How Far Can Our Outrage Go?

Wendy Willis on the Merits (and Pitfalls) of Moral Rage

By  Wendy Willis

If bumper stickers are any indication, my precinct in deep blue Portland, Oregon, is one of the world capitals of outrage. There is the simple declarative “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention” and the sarcastic “Is that true or did you hear it on Fox News?” or the direct “Stop using Jesus as an excuse for being a narrow-minded bigoted asshole!” I suppose there must be a conservative outrage capital as well—maybe Dallas or Jacksonville or Oklahoma City—where SUVs are covered in quips about political correctness and gender-neutral bathrooms and the Second Amendment.

In fact, if—in addition to our geographically and politically sorted bumper stickers—Twitter and cable television and comment sections on news sites are any indicators, outrage seems to be the emotion that dominates all of our political and civic spaces. The left is shouting about Russia and the white nationalists occupying the White House. The right is carrying on about Benghazi and the preciousness of snowflake college students. It appears that our populace is in a perpetual froth with very little room for anything else.

The dictionary definition of “outrage” is “an extremely strong reaction of anger, shock, or indignation.” I sort of love that it is derived from Old French, that it comes from outré, “to push beyond bounds.” That’s the “out” part. I do wonder how outrage differs from anger or fury or just plain rage, but I think it has to do with a sort of propelled, externalized anger. That sounds about right in the current political climate.

Truth be told, I’m also kind of in love with my own outrage. It makes me feel less powerless, and it obliterates all those pain-soaked emotions like confusion and heartbreak and grief. By staying high on outrage, I can keep moving at 70 miles an hour and not stop to feel what’s really happening.

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There is so much suffering and injustice in the world, the only moral response seems to be anger and righteousness followed by proclamations of the overall wrongness of it all. Recently, several of my friends posted and tweeted a photograph of 23-year-old Turkish trans activist Hande Kader, who was raped and murdered; her body, which had been set on fire, was found abandoned in a forest. The photograph that accompanied the story in many of the world’s newspapers was of Kader being arrested at a pro-LGBT demonstration last summer. You can see the police officer’s hand gripping her upper arm, her face crumpled with tears and terror. That followed the week in which the world saw the photograph of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh caked in dust and blood after he was rescued from a building that was bombed in Aleppo, Syria. His 10-year-old brother died. His mother was hospitalized. Five other children and three adults were killed in the same airstrike. Eleven million Syrians—more than half the prewar population of the country—have been killed or forced to flee their homes.

Outrageous. All of it. Along with the nation’s police officers continuing to shoot unarmed black teenagers. And our craven unwillingness to make even slight lifestyle concessions to slow global climate change despite the fact that 6.9 trillion gallons of rain fell on Louisiana in one week, killing thirteen people and causing $30 million in damage. And the fact that nearly half the world’s population lives on less than $2.50 a day while less than 1 percent of the population controls nearly half the world’s wealth. Oh, and an animal is abused every ten seconds in this country, with a strong correlation between animal abuse and domestic violence. And last summer, some dude with a suspended license and a gold Lexus hit and killed a teenage girl while he was driving 60 miles per hour down a street in our neighborhood. Yes, there is a lot to be infuriated over. And I am infuriated a lot of the time.

We are allowed to bring mind, body, and spirit to our lives as parents and spouses and lovers, and even our lives as consumers, but we are asked to bring only our big frontal lobe and its executive functions to questions of politics and our shared civic life.

I need to know the names of Omran Daqneesh and Hande Kader and Egyptian poet Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, who was killed by the police while laying a wreath in Tahrir Square. And Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland and Eric Garner and Alton Sterling and Walter Scott. I need to hear the names and stories of Edward Sotomayor and Stanley Almodovar III and Kimberly Morris and Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, who sent his last text from the Orlando Pulse nightclub saying, “Mommy I love you. In club they shooting.”

Just writing these names out, I am outraged all over again. And yet I suspect that the world is really no more brutal than it has ever been. We just know about it now. In real time. So of course we’re outraged. It at least tells us that we’re human. And that we care.

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And there’s another fully understandable aspect of our outrage, both genuine and performed. It gives us a chance to feel something—and express it—in the public square. Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj, in their book The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility, argue that marketed outrage provides a more human and engaging experience of civic life than the rational cost-benefit analysis we have been sold by the Enlightenment and its devotees. Berry and Sobieraj claim, “It is easy to see why audiences might find their favorite columnists, bloggers, or hosts more entertaining than a conventional commentator. In outrage there is performance. There are jokes. There is drama. There is conflict. There is fervor. There is even comfort, as audiences find their worldviews honored.” In other words, there are feelings.

