'How much for this watch?' I asked, holding a cheap knock-off in the black market part of Shanghai's retail sector. '200 yuan,' he said. I offered him thirty and gave the faintest hint of a smile. The next few minutes played out like clockwork. He doubled over and audibly gasped. 'My children, my family,' he cried, 'what will they eat? How will I feed them?' I offered him thirty-five. His anger seemed to become real. It was well practiced. A master of his craft, the brow would crease, the eyes would narrow, the voice began to register outrage. How many times a day would this scene play out? How many times could a man feign outrage?
I sometimes wonder about the shock value of outrage as I scroll through my social media feeds. How many times a day can we feel outraged? How many times a day must we feel outraged? What is it doing to our human sensibilities?
The vegans are outraged over a lamb ad. Patriots are outraged over the Bowe Bergdahl podcast. Chris Gayle sparks an outrage by being Chris Gayle. Piers Morgan is outraged that there’s outrage. Donald Trump’s juggernaut campaign seems to be fuelled by the secret sauce of outrage.
Why do we have such an outraged world? Processed foods, lack of exercise and overwhelming amounts of information are common culprits. Or the constant fear of inaction against climate change, global poverty, sexism, homophobia or a dozen other social ills could be the catalyst for rousing people into turbulent moods. Frankly, outrage seems to be the default currency of the Internet age.
But there are several reasons why we might want to temper our outrage and just sit down with a nice cup of tea.
Most importantly, outrage is a scarce resource. With every additional outrage we ingest, the value of each individual transgression diminishes. When everything is an outrage, nothing is.
In addition to being non-renewable, the fact remains that outrage is too easy. It lacks subtlety, and completely leaves out the visceral. When one is outraged, it’s very difficult to feel the increase in heartbeat, the sinking of the stomach, the shivers in the spine or any of the thousands of physical symptoms of genuine emotion. Remorse, distress, empathy, unease, concern, disappointment or pathos; these are the victims of an outrage culture. When a person is alleged to have caused an ‘outrage’, they cease being human and become a target of a cerebral fury that overpowers sensible and sensorial reaction.
Finally, outrage is almost entirely confected. There is no reality in almost everything you read. George Orwell’s experience in the Spanish Civil War makes this point very forcefully in his recount Homage to Catalonia: ‘All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.’ Explaining with exquisite detail the ennui that comes with fighting in a revolutionary war, Orwell was very aware of the deliberate use and misuse of outrage. Fast-forward the better part of a century, and we are still seeing this play out. The outrage almost always comes from someone located far from the source, with limited information, writing in order to arouse the basest response.
The opportunity cost of outrage is far too high for us to keep indulging in it. By succumbing to outrage at every step, we are conditioning ourselves to become less thoughtful, less articulate, less charitable and less empathetic. Like reflex nerves, firing without rational thought or control. We’ve made ourselves aware of the dangers of eating too much from the confectionery aisle in the supermarket. Can we now wise up to the dangers of confected outrage?