On outrage porn, mimesis, and forgiveness
One of the signs of our time is the almost overwhelming prevalence of so-called outrage porn. That colloquialism refers to things that provoke shock or indignation, whether by design or default. And, my goodness, there’s a lot of it around. Probably we did not need this neologism since it simply retrieves the older idea of a scandal, indicating a perception of abhorrent or shameful behaviour. Still, the colloquialisation of the idea of a scandal is illuminating. By gesturing towards the pornographic, the phrase indicates a corruption of desire, the removal of desire from its private dwelling, and throwing the intimate out into the realm of the spectacle. In the word scandal, which is etymologically linked to a snare or stumbling block, desire’s role is somewhat hidden. In the phrase outrage porn, it is exposed.
Outrage porn suggests the profanation of eros that arises when the negativity inherent in eros is absent; when excess positivity and the grip of absolute immediacy hold sway. All scandals and scandalising involve the reduction of desire to use and domination. Love is degraded to become manipulation. Byung-Chul Han writes in The Agony of Eros of the “pornographication of society” that turns everything into a commodity by putting it on display. Outrage porn does not generate positive change within the world, even though it relies on a kind of moral sensitivity. It catalyses further objectification and depersonalisation; it sparks reactions and chain reactions. Outrage porn is, we know, rather fun to call out. And so, there are posts and there is much posting. The odd result of this is the proliferation of self-satisfied virtue-signalling: usually ersatz virtue, not virtue itself.
Outrage porn tends to foster a particular way of interpreting the world that is bad for the soul. Without knowing how it works or how desire is at work in it, we will inevitably fall into the trap it sets. Indeed, we may fall into the trap even when we understand how it works. Nevertheless, knowing how it works and knowing what is at work in it may introduce just enough negativity, a moment of hesitation or pause perhaps, to allow us to consider what it would look like to go against the expectations it sets up. Eros, a righteous posture towards the real, can be restored if we allow ourselves, for starters, the radical obliteration of the haste that outrage porn inspires. Eros can be restored when we attend to what is happening within us and between us when we are confronted with any scandal.
Notice that outrage porn tends to rely on cause and effect remaining uninterrupted by anything like reflective thought. Something happens and the result is a strong and strangely confused emotional reaction. There is disgust, disapproval, shock, anger, insult, and shame. But there is also likely to be intrigue, fascination, curiosity, amazement, and even wonder. This mixture of feelings flickers ambiguously within and before us like that scramble suit in Richard Linklater’s film A Scanner Darkly. It simultaneously repels and allures; it is often alluring, in fact, to the very extent that it is repellent. It excites even as it disgusts. It suggests an object we feel we want to and should reject but it also somehow invites and even demands our attention. We want to see and unsee it. This call to both look and look away suggests an essentially disintegrative phenomenon. Existence becomes a torture rack.
What is the cause of this disagreeable contrariety? In a word, the cause is mimesis, although this simple diagnosis needs to be carefully qualified. Our natural capacity for imitating the desires of others is at the root of the majority of our behaviours. Often this is a source of freedom for us. To imitate the wholesome desires of others is to find ourselves freed to find the good and to do good in the world. To emulate saints and heroes and other models of virtue is to be reconciled and put together. The models we imitate become doors in the walls of the world; always open to the goodness of being.
But scandals suggest a shrinkage of mimesis that is not so welcoming or integrative. Scandals destabilise self-possession even as they also, paradoxically, elicit a sense of personal power. When mimesis becomes constricted and possessive, and so transforms from being concerned with standing in the truth to being concerned with controlling, the models we emulate are no longer open doors but closed ones. Models turn into rivals without ceasing to be models. Desire thus acquires a duplicitous quality: it seeks to emulate—and outdo. The emulation of the desire of the other may even involve a secret or not-so-secret desire to see the other destroyed. If the opposite facets of the experience of a scandal are easily confused, this is because, psychologically speaking, the difference between the model and the rival is precisely nothing. He or she is both the one we want to emulate and the one we want to stop emulating. We want to join them—and beat them. As the above should suggest, scandal is not an individual or purely subjective phenomenon. It is communal; intersubjective.
