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The Outrage Machine

photoOnline social media has given us a great deal, more than I think most of us are really aware of unless we stop to think of it. It’s given us community, it’s given us revolution, it’s given us heart and snark and platform and cute-on-demand. It isolates us in ways we don’t understand, but for parents of special needs parents in particular, it also ensures that we are never completely alone, and it provides us with a light to chase away that sense that what we’re facing is ours alone, or that the future for our child has been written, and not nicely. The internet and all its teeming communities tell us differently. Not always for the best, not always placing us in good company, but that wouldn’t represent this world very accurately if it did.

If there’s anything that social media seems to do the most easily, it is to serve as a great machine, churning and huffing, with gears grinding day and night. And the product the machine produces and replicates and reproduces relentlessly is outrage. Facebook and Twitter serve as its two greatest cogs, but the Outrage Machine is complex. And god, is it efficient.

For me, Twitter has lost a lot of its appeal, which is why I don’t use it all that often. But Facebook remains an addictive machine, and I’m not entirely sure why, except that it feels to me like the place where I really get to see the human condition play out. Big news, small details, funny remarks, and of course photos of children and chinchillas and art projects and fancy dinners and families and drunks. But it’s also on Facebook where I see the Outrage Machine work with such energy, and it’s where I find myself firing up that machine the most frequently as well. For others, I know that Twitter is the place where that happens, where sparks of indignation most quickly find their kindling.

A celebrity makes a racist/sexist/ablist/whateverist remark that catches fire before their publicist even has a chance to begin sputtering and backpedalling. A politician tries to sneak an amendment into a bill that protects his privilege while stepping on the neck of an already disenfranchised group. A homeowners association files an injunction against a neighbor who has installed a wheelchair ramp. A teacher puts a disabled child in a closet. A school district cuts special education funding to save the football program. A waiter stands up for a patron when another customer is cruel. A bus driver forgets about that little camera when her patience with an overstimulated autistic child reaches its limit. A neighbor sends an anonymous hate letter to a family whose child’s needs are inexplicable to them. Police kill a young adult whose disability they have no understanding of.

I’ve operated the levers of the Outrage Machine many times. I’ll probably do so again soon, maybe even today, depending on how awful the world feels like being. And yet, I try to remain conscious of that machine’s limitations, and its potential for misuse. The Outrage Machine is swift. It can take a story from your local free paper’s badly coded website to a ham-handed attempt at coverage from CNN in a day, sometimes in a very few hours. It can provide a moment of catharsis for people who feel like their own troubles go unrecognized, or whose own fights seem aimed at elusive targets. I may not have an easy target for the sense of unease I feel after meeting one of Schuyler’s new teachers (whose demeanor screams “I don’t get it, and I’m probably never going to, and have a great year!”), but those jerks at that church who threw out a kid in a wheelchair because they didn’t like the noises he was making during service? Screw those people. You grab the pitchforks; I know I’ve got some torches around here somewhere. I’ve been saving them, after all.

The Outrage Machine presents some challenges for us all, however. I’m ashamed to admit how rarely I truly research a breaking story before I share it. I try to do better, I really do. But often, in that moment of outrage when you first read something, the impulse to call for re-enforcements burns with intensity. The thing is, some of those stories end up being untrue. Most of them turn out to be more complicated than they appeared at first. Every so often, someone gets hurt who absolutely does not deserve to. Sarah Palin didn’t really cut funding for special education in her state by sixty-two percent in 2008, no matter how much we wanted to believe she did; the money was simply recorded in a different part of the budget after 2007. But the Outrage Machine said she did it, and I promise you there are people, a lot of them, who are still convinced it happened.

Of greater complexity is the Outrage Machine’s inability to reproduce nuance, and most of all to recognize growth. When someone writes something insensitive, the Outrage Machine serves up blood, not opportunity. It’s a punishment engine, not a learning tool. If you called someone a retard on a tv sports program, the Outrage Machine isn’t going to follow you as you try to make amends. It won’t care if you try to to change your ways or volunteer for Special Olympics now. It buried you, and that was enough.

I sometimes shy away from the Outrage Machine for just those reasons, but I always come back. In the end, there are stories out there that need to be told. There are examples of cruelty and injustice and the little guy getting stepped on that deserve light. Those cockroaches aren’t going to scatter if it stays dark, after all. And for all too many families, that darkness has dominated their worlds. There remain more people and more schools and companies and government entities out there that would prefer that your kid and my kid simply stand in the shadows, because those resources are scarce, and someone else with a louder voice and a more powerful lobby is grabbing at those same things. For years, for decades even, there wasn’t much we could do to chase away that dark. Imagine Clint Eastwood trying to weasel out of ADA compliance and weaken the law if his little hotel had a Facebook page at the time. Imagine how half the awful things that have been visited upon the disability community over the past century might have gone down if the Outrage Machine had been digital all this time. Imagine how many of those who were lost to us, either in death or simply falling through the cracks, might still be here, alive and vibrant and fully realized.

So I hesitate to fire up the Outrage Machine sometimes, but in the end, I take its controls and I am encouraged when others do the same. I am thrilled when a bad policy decision is reversed because of it, or when a community rallies behind a citizen or a family who was invisible to them the day before. The Outrage Machine produces a lot of noise and some smoke, but on a good day, it generates just the right amount of light, too.

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