Outrage Culture Kills Important Conversation

01/27/2016 10:11 am ET Updated Jan 27, 2017

President Obama took a lot of heat recently for criticizing college leftists who are offended by dissenting opinions. But he's absolutely right: Productive discourse is dying, trampled over by closed minds who value comfortable opinion-holding over uncomfortable soul-searching. As dialogue lies flailing and gasping, outrage culture's pulse is stronger than ever. We see the degraded consequence everywhere.

We see it in Donald Trump's xenophobia. We see it in the smug rise of a regressive, illiberal "liberalism" on college campuses that interprets (and misinterprets) the other side's words in the most negative possible light--even trifling dissent is labeled a product of white male privilege or (when the opponent is neither white nor male) simple ignorance. We see it in any online comments section--cesspools of racism, sexism, xenophobia, naked hatred. At its most extreme, we see it in tribalistic mass murderers, from Dylann Storm Roof to the San Bernardino shooters.

Hatred is everywhere; empathy and its cousin, civility, are nowhere. For in this culture of reflexive outrage, empathy is weakness. Listening? Surrender. When discourse is a competition instead of a dialectic, there are winners and losers; and one wins by persuading the other side (or at least scoring more re-tweets), even though we learn most from engaging our opponents. Outrage culture turns productive discourse into dumb competition.

Listening is hard, and sitting still can be taxing, especially when someone is being belittling, condescending, or immature. But outrage culture is so much pricier. By naming all disagreement problematic--"ignorant" (to the close-minded leftist), "naïve" (to the close-minded right-winger)--it trashes thoughtful deliberation, which happens to be the very fuel our democratic machinery needs to run. Since no one's mind is malleable, nothing changes. Gridlock clogs the drains. Democracy halts.

Worse, outrage culture tempts us to cram a political opponent, always a complex human, into a simple box: Sexist, racist, xenophobe, bigot. The Right lobs different labels--communist, naïve kid, bleeding heart--but the underlying psychology is identical: An anti-democratic stigmatization of the Other, which facilitates productive discourse's fall. Many people with valuable insights refrain from contentious discussions since they're afraid of being called names. I see this dynamic every day here at Harvard Law School (where, unfortunately, an intolerant Left commits most of the name-calling).

I suspect that social media--with its capacity to collate like-minded people into echo chambers promoting brevity at the expense of nuance, likes and re-tweets at the expense of knowledge--is helping outrage culture proliferate. Just ask President Obama. He's had to tolerate the anti-democratic ethos of knee-jerk outrage more than anyone else--and he happens to be the first president whose term fell entirely within the era of the social media echo chamber.

Maybe that's why the President has spoken out so strongly against the illiberal liberalism strangling college campuses lately. Maybe it's why, in his final State of the Union address, he denounced a politics where the rhetoric of offense and tribalism trumps that of reason and common purpose. In addition to condemning outrage culture during his State of the Union speech, he exemplified its opposite by playing to our hopes instead of our fears, by daring us to exhibit the same audacity that allowed us to reach the moon and to recover from the Civil War. The same audacity that enabled him to open-mindedly befriend conservatives as an aspiring Harvard lawyer, with and without the approval of liberal friends.

Did Obama betray college liberals when he condemned their bizarre characterization of free speech, humanity's most hard-won political liberty (just ask my Lebanese parents), as regressive? No. He simply understands that to grow, personally and collectively, we must give and take. We must, from time to time, shut up and listen. Too many college liberals have forgotten how to listen, even though they constantly demand that others listen to them.

Obama knows that it's easy to hold opinions, especially when they mirror your inclinations. It's harder to think, with no aim--not self-justification, not self-righteous anger, not the will to power--aside from truth. And yet, as so often, the harder path is more fruitful than the easy one.

So take it from the President: America is best when it's "[b]ig-hearted. Undaunted by challenge. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word." As years of congressional gridlock show, democracy excels only when citizens--from Congress on down--are willing to listen and to assert, to give and to take. Democracy doesn't work absent hard discussion--uncomfortable dialogue that, though anything but a "safe space," makes us a more cohesive (and thus safer) society in the long-run.

Whether you're a proud lefty like me or a right-winger, stop fearing disagreement. We're in this boat together--and unless we start plugging up this rig's leaks soon, we'll all go down together. Perhaps, as we drown, some partisan buffoons will come gasping and screaming to the surface. "X person is a Y!" they'll exclaim, to replies of "you're so ignorant!"

We'll still be dead.