image: Kenny Louie
Outrage – it’s bloody exhausting! Every day, the world outrages over something(s) new.
Social media, mainstream media, friends, strangers – everyone is outraging. We shout, fight and mount humiliations on people we have not met.
Why do we outrage? Let’s turn to science.
Research sheds light on a disturbing aspect of the human mind.
In an experiment, subjects were given a few ‘experimental dollars’ and had to observe a game being played between two strangers – Strangers 1 and 2. In the game, Stranger 1 was given money with the option to share none, some, or all of it with Stranger 2 (who had no money of her own). Should Stranger 1 fail to share her windfall with Stranger 2, subjects were given the option to commit some of their experimental dollars (which were real) to punish stranger 1.
Most people put in this situation agree in advance to commit some of their experimental dollars to punish Stranger 1’s stingy behavior. To complement it, a neuro-imaging study showed that our brain’s pleasure centers light up when we ‘punish’ someone, especially strangers.
Why have we fallen to such levels? Why have we degraded ourselves from being the most intelligent species on the planet, to being worse than animals? Why do we live our lives ten moral outrages at a time? According to Michael McCullough:
“We become angry when we or loved ones are mistreated, but we experience moral outrage when we discover that others have been mistreated – particularly when those ‘others’ are complete strangers.”
We have plenty of explanations. Each person has an opinion. We lack kindness and empathy, we don’t think about the other person’s perspective, we refuse to ignore things that don’t concern us, and so on.
But if we know where we go wrong, why don’t we fix it?
Where Were the Seeds of Moral Outrage Sown?
For the answer, we must go back, way back to the times when we start attending school.
In school, our teachers complete a topic, give homework, complete another topic, give more homework, and the process continues. Then, they conduct a test. Someone scores ninety five percent, someone scores seventy five percent, and someone like me in a math test, barely scrapes through. But instead of fixing the gaps in children’s knowledge, teachers continue with the next topic. They expect children to figure out where they went wrong for themselves. The teachers don’t really care about what the students don’t know. This gap in knowledge keeps growing wider with each test. Eventually, the child feels like he is not cut out for the subject. Listen to this awesome TED Talk by Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, shedding light on the problem.
Low test scores anger the child’s parents and teachers. Taunts follow. “You are not intelligent!” “You will always be stupid.” “You will never achieve anything in life.” “You are a disgrace on the family.”
School teaches us to focus on being better than our peers. That we can earn admiration only if we score more than them. So we hope that our classmates won’t ask us for notes. If we share them, our parents scold us. If we score a couple of marks more than our classmate, we rejoice. A couple of marks less, and we think of ourselves as failures.
It was cool to make fun of the student who didn’t study well, unless he belonged to a rich family. We secretly made fun of students who were not well off, whose school uniforms or shoes were not clean enough. All this was part of the culture which imbibed ‘healthy competition’ in us.
After school came college. We enjoyed bunking classes and hanging out with friends. But the ‘healthily competitive’ educational system – making us feel inadequate – stayed the same.
We never learned empathy and compassion. These formative years, when we should have learned them, were spent in feeling inadequate, unfulfilled and incomplete. Slowly, these turned into anger. We felt victimized, and a latent desire for retribution started brewing. This desire would emerge a few years later. For now, all seemed okay.
Work followed. We didn’t enjoy it, but had no choice. Creativity was not for us. It was for people who attended art or design school – people who followed their dreams, or had rich parents. Our creativity was restricted to decorating powerpoint presentations and ‘being innovative’ with Microsoft Excel. Bosses mounted verbal attacks, peers played politics, we were passed over for promotions, increments were below expectations… Life was a b**ch!
The feeling of inadequacy kept growing. Soon, it spread through us like cancer. We stopped fighting it. Like with everyone, it became part of us. At least here, we were like everyone else.
But we had to unwind. Because this feeling has tremendous energy. It had to be channelized, or we would implode. So what did we do? We took the easy way out.
Instead of breaching the walls of introspection, we started judging people and pretending to be offended faster than we unlock our smartphones.
