the culture of outrage and small hypocrisies

It’s easy to be angry.

It’s easy to be angry when everyone else seems angry. In our culture of outrage, we run the risk of mistaking the emotion for the action. It’s far too easy to descend into complacency if we assume that our emotions speak for themselves. Being angry isn’t enough.

We must realign the incentives that allow us to stop at outrage.

The perpetual stream of infuriating news makes this a difficult task. Human rights abuses, destructive polarization, careless rhetoric, misunderstandings and corruption dominate our public lives.

The phenomenon of outrage culture presents a few detrimental problems. Firstly, it’s emotionally degrading. Anger has a place, a vital place in our drive to make progress. Righteous indignation can be the seed of progress. But if we adopt the near permanent stance of being antagonistically peeved, how do we move forward?

Secondly, if taken too far, we begin to mistake our outrage for action. We spend more of our time and effort sitting in the emotion of outrage and less time creating a solution.

Thirdly, sustained anger transforms us into the worst versions of ourselves. It allows us to see the faults in others without seeing our own. We begin to simplify others and simplify situations, just to continue feeling outrage.

Outrage towards others cannot stand exposed hypocrisy. Once we see that the faults of others are in fact not so alien to our own way of being, we indeed lose much of our credibility in leveling criticisms of those we deem wrong, misguided, destructive and even evil.

This is not to say that our faults strip us of the ability, or even the obligation, to criticize others. Yet to criticize from a position of assuming we’re better or more progressed than the subject of our criticism, is to fall prey to a dangerous trap. If our standard of goodness and correctness is based on our own being, we close the door on our ability to grow, to learn, to be better than our worst selves.

This all begs the question of how we should respond when we see our values being disregarded or trampled on. Perhaps we’d do well to first analyze the genesis of our anger. Anger as a result of values being compromised, for example, is perhaps distinguishable from anger toward another person because of disfavor toward their personality.

On another note, perhaps the anger is rooted in pride… the other person “winning” means that I am somehow less. In this case, am I truly less if I “lose”? Am I less if someone else perceives me to be less? I’m torn on this one. On one hand, I believe that I am no less simply because someone may perceive me to be so. I cannot allow others to steal my dignity. Yet I’m torn because it’s clear to me that a world in which negative perceptions of other people are allowed to flourish without being opposed is not one in which I’m ultimately interested in living.

What if I’m viewed as less than those making the rules? Then in some ways, I am indeed less. My ability to exercise my rights has been diminished. This is not a world any of us want to live in. 

I bring this up because it’s relevant to the fact that our motivations for our outrage can be highly justified, not only as individuals but also philosophically. These justifications run deep.

But this is all the more opportunity to wrestle with them. To hold values at all, is to be, at the least, unsettled, when reality fails to square with those values. But to live only in indignation, even righteous indignation, is to miss the very thing that makes it worth standing up for to begin with.

We need an outrage culture. But not one based on blind outrage defined by hypocrisy and spurned responsibility. Progress demands something more. It demands knowing ourselves, understanding our enemy as ourselves and then acting in service to something greater than our sense of self.

We must know ourselves before we criticize others. We often champion empathy, yet when it comes to those who think differently than we do, we have no hesitation in attacking them as if we would chose to do differently if we were in their shoes.

It’s easy to be angry. But we must not be angry at the expense of a greater awareness. Above all, we must know ourselves.