If we have things we believe in, there will be times those beliefs are challenged. If we have people or things we value, there will be times we are in danger of loosing them and times they will in fact be lost. These times will occur because the world and our lives are always changing. As the saying goes, ‘change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.’
Change is always a difficult thing and our instinctive apprehension about it is a natural reaction. When things change a known status quo is replaced with an unknown. Sometimes this new unknown turns out to be almost identical to the status quo it replaced and other times the new unknown is vastly, almost unrecognizably different. And there is a near infinite spectrum of shades in between.
We are an emotionally reactive species. As we have evolved our root survival ‘fight or flight’ response designed to help us navigate away from dangers in the world around us has also expanded and evolved. From the instinctive determinations of ‘dangerous, not dangerous’ have grown joy and anger, love and fear, loyalty and manipulation, altruism and greed. As complex as our situations and interactions can get at the base of it all we are seeking to obtain comfort and pleasure while avoiding loss and pain.
By its very definition change impacts us at the most potent and primal level. Whether predominantly positive or negative for us the known status quo is familiar and understood. If there are dangers, we know them and can thus be equipped to avoid them. An unknown brings the potential for dangers we might not understand, be able to recognize, or be equipped to avoid. It also may not bring any dangers at all but when we are dealing with a primal ‘safe or unsafe’ instinct even the possibility of danger qualifies as ‘unsafe’.
Though we may manifest them is widely differing ways our reactions to fear, the unknown, the risk of danger are natural and instinctive. They are a necessary and hardwired into us to ensure our survival.
Through our evolution we have also developed a sentient self-awareness which not only enables us to consciously recognize our existence and reactions it also gives us the ability to reason and problem solve above and beyond our primal instinctive impulses. We have the capacity to be selective and consciously purposeful with our actions.
Because of their root in our instinctive survival reflexes our emotions are ultimately more powerful than our reason and intellect. There are always limits to even the most measured and practiced mind, levels of emotional trauma and stress which will eventually overwhelm logic and reasoning.
Our conscious intellect is like a muscle, the more we exercise and develop it the stronger is becomes and the greater amount of stress it can withstand. No matter how well developed we become, however, we will always have our limits.
It is vitally important to note, the ‘muscle’ of our conscious intellect does not develop on its own. Unless we exercise our minds through learning, exposure to wide varieties of information, new and differing experiences that ‘muscle’ can also atrophy leaving us virtually powerless against even small swells in our emotions and those who seek to manipulate us by provoking them.
Outrage is a very particular and powerful type of reaction because it incorporates both our emotional and logical responses. Fear and anger are natural reactions to a perceived threat but outrage brings in an element of offense making it more than merely a danger. It is now a transgression. It isn’t simply a danger it is an attack, there isn’t just a threat there is an enemy.
When we feel anger or fear we point to what has happened and the pain or loss which has been the consequence of it, or is likely to. When we feel outraged about something we point to who is responsible, who it is that has done this to us.
The perceived attack can be literal, immediate, and physical. The perceived attack can be existential, threatening our ability to function or survive. The perceived attack can be ideological, endangering the tenants and pillars of our values and beliefs. Our bodies don’t know the difference. To our neurological responses a threat is a threat and the surge of fight-or-flight adrenaline is the response.
In that regard outrage is actually less effective because instead of focusing our response on the situation and possible danger of the current moment it focuses on the enemy. The same rush of energy gets falsely amplified through a distorting lens which casts us as the victimized hero being wrongly targeted by an attacking villain. We can find ourselves fixating more on the alleged enemy than the harm they are supposedly causing us.
Like all instinctive and emotional responses, on its face, outrage is neither a positive or a negative. Neither right nor wrong, good nor bad, it is simply a reflexive reaction to a perceived potential threat. The actions we take based on our emotional reactions are what makes them productive or destructive.
The trap of outrage is that, thanks to providing a singular enemy as its target, merely feeling or expressing it can feel falsely productive. By expelling our emotions at a specific target we get a distorted sense of having achieved more than simply venting our feelings whether that target actually heard or was affected by our outburst or not.
Allowing ourselves to feel and express our feelings is one of the key methods for keeping them from overwhelming or consuming us. There are definitely times when we all need a good venting session where we grumble, growl, or even scream out our frustrations.
But outrage isn’t interested in releasing the tension. It and those who seek to use it as a means of manipulation are only interested in stoking and sustaining the flames. By framing our feelings as having been provoked by an attacking enemy outrage makes our anger and fear someone else’s fault which, among other things, makes doing something about the situation that other someone else’s responsibility as well.
Railing against them for being the villain they are engenders a false sense of productivity as well as distorted feelings of nobility and virtue. We have raised our voice in the cause to call out and tear down the villain and thus our work is done.
This gets all the more exacerbated by so much of our public discourse now occurring in the realms of online social media. The anonymity and digital distance of online communication frees us from any sense of needing to manage or even monitor our behavior. Our devices offer no immediate or direct response to our typed or video recorded comments. But we are offered celebratory reinforcement for being brazen and inflammatory in the form of views, shares, likes, and posted replies.
Posts can go viral for being either adored or despised but outrage has proved repeatedly to spread faster and farther than the warm fuzzies over something lovable. One of the main reasons this happens is because shock, anger, and outrage spark the danger-sensing survival instincts which inspire a feeling of life-or-death importance.
