This isn’t aimed at anyone in particular and it isn’t meant as an attack on those of you who have expressed sincere outrage online about past or current events. It’s just something that I have been thinking and worrying about lately.
In a world of billions of people, there are far more atrocious things happening at any given moment than the human mind can possibly comprehend and deal with. At the same time, we are very bad at evaluating proportion, cost, and cause and effect.
We tend to choose to be outraged about certain atrocities while ignoring many, many others. Often our outrage is directed and manipulated by news, propaganda, or circumstances. Every few weeks, or even every few days, there is a new trending topic about which everyone must be outraged and about which everyone must comment publicly through social media.
While it is true that good people must stand up and speak out against evil, I am concerned that constant social-media virtue signaling can become a substitute for virtue itself, and that it might contribute, counter-intuitively, to a kind of moral fatigue and general apathy regarding everyday sin and suffering.
There is a danger that as long as we have signaled that we have the right views concerning the outrage du jour, we will feel righteous, even while we continue to privately mistreat our families, take advantage of our neighbors, employees, and co-workers, hold grudges, and indulge our favorite sins.
This is something that I have to watch out for in myself. And I recognize that there is a degree of irony in posting these thoughts publicly in social media.
I believe that anger, outrage, and violence can affect our brains like a drug. Arguing with people on the internet or fighting with your spouse can trigger powerful chemicals in the brain. Political or moral outrage can become a kind of addiction.
The challenge is to stand up for what is good and virtuous without becoming controlled by or addicted to the effort, and at the same time not allow our expressions of public virtue to become a substitute for genuine personal righteousness. We must be as fearless in confronting our own local and private sins as we are in declaring our virtue regarding the trending topic of the day.