Navigating the culture of outrage

A little over 35 years ago I heard the Dalai Lama speaking in Edinburgh. Someone asked him, “You’ve talked a lot about love today and you’ve talked a lot about the dangers of anger, but isn’t anger useful? Doesn’t anger get stuff done?” And his answer was, I thought, very astute. He said, as best I can recall, “Yes, anger does get things done. Anger can make things happen very quickly. And that’s why you have to be very careful with it.”

The thing is, anger speeds things up. It’s like hitting the gas pedal in the car. And if we’re going to speed up it’s helpful for us to check that the vehicle is pointing in the right direction.

Ambivalent Outrage

Psychologists have a similar ambivalence about outrage, which is similar to anger but can be (and in my opinion should be) distinct. Moral psychologists, who study how we judge what’s right and wrong, traditionally regard outrage as a bad thing because it disturbs our wellbeing and is potentially destructive. On the other hand intergroup psychologists (who study how different groups interact) often think of outrage as a good thing, because they’ve seen how it has brought people together to bring about positive change.

And nowadays some psychologists are starting to see outrage—and emotions in general—as being neither good nor bad. What’s important is what we do with our emotions. So it might be best to think of outrage and anger principally in terms of whether they’re effective or ineffective.

Is There a Distinction Between Anger and Outrage?

Outrage isn’t necessarily angry at all. My dictionary’s definition of “outrage” is that it means “to arouse fierce anger, shock, or indignation.” Note the word “or,” which indicates that outrage is not intrinsically angry. In fact I often experience outrage in terms of my conscience being shocked, with an accompanying passionate desire to right a wrong. Anger is not required.

Anger is similar to outrage, in that it’s a passionate desire to cut through some obstacle or to change something, but it’s often personal, and takes the form of hurtful words.

Outrage can easily bleed over into insults or other displays of anger, but those can and should be avoided, since they’re ineffective. Outrage needs careful management, which is why I’m writing this article. This distinction reflects my understanding, incidentally. You and I might understand these words differently.

The Good and Bad

Moral outrage, as intergroup psychologists have pointed out, has helped indeed us in many ways, for example with eliminating or reducing various injustices. Stimulating outrage can be very effective if you want to make the world a better place. If for example you’re promoting an environmental group, then including pictures of beautiful places is much less effective than showing pictures of, say, a polluted beach. Feelings of anger and outrage often motivate us far more than pleasant feelings do.

On the other hand, outrage can can be very destructive. For example it can turn into destructive anger and bullying, where online mobs hound people and destroy their lives, sometimes over quite minor things.

Auditing Outrage

Buddhist journalist Robert Wright recently discussed this theme of how outrage can sometimes be effective and sometimes not, by examining two different cases. One of these was Jeanine Pirro on Fox News. She had made some anti-Muslim comments on air, essentially questioning whether a Muslim member of Congress could be a patriotic American. The other was “Russiagate”—concern about whether the Trump campaign had improperly colluded with the Russian government.

What Wright did was a kind of cost-benefit analysis: what would have happened if there was or wasn’t any substantial outrage? In Pirro’s case, in the absence of outrage she would have gotten away with saying what she had said, and the belief that a Muslim cannot be patriotic would have moved toward normalization. Instead, what happened was that, as a direct result of popular outrage, Pirro got suspended. Presumably she and other TV presenters will be more careful about making statements like that in the future. Outrage here brought about a (small) shift in our culture.

Wright also talked about “Russiagate,” and the almost two years of outrage that have accompanied it. Again, what difference does outrage make, Wright asks? Well, there was an investigation (actually several investigations) going on. If there’s no outrage, those investigations will continue to their various conclusions. What happens if there’s a highly outraged reaction? Well, exactly the same thing! The Mueller report comes to its conclusion (and presumably the report will eventually be released in its entirety). Various congressional investigations will continue. Our outrage in this particular case makes almost no difference.

So what’s the practical difference here? The practical difference in the case of Jeanine Pirro, is that advertisers pick up on our outrage. They get skittish. They pull their ads. Jeanine Pirro’s employers get skittish in turn, tell her to back off, and in fact take her off the air for a while.

