A Dubious Phenomenon and De Facto Pastime Known as Public Outrage

If outrage could be converted into food no one would ever need to know what it’s like to go hungry.

Just ask former Google engineer James Damore. In the wake of his so-called anti-diversity manifesto getting leaked to the public, the resulting outrage might have been enough, all by itself, to stave off world hunger for a year.

Or maybe ask onetime San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick. After he dropped to a knee in protest during the 2016 football season, the Today Show quickly scrambled to follow it up with a report that Outrage grows over Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem. Imagine how well this news might have been received if only it could fill empty bellies by converting outrage into food.

In truth, outrage has now become as common as ice cream on a cone. Every day new headlines indulge us with accounts of people getting down and dirty just to vent their spleen.

Check this out. There was the outrage ignited by a Shakespearean depiction of Trump. The outrage some Hawaiians felt about the appropriation of ‘“Aloha” for use as a movie title. The outrage comedian Kathy Griffin fueled with a picture, and the outrage Bill Maher spawned with a word. Some people got outraged because “the humanities have been repeatedly shown to be infected with postmodernism.” A Chicago Sun Times headline recently informed us that Twitter was more outraged by the LPGA dress code than were the golfers themselves. Outrage also erupted on Twitter when Ivanka Trump took over for her Dad at the G20 Summit, and again at the announcement of a new HBO show called Confederate. Kim Kardashian surprisingly stirred outrage on Twitter for being inauthentic, while megachurch Pastor Joel Osteen became a target of outrage after refusing to offer flood victims refuge in his church.

These few examples represent the tip of the iceberg when it comes to illustrating the relative ease with which the public can be goaded into outrage, as countless people have discovered. But it’s the Internet — or rather, the breathtaking reach of the Internet — that’s wrought the biggest change in this dynamic. It provides a mechanism for propagating public outrage with unrestricted glee. Imagine the untapped potential that may still exist for an even greater and more prodigious production of it — an unsightly avalanche we have yet to see and never thought even possible.

Simply put, there’s an ad nauseum quality about it, this prevalence of outrage. So, barring the ability to turn it into food, we might want to consider what it means for society, and what kind of ramifications it may yet portend.

Unleashed Anger With Discretion

Outrage is in the anger family of human emotions. It’s defined as an extremely strong reaction of anger, shock or indignation. Far from being tame, it summons to mind a blustery image more like the one shown above.

The first notable when discussing this matter derives from the sheer intensity of this emotion as compared to other anger options. To put this in perspective, clinical psychologist Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. suggests that different anger levels might be thought of as having different temperature readings. For illustrative purposes, he’s arbitrarily chosen to categorize these anger levels on a scale ranging from Level 1 to Level 12 (see above). Notice he puts outrage at 11.5, which is not only at the second highest level on the scale, but only one half-step away from rage, which is defined as violent, uncontrollable anger.

In addition to recognizing outrage as a rather aggressive outpouring of anger, it also should be observed that plenty of other options are available across the anger spectrum, and that these options endow us with the opportunity to use some discretion in how we feel and express this emotion.

While most people probably understand this concept intuitively, how many do you suppose actually make conscious use of it in everyday life, in what might be termed as anger unleashed with discretion? Consider, for example, the alarming volume of anger, in terms of quantity, visibility and intensity, that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in the media or out in public. Then ask yourself how many of these people are probably, likely, overreacting?

Dr. Seltzer points to our deep rooted instinct for fight or flight as a probable cause behind the tendency to overreact. “For the most part,” he says, “over-reactive emotional responses in adults, including intense anger or rage, contain a primal element based on early experiences that were threatening or traumatic. Becoming sensitive to the types of situations that arouse overly strong reactions of anger is useful in making a distinction between present-day and primal emotions. Whereas the anger in the current situation may be justified, the intensity is often not appropriate to the personal significance of the event. An awareness of the primal components of one’s anger not only helps defuse the level of anger but also allows time for rational self reflection and a more thoughtful consideration of one’s thoughts and actions.”

Anger unleashed with discretion relies on something commonly referred to as emotional intelligence (EI) or the emotional quotient (EQ).

According to Psychology Today, “Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. It is generally said to include three skills: emotional awareness; the ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problem solving; and the ability to manage emotions, which includes regulating your own emotions and cheering up or calming down other people.” This characterization implicitly proposes that anger is not always bad, but it’s usually bad when indiscriminately employed and unnecessarily harsh.

One aspect of EI is mindfulness, which is the engagement component for remaining conscious of your own and others emotional state — for example, being aware of your own anger level (or someone else’s) while in the moment; assessing whether it’s an appropriate response when weighed against the severity of the offense or agitant; and then, if advisable, taming it either through self-soothing or the soothing of others.

So, for instance, when a headline claims that Twitter is more outraged by the LPGA dress code than are the golfers themselves, you might ask yourself if outrage is an appropriate level of anger for anyone to feel about this circumstance (if anger itself is even appropriate). Was Twitter really outraged or has the media exaggerated the actual level of anger to artificially trigger a greater arousal for clickbait reasons? Or, if you happen to be one of these Twitter participants, you might contemplate the prospect of trying to intervene as a voice of reason for lowering the anger temperature of the overall mood, so as to put a more reasonable or rational spin on it.

