Rethinking Outrage: It is More Impactful to Stand for Something

By Kathy Tunheim, CEO

There was a fascinating article in The New York Times in February (“What’s the Point of Moral Outrage?“) about a study that had been published in the journal Nature by a group of academics from Yale University and Harvard University. Using both empirical and theoretical experiments, they developed a theory about why people have evolved over time to reflect a “psychology of outrage.”

Among other observations, they looked at the phenomenon of people getting wildly upset, way out of proportion to the perceived (or real) offense.

One need only go to Twitter or Facebook to see the phenomenon in full bloom: political comments, death of humans or animals, behavior of celebrities or private citizens. Any of these instances can trigger global venting that creates new communities, mostly involving people with absolutely no connection to the incident itself.

  • But toward what end, I found myself thinking: How can we turn that passion and willingness to express outrage into a willingness to do something?
  • How to get people to be for something at least as easily and passionately as they can be “morally outraged” about something else?

Sometimes we’re simply talking about tweets battling for supremacy — but sometimes we’re talking about public policy and its lasting impacts on many people’s lives.

Strategic challenge: Easier to be for or against something?

We are in the business of persuasion and advocacy, so it’s not surprising that we take this rhetorical question as a strategic challenge. In a time when Facebook “likes,” “shares” and other reactions are still used by some as a measure of support, it is easy to fall into a trap of equating expressions of outrage with alignment on values or priorities.

But it IS a trap — or at the least, it is an incomplete expression of your intention. “I’m against THIS, and I am for THAT” is required to meaningfully participate in society.

So we must explore the question: Is it easier to be “against” something than it is to be “for” something?

In the American cultural context, I think the answer is yes. Our entire history has evolved around liberty and our sometimes fuzzy way of equating liberty with freedom. We are “free” to think what we want, do what we want … as long as our “freedom” doesn’t impinge on the “freedom” of someone else. Then we use laws and lawyers to work out disagreements when individual liberties clash.

In that historical context, we could be against what someone else wanted to do without having to actively work against it — as long as it didn’t clash with our “freedom.” We are “free” to express our opinion about them.

Yet our liberty has also given us the right to pursue our own hopes and dreams, the things we are for, as long as we do the hard work to pursue them. Being for something that you strongly support requires getting resources aligned to make it happen. Even if everyone agrees with you, it still needs a thoughtful approach to sharing that point of view.

Organizational challenge: When to be for something?

Outrage is not only relevant to individuals either. We hear from clients or prospects all of the time that they are against an issue or effort and want our help to advocate for their side of the issue.

Tunheim has managed many successful campaigns to defeat controversial legislation and provocative proposals. With each campaign, we encourage our clients to think long-term and find creative solutions that address the overarching problem while staying true to their organization’s goals and principles.

Is your organization rethinking its strategy about being against something? Learn more about our Advocacy Campaigns or Coalition Building.

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