by Elle Berry  |  7 January 2019  |

Like many children growing up in the Adventist church, I was involved in my church’s Pathfinder club. Not only was I a Pathfinder, but my parents were the Pathfinder leaders for a portion of my childhood. Pathfinders, like many such clubs for young humans, often took trips and other such things that required financing. At a young age I made my first foray into fundraising. As many people who have done fundraising realize, this can be a really discouraging process. Selling tidbits door to door may bring mere pennies earned for hours of work, which is not only defeating but also fails to actually fund projects.

My dad, however, was not one to waste time producing menial results, so somewhere along the way he was inspired with the idea of using a free car wash to raise funds for the club. As you might imagine, nothing is actually free—but to provide a free car wash, we young folks would go to businesses and ask for sponsorship. We would tell the business the day we planned to wash cars, and the project we were raising money for, and then we would ask businesses to pledge 25 to 50 cents per car washed. Whoever came through our car wash received a handout with the list of businesses that were sponsoring us (providing advertising for those businesses). Then after the car wash, we would send the businesses an invoice, and the businesses would pay according to their pledge and the number of cars we washed. Twenty-five cents might become twenty-five dollars if we washed one hundred cars.

From a fundraising standpoint this was genius. If we had charged people to have their car washed, we might only have made a few dollars per car. However, with sponsorship, if every kid in the club spent several afternoons getting 10 to 40 businesses to pledge nickels, dimes, and quarters (with the added benefit of free advertising for them), voila! Each car was suddenly valued at multiple dollars, easily meeting our fundraising needs.

Nothing Is Free

While this particular childhood experience instilled a lot of lessons in me (like the “joy” of asking strangers for money) it also taught me a very important lesson; things that are “free” are likely being paid for by someone. And in this world, the person paying is probably getting some benefit from what they’re sponsoring.

As it turns out, this is an important lesson for the twenty-first century, as many of us are routinely frequenting free car washes, so to speak. In one of my favorite news moments this last year, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg testified before the United States Congress. He was asked by a particular senator (who apparently didn’t get the free car wash childhood experience), “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” Zuckerberg replied, “Senator, we run ads.” This particular model of business turns out to be highly effective. It also means that those who use the free service are not the patrons of the service; we are the product of the service that is being sold to those who are paying for advertisement. And we, the product, have turned out to be incredibly lucrative. Many of the free media outlets that we use (social media, network television, and even to some extent, cable networks) use advertisers to pay, in part or in whole, for the service that we are getting for “free”.

I believe most of us would agree that the 24-hour news cycle has shaped and permanently altered our social landscape. But where 24-hour news may have rearranged our view, social media takes us to intergalactic vistas (or perhaps more accurately, to Dante’s Inferno.) As Hasan Minhaj recently discussed on his show Patriot Act, “20 years ago my father was like, ‘I’m going to save up so my child can be on the internet. That is where everything happens.’ And now I’m like, ‘My child cannot be on the internet. That is where everything happens.’”

As Minhaj explains, what is important to understand about social media sites is that they are considered content curators—legally, that means they are not liable for anything we, the users, put on their site. However, they do have the right and ability to curate the content. In other words, social media is like a magazine stand. They do not control what the magazines print, but they can and do control how the magazines are arranged, and which ones get the most views. Obviously, to get advertisers to sponsor our time here, the longer the media companies can keep us on a site, the more that site is worth to an advertiser.

Outrage and Narcissism

Bluntly put, it is in companies’ best interest to keep us clicking, scrolling, and being addicted. There is some accountability—as a public form they try to censor pornographic or blatantly violent material. However, it seems as though social media has discovered something equally financially lucrative and every bit as addictive to humans as porn: they have figured out how to capitalize on our collective tendency to be outraged. Outrage has become so prevalent it has even gained the title, outrage porn. While I do not believe modern humans are more prone to being outraged than our ancestors, I do believe we are facing an epidemic exposure to outrage porn.

