There is no question that we in North America are living in an age of outrage. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell imagined a world in which the public manifestation of rage was not only common, it was actually required of all citizens. But even Orwell, with all his visions of a dystopian future, restricted this unbridled hate to a daily two-minute period. We have done him one better: on social media, we vent our fury all day, every day. What is more, we can even “tag” in our comments those who so inflame our revulsion, ensuring they know just how much we despise them.
It is little wonder that such vitriol, endlessly engaged in online, should begin to bleed into the real world more and more. Protestors regularly shout down speakers—liberals and conservatives alike—with whom they disagree. The home addresses of those with the “wrong opinions” are leaked online, along with threats of reprisals. And mass demonstrations for purportedly noble purposes nevertheless descend into violence and intimidation. The message is clear: those who disagree with the prevailing opinion of the mob are to be drowned out—or perhaps just drowned.
Most recently, we have seen this culture of outrage manifest itself in the Republican primaries, as Americans flock to a madman whose primary attraction is reflecting and magnifying their own anger. Insults, threats, and worse feed into the ever-widening circle of rage.
What has been done in the darkness of the internet has indeed been brought to light in daily life. But rather than being ashamed at such behavior, North Americans have instead chosen to revel in it. This is no righteous indignation, either; it is pleasure in destruction and joy in anarchy. Rules and common decency be damned, we want to rage and rend and tear. And we will follow anyone who gives us permission to do so, anyone who feels and acts as we do.
In that sense Trump and his followers are a symptom of a much deeper problem. The greatest danger is not Trump but rather the diseased culture that makes Trump possible. There has been a death of reasoned discourse and civil disagreement in North American society. Argument has given way to anger. Dialogue has given way to diatribe. And civility is considered a sign of weakness. We need not even know who precisely we are angry at or why, so long as we rage loudly enough.
In an earlier era, you would hold off on on firing until you saw the whites of your enemy’s eyes. Today we simply close our eyes and let the volleys fly. But our weapons are no longer mere rifles; using such a weapon would require the need to study one’s enemy and take careful aim. We settle instead for bombs. And our fingers are always on the button.
These things should not be. A man may disagree—and disagree sharply—with another, and yet give him the common courtesy of simple respect. He too, after all, has been made in the image of God, and as such has inherent worth and value. We would do well here to learn from G.K. Chesterton. This was a man who could pen a book called Heretics, in which he critiqued and condemned the ideologies of many of his contemporaries. And yet he could nevertheless refer to many of them as geniuses and even count one of them among his friends.
How different from our own time, when to think differently is to demand censure. And more than censure: the offending party must also be punished. Wishes of ill-will are now the norm, not the exception. “We are the outraged,” the masses cry. And all acquiesce, lest we perish in their wrath.
W.B. Yeats’ words, then, comes true again in our day: “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” And dare we ask what rough beast now slouches itself towards Bethlehem to be born?
Mathew Block is editor of The Canadian Lutheran magazine and communications manager for Lutheran Church-Canada. He also serves as editor for the International Lutheran Council. He tweets @captainthin.