Towards a Post-Outraged America

The color of 2017? Greenery 15–0343. The emotion? Outrage.

Last week, a story hit the news and spread like wildfire through social media. A Utah nurse was arrested when she refused to comply with a police officer’s request to obtain a blood sample from a patient who was incapable of giving consent. The details of the story itself matter less than the reaction and response that it received, as link to the video of the nurse’s arrest was forwarded feverishly around the cyber-sphere.

“This is completely unacceptable,” posted an acquaintance of mine (a nurse) to her facebook page, an orange angry-face emoji accompanying her share.

“That’s crazy,” one of her friends commented.

“Horrible,” raged another, “And the other cops knew it was unacceptable bc they wanted no part of helping him.”

“Worse…they didn’t do anything to stop him,” in reply.

“I had a hard time watching it,” remarked the original poster, “So so so wrong.” Yellow sad face emoji.

And so the commenters went on, a group of nurses or nurse-acquaintances reflecting upon their shared outrage at this incident. At no point in the conversation were solutions proposed (how might policy be changed to prevent future incidents such as this?), nor was perspective offered (is this an isolated incident or indicative of a much larger problem?). All of the feedback on the article centered around the collective wallowing in one shared emotion: outrage. This is horrifying! I can hardly watch! How can this be? Who could do such a thing?

This is horrifying! I can hardly watch! How can this be? Who could do such a thing?

On social media, we see this every day. Round and round the posts go, forwarded with the ease of a click or two, and the incidents that outrage us cycle daily. Today, Joel Osteen did not open his church to flood victims — outrageous! Yesterday, Melania Trump wore stilettos to a flood zone — outrageous! North Korea is threatening to launch another missile — outrageous! Whether or not the matters I just mentioned actually merit our outrage or not is another discussion; the point is that we are addicted to outrage. How could he/she/it/them!

Closeted warriors in superhero capes, we cycle through these social media posts, feeling outraged and tapping feverishly at our keyboards and iphones to express just how upset we really are. Like Hans Blix penning a letter to Kim Jong Il on behalf of the UN in the parody movie ‘Team America, World Police,’ our words become our impotent action. “I’m sorry but the UN must be firm with you,” the puppet Hans Blix tells the puppet Kim Jong Il, as he searches for nuclear weapons, “Let me see your whole palace or else.” “Or else what?” asks the dictator. “Or else we will be very very angry with you. And we will write you a letter telling you how angry we are,” the diplomat’s reply. The entire scene skewers the notion that outraged words alone could ever effect meaningful change. Moments after these lines are delivered, Il unceremoniously does away with Blix’s character. It’s supposed to be a comical moment, but it astutely points out the powerlessness of outrage alone to effect meaningful change.

In the virtual world of cyber-reality, our addiction to outrage amounts to little more than amped up water cooler banter. Of course, it’s human nature to reflect upon the matters that seem to be impacting the world around us. Social groups cement their bonds by identifying shared beliefs and values. It makes sense that people want to get online and commiserate about the things that upset them.

The problem — and it’s a massive problem that’s actually starting to get people killed — is that outrage has become a national addiction.

The problem — and it’s a massive problem that’s actually starting to get people killed — is that outrage has become a national addiction. The press cries for it every day, pumping the headlines with the most salacious attention-grabs it can conjure. TV news feeds it with around the clock chatter by “commentators” who go on TV to express outrage and argue differing viewpoints. Celebrities jump on the bandwagon, and suddenly we have outraged pro-athletes kneeling during the National Anthem. Outraged Americans protesting police brutality. Outraged Americans shooting innocent police officers at point blank range in their patrol cars. Outraged Americans protesting the removal of Confederate monuments. And, finally, outraged Americans protesting one another’s protests — as occurred recently in my former hometown of Charlottesville — the mutual outrage rising to such a fever pitch that it set off fatal consequences among the outraged themselves.

