Weaponized Outrage Can Undermine Valuable Activism

outrage eye

I'm not sure what to call it when one political faction strategically uses another faction's propensity to outrage against them. I feel like this needs a label of some sort so we can talk about it, and that's why I'm going with "weaponized outrage" until someone thinks of something better.

One of the better examples of weaponized outrage I can recall from the last few years was the whole arming teachers nonsense. Faced with the prospect of proposals to restrict access to firearms beginning to gain ground, Republicans floated the idea of arming school teachers. Most of those doing so were clear that they were not referring to all teachers and that none would be required to carry weapons. It didn't matter. Twitter and Facebook exploded with outraged liberals blathering on about how all teachers would soon be required to carry guns. Before long, the outrage drowned out much of the attention the gun control proposals had been receiving. If this was a deliberate tactic to use the left's outrage against them to undermine gun control efforts, it seemed to be quite effective.

Something about this kind of approach seems brilliant. It makes me think of how a parent might distract a toddler with a shiny object. Once the toddler focuses on the distraction, everything else is forgotten. Even the really important stuff is forgotten. And best of all, it works over and over again. The toddler will eventually grow out of it; the rest of us do not seem so lucky.

I realize there is a danger of assuming intent where there might not have been any. Perhaps Republicans had no idea what they were doing when they dropped the idea about teachers being permitted to carry guns. Maybe it wasn't as strategic as it seemed but more of a lucky blunder. That's possible, but it seems unlikely to me. The political right appears to have learned quite a bit over the last decade about how to weaponize the left's outrage and use it effectively against them. The political left has not fared as well. They seem to know what outrages the right (e.g., critical race theory, almost anything having to do with transgendered persons, "pizzagate"), but they haven't been nearly as successful at the weaponizing part. Or perhaps the right is simply more resistant to this type of distraction.

Outrage itself is not always a bad thing. It can be a great motivator, and the activism it can stimulate sometimes works. Unfortunately, someone who learns how to push our outrage buttons effectively often seems to gain power over us. We become easier to distract and to manipulate. If nothing else, provoking outrage has become an extremely effective way to change the subject.

It is very difficult to pause in the midst of one's outrage and ask the important questions:

  • Who wants me to feel outraged right now?
  • Is someone benefiting from my outrage in some way?
  • How should I prioritize the many things I'm supposed to be outraged about?
  • Is my outrage preventing me from paying attention to something more important?
  • Can I sustain this level of outrage for long, and what happens if I can't?

I do think most of us could learn to do this, resist the distractions, and maintain our focus in the face of outrage. I recognize that doing so would require effort and practice. It is not something that comes naturally. My hope is that we will eventually tire of being manipulated and of making little progress in some of the areas where we have made so little. Instead of giving up, we might learn to make ourselves less susceptible to weaponized outrage. I think that would make us more effective in accomplishing what we'd like to accomplish.