1) Someone writes something provocative online; that is, someone attempts to be thought-provoking for the betterment of others.
2) Someone else interprets what was written in a way the author didn’t intend. This person writes about his or her interpretation, rather than the interpretation the author intended. Here, it’s worth noting that the outrage probably hasn’t started yet. The author and the interpreter can easily talk to each other and come to an understanding.
3) But before that happens, lots of people agree with the unintended interpretation and start to get angry. They write about their anger online.
4) The angry mob shows up. They agree with the content of the outrage, but often they haven’t read the original content; rather, they are relying on someone else’s interpretation. Mainly, they like being angry; they like feeling right; they like fighting against perceived injustices because it gives them status.
5) A lot of other people show up to watch a good fight. If it’s a really good fight, CNN shows up.
6) Finally, the original provocateur is shocked to find out how many people interpreted her writing in a way not intended. She often apologizes for her choice of words, because nuance is difficult to understand, particularly online.
The world is safer than it’s every been, but rates of depression and anxiety are at all-time highs. We struggle more than ever to cope with our thoughts, and now we get unfettered access to everyone else’s thoughts too. We live better than kings and queens of yesteryear, but there’s no evidence to suggest we’re happier.
Yes, let’s keep fighting against racism, sexism, ageism, unfair labor practices, lack of medical access, and environmental destruction. This is a good use of our outrage.
But let’s make sure we understand what’s being said before we torch the earth.
[I adapted the above sequence from Jonathan Haidt’s article, “Professors Must Now Fear Intimidation From Both Sides“].