Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Outrage is Not a Virtue

**Language Warning -- Discussion of the use of an Anglo-Saxon-derived crudity follows**

There's a line of thinking -- or perhaps I should say "feeling" -- out there derived from the George Carlin school of philosophy which takes pleasure from asserting things according to the formula: I don't know what's more fucked up about the world: the fact that with all our wealth there are millions of people in our country who can't get enough food to eat, or the fact that most of you are more upset by the fact I said "fuck" than that there are millions of people starving.

The idea is, I suppose, that the area of suffering being called out is so appauling that there's no point in discussing it politely -- the comfortable need to be shocked from their complacency and so offensiveness is needed in order to spark the outrage that will beget virtue.

Myself, I'm rather dubious of the idea that outrage is capable of begetting virtue. Outrage seems to find its natural outlet in hate -- in searching for the guilty and finding a way to punish them. Picking a topic from my own side of the political spectrum (which seems only fair, if I'm to attempt to be honest in my critique): Those who quickly themselves into a trembling fury over abortion are generally not able to make themselves truly useful in an kind of pro-life work. If you consider screaming "How many babies have you killed today?!?!" at an abortion clinic worker to constitute a worthwhile activity, you're unlikely to be able to muster the empathy and open-mindedness to work calmly and helpfully with a girl who comes to a crisis pregnancy center still divided in her mind as to whether she should have an abortion.

Part of this is because action begets emotion. When we shout or use profanity or violent imagery in our speech, that very action makes us angry. It makes our blood flow, our temperature rise, and it triggers our natural urge to fight, not to calmly explain or kindly help.

Outrage, and the ranting that stems from it, also tends to make us unattractive to others -- most particularly those who are not yet sure if they agree with us. When we talk with those we disagree with about that issues we consider vital, our desire should be that they convert, or at least come to understand that our viewpoint has real virtues to it. Accusing someone of being a Nazi, or hating the poor, or wanting to kill the unborn, or not caring about the born not only fails to achieve that, but it makes the listener less likely to pay any attention to what comes after.

Thus, outrage seldom achieves its theoretical object -- changing the other's mind. And it should be no source of pride in an of itself, because it gives nothing to alleviate the suffering one seeks to end. Returning to the example I provided at the beginning, it may be that millions of people going hungry is more shocking than the use of profanity, but since the use of profanity does nothing to feed the hungry, it's unclear how a world with a million hungry people is improved by declaring it "fucked up". A lack of food is made no better by removing civility as well.

4 comments:

Daddio said...

Since you mentioned the abortion issue, would you make the same conclusion about those graphic images some pro-lifers like to show? Are they the visual equivalent of dropping an F-bomb to get someone's attention?

There was a pro-life group on our college campus once with these huge posters showing the evils of abortion in graphic detail. Obviously the purpose was to "wake us up" and to convert people by showing the horrible details. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but it just seemed to be both disrespectful to the dead, and also "too shocking". I didn't mind them being there because I was already a believer. But I don't suppose they did much to persuade any ardent pro-abortion folks, and for those who were on the fence, I think a more gentle and loving approach would have been more effective.

Darwin said...

Since you mentioned the abortion issue, would you make the same conclusion about those graphic images some pro-lifers like to show? Are they the visual equivalent of dropping an F-bomb to get someone's attention?

Yes.

I think there's at times, perhaps, an appropriate place for shocking imagery. I gather there's a "casualty day" section of Marine officer training which is entirely focused on, "This is what happens when officers do things that get Marines killed." I've also heard of gruesome images of car crash victims being used in classes involving DUI offenders. And in the same sense, I think there are rare occasions on which we need to be reminded of the extreme repulsiveness of what it is that abortion supporters are advocating.

But I do not think that those images have a place on posters scattered around public places, in sidewalk rallies outside abortion clinics, or on trucks driving around the freeways. (I used to see these occasionally back in LA.)

j. christian said...

Kevin Walker at Assimilatio Dei did a short series of posts on thymos, which he defined as

"...the passions at their worst, exploding in something like anger, where they momentarily seize the will of an individual completely, leaving no room for the slightest deliberation."

Here are the posts:

http://assimilatiodei.blogspot.com/search?q=thymos

It's a good read, and it ties directly into what you're saying about the role of outrage with respect to the virtues. Outrage is the currency of the political left because, in their philosophical order, there is no transcendental order or objective truth, only the expression of will or power.

j. christian said...

Should've mentioned that those posts are in reverse chronological order...