Moral outrage is a celebrated, valued and commonly expressed emotion in our society. From this has risen a debate that has raged on at the centre of our current culture war: What role, if any, does incivility and hysterical outrage have in Western culture, politics and public life?
Many people, including a former United States presidential candidate, have taken the steadfast position that incivility and outrage should be the driving force of our political and social involvement: that those on the “wrong” side of issues should be subjected to public shaming, harassment and humiliation. With the recent appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States and the recurring incidents of protesters disrupting politicians' private lives, this position has returned to the forefront of our social discourse, as though every single policy point and social trend that we disagree with, no matter how minute, is an existential crisis.
This idea is a clear outgrowth of our penchant for placing moral outrage at the centre of our society.
As human beings have set about to define and express our own values, those values have begun to define us. As C. S. Lewis put it, “We are what we believe we are.” So with this hunger to define and express our values, we've observed how our culture, in turn, behaves in order to discern and interpret how it adheres to our own values. Thus, it is inescapable that, in the very recent past, moral outrage has quietly but authoritatively emerged as the West's newest and perhaps most central core value. In essence, it has become the norm.
This idea is not inherently right-wing or left-wing but affects all sides of the ideological spectrum. If you don't constantly voice your fear of mass immigration or vent on the internet about how Justin Trudeau is “ruining our country,” you're not a real conservative. And if you don't lose your mind at the anti-abortion protesters down the street, you really should just hand your progressive credentials over at the door. Criticism has been directed at centrism itself because of its innate tendency for moderation. In essence, the idea is this: if you don't get mad about everything, you don't really care about anything.
On the surface, moral outrage appears to reflect an underlying concern with justice. Sending a harshly worded tweet, calling out perceived racism or deleting Kanye's Ye on Spotify — these behaviours suggest a strong sense of morality and an unwillingness to put up with injustice. Moral outrage is also a social emotion, as it compels people to express their outrage publicly in search of validation and solidarity.
This means that, while outrage remains a response to perceived injustices for many, it can also be a self-serving mechanism used to alleviate guilt, protect against threats to moral identity and, of course, signal virtue.
Posting politically charged content on social media, condemning family members or friends who harbour political opinions different than yours, or participating in protests or social movements often do more to signal tribal solidarity than accomplish real and meaningful change.
This isn't to say that participants of these movements can't be well-intentioned and deeply motivated. There's nothing wrong with getting mad at the evil in our world; in fact, all the great social movements in history — from 16th and 17th century European opposition to absolute monarchical rule to the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s — had, at their core, a sense of outrage.
Without a strong and clear moral vision, the courage to express it and the willingness to sacrifice one's own life for it, slavery and Jim Crow may have persisted in America for far longer than they did. Without a healthy sense of what’s morally agreeable and what’s morally reprehensible, progress of any kind is nearly impossible.
But it's important to challenge this commitment to outrage as the ultimate moral signifier, particularly when we consider the adverse effects it has on our cultural psyche. As the bar for offence is lowered, writes The Atlantic's Shadi Hamid, democratic debate becomes virtually impossible.
Sober critiques of those you disagree with can be just as effective as buzzword-ridden cheap shots. Bad policy and potentially problematic views aren't a monolith; they can be defeated if done with a level head. If bad people do things that could eventually bungle society, people will notice.
By elevating outrage to a high position, we have all but guaranteed that, eventually, a purely performative — and permanent — reactionary outrage will pervade our society. That is what Twitter has become. It’s what was on last night on cable news networks across the United States and Canada. It's what leads populist movements to arise and mobs to clash in the streets. It's what tears families and friendships apart.
The phrase, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” is perfectly representative of our obsession with outrage: it equates being informed with an obligation to be outraged, turning an emotion into a moral imperative.
A culture that lives by this rule is likely not one that can thrive, as this obligation to be outraged guarantees a never-ending culture war and a future marred by misery and division.
At the risk of seeming outraged at outrage, the health of our society depends on sensible voices rising up above the chorus of anger and incivility and returning us to a place where we can talk with Joe Blow from down the street about tax cuts and healthcare reform without shedding tears or exchanging punches. Because the costs of living in a furious society are unimaginably high.