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Tuesday, August 3, 2021

In Other Words: Exhausted By Constant Outrage Numbs Us To Real Issues

A sign I saw in a coffee shop in Wisconsin.

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By Chuck Keller 

I learned a long time ago that I can only control my actions and reactions. I can’t control other people or the natural world around me, but I can do little things that will feed into a larger solution; things like recycle, wear a mask, use a cloth grocery bag, be polite, get vaccinated, and try to be a good person. I will fail at this because I am human, but I am willing to try again. In baseball a player gets another chance even if he strikes out. That same attitude should apply to everyday life. I can’t change the world, but I can change my little piece of it. 

People are cranky. We recently returned from a road trip and many of the services that we needed were short-handed. We saw lots of signs that indicated that customers took their dissatisfaction and anger out on the employee who happened to show up that day.  Our world is changing quickly and  those new demands put us under stress and when we are under stress, well, we do things that we will probably regret. 

Like so many, I’m exhausted by outrage. There it is in my newsfeed, internet posts, newspaper headlines, television shows. We should be outraged by the way humans treat each other but we should also be working to address those problems.  Identifying a real issue and a manufactured issue seems to be blurring. Yelling does not fix the issue. This period of time will be known as the Age of Rage.

I read several newspapers daily to catch up on politics, literature, arts, science, and environment and it is easy to fall into the Pit of Outrage. From what I saw on television as a youth I thought that quicksand would be the sure death of us all. It was a convenient way to punish a character. A quicksand pit would suddenly appear on a trail to suck a person into a horribly wet and sandy death. Why the trail crossed a quicksand pit is baffling but there it was. The character would flail their arms only to sink below the surface wiggling fingers as a sign for help or apology. I was never quite sure. Usually, his hat floated on the spot. That scared the youthful me. 

The reality is that you don’t die from quicksand although the possibility exists because you are more likely to die from hypothermia since most people don’t sink beyond their waists. Sand is more dense than the human body. And a death from exposure is probably the ironically appropriate fix for many outrage issues.  

At first the expression of outrage seems good. We express our anger, frustration, and our moral indignity. It is often a quick reaction. But then someone will inevitably turn the topic to vengeance or harm to a perceived offender. That’s when things get scary. After all, the Catholic Church was outraged with Galileo when he said that the Earth was not the center of the universe. He earned life imprisonment. It took 400 years to apologize for that one. Any more I study the person who is outraged to see, like a magician, what the other hand is doing. Outrage has become a deflection, an intentional misdirection. 

Recently, my sister witnessed an event that made me think of this. We met for lunch at a little restaurant on remote Washington Island in Lake Michigan. The Internet service is spotty at best so restaurants rely on Venmo, cash, and check more than using the Internet to verify a charge. She heard the customer’s frustration with the lack of service. The owner told the man to enjoy his lunch. At first the owner’s comment seemed a bit callous but we later discovered that the customer was not accustomed to the island custom and wanted to pay immediately. The customer expressed his outrage at the lack of modern services but he learned that he was the target of genuine kindness. Even in overhearing part of the conversation, my sister imposed her values on an island custom and misread the situation. Once we realized the situation we were a bit embarrassed. This seems to happen in the world more often than not.

Orangetheory Fitness, Newport Pavilion. 

I really don’t see much sense in proselytizing anger or outrage. And like anything taken to extremes, it is not constructive. It destroys things.   

Outrage is a valuable emotion but it is also a manufactured and convenient story device. And today’s outrage seems to be following the same pattern. We don’t want to get sucked into that quicksand. At first it gets attention but after a while we grow numb to cries of outrage like how we have become numb to car alarms going off. Who pays attention? No one. Scream all you want about a problem but if you don’t do something about the problem then you have the same problem the little boy who cried “Wolf!” had. 

We can scream an outrage over any topic du jour but a situation won’t get any better unless we are wiling to get in there and do something. At one point the Cuyahoga River caught fire because it was so polluted. People were outraged. But instead of just yelling about it, folks got down to work to clean up the mess. It was hard work but it happened. That outrage turned into something positive. 

I’m not telling anyone what to believe or even how to behave. An essay can only examine a portion of an idea. It cannot examine a topic completely. It is thinking aloud that attempts to contribute a little to something larger. I am tired of outrage. My mother would be pleased that I now understand her admonition of “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don't say it.” 

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