Clinical Psychologist Dr. Lara Fielding talks about mindfulness being an active process that requires willingness. She explains, “Willingness is one of the most powerful mindfulness skills for emotion regulation you can learn, and the most difficult. Willingness is the intentional practice of allowing yourself to feel your feelings, with non-reactivity. This means, not reacting harshly, or judgmentally to them, but instead allowing the wave to come and go naturally. This is really really difficult to do!” Difficult though it may be, mindfulness does reflect the better instincts of humanity; indeed, it’s what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

So this in a nutshell is the notion of anger unleashed with discretion. Dr. Fielding says, “It is expressed as the first step in trying to solve a problem rather than just venting bad feeling.”

Anger Unleashed Without Discretion

The opposite scenario is anger unleashed without discretion, which is uncontrolled emotion. Dr. Daniel Goleman, author of the #1 bestseller, Emotional Intelligence (Why it can matter more than IQ), refers to this type of circumstance as an emotional hijacking. Such people instantly succumb to the primal urge for expressing their disapproval with indiscriminate anger, which is usually more harmful than constructive.

For instance, when your impulse is to thoughtlessly jump on the social media bandwagon to crucify someone for a relatively innocent, inadvertent or accidental miscue, a misunderstanding, or a small lapse in judgment (e.g., an intended joke that simply misfired), mostly because everyone else is doing it, then you’ve surrendered the personal composure that’s required to regulate your own emotional state. Paradoxically, it may feel good in the moment, even though it was not the proper action to take.

Dr. Seltzer contends that such unleashed anger helps a person to feel in control, but only on a superficial level. It’s really a neurochemical way of self-soothing because the brain releases a chemical to numb or mask something else that’s going on internally. “This is why,” he wrote, “I’ve long viewed anger as a double-edged sword: terribly detrimental to relationships but nonetheless crucial in enabling many vulnerable people to emotionally survive in them.”

It is the low road to self-empowerment, he asserts, because it is mistakenly directed outward toward others, as in misplaced or misguided, to protect yourself from facing internal demons or insecurities — such as feeling anxious, weak, inferior, guilty, rejected or even unlovable. By placing your anger elsewhere, it can restore in you some semblance of power when (just a moment earlier) you felt powerless. At the same time, however, its stinging impact frequently leaves a bad vibe for others to cope with, and it also can make the angry person prone to experiencing unwanted health risks like overeating, insomnia, a stroke or a heart attack.

You may think you’re showing strength when in fact you’re showing weakness, says Seltzer. “Rather, it hints at an underlying vulnerability — or lack of conviction about your resources to maintain mental and emotional equilibrium in the face of perceived adversity. In most cases, the outward provocation isn’t related to imminent physical harm. It’s simply tied to your ego’s feeling under attack. And having this subjective experience of being aggressed against typically suggests a fragile ego far more than it does a strong, resilient one. Conversely, the stronger and more secure your sense of self, the less likely you are to react to a person or situation as menacing.”

Compounded Anger

The danger of a society overdosing on outrage lies with losing the ability to practice mindfulness on a comparable scale, as a group or collective. Carelessly slinging around this fierce emotion reinforces and normalizes the outrage of others by having it routinely reverberate in society as a whole (consider the Multiplier Effects of the Internet, for example), which is, in effect, a form of large scale social conditioning. The upshot is that it operates like a societal contaminant — indeed, once outrage becomes the de facto setting for a sizable number of people, the temperament of society at-large is apt to undergo a dramatic change in tone and hue.

Copious outrage may ultimately result in a quagmire of outrage heaped atop of outrage founded in outrage — which is a very disquieting thought, inasmuch as this can’t be good for the well-being of any society, let alone one already fraught with so much stress and tension.

Consider, for example, these two recent findings alone: According to the Pew Research Center, 41% of adults have been harassed online. No less dismaying is the news that America has simultaneously seen an alarming spike in adolescent suicide.

Looking Ahead

The antidote to overdosing on outrage predominantly rests with practicing mindfulness as a deliberate countermeasure. In adulthood, this means actively embracing willingness, or finding the resolve to do so if you don’t already have it.

Children ideally should have emotional intelligence (including civility) baked into their temperament starting at an early age, like grade school or even sooner. This is just as important, possibly more important (remember Dr. Goleman’s assertion: why it can matter more than I.Q.?), than any other aspect of childhood education. It’s notable to mention that resources and programs have been developed for this purpose, though it’s hard to say how many schools formally incorporate it into the curriculum.

For children and adults alike — and for society as a whole — there’s a potentially uplifting benefit to modeling such behavior in everyday life, especially among adults (for children to emulate).

The overarching hope is to maintain a critical mass of emotionally intelligent people so as to keep the inherent fragility of society at bay; to give it a much-needed emotional ballast as the world’s fortunes ebb and flow.

Meanwhile, writer David Wong offers some helpful tips to consider right away, with 5 Ways to Stay Sane in an Era of Non-stop Outrage. They are:

-Ignore Headlines Telling You To Feel An Emotion

-Remember That People Literally Get Paid To Upset You

-Know That If You Can Be Trolled, You Can Be Controlled

-Understand The “Firehose Of Falsehoods”

-You Must Separate The Signal From The Noise


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