In Praise of Shared Outrage

by Roy Eidelson, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed
March 16, 2010

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(Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: _ambrown, Muffet)

“We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity and opportunity for all.” These were the words of Lord Brian Griffiths, Goldman Sachs international adviser, when he spoke at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral last fall. With inequality at historic levels here in the United States and around the world, it’s a reassuring message we all might wish to be true.

Unfortunately, scientific research reveals a sharply different reality: inequality is a driving force behind many of our most profound social ills. The Equality Trust reviewed thousands of studies conducted by the US Census Bureau, the World Health Organization, the United Nations and the World Bank. Consistent patterns emerged, both among and within countries. Inequality is associated with diminished levels of physical and mental health, child well-being, educational achievement, social mobility, trust and community life. And it is linked to increased levels of violence, drug use, imprisonment, obesity and teenage births. In short, Lord Griffiths’ claim – despite the venue – was a self-serving fiction.

Shared Outrage and Solidarity

Although there are no easy or quick solutions for reversing today’s extreme inequalities and repairing the daily harm they cause, the path forward may be clearer than we realize. Change of this magnitude requires a stubborn, passionate and broadly embraced commitment to greater equality as a moral necessity. Although regularly overlooked and misunderstood, the catalyst for such a transformation is often surprisingly simple: shared outrage. Indeed, when shared by the disadvantaged and oppressed on the one hand and by those with greater security and resources on the other, outrage can spur the concerted action required to overcome the injustice, insensitivity and inhumanity that foster inequality around the world.

Recent work by social psychologists such as Emma Thomas, Craig McGarty, Kenneth Mavor and Emina Subasic (among others) highlights why this is so. Outrage shared among groups that otherwise differ in many ways creates the solidarity vital to forcefully challenging a destructive status quo. This shared emotion is so powerful because it breaks the established boundaries that separate the “haves” from the “have-nots.” Outrage over inequality can unite the direct victims of discrimination with those who find discrimination morally repugnant even though they themselves have not experienced it. Similarly, outrage can bring together in common cause people struggling to make ends meet and those who, while better off, are convinced that it’s simply wrong for anyone to go without adequate food, shelter or health care.

What also makes this shared moral outrage special is its collective action orientation – it pushes for sustained engagement against the individuals, groups and institutions that benefit from inequality and seek to perpetuate it. As a political force, shared outrage takes us beyond the mere acknowledgment of regrettable circumstances in the world. It insists on explanations for what’s wrong and it seeks accountability for the wrongdoing. And the chorus of voices rising up in shared outrage prevents any single group from becoming an isolated target for condemnation or retribution from the powers that be.

In the US alone, there are many settings today that cry out for this shared outrage. Consider a small sample:

  • Wall Street’s largest banks turn a taxpayer-funded bailout into billions of dollars in bonuses for their highest-paid employees – while millions of working people lose their jobs and their homes. It’s not only the unemployed and homeless who should be outraged.
  • Health insurance giants add to their bottom line by denying life-saving treatment to sick children, dropping policyholders when they become too ill and aggressively raising premiums despite the economic hardship facing so many. It’s not only those whose health or recovery is imperiled who should be outraged.
  • Profit-driven global polluters, their lobbyists and their political defenders block effective responses to climate change while the poor suffer disproportionately from environmental disasters and devastation. It’s not only those whose lives are destroyed by drought or flood who should be outraged.
  • Unethical politicians protect the privileged and the wealthy by embracing falsehoods and obstructionism to prevent legislation that would address inequality in such arenas as preschool programs, student aid, worker rights and the minimum wage. It’s not only those denied an adequate education, a decent job or a chance at a brighter future who should be outraged.
  • With support and funding from powerful elites, hate-mongers take to the airwaves and the print media. They condemn, ridicule and arouse fear and hostility toward minority group members already disadvantaged by prejudice, discrimination and infringements of their civil rights. It’s not only the targeted groups who should be outraged.

The Limits of Compassion

The shared outrage I’m extolling is by no means the only prosocial emotion we can experience in response to human suffering. Compassion, for example, is another common and important reaction – but alone it’s not sufficient to promote meaningful and lasting social change. Part of the problem, as demonstrated by the research of psychologists such as Paul Slovic, Ilana Ritov and Tehila Kogut, is that our natural tendency to experience compassion is quite limited in breadth. We tend to respond most strongly to the misfortune of a single identified individual. Unfortunately, these feelings of care and concern quickly diminish in strength as the number of victims increases. So, even though compassion can lead to crucial short-term efforts to help the needy, it doesn’t readily translate into a sustained movement. It doesn’t truly unite groups in common purpose over time.

In fact, compassion felt toward those less well off actually highlights differences among groups rather than effectively transforming two groups into one. In contrast to moral outrage, which can be fully shared, compassion is a feeling experienced only by the outsider; a disadvantaged group doesn’t feel compassion for itself. Moreover, compassion too often finds expression in patronizing gestures. A we-know-better attitude inadvertently intensifies group boundaries by failing to fully recognize the capabilities, resiliency, special knowledge and equal humanity of those to whom help is offered.

Just as important, compassion does not search for, identify and hold accountable those responsible for conditions of inequality and injustice. In short, feeling bad for those less fortunate isn’t enough. Shared outrage goes much further. It combats illegitimate attempts to blame the victims for their plight. It prioritizes the need for long-term change beyond emergency assistance alone. And it demands accountability for the failure to use power and influence for the greater good.

Hurdles to Shared Outrage

But if moral outrage shared by the disadvantaged and advantaged alike offers such promise for positive social change, what stands in its way? Why, for example, is inequality growing on so many fronts rather than receding? Far too often, the blossoming of such shared outrage is cut short – both by the powerful self-interested beneficiaries of the status quo and by those who, without malevolent intent, mistakenly view outrage as an undesirable, inappropriate or ineffective response to inequality and injustice.

