On outrage: outrage as disordered love

People are arguing about whether one can be outraged about a dead lion, when they could, alternatively, be outraged about dead babies. I think they’re arguing about the wrong thing, and outraged about the wrong thing, and we should be thankful that people aren’t just outraged about dead squirrels. Ultimately the questions that matter are the questions of what you are paying attention to, and how you’re doing that…

This is a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue

If you’re one of those people that struggles with how long the stuff I write is, now is your moment to be thankful. This post started off as a 7,000 word rambling journey through a series of connected thoughts.

Our world is broken. It is full of chaos. It appears, from our experience, to be disordered. Humans are part of this disorder, and we don’t like disorder. When we’re confronted with disorder it seems like our natural response is to get outraged. We use media, including the internet, to see, and give attention to disorder, and increasingly, we use media to express our outrage (as a means of drawing attention to disorder).

But how do we weigh up what to give our attention to?

How do we decide where to direct our outrage, and how to feel about the outrage of others, and if outrage itself is something to be outraged about?

If outrage itself has the capacity to become outrageous, then what’s an alternative, virtuous response to disorder?

On outrage, love, and attention

I think outrage both a human response to disorder, and a disordered form of love.

It’s disordered because unless we’re outraged about exactly the right thing, we simply create more disorder through misdirected outrage. Most of our love is disordered, because its the product of disordered hearts and minds. Love that isn’t disordered is love that doesn’t damage, and outrage causes damage.

It’s love, because it’s an attempt to give appropriate attention to something that matters. To love someone, or some thing, is to pay them, or it, attention that seeks this sort of understanding.

So, for example, the outrage about the shooting of Cecil the Lion is an expression of love, and a paying attention to, something beautiful that God made, but it is disordered because it results in an online lynch mob, hunting the hunter and literally calling for his hanging.

And, I’m suggesting that both our capacity for outrage, and our capacity to love — are tied up with what it means to be really human, and further, that what it means to be human is not a question we simply answer by our self for our self, but a question of shared humanity, humanity-in-relationship. Here’s a nice little quote from moral philosopher Iris Murdoch.

One might at this point pause and consider the picture of human personality, or the soul, which has been emerging. It is in the capacity to love, that is, to see, that the liberation of the soul from fantasy consists. The freedom which is a proper human goal is the freedom from fantasy, that is the realism of compassion. What I have called fantasy, the proliferation of blinding self-centered aims and images, is itself a powerful system of energy, and most of what is often called will, or willing belongs to this system. What counteracts this system is attention to reality inspired by, consisting of, love. — Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good

I wonder if our natural tendency towards outrage has a purpose, and is linked to our capacity to love. I wonder too, if there is a right thing to direct our outrage at, that makes outrage something not disordered, but a right response to disorder. I suspect the problem with the way we experience outrage is that we direct it at symptoms rather than an underlying cause, and we direct it at symptoms in the place of other forms of more constructive, loving, attention.

Does outrage serve a (good) purpose? And how do we decide what to be outraged about when faced with multiple examples of disorder?

These are questions that will be explored in the posts in this series. I wonder if the way we experience outrage, and the way we pursue the perfect thing to be outraged at, while trying to establish what this article My outrage is better than your outrage, in the Atlantic calls a “hierarchy of outrage” represents this inbuilt quest for the perfect thing to be outraged at, which means outrage itself might have a particular function or purpose that serves human flourishing. Perhaps this attempt to establish a hierarchy of outrage is actually our attempt to locate exactly what it is we should universally be outraged at…

The Internet launders outrage and returns it to us as validation, in the form of likes and stars and hearts. The greatest return comes from a strong and superior point of view, on high moral ground. And there is, fortunately and unfortunately, always higher moral ground. Even when a dentist kills an adorable lion, and everyone is upset about it, there’s better outrage ground to be won. The most widely accepted hierarchy of outrage seems to be: Single animal injured < single animal killed < multiple animals killed < systematic killing of animals < systematic oppression/torture of people < systematic killing of humans < end of all life due to uninhabitable planet.

I’m asking these questions, like many others, in light of the outpouring of public, global, outrage at the death of Cecil the Lion, and, like many Christians, in the light of the apparent lack of public, global, outrage at some revelations about the way Planned Parenthood treat aborted foetuses.

There’s an additional factor in the hierarchy of outrage that we need to consider, and that is when outrage itself, or the way it manifests, becomes something we’re outraged (rightly) about. Here’s a little outrage equation. With a current real life example.

X = The death of Cecil the Lion
Y = The revelation that Planned Parenthood aren’t just offering abortion services where a life deemed to be ‘non-human’ is ended, they are selling the bi-products of this procedure to third parties as ‘human’ parts for commercial gain.
Z = People are outraged that others are outraged about X, but not about Y.

This tendency towards outrage is damaging. Not just to the people at the heart of the kerfuffle. It’s a trend. Check out Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed for a sense of how harmful). The dentist who shot Cecil the Lion has become the latest victim of the Internet’s outrage cycle and shame culture. Did you know that PETA literally called for his hanging? Our outrage causes us to form online lynch mobs, harming those who raise our ire, and ourselves and our society, in the process.

The logic appears to go something like when Y is of greater moral value than X, we should not be outraged about X, but Y, so Z. But is this equation too simplistic? Perhaps we are right to search for an ultimate outrage, but we’re wrong to suggest that forms of outrage that might be explained by this outrage are illegitimate. Maybe all the things in our “hierarchy of outrage” are worth being outraged about, but maybe its because they’re all symptoms of a common ill.  Is it possible we should be outraged at both X and Y, and that this outrage should form part of our outrage at disordered life in this world, that our hierarchy of outrage is too small if we limit it to assessing symptoms, and that our sense of the right response to disorder in the world is outrage might be analogous to noticing symptoms, getting a diagnosis, but not treating the condition.

As the landscape for these moral, or ethical, conversations, the internet — and especially “social” media — seems to amplify our predisposition to get outraged, while giving us a new and increasingly dangerous and permanent platform to voice our outrage at the expense of a new sort of victim. It enables us to operate with a hierarchy of outrage like never before, it gives us the capacity to get outraged at low, or no, cost to ourselves but at huge cost to the victims of the mob. The internet is a shame culture. There’s a great article on Slate, responding to Ronson’s book, that explores the implications of this shift, and this piece titled The new puritan shame culture is also worth a read.

Outrage has never been cheaper. Where once you had to actually physically attend a protest to show that you were outraged. Now you click a button on a website, or fire off an e-petition. This isn’t a new idea. See Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker from 2010. But this was in the early days of online outrage, it looked at the bed we were making for ourselves, now we’re seeing what it is like to lie in this bed.

One thing that is inevitably true is that in the midst of our outrage, the internet and its collective mob, has a great tendency to forget the humanity of the person or people causing the outrage be they hunters, or abortion advocates and practitioners. The victims (the perpetrators of villainous acts) of public shaming are now legion, and our culture is shifting along with our media. This raises questions about what it looks like to be a virtuous citizen of this new landscape…

This series is an attempt to help chart a course through X, Y, and Z, by offering a version of virtue, or the good life, that works in the internet’s shame culture, and in our disordered world. Next, I’ll look at how the new media landscape shapes what it is we’re likely to pay attention to, ignore, or miss — the role social media plays in making outrage outrageous.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.