The Uses (and Misuses) of Outrage by Rev. Anthony D. Makar


Rev. Anthony Makar

“In outrage we trust”:
put that on the dollar.

We say we hate the incivility,
so why the popularity,
47 million daily
drinking it in,
superconcentrated vinegar
of some doomsday fearmongerer
and it’s coming at us from all sides:

They are vampires, and they are trying
to suck the lifeblood out of the economy.

They are political terrorists, and like all terrorists,
their number one goal is to blow things up.

That’s what the outrage artists say
about they, they, they.
Generating ratings.
Not the first time we’re seeing
this divide-and-conquer strategy
making people hate
and the ones on top on the take
grabbing all those advertising dollars…

Are we outraged yet?

Life already makes us afraid–
national security
police killing unarmed men
hacking threats
gun rights
sexual assault.
The doctors say the election’s making us crazy,
the doctors say we’re stressed out majorly
and that’s when the outrage artists say say say
about they, they, they–
go straight to the negative,
make the worst definitive,
disqualify the opponent from the human race.

It’s like the Civil War but today,
and shall those dead have died in vain?

But 47 million daily
drink it in,
superconcentrated vinegar
of the doomsday fearmongerer
and the secret is this:
when you scare the heck out of me
then turn right around and give me someone to blame
it goes deep into my brain
it triggers dopamine
it feels FINE
it’s like spiritual methamphetamine
it’s addiction outrage.

Yoda and all the others
aren’t lying when they say
don’t go down that dark path,
don’t go over to the dark side,
don’t let blame be your source of peace…

We say we hate the incivility
but do we know the reality
of what the outrage artists really do?
How their talk is apocalyptical
and things just got mythical
and regular Janes and Joes
are revealed as cosmic soldier heroes
in a Battle of Absolute Evil and Good?

Why don’t we just step away from our screens?
Why don’t we just step away, carefully,
from the shouting matches
of our Facebooks and Twitters
and just see eachother face-to-face,
just see?

America is a thing we have to learn how to share
between you, you, you
and me, me, me,
and we are parts of the sea of humanity
many-sided, complicated beings
wanting good things for our families…

It’s like the Civil War but today
and shall those dead have died in vain?

Are we outraged yet?

Are we?

The Uses (and Misuses) of Outrage

Last Sunday in this space I spoke about Siddhartha Gautama’s crooked path to Buddhahood. I brought you with me to the foot of a Bo Tree near Gaya in Northern India, to a time 2500 years ago, to a man intensifying his meditation practice and just about to fully awaken when the Evil One comes to test him. Four tests in all, but it’s the second we’re interested in now. In this second test, the Evil One took on the form of Mara, Lord of Death, and all of a sudden Siddhartha experienced himself surrounded on all sides by things which threatened destruction and doom: hurricanes, tsunamis, showers of flaming rocks, political pundits like Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann and Ann Coulter and Rachel Maddow.

Well, not that last part but perhaps you can see how they fit right in. Outrage culture is doomsday rhetoric; outrage talk strips an opponent of complexity and humanity and sympathy and makes of them a Horseman (or Horsewoman) of the Apocalypse.

And the question becomes, are we going to be able to come through the Lord of Death’s assaults like Siddhartha came through in his day?

Where are we going to be the day after the election?

Make no mistake about it: we are sitting at the base of the Bo Tree with Siddhartha, and we are being tempted too. Doesn’t matter that the place is America and the time is now and we are perched in front of some kind of computer or TV screen. The same thing that happened to the Buddha is happening to us, spiritually, as individuals and as a nation.

And what I want to do now is talk about how to pass the test and come on through, get to the other side.

The first thing is to become aware of all the factors that make us susceptible to outrage culture. There’s many but I’ll just discuss four here. One has to do with a chronic sense of feeling distressed. Lots of sources of this, from small to large: from the everyday onslaught of traffic and noise, the everyday onslaught of indignities like waiting in lines or waiting in doctor’s offices, to big problems like racism, sexism, poverty, the current presidential election. Chronic stress tends to compromise a person’s emotional immune system. It makes it tempting to reach for quick but in-the-long-run-harmful solutions.

A special source of this chronic feeling of distress has emerged only in the past generation. You know, in the 1990s people looked upon the Internet as a source of salvation. It was seen as a place that could bring people together. Instead, what we’ve seen is the creation of a high-choice media environment in which people searching to confirm their biases can reliably find something to do that. Conservatives can go to FOX, liberals can go to MSNBC. Conservatives can cultivate conservative Facebook friends, liberals can cultivate liberal Facebook friends. It means that, within a generation, things have evolved to the point where you can no longer assume that the person you are talking to exists in the same world of understanding that you exist in. Hilary Clinton’s emails, or Donald Trump’s sexual bullying: those are plain facts. But the facts don’t speak for themselves; a big part of the world a person lives in has to do with interpretations, which are influenced by the spin doctors. It is highly distressing to talk to someone about something but their take on it feels completely alien. When this talk takes place behind a computer screen, and there’s not even nonverbal communication happening to remind you that you are still talking to a human being, it’s easy to turn into a troll. It’s easy to turn bully.

A third factor is the underground stream of resentment that flows through every human heart. Everybody has something they wanted to control but could not. Everyone’s been hurt. Everyone knows what it’s like to be treated unfairly. Indignation, bitterness, grievance, hostility are the result: at God, at our parents, at our circumstances. And in this blaming we discover something: that there is a kind of peace to be had. The real problem is never solved, but at least I know whom to blame for my pain, and that gives me a measure of peace. All this describes a very human dynamic and yet another reason we are so susceptible to outrage talk which is all about blame.

