Helicopter Outrage

I’ve noticed two trends that are becoming lately characteristic of American culture. One is outrage. We are a society brimming with anger, some articulate and much inarticulate. We are quick to be offended and even quicker to call our offenders to account for themselves. Worst of all, we are losing our ability to exchange in the marketplace of ideas without verbally assaulting “the enemy” (ie, all those who disagree).  

I’m not even referring to culture war. Culture war is a meme that is easy to blame because it exonerates those who do blame it. Yet the impetus to outrage is not about culture war, which in many cases is a legitimate sociopolitical intercourse. Anger that obscures clear and reasonable thinking can’t be blamed on culture war; rather if anything, the responsibility for the ugliest manifestations of culture war must lie on the shoulders of outrage culture.

Seething vapors of bad faith characterize so much of our political dialogue that many news blogs and other sites are either shutting off commenting sections entirely or hiring moderators, whose job it is to patrol comments for “flames” or “trolls” or “baits (note how emergence of subculture is always followed with an emergent vocabulary).

It’s not just the plebeian masses anymore. Vitriol and hatefulness are mainstream and I’m not talking about talk radio. The New York Times ran this op ed on Friday that casually compares the recent conservative victory on Hobby Lobby to jihad. Get beyond the offensiveness and lunacy of Egan’s bait and switch for a moment, and ask yourself: “What would a writer be feeling at the moment that he contemplates the similarities between a Supreme Court case on abortive contraceptives and religion-inspired slaughter?” The answer is anger. Anger tends to obscure clear thinking and hinder reasonable dialogue.

The second trend I am noticing is “helicopter parenting.” Parents are so concerned for their children’s safety that a risk-free existence is being carved out for millions of inactive, hyper-supervised kids. In March Hanna Rosin published a 2,000 word essay called “The Overprotected Kid.” Worse, places like Freerangekids.com document case after case of parents being criminally prosecuted after neighbors phone in to report seeing unsupervised children often just a few feet from their house. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat dedicated an entire op-ed to this “parent trap.”

The concern here is not that kids are too safe but that they are too supervised, robbed of valuable space in which they can grow and learn and develop into maturity without, as Rosin puts it, simply “mimicking the habits of adulthood.” As media reports constantly fixate on the latest Amber alert or kidnapping memoir, parents are being frightened into manufacturing a halfway house childhood for their kids. Every activity is organized and supervised, every event features Mom or Dad in the role of chauffeur, and no play is permitted that escapes watchful eyes.

What do these two trends have in common? I believe they both underscore an increasingly common, perhaps even ubiquitous, lack of trust in our culture.

Presumption of good faith is an important part of civil society. I’ve written about this previously, but I did not then spend much time discussing what happens to a society that does not presume good faith anymore. I think the two trends I’ve just described are exactly what we should expect from a culture that has lost its trust, that constantly looks behind the back and is highly reticent to invest in anything that creates interpersonal vulnerability. One of the explanations for outrage culture is that we as a society are convinced that those who disagree with us are trying to bring all to ruin. We find it difficult or impossible to believe that honest disagreement can happen between parties with equally genuine motivations for good. So we experience indignation in our political or religious discourse because we are convinced that we are dealing with dissidents who are not just wrong but wicked.

Helicopter parenting also comports with a culture of suspicion, in an obvious way and then in a not so obvious way. Of course we can all understand parents who are suspicious of their neighborhoods when it comes to children’s safety. No one is capable of giving more love or health to a child than its family. But what about the people who see two children playing happily in a field, and no parent immediately visible, and then call CPS? In many of the cases that I’ve read about the third-party does not even communicate with the children to make sure they are alright. If the kids look alone, the parents need to see the police. I’m sure that many of these folks think of themselves as Good Samaritans, but even the Lord’s parable ended with the injured traveler being left at an inn without the Samaritan’s supervision.

The people who call authorities on parents who don’t hover over children are operating from a default position of suspicion, and not just suspicion of unwise parenting but that of criminal mischief. I believe that the increasing frequency of such events is evidence that we as a culture walk around believing that the people around us are up to no good. We assume the very worst of most situations. This explains our outrage and our outrageous attempts at self and progeny-insularity.

Millennials, the current generation of twenty and thirty-somethings to which I belong, are famously narcissistic and self-esteemed. What’s interesting is that millennials are also characterized by distrust, both of institutions and of individuals. That seems to jive with the millennials’ low marriage rates and general lack of participation in meta-social ritual. Hook up culture replaces youthful, long term relationships because of its easy opt-out character. Membership in church or other social institutions gives way to an involvement in “quasi-religious spiritual communities” which tend to lack expectations, inconveniences and (best of all) extremists.

Now of course, today’s helicopter parents and most of today’s outraged pundits are not millennials. Yet it’s reasonable to believe that a distrustful, bad faith culture develops over time and matures over the course of generations. I’ve noticed that many seniors seem perpetually upset and convinced that someone, somewhere is trying to rob or extort or even kill them. Sometimes they’re not wrong, of course, but it seems like the suspicions multiply at a faster pace than the villains.

How should Christians speak to this? The first thing we should do is admit that we participate in the culture of bad faith far too often. Whether succumbing to suspecting the very worst of our political opponents  or arranging our lives so that no one has meaningful access to it, Christians can play the distrustful game as well as anyone.

The next thing we can say to this is exactly what Gandalf said about the traitor Grima Wormtongue: “The treacherous are ever distrustful.” Paranoid suspicions are characteristic of people who themselves lack trustworthiness. We as humans project our own problems and tendencies onto those around us, and if we lack integrity or good motivations within our own soul, we will behave as if the people in our lives also lack it. Perhaps the reason we think political group ________ is trying to tear down America to make a profit is because, in our hearts, we only care about our own little kingdom. Maybe we walk around convinced that the ugly parent-child scene in Kroger means “Babies having babies” because we too are selfishly oriented. The log in our own eye not only makes us hypocrites, it creates the appearance of logs in everyone else’s ocular sockets.

In one of his “Letters to an American Lady,” C.S. Lewis wrote: “I am rather sick of the modern assumption that, for all events, “WE,” the people, are never responsible: It is always our rulers or ancestors or parents or education, or anybody but precious “US”. WE are apparently perfect and blameless.” What fuels the culture of distrust is the conviction in our own goodness. We think our neighbor’s line is crooked because ours is straight. Christianity’s answer to what is wrong in our world is very simple: We are. The problem and the darkness and the sin and the death lies in us. The basis of even our self-loathing is a self-justification. This makes us outraged hypocrites, projecting our own inner mischief onto everyone else.

As is so often true, the healing begins when we look away from ourselves. When we confront our own sinfulness then we can deal with the logs in our culture’s eye. We get married to sinful people as equally sinful people, striving towards love by the grace forged by Christ. We join up in fellowship and membership with other hypocrites and open our own soul to be corrected and helped in the Body that belongs to a resurrected Jesus. And we drop outrage and needless suspicion when we see the world through the eyes of mercy.

The treacherous are ever distrustful, and the Savior died for cosmic traitors. Embracing Him will step us out of the vicious cycle of helicopter outrage.

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