This is your brain on outrage: How political rhetoric is making us crazy

Should we expect conservatives' big win on Tuesday to make them any less angry? Definitely not, and here's why

By Steve Neumann
Published November 8, 2014 1:00PM (EST)
Rush Limbaugh                      (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rush Limbaugh (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Now that the Republicans have taken control of Congress, we can expect a dialing down of the vitriol they’ve been spewing at President Obama, their Democrat congressional counterparts and the American left generally. Right?

Wrong. As history shows all too clearly, political rhetoric never sleeps. John Lennon once asked us to imagine a world without religion. That’s not going to happen anytime soon, if ever. But what if we lived in a world without rhetoric? It’s definitely possible to imagine, but I’m afraid it has about the same chance of happening as a world without religion.

I believe this because the conservative commentariat loves to indulge in a specific type of rhetoric, the rhetoric of outrage. What’s worse, they even seem to enjoy it. “Rhetoric” is one of those words everyone throws around, usually pejoratively, without knowing its original or even its full meaning. It hasn’t always had this bad reputation—as William Penn opined in 1682: “There is a Truth and Beauty in Rhetorick.” And the concept of rhetoric goes at least as far back as Socrates in ancient Athens.

Around the time of Socrates’s career as public gadfly, a new profession emerged: The Sophists were self-described “professional educators who toured the Greek world offering instruction in a wide range of subjects, with particular emphasis on skill in public speaking and the successful conduct of life.” Socrates didn’t much care for them, though. It wasn’t the fact that they were ostensibly offering an increase in knowledge for their “clients,” something Socrates himself was dedicated to, it was more the Sophist’s emphasis on the powers of persuasion that bugged him—in other words, rhetoric. People who sought out the Sophists were primarily interested in furthering their political careers.

Socrates didn’t think that rhetoric itself was bad—after all, he utilized it in order to cajole and enlighten the good citizens of Athens—but he did denigrate the kind of rhetoric that just sought to flatter instead of educate. And that’s just what the likes of Fox News and the rest of the conservative affrontosophere are doing—pandering to their base’s biases and stirring the pot of outrage.

But what is most perplexing to me is this apparent enjoyment of outrage, of willingly putting oneself in a perpetual state of indignation. It just doesn’t seem healthy. From time immemorial, the sages of the ages have all claimed that human behavior is defined by a pursuit of pleasure and an avoidance of pain. So how can this orgy of outrage be explained?

A study from 2007 investigated the seemingly paradoxical notion that people enjoy negative or aversive stimuli. The study focused on people who get their kicks from watching horror flicks, with the authors concluding that “horror movie viewers are happy to be unhappy.” Though they conceded that their work didn’t directly address the mechanisms of this phenomenon, they did offer some speculations based on the results of their studies.

They said one possibility is that negative emotions represent “a reliable source of arousal, one that can be continuously converted into positive affect as long as people place themselves within a given protective frame.” This protective frame can actually take several forms: it can be that the individual feels the danger of the stimulus but has the confidence to overcome it; or that a “safety zone” is created, where the individual places herself sufficiently away from the danger; or, finally, that the individual observes the danger but simply doesn’t engage with it.

When you consider the environments in which people seem to enjoy being in a perpetual state of outrage, it’s easy to see that they live in one of these protective frames.

Judging by the pontifications of various pundits, it’s obvious there is no shortage of confidence to deal with the perceived problems; everyone knows exactly what needs to be done to rectify things and bring the world around to its senses again. At least they think they do.

And virtually everyone in the affrontosphere is sufficiently distanced from immediate harm. Obama’s “Starbucks Salute” to a marine? Doesn’t affect you in the least. Yet the outrage from that episode was more deafening than all of Starbucks’ coffee grinders in the world going off at once.

The third protective frame—witnessing the danger but not engaging with it—well, that clearly doesn't apply here.

But the word from that study that aroused my interest is the word “arousal” itself. The researchers called it a “reliable source” of pleasurable feelings so long as the individual was within a protective frame. This idea of “arousal” shows up in another context, this time in the work of political psychologist Philip Tetlock.

An article in Psychology Today, summarizing Tetlock’s work, notes that outrage is an emotion made up of three components: first, it’s a bad feeling; second, it has “high arousal”—that is, it’s a powerful emotion; and third, it occurs “when people experience a violation of a moral boundary.”

The violation of a “moral boundary” is the violation of what someone believes is a “sacred protected value,” as Tetlock calls it. A sacred value is a belief or principle that a person simply cannot allow to be violated. Conservatives listen to and watch Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the Drudge Report all day long because they speak to their sacred values. They excel at pointing out real and perceived violations of so-called sacred values—and the violations are reliably met with outrage.

The Psychology Today article also notes that the expression of outrage signals affiliation—we know you’re on our side if you exhibit the same level of indignation at the same perceived violations. And since there is safety in numbers, when we see and hear the thousands of comments in our respective echo chamber we know we’re not alone—and this is likely what gives us such confidence to deal with those violations. We enjoy feeling outrage because it increases our sense of camaraderie with like-minded fellow believers. And as Tetlock says, true believers “seek reassurance from each other that their beliefs are not mere social conventions but rather are anchored in backstop or sacred values beyond challenge.”

That’s a powerful cycle of mutual reinforcement, and it ends up with them being stuck on an umbrage carousel, traveling round and around in a circle without ever actually getting anywhere. The rhetoric of today prevents real discussions of the issues because this state of emotional arousal inhibits the ability to have rational conversations.

The solution is dialectic—Socrates’s preferred method of discourse. As the helpful site The Forest of Rhetoric describes it, dialectic is concerned with “persuasion and logical proof and takes into account opposing viewpoints on a given issue.”

But, unlike rhetoric, dialectic is “restricted to issues of argumentation, proof, and the methods and fallacies of logical reasoning,” and doesn’t concern itself with the emotional aspect of discourse—it specifically aims to avoid “high arousal.” Dialectic is concerned with getting at the heart of things instead of just jerking at the heart strings.

Going from a climate of rhetoric to one of dialectic will require a considerable amount of personal risk. They risk losing the security and solidarity of a like-minded pack—they risk losing the very confidence that enables them to immerse themselves in the toxic radiation bath of outrage.

Can they do it? Can we imagine a world without rhetoric? How about just a world of less rhetoric and more dialectic? We can certainly imagine it, but can they wean themselves off this teat and, as those cute bumper stickers say, wag more and bark less?

Steve Neumann

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