As a result, when a politician utters a barely outdated cliché, or the slightest impolitic word, we no longer hear it as a faux pas or mere insensitivity. Instead it becomes the latest menacing incarnation of the evil we oppose. Micro-aggression is no longer “micro” at all, but the very real appearance of Patriarchy, or Anti-clericalism, or whatever evil you most fear. If your ideological hearing aids are tuned correctly, a gaffe becomes a threat, returning you to witch-trial-era Salem or the Vendée before the massacre.
Worse, this kind of hypermoralized politics has some serious implications for how we look at governance and power. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.” In other words, if we are simply doing good in the world, and our enemies evil, then there’s no limit to the power we ought to acquire. What a charming fantasy that can be.
Holiday is right to be concerned that our capacity for real outrage is dulled by the sort of “outrage” that we perform, or fake, or convince ourselves to feel in our self-regard. But we should consider the possibility that fake-outrage is popular precisely because it is an indulgence that requires so little from us. Fake outrage allows us to hide within the mob, to feel righteous without doing much of anything, to suffer like martyrs from words not spoken to us. If we subtracted all the outrage porn tomorrow, most of us would continue to do what we already are doing about the Syrian refugee crisis, or faraway famine, or unjust war: nothing.