Pitching my Fork: Confessions of an Outrage Addict

I’m an outrage addict.

I want, really to say I’m a former addict, but like any addiction, the first step to being free of it is to acknowledge you never will truly escape its influence. So, let me begin by admitting I have a problem. I am an outrage addict.

I don’t take any comfort from knowing I have a hell of a lot of company. At any given day on every social media site and in the comments of every online article, there are usually at least seven or eight angry outbursts in all directions with roaming mobs with pitchforks to match. Sometimes the ire is more than warranted; it’s healing, or it’s alerting a community (sometimes the world) of a wrong too egregious to ignore. Sometimes our collective upset is as mesmerizing and ridiculous as reality television. Sometimes I open up Twitter and spend a solid five minutes simply trying to sort out who is mad at whom and for what. Sometimes I never quite manage to suss it out.

But I always try to know, because my addiction to righteous indignation short-circuits my rational brain.

I came to my addiction naturally. As a youth, I was the kid who always raised her hand, hungry for attention. Innocent enough, right? I was also the kid picked on, picked last, and picked over when I offered a convenient target. That’s when it really began, I think. When that’s your lot, you learn to look both ways before you cross a hallway. You watch for tells, and you reach for defensive weapons. When everyone’s planting landmines in your path, you boil down the incident and analyze every look, every word, every shove and burst of laughter in an effort to find a way to avoid enjoying this fate in the future.

I was primed, therefore, as I entered college for my first clean hit of undergraduate outrage. I joined causes. I opposed them. I wrote letters to the editor—and those missives elevated me from being a casual outrage abuser to being fully owned by my folly. All my years of wary calculation, my hours of study and anxiety, now had practical application. In those calls to action, I combined analysis with outrage and discovered nirvana: reader reaction. In three hundred words or less, I could—and did—disrupt an entire college campus. I started wars. I ended them. The power was intense, and it was mine to claim.

I indulged my love of outrage, using indignation to get things started, to strive for social justice…and sometimes used for things I told myself were social justice. I got expert at pulling the lever and getting things done…and yeah, giving myself a rush. I got better and sharper, and the hits got sweeter and more complex and satisfying.

And then I discovered the Internet. (cue supernal choir)

I flirted with forums in grad school, though this was treading water. No outrage on the web yet, but conditions were ripe. It wasn’t until I discovered Yahoo groups that I learned how far I was willing to go for my fix. Going without for too long left me with a queasy feeling. I wasn’t even conscious of how I manipulated a room. Sometimes for good, sometimes for ill, and sometimes the morality line only told me how to offend people the fastest. I just knew I had so much goddamned power in my hands I felt like…well, a god. All I had to do was pick up the pitchfork. And I knew nothing got people moving quite like pointing out something they could direct their anger at.

I told myself I was a good person, so it was okay. All that rage for a good cause helped make the world better, right? Revolution! Yes, a few people were hurt, but…well, they had it coming, right? I mean, everybody agreed with me. Everybody who mattered. And yeah, if things got too nasty, I backed off. Became more conscious. With great power comes great responsibility. Right?

Right?

Lying to yourself comes naturally to addicts. So easy to justify what you’re doing, to make excuses for needing something indulgent and destructive. Oscar Wilde said it: “I can resist anything except temptation.” It’s not like you’re hurting anyone really. You’re just speaking your truth. Maybe sometimes you humiliate and crush folks who disagree with you, but only the rabid dogs. Only the ones who’ve bitten someone. Or they looked like they were about to bite. You’re being proactive and making the world safe for folks like you.

Every once in a while, my outrage has definitely helped good to win out in the end; I’m proud of some of the work I’ve done. But I freely admit there have been times, either by ignorance or arrogance, I went too far. Hardly noticeable as would-be author and stay-at-home mom Heidi Cullinan, mucking about online, but as my profile as an author rose, as the reach of my blog and even my Tweets expanded, so did my potential to screw up on a global scale. If I didn’t watch every word that came out of my mouth or landed on my keyboard, the hurt was magnified. If I let my guard down and gave myself a bit of the pure stuff, the righteous outrage of my youth, free of filters or consequence? No guarding, no worries where it landed, just self-righteousness and the rush of knowing I could hit my target drunk, blindfolded, in pouring down rain? Yes. I could and did hurt people.

