An Appropriate Level of Outrage

In July 2016, as the New York Times gave Donald Trump about a 50% chance of winning the Presidency, I wrote “At Peace With Politics.” In that essay I wrote that with such polarizing candidates the election was already decided and that I had no inclination to start rooting for my preferred candidate because nobody was going to change their mind anyway. Today I find myself trying not to get too complacent or too vitriolic about the state of the world.

I spent Election Night 2016 in Austin, Texas, where I attended a results-watching party at an Alamo Drafthouse theater. Earlier that day I had convinced myself that the projected 70–80% win probabilities for Hillary would simply round up to 100%. The theater had expected the celebration to end by 11:00 PM Central time. I left at about 10:30 as the MSNBC talking heads started deciding who was to blame for the outcome none of them had considered feasible hours earlier. “Tonight, data died,” tweeted one TV commentator, making my job as an employee of a data analysis company that much harder the following morning.

When I wrote my essay in July and when I walked into the theater on Election Night, I had convinced myself that Hillary Clinton was running effectively unopposed, that none of the 17-odd Republican primary challengers could win a national victory. I willfully and consciously disregarded observations like those of my childhood friend Jeremy, who now lives in rural Pennsylvania and who observed a much more pro-Trump community than I was inclined to accept. Having been in Scotland for their 2014 independence referendum, where “Yes” propaganda was far more visible but “No” won decisively, I felt that the 2016 election was not nearly as close as the hype would have made it seem.

For reasons more lazy than logical, I wanted the relative calm of the Obama Presidency to continue. To me and to many people I know, the economy is great, health care is reasonably priced, and illegal immigrants don’t pose a threat to our identity as Americans.

“Shit,” I thought to myself the next day. “Now I need to care for four years.”

Earlier this year I started a small list of my local representatives and my areas of concern that I feel they can influence. Locally, I want my representatives to improve access to housing and transit. Nationally, civil liberties, health care, and economic inequality concern me. I don’t expect personal responses, although I have received a few already, but in our data-driven world it’s meaningful to say that N thousand people wrote or called in to complain about something. In addition, I expect to continue directing charitable grants from the Amalgamated Compassion Fund and from my personal funds to organizations like the ACLU who can fight unjust laws and orders in court.

I’ve also spent my time reading older and more academic books about politics and psychology. Some of these weren’t worth the read: I wouldn’t recommend the suddenly resurgent It Can’t Happen Here or the inexplicably popular Hillbilly Elegy, for example. On the other hand, I have learned a lot about the state and history of African-American struggles through Between the World and Me and Forty Million Dollar Slaves. Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash tells a thorough, albeit fairly dry, story of the problems poor white Americans have dealt with for centuries. I’m making glacial progress through How Propaganda Works, a very thorough exploration of how language is used to promulgate flawed ideologies and to suppress legitimate debate. I also find myself coming back to Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and to Switch by Chip and Dan Heath for insight into the psychology behind how people make up their minds, even when they make decisions that seem illogical or irrational.

There is a limit to what my outrage can do. Thanks to a design flaw in Facebook, a friend opted me into a few “resistance” groups. I’ve since left one and I’m not entirely invested in the others. Some of these groups treat politics as a mixture of celebrity gossip and stock trading: boycott one cable show, devotedly watch another, donate money to a candidate across the country, and did you hear about that thing that that cable news host said about another cable news host? “Self-control is an exhaustible resource,” write the Heaths in Switch, citing an experiment in which participants who were given an exhausting math problem were unable to resist a temptation later. Conscientious about not wasting my self-control, I’ve been very selective about the arguments I allow myself to get sucked into. Facebook’s and Twitter’s “block” and “delete” buttons continue to be tremendously valuable.

Much as I hate the word, I’m taking a route that Stephen Covey would call “proactive” in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Copy-paste activism, obsessing over TV gossip and meta-gossip, and debating randos on social media are all “reactive.” Proactivity, in Covey’s terms, reflects an unwillingness to be excessively concerned about things one can’t influence. This also affects how I feel about donations: contributing to campaigns has little effect on electoral outcomes, but non-profit organizations like the ACLU have had significant victories by taking legal action against injustices.

Thanks to the wealth of outrage on-line, I’ve been singled out for voicing an opinion (e.g., as a “cis het white male” by a trans woman with whom I agree regarding bathroom access) and for not voicing an opinion (e.g., for not opposing Trump as President until he had actually been President). I won’t be bothered by such antics until I get doxxed and have to deal with protesters beating down my door. I can only hope to be a minor enough target in an outraged, fearful, hate-driven world.