There are a lot of reasonable concerns about this problem, but most importantly this is dangerous soul territory. In Craig Malkin’s book, Rethinking Narcissism, he argues that narcissists are made, not born. By his definition, narcissism is a tendency to perceive yourself as special, and Malkin believes that narcissism actually exists on a spectrum. He believes that in moderation, healthy levels of believing you are special actually turn out to be beneficial to your life. We all need to have a healthy level of believing we are special; maybe not more special than other people, but we are special to some people. However, many of us can quickly shift from healthy moderate levels of feeling special, to highly unhealthy levels. And those feelings can themselves become an addiction. A warning sign that someone is in dangerous narcissism territory is that the narcissist will start to dodge normal feelings of vulnerability, sadness, fear, loneliness, and worry. This might manifest as emotional phobia, where someone presents himself as being emotionally superior to others (because he doesn’t have those vulnerable feelings), or it might play out as what Malkin calls “emotional hot potato”, which he describes as a way of getting rid of emotions by projecting the feelings you are feeling onto someone else.

The idea of outrage actually lines up strongly with both of those narcissism warning signs. Outrage is a feeling of righteous superiority, where we believe we are special because we are morally better, or intellectually wiser, than our fellows. The expression of outrage is often played out in emotional hot potato—we end up not only outraged, but we project our outrage, saying “Can you believe those people are outraged about that?” When in fact it is we who are outraged at the possibility of another’s outrage. If I were diagnosing a society’s narcissistic tendency, I would consider their outrage to be the best place to measure that temperature. Millennials have often been accused of being a narcissistic generation. But research is showing that you shouldn’t be outraged at Millennials for being narcissist. We’re not more narcissistic than previous generations. However, what may be true is that we are creating a world in which the primary product being sold is the outrage we feel. The outcome of this is bleeding into our politics, our churches, and our family dinner tables. And it is reaching toxic levels.

But this story of outrage is an old story. One of the best examples in the Bible takes place in Matthew 26. Jesus is visiting the home of Simon, and a woman brings an alabaster jar with very expensive perfume, which she uses to anoint Jesus. When the disciples see this, they are indignant. That’s right. They are outraged. “Why this waste? This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Jesus reprimands them, “Wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told.” We generally stop the story right there, but in doing I think so we miss a powerful lesson about outrage. Because the next verse tells us about outrage followed to the extreme. “Then one of the twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, ‘What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?’ So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over.” While the story doesn’t say this is a result of Judas’ indignation about the woman with the alabaster jar, it is chronologically implied.

Outrage is, and always has been, a toxic path. The feeling that we are superior to those around us isolates us, and ultimately when we are not careful, it destroys us.

Clicking on the President

You may be asking at this point, “So, what does this article have to do with the president?” Well, not a lot. Although, I think many people would agree, Donald Trump has a particular genius for producing the kind of content that keeps people clicking. Marry that to social media and 24-hour news, and you have the perfect storm for entire news cycle domination. And my title begs your outrage. If you are a Trump fan, you might have clicked through to be outraged at me (and Adventist Today for publishing this young millennial who clearly is offended by Trump). If you are not a Trump fan, perhaps you clicked through to share in the solidarity of “shared outrage.” And the sad truth is, I can’t particularly judge you on either point, because in the last few years I cannot count the times I have clicked an article for those very reasons. Outrage is the prevailing product being traded in the world, and I have been seduced by it more than once.

This creates a real problem for the 21st-century believer. Social media sites financially benefit from prioritizing content that keeps us outraged, because outrage is addictive, and our addiction to feeling outraged, or superior, is one of the most valuable products they can sell to advertisers. Cable news and other media sites also know this fact, and use similar tactics by constantly framing stories around our shock and righteous indignation. This tactic is becoming ubiquitous in our culture. Furthermore, as long as this continues, it seems more and more likely that we will produce even more leaders and politicians who become masterminds at wielding that machine. Of course we can all swear off Facebook and other media sites, but the truth is this hardly treats the deeper problem, which seems to be knit into the human condition, as evidenced by Judas himself.

In Matthew 24:10-12 Jesus actually says, Many will take offense in the last days, betray one another and hate one another. These words could not feel more accurate in this present culture. While I do not have a particularly strong solution to this problem, I do believe that our awareness of the situation is paramount to any changes we make. The world is not likely to change its way anytime soon. It is up to us to overcome evil with good. Next time you feel yourself getting outraged, it may be wise to consider who is profiting from your outrage. We must also remember, just like the woman with the alabaster jar, so many times there is a deeper story waiting to be told, on the other side of our offense, if we are only willing to get over our own specialness, and listen.


Elle Berry is a writer and nutritionist. She is passionate about creating wellness, maintaining a bottomless cup of tea, and exploring every beautiful vista in the Pacific Northwest. She blogs at ChasingWhippoorwills.com.

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