March 06, 2017

The Uses of Outrage

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

There is a hard-right provocateur who has made a name for himself as being willing to say just about anything to get attention, whom I’ll refer to by his initials: M.Y.. He does his best to poke and jab at convention, offend and even hurt those he disagrees with, all while claiming that what he says is protected as free speech. He attacks the left with particular relish, since being shut down by them reveals a certain hypocrisy, in his mind: the left and universities are supposed to be bastions of free speech, yet, M.Y.’s speech at University of California, Berkeley sparked a riot and his talk was canceled over the ensuing brouhaha. (Here’s a riveting account of the event from a journalist who was traveling with this person and his entourage.)

How can we explain outrage in a sociological way?

Certainly outrage has worked to elevate his status. (Although it also appeared to backfire: the added attention led to journalists uncovering previous statements he had made that stepped over the thin threshold between outrageous and unacceptable, leading to his book being dropped by his publisher and disinvited to a conservative convention called CPAC.) Thinking about this individual, it’s clear that he is a crafted personae—M.Y. is upfront about how he is performing a character that started as a comedy routine—a Frankenstein’s monster attuned to the contemporary media landscape. Better yet, the version of self “comes off the scene” as sociologist Erving Goffman would say.

Beyond the individual, how else can we think about outrage? Drawing from their book, The Outrage Industry, sociologists Sarah Sobieraj and Jeffrey Berry explain how there’s an industry that now thrives on the manufacture of outrage, collecting billions of dollars from advertisers and distributing millions to its most outrageous talking heads (right-leaning outrageous media figures tend to make more than the outrageous left-leaning media figures).

The authors watched ten weeks of media and coded outrageous talk as 13 different varieties (e.g., “misrepresentative exaggerations,” “polarizing language”). What they found was that outrageous talk wasn’t part of the content, outrageous talk was the content of this particular kind of media.

What, however, does outrage do for audiences? Sobieraj and Berry asked in Politico: “Are Americans Addicted to Outrage?” Clearly millions of people click on Fox News and (to a lesser extent) MSNBC, and millions more turn the dial to talk radio. Are people drawn to these outlets for heat (i.e., information) or light (i.e., outrage)? Why?

On the one hand, outrage can be useful in that it is a lightning rod, drawing out an array of issues, pulling them from the dark and toward one source. People listen to outrage in order to make sense of an issue in a very visceral, memorable way.

Outrage has a purpose in the study of social movements. In “Feeling Social Movements,” by Natalia Ruiz-Junco in Sociology Compass, we learn that emotions can be either channeled (e.g., shaping some emotions into other, parallel ones) or harnessed (e.g., accepting an attack and embracing it as one’s own kind of calling) by a social movement.

Conservatives have taken the opportunity to push through legislation that would establish quotas for having a political test before being hired for a university position in Iowa. So, outrage can serve to move some broader political agenda. The Iowa lawmaker, for example, is channeling outrage, while the provocateur attempts to harness it.

Outrage might direct attention toward an issue. But, in the lingo of magic, outrage can also serve as misdirection. Watch this wonderful TED video on the art of misdirection: Apollo Robbins notes that our attention is a limited resource. Indeed: there is only so much time and energy to devote to news and politics. Outrage demands attention, sometimes literally screaming at you. Outrage misdirects, and encourages us to worry about “A,” but ignore “B.” Outrage works for those who agree, but also for those who disagree with it: a moral boundary can be demarcated on either side.

As Durkheim would say: A particular act doesn’t shock the collective conscience because it is deviant; it is deviant because it shocks the collective conscience. Extending Durkheim’s functionalist perspective through an analysis of colonial Massachusetts, Wayward Puritans, Kai Erikson noted that “…each community draws a symbolic set of parentheses around a certain segment of that range and limits its activities within that narrow range. These parentheses, so to speak, are the moral boundaries of that society.” He continued to say that an offense generates excitement that “quickens the tempo of interaction in a group and creates a climate in which the private sentiments of many people are fused into a common sense of morality.”

Deviance is an important resource. Outrage sharpens, potentially broadens group membership. A flashpoint of outrage allows for a group of people to organize themselves not around what they are, but rather, what they are not. This is, in a way easier than a more positive (e.g., what we are) group formation, because it allows for a greater amount of variation: “Despite our differences, we can all agree that that is deplorable.”

What forms of outrage do you see? Where do you see those “symbolic parentheses” being drawn?


Therefore, outrage is normal and necessary in times of great moral distress, affording broader group membership than any identity politic or left orthodoxy can muster. I see individual level outrage moving up to compose the core of the generalized other, as millions resist the President while justice gets mired in the legitimate authority of political procedure.

Fantastic article. Thank you!

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