Outrage absolutely has its place in changing history. When Rosa Parks made her decision to not move to the back of the bus, her actions touched a nerve of outrage that set off the civil rights movement and the battle for desegregation. The right protest at the right time can do that. In the case of the civil rights movement, however, outrage led to action: when Parks was arrested for violating segregation laws, outrage at her arrest set the wheels in motion for all segregation laws to be overturned. The change needed to come, and outrage was the emotional spark that fueled the movement. Outrage inspired action.

In 2017, Americans take to the streets and protest, but their desired outcomes are vague.

Today, however, outrage and action no longer share this link. In 2017, Americans take to the streets and protest, but their desired outcomes are vague. No one ideological movement unifies them; the only thing that unifies them is which side of the outrage they stand on. Our real lives have come to mimic the harsh battles of rhetoric that we carry out through our cyber-identities every day. Charlottesville is a case study in this. The original protesters were supposedly unified by their shared outrage at the removal of a Confederate monument, but then counter-protestors arrived and fights broke out with such hatred that it is difficult to believe that the violent and bloody clash of these groups was only about a statue. The ideologies of subgroups were at play (KKK, Antifa, and Black Lives Matter, most notably), and their mutual hatred fueled a level of aggression that was incomprehensible to most other Americans. If anyone has a right to be outraged, it should be the rest of us at the way these two parties of outraged extremists behaved.

If anyone has a right to be outraged, it should be the rest of us at the way these two parties of outraged extremists behaved.

We Americans, as a whole, are responsible for this, because we have started to allow outrage to pass for action. We pay lip service to tragedies and social issues, accepting this as a suitable response from another and not holding ourselves to a higher standard of responsibility. We stand with Barcelona, or Paris, or London, or Orlando, by changing the filter on a facebook profile photo, and then we pat ourselves on the back and feel like we’ve done our part. We stick a yellow ribbon bumper sticker on our car “to support the troops,” but we won’t buy that homeless Vietnam vet on the street a cup of coffee. Once we’ve publicly expressed our outrage — like paying respects at a funeral — we feel free to go back to our lives that remain untouched by actual tragedy.

Once we’ve publicly expressed our outrage — like paying respects at a funeral — we feel free to go back to our lives that remain untouched by actual tragedy.

How many of us are running towards the crisis with a solution, like the volunteers rushing down to Texas with boats and supplies, hoping to bring aid to survivors? How many of us are like the people who enlisted after 9/11? How many of us even tried to give blood the next day?

The question is this: how many of us are actually tackling problems with solutions? As a society, we’ve become so addicted to our outrage that we’ve lost sight of the fact that outrage alone isn’t enough. In fact, outrage alone does nothing at all except perhaps spread more outrage and hope that someone else figures out a way to solve the problem. Taking a knee during the national anthem of an NFL game — for whatever motive — does precisely nothing unless that player is prepared, in a follow up interview, to provide the press with a specific list of changes he wants to see in the world. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in 1517, he altered the course of history and paved the way for the Protestant Reformation. He came not with outrage, but solutions. When Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech 446 years later in 1963, he likewise spelled out his objectives in plain language, and impacted history forever.

Action is the language of history-makers and world-changers.

Action is the language of history-makers and world-changers. Outrage without action is like a scream of rage in the night: provocative and terrifying, but ultimately powerless. While outrage is capable of fueling action, we must not allow the need for action to be eclipsed by the seductive power of outrage alone. I have a dream, too, and it’s of a post-outraged America, where we are able to have civil discourse on difficult subjects, putting aside ideological differences to seek solid, action-oriented solutions. From this moment forward, we should refuse to feed the demon of outrage; resolving to respond to its power with open-minded, rational, generous, and solution-seeking responses.

Action is more than a facebook profile photo filter, participation in an angry protest, or a sad-face emoji. It is being the change you want to see in the world, and giving others a roadmap to join you on your path towards a post-outraged America.