I was thinking that one silver lining to the Coronavirus cloud would be less outrage on social media and in the tabloids – something that I find really gets me down. I thought that we would be free of this for a while because we’d all be thinking about looking after each other. What I mean by outrage is the annual cycle: “Climate Change is clearly false as we have snow”, outrage about Easter Eggs (eg being in the shops too early), outrage that we can’t fly the St George’s flag around St George’s Day, summer holidays being spoilt for some reason (traffic, foreigners), peak annual outrage around Remembrance and poppies, outrage around Christmas being spoilt for some reason (probably secularisation or Muslim people).
Then when there is a lull in seasonal outrage, this gap is filled in by outrage about a particular group – the group changes slowly over the years but in recent decades has included: youths with hoodies, benefit scroungers, migrants, single mothers, gay people…
The thing is I was wrong. It is true that people have given the weather and Easter eggs a miss this year but it has been replaced by outrage about panic buyers (particularly toilet roll buyers), in addition to outrage about youths who are breaking the rules about social distancing, and also theft and daylight robbery with respect to hand sanitiser.
In my slightly delirious state, whilst beginning to recover from Coronavirus, I tried to unpick why my pet peeve is outrage. Why do I find it so intolerable?
I think there are two reasons. The first is it creates division. After 911 there was extreme outrage about Islamic extremism that caused such destruction and loss of life. But the outrage in turn caused hate crimes against anyone who looked like they might be Arabic in descent (I know of Christians with Indian descent who had to leave the States because of this). Outrage is a form of tribalism – to be in my gang you have to agree with me and share my outrage, or risk expulsion. Given that I have spent much of my life being the outsider, I find it painful to see a process that magnifies difference and exclusion.
The second reason is that outrage can be self-righteous; the rhetoric seems to be that the people who hoard toilet rolls are beyond the pale, scum of the earth, I would never do such a thing. There is a distancing once again. I immediately start thinking: “Really? Have you never done anything selfish? Have you never acted unwisely out of fear? Have you never fiercely wanted to protect your children like a ferocious mother bear?” Surely we are all sinners, none of us are clean. Sometimes I feel the outrage is suspect in “the lady doth protest too much” way – when we express outrage, are we covering up a fear of our own shortcomings?
Also, I find outrage so un-British. I am secretly proud of being part of a race who use understatement and wit to communicate. Whilst it is endlessly frustrating to my American and German friends, I am unapologetic. I love the jokes about Brits and our maximum anger level being expressed in the term “a bit miffed”. Outrage really messes this up for me. I like to think that civility is an important part of our national identity.
But of course, I am a hypocrite – I am fine with outrage when I agree with it – outrage about inequality or prejudice or cruelty is fair game as far as I am concerned. And outrage creates social change. The outrage against the behaviour of Harvey Weinstein has almost certainly redrawn the moral map about what behaviours are acceptable from a man in power towards women in without power, and that has made life a little safer for women.
In Galatians 5, Paul explains how to live well in the Spirit. Verses 18-23 are below, but I have edited out the debauch sins as I think they can be distracting:
The acts of the flesh are obvious: hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
I am open to the idea that there is occasionally a place for outrage in our society, but I also think it needs to be tempered with love, forbearance, kindness, gentleness and self-control. Let us all ask the Holy Spirit to grow these precious fruits within us during this stressful time.