[T]he moral emotions that liberals are more apt to feel, such as guilt, empathy, and compassion are necessary for a just and healthy social order. They serve as a vital counterweight to the inclinations of the more in-group, and hierarchy-oriented conservative counterparts.

The problem is when these moral emotions become hyperactive and detached from objective reality; when they motivate the division of society into ‘allies’ and enemies; and when they generate a level of sanctimonious outrage and judgment that places all political dissent beyond the pale. The advent of digital and social media has fomented just such a carnival of excesses. It cultivates an image of the world soaked in the very oppression and injustices to which the user is most sensitive and attuned—and thus one that frequently triggers liberal moral alarms. There is no shortage of oppression and injustice in America and the wider world. But things are not nearly as bad nor as uniformly black and white as they appear on Twitter and YouTube feeds. Hispanics, Muslims, and other minorities do not leave their homes and enter a world where white racism greets them at every street corner. In fact, multiple recent studies find no racial disparities in police use of deadly force. The odds of an unarmed black person being shot by police appear to approximate his/her chance of being struck by lightning. The probability of being killed by a right-wing extremist is equally low, if not lower. Of course, violence committed by police officers or motivated by prejudice offends our sense of morality and violates our vision of a just society in a way that lightning strikes and other nonhuman events do not; but for this moral outrage to inspire judicious outcomes it has to be kept in perspective.

Unfortunately, the outrage delivered through digital media tends to distort this vital perspective. America is perceived as incorrigibly unjust, racist, and in need of radical transformation. Compounding this, the perception of benefiting from such iniquity through white privilege naturally produces heightened feelings of guilt, anger, and an empathic desire “to do something” to help the suffering, or to at least signal one’s moral virtue to others.