Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Discourse and Legitimate Outrage

All of us have our triggers. All of us know that feeling of outrage, of supreme moral indignation, that can be provoked by a sufficiently offensive example of wrongness. I had that that feeling yesterday when I read this story about Berlusconi’s campaign to deny the family of a comatose woman the right to her disconnect life-support. I think it was this justification in particular that truly tugged the tiger’s ears:

Justifying his campaign to save Englaro’s life, the prime minister added that, physically at least, she was “in the condition to have babies”, a remark described by La Stampa newspaper as “shocking”.

That’s not to say that the rest of the article isn’t infuriating to me either. And given these feelings of mine, how best should I express them? What should be the role of these feelings and my desire to externalise them in a discussion on the subject, or in the larger discourse on assisted suicide, ‘right to die’, and similar cases?

I think the best place to start this discussion might be to start with the notion of discourse itself. Habermas views discourse as a pragmatic attempt to reach consensus between parties who have failed to mutually accept the validity of some statement. The very nature of discourse requires certain rules:

1. Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to
take part in the discourse.
2. a) Everyone is allowed to question any assertion whatsoever.
b) Everyone is allowed to introduce any assertion whatsoever into
the discourse.
c) Everyone is allowed to express his attitudes, desires, and needs.
3. No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion,
from exercising his rights as laid down in (1) and (2) above.
(Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action)

Evident from these rules is that participants in a discourse must not try to stifle other participants, which is a risk posed by the expression of outrage. The first definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary entry for the word is ‘an act of violence or brutality’, and violence kills discourse. But that’s not the only meaning of the word, and so it’s useful to look at what outrage can accomplish in some forms.

Outrage can serve as a legitimate expression of serious moral misgiving. It’s emotive, rhetorical, and communicates powerful feelings. It may also be cathartic, as it can be hugely frustrating to feel helpless in the face of great injustice. Releasing those feelings and those frustrations might not be bad things, right? Well, first of all, catharsis doesn’t work. It makes anger stronger, not weaker. Second, when some participants in a discussion are shouting out their rage and moral disgust, other participants in that discussion might not be able to get in a word edgewise or may just find the whole thing psychologically exhausting and decide not to bother engaging at all, at which point discourse has failed.

I’m going to suggest two ways for outrage to be expressed in a legitimate and beneficial way for people who engage in casual or political discussion,  where feelings do matter and tempers can run high, but where reasoned engagement is also vital:

  1. Outrage suggests a strong sense of morality. When you show outrage over a situation, it is because you find something about it is deeply unethical. Sometimes demonstrating this is even more important than the immediate discussion. It says ‘I really care about this situation’ and that is enough to make politicians and friends alike pause and consider their actions. This could make a future discussion more productive, so long as the outrage-expression is discrete and doesn’t continue too long.
  2. Outrage conveys hostility. Hostility is intimidating. Now, intimidation in a discussion breaks the rules of discourse. However at the societal level, intimidation isn’t always a bad thing. Intimidation is the vehicle of deterrence, and social order is maintained partially through deterrence. If outrage can convey the meaning ‘ignore us at your peril; engage with us on this issue because you and I have not reached consensus!’, then outrage can bring parties into a discourse when they might otherwise not bother.

In either way, outrage can also serve as a symbolic, popular expression around which others can rally, or coalesce into a true social or political movement in the most extreme of cases. As the events of the past two months have shown us, an expression of rage can begin a process that topples regimes.

If any of us are going to show some outrage, I suggest that we first consider our goals, and swallow our anger if we don’t think that we’re contributing to a situation of unfettered and honest debate, either through communicating our feelings within a discussion or by demanding that others enter into a discussion. Raging nonstop is counterproductive (and irritating as hell for others) and intimidating people into silence is illiberal. Outrage should therefore be seen as a tool in pursuit of discourse, be it with those personally close to you or with the highest leaders of your government.


2 responses to “Discourse and Legitimate Outrage

  1. shiningsol March 8, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    You said, “[Outrage] says ‘I really care about this situation’ and that is enough to make politicians and friends alike pause and consider their actions. This could make a future discussion more productive, so long as the outrage-expression is discrete and doesn’t continue too long.”

    First, I wonder, is this the most likely interpretation of outrage? Ideally, I suppose. It would be interesting to think about what “legitimate and beneficial” outrage can look like. How do you distinguish it from mere, degrading epithets? In what ways can outrage be constructed as more than an expression of undisciplined slander? Perhaps of more concern, is it possible to use outrage as a tactic to raise awareness and stir passions without inciting anger that dismisses conversation for the seeming relief of impetuous action? If so, how, when, where, and in which circles of discourse – if discourse can even be partitioned, which remains a question, it seems.

  2. Said Simon March 8, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    What other interpretations of outrage can there be, in your opinion. As I indicated, outrage is legitimate when it is a tool for expanding discourse, and it is beneficial when it achieves that goal. ‘Mere degrading epithets’ sounds to me like maliciousness devoid of the feelings of moral offense that I described as defining outrage. Hence the difference between outrage and ‘undisciplined slander’ is in its intent and in the feelings that drive its expression. And I think it is demonstrably possible to raise awareness through expressions of outrage. It has been a major part of liberalisation campaigns in many autocratic countries, and part of the civil rights movement, to name only two examples.

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