We have entered upon an era of outrage. Every perceived transgression (no matter how slight, no matter how inconsequential) instantly becomes the next cataclysm. Rhetoric has been reduced to its most flamboyant but least credible component: hyperbole. But those wielding such overwrought exaggeration refuse to acknowledge it as such. To exaggerate is the new normal and this transforms hyperbole into supposed statements of fact.
While this is clearly becoming a global phenomenon and poisoning the world stage, the culture of outrage attains a bitter clarity in the United States of the Trump era. Public debate and rational discourse is losing ground to histrionics. The ad hominem argument, traditionally considered a logical fallacy, has gained a cultural acceptance and a widespread tacit approval that boggles the mind trained in the arts of logic and rhetoric.
To take only the most blatantly absurd examples: Trump feels no need to assail the arguments of his opponents, he merely labels his interlocutors “losers” and their positions “sad” and “pathetic”. This is not a reasoned or reasonable assessment of anything, of course. What’s more, no one thinks that it is. No one would seriously put forth that Trump has in these many instances made an argument worth evaluating. However, there is a certain power in that word “pathetic” applied in this manner. It casts withering aspersion without specifying the transgression; it asks those who already agree with the assessment to supply the reason behind it.
In other words, his supporters are not supposed to believe that Trump has made a rational claim but rather that he has implied one –one so blatantly obvious to those who are awake to the political situation that it goes without saying. What really happens, of course, is that these supporters infer the underlying rationale and since that rationale is whatever they already believe, they feel they own that argument in a manner that is psychologically compelling. They are asked to do the work, Trump takes the credit.
All of this would be rather laughable and easily dismissed given a modicum of emotional distance but that is precisely what the culture of outrage will not allow. Everything is a crisis. Every occurrence requires a vociferous response — not debate, not discussion, but a response from a fortified position that will brook no compromise. We have drawn so many lines in the sand that we are eroding the beach. I don’t know if the left and the right in the US has pulled further apart in recent years (accounts differ depending on the expert at hand) but it is clear that the rhetoric, not only of politics but of everyday life, has reached an emotional boiling point; rhetoric as the art of persuasion gives way to a kind of hysterical verbal catharsis. But whereas catharsis is meant to purge the body and soul of unhealthy and unwanted emotion, we cultivate that negativity, we forge it into the armor that protects us from the unwanted incursions of the dreaded enemy — that enemy who is actually merely our neighbor.
We mistake outrage for righteous indignation. Etymology, however, clarifies the distinction and the poison that lies obscured within outrage. “Outrage” ultimately comes from the Latin prefix “ultra-“, meaning “beyond” and here connoting the excessive, coupled with “rage” deriving from the Latin “rabies”, meaning “madness” (the same source for the name of the disease that induces a kind of madness in its victims). Thus, to be outraged is to occupy a state of being that is beyond madness. If madness already involves the loss of rationality, then outrage is the irrational taken into the realm of the Sublime.
And yet, outrage is not only a typical rhetorical approach these days, it’s even demanded of those that do not appear to get outraged quickly enough. If a public figure doesn’t immediately weigh in on whatever incident with moral outrage and condemnation, that figure is labeled feckless or complicit. A recent example come to mind. When Kathy Griffin posted a picture of herself dressed in a “pussy bow” blouse holding a mockup of the bloodied, decapitated visage of President Trump, she clearly intended to shock and shock she did. What is striking is that everyone with a Twitter feed (and even plenty without) felt called upon to publicly state their shock and outrage while those figures who didn’t immediately join the throng of voices hurling invective had their integrity called into question.
The fact is that this was a minor stunt by a minor celebrity who has made a career out of provocation of the most banal type. Does it really require this much attention and vilification? Was it really that beyond the pale for a comic that bills herself as a more abrasive version of Joan Rivers? I’m not arguing it was an acceptable image or should be condoned. I’m not arguing that she shouldn’t face financial consequences for her actions (that is, losing gigs, etc.). But did it really require that many voices to decry the provocations of a provocateur (and someone who has, like far too many, found it quite profitable to simply provoke people into kneejerk reactions)?
