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The Rage Against Selective Outrage

Sometimes people use it to mean pretend outrage, in which people cry “crocodile tears” over things that don’t really upset them.

· 7 min read
The Rage Against Selective Outrage

There’s a lot of outrage about selective outrage. If the Left and the Right agree on one thing it is that the other side routinely engages in selective expressions of outrage, and that they are terrible for doing this. To be selectively outraged is to be guilty – of irrationality at least, and probably of moral hypocrisy as well. Social media affords endless opportunities for “calling out” those who seem to exhibit these sins. Here I caution against this unproductive fascination with our opponents’ selective outrage. The standard of avoiding all selective outrage is psychologically unrealistic. And, ironically, most outrage about selective outrage turns out to be selective itself.

How much rage is “selective outrage”?

What is selective outrage? Sometimes people use it to mean pretend outrage, in which people cry “crocodile tears” over things that don’t really upset them. I think we should reserve the term for displays of outrage that are sincere, though disproportionate and lacking in intellectual integrity. The trouble is that our minds are awash with partisan bias. Partisanship colors perceptions of both what is proportionate and what can be believed with intellectual integrity, so it’s difficult to determine how much selective outrage exists.

The Conservapedia entry on selective outrage includes the lament that “Liberals scream bloody murder over the deaths of Cecil the Lion or Harambe the Gorilla, but applaud Planned Parenthood brutally murdering unborn babies and selling their organs.” Liberals are supposedly guilty of selective outrage because they applaud something outrageous (Planned Parenthood’s behavior) while being outraged at much less outrageous things (the deaths of Cecil and Harambe – I don’t believe their names include “the Lion” and “the Gorilla”).

Similarly, Jeff Schweitzer, writing for Huffington Post, observes that Republicans were outraged at Hillary Clinton for her handling of the September 11, 2012 Benghazi terrorist attacks which left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. They did not, however, display similar outrage in response to any of the 13 similar attacks that occurred under the Bush administration, which claimed at least 60 lives. This, according to Schweitzer, constitutes “hypocrisy at its worst.”

In both cases, the accusation of selective outrage amounts to little more than an accusation of error about what’s most outrageous. Perhaps the authors of the Conservapedia article have their priorities right; still, the juxtaposition of liberal reactions does nothing to show that liberal views are dishonest or hypocritical. Schweitzer, in accusing the Republicans of selective outrage, commits himself to the view that there are no relevant differences between the Benghazi incident and the other attacks he mentions that could explain the additional scrutiny. That is certainly not uncontroverted.

Some political differences are within the realm of reasonable disagreement. Anger that is the product of a reasonable opinion won’t count as “selective outrage” as I’ve defined it. Just how much disagreement is reasonable is itself a matter of reasonable disagreement. Political bias tends to make us underestimate the reasonableness of opinions we disagree with, but also to overestimate the reasonableness of our own opinions. Presumably, an opinion doesn’t have to be totally free of political bias in order to be reasonable. Otherwise reasonable opinions would be scarce.

What about outrage that is the product of unreasonable political opinion? Unreasonableness is morally blameworthy in my view only when it is a product of investigative negligence. That is, when a person has formed an opinion about something important without doing enough research given the time and resources at his disposal for this purpose. Many unreasonable opinions are the product of investigative negligence, but then many are not. I suspect you are even less well-equipped to determine whether an unreasonable belief is morally culpable than you are to determine whether or not it’s unreasonable.

With so many unknowns, we should be cautious about making accusations of selective outrage if this refers to expressions of outrage that are both unreasonable and morally blameworthy.

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Can outrage fail to be selective?

Uneven emotional responses might also result from differences in personality and experience. A person who raises funds to combat a rare disease that affects the life of a loved one doesn’t have to be deceived into thinking that her crusade is the most important cause in the world. This is because it is (plausibly) morally permissible to have projects that we are committed to even if they are not the most important ones we could be addressing.

