Should we ever be outraged?

I have been following the debate over at BCC on outrage. Here‘s how it started with a post on the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by Americans. The writer’s primary point is that Americans and especially Mormons should be outraged by such mistreatment. Then, Ronan followed up with a post saying that we should be concentrating on the lack of outrage in the Arab world about Muslim atrocities.

I agreed with many of the sentiments expressed in both of these posts. Except for this: I don’t think outrage is a positive, productive or uplifting emotion, and I think we should use it very, very judiciously and very rarely. And as Christians we certainly should not be encouraging it.

Here is what Laurie says about outrage:

Outrage is a welcomed emotion. It denotes response to a fundamental denial of humanity. I imagine that perhaps the deepest pain suffered by the Christians when they were thrown to the lions in the Coliseum in Rome, is that people were cheering in anticipation at their fear and pain. The thread of common humanity was so thoroughly broken that people actually cheered –they were “beyond feeling”–while their fellow humans were terrified. And no one expressed outrage.

I disagree that outrage is a welcome emotion. I think it is a dangerous emotion and should be avoided except in the most extreme cases. Here’s why: outrage begets anger, which begets contention, and this is what the Savior says about contention: “he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.” (3 Nephi 11:29).

As part of writing this post, I did a search on the word “contention” in the Book of Mormon. In almost every case, it meant “disputes and anger that led to war.” Of course, the Lamanites were outraged by the Nephites because they had created an entire culture based on outrage. The Nephites had stolen the plates and thought they were superior. It was outrageous! And during the last Lamanite-Nephite wars, there was outrageous behavior on both sides, which created more anger, and more contention and led to the decimation of an entire group of people, once millions strong. And of course the same thing happened in Ether’s day.

The Pharisees’ primary emotion during Jesus’ day was outrage. The man was claiming he was the Messiah and that he had the right to forgive people and look how he was offending the Sabbath. It was outrageous! Of course the man should have been killed. And that Joseph Smith. He claimed the right to re-translated the sacred Bible and he called himself a prophet and took on dozens of wives. Outrageous! We have to do something about it. Let’s kill him!

On a smaller level, all of the persecutions in the scriptures start because some group, more powerful and angry than the other, becomes outraged. The heroes are always the ones who are not outraged (think of Stephen) or who channel their outrage into very specific nationwide goals such as Capt. Moroni.

I can think of only one example when the Savior was outraged. That was when he cleared the temple. From an eternal perspective, we can understand his outrage — this was the most sacred spot on Earth, and they were turning it into a den of thieves. But remember the Savior’s outrage was very controlled. He didn’t hurt anybody. And his outrage only lasted a short amount of time, and he immediately went back to humility and long-suffering, which are the primary emotions of His that we should emulate.

Joseph Smith has talked directly about outrage and told us to avoid it. D&C 121:41-43 says it best: “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile— Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy.”

It seems to me that this is the way we should always act: kindness, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned. When somebody does something that we consider outrageous, we should point it out very forcefully but quietly, but only “when moved upon by the Holy Ghost,” and we should immediately follow it with an increase of love toward the target so that we do not create contention.

Of course I am not saying people should not be politically active. People should protest and march and write their politicians and write their newspapers and write their permabloggers. They should put forth their views. But the moment they are moved upon by anger, or contention or outrage, they should immediately check to see what the source is of this emotion.

I believe this applies to all politics and all political commentators. Although I tend to be conservative and less likely to be outraged by Abu Ghraib than, for example, abortion, I try very hard not to let conservative commentators manipulate me into feelings of anger and outrage. The moment that I feel that emotion rising in me is the moment that I try to stop it (and of course I am the first to admit I don’t always succeed). Although the death of 45 million unborn children since 1973 because of the legalization of abortion is outrageous, it is not outrageous enough by a long shot for me to support people who bomb abortion clinics or threaten abortionists. These people are being moved by the spirit of contention, which is, as Jesus says, “of the devil.” I will speak out about it, I will write about it and try to persuade others of my viewpoint, but I will never allow myself to be outraged. At least I’ll try not to.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

36 thoughts on “Should we ever be outraged?

