When something goes wrong should our first response be outrage?
- Call people names?
- Troll online?
- Throw things?
- Hit out?
Outrage seems to have become the first port of call these days when something happens that offends us, disagrees with us or makes us uncomfortable.
The basis of moral outrage comes from people’s differing sets of beliefs about right and wrong. Social psychologists call these moral norms, as in what you normally expect someone to do if they’re acting morally.
Moral outrage is a response to someone else violating these norms. More than mere rage, it is a mix of anger and disgust—a potent emotional combination, that might occur when someone cuts you off in traffic.
Is outrage good for us as individuals and as a society?
One view is that moral outrage is a positive force because it mobilises people to engage in beneficial collective actions. Moral outrage is the powerful impulse we feel to condemn bad behaviour, and it serves the important role of holding wrongdoers accountable and reinforcing social norms.
The other side of the argument is that any possible benefits don’t outweigh the cost of overreaction. Moral outrage can encourage people to act in socially beneficial ways in much the same way empathy can. Through empathy, we can see someone in harm’s way and do something to help them.
The most blatant drawback of moral outrage is that it stirs up conflict. Outrage is a repelling force, dividing individuals and groups and creating conflict with those who would otherwise have no reason to be upset with one another.
The more insidious drawback of moral outrage is that the reaction is often overblown in proportion to the event that caused it. Whether you think someone’s tweet is inappropriate, someone’s driving manners are deficient or someone’s opinions affront your sensibilities, should your first response—in person, over the phone or online—be condemnation, abuse, insults and threats?
A real danger is that when so much is treated as outrageous, our culture loses the ability to focus on the ills that really matter or even to easily describe why they are truly outrageous.
Sometimes our response might be to mask our feelings that we have failed:
“When we feel the stirrings of righteous anger over another’s harm-doing, we should ask ourselves whether those feelings are allowing us to avoid our own culpability and whether the actions we are supporting are likely to restore justice for the victims, or just make us feel better about ourselves.”
Our taste for outrage makes it harder to resolve conflicts in an age where social media has become the chosen carriage for inflammatory comments. Moral outrage motivates us to cause harm to offenders and online/social media makes this both easy and more toxic.
It’s much easier to harm someone when they’re an abstract figment, miles away from our reality, rather than when they’re a real person standing in front of you.
Online, you can express outrage with the click of a button and hide among thousands. This means the threshold for shaming and punishing others is much lower online.
Outrage can be ego-boosting for some. Posting outrageous content is one of the best ways to get “likes” and “shares,” and these dopamine boosters are popular with those whose moral compass is based on their sense of personal importance in the digital world.
This behaviour and the “hit” it gives can become addictive.
Outrage can desensitise us as individuals and as a society.
We feel free to comment, insult and even threaten anyone who might deviate from what we choose to think is the “right” way to live, speak, think or act. By making it so much easier to shame and punish others, social media can degrade the ability to distinguish the truly atrocious from the merely disagreeable.
It is easy for adults to criticise their children and young people for their “selfish” and inappropriate behaviours in real life and online. But we need to consider if what they might be doing is showing what they learned from the behaviours they see in adults—from world leaders to adult influencers and commentators.
As adults, perhaps we should show our young people how to respond appropriately when we are confronted or offended and be sure that we are not able to be faced with the justified response of:
“Yeah, but you did the same thing when….
Peace be with you.
Mr Terry Muldoon
Principal, St Columba Anglican School