Or is it more likely that the plethora of denunciations was an expected form of public performance on the part of many of these public figures and celebrities, a ritual of denial and opprobrium? Have we devolved to the point where our ethical standing depends not so much on the positive acts we carry out, the deeds we execute in the world, as it does upon our having been seen to heap shame on others? We have been victimized by Griffin’s utter lack of taste (when has she ever shown taste? — her tastelessness is her stock-in-trade) so we cry foul and we must have witnesses that will testify to our outrage.
Outrage, of course, simply begets more outrage. Griffin’s wonderfully tone-deaf response to the kerfuffle (after a rather ridiculous apology that more or less amounted to “sorry you didn’t find it funny”) was to hold a press conference in which she claimed to be the victim: the victim of Trump’s endeavors to run her out of town on a rail and, more broadly, the victim of the patriarchy’s continuing efforts to undermine the status of women in the public sphere.
This attempt (on both sides) to gain some kind of moral high ground by casting aspersions on someone you characterize as an oppressor while you play yourself up as a victim is our contemporary version of Nietzsche’s notion of ressentiment. It’s what Nietzsche terms “slave morality”, involving an intrinsically negative assessment of the world with an implicit claim to superiority. This is a superiority forged out of an awareness of inferiority and an exteriorization of the pain that this inferiority creates. The world is a debased realm and my recognition of its depravity is my claim, however slender, to virtue.
For Nietzsche, “slave morality” was a way for the weak to gain control over the strong. It was a disingenuous power move. The weak takes the very characteristics that lead to strength and boldness and success, and they label those characteristics sinful. Bravery becomes brutishness while cowardice becomes righteous self-denial. Ressentiment stifles all action and hinders progress. Positive action is replaced by negative criticism — not incisive criticism that seeks to uncover the deeper meaning of its object but an empty criticism that foists labels upon its object and then behaves as though those labels fully explain the object rather than serve as tools for its exploration. A culture founded on ressentiment is a culture that executes a levelling-down of society, it strangles life and freedom, it represses wonder and curiosity.
On the other hand, ressentiment and outrage are huge selling points. At least since Sergei Diaghilev’s mantra of “étonne-moi”, artists have employed provocation as a primary means of generating interest and profit. But works that depend utterly upon mere provocation are often childish stunts. The problem with Public Theatre’s current production of Julius Caesar is not that it depicts Trump in the title role (and thus we witness the assassination of our president — in a play, by the way, that hardly condones assassination as a viable political remedy); the problem is that this device is derivative, trite, and banal. Past figures rendered as Caesar in renditions of Shakespeare’s play include Margaret Thatcher, President Obama, Tony Blair, Huey Long, and Hitler (in a production by Orson Welles — probably starting this now rather tired trend). The problem with Jordan Wolfon’s virtual-reality work, Real Violence, at the Whitney Museum, is not that it graphically depicts a horrendous and brutal murder but rather that it presents provocation as a carnival ride of endurance (can you last the 90 seconds of barbarism? Hold on to the rails provided!).
The Wolfson piece is telling. It’s kitsch presented as serious discourse. But there’s no discourse involved. Savagery is simply the new roller coaster. We go for the ride and see if we can take it. Afterward, we are rewarded with that now familiar and comforting feeling of outrage. How dare such things happen! Or how dare the artist depict such things! Perhaps such cultural moments — the Griffin photo, the Trump Julius Caesar, the Wolfson piece — should simply evoke shrugs of indifference from us. After all, we have seen it before—again and again and again. How many times can we honestly be provoked by the same things before they are no longer provocative? Why are we so eager to be provoked, to be enraged?
Outrage doesn’t provide clarity. Notice how easily the eyes shut when the mouth is contorted into a scream. Outrage simplifies. The outraged need not listen, need not consider, need not think. The outraged merely react and they feel virtuous in doing so. Discourse gives way to talking points and we no longer hear each other. We resort to convenient labels reducing everything to such epithets as “sad” and “pathetic” while we perform the pantomime of outrage, traveling ever deeper into the beyond of our collective madness.