In his work The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Fr. Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange suggests that each of us struggles with what a “predominant fault,” that “defect in us that tends to prevail over the others, and thereby over our manner of feeling, judging, sympathizing, willing, and acting.” Similarly, we might say that each age has its own predominant fault. As the demon Screwtape observes in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, “some ages are lukewarm and complacent,” in which the Enemy seeks “to soothe them yet faster asleep,” whereas “other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction,” in which the devil seeks to inflame us.
So what is the predominant fault of the digital age? It would be tempting to answer “lust.” After all, in the United States alone, pornography “generates more revenue than CBS, NBC, and ABC combined and more than all professional football, baseball, and basketball franchises.” But without minimizing the gravity of that problem, I’d like to suggest a different predominant fault: the vice of anger.
It’s only slightly an exaggeration to say social media runs on anger. A 2019 study examined “30,000 Twitter posts from U.S. senators to examine the effect of emotional language on multiple metrics of online engagement” and found that “anger in particular predicts greater impact: it results in more retweets and replies and also predicts increases in the number of new followers the senator attracts.”
Not only does anger spread like a wildfire, but it also creates strong tribes. We may not agree on everything, but we can unite around our shared hatred of the other side. As Dag Wollebæk et al. explain, “because anger depresses information seeking, it can potentially create media diets consisting primarily of like-minded and partisan messages, which may in turn make individuals even angrier.”
Anyone paying attention to the world of online Catholics has likely noticed this trend. Catholics who were once united have split into factitious tribes, tearing one another apart. And the worst part is . . . it’s fun. As Jean Kim, M.D. explains for Psychology Today, anger can be addictive:
What happens is that anger can lead to similar “rushes” as thrill-seeking activities where danger triggers dopamine reward receptors in the brain, or like other forms of addiction such as gambling, extreme sports, or even drugs like cocaine and methamphetamines.
This can lead to an unhealthy cycle. For instance, a 2013 study found that “participants who posted [online] rants unanimously indicated that that they felt calm or relaxed after ranting.” But the study authors point out that “frequent venting leads to subsequent increases in anger rather than decreases.” In other words, blowing off steam online makes you feel a little better in the short term, but you’re building a tendency toward more and more explosive anger.
One of the best descriptions of this cycle comes from Henry Scott Alt (formerly Scott Eric Alt), who paints what he calls “a picture of far too many mornings.” It begins the night before, staying up too late and being unprepared for the coming of morning. After the alarm goes off in the morning, Alt describes his morning ritual:
It is in this state of mind that I realize, as long as I have my phone in my hand, I may as well get on Facebook and read what people are saying. And I read, and then I go to Twitter, and I say to myself, “I wonder what blasphemous outrage Smith is saying now.” And I check, and sure enough, there’s blasphemous outrage, and I’m outraged. And I find that the outrage has worked like caffeine and I’m awake, and I burst out of bed and run into the next room to find my wife, and I say, “Listen to what Smith has said now,” and she listens, and politely she gets outraged with me, and now we’re both outraged, and the adrenaline rush of anger has woke me up and started my day, and I can chase it with a very large and very strong cup of coffee while I get on Facebook and exclaim: “I’m outraged.”
This has gone on for years.
What I don’t do when I wake up in the morning is pray.
As St. Paul warns, “if you bite and devour one another take heed that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:15). That is, this kind of constant outrage and backbiting (tearing one another down) destroys not only them, but us.
This problem seems to be getting worse. As we spend way too much time online, we’re sucked more easily into the online outrage culture.
Sometimes, this vice masquerades as virtue. After all, didn’t prior generations err in the opposite direction when they ignored (or even covered up!) sin and scandal? They did. But that’s not our age’s predominant fault. Indeed, as Garrigou-Lagrange explains, “the predominant fault is so much the more dangerous as it often compromises our principal good point,” that part of our character “that ought to develop and to be increased by grace.” An unchecked predominant fault will take what’s best about you—or about the modern age—and turn it into something evil. Garrigou-Lagrange gives the example of someone “naturally inclined to fortitude,” warning that “if he gives free rein to his irascible temperament, fortitude in him degenerates into unreasonable violence, the cause of every type of disorder.”
No one is arguing that anger is always bad. Even Jesus shows righteous outrage when he overturns the moneylenders’ tables (Matt. 21:12-13). But anger is spiritually dangerous. St. Paul counsels, “be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Eph. 4:26-27). What kind of opportunities might we be giving the devil? For one, by exploding in angry outbursts, what Scripture describes as sins of the tongue (but what we might now call sins of the keyboard). In the words of St. James, “the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:6).
Another opportunity it affords the devil is a temptation to despair. As Austin Ruse has pointed out, many high-profile Catholics who set themselves up as a spotlight on institutional corruption have left the Church entirely in recent years. Ruse observes that “when you set yourself up to fight the institutional Church, you run the risk of walking out the door.” Ruse doesn’t argue that any of these Catholics were wrong to point out corruption—only that an unmitigated diet of corruption is bad for the soul. As Friedrich Nietzsche famously observed, “if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” Focusing excessively on sin and evil—be that in the world of politics, religion, or in the lives of your neighbors—is spiritually toxic.
If any of this is hitting close to home for you, what can you do? St. Paul, no stranger to anger, offers solid counsel for those who may be disposed toward this vice. First, he says to “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:31-32). Second, he points us in a positive direction: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).
This Lent, we might seriously consider how to implement this in our own lives. For some, it’s going to mean something drastic: cut yourself off from all internet, or at least fast from reading the news or social media. For others, it might be a more selective remedy: identify those people or places on the internet that trigger your outrage, and avoid them. At the end of the Lenten season, you should then take a look at your life. Are you happier? Are you more virtuous? If so, it might be time for some lasting changes. True, you may not know all the latest scandals in the Church or in politics. But is knowing all of that really worth the price of your soul?