Six Quick Thoughts on Our Outrage Culture

“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Ever see that sentence on a bumper sticker (or sign, or t-shirt, or tweet, etc.)? I can hardly think of a phrase that better sums up our current culture.

Sure, outrage is nothing new in American life. The sixties proved to be decade full of protest and unrest. And let’s not forget that a little thing we call the American Revolution was sparked with a lot of indignation over taxation and self-governance, or lack thereof. We could multiply examples.

But now in contemporary America, I wonder if we’ve become particularly good at outrage, directing it at everything from commencement speakers to clothing choices.

Perhaps it’s the 24-hour news cycle that demands to be filled. Or the ability to immediately broadcast our strident disapproval over social media. (Our viral outrage can be a massively compelling thing, even if it sometimes resembles a hungry school of piranhas far more than it does any kind of cogent moral insight.) Add in our more recent efforts to identify microaggressions, call for trigger warnings, and to draw attention to the crimes and shortcomings of those who’ve gone before us, and we’re left with a culture that looks something like my three kids during dinner: each yelling over the other and contributing to an almost indecipherable crescendo of noise.

Is it time to think a bit more about our culture of outrage? I won’t claim to offer the last word on any of this, but here are at least a few overlapping points to ponder:

1. There are legitimate reasons to be upset. Please don’t misunderstand: wanting to pump the brakes a bit in this area doesn’t mean that all of our outrage is misplaced. And we can often find substantial issues to be addressed even behind overblown reactions. Loving justice and our neighbor should encourage us to think about each particular situation carefully.

2. There are no outraged moral relativists, or at least not consistent ones. All this moral outrage gives the lie to the idea that we should all be free to do whatever we want. If we really lived this way we could never be upset at somebody for doing something wrong. There is no “wrong” in such a perspective. We might be inconvenienced or have something not fit our personal taste, but we can’t be genuinely outraged.

3. How then do we decide who is entitled to outrage? This is an important but rarely discussed question regarding the subject at hand. As I just mentioned, legitimate outrage implies that a real wrong has occurred. But how do we determine what’s wrong? We often seem to operate under the notion that, if enough people agree, it makes it so. But isn’t that just a version of “might makes right”? And don’t we now look at many situations in the past and consider what was then the popular or majority opinion of the time to be very wrong? And for that matter, do we really think that history always moves in a positive direction? It’s almost as if we need a moral norm that stands outside and above us, one that doesn’t change with the passing of time….

4. In a climate of easily provoked outrage, sooner or later we’ll all be transgressors. In a culture that demands strict adherence to whatever societal opinions are trending at the moment, it’s easy to get applause for making all the fashionable denunciations. It’s also no small challenge to stay on the right side of those ever-shifting opinions. To put it another way, don’t be surprised if the posse comes for you.

5. We could use a bit more self-reflection. I mentioned that we regularly call out the transgressions of those who have gone before us, and often rightly so. But do we have a realistic view of what we would have likely done if we had lived during the time in question? And do we really think that the way we live in our own time will be immune from the criticism of subsequent generations?

6. We need a robust, biblical view of human sin. If we’re really listening to what the Bible says about the human heart, then a few important things will follow. We won’t neglect human sin and consequences, but we might be less surprised by it. We’ll also be more likely to see everyone this side of heaven as a complex mixture of good and evil. And we’ll include ourselves in that assessment, which should make us more humble, more patient, and more forgiving. In other words, it might temper our outrage in healthy ways.

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