and information is consumed. He suggests that the advent of cable news was responsible for an upsurge in tribalism as consumers could suddenly choose the outlets from which they received their information, and that the internet has compounded the problem dramatically.
Choice, Roberts concedes, has its benefits and advantages, but the incredible profusion of choice has enabled us to select only those things we want to consume and filter out any of those things that we don’t care to hear or consider.
This “echo-chamber’ theory has been proffered by many, Roberts admits. But he takes the analysis a step further and argues that it is not the rivalry of competing perspectives that is most problematic, but rather it is the competition between those on the same side of the issues that is proving most damaging.
“To get more views, you need to be a little bit louder in favor of the home team and a little less nuanced. You can’t just politely disagree with the other tribe. You need to vilify them. Outrage sells when competition is this intense.”
The issue is not therefore between natural ideological foes like Fox and CNN it seems, but between CNN and its competitors on the left, and Fox and its competitors on the right, all of whom are moving ever further toward the extremes in order to earn the allegiance and eyeballs of their respective tribes.
“Louder and angrier sells,” Roberts declares. “That’s part of the reason Trump won the nomination. Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist, used louder and angrier and almost beat Hillary Clinton.”
Beyond this amplification and polarization, there is the much debated question of factuality and accuracy, both of which become compromised when your primary goal is to attract and maintain audience. The outlets thus clearly need to be taken to task, but the audience itself is not blameless, Roberts suggests. In a fascinating analogy, he posits that we have come to select our news the way we select our shoes, caring more about “fit, comfort, and style” than we do about accuracy and truth. We select what feels good, i.e. what conforms with our attitudes and biases, and we leave behind the rest.
In such a climate, what hope is there for resolution? The internet continues to grow, the reliability of information continues to degrade, and tensions continue to rise. Roberts concludes with a series of proposals that focus on the ability and responsibility of each of us as individuals to regulate our behavior and moderate our consumption. Politicians and corporations are not incentivized to foment calm and reconciliation, it seems; it is up to each of us to counter the epidemic of outrage and divisiveness and to find a way to bring our communities and our country back together.
Read Russ Roberts’ “The Outrage Epidemic” here or by clicking on the image above.