Finally, there’s the human biology factor. Danger triggers dopamine release in the brain. Danger speaks directly to the most ancient part of us—the limbic system—which is in charge of our fight-or-flight response system, and that includes control over adrenaline rushes and other amazing feelings. That’s why we might seek out danger, to trigger the self-doping dynamic. That is why we might seek out the horrific, apocalyptic visions of the purveyors of outrage culture: because we are literally physically addicted to how that manipulates our brains and triggers bliss.

Lots of factors explaining why outrage culture is so very popular, despite the fact that 95% of Americans complain about how uncivil things have gotten these days. The contradiction exists because people don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know how very vulnerable they are.

But we need to know, moving forwards. Unless we do, and do something about it, we fail the test and our country suffers.

Writer Susan Sontag was once asked what she had learned from the Holocaust, and she said that 10 percent of any population is cruel, no matter what, and that 10 percent is merciful, no matter what, and that the remaining 80 percent could be moved in either direction. But what’s happening to the Republican Party right now is ample warning that if you use outrage to move the masses, in the end you bring a plague down upon your house. The revolution eats itself.

Outrage is no way to move the 80% into acts of love and justice.

Outrage is no way even to move oneself. Michael Brendan Dougherty, in his article “Why We’re Addicted to Online Outrage,” says, “But we should consider the possibility that fake-outrage is popular precisely because it is an indulgence that requires so little from us. Fake outrage allows us to hide within the mob, to feel righteous without doing much of anything, to suffer like martyrs from words not spoken to us. If we subtracted all the [outrage talk] tomorrow, most of us would continue to do what we already are doing about the Syrian refugee crisis, or faraway famine, or unjust war: nothing.”

These are hard words. But we must take a good, hard look at the indulgence that outrage talk, for both the political left and right, has become. We must each take a hard look at conversations we might have had online where we thought that our outrage could actually reach out and change minds but what happened instead is that we deepened someone’s entrenchment in what they already believed and also lost a family member or a friend.

To pass the test of Mara, Lord of Death, Siddhartha Gautama had to renounce his attachment to physical permanence. And we here now, we too must renounce things.

We must renounce our attachment to busyness, which pushes us constantly and continually into the traffic and noise and agitation of daily life. We must seek out times of quiet and calm as ways to build up our emotional immune systems. “Read just enough to stay informed,” says the American Psychological Association, but be sure to take breaks from social media. Take walks, talk to friends, do something you enjoy. Constant exposure to agitation sucks us dry so that, when it’s time to act, we can’t. No gas in the tank. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Another thing to renounce: our attachment to what we heard Michael Brendan Dougherty describe as “hiding within the mob, feeling righteous without doing much of anything.” But it’s something, to have a real, non-Facebook, non-screen mediated conversation with someone who holds a differing point of view. It’s something, to accomplish was the great 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal lined out as the best strategy for changing someone’s mind: “When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides.” Pascal goes on: “Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.” Did you hear that? The finesse in this kind of conversation? No one has to be wrong, but a person can fail to see all sides. This is something. A conversation like this is something.

“We are not enemies, but friends,” said Abraham Lincoln. ”We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break the bonds of affection…” But we won’t be able to feel that affection unless we renounce our attachment to hiding within the outraged mob. We must not hide. We must show up to the work, which is the work of diverse people trying to share America.

America is a thing to be shared.

Yet a third thing to renounce: the attachment to the pleasure in outrage. Some pundit blows his stack and says something vicious and it feels delicious and we must change the channel. We must look away. Don’t do drugs. Don’t indulge in the purveyors of outrage who are literally inviting you into a full-blown physical-based addiction. Don’t do it.

And finally this: we must renounce our attachment to the idea that outrage is somehow virtuous and clean. That the very intensity of our feelings is itself proof that we are right and they are wrong.

There are indeed things to get angry about. That the minimum wage keeps shrinking with inflation, so that it is now only two-thirds of what it was in 1968. That too-big-to-fail big banks are still too-big-to-fail. That it is harder to vote. That lies and half-lies pollute our informational environment and make it hard to breathe. That the FBI just tampered with our presidential election. There are indeed things to get angry about. A million things. But there is no justification to go straight to the negative, to assume the worst, to dehumanize the imagined offender. Anger is one thing. Anger is what gives us energy to make changes. Anger is what will give you energy, I hope, to get out there and vote if you haven’t already. But outrage is another thing entirely. It’s about staying in the chaos, not cleaning it up. It’s about “activating,” says writer Steve Almond, “our deepest resentments in a closed system of scorn and self-congratulation.” Staying in that. And that’s all!

It was a preacher, Lyman Abbott, who once said, “Do not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry.”

I know that the country is full of fear right now. It is a fearful time and we are all vulnerable to outrage. But we must not let the Lord of Death distract us from living our Unitarian Universalist values in 21st century America, which is a crooked path. Above all, we must not get so caught up in all the swirling emotions out there that we lose sight of the power and preciousness of the community in here that will sustain us no matter what happens, no matter who is elected. Love and hope will help us find a way through. We’ll find a way together.

“No person can think clearly when their fists are clenched” (George Jean Nathan).

So unclench. Right now.