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The Politics of Outrage

February 25, 2009

by Patrick Atwater
The Politics of Outrage

Perhaps it’s just me, but I find it odd that the politically active of our campus found the need to continually recapitulate the Karl Rove protest that took place last semester. It seemed that nearly every other post on The Claremont Conservative had at least a parenthetical remark on the protest. And reading the comments, it appears that this did not fall on deaf ears. So why again did we spend so much time talking about this? Or consider Proposition 8, another blood boiling political issue. Facebook status updates were a stream of reactions (“Really California?”, “[blank] is so disappointed in California,” etc.) all converging on the idea that voting “yes” on Prop. 8 is unthinkable. It is not just that Californians voted against these Facebookers’ political preference. California screwed up. The state as a whole failed to make the right choice.

What these examples epitomize is a certain type of politics: the politics of outrage. In this politics, the overriding impetus is the perceived outrageousness the opposition’s view and the inability of others to realize the obvious clarity of the situation. Using outrage as the emotive impetus for engaging in politics lends to harsh posturing and screaming rhetoric.

Both sides in the politics of outrage betray a severe disdain for the other. It’s not just that the opposition is wrong—and oh they are—but that they are so irrevocably twisted by their ideology that they are blind to reason. Sad isn’t it? Lost among all this cursory antagonism is the fact that both sides betray the same ideological functionings: “I am right; you are pitifully deluded.” They are so certain in their view that they cannot imagine any reasonable basis for opposition, so they get outraged.

The two opposed camps in this empty debate exist in the same space, the politics of outrage. To attach a metaphor, they are two sides to the same coin. Yet just as the two sides of a coin do not represent the full range of possibility when there are many coins, the two opposed camps in the politics of outrage present a false dichotomy. They give us a false choice: “Yell with us or yell with them,” when in reality we don’t always need to yell.

Thus, the self-proclaimed champions of progressivism on our campus need a figure like Charles Johnson. (Put on the national level, what is the Daily Kos going to do with itself now that they don’t have President Bush to puff and pout about? Or remember how only a year or two ago conservative talk radio still felt the need to still talk about Clinton?) Without a clearly defined opposite, both sides are Don Quixote without windmills: just a sad old Spanish knight riding aimlessly across the Spanish countryside. But with him they are gallant, dashing, and the slayer of evil, conservative giants! So, paradoxically, Claremont’s progressive champions should be thanking Charles (ever so quietly) as they deride him.

That is not to say that some things do not deserve outrage.  It is outrageous that students interrupted the Karl Rove speech and damaged the CMC fountain while our administration watched. But who really still cares about the Karl Rove Protest? I’m going to go out on a limb and say there are bigger and more interesting issues for us to talk about. It is outrageous that we claim to be a pluralistic society and yet we incorporate particular views of the good when we demarcate fundamental liberties. But we live in a republic with a clear legal structure, and people get to vote how they like within that structure. We do not get to impose our view of the liberal state simply because we think it works perfectly in the abstract. We should, however, hesitate when unleashing the power of that outrage to make pronouncements totalizing particulars as bad and/or wrong. Such statements lend themselves more to bomb-throwing than profitable discourse, and in the extreme can lead to fundamentalism. Furthermore, like the boy who cried wolf, constant use of these totalizing pronouncements weakens our ability to deal with real, deserving outrages. I realize that perhaps this is inevitable, that maybe people are always going to yell needlessly about nonsense, but I will hold on to hope.

I will offer a humble suggestion about what this hope entails so that it is not just another empty (and reminiscent) slogan. Maybe this semester, rather than picking a new Karl Rove protest to get red in the face about, we can expend our political energies arguing productively about the proper role of the state in society and how to actualize that conception in reality.

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