From the time we are tiny children, we are told to be polite, controlled, and calm in public. Anger, grief, joy, disappointment are saved for the family, and usually in palatable doses even there. Nowhere is the rational mind and its companion, dry discourse, more valued than in a discussion of public issues. We are taught to admire and emulate that which is well-reasoned, persuasive, and stripped of the corrupting influence of human emotion. And to some extent, that makes sense—we know that fear and bigotry and lust for power lead to bad outcomes. But our devotion to the rational and the dry also asks us to check our whole selves before entering the public arena. We are allowed to bring mind, body, and spirit to our lives as parents and spouses and lovers, and even our lives as consumers, but we are asked to bring only our big frontal lobe and its executive functions to questions of politics and our shared civic life.

That’s both impossible and dull. So outrage bubbles up and spills all over our nicely-typed-out pro/con policy arguments. And outrage is often a big, fat dog whistle. It tells us who our people are. If we join in the outrage over, say, a particular Supreme Court decision, it not only makes us feel less powerless in the face of nine old, arcanely educated power brokers in robes but also makes us feel like we belong in some important way: “See, I am nestled in here among the 48 people who liked my Facebook post and agree with my opinions. I have friends, community, compatriots.”

This issue of publicly expressed outrage is complicated for women. In my distinctly matriarchal upbringing, anger was not one of the tools available. The means by which to express one’s opinions and get what one wanted involved off-hand remarks, gossip, and social isolation. A raised voice, a harsh tone, or a direct invective was 100 percent off-limits. We—me along with my mother and sister and grandmother and cousins—are world champions in moves resembling the shrug-off and the whispered “Did you see . . . ?” But for all our accomplishments in indirection, we were not really permitted to express—or even really feel—full-flowered anger. I know that I am not alone in this and that it is even more fraught for African American women and other women of color who are immediately swept into the bin of some nasty stereotype the moment an eyebrow gets arched. (See, for example, the interruption and scolding of Senator Kamala Harris as she presses witnesses appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.)

So, for some of us, our foray into the world of political and social outrage has been liberating and sort of naughty. It feels empowering and validating and sleekly forbidden. And who am I to deny such a feeling?

Social media creates a perfect platform for us to present our fury without having to take much additional action. It’s fun, it’s affirming, and our expression of shock and disgust can be started and finished before our extra-hot latte is up on the bar.

My love affair with outrage is starting to sour just a bit, however. I have started to feel a little poisoned by my own vitriol, despite the never-ending parade of events to be disgusted over. There is something sort of unhinged about it all, the pouring on of outrage like gas on a tire fire. Sure, the first image that pops into our minds when we think “unhinged public behavior” is Donald Trump, but the left has no space for tsk-tsking on this one. Public castigation is one of our superpowers. Think Rachel Dolezal, the hapless woman from central Washington who became an international spectacle when she pretended to be African American. Or the dust storm created when 80-year-old Calvin Trillin published a poem asking “Have they run out of provinces yet?” about changing fads in American Chinese food. Or the St. Paul dentist who shot a beloved lion at a Zimbabwe game refuge. This is not to suggest that racial injustice and animal cruelty are not causes for anger and condemnation. They are. But the digital age—with its building waves of self-righteousness—allows the entire world’s moral judgment to land on a single flawed individual.

It is almost impossible to talk about outrage—particularly public, media-driven outrage—without also thinking about shaming and bullying. As Jon Ronson put it in his TED talk, “A day without a shaming began to feel like a day spent picking fingernails and treading water.” Ronson pointed out that our culture, particularly our online culture, prioritizes ideology over people. I don’t think we can separate people from their ideas and thoughts and worldviews, but people are messy. And they make mistakes, and they hurt others. And they do dumb stuff. Myself included. My kids included. My mom and dad and sister. My husband. My co-workers. And I don’t think our human weaknesses and failures can hold up to the outrage of an all-knowing, morally superior planet. I don’t think some poor college professor who said something stupid or a city council member who cheated on his wife or a sad-sack 19-year-old who made an idiotic joke on Twitter can withstand the hopped-up outrage of the world’s masses, either.

Plus, outrage is cheap. Social media creates a perfect platform for us to present our fury without having to take much additional action. It’s fun, it’s affirming, and our expression of shock and disgust can be started and finished before our extra-hot latte is up on the bar. There is also a bit of peer pressure behind it. If I don’t weigh in on the latest horror, will my friends forget that I really do oppose police brutality? Will I seem as if I am complicit in the face of injustice and cruelty?

