David Bouchier: A Modest Complaint

Mar 26, 2018

Nobody loves a complainer. Complaining is a whiny, weak, ineffective habit, not likely to produce any result except irritation. The modern world demands something more. A grievance must be inflated until it reaches the level of outrage, at which point it becomes worthy of media attention. Residents’ complaints over (say) broken elevators in a public housing project are not worth any attention. Anger, outrage, and perhaps violence over discrimination that leaves poor people to struggle up flights of stairs in the summer heat quickly attracts the cameras and the commentators, already pumped up with fury on their behalf – an emotion that is about as real as the passion of an actor playing King Lear.

The news media seem far more emotional and less rational than they were even twenty years ago. Television commentators rage against some injustice or other every day on the evening news. In normal life they are probably perfectly reasonable people, but on TV they are the very incarnation of public indignation about problems that they, or you, orI, cannot possibly do anything about. Like Howard Beale in the movie Network they cry: “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.” But they do take “it,” whatever it is, because outrage is a fire that must never be allowed to go out.

This public catharsis makes readers and viewers feel good. Not only does it tell us what we should be angry about today, but it gives us the reassuring feeling that something has been accomplished. How could so much public anger not accomplish something? We feel morally improved and self-righteous because we heard about it, and shared the indignation.

Preachers and politicians use the same device. Synthetic indignation gets people on their side. If some red-faced blowhard is almost apoplectic with righteous anger onscreen there must be a good reason for it. There isn’t. The man – it's usually a man - is out of control, or putting on an act that is all too-well calculated. The trouble with outrage is that it is blind, like loyalty or faith. People performing outrage don’t want to conciliate or negotiate, they want to fight. And in the end, they often do.

It puts the more reasonable parts of the population – the vast majority of us - at a psychological disadvantage. We can’t very well be outraged about not being outraged. We can’t build a winning argument on the basis that things aren’t as bad as they seem, or that some modest improvements might be made. Any such thoughtful suggestions will be drowned out by the growls and shrieks of the professionally outraged.  

Anger is exciting, and it's always bad for us. So let’s end with a gem of wisdom on this subject from the 18th century conservative writer Edmund Burke, who knew a thing or two about extreme politics, and who lived in a century in which rational thought was highly valued. He wrote: “Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation and foresight can build up in a hundred years.” Burke was wrong about a lot of things but, for more than two turbulent centuries, he has been absolutely right about that.

Copyright: David Bouchier