The outrage culture

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I was listening to someone on the radio yesterday who used the phrase “outrage culture”, referring to a typical knee jerk response common today about real or perceived injustices. I felt there was a lot of truth to their comment, and want to dig into it a bit more.

How often have you read or heard the word “outrage” in connection to something? It’s so common that the word has somewhat lost its meaning, and to be honest, almost has the opposite effect on me now. I end up thinking somewhat cynically “So what are we supposed to be outraged about now?”

Like any word that comes easily to mind, maybe there are a whole range of other words that would be as, or more, suitable. In my opinion, when people lazily pick the word ‘outraged’ they inadvertently lock themselves into the feeling that comes with the word, whether it’s justified or not. So, to me the choice of words is very important from an emotional rather than a semantic point of view.

Let me give an example. In another life I was a counsellor in a drug rehabilitation program. It was back in the days where serious qualifications for such roles were not of paramount importance (these days I wouldn’t get past the first interview). Nevertheless that’s where I was for a few years, and I remember dealing with one client who used to say “that’s shocking” about just about everything he heard or that was happening around him. I remember chatting with him about this, and wondered aloud with him if there were a range of other words he could use, because surely everything is not shocking. Just maybe if he used less emotive words, he might end up feeling less aggrieved about things than he was. 

Because you see, the words we use shape our perspective.

I am not getting any younger and neither is my wife. But I have noticed that she increasingly exclaims “Oh I’m just getting old” whenever something comes up that she has forgotten or can’t relate to. I’ve said to her a few times “Yes we are getting old, but don’t talk yourself into an early grave!”. I must admit I am in a bit of denial about the whole age thing, but if I refer to myself often enough as ‘getting old’ I’ll start to think that way, and I honestly don’t see any benefit in that. My body tells me often enough how old I am – I don’t need to underscore it!

Words have power. They shape not only what others hear, but also what we think as we say them. There are probably lots of words that we misuse or misapply, but this post is about outrage, so let’s come back to that.

People are outraged about everything or so it seems. Outraged at increasing taxes, outraged that someone is getting a raw deal, outraged that they are getting a raw deal, outraged that laws stop them from doing something, outraged that laws allow some people to get away with certain things. Maybe outrage is an emotion people prefer to feel rather than powerlessness. Maybe outrage comes easily because our disposition is already an angry one, and an event or circumstance allows us to boil over in outrage about something that is actually unrelated to our discontent.

It certainly feels good to be outraged. I’d rather feel outraged than powerless. But it’s pretty hard to maintain the rage, because it takes a toll on our body. So if I get outraged about this for a minute, then outraged about that for a minute, then outraged about something else for a minute, maybe I’m letting off steam rather than really have a rock solid conviction about anything.

Of course if you are genuinely outraged about something you have every right to use the word, but seeing it’s been trashed so ruthlessly, perhaps another means of expression is needed.

So what other words could we use? And what other words would allow a range of expression, rather than full-on outrage? (I know this next bit is a little condescending, especially for those of you with terrific vocabularies, but please bear with me – I’m simply trying to make a point). Here are a few similes to anger and outrage, grouped loosely in varying levels of intensity, though I’m sure you could think of many more:

Mild: Concerned, disappointed, worried, apprehensive, upset, annoyed, dissatisfied, disturbed, pained, piqued, put out…

Strong: incensed, angry, offended, indignant, aggrieved, affronted, resentful, vexed…

Intense: shocked, furious, seething, riled…

So, let’s try it on for size: I am concerned, worried, apprehensive and disturbed by Trump’s recent win. Some of you may feel stronger emotions than that, on either side of the political fence. Are there other words you can use other than ‘outraged’ that focuses and sharpens how you really feel?

I am disturbed, furious, vexed, affronted and riled by the Australian government’s treatment of asylum seekers. (Yes I am actually outraged too, but for the reasons already stated I don’t see much point in saying that).

