Friday, September 5, 2014

Indignation and Outrage: The Opiate of the Masses

Feeling indignation and outrage is easier than thinking observed Peter von Matt. We saw this in the reaction to the war in Gaza, which was neatly divided between those outraged at Hamas and their rockets, and those (in much smaller proportion) outraged at Israel and it’s much more lethal bombing of civilians with F-16’s, tanks, and gun-ships.  Those genuinely pondering the moral ambiguities of this war and its implications were few. 

Indignation is an organizing principle. Confronted with a complex and uncertain world, it’s comforting to latch onto “this is wrong; this is outrageous.” It puts solid ground under our feet. It renders clear and intelligent what can be a grey world of ambiguity; it orients us, even if our orientation is an illusion.  It’s not religion that is the opium of the masses, as Marx had it, but indignation and outrage said Von Matt.

The news industry has figured this out.  Indignation and outrage sell copy; they lead to readers, clicks, views, and shares. The primary goal of newspaper and television publishers, therefore, is not to aid our thinking but to foster our outrage. It's what makes Fox News and MSNBC tick. It's what makes the Sunday morning talk shows tick.

I recently saw this in action as I visited my sister in Likely, British Columbia.  Much of British Columbia remains wild and open.  It has the same population as Louisiana (4.6 million) but it is six times larger and most everybody lives in a narrow sliver along the southern border.  Likely is an eight hour drive north from Vancouver. It's mining country, logging country, grizzly bear, moose, beaver, loon, trout, and salmon country.  My sister runs the Likely Lodge, which sits at the picturesque outflow of Lake Quesnel, the deepest (1,660 feet) glacially carved lake in the world. The week before we arrived, this happened: 

"Worst environmental disaster" will get people's attention.  Over the next few days news crews were out by the score. Reporting was rumor based. Wild speculation extrapolated from an order not to drink water from the Quesnel Lake pending testing.  After testing confirmed that the lake water was not impacted and was safe for drinking, some continued to report rumors of fish dying off, and that you couldn't dip your hand in the water without getting burned. Locals were outraged.  Activists were outraged.  A few days later, the news teams left, reporting stopped, and if you try to learn the status through an internet search today, it's hard to find current information.  

The company links to an "independent" report, which notes that the mine extracts rock from the mountain, crushes it, and extracts copper and gold materials with the use of water.  The company's description of its processes confirms that no chemicals or metals are added during extraction.  The discarded slurry is routed to a large containment pond (tailings pond), where solids are allowed to settle. The company claims that prior to the tailings pond breach, water in the tailings pond itself nearly met the standards for drinking water. After the breach, the B.C. Ministry of Environment has monitored water quality in Quesnel Lake and found the results to be consistent with expected background levels for this mineral rich area. In short, the crushed tailings materials that washed down Hazeltine Creek on August 4, 2014 were a sudden release of materials similar to the materials created by glaciation as Lake Quesnel was formed.  The disaster, in other words, is similar to a large mud-slide or small forest fire, and nothing at all like the "worst environmental disaster in British Columbia history."  The area remains a great place to fish and hunt and hike.  Go pay a visit, and say Hi from me. 

As soon as the story lost its capacity to incite outrage, the news crews departed. 

We see this capacity for outrage constantly in our Facebook feeds over things like Citizens United, genetically modified foods, gay marriage, the political issues of the day.  Political movements, of course, are built around outrage.  Take, for example, Ryan Lizza's New Yorker essay "The President and the Pipeline" (Sept. 16) describing the opposition to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Lizza takes aim at his former colleague, Bill McKibben, who has done his best to generate outrage over the proposed pipeline because "You couldn't figure out a grosser way to wreck the planet than what they're doing."  The point of the article is that this outrage is built on illusion. In truth, the Keystone XL Pipeline will have a negligible effect on global warming.  By contrast, regulating coal power plants can have a much larger impact.  The Keystone XL pipeline is a manufactured symbolic issue, and the outraged non-thinking masses are focused on the wrong thing. 

If Marx meant that religion was the opium of the masses in that it kept them from acting, Peter Von Matt's sense of outrage as the opium of the masses, means it prevents them from thinking.  Indignation and lack of thinking leads to foolish action in a gadarene rush; or foolish beliefs, which, for an intellectual like Von Matt is equally bad. 

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