It becomes routine. Pick up dog food: check. Schedule daughter’s orthodontist appointment: check. Express my dismay and righteous anger at the drone strike that killed 14 children at a wedding: Check check check. As journalist Michael Miner put it, the current version of public outrage is something “less like genuine fury than like prissy indignation.”

I really don’t want my friends to think I’m callous toward injustice, and sometimes I do feel so powerless and overwhelmed in the face of suffering and cruelty that a little burst of “this just really pisses me off” releases some pent-up steam. But that said, is it possible that the constant expression of outrage actually flattens out the differences between minor offenses and true injustices? In the dog-eat-dog world of social media and public protestation, somehow the law-enforcement murder of an unarmed child becomes equivalent to the remark the dean made about my outfit in the elevator. It’s all crappy, but I fear our breathless expressions of outrage are making us a little morally sloppy. In the same way that Cheetos dull our senses toward the subtler flavors of cauliflower and turmeric, a steady diet of outrage dulls our ability to discern between degrees of harm or—even more worrying—dulls our ability to feel and act on actual outrage when it’s called for.

Plus it can’t be good for us—physically, emotionally, or spiritually—to be so fired up all the time. It’s just straight addictive, which means of course that we need a bigger and bigger hit off the outrage pipe to feel the flush of self-righteous anger course from our scalp to our toes.

As Tim Kreider put it in his essay in the New York Times:

A couple of years ago, while meditating, I learned something kind of embarrassing: anger feels good. Although we may consciously experience it as upsetting, somatically it feels a lot like the first rush of an opiate—a tingling warmth on the insides of your elbows and wrists, in the back of your knees.

In other words, I may be bored or sleepy or sick to death of my boss, but I know that I can rely on somebody—somewhere—to do something so morally repugnant that I can get my heart rate back up and can sit a little taller in my chair.

All this propping up has a cost, though. It seems like half the people I know are talking about adrenal fatigue—their limbic systems being burned out by too many stress hormones, specifically adrenaline and cortisol. I know adrenal fatigue is in some ways a prestige condition, associated with too much important work and nonstop busyness, but our return visits to the outrage pool can’t help.

And it makes us sitting ducks in the face of huge media outlets and political parties and other hucksters and master manipulators who want us to do their bidding either in the marketplace or in the political sphere. I recently learned of a concept in poker—a game I do not play—referred to as “tilt.” The idea is that when a player is overcome with emotion, she can’t play at the top of her game and starts making errors. As one commentator puts it, “Tilt is the road rage of poker.” The common wisdom among poker experts is that once tilt sets in, the player should walk away from the table because she’ll be easily led into mistakes. It benefits the other players at the table to draw a hot-head into tilt because they can take advantage of her irrationality and lack of control.

That sounds familiar. It seems as if I spend about 75 percent of my political attention wrapped up in some sort of fuming, irrational tilt. While I fuss and rant and carry on and celebrate my superiority, the cooler heads in the penthouse suite at Fox News or gaveling the Democratic Convention can count on me to be in an adrenaline-fueled stupor and in no condition to think critically or hold them accountable. That is no state in which to pull the voting lever or even write a tweet.

But I know that outrage is also a protective shell separating me both from my own moral confusions and misgivings and from others who have become pawns in the game of “I’m good and you’re evil.” It creates a “one-strike rule” by which we write off people—even people we know—as unreconstructed and unworthy of genuine fellowship if they say something we deem worthy of outrage.

I’m afraid all this excitable rightness blocks our moral and empathetic imaginations, relieving us of the burden of having to imagine ourselves into the circumstances of not only the noble and the victimized but also the oppressive and the wrongheaded and the bumbling. Last winter, the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon by a group of right-wing antigovernment zealots led to a lot of hand-wringing superiority here in the progressive enclave of 97214. My little community is not full of folks who look sympathetically on the taking over of federal property by armed men or rhetoric about the free rangeland of the West. In my world, those people represented ignorance and racism and gun-fetishization. They seemed to symbolize just what is wrong with America in the early twenty-first century. This was self-congratulatory outrage-bait of the first order.

While I fuss and rant and carry on and celebrate my superiority, the cooler heads in the penthouse suite at Fox News or gaveling the Democratic Convention can count on me to be in an adrenaline-fueled stupor and in no condition to think critically or hold them accountable.

And then the thing that now seems inevitable happened. Just as the occupation was ending, there was a confrontation between some of the occupiers and the police out on the highway between Burns and John Day. The police shot and killed LaVoy Finicum the day before his 55th birthday. Finicum had been a visible member of the occupying band from the beginning, making himself available to news media and leading tours of the refuge. So when he was shot and killed, the news media widely reported it, repeating Finicum’s quote from early in the occupation: “I’m not going to end up in prison. I’d rather die than be caged. And I’ve lived a good life.”