Scandal represents the twitching, winking, fluttering co-existence of rise and fall, allure and threat, pride and shame, self-elevation and self-degradation. Someone of high status falls, say, and so instantly becomes both more famous and more notorious; they are raised up and brought low. One example is the pitiable Prince Harry after the recent release of his autobiography. The book and subsequent interviews, which I have done my utmost to avoid for obvious reasons, have revealed him to be the exemplary ressentiment-man. Outrage pornographers and scandalmongers are monstrous. Like Harry, they are just as scandalised as the public. They are monstrous in the sense that they demonstrate what it looks like when humanity is caught in self-dehumanisation. In a way, people admire the monsters; they want what they have. They envy their status. But they also despise them and are eager to condemn them. The latter tends to conceal the former but the original mimetic desire remains always present; it’s what sustains the scandal and all subsequent scandalising. “If anyone scandalises one of these little ones,” says Jesus in Matthew 18:6, “it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” The scandal is, of course, already a kind of drowning; it is already the maelström that drags a person towards nonbeing.
To restate and stress a point made earlier, mimetic desire doesn’t necessarily make neat distinctions between imitation and non-imitation. It can’t easily tell the difference between modelling and rivalling. Perhaps the crimes of the model are worth emulating as well; perhaps their virtues caused them to fall. Scandals have a terrible tendency to corrupt innocence since they involve perceivers in the very logic of rivalry even while blinding them to their own mimesis. We are soon found to be in the wrong even as we express disgust since we are raised up by the very fact that someone else has been brought low. We are also demeaned by their elevation.
Here, then, is the chief danger for the soul: what outrage porn offers is not genuine moral superiority but its counterfeit—a mere sense, the mere feeling, of moral superiority. I think of a line in Kafka’s story Description of a Struggle: “Who knows, this person [this model-rival] … might be capable of bestowing on me in the eyes of the world a value without my having to work for it.” As Kafka seems aware, there may be a way in our rivalry with the scandalised to look good with very little actual effort. But do we really end up looking good? A strange sentiment commonly accompanies this exploitation of the fallenness of others, this fallenness that causes us to fall: a refusal to forgive them for what we are doing to them.
Is there a way out of this? Can we escape being scandalised? Well, yes. The simplest answer, which turns out to be nearly impossibly complicated, is to “be excellent in what is good and innocent of evil” as St. Paul writes in Romans 16:19. To fully explore what that means would take more space and time than I, and probably you, have; so below I offer only the beginning of a suggestion. Below, to be clear, I point to the philosophical parameters of a solution rather than providing a psychological method or advice.
Fort starters, being able to recognise the trap is already a way to notice that we do not have to step into it. It helps to know what a scandal is, as well as be particularly attentive to the fact that it is an interdividual and not merely individual phenomenon. That’s why I’m writing this. To be properly and thoroughly scandalised, after all, requires ignorance. Self-deception, and the self-seriousness that accompanies it, is fuel for scandals and a good dose of revelation is often a sufficient cure. When that distinctive blend of arrogance and envy emerges within us, we need to get good at spotting it. One way to spot it is to notice whether it spurs us into acting rather than into just reacting. Reaction renders us mere nodes in a system of outrage, not agents with the capacity to generate positive change.
The worst of any scandal, in my view, is that it encourages passivity and humourlessness in the scandalised. Scandal seemingly can’t be helped—even when it can be. But descandalising anything has the force of conviction rather than condemnation; it has the force of levity as well since its chief aim is to rise above the outrage. But how do we do this? While understanding provides illumination, the trouble is, we may still do what we don’t want to do and fail to do what we want to do; we may still end up trapped within our own subjectivity. We need a way out, a way to see beyond the limited perspective that the scandal nudges us to embrace. Merely condemning any scandal is likely to make us more complicit in it since it merely binds us more tightly to the mimetic conditions that fuel the scandal.
The only way out of such conditions is through forgiveness. But here we are faced with another problem. Many of us tend to walk around with a largely individualistic understanding of forgiveness; and yet, it is not a merely individual phenomenon. Even the idea in the Lord’s Prayer suggests as much: “Forgive us as we forgive others” (See Matthew 6:12-14). It seems that forgiving ourselves may be part of the essence of the call to self-denial that goes against this narcissistic culture of ours (See Matthew 16:23-25).
Forgiveness in fact means relinquishing the very desire for private control that drives rivalrous mimesis. It means being uncoupled from the desires of the rival that keep scandals going. The Greek word for forgiveness in the Christian New Testament is aphesis, from apheimi; it means, literally, to send away or to let go and to let be; to release someone from an obligation. The idea implies freeing someone, namely the model-rival, from captivity. It also implies freeing ourselves from them, and from the mimetic self created by that rivalry. As what I have said ought to imply, forgiveness, therefore, requires a complete reorientation of the entire field of desire and not merely a single, solitary act of letting go. Forgiveness requires the renewal of mimesis and the creation of a new self-of-desire. We need a model to emulate who is not and cannot be our rival.
