Moral outrage: the groundwork for authoritarianism

by The Editor

ARTICLE: Often South Africa seems willingly to throw itself into a fit of moral outrage about something incidental. We are currently in the process of doing exactly that, this time about the word ‘refugee’ and what it means. And so it is worth taking some time to try and objectively understand what moral outrage is, its nature and form. In the short piece below, I try to identify its general characteristics.

Moral outrage: the groundwork for authoritarianism

By: Gareth van Onselen

29 March 2012

There is much in this world to be rightfully morally outraged about. Genocide, slavery, torture, poverty; all of these things constitute a violent affront to our sense of what is good and just, and deserve our collective condemnation.

Too often though, societies fail properly to distinguish between those more fundamental concerns and that which, although in and of itself might amount to some injustice, pales in comparison. Macro injustices and micro infractions, murder and mischief, are awarded the same moral standing and thus, the same vociferous response. Much time and energy is spent being outraged at those things that should fail to register in any meaningful way on one’s moral compass.

In order that morally justifiable outrage be distinguished from its unthinking and often self-righteous counterpoint, it must be grounded in a set of democratic values and principles, against which the subject of that outrage is gauged. Detached from those values the ‘moral’ part of ‘moral outrage’ is lost and that which remains it merely invective: unrestrained hysteria perpetuated by moralisers, which accompanies their umbrage at some or other ostensible offence. Sadly, in many societies, such outrage is an ascendant force.

What defines this uncontrolled indignation? Three things. First, it is hysterical. Its language is loaded with hyperbole, its claims exaggerated and its logic unconstrained by rational consideration or evidence to the contrary. Because it overextends itself, to the outside observer not caught up in its feeding frenzy, ungrounded moral outrage is quite often both disturbing and humorous. Little wonder then, that when two such furious forces meet, the resultant exchange is usually reduced to nothing more than an exercise in exponentially upping the ante. In no time at all reason is outlawed all together and all that remains is wild, unfounded accusation. Or that such moral outrage lends itself to absolutism: Something is either completely good or utterly bad, unquestionably right or unspeakably wrong; us and them. That is the groundwork on which authoritarianism is built.

Second, it is generally unprincipled. Because it is impulsive, the consequence of some unthinking response to a raw emotional urge, it is not grounded in a coherent set of values or ideals, despite its vociferous claims to the contrary. It is a moment unto itself; a fit of pique. The reasons for this vary. Sometimes, it is because the departure point was not a principled concern. Other times, because the principle at stake was misunderstood. Most often it is some combination of the two.

Third, and by extension, its consequences are often absurdly undemocratic. And how could they not be if, by its very nature, it is the aggressive amplification of amoral indignation? No good can come of that.

Taken seriously, the implications inherent in any morally outraged threat (for that is what such bluster is; a threat) represent to the mature society a great danger. This is ironic. For so often the morally outraged purport to be acting in defence of those civil liberties we enjoy, rather than against them. On closure inspection, however, censorship and suppression inevitably lie at the heart of the morally outraged agenda.

In order that those implications might be lifted above the absolutism that such outrage surrounds itself in and the principles at play are properly identified, one is obliged to take it seriously – a catch-22 situation for those that would speak out against it: engage with it and risk giving it a legitimacy it does not deserve or remain silent and risk its compelling nonsense being endorsed.

Reason not irrationality should be the guide by which we exercise our judgement. Evidence not rhetoric should be gauge by which we measure the veracity of a claim. Logic not sensation should be the framework by which we craft an argument; and principled position not political correctness should be rationale by which we arrive at a position. If those are the rules by which we wish our collective conversations to conducted, then we should be compelled to counter moral outrage’s effect and re-establish the cogent ideas and rational argument that best defines public debate.

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