The Price of Outrage

Outrage! (game)
Outrage! (game) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The major political parties in the U.S., with the assistance of cable news and talk radio, manipulate voters' emotions by manufacturing outrage. The "war on Christmas" is a seasonally relevant example with which you will undoubtedly be familiar. The political right has learned that voters can be persuaded to vote against their economic self-interest by inflaming them over social concerns. It even works when the social concerns are largely made up. Instilling outrage is far preferable to engaging in good faith discussions around points of disagreement. And so pointing out the problems with the Affordable Care Act is not enough to motivate action; we must get people riled up about the threat posed by "Obamacare." And the political left uses the same tactics. They too have learned that outraged voters are more likely to show up to vote. It is not enough to inform the populace about the procedural tactics Republicans use to block legislation; we must inflame the base by persuading them that the Republican Party is "running us off a cliff," "holding us hostage," and the like.

Of course, we'd be making a serious mistake if we pointed the finger at politicians and the news media without recognizing that we often use the same approach ourselves. Pick practically any cause you like (e.g., environmentalism, animal rights, social justice, science education, secularism, reproductive rights) and give yourself a moment to think about how the organizations devoted to your cause operate. What sort of messages do they distribute? What is the emotional tone of their messages, particularly their calls to action? They too utilize outrage above all else.

In the short-term, there is little doubt that outrage is an effective tactic for soliciting donations, increasing voter turnout, and stimulating activism. An outraged person is far more likely to engage in activist efforts than someone who is largely content. Outrage helps people overcome apathy. My concern is whether there is a downside to over relying on outrage, especially in an age of technology and social media where we are exposed to a constant barrage of outrage-inducing messages. What, if anything, are the long-term effects of this type of messaging?

If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention

A quick perusal of the email I received this week alone, none of which I signed up for or requested, tells me that I am supposed to be outraged over the following:

  • Pollution of various U.S. water ways
  • Our crumbling infrastructure
  • Several church-state violations
  • Endangered species
  • The Koch brothers
  • Large cell phone carriers and their evil ways
  • Media bias
  • The misinformation spewed by Christian "historians"
  • NSA spying
  • Supreme Court justices being involved in partisan political activities
None of us have unlimited time, money, or energy. We cannot invest our limited resources in every cause that resonates with us. We have to prioritize. Unfortunately, the outrage-inducing messages make it more difficult for us to prioritize without feeling like we are betraying something important to us. Each new cause is presented as being the most important, and we are told that we should be mad as hell over it. We begin to question ourselves.
I know I'm supposed to be pissed off about this, but I can't bring myself to do so. What is wrong with me that this doesn't make me as mad as it should?
My suspicion is that someone who is bombarded with outrage-inducing messages will eventually reach a point of overload - both information overload where there is too much to process and emotional overload where constant outrage begins to take a toll. This will likely to experienced as burnout and apathy. We cannot maintain a constant state out outrage, and so we end up disengaging. We give up, at least temporarily, on being able to do much of anything that will make a difference. We become, in a word, disenchanted. And this makes us unlikely to vote, to engage in activism, or even to care.

If I am right, an effective short-term strategy (i.e., outrage) may undermine our goals in the long-term. It is almost as if it sets up a cycle where we enlist new activists, quickly burn them out, and then repeat the process over and over. There may be a short-term benefit in that outrage undoubtedly fuels activism, but we end up with legions of disenchanted former activists. It is difficult to imagine that this is a positive outcome. Wouldn't we be better off if we could retain more of these people?

Are there other tactics besides outrage that might be effective for motivating people to take action that might not burn them out so quickly, approaches that could be sustained over time without taking such a toll? I'm not sure what they would look like or how successful they might be in competing with outrage. And yet, it seems like there have to be methods that would appeal to those who are becoming exhausted by the constant outrage.

On a personal note, I made the decision to turn off the cable news and shut down the politically oriented blog I was writing last December. I noticed that I felt less angry and that I was engaging with news stories in a different manner. I was thinking more deeply and more critically about the content. While I have not watched cable news since December of 2012 and continue to feel better for it, I have noticed that I am bombarded with outrage-inducing messages via email and social media. I am not sure if it is time to cut down some of this too, but I might give it a try. After all, I'm not ready to be disenchanted just yet.