For a few years, my family and I lived in Africa. Which is to say, I was pleasantly insulated from American media outrage culture. As an additional bonus, this was accompanied by zero celebrity commentary.
But I also didn’t have a clue how easily it had become to offend.
I sheepishly admit to posting something highly insensitive regarding my giddiness about missing the skinny jeans fad. (Me in skinny jeans = apple on two toothpicks.)
You would not believe how people defended skinnies. I imagine it was like one would defend the honor of a grandmother in liver failure.
This was prior to the 2016 U.S. election. It was before America chose sides as if the entire country were getting a divorce. (You know, snatching what’s theirs, then shouting at each other in ALL CAPS. With a lot of colorful @#$% thrown in.)
We laugh. But all of us know outrage culture is real. Wikipedia defines “outrage culture” as “a form of public shaming that aims to hold individuals and groups accountable by calling attention to behavior that is perceived to be problematic, usually on social media.”
So what’s the big deal? Outrage culture is becoming just that: culture. A way of responding to one another that cultivates pride in offense, virtue in untethered fury and unmitigated consequence.
Why not to be all the rage
What if our anger isn’t bringing about more of what’s right, but more of what’s wrong instead?
Power feels comforting when held by those who share our opinions. Regarding outrage culture, HuffPost warns, “Productive discourse is dying, trampled over by closed minds who value comfortable opinion-holding over uncomfortable soul-searching.”
Consider propaganda before World War II. It offered a single commentary or perspective on news. Then exaggerated news till it wasn’t really news. A bigger nose there, a sweeping statement there. An “enemy” people group extinguished there.
To its credit, outrage culture gives a voice to anyone. And not just about skinny jeans. You could be a 23-year-old snuggled up to an XBox in your parents’ basement. You could be wearing an orange jumpsuit. You could be an evangelical Christian mom in yoga pants during naptime.
And you could be a megaphone-brandishing agent of change.
It’s why our kids could easily be sucked into outrage culture. Rage grants an illusory feeling of power and influence—especially in the midst of fear. As a mom slowly introducing my three teenagers into the hurricane of social media, I understand the pull of outrage culture. My sons feel powerless and concerned amid sweeping cultural changes. Everyone else, including many role models, are fearful and furious. Why not them?
Other reasons why outrage succeeds:
Anonymity = no community
Throughout history, the anonymity of masks have muted inhibition.
It’s the reason we’re more likely to commit violence in the dark, in the protective mass of a mob, or in a city rather than the small town where everybody knows dad’s dry cleaning business. Even sunglasses make us less generous.
Community—knowing each other, holding each other accountable, simply in that knowing—removes the sunglasses.
The anonymity of the internet grants brazenness without vulnerability. Enough voices and you’ve got a mob of faceless dictators.
Remind kids to restrict comments to something they’d respectfully say to someone’s face.
Outrage = clicks
Any marketing advice worth its salt will tell you consumers are distracted. Headlines compete for traffic, money, and popularity.
Writers gain the most clicks by instigating emotion. Be it curiosity, compassion, outrage, earnestness, or the possibility of a good laugh. Negative superlatives get more than 63% greater clicks than their counterparts. Consider “6 ways to love your husband” vs. “6 ways to make sure your husband loathes you.” Negative headlines also feel more believable and create urgency.
Outrage = identity
Choosing one’s areas of personal offense feels as defining as choosing a drink at Starbucks. (“I’d like a venti cup of pro-life, pro-environment, anti-spanking, #metoo, extra hot.”) As society polarizes, social media algorithms seat us solidly in our own divided, digital echo chambers.
Kicking out rage
God did create anger as an instrument for change. Anger activates, propelling us to do something. Picture Jesus’ anger in the temple. Or toward the bullies of God’s people, the Pharisees.
But He also gave us fair warnings. Psalm 37:8 warns, “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.” Or James’ reminder that “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (1:20).
Anger is like fire: without it, things die. Food goes raw; winter homes freeze; historical humanity wonders in darkness its dangers. But out of control, fire incinerates entire homes, forests, cities—bringing death.
So how can we help kids restrict anger’s use to a slow, controlled burn?
1. Start with controlling anger at home.
Our closest relationships form the training ground. Kids are watching to see how we handle anger. How to respond to a sibling who throws out insults like candy at a parade. How they’re allowed to speak to us in moments of passion.
You might start with principles like what I call the “4:29 Rule” (as in, Ephesians 4:29). Even when they’re angry, are their words:
- Right for building up?
- Not corrupting (tearing down)?