I often think of a story told by Corrie Ten Boom in her autobiography The Hiding Place. To put it mildly, Ten Boom went through absolute hell during the Second World War. Having participated in hiding Jewish people from Nazis, she and her sister had ended up in a death camp. Yet, after the war, Corrie became something of a profound voice for reconciliation and recovery, speaking about the importance of the work of forgiveness. But then, one day, when she was done speaking at an event to a certain group of people, she was horrified to see the face of the SS soldier who had worked at the concentration camp where she and her sister had been imprisoned, where her dear sister had in fact died. Suddenly all talk of forgiveness seemed bizarre.
That former SS soldier spoke to Corrie after her talk. He thanked her for the reminder that Christ offered redemption to even the most despicable of sinners. Corrie was filled with alarm and disgust. This man, this monster; how could she forgive him? She recalls in her autobiography the shocking realisation that, in reality, when so suddenly stripped of her theological abstractions, she couldn’t forgive him after all. A large part of her was still in the death camp, and that former soldier was still her captor. This is how it is with all of us; we carry our worlds and all of our history and everyone we meet with us. But Corrie was, I would say, still working with somewhat individualist assumptions. She had assumed, in a way, that she was alone; that the task of forgiveness was a private one. She saw forgiveness as an individual act and not as an interdividual one. And this is precisely why it was impossible. How does one let go when one’s very desire is bound up in rivalry with the other?
Still, she had also spent many years meditating on Christ, himself a model of interdividual being as the second person of the Trinity; he had demonstrated what it was like to be free from evil even when surrounded by it. He had, for instance, forgiven the men who had falsely accused him and crucified him; he forgave his own murderers as they were killing him. And in that, Corrie Ten Boom realised the true value of mimesis, even if she never articulated her realisation in this way. She had an epiphany. If she could not forgive, as an individual, then perhaps Christ would need to forgive on her behalf. And so she let Christ lead the way. In releasing her attachment to her rival and placing her attention on that Non-rivalrous Divinity, her very desire was transformed. She became a new desiring-self. She was able then to attach herself to one who had spoken those famous words, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Forgiveness, as Hannah Arendt, so perceptively noticed, is a political matter and not just a private one. And, as Arendt writes, “the discoverer of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth.”
In his 1983 novel Pilgermann, Russell Hoban has his protagonist encounter a vision of this Christ after suffering a terrible personal trauma. This Christ points out that it is possible for all of us to hold things dear that we in fact despise. We cling to what we want to be rid of; we may even clutch at poison as if it is an elixir. But Christ knows that we cling to things only because we want wholeness, even if it is not a wholeness that the things we cling to can provide. We may feel temporarily whole even when we are scandalised: we may feel superior even as we are humiliated. “Whoever holds on wishes to let go,” says Christ in Hoban’s Pilgermann, “because attachment is not wholeness: the only wholeness is in being with everything and attached to nothing; the only wholeness is in letting go, and I am the letting go.”
Corrie Ten Boom experienced something of this and then she let this guide her into positive action. She knew the Letting Go. The Letting Go forgave on her behalf. And then, as if by a miracle, she was also free to forgive. She, too, was able to let go. As I said, I was only planning to offer the beginning of a suggestion, the philosophical parameters of a suggestion, and that is what I have done. It is a simple thing, and therefore often clearly very difficult. But I have found it to be true in my own experience. And I do think that this insight into forgiveness applies to all kinds of human experiences, even to something as seemingly silly as encountering outrage porn on the internet. To be free in general, it matters immensely what and, more importantly, who we pay attention to.
I have also suggested that we must understand first and then forgive. But I am confronted now with the surprising, even alarming realisation that, in reality, forgiveness must always come first; it must come first always, in everything. Unless we enter into the drama of forgiveness, we cannot ever really understand anything. Unless we forgive, we cannot even claim to have created the conditions for justice. We cannot, for instance, see that forgiveness does not mean we must naively trust those who have done us harm ever again; it does not at all mean being a doormat to oppressors. Forgiveness is not blindness; it is spiritual sight. Forgiveness discloses reality better than outrage-driven condemnation. Unless forgiveness becomes a habit of being, a world we continually enter into, we will be forever caught in every scandal, even the most trifling and trivial.