The recent #DeleteUber campaign provides a useful example of moral outrage. As Matthew Dessem details at Slate, amid protests to the Trump administration’s refugee ban at JFK International Airport, The New York Taxi Workers Alliance stopped service for an hour in a show of solidarity. When Uber subsequently announced its surge pricing at JFK had been turned off, many interpreted this as a move to break up the strike, and thus, as anti-refugee. The #DeleteUber hashtag then began trending on Twitter, with people encouraging others to delete the app from their phone.
— Susan Sarandon (@SusanSarandon) January 30, 2017
Brand protests are nothing new, of course and as Dessem prefaces his piece by noting “a lot of reasons to not use the ride-hailing app Uber,” among them “shoddy labor practices” and “attempts to strong arm local governments.” For those inclined to #DeleteUber, I wonder why these did not provide the imperative to moral outrage? But from a logical point of view, I could also question why they have smartphones at all, given the likelihood that their phone manufacturer uses component parts that are the result of child labor.
In “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau writes, “I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man, or a musket to shoot one with—the dollar is innocent, but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance.” I’ve always been struck by this quote and what it implies about ethical dissent, or more particularly, whether such dissent is even possible. Thoreau is less concerned with what his particular dollar buys than with what it symbolizes, a tacit approval of state sanctioned violence and oppression (meaning, for Thoreau, the Mexican War and slavery).
I admit, even in these times in which we live, I rarely find myself moved to anything like true moral outrage. I find myself paralyzed by that word, “trace.” I wonder which of my first-world creature comforts make me culpable in global misery, which don’t, and how I might possibly begin to untangle that web. I wonder how I could deign to take on a position of self-righteousness in the face of my ignorance. As a PhD student, my research interests are satire, religious skepticism, and free speech. Censorship, then, is perhaps the most frequent in moving me to that positon, towards posting some long-winded rant on social media, for example. And each such instance is inevitably followed by private feelings of embarrassment—that I’ve indulged one instance of outrage, where I’ve lived in happy ignorance of a thousand outrages, many of these of far greater breadth.
For most of the #DeleteUber folks, they remain blissfully unaware of Uber’s labor and business practices, or whether their phone’s affordability hinges on the exploitation of 13-year-olds.
In his 1993 article, “Some Observations on Psychological Process Among Organized American Opponents to the Gulf War,” Ted Goertzel notes the case of the Gulf Peace Team activists, who:
[S]et up a peace camp on the border between occupied Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Their goal was to prevent a war between the United States and Iraq by interposing their bodies between the two armies . . . The Peace Team illustrates the selective outrage characteristic of some peace activists. They felt no obligation to protest the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, nor did they make any statement about the reports of Iraqi atrocities in that country. Peace Team member Agnes Bauerlein told this writer that the Peace Team members were completely unaware of the allegations of Iraqi atrocities which were widely broadcast at the time. They were isolated in the Iraqi desert without any access to the news media.
Ironically then, the moral outrage of these activists blinded them to the existence of other moral outrages. They put themselves in a position, physically in this case, that kept them ignorant.
We see this play out in a more figurative sense all the time, the response to the refugee ban being no exception. In a social media post denouncing the ban, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill observes:
If you want to know what the consequences of the ban are likely to be for people fleeing desperate situations, you don’t have to look back to Nazi Germany — you just have to look back to last year when the Obama administration suddenly and cruelly stopped the arrival of refugees from Haiti.
He likewise commented on liberal indifference to Obama’s support for the bombing of Yemen and Yemeni civilian casualties. We could similarly question the seeming lack of moral outrage in relation to the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes, its policy on extrajudicial killings, its efforts in Syria, or its other military catastrophes, like the erroneous airstrike on a civilian hospital in Kunduz that killed 42 people .
None of this is to suggest that the moral outrage that has resulted from the refugee ban (and which looks likely to dog the Trump administration for the duration), is wrong, or that the impulse for moral outrage is necessarily unhealthy. My fixation on moral tracing might charitably be described as moral discernment, but could as easily be called moral meekness. It’s the there-are-starving-children-in-Africa fallacy (we might also call this the there-are-bigger-fish-to-fry fallacy), which paralyzes us into inaction by insisting there are more pressing matters. And of course, there are always more pressing matters (even if Thoreau insisted we could successfully extricate ourselves from all moral culpability, which seems unlikely, he recognized that, practically speaking, we can’t fight all wrong in all places at all times).
On the other end of the spectrum though, if we are passive in our moral outrage, only reacting to what happens to catch our attention, or our moral outrage only extends so far as our partisan politics, and we react to only what is allowed to pierce our partisan bubbles, or if our moral outrage is wielded disproportionately (e.g. reacting with the same fervor to a humanitarian crisis as to some Oscars controversy), we run the risk of both moral arrogance and sacrificing our moral credibility.
Much like I try to match my scholarly beliefs with intellectual humility, I rather hope to match my moral outrage with moral humility. Even Thoreau recognized the necessity of such humility, offering his own caveat, “This, then is my position at present. But one cannot be too much on his gaur in such a case, lest his actions be biased by obstinacy or an undue regard for the opinions of men.”
Patrick Chambers is a PhD candidate in Literature and Criticism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.