- Appropriate for this occasion—including what else is holistically going on in the person’s life?
- Giving grace?
As a mom, I’ve too often used the anger equivalent of a grenade when a BB would do. Being slow to anger is part of God’s glory (Exodus 34:5-6). And overlooking an offense is a person’s glory (Proverbs 19:11). Will my kids see me return a blessing—in the form of gentle words or a batch of muffins—for an insult?
God modeled conflict management for us while we were His enemies. Acknowledging the fullness of our offense, He set aside His wrath to bring us close. And then patiently awaited change.
2. Help kids understand where their identity comes from.
When secure in who God says we are, we’re much less likely to pop off because someone wounds our sense of pride.
Self-control stems from:
- our security in God as judge and defender.
- our value apart from who others say we are.
- an identity unhitched from our ability to be superior.
We establish this sense of identity for our kids long before they’re scrolling through Twitter.
When they bring home good grades or bad, we’re reinforcing, I’m proud and grateful to God when you succeed. But this doesn’t change my love for you.
When they’re head-butting with a sibling, we reiterate, You can overlook this offense because we have the power to be humble. God’s already written our value on the Cross.
Remember the words of 1 Peter 3:9: “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.”
3. Know “them.”
It’s hard to label and fume online at someone who’s a lot like people you already know in real life. My family has worked with refugees extensively, so my kids view immigration policies from personal experience.
The fewer labels we extend without relational context, the less likely we are to dehumanize a people group. No one wants to be defined by what we perceive as their weakness or sin pattern.
If our kids are to love their neighbor as themselves, this includes their homeless neighbor; their neighbor of another race, religion, or sexual orientation; their immigrant neighbor.
4. Remind kids that change occurs privately.
Do we truly create change by shaming someone into withdrawal?
Think of forces shaping change in your life. Don’t most emerge from meaningful interactions with those closest to you, or someone who came into your world?
“I accepted Christ because someone publicly shamed me on social media into seeing the error of my ways,” said no one ever.
Digital interaction limits the intimacy and physical presence essential to responding to conflict. Seventy percent of communication is nonverbal. Can we afford to subtract that? (No matter how many emojis at your disposal.)
Demonstrate this in your own life by avoiding conflict resolution through emails, texts, etc. Encourage kids to do the same.
God handled His own conflict with us in the flesh, moving into the mess of the neighborhood (John 1:14). Rather than spouting about homosexuality or abortion or racism with strangers, look others in the eyes in courageous, loving conversation with a heart to understand.
Let’s connect with humans right in front of us.
5. Create change with compassion and reason rather than rage.
There’s an immediate satisfaction to “sticking it to someone.” But it closes off previously open minds. The hearer devolves into fight, flight, or freeze—not listen, understand, and alter my perspective.
When kids express anger at headlines or a friend’s politics, model compassionate listening. Ask questions to help them imagine the other person’s point of view: “Why do you think that’s important to them? What are they protecting or afraid they might lose? What’s the core value beneath that?” Pray together for the person they’re angry with and for a godly response to conflict (Matthew 5:44).
Through practice, kids can develop reflexive empathy and understanding for diametric points of view. We can help them empathize beyond the rational arguments of a dogmatic movement, understanding the stories and emotion that motivate a people group.
That understanding just might hand them keys for change.
6. Equip them with practical, healthy conflict resolution skills.
In conflict, help kids:
- Step away for 5-10 minutes (and even pray) rather than yelling or arguing; this removes them from that more “animal” portion of their brain, allowing self-control to set in.
- For larger conflicts, pray with kids, requesting they wait overnight before confronting someone about a large issue.
- Help kids evaluate whether they could overlook an offense (as long as they can truly forgive).
- Don’t allow conflict to remain unresolved. Rather than shouting at each other, walking away, and waiting till everyone forgets, ask forgiveness from one another. (Start with the “log in your eye”—Matthew 7:5). On social media, it should feel wrong to spout off at someone without resolution to a conflict.
We all need to step away when angry. We need a reasonable degree of confidence we’re being overcome by the Holy Spirit (demonstrated by gentleness, self-control, peace, and faith), rather than drunk on rage (see Ephesians 5:18).
God speaks of His people creating change with good deeds that honor Him (Matthew 5:16).
Through millennia of persecution, His words remind us to constantly be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:15-17)
Copyright © 2019 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker and frequent contributor for FamilyLife. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to the U.S., continuing with Engineering Ministries International.Her book, on spiritual life skills for messy families (Zondervan), is planned to release March 2021. Find her—“The Awkward Mom”—at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.