I have a lot of sins of outrage I should confess to, but there isn’t blog enough and time to number them all. Instead, I’m going to tell you the story of one, and let it be an example. It’s a good representative because it’s layered: there was a valid point buried in there. I didn’t exactly fart at a cathedral wedding and then end ass-up in the gutter with my pants down. But I did hurt someone, needlessly. Last week I emailed her to apologize, and I asked for her permission to tell the story publicly. She gave it to me, and here it is.

This transpired shortly after my hysterectomy a few years ago. I was tired, and I was angry about a lot of things, on and off the topic of uteruses and invasive surgery. I was scared, and confused, because having a major surgery and being thrown head-first into menopause wasn’t on my plans. I felt vulnerable and uncertain, and as it happens at those moments, I sat in my darkness and imagined everyone else was running in the light. It wasn’t fair, and it made me scared, and lonely. And bitter.

I wanted the illusion of safety that power gave me back. So I flexed my worst muscles.

I forget now the ancillary issues in publishing that had me so annoyed. Something about people not doing things right, or getting in my space—ridiculous, petty things born of sick thinking. The world was a dangerous cocktail of insults and mirrors; I lost the ability to tell where my anger was justified and where it simply fed my addiction so I didn’t have to look at myself.

Then I saw the tweet. Someone linked to a book that sounded interesting, but when I read the blurb, there was a word. A single word that shouldn’t be there. Preference. Sexual preference, not orientation. This was wrong. Not only offensive to me, my belief this wasn’t the way to write the word; it went directly against the GLAAD guidelines.

Someone was wrong on the Internet. Zing. Target acquired.

This is the anatomy of addiction, what I did next. The infraction was one word, something I could solve with a single link. I could have emailed the author and said, “Hey, you may not know, but that’s not a good choice, and here’s the research which explains why.” I mean, it wasn’t like I had to say, “Your word makes ME feel weird.” It was a simple matter of media parlance, and there was documentation. Over and out.

I didn’t email her. Which isn’t so bad in and of itself—it’s not necessarily my job to spend the day writing emails telling people to check the GLAAD website. I tweeted back to the person who had showed me the link that it was a bad word choice. Still not such a bad sin. Public, but I had a cue to stand down. People I trusted and respected gently suggested she hadn’t meant it to be offensive, hinted they could talk to her, but honestly they didn’t find it offensive. I got all the more upset, and I dug in my heels. I knew I was right: I’d found a molehill to climb like a mountain.

This was about justice, I thought to myself. My certainty was absolute. I was in the right. I knew I was. And you know, I actually was. Part of why I got such a bee in my bonnet is that I’d let the word stand once in a big way. It was during my tenure as RRW president, and RWA had capitulated on an issue so quickly I’d had whiplash, but they’d used the word preference. It’s a universally disliked term, no controversy in the community, but I didn’t feel like I could fight for it in that moment, not in that environment. From a political standpoint, I’d ceded the battle to not upset the greater victory. It was changed soon after, by work from Damon Suede, but I remembered that capitulation I’d felt I had to make. I hadn’t liked the feeling.

Here, however, was my chance to win all around. Down with preference! Yay, orientation! The word must go! I’d save the world in my spare time; I wasn’t worthless or lonely or sad. Right? Right? And though I would have told you otherwise, in the back of my unhealthy mind, I added the thought that changed my outrage from positive action into a hit of the drug.

I’ll do this good thing, and I will be the one to take it down. It’ll feel good to have this victory.

I opened my mouth and inserted my foot. I didn’t name the author, which I thought protected me from gaucherie, but everybody and their pet rock knew who I was talking about. I worse than named the author: I made knowing and shaming her a game, fun for the whole mob. Grab a pitchfork and a torch and meet me at the castle! I brought up appropriation, a conversation I’d wanted to have for a long time, but I yoked it to this use of the word “preference” in a way that didn’t help the argument and honestly, turned a minor gaffe into a thought crime. Did I ask friends to check the essay first? Hell, no! I didn’t want to be checked. Always a sign taking a hit of the outrage pipe.