  1. Very good topic, Geoff. Who is Laurie?

    I agree with you. I have learned by experience that anger does not produce positive results. When I was a girl, anger was a tool, and a powerful one, that my parents and others used to make their point or get what they wanted. It has taken my whole life to begin to overcome that programming.

    I am a people watcher and emulater. I’ve noticed that mild people are happier, life is better there. My biggest regrets are the times I’ve lost my temper.

  2. OFF THE SUBJECT, sorry,

    For some reason, when I go to several of these blogs, I can’t read the posts, they are all blurry. I print them–I can make out the titles–if the title looks interesting. But it takes awhile and I don’t always get all the posts on a topic. BCC is one of them. I don’t know why that is. I thought it was always that way, but on other computers it comes clear. Like here, the side writing, in white, is all a blur.

    I did print off the first post, but not the second on outrage. I’ll go back.


  3. It’s time we went to our windows, stuck our heads out, and yelled together at the top of our lungs:

    “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore.”

    The risk on the other end, if we always try to avoid contention, is that we’ll be like so many sheep, simply following the bellwether, not willing to stand for what’s right.

  4. annegb, is it that the font size is set too small on your browser? With anti-aliased text display, the effect of having the font size set too low is that the text will just appear to be a small undifferentiated blur. You may try fiddling around with the preferences to change the font size. If you’re using a Mozilla based web browser like Firefox or Netscape, you can actually specify a minimum font size, so that sizes on other sites does not become unreasonably large.

  5. Geoff, you’ll probably be dismayed by this so-soon departure, but I think there is something to be gleaned from this Arturo bashing with regard to your topic.

    I do not learn much from the people I contend with, I don’t listen much, except for points I can counter or get mad at. No growth occurs.

    And the sad thing is Arturo makes good points, but people don’t hear. I’ve learned to look for those nuggets, but how sad that they are being missed.

    I sit up and pay attention to those who speak in a reasonable tone, who are attempting to communicate, not disagree. The more the contention, the more anger and irritation enters, communication stops. When outrage occurs, I either get afraid or get mad back, or both. Nothing is accomplished.

  6. Arturo, what do I click on to access that? I need somebody here to walk me through this. I’m not stupid, but I’m not pretending to be clueless, either.

  7. It worked! Thank you. I’ve been struggling with this for months. Geez. I went for a year with a cyst on my eye before I realized that all the things I was reading were not printed on a smudged printer. There has to be a lesson here.

    Mark, I used to feel exactly the same way. Honestly. I felt a righteous justification when I stood up for what I believed in. I couldn’t understand why others didn’t join in or pat me on the back. For awhile, I got madder. Still have a temper problem.

    But I started watching and the people who actually ACCOMPLISHED change were the quieter ones. They were very stubborn, never wavered, but they didn’t yell “I’m not gonna take it.” They are the ones people listen to, and they listen to others, as well. Being determined to make one’s point, being tenacious, those are good qualities, but if all that gets done is arguing, where are we?

    …and here I am, arguing. sorry.

  8. Rolling on the floor laughling my @$$ off

    Back to the subject at hand. Here, here. Geoff B spot on again.

    Why outrage? Why only the stick? Where is the carrot; or at least the praise and recognition when folks get things right?

    1. I’d like to thank Newsweek for its retraction.
    2. I’d like to thank Kuwait for letting its women vote.
    3. I’d like to thank Egypt for setting up multi-party elections.

    While none of these three entitites are perfect, nor are their actions/proposed actions, they are taking positive steps in the right direction.

  9. Minerva, ROTFLMAO = Rolling On The Floor Laughing My A•• Off.

    Annegb, Tess once said something to the effect of “The problem is that you sometimes make good points.” I’ll tell you the same thing I told her (basically), I’m sorry that the fact that I make good points makes you sad. I’m afraid Tess took my jocular tone to be discourteous, but I hope you won’t.