I would like to think that most of us are really not as outraged as we think we are, or not about so many things. Or perhaps we haven’t looked closely enough at a situation to really know the facts, and have gone off half cocked because it feels good to do so. If we allow the facts (rather than Facebook memes) to filter through we may just be not so outraged, even if we are still concerned.

One final thing, and I say it carefully. I’m all for standing up for rights, particularly the rights of others. But sometimes we are trying to be so empowered that everything becomes an issue, when perhaps we should be a little more grateful and a little less determined to have our way. You can see why I want to be careful here. I don’t want oppression in any form to thrive, and we need to stand against it. But in our individualistic society we might end up seeing everything through a distorted lens of self and rights and see injustice and oppression where there is none.

Life is full of things that are fair and unfair, good and bad, reasonable and unreasonable, tragic and heroic. Let’s think twice before jumping on the bandwagon, beating our chests with righteous indignation, and have a closer look first at the facts. Then if it deserves our concern, let’s give it the right amount of attention and energy, and save ourselves, and others, the ignominy of being wrong or guilty of a beat up, or of diluting the meaning of a word that should still be used,  if perhaps more sparingly than it is.

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Author: Terry Lewis

I'm a guy in his 50's who thought it might be fun to write about day to day issues - the stuff that life is made of. It's helped me think and develop some deeper perspectives. I enjoyed it so much I thought I might start posting it in a blog, and here we are! I intend to mix it up as much as I can. I am a thinking kind of guy so the majority of my posts will probably have some kernel of truth or (hopefully) wisdom nestled in there somewhere. But I also hope to have some light hearted posts as well. Too much thinking can make life pretty dull! Anyway, hope you like it.

6 thoughts on “The outrage culture”

  1. On your note about the nuance and overuse of words/importance of language–it reminded me of a book I read a while back…

    “Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in “sadness,” “joy,” or “regret.” Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, “the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.” I’d like to show how “intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members” connects with “the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.” I’d like to have a word for “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.” I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever. ”

    ― Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

    But anywho. Thank you for sharing your insight, Terry!

    1. Yes, I think that the more articulate we are in expressing ourselves, the more others understand us and the more we understand ourselves. “the hatred of mirrors that begins with middle age”, love it! Thanks Lu!

  2. I’m finally catching up on your old posts, Terry, and this one should be required reading for anyone who ever reads the news. You are so right about the power our words hold — and how much our self-talk shapes our reality. Being more specific about how we feel can better help us process those feelings, I think, and act more appropriately on them as well when necessary. Speaking of which: Another troubling aspect of our culture of outrage is that many of us express our anger/disappointment/whatever, but few of us take any constructive action. Even if it’s just signing a petition or writing a letter, doing something can help address those feelings a bit. And who knows? If enough people take constructive action instead of just expressing outrage, we may even we able to influence positive change. Sorry to ramble on, but as you can see you’ve provoked a lot of thought over here! Thank you …

    1. So true Heather Blog. We mistake a Facebook post for action, and then settle back and do nothing. It’s often hard to think what we can do, but if we commit ourselves to doing something then just maybe the ideas and opportunities for action might arise (like that signwriter in your recent post). I am challenged by your comments, just as I was by your post. Cheers

      1. I love our online conversations, Terry — you always give me something interesting to think about. I’m honored To occasionally repay the favor.

  3. Excellent post! I agree about the power of words, and how important it is to make sure our inner dialogue isn’t too negative. Even more, I agree about being “outraged.” The word is not only over-used, but it’s become our “go to” emotion these days. Yes, it can feel good to be outraged, since it makes us feel we are in the right, fighting against all the world’s wrongs, but in the end, all we are really doing is feeling angry. And, as you say, sometimes we are angry over little more than not getting our own way, or that the world isn’t functioning exactly as we think it should. When we feel angry about actual injustice or oppression, it would be far better to try to do something positive to change the situation rather than simply settle for being “outraged.” Thanks for expressing so well what I have been feeling for a long time, Terry!

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