Published December 1, 2018
Outrage has become the signature emotion of American public life.
People are so used to it—the noise, the flying spittle—that they were pleasantly surprised when Rep.-elect Dan Crenshaw of Texas declined to be incensed. He is the former Navy SEAL who lost an eye in Afghanistan and was mocked—more stupidly than viciously—for his eyepatch by a performer on “Saturday Night Live.” The insult called for outrage, in the usual tit-for-tat. But instead Mr. Crenshaw took it in good humor. He went on “SNL” to accept the performer’s apology. Not everything needs to be treated as an outrage, he said—a grown-up in a moment of grace.
People have been mad as hell for much of the 21st century, starting roughly with the stalemated Bush-Gore election in 2000, followed quickly by 9/11. Fundamentals have been changing fundamentally: marriage, sexual identity, racial politics, geopolitics. Outrage flourishes also because of the rise of social media—the endless electronic brawl—and because it plays so well on our screens. Cable news draws pictures in crayon, in bold primary colors that turn politics into cartoons. On the left, “stay woke” means “stay outraged.” Trumpians want to “lock her up” or “build a wall.” Outrage is reductive, easy to understand. It is an idiom of childhood—a throwback even to the terrible twos.
The various tribes have broken off negotiations with all differing points of view. They excuse themselves from self-doubt and abandon the idea of anything so weak as compromise or, God forbid, ambivalence: No other perspective could possibly be valid. Americans have lost tolerance for the 51%-to-49% judgment call, even though that’s about the margin of their disagreement on almost everything. People give themselves over to the pleasures of self-righteousness and self-importance that come with being wronged when you know you’re in the right. Among the civic emotions, outrage is a beast of the prime; to harness outrage is to discover fire.
A healthy society reserves its outrage for special occasions: Pearl Harbor, say, or the church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four girls. But in the 21st century, special occasions—mass shootings and other random eruptions of the id—occur regularly. They have turned outrage into a ragged, all-purpose national reflex, with side effects of disgust and despair.
Outrage often emerges when an anecdote about a particular drama becomes generalized into a hashtag, as when that masterpiece of unshaven phallocratic beastliness Harvey Weinstein was dragged before the public gaze, and, in an instant, the #MeToo movement arose, drawing forth the squalid secrets of other famous men. After many a summer dies the swine. But the greatest casualty of outrage may be judgment itself. It’s dangerous when indignation abstracts itself, as when charges of sexual misconduct become generalized in phrases like “toxic masculinity,” which may condemn all men regardless of facts. They are guilty one way or another. If you cannot convict a man of rape, then you may get him for “mansplaining.”
Pretty soon absolutely everything becomes an outrage. Anything that isn’t an outrage is Jeb Bush. Complex interactions of outrage from both parties’ bases conjured up the presidency of Donald Trump, who is the mighty Wurlitzer of the art form.
Outrage seems strenuous enough, but in truth it is a lazy habit—spontaneous, fatuous and naive. Organizing a lynch mob is easier—with a surer, immediate and dramatic reward—than conducting a fair trial, which requires the brains and patience of an adult. (The inner terror of Trumpians is that Robert Mueller is a grown-up with brains and patience.) Outrage presents itself as an assertion of conscience, but in practice it mostly bypasses conscience and judgment, and goes straight to self-righteous rage, by way of self-pity.
Outrage may be justified, of course, and redress long overdue. Just as a dose of morphine may be appropriate to help a patient in extreme pain, so with outrage. But like morphine, outrage is widely abused—and addictive. It may wind up becoming frivolous or fraudulent, as in all those “triggers” and “microaggressions.”
Is outrage now an American entitlement, and a permanent state of mind? Black Americans are more entitled to outrage than most, their grievances embedded in history. Are Asian-Americans entitled to be outraged? Some are making that case in their lawsuit over Harvard’s admissions practices—an argument that, in turn, collides with the counterclaims of African-American outrage. Are gay people entitled to be outraged? Are women entitled to be outraged? Who isn’t entitled to be outraged? (White men?)
There is something sinister and corrupt—Maoist—in the habit of assigning people to categories. That was the besetting sin of the 20th century; it was the way of genocide. As people are again consigned to shallow, mutually exclusive categories in this century, it is as if we learned nothing.
A society that goes on in this way will exhaust itself. Sometimes, the outrage is a Newtonian response to the truly outrageous; outrage may have its vision of social justice. But, like so much else today, it has gotten to be a racket. The coin of anger is debased. Indignation has become a meme—not an authentic political or moral reaction to facts in a serious world, but rather a reflex, a kind of irresponsible playacting, or worse, a mania. When everyone is outraged, then real grievances lose their meaning, and the endless indulgence of outrage becomes, objectively, immoral.
Mr. Morrow, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a former essayist for Time.