March 15, 2016

Outrage Fatigue and Activism

Animal Rights Days in Vilnius, Lithuania. One ...
Animal Rights Days in Vilnius, Lithuania. One of the activists gives out leaflets in the street. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I'm going to start this post by making two assumptions that might or might not be accurate. My first assumption is that nobody can maintain a constant state of intense moral outrage indefinitely. Again, I am willing to consider the possibility that this might not be the case, but it seems sound to me. We all experience feelings of outrage, but they tend to be transient and intermittent. I don't think someone could sustain a stable state of extreme outrage for long without it taking a real toll on his or her health. I think that fatigue would set in sooner or later.

My second assumption is that most of the activism we see is motivated by moral outrage. I wouldn't say this is true of all activism, but I think it is safe to assume that most of the activism we see today is fueled, at least in part, by feelings of outrage. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing either. We perceive an injustice, react with outrage, and then seek to do something about it. When we want to rally others to our cause, we seek to stimulate feelings of outrage in them. Again, there may be examples of activism that are not motivated by outrage, but I suspect that they are relatively few in comparison.

With those two assumptions out of the way, I'd like to suggest the following: In order for stimulating feelings of outrage in others to be an effective means of motivating activism, it has to be used judiciously. Why? If our efforts to stimulate outrage aren't fairly selective, people will eventually stop responding. If we make it too difficult for them to distinguish between what is moderately important and what is extremely important, they will tire, lose interest, habituate to the stimuli, move on, etc. We can learn to be more selective in our use of outrage; however, we are not the only ones using outrage to bring people to our cause. And therein lies the problem.

With so many activists relying on outrage, the average person is bombarded with messages aiming to provoke outrage. Every time I open my email, turn on the television, or visit any social media platform, I encounter messages intended to stimulate outrage in order to motivate me to take some sort of action. If this happened only occasionally, I suspect that it would be quite effective. I might learn of a recent atrocity, become intensely outraged, and immediately decide that I needed to take corrective action. But when I learn of at least 20 atrocities every day (including some truly horrible ones), I find that they have less and less of an impact over time.

Undoubtedly, some people who experience fairly high levels of outrage much of the time are effective activists. They are also at increased risk for burning out and abandoning activism. Others will discover that feeling outraged much of the time is so unpleasant that they check out as a matter of self-protection, turning their backs on the sources of the messages related to politics, social justice, or whatever else. Still others won't do anything so intentionally but will gradually discover that they have habituated to the outrage-provoking messages to such a degree that fewer and fewer get through. What all these people have in common is that the constant bombardment by messages aiming to stimulate outrage leaves them feeling disenchanted, cynical, or even helpless.

We find ourselves in an interesting predicament here. An effective tactic for motivating activism (i.e., stimulating feelings of outrage) can make people less likely to participate in meaningful activism when it is overused. If only they would stop using it so it would be more effective when we want to use it! But since that is not going to happen, it seems to me that we are going to need to find some effective ways to motivate activism that are less reliant on outrage.
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