A Brief Conversation on Outrage

There is a weird synchronicity that often occurs as I formulate my posts. I have been researching issues on aggression vs assertiveness both because of client issues in therapy as well as a possible panel discussion I might have the opportunity to participate in. But as I have been trying to find a lead point for a post, two of my friends have pointed out an issue which has become common in geek and internet culture. Rather than rehash good points, I would invite you to read what they wrote here and here.

Many may be shocked with the idea of challenging outrage. We are taught that we need to start validating the feelings of the wronged and oppressed. We are taught that to end abuses, we need to empower bystanders and stand up to bullies. The idea that we need to challenge outrage seems to run counter to those messages being passed around. But what people don’t often see is that outrage only produces the illusion of empowerment and leads to battles of invalidation. This is because outrage is not rooted in assertive problems solving, but rather it is rooted in a cycle of passivity and aggressive attack.

When Twemlow did his pioneering studies on bullying in schools, he discovered that in schools where kids bully kids, you also see teachers bullying kids, teachers bullying teachers, administration bullying teachers, etc. He referred to this as “parallel processes” stating that when bullying occurs on one level of an organization, it is occurring on all levels. What was also found is that most bullies don’t start off as sadistic brutes, most of the time they are people who don’t know how to meet their needs in any method other than aggression. Because this aggression is the only solution ever seen in the group, it is the only method ever used. Many of the bullies, as a result, don’t even see what they do as bullying. Among the teachers studied, for instance, Twemlow saw a pattern of teachers who would be very passive and let problems build until they reached a point of crisis in the classroom, and would lash out aggressively to try to make the crisis go away.  In the teacher’s mind, he or she is the victim of the situation, and the child he or she blows up at is the problem. To the child, he or she is the victim and the teacher has become the bully. To validate the teacher’s desperation to handle the problem, you must invalidate the child, and to validate the child’s experience, you must invalidate the teacher.

It’s with this parallel in mind that we return to the issue of outrage. The outraged individual is the one reenacting the cycle of passivity and aggression. When the source triggers outrage, the outraged person sees him/herself as the victim, and attacks in response.  They lash out at the source until the source either goes away or is shut down by a moderator. If the source attempts to defend themselves, a cycle of escalation grows and in that escalation there is name calling, accusations, and many of the problems listed in the above blog posts. Instead of solving the problem and changing the mind/heart of the triggering source, outrage more often polarizes the sides.

The failure of outrage comes because to change the mind of someone, you must subject them to, and then lead them out of, cognitive dissonance. Any challenge requires a person to have to rethink their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. In terms of reforming someone with abusive or abuse enabling beliefs, it requires them to empathize and validate the feelings and experiences of the victims, and then themselves be validated in their struggle to change. An assertive argument keeps this in mind, and works to balance validating all sides so the person can feel safe enough to concede then necessary points, such as seen here. But outrage does not do this. Instead, outrage sets up an all or nothing scenario, and in this all or nothing scenario you can’t concede any points because conceding one point sacrifices them all. The triggering source cannot validate you because doing so forces him or her to invalidate him or herself. The most that can happen is the argument goes away, again by one side being so frustrated they walk off or someone shutting down the discussion. But no one’s heart changes, the problem just gets hidden and an illusion of success is created…

…Until the problem blows up again.

So that’s the problem with outrage. Like the Dark Side of the force, it is not actually stronger, it is just quicker, easier, and more seductive. And like the Dark Side it ultimately destroys.


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