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Our addiction to outrage is destroying us

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Our addiction to outrage is destroying us

Stephen H. Provost

"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore." - Howard Beale (Peter Finch) in Network

Outrage. Rage directed outward. As a society, we seem to have become addicted to it. But as with almost any addiction, it's sapping our strength and distracting us from living our lives together in some semblance of community.

There was a time when crime and natural disasters topped the local news. "If it bleeds, it leads." But that principle seems to be giving way, increasingly, to a new trend, with prominence being placed on stories that either 1) create new outrage or 2) pour salt on the still-open wounds of past indignities be reporting on new offenses of the same sort.

Addictions can sap our strength, demoralize us, make us feel like prisoners, and our addiction to outrage does all these things. We're demoralized because outrage takes an enormous amount of emotional energy to sustain. We tell ourselves this is necessary because of the magnitude of the offense, and sometimes it is. If we weren't outraged at things like the Japanese internment, racism, sexism, the Holocaust, it would call into question our sense of compassion - and open the door for similar abuses in the future.

But an addiction to outrage is different. It demands that, when one issue is dealt with, we find a new object on which to focus our indignation. For most of us, this can be draining and produce a sense of despair if we don't get our way. As drug addictions progress, the highs fade and the level of dependence rises. The same thing happens with an addiction to outrage: "Victories" are often difficult to achieve, and each one seems less significant as we find some new affront that demands our attention.

My way is the only way

The word "righteous" is so often paired with "indignation," and with good reason. Outrage is based on a firm conviction that the other side is wrong. And this conviction can lead to the kind of arrogance that cuts off dialogue and ends any possibility for peaceful resolution. The outrage itself, rather than the reasoning that inspired it, becomes the motivation for pursuing first one cause and then another. "Because I believe it strongly" becomes "because it's right," which becomes "because I said so" and sometimes, ultimately, "because God says so." 

Those who are addicted to outrage adopt a sense of tunnel vision, just like any other addict. The high becomes the only goal; nothing else matters. This is why addicts break laws, trample on others' freedom and strive to control others, either by manipulation, threat or force and outright tyranny. Drug addictions often lead to an increase in crime and violence; an addiction to outrage can, in the same way, lead to violations of those and other boundaries.

The ability to focus one's attention intently on a cause can be transformational. We need activists who channel outrage into a force for needed change. What we don't need is an entire nation of outrage addicts shaming and shouting at one another, fueled by such high levels of dependence and frustration that their outrage has become hatred. Contempt. Vindictiveness. And that's what we're rapidly becoming, on both sides of an increasingly daunting ideological chasm.

Used properly, outrage can be a prescription for change. But like any prescription drug, it can cause severe damage if used without any kind of prudence or restraint. Channeling outrage into fighting for a cause is one thing. It's quite another to go out looking for something to feel outraged about in the hope that we can "change the world" and thereby soothe our damaged egos.

I'll be honest. I've done that. And judging from the behavior of more and more Americans, I'm far from the only one.

Can we put the outrage genie back in the prescription bottle where it belongs? I can't answer that, but I believe our future as a nation may depend on it.