Some philosophers, mostly utilitarians, argue for the counterintuitive position that there is an obligation to advance goodness to the greatest extent possible. They will deny that we are permitted to have non-optimal projects. Even if they are right, however, it doesn’t follow that our projects must be identical; they will differ because of people’s different abilities, interests, or connections make different projects optimal. Thus, what warrants one person’s outrage is not necessarily what warrants another. An elephant-researching zoologist might rightly be more concerned with the slaughter of elephants, whereas one focusing on gorillas might rightly focus on them.

If outrage influenced by bias seems inherently problematic, try to imagine what totally bias-free outrage would be like. The question of how outraged John should be about the Grenfell Tower fire in London seems underspecified pending more information about John. Does he know anyone who was harmed in the fire? Is he a citizen of the U.K.? What else is making demands on his emotional attention? What experiences are coloring his perception of the incident? Depending on the answers to these and other questions, an appropriate amount of outrage could be anything from a slight perturbation of consciousness to something so overwhelming that it triggers a breakdown.

The world’s capacity to produce outrages far outstrips the human capacity to respond emotionally to them. If you are psychologically normal and a loved one is wrongly convicted and executed for an atrocity he clearly did not commit, you will be about as outraged as it is possible for you to be. It would be unreasonable – indeed, incomprehensible – to demand that you be twenty-two times more outraged at the Manchester bombing, 15,000 times more outraged at the number of children who died of preventable diseases and malnutrition that day, 30 million times more outraged at Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and so forth.

I can imagine God expressing outrage at all of the sins of the world in a way that is completely general and proportionate. I can’t imagine a moral human being doing this, certainly not a psychologically normal human being, in a world so full of outrages. And these psychological and emotional limitations are probably a blessing. It would be unpleasant, even debilitating, to have a constant awareness of all of the evil in the world. Thus, the goal of evenly distributing and proportioning our outrage is neither achievable nor desirable.

A dialectical dead end

How troubled should we be that Black Lives Matter protestors become enraged when police in the U.S. shoot black men, but not when police shoot white men (more in fact) under similar circumstances? Or that conservatives react more strongly to terrorist incidents than to ordinary mass shootings with similar death tolls? I believe that the answer is “not very.” Many of these emotional differences are the products of divergent political views, some of which are reasonable. Differing experiences and life projects can also innocuously explain different levels of outrage. Finally, all outrage must be at least somewhat selective given the psychological limitations of human beings.

If what I’ve argued is correct, then a lot of people are needlessly working themselves into a froth of anger over supposed hypocrisies that turn out not to be hypocritical at all. None of this is to deny that hypocrisy exists. Surely it explains some of the patterns of outrage that we observe. But far too much mental and emotional energy is being expended trying to uncover these failings. If you succeed in locating a morally dubious inconsistency in someone’s social media fulminations, then you have the satisfaction of a “gotcha!” moment. But I suspect that calling someone a hypocrite, even deservedly, is unlikely to persuade. It may even cause him to double down.

Politicians and well-known commentators are more apt targets of this kind of scrutiny, partly because their statements carry a greater degree of significance. Even here, however, most criticisms worth making can be made without mention of selective outrage. If Trump calls the press liars when he himself is a liar, the real issue is his dishonesty, not his selective outrage. I recently criticized CU Boulder administrators for “encouraging” faculty to begin their classes with an anti-racist statement on Charlottesville when there had been no such demand response to similar atrocities. Here the issue, as I saw it, was obnoxious political activism, not selective outrage.

To those who remain unconvinced, I have a challenge: are you outraged by all instances of selective outrage that come to your attention? If so, then you expend an unreasonable amount of emotional energy being triggered by other people’s selective outrage. If not, then do you have a principled reason for why some instances of selective outrage, the especially outrageous ones, trigger you, but not others? Are these especially outrageous instances of selective outrage more outrageous than all other outrages that are vying for your outrage?

If you are unwilling or unable to impose this degree of consistency on your own condemnations of selective outrage then you are, by your own lights, a hypocrite. If this degree of consistency seems an unreasonable demand, then you should agree with me. There are many bad things in the world more deserving of your outrage than the selective outrage of others.

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