So there are times when our outrage will have a good effect, times it will have a minimal effect (perhaps none) and times it will have an effect, such as getting somebody fired, that might be disproportionate. (Of course it’s not always easy to assess the effects of outrage.)

Outrage Addiction

In addition, outrage is exhausting. It’s draining. Outrage takes psychological and physical a toll on us, especially when it spills over into anger. And yet at the same time we can come to feel that we can’t live without it. It becomes a kind of addiction. On some level we enjoy getting outraged. It makes us feel that we’re on the right side. It helps us feel that we are bonding with others who have similar views. But when we’re continually in “outrage mode” it’s really very, very unhealthy for us. And it’s also hard to know when to stop, which is probably contributing to our outrage culture where thousands of people publicly sometimes shame people for minor offenses.

Managing Our Outrage

So those questions — Is my outrage proportionate? Is it useful? — can help us to keep the outrage that we will inevitable experience, from turning into angry mob behavior. It’s vital that we question ourselves in this way, otherwise we can end up being swept along in other people’s emotions. It’s wise for us to learn to be selective about what we’re going to be passionate about so that we don’t get exhausted.

Of course some people will say that we should steer clear of outrage altogether—that it’s an unskillful emotion. But if it’s possible, as Buddhism traditionally says, for us to eliminate anger altogether, then presumably we first of all have to learn to moderate our passionate energies, and to direct them wisely, and to be mindful about when and when not to use them.

18 Comments. Leave new

  • Jamie Mcsloy
    April 3, 2019 4:40 am

    A fantastic piece which really brings the subject of always “being awake” no matter how your mind challenges you to simply press the “auto response” button.

  • Voices in our world seem committed to stirring us to fear, anger, and even action. Intentional action without anger, even lethal action, is more effective and efficient. As Karate master Motobu is quoted, anger up – fists down. Fists up, anger down.

    • That’s definitely the ideal. The phase where outrage is aroused is useful, though. It’s an indication that an injustice exists that needs to be righted. That energy can be a powerful motivator to action and needn’t include any ill will (the desire to hurt or cause harm).

      A verse from the Dhammapada comes to mind: “When anger arises, whoever keeps firm control as if with a racing chariot: him I call a master charioteer. Anyone else, a rein-holder — that’s all.” It’s an interesting image — the chariot doesn’t stop. The charioteer is skilled enough to control the forces driving the vehicle, rather than passively being pulled along by it.

  • Robert Walsh
    April 3, 2019 7:05 am

    Thanks for taking this on, Bodhi. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately, because it’s a big issue for everyone.
    I think it might be useful to distinguish between “anger” and “outrage”, and perhaps find a different term for “outrage”. The fact that we find it exhausting and possibly unskillful is a clue that there is still some confusion.
    We don’t need to wait for all the world’s problem’s to be solved, or hold on to anger/outrage as an intermediate step before applying the Buddha’s teachings.
    The elimination of anger that Buddhism traditionally talks about involves recognizing bad things and doing good things while maintaining equanimity and lovingkindness.

    • I really don’t like the word outrage at all, Robert. I find it distasteful.

      I think of anger as being much more general than outrage. I can be angry about politics or because my kids are taking too long to put on their shoes to get out of the door. I can be outraged about politics, but I couldn’t be outraged about the shoe thing.

      Outrage seems to be to do with deep values being trampled upon. My dictionary says that outrage as a verb means to “arouse fierce anger, shock, or indignation,” which suggests that outrage includes a lot more than anger, and perhaps doesn’t include it at all. That fits with a certain experience I call outrage, where my conscience is shocked but I wouldn’t describe myself as being predominantly angry. Unfortunately that’s an experience I have almost every day as I read the news. When we talk about something being an outrage I think we also mainly have in mind that it’s something shocking.

  • Simon Freedman
    April 3, 2019 8:24 am

    Another great, insightful post. This is actually the only blog that I read on a regular basis as I find your posts thought-provoking and very relevant. Please keep up the good work.

    • Thanks, Simon. Unfortunately I expect to be giving up teaching meditation in the near future, and probably won’t be writing many more articles.

      • Simon Freedman
        April 3, 2019 10:57 am

        Very sorry to hear that. Hopefully you’ll find time to write more books though. Living As a River was great, would be keen to see more.

