Is There a Cure for America’s Addiction to Outrage?

Rep.-elect Dan Crenshaw (R., Texas) in front of the Capitol Building, Nov. 14. (PHOTO: ZUMA PRESS)
Rep.-elect Dan Crenshaw (R., Texas) in front of the Capitol Building, Nov. 14. (PHOTO: ZUMA PRESS)

by Lance Morrow

Outrage has become the signature emotion of American public life.

People are so used to it—the noise, the flying spittle—that they were pleasantly surprised when Rep.-elect Dan Crenshaw of Texas declined to be incensed. He is the former Navy SEAL who lost an eye in Afghanistan and was mocked—more stupidly than viciously—for his eyepatch by a performer on “Saturday Night Live.” The insult called for outrage, in the usual tit-for-tat. But instead Mr. Crenshaw took it in good humor. He went on “SNL” to accept the performer’s apology. Not everything needs to be treated as an outrage, he said—a grown-up in a moment of grace.

People have been mad as hell for much of the 21st century, starting roughly with the stalemated Bush-Gore election in 2000, followed quickly by 9/11. Fundamentals have been changing fundamentally: marriage, sexual identity, racial politics, geopolitics. Outrage flourishes also because of the rise of social media—the endless electronic brawl—and because it plays so well on our screens. Cable news draws pictures in crayon, in bold primary colors that turn politics into cartoons. On the left, “stay woke” means “stay outraged.” Trumpians want to “lock her up” or “build a wall.” Outrage is reductive, easy to understand. It is an idiom of childhood—a throwback even to the terrible twos.

The various tribes have broken off negotiations with all differing points of view. They excuse themselves from self-doubt and abandon the idea of anything so weak as compromise or, God forbid, ambivalence: No other perspective could possibly be valid. Americans have lost tolerance for the 51%-to-49% judgment call, even though that’s about the margin of their disagreement on almost everything. People give themselves over to the pleasures of self-righteousness and self-importance that come with being wronged when you know you’re in the right. Among the civic emotions, outrage is a beast of the prime; to harness outrage is to discover fire.

A healthy society reserves its outrage for special occasions: Pearl Harbor, say, or the church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four girls. But in the 21st century, special occasions—mass shootings and other random eruptions of the id—occur regularly. They have turned outrage into a ragged, all-purpose national reflex, with side effects of disgust and despair.

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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Morrow, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a former essayist for Time.