The outrage brigade: ‘Getting offended is a choice’

Coping: We are more egotistical and less kind when placed at a remove from one another

Outraged people tend not to be brave

Outraged people tend not to be brave

 

In your day-to-day life, you will rarely see instances of blustering, debilitating outrage in reaction to statements or opinions, however offensive they might be. It certainly does happen, but not very often and it is usually limited to situations where the outraged party feels bolstered by a group. Outraged people tend not to be brave – they are signalling their own nobility loudly enough for everyone to register it. It is as though we think that our rage at a perceived injustice is in direct proportion to our goodness as a person.

It seems self-evidently wise to approach interpreting the statements of others in the most charitable way possible.

Our anger can come from a place of good intent, but in an online space, seems to convert to a kind of blood sport, where a perceived wrongdoer will be mercilessly pursued by a froth-mawed horde. Most people are polite on the street, and will give the benefit of the doubt to someone who jostles them (where you dance about each other as you try to get by, laughing in a “well, really aren’t we very silly?” kind of way). Often, those same people, when given the barrier and power of a car between them and the other person, will become aggressive, rude and self-important. We are more egotistical and less kind when placed at a remove from one another.

It seems self-evidently wise to approach interpreting the statements of others in the most charitable way possible. By this, I do not mean that we should give a free pass to people who say terrible things, rather that we should not look for the least charitable interpretation of their statement, where possible. If I were to say “Women are all stupid”, you would have a tough time finding a charitable interpretation of that statement; it’s likely that I would be a bigot. However, if I were to say “I agree with this study that says children’s toy choices are inherently gendered”, it would be wrong of you to dismiss me as a bigot who only cited the study to forward my ‘sexist agenda’ – you would have to examine whether there is evidence for my perspective first.

Harsh judgment

Rather than intuiting the intent behind another person’s statements and self-righteously presuming that we know what someone else really means when they make a statement relating to something we care about, we could think more. “Am I presuming that they mean something terrible when it is possible that they don’t?”, “Should I question them on what they mean before making a harsh judgment?”

Two things must happen for us to feel outrage about something another person says. First, we must be convinced that our opinion is right. Second, we must be fixed in that opinion. We are usually most blinkered in the areas we feel most passionately about. Ask yourself, “What is the strongest possible example of evidence that would change my mind on this topic?”

We can all be tempted, when hurt, to think “What is the most damaging thing I can say here to hurt this individual in return?”, but this is a shameful tendency that we need to squash as much as possible.

For example, let us say that someone believes very deeply that OJ Simpson didn’t commit the murders he was accused of. If you ask them “What evidence would you need to be completely convinced that he did it?”, they might reply “CCTV footage of him committing the crime”.

Let us say that by some coincidence such footage existed, and you found and showed it to our skeptic. If they then replied “Oh well, that could be fake”, they have reneged on their own commitment. They are now ignoring precisely the evidence that they stipulated would change their mind. In reality, their mind is fixed – no matter what information, evidence or argument they encounter, they will not change their view.

We often presume objectivity to our view, or that it is truer in some way than someone else’s, and will make every lazy presumption necessary to confirm that bias, getting very emotional. This is a descent into solipsism and we should take great pains to avoid it.

We can all be tempted, when hurt, to think “What is the most damaging thing I can say here to hurt this individual in return?”, but this is a shameful tendency that we need to squash as much as possible. Getting offended is a choice, and outrage is the fire of our own offence that we feed into an inferno.

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