#133: Am I Really Not Paying Attention If I Am Not Outraged?

The current principle of attempts to change the world seems to be the following: “If I only scream loudly enough, I will be heard.” That is correct. But you will not be listened to. Hearing the noise and listening to the message are two different things.

We know by now – rather definitively – that the only effective change that has ever succeeded long-term has been that which was agreed upon through compromise, cooperation, convincing the other, and working with them. The big historical changemakers always preached peace, togetherness and kindness. That does not mean that they did not also express anger and frustration – but they overcame them eventually, which made them effective.

Outrage only gets you so far. Eventually, you will be considered divisive, extreme, not worth listening to. But it is worse, because this is not about outrage per se – it is about being seen to be outraged.

Don’t get me wrong, I find a lot of things outrageous, and I have written about that. But I disagree with the helpfulness of the deliberate stance of being outraged: it can easily be seen as emotional blackmail. This causes a whole set of other problems:

If I were to use emotionality to communicate a point, or feelings as an argument, I  would deliberately make it difficult for anyone to criticize me: we live in a world in which criticizing emotions or feelings is considered wrong, and in which disagreement is always coded as negative.

But disagreement is good! Disagreement is the path towards finding a solution – it is the necessary component of any dialectic argument. Ideally, we disagree with ourselves first! Furthermore, we are not the best authority about ourselves. The first thing we need to second-guess are our feelings. Any therapist knows this. How are we supposed to enter into true dialogue with each other if we base it on something as ephemeral and unreliable and shifting as feelings? How do we even assume we can be the only ones being “right” in a conversation?

The most productive way to move on from outrage is to turn feeling into reflection. I must admit, I do not always succeed with this – and there are plenty of poems or blog posts testifying to this – but I am trying. Thinking, of course, needs to be coupled with empathy and compassion – but not with all feelings. Maybe this is like the difference between justice and retribution. We all may well like the idea of retribution, in theory. “Let the evildoer – as long as his crime is proven – suffer, especially if the crime was heinous.” This is an understandable instinct, but given that we know that no justice system is perfect, and that the perpetrator may be many things other than his criminal self, but definitely also a human being, albeit seriously flawed; all of this rational information may temper our more ruthless instincts and arrive at the necessary attitude of ecce homo: see the human being in all their complexity as simply human.

I am outraged by injustice, but I choose to be hopeful about human beings. We all need to be – for without that, what is there? We are all sinners in the sense that we are all fallible, and in our moment of failure, do not we, also, want to be met not with outrage and retribution but with justice and empathy?

If we want justice rather than retribution, empathy rather than callous outrage, reason rather than highly subjective and manipulative feelings, we are open to criticism. Criticism does not mean to “tear down” someone or something. At its core, criticism, or critique, is an act of love: we believe something can, must needs be better. We are giving somebody a chance to improve on their point, their methodology, their chances for success. Criticism – as Marx pointed out – has to be ruthless, but it has to be ruthless also towards itself, and it has to be ruthless while still making sure it can be heard. Criticism needs empathy.

Outrage, on the other hand, lacks empathy – it may contain feelings, but the feelings are directed in a very narrow way, and the performance of outrage – the stance of wanting, nay, needing to be seen as being outraged demonstrate the following point made by famous French psychoanalyst and literary critic Julia Kristeva in an interview with a German Newspaper.

While the text discusses some problems with European identity, it narrows down on the topic of outrage:

“Another of Europe’s dead ends is the inclination towards outrage, a word which is very much in fashion right now. In my eyes outrage is romantic, a reaction characterized by rejection and wrath, and by a juvenile-immature reaction that doesn’t offer a believable alternative, because it allows for no interaction with the other at all. It does not think about the other. It is an attitude that lures you towards dogmatism; an attitude which by its nature is totalitarian and deadly. Outrage is a European sin, a negative narcissism.”1

This understanding of outrage as a negative narcissism is particularly helpful, in my view: as a narcissistic stance, it reveals its uselessness for discourse. Outrage may have a point, but it mostly points to the person who allegedly feels outraged. It centers the speaker, it centers furthermore rage. But if outrage turns to rage, and to excited speech, violent conclusions may too easily become thinkable, and we would be leaving the realm of empathy, of dialog, of any common ground that we rather urgently need to find every single time.

Yes, I am not always seen to be outraged. But that is precisely because I am paying attention – or rather, that I have been paying attention for far too long. I see the language games, I have seen them before, and I have seen them fail before. Semantic masturbation never leads to the truth. I chose reason and true empathy – they will not fail as easily.

1Julia Kristeva, Interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, May 5, 2013. https://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/bilder-und-zeiten/interview/julia-kristeva-im-gespraech-sprich-ueber-deine-schatten-12171496.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_2. German original:

„Eine weitere Sackgasse Europas ist der Hang zur Empörung, ein Wort, das inzwischen groß in Mode ist. In meinen Augen ist die Empörung romantisch, eine von Abwehr und Zorn geprägte und jugendlich-unreife Reaktion, die keine glaubwürdige Alternative benennt, weil sie keinerlei Interaktion mit dem anderen vorsieht. Sie denkt nicht an den anderen. Es ist eine Haltung, die zum Dogmatismus verleitet; sie ist ihrem Wesen nach totalitär und todbringend. Die Empörung ist eine europäische Sünde, ein negativer Narzissmus.”