I screwed up. I had an important conversation and the wrong way at the wrong time over an issue that didn’t need this kind of searchlight. I summoned the willing mob of thought police to help me whip myself into a lather. What made this incident of outrage different, however, is that I didn’t get my fix, the rush of exhilaration and power. I think even if I’d actually managed to not hurt someone and had only had an important conversation and done it well, I still would have felt like crap. Because the truth was, I was already empty.

Especially when the author wrote me, apologized to me for using the word, fixed the blurb, and offered me a copy of the book. No, I didn’t get satisfaction at all.

The author was Sarina Bowen, and the book was The Understatement of the Year. It’s a very good book, and if you love gay romance with aching, soul-bruising angst, drop what you’re doing and go lap it up. Sarina is a lovely, generous, kind-hearted woman, and she did not deserve to be dragged into my mess, even if it would have been better for her to use orientation at the start. But at the end of the day, she certainly didn’t need to apologize to me for using the word in her blurb. And yet she did. She took the hit, because I needed my hit.

That act of kindness by her—turning the other cheek and inviting me to slap it with utter humility and openness of spirit—was one of the most generous, undeserved gifts I’ve ever been given. It undid my anger and fear and helped lead me, gently, into the deep and bitter sadness I had been trying so hard to skirt in my own issues. It was important, because on the other side of my terror and fear and rage was acceptance. But I didn’t want to go there. I wanted to stay in anger, where it was safe.

I apologize to you again, Sarina, for my selfishness—and I thank you, again, for your selfless gift.

I’m not going to pretend I still don’t get angry. I do. Daily. But I try not to wallow in the indignation or reap anything from it. I do my best to put my egocentric pitchfork down and let the toxicity go.

Outrage addiction isn’t like being an alcoholic. You can’t put down the bottle and never pick it up again. You need anger sometimes. Outrage serves a terrible, vital function. Sometimes you have to raise your voice to get people to hear the house is on fire. Sometimes the only way to relieve the pressure is to scream. But I’ve learned, the hard way, that we feed that vicious cycle for selfish reasons. Sometimes we’re the ones starting the fire, and we don’t just injure innocent bystanders. We burn them alive, slowly, and on a public bonfire. And then that’s on our slate. On our soul. We have to carry their carcasses around, and look at them. We become their pyre, their prison, their grave.

I wrote this essay to confess, to memorialize the damage that outrage can do to you and the others around you. To invite you to look at your outrage meter as I continue to examine mine. Is the blaze is worth what it destroys? Are we letting go of our rage, or clinging to it so healing and progress is impossible?

We hate our flaws in everyone else, but that projection doesn’t release the feelings, only conflates them. I’m an addict, but I’m trying to quit. I’m trying to be brave enough to walk through pain and upset, to lead the mob towards something other than poison and pitchforks. To strive to be a light and a leader. To not turn myself into a dungeon or a pyre.

I’m staying in outrage rehab, facing my days one at a time. I don’t need twelve steps, when one will do: cooperate and reciprocate. I will play fair. Respond to slights, but make my goal cooperation and sharing joy and victory. I will never cheat my allies. I won’t get in my own way. I will treat other people as partners, not enemies. I will always be open to more partners, because I move faster to my goals when I have more help and less opposition. I will remember, in my dark moments, that my goal is not to burn or destroy. My goal is to cooperate and reciprocate. I only have use of pitchforks when I need to carry out dung.

I’m taking responsibility for my own weakness. I’m learning to trust I don’t need the sweet rush of righteous rage to feel catharsis. That the real power lies in dowsing my torch and calming any indignant mob determined to stifle honest conversation and real solutions. Maybe those folks can’t help themselves, but I can keep myself safe and make a place for others seeking shelter from the blaze. The place for me to battle injustice is at its root: in my own addiction. I’m trying to become the ex-rage-junkie I wish to see in the world.

I’m an outrage addict, but I’m committed to breaking the habit.

How about you?

 

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