By Helena Dearnell
Dateline: September 27, 2018
During the 2016 presidential campaign Bernie Sanders sent a message urging people to never lose their sense of outrage. It is very good advice, since it means you care about injustice in the world, but a sense of outrage without knowledge and critical thinking can lead to more injustices and end up being counterproductive.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, the sense of outrage is defined as a powerful feeling of resentment or anger aroused by something perceived as an injury, insult, or injustice. Sharing a sense of outrage at a certain event is one of the most powerful unifiers for humans. Once we have a moral outrage in common, we feel immediate empathy with the group. This outrage driven by moral identity saves us from a cognitive dissonance by helping us to assuage our fears of being immoral or belonging to an immoral collective.
The sense of outrage depends on perceived injustice, so whoever can manipulate this perception will either diminish, augment or redirect it. According to psychologist Barrington Moore Jr., we can find universal common moral codes that include what is perceived as unjust in most societies. There is usually a tacit social contract in which the people grant powers to their rulers in exchange for security and a decent degree of justice. When that contract is broken by the ruler through abuse of power, the people’s outrage and anger at the ruler tries to balance the excesses, hoping to convince the ruler to get back on track.
A good example of this is the Chinese idea of a government based on the Mandate of Heaven. There was never a democracy in China, the Mandate of Heaven represented a form of social contract between the ruler and the ruled. The Mandate of Heaven was more important than both the ruler and the ruled, because it was justice itself. The ruler, by definition, must have the virtue to see that his power to rule is based on his willingness to benefit the people. If the ruler doesn’t act according to this Mandate, the ruled have all the right to revolt against him. This happened many times in China, as it happens all over the world. A healthy sense of outrage is the ingredient that forces the ruler’s misconduct to be redressed and balances the power structure.
Rulers and those in power know that perceived injustice leads to outrage and if allowed to grow, it can cause trouble. Those who are the most responsible for the abuses of justice tend to be the most powerful, so it is no wonder that they are also the ones who gain the most from preventing a sense of outrage at their misdeeds. This can be easily done through mass manipulation, which magically disguises the injustice as something just.
In Western societies, the Christian Church held the power to influence the ruled for hundreds of years. The weekly sermon was useful to direct outrage away from the abuses of the powerful class, and to redirect it to their advantage. Serfs under feudal lords were told to accept their lot and wait for their reward in heaven, while their moral outrage was redirected towards petty village moral issues. The German Peasant wars were one of the signs that the power structure based on the preeminence of the Lord and the Church was being overwhelmed by the sense of outrage of the peasants.
The French Revolution and the ideas of the Enlightenment created a new type of social contract in which the rulers and the ruled both had to accept the values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. The Revolution itself was caused by a sense of outrage at the excesses of a monarchy completely divorced from the realities of the people. Unfortunately, during the Terror reign, the sense of outrage was overdone, with very unpleasant results. These Enlightenment ideas became the basis for a new way of dealing with power and a sense of outrage. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity became an incantation that helped to unite people under their banner, without a need to verify whether the values in the words were being applied. These values weren’t even applied to the French people, much less to the slaves and the colonized all over the world. In 1804, Haiti, a French colony, abolished slavery and became independent from France. Haiti paid dearly for that expression of their sense of outrage. France, supported by the United States, demanded extravagant reparations for the French losses of land and slaves, crippling Haiti’s economy from the start. These reparations were comparatively much more damaging to Haiti than the Treaty of Versailles reparations imposed on Germany after World War I. The people in France felt little sense of outrage at the injustices committed by France in Haiti and in Africa, because they were safe in their moral identity based on those three words: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. They could do so, because from their point of view, Haiti, slavery, and unjust reparations had no reality, while for the people in Haiti the injustices were evidently painful. This is how truth becomes relative and can be used to justify whatever suits the power system.
The foundation of the United States coincided with the Enlightenment and the preponderance of those three words. In America, the word democracy was added to the successful cocktail. This democracy started with a limp, since after the American Revolution the requisites for voting based on ownership of property became even stricter than before. This meant that only white male big landowners could vote. Gradually, and thanks to bouts of a sense of outrage of the discriminated population, the vote was extended to include most people, except for felons.
Now, we are in the information age and the successive creations of radio, television and more recently the internet have dramatically improved our access to knowledge as never before. Information is essential to the perception of injustice and a sense of outrage. As access to information increases, the stakes get higher for the powerful: their ideal state of affairs is a consensus that keeps their superior moral identity intact, even while their actions are in complete opposition to this identity. In totalitarian regimes, the restraint of free speech helps to control a sense of outrage in the population, but it can’t get rid of it completely. In democratic societies there is free speech, but the powerful still need to control the information to carefully direct the sense of outrage towards what suits them and keeps the system stable for their benefit.
Quite often, the truth that ends up as consensus, is what Henry Kissinger calls the “convenient truth”, completely divorced from the real truth. This convenient truth allows for unnecessary wars that only benefit politicians and defense contractors, to be turned into righteous humanitarian crusades for democracy. It allows for deregulation of financial markets and loss of worker’s bargaining power with the result of increased inequality. It allows for Medicare for all to be portrayed as an insane socialist dream, while in reality, it is the standard in the Western world and many other countries. It allows for climate change to be admitted, without any real action demanded. We don’t tend to notice the manipulation of our moral outrage to make us believe in this “convenient truth”, because the information presented is tailored to preserve our righteous moral identity. The effects of these policies turn back to bite us, but we don’t question the real reasons for these unpleasant blowbacks often enough. Instead of questioning the fallacy of previous policies, we believe the creative scapegoating that politicians do when things don’t turn as expected. It is easy to conclude that a sense of outrage manipulated for the benefit of the powerful can’t give rise to a true democracy, it is a democracy only in name.
Democracy requires a well-educated public who is willing to critically evaluate the results of previous government policies and be able to direct their sense of outrage wisely. Democracy in the United States is more demanding, because of the power status of the country in the world. A country that has a defense budget greater than the total of the next seven countries combined requires a citizenry that stays on their toes about the possible misdirection of their sense of outrage. In an unequal society, the very rich have extra power to influence politicians and the media. If the most educated don’t question the validity of policies that benefit only a small group, there is no effective sense of outrage, no accountability and no redressing of injustices. The working class and the people affected by our wars, know their grievances, just like the Haitians knew theirs, and this gives rise to a realistic sense of outrage. The economically comfortable, just like the 19th century French, tend to be more divorced from the realities of war and economic upheaval and tend to be lulled into complacency. Unless we are willing to leave the safe beliefs that persuade us to believe a misleading view of the world, endless war, increasing inequality and rampant climate change will grow exponentially.
It is good to remind ourselves of the words that John F. Kennedy said at the Yale University Commencement Address on June 11 1962: “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie ꟷ deliberate, contrived and dishonest ꟷ but the myth ꟷ persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
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Helena Dearnell spent her early life in Colombia and studied Civil Engineering at Los Andes University. She then decided to explore the world and went to live in Paris, where she studied painting. She has lived in New York and Paris at different times in her life and says this has helped her to understand the European and the American perspectives. She finds this very useful for critical thinking and questioning the status quo.