A whirlwind of political actions and responses has overwhelmed many of us over the past few months in the United States. Almost everyone seems to be outraged about something. Some are outraged at Trump’s attempt to ban people from entering the US, his cabinet and staff selections, and various other statements and actions he has made, while others express outrage at the responses to Trump, from filing lawsuits to protesting physically. What does all of the outrage accomplish, besides exhausting everyone involved?
Expressions of outrage often contribute to the construction of groups. When Bill Maher, to much applause from his audience, thanked Trump in November because Trump “exposed evangelicals, who are big Trump supporters, as the shameless hypocrites they’ve always been” (see clip below), Maher’s assertion of outrage identified evangelicals as the opposition to those who, like Maher, opposed Trump. By associating two issues, the outrage encouraged people who agreed with Maher’s politics to join his opposition to groups whom he identifies as religious. A similar correlation can be found in statements critiquing the marches and protests following Trump’s inauguration. People have expressed outrage that the signs and speeches were vulgar and hateful. For example, the Federalist website highlighted elements of the Women’s March that it deemed problematic, even warning that their description included “vulgar and sexually graphic content.” These expressions attempt to combine people uncomfortable with public discussions of sexuality with Trump supporters. Thus, expressions of outrage used emotional responses to unite people with some similar positions against a caricatured Other.
Adopting the conception that all identifications are strategic constructions shifts our focus from debating the accuracy and justification of the outrage to analyzing its strategic selectivity. People focus their outrage selectively on opponents, often remaining silent or giving the benefit of the doubt to like-minded people who act in similar ways. The outrage, therefore, serves to delegitimize opponents. That appears to be exactly Maher’s goal, to delegitimize Trump and evangelicals who support him by expressing a sense of outrage at the hypocrisy and double standard, and thereby mobilizing like-minded people. In this selectivity, the outrage reflects the interests and alliances of those expressing it, rather than an automatic revulsion. Further, this selectivity contributes to a sense of moral superiority that the “justified” outrage generates, promoting the construction and maintenance of a group (and an opponent). “They” are hypocrites; “our group” is reasonable and morally superior.
However, to succeed this moral superiority must overlook its own selective, generalized view of the world. Maher lumps evangelicals into one group, even though some who have identified as evangelicals have specifically disavowed the policies of this administration. Similarly, those outraged over the vulgarity and destruction in a few protests have often remained silent about (or dismissed as peripheral) the violence associated with some of the campaign rallies of their candidate.
While solidifying one group, the outrage can also enhance their opponent’s position. As Tom Nichols wrote a few weeks ago, expressing outrage at everything that Trump has done can solidify Trump’s support, especially when the outrage is inconsistent or over-exaggerated. Similarly, the hypocrisy critique from Maher ironically legitimizes his opponents, as it assumes a fixed, inherent meaning to “evangelical” and ignores how elements we commonly identify as religions or philosophical schools or ideologies are fluid constructions. People use these socially constructed categories to establish boundaries and declare particular ideas and activities as distinct, even special. The content within these categories is not fixed but shifting according to the needs of those presenting it. Yet, the charge of hypocrisy requires that a consistent content exists, justifying the outrage that people do not maintain that constructed consistency, and reinforcing Maher’s opponents conception that evangelical Christianity involves a substantial, fixed system.
Rather than focusing on how justified or accurate the outrage is, analyzing what the outrage accomplishes for the people expressing it can be particularly helpful. Recognizing the ways expressions of outrage construct groups, stereotype opponents, and legitimize people you oppose can enhance both academic analysis and the effective expression of your outrage, for whatever outrage you feel.
Photo: protestors march in the Woman’s March on Washington D.C. Jan. 21, 2017. (National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Daniel Gagnon, JTF-DC). Public domain.