The Starbucks holiday cup and Cecil the lion fiascoes have exposed how insubstantial American cultural dialogue has become.
The next outrage fad has hit the Internet, and this time, it’s outrage over outrage.
Recently, unintentional Kevin James lookalike and self-proclaimed “social media personality” Joshua Feuerstein posted this video protesting Starbucks’ new, plain red, holiday season cups. His uproar centered around his claim that Starbucks, in revamping the look of their holiday coffee containers, wanted to “take Christ and Christmas off of their brand new cups,” citing the falsity that “Starbucks isn’t allowed to say Merry Christmas to its customers” to support his argument. He then claimed that he was starting a “movement” (really?), calling all “great Americans” to, when they go this day to purchase their daily Starbucks, give the name “Merry Christmas” to the barrister or barista, “tricking” him or her into manually installing the spirit of Christmas onto the paper caffeine vessel. Good one, Josh, you really got ’em there.
Obviously this entire idea is dumb. This guy is off his rocker, and he provides a perfect example of how evangelical fervor has created a War on Christianity that portrays a privileged majority as victimized. Let’s share the video, have a chuckle and a wtf moment, and move on. Right?
Wrong. In the five days since its posting, this video has sparked insane backlash. As of the writing of this article, the video has been viewed almost 15 million times, its hashtag — #MerryChristmasStarbucks — has been trending (mostly in mockery), and this story has been covered (often passionately) by The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and dozens, if not hundreds, of themed-content Facebook pages, mostly denouncing Mr. Feuerbach as delusional.
This is a less extreme case of another collective outrage fad: the poaching of Cecil the lion by American dentist Walter James Palmer. If you were alive in the United States at all this summer, you would have witnessed an entire country’s collective anger pointed at one previously inconsequential man. Sure, summer news is slow; sure, what Palmer did was horrible; and absolutely, the death of Cecil was tragic — but how does an isolated poaching incident on another continent capture the attention of an entire society’s media system?
Taking a step back, what we can see happening with these instances of collective outrage at inconsequential events is the shallow fulfillment of a popular yearning for constructive dialogue. There is, in the United States, a common exhaustion of the current mode of social, cultural, and political discourse. Popular art is dominated by superhero movies and monster record labels; a majority of political topics are stalemated over party lines; even social questions have become so politicized that the most popular way to address them has become social media rants. No wonder online communities like to dog pile onto topics of near consensus. There’s nothing political about a dead lion, so everybody can feel safe expressing outrage at a common villain, and the very act of doing so builds a sense of community, even if it does nothing to address any real problems. The Starbucks fiasco is a bit more constructive since religion in the public sphere is at a defining point in American history, but this particular event would not have gotten nearly as much popular attention if its centerpiece wasn’t so ludicrous.
An overwhelming amount of instant information has made the general public all but completely reactive. Although we have access to a seemingly infinite amount of information, it becomes impossible to process everything that seems important enough to converse about. Therefore, although we may be exposed to a plethora of important news, we reserve our “sharing” energies for that on which we can easily form an opinion: either outrage or wholehearted agreement. In other words, there is so much happening in the world and so much important news to be exposed to that we are only able to respond to the low-hanging fruit.