Many of those perched atop the social and economic ladder, accustomed to the access and resources entrenched power bestows, have little interest in climbing down a rung or two. For them, preserving the inequality they welcome depends upon suppressing shared outrage. This is routinely accomplished by promoting an alternative narrative that supports and glorifies the current system. “The world is the way it should be.” “Claims of injustice, illegitimacy or wrongdoing are unfounded; they overlook a deeper logic and necessity.” “Inequality is a good thing.”

In this world of skillfully crafted illusions, rags-to-riches stories are like gold to those who own the mines. When they are sufficiently persuasive, we’re inclined to overlook the words of people such as Bangladeshi Nobel Laureate and micro-lender Muhammad Yunus, who explained, “Poverty is not created by poor people. It has been created and sustained by the economic and social system that we have designed for ourselves; the institutions and concepts that make up that system; the policies that we pursue.”

Those who defend current structures of inequality – whether their status derives from political power, outsized salaries or inherited wealth – have many other tactics at their disposal. Sometimes, the disadvantaged are blamed, ridiculed and reprimanded for the adversity they face. When the victims accept these false accusations as true, their outrage is smothered and their disempowerment is nearly complete. Sometimes, powerful elites overburden potential allies of the underprivileged with obstacles and worries that prevent them from looking beyond their own circumstances and joining cause with those who are even worse off. And, sometimes, the status quo’s winners conspire to pit everyone else against each other, thereby extinguishing the possibility that shared outrage might unseat them.

Regrettably, the barriers to justice are further strengthened by the well-intentioned and risk-averse when they fail to become partners in moral outrage with the worst victims of an inequality-perpetuating system. When such sympathizers take to the sidelines and become mere bystanders, they tragically help society’s wealthiest and most powerful avoid the full force of broadly-supported and insistent demands for meaningful change. For a movement working to build momentum, apathy and indecision from prospective allies can be as destructive as outright opposition. Recall Martin Luther King’s deep disappointment over the decent people who deemed outrage an inappropriate response to the racism and segregation of the 1960s:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

What Shared Moral Outrage About Inequality Is Not

The shared moral outrage discussed here is often inadvertently misunderstood or intentionally misrepresented. It is, therefore, important to be clear about what this form of outrage is not.

First, shared outrage over inequality is not the same as irrational anger. Rather, it’s an entirely reasonable response to an outrageous situation. Likewise, effective strategies for pursuing real change linked to moral outrage can be bold and discomforting while still being purposeful and carefully planned. To prize civility and decorum (and “bipartisanship”) when doing so aids the powerful defenders of an unjust status quo is either foolish or deceitful.

Second, the shared outrage I’m praising is not supportive of violence in the pursuit of its aims. In fact, such outrage has historically been the source of transformative nonviolent movements around the world. At the same time, the manner in which shared outrage is expressed can indeed reflect the recognition that timid stances are too often ignored or dismissed by the mainstream media, the centers of power and those who are comfortably insulated from life’s daily hardships and injustices.

Third, this shared outrage over inequality is not artificial. It is explicitly not the simulated populist anger manufactured and promoted by corporate-funded “Astroturf” groups that represent many more dollars than people. Such efforts have very different underlying goals and often include an agenda that expands rather than diminishes inequality. Despite superficial appearances, the current Tea Party movement fits this bill. A recent CNN/Opinion Research poll found that these activists are predominantly male, higher-income, college-educated and conservative, with 87 percent supporting the Republican candidate for the US House. That’s certainly not the profile of a broad and diverse coalition of haves and have-nots fighting systemic injustices that do particular harm to the least fortunate among us.

Finally, shared moral outrage should not be mistaken for the anger displayed by representatives of powerful interests responding to attempts to alter the status quo. Such big-budget political theater is strategically designed to subvert the efforts of groups pursuing change that will benefit the disadvantaged. Outrage fueled by distortions, misrepresentations and lies must be discounted as well.

Where to Now?

Now is the time for more of the shared moral outrage I’ve described, not less. As Frederick Douglass explained more than a century and a half ago, “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”

Although forces of globalization and technological developments have undoubtedly altered the landscape for political action, the importance of shared moral outrage as a foundation for social progress persists. Examples from the past half-century remain as compelling as ever. Emerging from the horrors of World War II, the United Nations adopted the groundbreaking Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Broad and sustained political movements advanced the civil rights of African-Americans and women in the United States and ended apartheid in South Africa. Populist campaigns curtailed the exploitation and abuse of farm and factory workers. Churches and local communities created sanctuaries that offered protection for immigrants and refugees. All of these efforts (and many others) were aimed at promoting greater equality and all recognized that inequality could not be meaningfully reduced without improving the circumstances of society’s most vulnerable and marginalized members.

In the 1976 Oscar-winning film “Network,” deranged TV news anchor Howard Beale implores his viewers to open their windows and scream, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The sentiment and emotion may be right, but what’s really needed now is greater engagement in organized efforts that bring together inspiring leaders, dedicated advocates and inclusive coalitions of diverse supporters committed to reducing inequality and its injustices. Together, we must face head-on the full reality of today’s morally bankrupt status quo while nurturing our collective imagination to envision building a better world. This difficult balancing act will require that we resist the lure of cynicism, self-absorption and conventional mindsets – and that we find, nurture and share our moral outrage.

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This work by Truthout is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

Roy Eidelson is a licensed psychologist and president of Eidelson Consulting, where he studies, writes about and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational and group conflict settings. He is also president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility - an international organization of psychologists, other mental health professionals, students and social justice advocates – and a consulting partner at Cognitive Policy Works. Roy can be reached by email at roy@eidelsonconsulting.com and he welcomes your reactions.

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