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The Perils of Outrage Fatigue

Published by marco on

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I’d never heard of Robert B. Talisse before. He expresses himself well in describing an imminent problem with American culture. People are so invested in their polarized roles that they no longer know how to interact with anyone who doesn’t already hold their worldview in nearly all things. If they disagree with someone on any of myriad issues, then they can’t even consider them human, to say nothing of bridging the gap to find common ground.

The problem he describes doesn’t apply just to America, but the ideological split in the States has become especially damaging lately. The divide grows larger and more insurmountable every day, leading to misery and a complete political deadlock at all levels.

Maddeningly, it seems that many people positively revel in the reduction of intellectualism and struggle, that they are only too happy to lower the level of discourse so that they can get their frisson with less and less effort. This kind of thing snowballs quickly. The anti-Enlightenment horror-show that is the 2020 Election is this movement’s apotheosis. It’s not the eschaton, but it might be the beginning of it for America.

The tendency is just to write people off instead of seeing them as potential allies in whom to invest time and energy. Everybody is either already an ally or is an irredeemable fascist. The path from ally to fascist is a well-oiled and well-worn slope whereas traveling in the other direction is committing to an odyssey through an untracked wasteland, an interminable uphill climb with no potential payoff—and is thus tried less and less.

That this attitude is nonproductive and anti-enlightenment is kind of obvious on its face—in fact, I recently wrote about an especially intolerant interview, coming to similar conclusions—but Talisse expresses himself well and makes me quite curious about his book, Overdoing Democracy. The following ~50m interview is worth the time; if you don’t have that kind of time, I’ve transcribed the parts I found the most interesting below.

Is Progress Possible? Polarization by Robert B. Talisse (YouTube / The Progress Network)

Talisse describes the core problem as follows,

“That’s what I mean by overdoing democracy. When we can’t even imagine a cooperative activity that is not itself the enactment or expression of our partisan identity, we’ve allowed politics to crowd out other kinds of social goods.”

This reductionist approach in social interaction echoes the parallel one where every action is reduced to how it plays on a market, essentially viewing everything through the restricted lens of zero-sum. He’s arguing that we’ve not only financialized all interactions, but also politicized them.

He does a good job of describing the justification for heading down a path of over-politicization—the person’s heart is in the right place. Or, at least, it can be argued that their heart is in the right place. Talisse’s description is the most generous interpretation.

“What do you say to somebody who says, ‘look, if I don’t give every possible moment of my waking life to fighting for justice, I’m complicit. Right? This is a more extreme version of the response […of] The Resistance, of a certain kind of reader of Overdoing Democracy […]

“That’s the thing: There’s so much injustice in the world that if I don’t give everything I’ve got, I’m being permissive, I’m complicit, I’m … taking undue advantage of my privilege, that these are not fights that I’m forced to be involved in. I don’t want to be inauthentic to my political self by taking a night off and playing Scrabble. I don’t want to do that. Because that’s just letting evil win. (laughs).”

Just to be clear: he laughed, but not at these people. He’s laughing at the dilemma posed by trying to be authentic to your cause and to yourself, at how following the nearly unassailable logic above to its logical conclusion has the opposite effect of the intended one.

Instead of creating a warrior for justice, converting masses to the path of righteousness, it creates a person whose circle of influence contracts as unbelievers are jettisoned and even those who would pass muster run away in droves to avoid them. It’s not an easy path to navigate—you have to be able to realize that there are terrible ideas and mindsets to be conquered, while not hating the people who believe and have them.

“My response is very simple. I understand that commitment, that concern with the authenticity of one’s political project and aspiration, and I share it. Part of my concern is that unless you recharge socially by engaging with others in activities that don’t have a political valence, you become less good at serving your own political ends because you become less capable of convincing people who are not already on board with you, because you become less able to hear their reasons and become less able to communicate productively with them.”

So that’s it: the longer you stay in the warm nest populated only by fellow believers, the less effective you are in growing your movement. This is something that cults have known for a long time—and it’s hard to see the difference between a cult like Scientology and the Republican or Democratic parties (or the blue-check Twitterati of either camp). The communication problem he outlines above is amply evident in American culture—in the mainstream and social media.[1]

Talisse continues, describing the endgame that is … purges.

“And, one other feature of the belief-polarization phenomenon […] is [it] also undermines our political allegiances, our [identity?} becomes more intensely focused on our authenticity as committed members. We become more invested as a group, at detecting poseurs. And we when become more invested as a group in detecting poseurs … we find more poseurs.

“Which is to say: the belief-polarization phenomenon shrinks our coalitions. If it’s unchecked […] we actually become less effective as political agents. Just like the workaholic becomes less good at their job, when we’re overdoing democracy, we become less good as democratic citizens, not merely in the fact that we’re less able to work together with our opposition, we become less able to work efficiently together as allies. That disserves justice, too.

I really like the analogy with a workaholic: You think you’re doing a great job, but you’re too tired to notice that you’re only half as efficient as you used to be. You barely even notice as your circle of associates shrinks, as one person after another fails to live up to your standards—each is either dropped with a justification that made a lot of sense at the time or they just flee. Good riddance to bad garbage, you think.

The end effect, though, is that even your echo chamber is emptying out.

And that’s only one facet. Another enormous problem is that you become more unquestioning of dogma that comes from accepted sources. It makes you more stupid because you’ve not only stunted your ability to convince non-believers—you’ve become a believer yourself. What might have once been a healthy skepticism has atrophied with respect to certain sources and certain targets.[2]

This isn’t a dig on “one side” or “the other”; the problem affects literally anyone who’s encysting their mind, shielding it from potentially offensive thoughts or ideas—or people.

It’s actually quite an egotistical thing to do; instead of sharing your supposedly more-enlightened attitude with those less fortunate, you hoard it to yourself and those who are already in-the-know. You do this because it’s easier.

It’s a lot of work convincing people to change their minds—especially if they’re just as encysted as you are. Some people, like Daryl Davis—who befriends KKK members and convinces them to leave the group—go above and beyond the call of duty. We don’t all have to go that far—it can be quite dangerous, for one thing—but keeping an open mind and realizing that nearly no-one is literally the devil is a good start in trying to save people instead of condemning them.

Who knows? You might learn something from them, too.[3]

You never know—stranger things have happened.[4]

[2] One side will believe absolutely anything they hear about Hillary Clinton (e.g. the more lurid parts of Q-Anon, like her international pedophile ring) and the other will believe anything they hear about Donald Trump (e.g. the more lurid parts of Russiagate, like the Steele Dossier).

Hell, I just learned the other day from such a friend that China has ground troops in Canada and Mexico and is positively poised to attack the U.S. sooner rather than later. We are, apparently, going to have to nuke ourselves in order to eradicate the little cockroaches.

But that’s a story for another day.


For anyone wondering what such a conversation might look like, check out this 3-hour interview/conversation between Joe Rogan and Alex Jones. Trust me, I’ve watched almost an hour and it’s well-worth it. They’re learning from each other and they’re unlearning things, too. Their conversation on energy and nuclear ends up landing in the right spot, despite a few odd tangents.

The discussion at 01:35:00 is quite interesting as well, with Joe Rogan sounding incredibly reasonable and refreshing intelligent. Especially over the second half, Rogan remains reasonable and reins in Jones and Dillon as they go slowly more and more off the rails, lending too much credence to fringe issues. He pulls them back to the more salient core of the problems, regardless of the often-unprovable minor details raised by his co-hosts.

Joe Rogan Experience #1555 − Alex Jones & Tim Dillon (YouTube)