Outrage is Not a Virtue

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Every day, we in the twenty-first century turn on our TVs or open our internet newsfeeds, and we are bombarded by outrage.  This group trampled on the rights of that group.  This politician said and/ or did something genuinely despicable – again.  A lot of innocent people got killed by some not-so-innocent people, and the governments of multiple nations that claim to be pro-human rights share the blame.  The world is an ugly, no-good, messed-up, outrageous place, and it often seems the only logical way to respond to it is by being, well, outraged. 

The culture of outrage has become so prevalent, it tries to shame all those who seek to be calm into submission.  How can you look upon these atrocities and not share our anger?  How can you hope to change anything if you don’t even care enough to get mad?  And it’s true that anger can fuel action, especially in the political sphere.  The sheer number of protests held on American soil since the inauguration of President Trump stands as concrete evidence of that.

But does rage ever actually bring about positive change?  Science suggests that such a thing is both psychologically and physiologically impossible.

Excessive anger or fear can permanently disrupt many structures and functions in both your body and your brain.  These destructive emotions interfere with memory storage and cognitive accuracy, which, in turn, will disrupt our ability to properly evaluate and respond to social situations.  Anger makes people indiscriminately punitive, blameful, pessimistic, and unilaterally careless in their logic and reasoning skills. – Andrew Newberg, M.D., neuroscientific researcher at the University of Pennsylvania

No matter how horrifying the world around us may be, if we rely on anger or fear to fuel our reaction to it, the result will always, inevitably, be to ruin our own judgment.  If you don’t believe me, go check your Facebook feed.  The evidence is boundless.

When was the last time you stopped to consider how anger and fear have affected your own citizenship?  Think backward a few months to last November.  No matter which lever you pulled in the presidential election, did you do it because you feared what might befall the nation if the other person won?  If so, you certainly wouldn’t be alone.  “If you vote for him/ her, evil will befall you!  Vote for me! I will save you!”  Such fearmongering bombards us until we cannot help but listen.  But the effect on the human psyche from prolonged exposure to fear has a name.  We call it post-traumatic stress disorder.  One of the symptoms of PTSD is to believe that the world is completely dangerous and no one (from the other side) can be trusted.

Sound familiar?  It’s a message we have heard so often, for so long, from both major American political parties, that we have begun to act on it in the voting booth – even if we do not consciously believe it to be true.

So what are we to do in the face of outrage, if rage and fear will only fuel more rage and fear?  What is it that ought to motivate us when we confront the evils of the world?  Because certainly one thing our angry friends have right is that inaction and indifference will not help.  Something has to propel us out of our self-absorption to engage with the problems of the world and seek solutions, but what?

This is the opening to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.  Notice what emotions he seeks to trigger in his listeners.

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

Happy. Light. Hope. Joyous.  Such words call to mind the fruits of the Holy Spirit – which are the fruits of love.  Dr. King began by appealing to the very best of humankind before he went on, in the next paragraph, to enumerate the injustices that drew him to the podium that day. But he quickly came right back to goodness, to the vision of freedom he sought to make real:

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Magnificent. Promise. Life. Happiness.  And then, of course, the “I have a dream” sequence follows shortly thereafter, a brilliant recitation not of the injustices of oppression, but of the beauty of what society could be.  The people who truly bring positive change to this world, the ones who are effective at combating injustice, are the ones who always keep before them not the atrocities of the enemy, but their love for their fellow men and women.  The ones who inspire us, the ones who make us want to grab their coattails and come along for the ride, do not rant about wrongs committed, or at least not for very long.  Instead, they entice us with a dream. They show us the possibilities of love.

The calls for renewed dialogue in politics are myriad.  The calls to stand down from anger and fear are legion.  But one thing many of them lack is an emphasis on what ought to motivate us instead.  It is not merely reason or civility that is missing from our modern political culture.  It is not just compromise, or reliance on checks and balances.  The only motivation that can conquer fear and anger, that also has the power to overcome the systems of injustice, is love.  When we turn our eyes away from ideologies and look instead at human beings, we will see a very different world.  We may still march, we may still give speeches, but we will do it with an aim to build, not to destroy.  We will not settle for the lesser of two evils; we will demand what is truly good.  We will not fall victim to the “punitive, blameful, pessimistic” mirage our politicians want us to see; we will denounce the liars and speak the truth.  When we embrace a cultural and political vision truly rooted in love, we will no longer cling to words like security and persecution; we will speak about light, hope, brotherhood, and freedom.  When we embrace the vision of love, we may even find the courage to become martyrs like Dr. King.

Let the outrages of the world make us heartsick.  Let us mourn for our brothers and sisters crushed by ignorance and oppression.  But when we rise up to free them, let us do it not because of our outrage, but as an act of self-sacrificial love.

Karen Ullo is the author of Jennifer the Damned. To find out more, go to www.karenullo.com.