If you’ve spent any amount of time online outside of reading this article, then you probably already know that the Internet is a hotbed for debate. And by debate I mean name-calling, hate speech, and every other flavor of verbal abuse. Godwin’s Law asserts that any online discussion that goes on long enough will eventually lead to comparisons to Nazis or Hitler. Online instigators that make a hobby of goading online commenters into petty arguments have even been deemed their own moniker of “trollers” or “trolls,” fittingly conjuring up images of ugly troublemakers who live under bridges.
We see the bad that Internet debate brings out in people, and yet we continue to engage. Why? We seem to be addicted to the anger. You may not know that we can become addicted to emotions, but we can — emotional addiction is a thing. The adrenalin rush and release of dopamine that we get from anger can become as real an addiction as drugs or alcohol. When we see an inflammatory headline or an ignorant or hateful comment, it can be like a free shot of vodka to an alcoholic.
And not just anger, but righteous anger may be a very heady addiction indeed. The much studied Better Than Average Effect (the belief people hold that we are, well, better than average) is strongest in the realm of morality. Religiosity may come to mind when you think of moral superiority, but even convicts rate themselves as more moral than the average person. For some reason, we all seem to think that our own motives and actions are purer than that of those around us.
It would seem that moral superiority is a key factor behind most people’s unwillingness to accept the religious or political views of others. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” is a mantra popularly used by… well, everybody, as it’s the perfect justification for our intolerance of whatever it is we disagree with. The things we disagree with are not simply a difference of opinion, they are evil. And since we all seem to regard ourselves as experts on right and wrong, it doesn’t occur to us that we might be wrong about just how evil something actually is.
When someone expresses an opinion that we disagree with, it seems almost impossible to accept for what it is (someone else’s opinion) instead of taking it as a threat to the truth. They are wrong, and we know they are wrong because we are morally superior, and it makes us angry that they are saying these evil things. It’s not just anger, it’s righteous anger. We have a moral obligation to confront them, to stop the spread of lies and the tolerance of evil. We have a moral obligation to get angry, as we see it.
And so we become addicted to the anger. Getting riled up about everything we see on the Internet not only feeds our emotional addiction, but it also feeds our very strongest and deepest sense of illusory superiority, that we are morally superior. I believe this is why we not only allow ourselves to get sucked into pointless Facebook squabbles and get egged on by trolls, but why we even seem to seek these situations out.
I have seen people follow every upsetting piece of political news like it’s their job, and are so effected by it they are unable to sleep or enjoy themselves anymore, becoming almost debilitated by their outrage. And that’s it. I wish I could say that their anger drives them to do something for the greater good, but other than angry rants and arguments on social media, that’s where the story ends.
Even those who join in the occasional march, or phone their congressmen about particularly controversial issues do not seem to recognize that constantly reading inflammatory news items and engaging in comment section debate is nothing more than offering up their emotional energy as the sacrificial lamb.
While it’s true that anger can fuel movements for good, letting these feelings of anger, sadness, disgust, fear and animosity wash over us on a regular basis for no other reason than to feel them, seems to me to be indicative of a problem.
Once, after expressing to my mom that trying to follow conversations about current socio-political issues was making me feel angry instead of empathetic, she told me that I needn’t feel bad for opting out of these rage-fueled discussions. What she said always stuck with me — that if I let the anger of the masses dim my own light, then I have less positive energy to put out. Even if you aren’t into energy in the spiritual sense, the principle holds true whether you look at it as mental energy, emotional energy, or even physical energy.
If you find yourself being sucked into, or even seeking out angry exchanges online, ask yourself why. If you want to be a positive force for something you believe in, online arguing is probably the least effective tool you have. So then what is it that draws you in? If you allow yourself to ponder this question honestly, you may start to identify a “jonesing” for a righteous anger fix. What makes me think so? My recognition of my own feelings of moral superiority and anger that I felt myself begin to crave. It can happen to any of us; it probably happens to most of us at some point. The key is to identify it, and learn to walk away.