If you spend any time thumbing through Facebook or Twitter, listening to talk radio, or watching the news, you’d agree we’re in the age of outrage. It doesn’t take long, going through any of those media before you’ll see someone who’s outraged about something, or outrageous. Soon, you will get outraged about something, yourself.
As an emotion, outrage is obviously related to rage and, by that route, is also associated with anger, frustration, and indignation. All the feelings in that family serve to alert you that there is an injustice afoot and you need to do something about it. Compared to its relations, outrage is, well, more outrageous. It means you’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. When peasants appear at the castle with torches and pitchforks, ready to burn the place down, they are outraged. Outrage appears to be an essential ingredient in popular, if not mob, rule.
Outrage is also what you feel when you caught your husband cheating and have all kinds of names to call him. It’s characterized by feeling of moral superiority and a willingness to express yourself freely, in no uncertain terms, and to not quit doing so until you’ve completely said your piece.
Having felt outrage many times, I perfectly understand the impulse to give yourself in to its mixed pleasures. On one hand, it’s not a pleasant thing to need to be outraged; on the other hand, it feels good to get something off your chest. But what I really want to know is, does outrage work? Is it an efficient method of effecting change?
Being a marriage counselor who has witnessed far too many couples unproductively yelling at each other in my office, my initial thought is, no. Outrage prevents the parties from sitting down and working things out, it gets people’s backs up, and causes them to go on the defense. Clearly, nothing gets worked out while the parties are outraged; but you could argue it’s a necessary, but unpleasant stage you must pass through before earnest negotiations commence. Outrage gets the issues out, on the table, with the intensity they deserve. It may be possible to dispassionately state your grievances, but the other party would never know they mattered so much to you if you do not display outrage.
Be that as it may, people have a great deal of trouble moving on from the outrage stage to an emotional state where they’re able to listen and compromise. If you fully give in to outrage, dishes will be broken, and someone must stalk out of the house, slam doors, and threaten divorce. Then time needs to pass, remorse shown, and you must kiss and make up. By the time you’ve dealt with the damage done by the outrage, no one has the stomach to get back to the issues that caused it in the first place. Thus, far from serving to open negotiations, outrage shuts them down.
But, how can a leader motivate the peasants to show up at the castle with their pitchforks, at some risk to themselves, if not with outrage? How can a long-suffering spouse move herself out of an unhappy complacence to demand what she needs? How indeed. If you need to be outraged before you will do anything, then you can’t blame your oppressor for everything. Try to bring things up before you get outraged and things will go a whole lot smoother.
Using outrage to perfect a relationship or change a governmental policy is like using dynamite to carve a statue, a crude tool for the job at hand. Once you awake the peasant’s ire, you never know what they’re going to do next and the actions of a long-suffering spouse are equally unpredictable when she is not accustomed to speaking her mind. But, if all you want to do is initiate divorce or burn down the castle, outrage is the very thing to get it done.
What should you make of the outrage you feel when you listen to Fox News, or MSNBC, and get all worked up by reports of disgraceful behavior? Are you then like the peasant, who the leaders of the opposition are attempting to rouse to revolt? Or does the outrage generated ensure that nothing will change? I will make a case for the latter. I call the outrage you feel when you log on to media outlets, a kind of masturbatory outrage. The news you read there is nothing more than outrage porn.
Masturbation is what you do when interpersonal sex is not available or comes with so many complications that it doesn’t seem worth it. Masturbatory outrage is what you do when you want to feel morally superior and get something off your chest, but are barred from actual political engagement, or just don’t want to go through the hassle. What stops you from authentic political engagement? Everything from gerrymandering, restrictive rules in the primaries, and the cost of elections; to the fact that, if you try to speak up, the only people you can talk to are also outraged, and they ain’t listening.
Effective political action, as opposed to masturbatory outrage, means that you must sit down with members of the opposition, hear each other out, and find common ground or compromise. Doing so in the present environment seems impossible because of all the masturbatory outrage, so all that’s left for you is your own masturbatory outrage. Lucky for you, whenever you want to feel smug, self-satisfied, and righteously indignant, Facebook, Twitter, talk radio, and the news are there to be your porn stash.
The present political environment reminds me of marriages in which the husband is jerking off in the living room while the wife is pleasuring herself alone in their bed. To be sure, I see masturbatory outrage in personal relationships, too. I hear it all the time when clients spend their whole individual session complaining about how outrageous their partners are. When that happens, I try to move them along to consider how they could talk respectfully to the partner in a way that cultivates change; but that often seems hopeless to them, or too much work.
I would even make the case that all outrage is masturbatory in nature. Whenever you are delivering your grievances with an air of moral superiority, righteous indignation, and forceful articulation, whether to a loved one or the Powers That Be, you are, in effect, jerking off in their face. It will never be the thing that gets anyone interested in sitting down with you at the table.
In summary, take note if you feel outrage; it’s an important feeling to acknowledge; but know that indulging in its pleasures has nothing to do with furthering your cause. In fact, it does a lot to hamper change and ensure that things remain as they are.