September 16, 2018

Patterns of outrage

This post is part of a series focused on political persuasion. Others in the series are linked from an introductory overview.

Present-day politics are commonly governed by negative emotions, such as fear, anger and disgust. So says conventional wisdom, and I agree. Analyzing these surging emotions is difficult, but here’s a framework that I think could help:

A huge fraction of significant modern politics boils down to outrage at patterns of events.

1. My best argument for focusing specifically on outrage is this — political issues sort roughly into three buckets: 

The impact of outrage can be traced through most of recorded history. Riots and revolutions are commonly driven by outrage. Recorded riots go back to ancient times. Revolutions — for example the American, Russian and Chinese ones — shaped the modern world.

2. What is this “outrage” of which we speak? Dictionary definitions describe outrage as a strong, negative reaction to one or more of:

What that really boils down to is that outrage is the combination of two things — anger and a story about its target.

3. Also simple and amenable to modeling is the view that outrage amounts to:

Major classes of transgression include:

Perceived villains can include, for example: individual politicians, political parties, specific regulatory agencies, the “government” in general, big corporations, the “media”, rich people in general (or just the “super-rich”), or “global/coastal” “elites” in general.

Perceived victims might be grouped in categories such as race, class, region, gender, age or religion.

4. Now we get to some paradoxes. Outrage often seems ridiculous, as people get upset about seemingly trivial things yet stay calm about much bigger ones. Accordingly, political partisans feast on arguments like “If you’re outraged about A, it’s hypocritical to the max that you aren’t also outraged about B”. Indeed, a word has been coined for such arguments: Whataboutism.

The obvious explanation is this: Outrage about a specific incident usually isn’t just or mainly about that event. More commonly, it’s about a general pattern that that event or other happening supposedly represents. (The metaphor of the “final straw” that “broke the camel’s back” will sometimes apply.) Illustrative examples include:

Non-political examples may occur to anyone who’s ever been in a long-term romantic relationship. 🙂

5. But that analysis takes us to a second paradox, or at least a conundrum: If outrage is all about specific incidents triggering strong responses to patterns that have long seemed established, what actually pushes somebody over the edge into outraged fury?

That is a central question in all of politics. I wrote this series of posts largely to raise it … and also to lay groundwork for future answers. Please stay tuned.


One Response to “Patterns of outrage”

  1. Patterns of political persuasion | Strategic Messaging on September 16th, 2018 3:11 am

    […] points are spelled out across several posts, with subjects that include fear, outrage, or negative emotions in […]

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