When something was terribly wrong, we used to give reasons why that was so. Good times. Now, there’s no need for the real labor of thinking when all that’s needed is an expression of outrage.
Outrage: It’s absolutely everywhere. Today’s world, particularly the version of it blasted into our brains by social media, offers endless fodder, from big, simmering outrages (climate change and many powerful institutions’ refusal to do anything about it) to smaller quotidian ones (every day, someone, somewhere does something offensive that comes to Twitter’s attention, leading to a gleeful pile-on).
As Jesse Singal notes, we’ve become outrage junkies. We look for reasons to enjoy the visceral pleasure of being outraged, the rush of outrage from our
brains hearts to our fingertips, as it oozes out of us into the ether and smears the targets of our need to feel fury. But is this a bad thing?
But a new paper argues that the concept of outrage has gotten too bad a rap and that its upsides, especially as a motivator of collective action and costly helping, have been overlooked.
They cite two experiments, for example, in which “both naturally occurring outrage (about an ongoing conflict) and induced outrage (manipulated via video footage about the conflict) predict[ed] greater support for nonviolent peacemaking policies relative to ‘induced hope’ and ‘neutral’ emotion manipulations. Similarly, women who read that the majority of men harbour hostile sexist beliefs (versus benevolent sexist beliefs or gender-unrelated beliefs) exhibit[ed] increased anger and fury, which predict[ed] intentions to participate—and actual participation—in collective action for equal salaries. By contrast, reappraisal, aimed at reducing negative emotions such as outrage, reduce[d] participants’ reported intentions to engage in political action.”
This, from psychologists of course, contends that outrage can be healthy as it motivates us to act. Of course, outrage also motivates shooters to shoot for the same reason, but that apparently wasn’t part of the experiment. The problem is fairly obvious: outrage is good if they like the object of the outrage. If people are compelled to act out of outrage for an approved cause, it’s good outrage. If the cause doesn’t have their seal of approval, it’s bad outrage.
That’s all fair enough. But arguing that researchers — or anyone else — focus too much on the downsides of outrage feels like an uphill battle to fight in 2018. There are endless, endless examples of online outrage spreading out of control, doing damage most people would view as disproportionate.
The problem isn’t whether the “ends justify” the outrageous “means,” but whether the manipulative use of outrage to get the groundlings all fired up is sound mechanism for achieving whatever ends one deems positive.
Similarly, we have so many opportunities, every moment of every day, to express outrage, and so many opportunities to accidentally contribute to disproportionate anger directed at faceless, distant strangers, that it feels as though social media, 24-hour news, and other media innovations are taking a fundamentally important human drive — the ability to get outraged at norm breaches — and blowing it up into something ugly and maladaptive.
Outrage is mindless. It’s just a weapon, and like any weapon, can be used for good or evil. It’s no more, nor less, a weapon if used for purposes some psychologists like rather than things they don’t.
But as weapons go, it’s a blunderbuss rather than a sniper’s rifle. There is no volume control on outrage, and it’s always turned up to eleven. Whether the thing you’re outraged about is huge or puny, it’s always the end of the world. When you’re outraged, something must be done. When you’re outraged, the source of your fury must be ended at all costs. There is nothing too extreme for the outraged. There is no nuance. There is no thought at all. It’s outrage.
Spring and her coauthors conclude their paper by writing that “we hope to promote a more complete view of outrage—as an emotion that might lead to interpersonal antagonism, but that may also act as a lever for activism on a societal scale.” And that’s a worthy goal: There’s a sturdy body of literature showing that emotion, in general, is more likely to get people to act in prosocial ways than dryer, more empirical appeals — there’s a deep truth behind the well-worn expression “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
But that same feeling of righteous anger that can, in one case, lead people to donate to the less fortunate can, in the next, turn those same people against (to take one example) innocent migrants seeking a better life. Outrage is big and messy and hard to contain — we need it, on a fundamental level, but we should never forget its many dangers and the many ways in which it can lead to negative and inhumane outcomes.
Missing from this otherwise sanguine scrutiny is that when outrage is our initial reaction, a visceral righteous fury that drives people to act, it happens without thought, without deliberation. It’s shallow. It’s simplistic. It’s just the gut reaction, mindless and knee-jerk, that fails to allow the mob to think and consider whether the thing, or the person, they are outraged about deserves their outrage. It’s not that they don’t believe their outrage is righteous, but is it?
Just because something outrages you doesn’t make your outrage good or justified, or proportional to whatever it is that started the feelz flowing. The question isn’t whether outrage can be good, as it obviously can, but when is it warranted, when is it justified. And if people leap to outrage because it makes them feel so very powerful and righteous rather than end up at outrage after they’ve determined that it is, upon reflection, the correct course to take and the proportionate reaction to whatever lights their fire.
Is outrage good? Sure, except when it’s not, which is most of the time. But then, without outrage, what else would you do on social media to get the validation of your mob?