Sunday, 12 November 2017

Outrage and opposition are not the same

Tabish Khair in The Hindu

I cannot say this online, I am sure, but I do not believe in getting publicly outraged. This does not mean that I do not feel privately outraged at times. I do. When one hears of a woman being raped, one feels outraged. When one hears of the most powerful man on earth reportedly discussing nuclear war options, one feels outraged.

And yet, it is one thing to feel outraged and another to act from outrage or even cultivate that self-righteous feeling of outrage. Because outrage is not opposition. Actually, it is not even rage. It is an ‘outing’ of rage.

Rage versus outrage

Rage is a problematic word: its etymology connects it to madness, violence, passion and fierceness in battle. Its uses, if they can be justified, are hazardous, and pertain to extreme circumstances. In Greek mythology, the consequences of human or semi-divine rage tend to be disastrous, even when the act of rage is seen as justified. However, rage has one purpose in extreme circumstances: it can get things done.

Outrage is not like rage: it is a venting of rage. When we are outraged, we basically let off steam. This is more so online. Its primary purpose is to make us feel good about ourselves. Unlike rage, it might not even get anything done. Because once we get outraged and post a few things or espouse a list, our attention wavers, and soon we have another matter to get publicly outraged about.

Like rage, outrage often leads to hasty action. In India as well as in Europe, people got outraged at the rumour of some women putting spells on their cattle or their person, and proceeded to burn the women as witches. Racists in the American south are known to have become outraged at some real or imagined slight by African Americans and lynched them. The list of innocent people persecuted, killed, burned, or lynched because otherwise decent people got publicly outraged is pretty long.

Unfortunately, outrage is particularly adaptable to online culture, where the dominant ethos is that of self-indulgence rather than an engagement with the other. By getting outraged, we signal to ourselves and others that we have the right views. We might also, by the very level of our outrage, absolve ourselves from a close examination of the matter and an organised effort (with others) to tackle the matter. Outrages tend to lead to nothing at all — or to witch-hunts.
By moving on from one outrage to another, we might also make it more difficult to address the root causes of the injustice, if it exists, behind our outrage. Outrage is expressive, reactive, wordy, fleeting. Opposition requires physical action, thought, organisation and perseverance. It is a major mistake to confuse the two.

Opposition needs a considered evaluation of evidence and possibilities; outrage tends towards self-centred and sweeping pre-judgment, usually passed without deep thought to the matter or comprehensive collection of evidence. It is worth remarking that ‘prejudice’ basically means ‘prejudgment,’ from the Latin words prae and judicium.

The general flow of outrage is towards a kind of fascist violence: it assumes guilt unless the victim is proved innocent, and moves too fast for sufficient proof to be collected. Opposition is a democratic construct: it accepts that you are innocent unless proved guilty.

Dismissing opposition

Unfortunately, given our hyperventilating cybercultures, outrage has become synonymous with opposition. Apart from the problems outlined above, this has another serious drawback: in an atmosphere of frequent outrages, it is possible to dismiss legitimate opposition as outrage. This, as we know from places like India, Turkey and the U.S., is the usual policy of the parties in power.

Because all opposition is increasingly wrapped in verbal and digital forms of outrage, this is easy for people in power to do. Online postings, TV shows, etc. consistently assume the registers and pace of outrages, so that the pith of the matter is often lost in the smoke, and even necessary acts of opposition can be dismissed as just the hyperventilation of easily outraged groups.

It is sad that this has happened even in India, where Gandhiji set a very rigorous example of calm and collected opposition, even, I would say, a slow and forbearing opposition. He knew that any true opposition — he would have called it a just opposition — needs thought, time, slowness and perseverance. These are not characteristics that outrage respects.

I find it troublesome that we have entered a phase of public discourse where, on the one hand, outrages erupt one after another and then evaporate in the desert sands of usual practice, and where, on the other hand, genuine acts of opposition are dismissed by people in power as just fleeting outrages.

On the one side, there are people yelling at us to be outraged, without considering evidence, context or effective responses, and on the other side, there are people telling us that we are just acting outraged when actually we are opposing something that needs to be opposed. How does one negotiate a public space like that? Your answer is as good as mine. But I think slowing down just a bit before passing judgment and looking more deeply at matters might not be such bad ideas.

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