Moral Triage: How We Direct Our Outrage

Wounded arriving at triage station, Suippes, F...
Wounded arriving at triage station, Suippes, France from sanitary train. Selected by Scott. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The term "moral triage" is something I heard Dr. Peter Boghossian use during an interview. It was only mentioned in passing, but it started me thinking about its utility in describing one of the many problems with our modern outrage culture. We aren't getting outraged about the right things; we are getting outraged about ridiculous things. We are failing to do effective moral triage.

I think it is fair to assume that we're all familiar with the concept of triage in medicine. Given limited resources, physicians prioritize the provision of care based on the urgency with which it is needed. The patient who comes into the emergency room bleeding heavily from a gunshot is likely to be seen before the one who needs a few stitches to close a relatively minor cut.

In the case of moral triage, we think instead about how people prioritize the sorts of activism they engage in and the things about which they become morally outraged. If you have ever used social media, you have probably seen one person dismissing the concerns expressed by another as "first world problems." Someone complains about the poor cell phone coverage, and someone else reminds them that there are plenty of people who lack safe drinking water. Their whining about their cell phone service seems trivial by comparison. Essentially, mentioning "first world problems" is akin to pointing out that the complaining person is doing a poor job of moral triage.

Clearly, we are all going to become outraged over different things based on our values. How we prioritize the various sources of outrage might tell others something about what we value. We might conclude, for example, that someone who is outraged about the lack of safe drinking water in Flint, Michigan differs in meaningful ways from someone who is outraged because a celebrity is no longer following him on Twitter. Even if we disagreed with the first person's politics, we'd probably still see her as doing a better job of moral triage than the second person.

Here's a hypothetical situation for you to consider. Suppose a woman I don't know particularly well tells me that she was "victimized" on her way home from work the other day. The moment I hear the word "victimized," my mind jumps directly to violent crime. In the best case scenario, I imagine that she was probably mugged. In a much worse case scenario, I fear that she may have been assaulted. I immediately ask her if she is okay and if there is anything I can do for her. Given the seriousness of these issues, making sure she is okay is far more important to me that learning the details about what happened.

"I'm okay now," she says, "but it was pretty traumatic." I tell her that I am here if she wants to talk about it but that I want to respect her privacy if she doesn't want to do that too. I'm nervous, and I'm trying to find the right balance between providing support and not being intrusive. I want her to know that I'm here for her in whatever way she needs me to be. the last thing I want to do is push her to disclose anything that would make her uncomfortable.

"I was on my way home, and this guy..." I become aware that I am bracing myself for whatever comes next. I don't want her to think she's going to overwhelm me; that wouldn't help her. She needs to talk, and I'm here to support her. "...he was taking up half my seat." Wait. What? I hear myself say, "I'm...I'm not sure I understand." What does this mean? What is she saying? "Yeah, this guy was totally manspreading on the bus. His leg practically touched mine at one point! You should have seen it."

My empathy begins to evaporate. "So, he was sitting with his knees far apart? Is that what you mean?" When she confirms that this is indeed what she means and makes it clear that this was what she was referring to when she described herself as having been "victimized," I begin to feel incredibly stupid for how worried I was about her. She was not victimized in any way. Her fellow passenger never touched her, spoke to her, or even looked in her direction. His only "offense" was that he opted to sit comfortably on the bus.

Were this woman now to take to social media for the purpose of expressing her outrage over how the man on the bus was sitting and attempting to shame him, we'd have an example of a failure at moral triage. She probably had worse things happen to her that same day. If not, there countless atrocities or injustices on which she could be focusing, some of which probably affect people she knows (e.g., poverty, intimate partner violence, actual victimization). She could be working to improve lives in a variety meaningful ways.

To be clear, the issue isn't that we shouldn't be upset over the things that happen to us or that we should not complain about trivial problems simply because others face more serious problems (i.e., Dear Muslima). The issue is how upset we find ourselves and whether the degree to which we are upset is proportional to the situation. If manspreading is truly "the worst thing ever," it seems that we have lost all sense of proportion and have failed in our efforts at moral triage.

When I see people on Twitter complaining about how they have been "victimized" by manspreading and devoting their time and energy to publicly shaming these men, I find myself wondering if they know what it means to be victimized. But mostly, I wonder what important causes they are not attending to  because some would prefer to focus on how men sit.