That heart warming story or adorable video of a parent and childing singing a song together might be lovely but if we are feeling attacked that is something we need to engage with and focus on right this instant. Outrage takes advantage of that primal survival instinct and plants whatever has sparked the feeling at the very top of our attention and priorities of the moment.
The scenario is further exacerbated by both social and news medias now fully functioning under the entertainment model of success and profit. Larger and longer lasting amounts of engagement equals victory. Much as casinos are designed to keep people at the tables by eliminating straight line access to exits as well as any public facing clocks the algorithms for social media platforms, and ratings metrics for news outlets, watch for items and topics which people engage with the most then funnel more of the same to keep users actively plugged in.
We notice, with a grunt and an eye-roll, when we are swarmed with ads for similar products to ones we were just shopping or searching for but the same funneling occurs with what articles we read and which videos we watch. If we clicked on that item then another one of a similar nature and then another one. Suddenly those types of items become the only ones we see in any of our feeds and it becomes all too easy to be seduced into thinking we are well informed about the full big picture when in fact we are only being shown an algorithm narrowed slice of it.
If you have a Netflix account and know someone else who has one, or if you share that account with others in your household, get them to sign into their account and you will be amazed at all the programs and movies which you weren’t aware were available. Or call up Youtube on a device you don’t normally use. Again, you may be quite surprised by the range and variety of videos which have never shown up on your front page or in the side column recommendations.
We now have high profile figures presenting themselves as news media whose sole job is to spark, stoke, and sustain outrage in order to keep their viewers following their every broadcast or posting and coming back for more. And this system suits outrage just fine. It may engage the reasoning part of our reactionary brains but it is not looking for exhaustive evidence, reasoned out arguments, or measured analysis. Outrage only seeks an enemy to blame and these online and news media figures are all too happy to offer us one.
To a calm eye these outrage profiteers are relatively easy to spot as they never explain or illustrate what might be wrong, broken, or potentially dangerous about a situation. They only rattle off lists of things they insist are dangerous and point to an enemy who is to blame.
The trouble is the rush of perpetually stoked outrage makes it hard to see anything clearly while simultaneously convincing us we already do. We know who the villain is and it is all their fault, whatever it is, and that is all we need. Even if it’s something we’ve never heard of. We may not actually know anything about it but we’re mad as hell and it’s all their fault.
Simply being outraged, or even venting out our outrage, is not as productive as it tends to make us feel. Outrage’s seductive trick is framing the perceived danger, and our emotional responses to it, as being someone’s fault. Whether the perceived danger is legitimate or not if someone else is to blame than they are also responsible for doing something about it and simply being outraged or expressing our outrage we have pointed that out and thus done our part. Dust off the hands, moving on.
But blaming and villainizing are not solutions. If we stop there all we are doing is absolving ourselves of any responsibility, while conveniently freeing and entitling ourselves to feeling further outrage over said villain’s failure to solve the various problems we have pointed out they are at fault for.
Frustration, anger, and even outrage all have value as well important roles to play in our interactions with the world around us and our pursuits for growth and change. But they are only part of the process. They function as an alert and warning as well as a catalyst but it is the action we take as a result of them which generates genuine and lasting change.
The spark does not generate the heat from the fire. It ignites the flames which will interact with the wood which will in turn generate the heat we are seeking but the spark alone does not achieve this. Our anger and outrage can drive us to take action, to effect necessary and important change, but outrage alone is not enough. It can spark action but it is not a replacement for it.
The phenomenon of massive online backlash can paint a false picture of effective outrage. While the collective online voice of outrage can be immensely loud and powerful it is the actions taken in response which generate the change.
In 2017 when Donald Trump was sworn in as President there were many who felt outraged by his expressed attitudes and behaviors towards women. That outrage led to massive marches all over the word, enormous numbers of women marching in protest which in turn led to unprecedented numbers of women running for office in upcoming elections. The outrage was the spark but it was the following actions which led to so many new female candidates being elected to office.
Genuine lasting change takes sustained effort over time. Efforts which need to be sparked but which then need to be harnessed and sustained. Sparks by their very nature are short lived and fickle things.
The key to harnessing those energies and ensuring we aren’t being manipulated and seductively addicted by the rush of our emotional reactions is to develop the ability to experience our feelings without being overwhelmed by them. The ability to give ourselves space and permission to feel what we feel but to also take the moment for a steadying breath and examine ourselves, the situation, and our reactions to offer ourselves the chance to make clear and honestly informed choices about our actions.
The above video lists eight effective steps for maintaining control of ourselves, I would add one more. Take action to do something about the source of the anger or outrage we have felt. If we have felt that reaction we have felt it for a reason. Examine what that reason is, honestly and thoroughly, and then choose a way to do something meaningful to try and prevent or avoid it happening again.
Surviving a crisis is the first task, and sometimes all that we can ask of ourselves. But if we want to feel some sense of stability and control in our lives, if we want to feel empowered to make choices and changes of our own we need to build the habit of always looking for a way to do something about the problems we encounter.
Sometimes there may not be any but more often than not there will be and we can only pursue them effectively if we take a deep breath, let ourselves feel what we feel, and then use those feelings to fuel our actions rather than simply be dragged around by them.