We started picking on strangers. We found fault in what they did, and vented our ‘rage’. This ‘rage’ was nothing but the latent desire of retribution which now emerged.
Social media provided the ideal platform. The media loved it. Since long, the media would doctor stories to prey on our obsession with negativity. Social media made manufacturing this easier and faster. Take, for instance, the event when Business Insider turned a casual tweet into something that ‘disgusted’ people and made them feel ‘outraged’.
Twitter and other social media platforms can turn anything can turn into an outrage.
There are times when outrage is warranted. Like heinous crimes, terrorist attacks, irresponsible behavior by public figures – injustices are valid reasons for anger. You get angry over what matters to you. Borrowing Howard Beale’s tag line in the film Network, “I’m mad as hell and cannot take this anymore.”
But how can we be mad-as-hell all the time? What does 24/7 moral outrage mean?
It means anything can trigger our ‘rage’. So we stay glued to our keyboards (or keypads). We spew venom while scrolling through an endless stream, searching for the next opportunity to indulge in some ‘healthy’ schadenfreude.
Sportspeople at the zenith of their hormonal existence have sex – outrage. A Prime Minister’s suit is auctioned for a huge sum of money – outrage. The media conjures a story – we believe it and feel outraged. Arvind Kejriwal, an apology of a human portrays himself as a victim – we outrage when we should ignore. The gutter in my locality choked up because of reckless littering, and overflowed today – venomous outrage! The list can go on.
It’s easy to judge and blame others, pointing at their faults. This criticism temporarily covers our inadequacy with a blanket. But it doesn’t stay covered for long. In a few minutes, we have to cover it again. So we jump headlong into another outrage. Then the blanket comes off again. You get the pattern, right?
What Should We Do?
We claim that we are tired of it, and want to focus on the positive. But we can’t pull our attention away from it. Positive news surrounds us. It’s right alongside the negative news. The Better India, Humans of New York, Love What Matters, Gives Me Hope, TED Talks, self improvement blogs… the list can go on and on and on. But we refuse to look.
Before we teach children the ‘necessary skills’, let’s address a glaring problem in ourselves – the feeling of inadequacy. Let’s acknowledge our faults first, instead of living in a constant state of denial. Not through self help programs, but through introspection.
Then build on it. Take time off from outrage. Instead, invest it to discover something that makes you happy. Then do it. And do it again. And again.
You don’t need to learn empathy or compassion. (Although it would be nice if we could learn compassion during school, instead of after it.) Doing what you enjoy makes you happy inside. Empathy and acceptance follow automatically. Acceptance of others, but more importantly, of yourself. You start believing the phrase, “I’m enough.” It builds your resilience to bounce back if you are treated unfairly instead of taking your frustration out on someone else.
“BUT HOW DO I MAKE TIME TO FIND WHAT I LIKE DOING?”
Simple, let go of the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). A JWT study reported that 70 percent adults experience FOMO. Because of it, we just have to know what’s happening around us. We will just read the headline, we convince ourselves. The temptation to read a few updates after that is too strong. It triggers full blown moral outrage in our heads. Before we know it, we have updated our social media statuses, debated over it with colleagues, argued with our partner and friends and spoiled our moods. All this over something irrelevant, which will be forgotten tomorrow.
Replace FOMO with JOMO – Joy of Missing Out (h/t Vidya Sury). Enjoy the feeling of missing out on what the world is ‘trying to fix’.
Try to fix yourself. Try to nurture yourself. Develop good habits. Plug away from the internet. Read books. Commit to learning something new often. Connect with people who encourage you, and with those who are better than you. Grow your mind, not your anger.
Faux moral outrage can come down. Things can change. But the change doesn’t start with your partner, friends, colleagues or boss. Not even with strangers. It starts with you.
Life is about being better than you were yesterday. Find what makes you happy, and do it. Try this for 21 days, and witness your urge to outrage subside. You don’t need external triggers or stimulation to feel gratified. You are enough.