    As far as instructions for changing font size in Internet Explorer, it’s like this:

    In Windows, go to Start -> Control Panel. Open the Display option. In the “Display Properties” windows that appears upon opening the Display option, select the Appearance tab. There is a font size setting. Select either Large or Extra Large and then push the Apply button.

  10. No, AT, I’ve come to love you, you old thing, you.

    I don’t find it sad that you make good points, I find it sad that those points are overlooked because personality trumps principle.

    Isn’t that what happens when people become outraged? The force of their personality trumps the points they make. People are looking at the expression on their face, hearing the loud booming tones, and not hearing the content.

    On the other hand, Geoff, now that my font is fixed, I read Laurie’s post. She uses the word outrage, probably referring to the earlier post, but there is some merit to the idea (which I’ve heard a lot, actually) that the Muslim world seems not to care much about their “bads”–at least not as much as we worry about ours. Which is a credit to America, I think.

  11. Just as “tolerance” is not an absolute virtue, “outrage” is not an absolute vice. I think the determiner is that “outrage,” like “obedience,” is not a standalone response of attitude — it necessarily relates to something, and the appropriateness of the of the outrage, as with the appropriateness of the obedience, is determined by what the outrage is aimed at or prompted by.

  12. OTLN, well said.

    Guess what? I can read the blogs! I can read FMH, I can read Varied …of Mormonism, I can read BCC, and unofficial manifesto!

    A monster has been further created.

    I have been doing this for two hours. I must go and be a housewife. Somebody slap me.

  13. Nope. Totally different take. Or are you arguing that Ronan and Laurie’s posts were meant to make the point that outrage is undesirable and unChristian?

  14. Steve, given all the traffic we’ve been having on M* lately, I was just trying to give BCC some additional much-needed attention. But if you don’t want it….

  15. I am certainly outraged. All this discussion of a particular theme during a particular week makes Steve Evans’s job too easy. We need to consciously work together so that he struggles for a topic to put in the weekly zeitgeist column. Sheesh. 🙂

  16. Agreed Dan — it doesn’t take a familiar to devine this week’s Zeitgeist so far. Only a prominent death or scandal can change things now. We need some fondue with the Tanners, and fast!

  17. Few commenters seem attached to outrage or the events that should prompt it. Three “outrage” posts in a week brought comments on several other topics to the exclusion of outrage or outrage worthy occurrences. If outrage is a negative emotion, then its good news that very little of it is plaguing the bloggernacle. The bad news is that people still haven’t found a constructive outlet for their feelings about that nitwit Arturo.

  18. I did. I tried affection. What a concept, huh? Love trumps outrage.

  19. But the moment they are moved upon by anger, or contention or outrage, they should immediately check to see what the source is of this emotion.


    Agreed. I think you’ve hit it exactly. I think we can be actively concerned for the welfare of others without being outraged. Especially when the source of our outrage is grounded in personal or partisan concerns. We should be aware of the motivations for our emotions – and be absolutely sure that we’re always being honest with ourselves. A difficult thing for all of us, I am aware, but I think it goes a long ways in curbing anger.

  20. In the introduction to his Skeptical Essays, Bertrand Russell said:

    The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holder’s lack of rational conviction. Opinions in politics and religion are almost always held passionately.

    I think that this speaks quite well to the issue that Geoff B has raised in his post.

    Even so, I realize that introducing this new quote from Bertrand Russell might shock or offend the few readers who are more accustomed to my usual quotes. Please realize that it’s difficult to introduce “the myth of the superior virtue of the oppressed” in discussions in which feminism does not arise.

  21. I also believe the Savior cleared the temple on more than one occasion.

  22. If there had been no outrage in the colonies in the 1770’s, we’d all be Canadians.

    Thank heaven for outrage!

  23. I suppose that this all should have begun with a Socratic “define your terms,” but, since it hasn’t . . .

    Just one comment, AT: if it weren’t for the hotheads–the Samuel Adamses and James Otises and Patrick Henry and the Boston mob that destroyed the tea or burned the governors home–would the reasoning men in wigs and hose have ever got to the point of adopting the Declaration of Independence?

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