What do Rosanne Barr’s racist tweet, Samantha Bee’s vulgar insult, and a “too-Catholic” Jesus statue have in common?
Before we consider the answer, think about why you even know about any (or all) of those references. Chances are you don’t follow Rosanne on Twitter, watch Bee’s basic cable TV show, or attend Red Bank Baptist Church in South Carolina. You only know about these topics because they received a “signal-boost” (i.e., content shared, usually on social media, for the purpose of raising awareness of an issue, event, etc.) from someone in your media circles. (President Trump has tweeted about two of the three stories, ensuring they’d get even more coverage by the media.)
The reason these stories were boosted—and what they share in common—is that they were shared in order to prompt outrage. The remarks by Barr and Bee were indeed outrageous and deserve denunciation. But it raises the question of why, out of all the outrageous events that occurred among 7 billion people on the planet, these three specific instances captured the public’s attention this week.
How Pseudo-Events Drive Pseudo-Pique
Several years ago I wrote an article about what the historian Daniel Boorstin dubbed pseudo-events: non-spontaneous events created for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced, whose meaning is ambiguous, and that are usually intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The paradigmatic example of a pseudo-event is opinion polls. News agencies used to report on opinion polls; now they sponsor polls them so they can report on the very poll they sponsored. Instead of reporting the news, they create a pseudo-event to report on. Ironically, this information (the opinion poll) is processed as “news” and helps shape the judgment of people who are supposed to be represented by the polls.
Consider, for example, presidential opinion polls. If you’re told that the president’s approval rating is 95 percent, then you are more likely to also approve of the job he is doing. Likewise, if his rating is low, then your opinion about his performance is also likely to be low. If you take a contrary view then you will be the one who is put on the defensive—even if your opinion is based on a weighing of relevant facts and evidence.
Social media has helped to create a similar phenomenon that I’ll call the “pseudo-pique.” Pseudo means having the appearance of while not actually having, and pique means to affect with sharp irritation and resentment. The pseudo-pique is the sharing of “news” that provokes the sham appearance of irritation or outrage. Rather than accurately expressing our actual emotion or level of concern, we act as if we care more about an even than we do (or even should). A few common characteristics of this phenomenon are:
(1) The outrage is sparked by a person or persons who has little to no influence or power over our lives. The provocation is not by a politician or government official but by a celebrity, media personality, or someone we have never heard of before.
(2) The provocation has no victim or is an insult to a third-person (usually a public figure) with whom we have no connection.
(3) We would have never been aware of the provocation had it not been signal-boosted by the media, or by someone in our social media circles.
(4) We are much more concerned about the political or rhetorical uses of the outrage than we are with the actual provocation.
(5) The outrage is soon broadened to include individuals or groups who were not involved and have no direct connection to the event.
An Outrage a Day
Let’s use the pseudo-pique over Samantha Bee’s comment as an example: (1) Bee is a comedian/host of a low-rated show that most Americans have never watched; (2) Bee’s comment was made about Ivanka Trump, the daughter of the U.S. president; (3) millions more people were made aware of the comment made on Bee’s show than will ever watch the actual show; (4) Bee’s comments were used as proof that political liberals have a double-standard, and (5) were used to condemn her political tribe and those who supported her.
The point is not that Bee’s comment was not offensive (it was), or that Ivanka Trump did not deserve an apology (she did, and Bee apologized), or that many of the comedian’s supporters were not applying a double-standard about sexist slurs (they certainly were). The point is that many of us have become so captured by the media (including social media) that we aren’t even aware that we are caught up in these types of pseudo-pique controversies.
For instance, most Catholics never give much thought to the iconography in Baptist churches. Yet because the Associated Press reported on an internal issue in a church in South Carolina and that story was shared on social media, many people felt they had to virtue signal (i.e., the conspicuous expression of moral values done primarily with the intent of enhancing standing within a social group) that they were offended by the claim the statue was too “Catholic in nature.” By the end of the month, though, few people will even remember the story, much less be able to remember the name of the church that sparked this fit of pseudo-pique.
A commonly-made joke on Twitter is to ask, “What are we outraged about today?” While we don’t like to admit it, most of us do indeed turn to social media with the hopeful expectation that the outrage du jour is something we too can be upset about (or at least feign concern).
From Pseudo-Pique to Sowing Peace
The problem with such pseudo-pique is that it perverts our moral faculties and dulls us to more significant injustices. We become so accustomed to feigning outrage over relative trivialities for the purpose of scoring political points that it has become difficult to have a normal human response to actual horrors. Think honestly about your own reaction to the news of a school shooting. Does your mind immediately turn to the actual victims or is your first response to think how your political opponents will spin the issue in their favor?
Pseudo-Pique also causes us to ignore or downplay other news of injustice that are not getting the attention of the media. Yes, we should be concerned about the coarsening of society when celebrities use sexist or racist language. But that should not distract us from focusing on those who are truly being victimized, including by sexism and racism, but are never going to be mentioned on the president’s Twitter feed.
We should also remember that as Christians we are to seek shalom rather than an excuse to be outraged. “While we wait on God for vindication for ourselves and justice for others, there is one thing we all can actively keep doing,” says Ray Orlund. “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:18). As Ortlund adds:
To reap an abundant harvest of righteousness, the really satisfying righteousness that is of God, the way forward is not to demand, to pressure, to embarrass, but to sow peace, shalom, wholeness, humaneness. Any self-invented shortcut will reap a harvest of unintended unrighteousness and unforeseen injustice, even with the best of intentions. There is only one way to the right outcomes that honor Christ and satisfy us – to trust him for the future, as we sow peace in the present.
In our age of social media, pseudo-pique will remain a persistent and pervasive problem. But we won’t be consumed by such controversies if we are busy sowing peace in the present to pay attention.