        • Thanks. I’m in the middle of writing a book on self-compassion. I’d certainly like to write more, but everything is about to be thrown up in the air as I look for what they call “a real job.”

  • Melody Peters
    April 3, 2019 1:14 pm

    Your ability to cut to the heart of an issue is fantastic. I have been working on my outrage, trying to see through it.
    I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole.
    There is too much to be outraged about and not enough me.

    • I love how you put that: “There is too much to be outraged about and not enough me.”

      Outrage, as I’ve said, can be useful. But we can’t live in a state of permanent outrage. Those questions about whether our outrage is proportional or likely to have any effect can help us be more selective.

  • Andrew Hinson
    April 4, 2019 6:20 am

    For me, no action taken out of anger or outrage can truly be positive. I have dealt with this issue quite a bit in my own life and in my sangha, and I have seen and experienced the ways in which actions taken out of anger, no matter how “valid” the anger, while they can seem to create positive results, always carry the taint of strengthening self-identification, reinforcing ideas of separation between self and other, and blocking our own ability to open to our own pain and suffering, and thus that of the world.

    I believe it is possible to pursue the ideals and causes we believe in from a place of love and softness, from a place of acceptance. I believe the feeling that we need the drive or edge of anger to provide the energy to fuel our work on social change is a subtle form of egoic separation that only hurts us in the end and leaves us generating more pain for ourselves.

    We do not need to change the world. We cannot change the world. Change is within. When we can truly accept ourselves, there is no anger, no outrage, because we see that we are the world…with all its greed, hatred, and delusion. And we change the world by loving it, one breath at a time.

    • Outrage isn’t necessarily angry at all. My dictionary’s definition is that it means “to arouse fierce anger, shock, or indignation.” Note the “or,” which indicates that anger is not intrinsic to feelings of outrage. In fact I often experience outrage in terms of my conscience being shocked, with an accompanying passionate desire to right a wrong, and not necessarily as anger. It can easily bleed over into to insults or other displays of anger, but those can be avoided, since they’re ineffective. So that’s part of the management of outrage.

      My experience is different from yours, though. I most often experience anger as a powerful desire to cut through some obstacle. Sometimes I’m angry with my children, for example when they repeatedly ignore requests to do (or not do) something. They have their own agendas, which they cling to, and in order to get through to them I have to raise my voice and express myself strongly (not hatefully or insultingly, though). Sometimes anger has its uses.

      When you say, “We do not need to change the world. We cannot change the world,” my passionate response is to lovingly say, “bullshit.” (This language is an indication that I think there’s something that needs to be cut through.) The world needs changing and we can change it. Yes, we need to change ourselves, but if we’re not prepared to stand up to injustice or to help alleviate others’ suffering—if we’re not troubled by it, outraged by it—our practice doesn’t amount to much.

      For examples of passionate, compassionate outrage, I’d recommend listening to talks (or reading some of the writings) of Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Robert Walsh
    April 4, 2019 3:15 pm

    Bodhi, I would like to make a respectful suggestion to rewrite the beginning and end of the piece. The first two paragraphs are about “anger”- the word “outrage” does not appear at all. The last sentence is about “anger”- the word “outrage” does not appear at all. The reason why you have had to make a distinction for two different people in the comments may be that the original article treats them interchangeably.

    • Thanks! I completely agree that I need to clarify what I wrote.

      I wrote the intro last, by which time it was clearer in my mind that I was talking about outrage, and not necessarily anger. The first paragraph was meant to be “here’s an example of something (anger) that a spiritual teacher is ambivalent about,” leading to “there’s a similar ambivalence about outrage amongst psychologists.” But as I wrote the rest of the article I wasn’t particularly conscious of the distinction, hence the confusion.

  • Andrew Hinson
    April 4, 2019 6:23 pm

    There’s a koan that’s often raised (at least in Zen circles,) when people are discussing the question of responding to the issues of the world in relation to spiritual practice and liberation from suffering. I’m probably not getting it quite right, but it’s in the Mumonkan, or Gateless Gate collection. It goes something like this:
    A monk came from the South. The teacher asked him “How are things in the South these days?”
    “There is vigorous debate on many issues,” the monk replied.
    “How can that compare to planting rice in the fields?” the teacher asked.
    “What does planting rice in the fields have to do with the world?” the monk said.
    “What do you call the world?” replied the teacher.