That next morning after the shooting, an acquaintance of mine—a person I admire—wrote on her Facebook page:

WHAT IS UP WITH LOCAL MEDIA MEMORIALIZING LAVOY FINICUM WITH GRAND SYMPATHY? STOP PERPETUATING THE ROMANCE OF THE WEST. YOU ARE MAKING ME SICK AND YOU LOOK UNPROFESSIONAL. THIS IS NOT THE REVENANT. GET A GRIP. DRY YOUR EYES. (CAPS in original)

The comment was immediately reinforced with over 100 likes and 20 comments by people saying they were “sickened” by the media coverage and that they couldn’t give a fuck whether Finicum was a great Adele fan. There was a lot of speculation about how the media might have talked about LaVoy Finicum if he had been a young black man. There were offers to go on local radio to discuss the disgusting nature of the media coverage.

My stomach sank a little. I mean, I had been full of bile and judgment over the occupation just 24 hours before, but Finicum’s body wasn’t even cold and here we were outraged— outraged!—over the fact that the local news media might tell the story of a man who was shot and killed by law enforcement.

I think it’s fine to feel like the coverage was over the top. Maybe it was. And they were probably right that a young African American man shot and killed by the police would never be humanized by the media in the same way that Finicum was. But the callousness with which these people talked about the death of another human was bracing. This was a person whose parents welcomed him into the world like the miracle he was, a person whose knees shook as he started kindergarten, a person who had a wedding day and nervously held his first child. This was a person who loved Adele. This was a person. And yet because his ideology was other than ours, people I know and like were chiding the media to “dry their eyes.”

I’m afraid that’s where outrage is leading me. Away from apprehending the complex mix of disappointment and anger and sadness and loss and confusion that would cause a person to leave his family for a month, take over federal property, and then provoke a fatal shoot-out with the police. Away from knowing that not only had LaVoy Finicum not made it to his next birthday but that the officers who shot him will have to remember that evening for the rest of their lives and that the others in the car with him are going to see LaVoy Finicum drop to the ground over and over as they dangle on the edge of sleep.

But that’s a complex mix of feelings for the cycle of righteous outrage that we have established for ourselves: Event, outrage, reaction, outrage over the reaction and probably over the outrage. Distraction. Do it again. It’s such a prescribed and protected loop that grief and wonder and confusion don’t have a chance to intrude.

As Laurie Penny put it in the New Statesman:

Because the truth—the real, unspeakable, awful truth—is that we are all vulnerable, and afraid, and more ignorant than we’d like to be. We are all fumbling to find a place for ourselves in this weird, anxious period of human history, stumbling between the savagery of late capitalism and the rage of the dispossessed.

Here’s the thing: We’re humans. We’re animals. We’re mortals. We’re kin of honeysuckle and honey badgers and one another. Sometimes every last one of us behaves nobly and sometimes we behave callously and idiotically. As I write this, I am reminded of the New York poems by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. Lorca hated New York and was awash in despair and self-doubt when he lived there. The poem that sticks with me is called “New York (Office and Attack),” translated by Robert Bly. It starts here: “Beneath all the statistics / there is a drop of duck’s blood.” But it really gets going here:

Every day they kill in New York
ducks, four million,
pigs, five million,
pigeons, two thousand, for the enjoyment of dying men,
cows, one million,
lambs, one million,
roosters, two million
who turn the sky to small splinters.

There is no looking away with Lorca. He sees right through the layers of the constructed and the civilized to the tender, the fleshly, the suffering. And he is infuriated at those who would ignore it: “I attack all those persons / who know nothing of the other half. . . . / I spit in your face.” But his fury is self-implicating, self-immolating, and brimming with offering. He does not sit back and bark for us to “dry our eyes” but rather offers himself in sacrifice to those who suffer:

I offer myself to be eaten by the packed-up cattle
when their mooing fills the valley
where the Hudson is getting drunk on its oil.

That is a form of outrage that is fierce and sacrificial, one that is incompatible with our laptop version that is cool, clever, and smug, devoid of struggle or self-recrimination. That is outrage tempered in love.

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From These Are Strange Times, My Dear: Field Notes From the Republic. Used with the permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2019 by Wendy Willis.

Wendy Willis
Wendy Willis
Wendy Willis is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. Winner of the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize, she has published two books of poetry and in journals, including New England Review, Oregon Humanities, Poetry Northwest, The Rumpus, Zócalo Public Square, and ZYZZYVA. Willis is a lawyer, the executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, and the founder and director of Oregon’s Kitchen Table.





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