Go Ahead, Get Outraged

It isn't new, and it isn't just an Internet phenomenon—it's an essential part of living in a democracy.


Being outraged at outrage is the new, uptown outrage. To just be outraged is passé, unserious; it is insufficiently meta and thinkpiecey. The real thought-leaders don't write more in anger than in sorrow about Bill Cosby rape accusations; they write more in sorrow than in anger about people writing about Bill Cosby rape accusations. It still gets the clicks, but has a gloss of respectability and contrarianism. Win-win.

The obvious next step is to be outraged at the outrage about the outrage, to wave one's fist in righteous fury at Slate's Year in Outrage, a clever piece of clickbait that lists outrages for every day of the year (with instapolling to entice readers to judge just how outrageous each case was) while writers simultaneously wring their hands over their complicity in outrage clickbaiting. But rather than go down the meta-road of meta-outrage one-upmanship, maybe it's worth asking, for a moment, whether outrage is really so bad or so new.

A few of Slate's essays acknowledge the virtues of outrage—Willa Paskin, for example, ultimately decides that criticizing television shows for their lack of diversity is a reasonable thing to do. But overall, the authors tend to present Internet outrage as a recent and troubling phenomenon. Amanda Hess worries that the outrage of the Internet has created a situation in which the "media order … is at risk of calcifying into a staid landscape where original thought is muffled by the wet blanket of political correctness." Jamelle Bouie worries that outrage may replace substantive politics: "If outrage stands in for activism, if we’re focused on the moral temperature of Internet individuals, then we’re distracted from the collective action—and collective institution building—that makes real reform possible." Betsy Woodruff points to the conservative outrage machine as a radical Tea Party departure from the right's traditional focus on gradualism and sober critique. Edmund Burke and William F. Buckley, she assure us, "eschewed the mob impulse, the scalp-hunting instinct, and the bellowing ire that's come to be business as usual in some quarters of the right." Thank God this country has never known a conservatism with mob impulses before, huh?

Of course, this country has known a KKK conservatism characterized by actual, not metaphorical, mob impulses and real, brutal violence. Anyone who has read Gone With the Wind knows that the American right has a long, ugly tradition of grievance politics. The novel's neo-Confederate vision of history is based almost entirely on outraged indignation. The South, for Margaret Mitchell (and not just Margaret Mitchell), was cruelly targeted by the North. The KKK was, in her view, a group of somewhat misguided but honorable freedom fighters battling against injustice. And, as in our time, outrage sold well—Gone With the Wind became the biggest bestseller of the 20th century, and inspired an even-more-massive hit movie.

But neo-Confederate propaganda is racist and awful and evil because of its ideology, not because it expresses that ideology through outrage. Linda Williams argues in her book Playing the Race Card that neo-Confederate grievance outrage, as exemplified by Birth of a Nation, was actually a mirror of, and built upon, abolitionist anti-slavery outrage. Birth of a Nation, Williams says, deliberately reversed the imagery and arguments of Uncle Tom's Cabin—which, like Gone With the Wind, was a massive, multimedia hit. Both abolitionists and neo-Confederates created narratives that identified an injustice, which in turn prompted an outraged demand that that injustice be rectified.

Williams doesn't actually call these demands for justice "outrage." Instead, she uses the term "melodrama." Melodrama, Williams says, is not a new Internet distraction from the real work of politics. On the contrary, it is central to the democratic project. Pre-democratic modes, like Greek tragedy, emphasized the importance of bowing to fate; the response to injustice is a lowered head and the recognition that sometimes your dad is just going to sacrifice you to the gods, so make the best of it. In contrast, Williams says, “melodrama always offers the contrast between how things are and how they could be, or should be.” Melodrama greets injustice not with tragic acceptance, but with a demand for restitution; it embodies the fundamental democratic demand for a just and equitable society.

When Americans said taxation without representation required revolution, they were creating a melodramatic narrative. When the Gamergate agitators (surprisingly absent from Slate's set of outrage essays) insist that criticizing sexism violates the ethics of games journalism and must be stopped, they are creating a melodramatic narrative. Those narratives can be more or less logical; they can be used in the name of noble causes or vicious ones. But the melodrama, or the outrage, is not new. It helped found the country and continues to be the basis for Americans politics, from debates around health care to debates around torture to debates around immigration reform. Americans are an outraged and melodramatic people, and always have been, for good and ill.

The problem with outrage over outrage is not that meta-outrage is also outrage. It is that targeting outrage as something new and uniquely dangerous is ahistorical and leads to poor thinking and bad conclusions. Bouie, for example, worries that "outrage stands in for activism"—a formulation that fails to recognize that narratives of outrage have fueled practically every successful protest movement in this country's history. The Ferguson and Eric Garner protests have been heavily promoted, organized, and in some cases funded on social media. Setting online outrage against “real” organizing neatly sidesteps the knottier truth—which is that outrage and organizing, online and off, are intertwined. The challenge is not to separate out the outrage, but to figure out a way to harness it to meaningful causes.

Because outrage is so central to democratic change, outrage about outrage can also, inadvertently, lead to a pale elitist recuperation of that old Greek anti-democratic vision. Thus Dan Kois, in the concluding Slate essay, declares, "Outrage is not revolution; it’s not even justice, really." He points to the rape allegations against Bill Cosby. Cosby, Kois admits, has been isolated, and had his career resurgence scuttled. But he probably won't face a trial. Ergo, Kois concludes, no justice—and proof that outrage is self-indulgent and pointless. "[P]eople still do terrible things; brands still tweet; inequality persists." Sometimes your dad sacrifices you to the gods. That's the way it goes.

It's true: Utopia will never be attained, the poor will be with us always, and some people, cruelly, will be sacrificed to the gods. But does that mean we shouldn't, with melodrama, hope for something better? Cosby has been publicly shamed; he has suffered some consequences for his actions. That's not the ideal outcome, but it's not irrelevant. Outrage will never create perfect justice, because nothing will create perfect justice. It has undoubtedly been and is still used for trivialities, and not infrequently for evil. But the difficult truth of democracy is that without the logic of outrage, it's hard to strive for a better world.