  • Because we are describing an experience with words and that is difficult for myself, allow me to first apologize for the length of this.

    For myself:

    Agree, outrage is exhausting. I prefer a more equanimous concerned, serious, and stern.

    With awareness, anger can be avoided altogether by practicing [concerned,] serious, and stern. Like a grandmother who yells at her grandchild to get out of the street; and if she is skilled, she acts with equanimity, concern, seriousness, and sternness, and the seed of anger doesn’t grow in her body due to her experience and practice. Fear might be there and fear is a potential seed for anger. This is about being aware of “our selves”.

    In my experience, the most difficult anger to cognize are situations including surprise, frustration, or tiredness, especially the extreme forms. In these situations, including with children, pre-planning, patience, practice, and reflection are potential antidotes for the repeatedly ignored requests and not coincidentally the potential antidotes to frustration, tiredness, and anger.

    Reflection is done before, during, and after. First, one must cognize, I am tired or this situation may frustrate me. Surprise for myself is the most difficult and is usually not an issue unless I am both frustrated and tired.

    The most difficult result of experiencing life without anger, and most everyone has experienced this result, is complacency; thus the resulting indifference is hopefully avoided mindfully. Again, reflection is useful here. pre-planning, patience, practice, and reflection are potential antidotes to complacency. Avoiding complacency comes to mind as the justification for anger and outrage.

    Thich Nhat Hanh: The seeds of anger are always there. But when you notice, when you keep alive your understanding, they have no chance to manifest.

    Anger will, in my experience, continue to always have the potential and that potential can arise in the body as heat about the size of a plum, in the center of the chest strangely where love can rest as a warm glow.

    If the seed of anger is not anticipated, anger may fill [usually fills?] the whole body possibly so quickly that often the plum size seed can not be recognized during or in reflection afterwards. Of course, the situation, body sensations, thoughts, words, and actions are now the noticeable results of an original seed and can be reflected upon.

    With awareness and understanding, aka with wisdom, one recognizes the potential for some “this may make me angry” situations minutes before the seed potentially arises. With pre-planning, patience, practice, and reflection, eventually the seed ceases to arise for that and similar situations. Rush hour traffic comes to mind.

    Again simply my experience, we intentionally allow a neither pleasant nor unpleasant concerned, compassion and loving-kindness to arise later. I find, immature compassion and loving-kindness to be missing the mandatory equanimity, awareness, and focus and is mildly or seriously delusional or complacent. Practice in grocery store waiting lines comes to mind.

    How much pleasure is received by kind acts? Equanimity is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, which is strangely comforting and slightly pleasant and peaceful in the body and mind. There is nothing wrong with situations involving pleasure or pleasantness; however, these are potential seeds of delusion, ‘bee’ careful. Anger and other afflictive emotions can ‘bee’ pollinated in situations involving pleasure or pleasantness. Anger and outrage can be pleasant! Energizing! Thus unskillfully Justifying!

    Concerned, serious, and stern can look and sound like angry, can be ¡Spoken Loudly and Sharply!. I’ve seen ‘angry?’ faces on parents where the children apparently understood this is the look, the sound, and the situation! Now! Concerned! Serious! Stern!

    Observing the different responses of children taught at very young ages, I sense these children know the difference between their parents #Loud#and#Sharp#Anger## and the loud and sharp, Concerned! Serious! and Stern! Now!

    I’ve also experienced the look and sound of concerned, serious, and stern on this body and on other bodies with an [I am or she is]-serious-look-and-lower-frequency-deep-firm-sound. The energy has a solid, deeply serious unusually quiet quality. Sometimes without words, the ¡Look! alone may be saying, ¡Now!

    The quiet quality, humbly experienced, demonstrates the firmness of equanimity, maybe less urgency, and maybe the recognized receptive energy of the receiver. A specific example with a 6 year old while she was tight rope walking along the top of the back of a sofa in front of a large livingroom window just arose. This was stated peacefully, slowly and seriously, “You don’t want to do that. You might fall out the window and cut yourself.”

    To the host, you are welcomed to use and modify this as you wish.

    Thank you for your patience. I hope this was useful.


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