Take a gander at the current political arena, or media coverage of any crime or international issue, or even the professional sports landscape, and you’ll notice something. This is a culture of outrage. All over the TV, social media, and even in conversation, outrage pours forth regarding those we deem to be in the wrong: the cheaters, the criminals, those of opposing views. This is as true on the small level of an office injustice as it is on the grand scale of international relations. But there’s a fine line between moral outrage and plain old self-righteous rage.
Differentiating between the two can be difficult, especially because our own motives for outrage are often mixed. As in all matters of motivation of the heart, certain filter questions can be helpful.
Is your outrage primarily on behalf of those who have been wronged or mainly directed at the wrong doer? This is a subtle difference, and it is not an either/or but rather a greater/lesser. It is better to be more outraged on behalf of the wronged and less vitriolic at the wrongdoer, at least during the initial, most-raw time of hurt. Do triage, and then deal with the source of the problem.
Are you outraged because attention needs to be drawn to areas of need or to draw attention to your own “concern” for the need? There is a need to be met, and it’s not your “need” for attention or praise. Contrived outrage in order to be noticed as an outspoken moral person is disingenuous. It is loud, pointed, and conspicuous, but in the end is flaccid and ineffectual.
Is your outrage expressed without pretense or claiming innocence of heart or is it an effort to gain moral superiority over its object? Outrage of the purest kind is that which stems from being overwhelmed by injustice or wrongdoing while simultaneously recognizing your own ability to commit such acts. Wrongdoing creates a need for justice and an opportunity for grace, but it is not a fast track to your own superiority.
Is your intent to exploit the failings of the wrongdoer or to expose them in order to serve those who have been wronged? The only benefits reaped through outrage should be for those who were wronged. The outraged one should be the catalyst for that benefit, not primary the recipient of it.
Finally, will your outrage bring about the destruction of the wrongdoer or the rectifying of wrongs done? To rectify wrongs means doing away with bad and restoring good, and often this leads to the downfall of the wrongdoer (that’s why we have a penal system). The recognition that wrongs need righting should be the spark for outrage.
Outrage can be good. It is a natural response to bad things. But it can only be good if it is imbued with grace, patience, and perspective. Without these things our right outrage becomes nothing but self-righteousness expressed loudly.