Sunday, December 27, 2015

2015: The Year of Outrage!

When I was still in college, I had a friend who had the curious habit of naming each year, based on what had transpired in his life. I feel like if I took this approach, 2015 would easily be labeled the "Year of Outrage." The last 12 months have brought the country many different issues which we could find ourselves angry about without much effort. Racial injustice is still prevalent. Terrorism is a daily concern for the entire world. Gun violence within the United States seems as pervasive as ever. Drug addiction has claimed thousands more lives. 

Make no mistake that problems exist and we should be outraged. With the turmoil engulfing the nation, citizens should be active in seeking to remedy these problems, right? Or not. Expressive conduct in the United States is directed at trivial issues rather than the horrors that we should be screaming about at the top of our collective lungs.

One of the more annoying expressions of faux outrage in the nation comes from college campuses. The most recent example of how strange our culture has become is evident at Oberlin College, a small liberal arts school in Ohio. Last week, students were upset that the school's catering service used various substitute dishes in some of the Asian cuisine offered to students. They claimed the school was being culturally insensitive and insulting to various ethnic groups.

Am I sympathetic to college students from foreign lands who don't get their traditional foods prepared exactly the way to which they're accustomed back home? Not really. Would a college be so responsive to an American student who complained because the dining hall's grilled cheese isn't like mom's? I really hope not, but apparently Oberlin administration is taking the matter seriously and trying to create a more "vibrant menu" for their students. Is this really an issue that has gained traction throughout the nation?

At Princeton University, one of the most prestigious schools in the nation, a group of students organized protests and a sit-in over the school's treatment of former President Woodrow Wilson, perhaps the most famous of the school's alum. President Wilson, though an accomplished and a capable leader, had a history of racist actions which would not be even close to acceptable in today's society.  

No one denies that Woodrow Wilson was an unapologetic racist, nor do they condone his views on race. Yet, to scrub Wilson from the history of Princeton would be to claim his life would be solely defined on his stupidity in one area and to not recognize his contributions to society.

A similar situation developed over a statue of President Thomas Jefferson at the College of William & Mary. Because of Jefferson's views on race, students wanted his statue taken down. Regardless of the positions any of us may hold about Jefferson and Wilson, I'm baffled that the serious racial issues of the day seem to center around names and statues of individuals whose defining traits were not racially motivated. 

There are several racial issues that deserve the attention and energy of people from all races. Do we really care this much about statues? No one is calling for the removal of the Martin Luther King, Jr. because he wasn't faithful to his wife. No one is calling for Franklin Roosevelt's removal from history for his infidelity.

The Black Lives Matter movement is confronting the issue of unwarranted police violence, and these students are up in arms over the legacy of a man who died nearly 100 years ago? I feel like there's a serious difference in the problems being confronted here.

Since it is the Christmas season, that means it's also the time for nativity scenes that don't quite represent or celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. This year, an Ohio man decided to create a nativity scene where Jesus and all the other figures were zombies. A more popular display that has popped up in multiple locations is a nativity where famous Americans gaze upon a copy of the Bill of Rights in a manger.

As a Christian, do I find these displays insulting? Of course. But the anger directed as these displays seems insignificant when compared to the suffering that people encounter on a daily basis.  I'm far more disturbed by the lack of empathy from the church and society, and the failure to teach the gospel than I am at ridiculous nativity scenes.

Maybe you also remember the scandal in the National Football League, where the New England Patriots and Tom Brady were accused deflate footballs during a playoff game. The investigation of the incident reveled no conclusive evidence existed that the Patriots or Brady knew about the deflated footballs. Yet, people were acting as if this was as serious as Watergate.

In November, the outrage expanded to Starbucks. The coffee giant annually changes their cup design to something oriented to the Christmas season, but this year they opted for a simple red cup. Various groups of people took it as an affront to the Christmas season because a coffee company didn't make a Christmasy type of cup.

This past summer, Americans became furious over a Minnesota dentist who killed a lion in Africa. It's not that people didn't have a reason to be upset, but Americans seemed angrier about it than the people of Zimbabwe.

Why is it that we are more upset about a lion we knew nothing about? Why are we outraged about all the things that don't really matter while ignoring the greater issues of the world?

Much of the outrage in America today stems from a sense of moral superiority. Man has an innate drive to become better than others, to achieve at greater levels. While the desire to push oneself is not inherently bad, the perceived need of being a better person than the other guy is a problem.

Humans have this deeply rooted tendency to not only want to achieve, but to denigrate the accomplishments of others so that we can further exalt ourselves.  When we attempt to diminish someone else, it somehow makes us feel like we are more special and maybe the world will notice. In exposing the flawed nature of another human being, we not only attempt to lessen their significance, but hope to elevate our own stature by being the person who brought forth the truth. It feels good to be right, doesn't it?

Not only do we wish to diminish the achievements of others, but we are envious of everything that they are. It's almost as if we're waiting for them to make a mistake that we can seize upon. Who doesn't bash a celebrity now and then? And why? Because they deserve it? Are any of us really so foolish to believe we could measure up to the standards by which we judge others?

The nation's anger over such minuscule issues also reflects the unhappiness of many individuals. Haven't you hear the old adage, 'misery loves company'? While many people express outrage and anger as a means of developing a sense of moral superiority, others become enraged because they are unhappy with their own lives.

I would submit that the anger from many Americans is partly connected to our sense of entitlement. The concept of the 'American Dream' has been a piece of our political culture for decades. We buy into the notion that if you work hard and play by the rules, you will succeed in this country. While the 'American Dream' might have been true in the 1950s, time has dealt a cruel blow to the ego of our people.

The world owes us nothing and will sometimes give us nothing even when we work in the most diligent fashion. How does a person respond when they realize that they have been deceived? I would expect most humans would react with a twinge of anger, and it's difficult to blame a cultural concept for your problems. As a result, that anger manifests itself in another form, like over a red cup. 

Political parties promote part of their agendas through the use of outrage. They're counting on their party base and the rank-and-file members to be so outraged as a means to point out how the other party represents everything wrong with the nation. Democrats and Republicans attempt to manipulate people based on the outrage.  Look at either one of our last two presidents and see how they have been the object of anger and scorn, and how much of it was truly deserved?  Is the president really responsible for all of your problems? 

American cultural landscape in the 21st century makes it significantly easier to make your outrage known to the rest of the world.  The advent of the Internet and social media allows any citizen to express their views about any topic in an unfiltered manner. Posting your outrage online is easy, and it provides a forum where you do not have to face another person. The level of difficulty in expressing outrage increases exponentially when you must look another person in the eyes.

The problem our nation has also resides within Americans partly because of our First Amendment right to free speech. Americans love to talk and tell you precisely what they think about any given person or issue (even if their opinion isn't well-founded). We are quick to wield this right without giving much thought to the ramifications of what we say or whom it might hurt.

The mentality of 'because I can' far exceeds any notion of whether the words will actually contribute any merit to a discussion. Our ability to speak freely is an amazing gift, but when we do not temper that freedom with wisdom about the social value of the message accompanying those words, the result is this crazed sense of outrage.

Of course, my thoughts on the level of outrage might be subject to the criticism that these minor inconveniences are still problems. I'm not attempting to diminish the complaints people have about society, but to perhaps put them in the proper context.

The frustration exhibited over these less than significant issues takes attention away from the bigger problems that face the world. How can we live in a world where people care more about getting authentic ethnic cuisine than they do about climate change, drug overdoses, terrorism, or the suffering of other humans?  Because that's the reality of our culture and it speaks to the shallow nature of our society. 

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