On Outrage

Alison Phipps
Alison Phipps

I have been thinking a lot about outrage. Recently, I have been outraged a lot. Outrageous things have been happening. Outrage is an important feature of contemporary politics, within a proliferation of news and social media which has both democratised debate and given us the ability to hold powerful institutions and individuals to account. It is one of a number of emotions which enter the political, arguably more now than before.

OUT-RAGE. It gets our rage out. Out into the public sphere; out of our systems. Outrage is cathartic. It has a righteousness which is a function of its ‘outness’ – it takes up space, demands attention to the issue at hand. We have recently been outraged about cases involving a number of individuals: Thomas Pogge, Lee Salter, Brock Turner, James Deen. In its productive capacities outrage is similar to anger, which Audre Lorde theorises as ‘a powerful source of energy serving progress and change’. Like anger, outrage can be channelled politically: sometimes we may like its direction, sometimes we may not. Outrage at the proliferation of misogynistic abuse on social media has recently been used by female Labour MPs to try to discredit Jeremy Corbyn. OutRage! is the name of the direct action group which has been much-critiqued for its righteousness in pushing neo-colonial agendas around LGBT rights in African countries.

Outrage is cathartic – it puts us in touch with our feelings, and allows them to be released. It is also connective: a crucial way of showing survivors our support. When we do outrage, we say I am with you. In a world in which survivors are suspected and disbelieved, outrage is necessary. After your sense of self has been destroyed by violence, the outrage of others stops you thinking you deserved what you got. It is an important preventive of the ‘second rape’ which often occurs within communities, institutions and carceral systems, in which the victim is put on trial. If outrage is withheld (as in so many cases where perpetrators go unchallenged), you are left alone with your guilt and shame.

Outrage connects us with survivors and can also connect us with each other – just as anger, if heard without defensiveness, can help build coalitions across difference. But unlike the thrashing out of differences, the connectivity of outrage relies on a homogeneous emotional response: it can bring movements together rapidly, as a chorus is formed. In our outrage, we all have the same focus and narrative: a performativity can develop that requires you to get your rage ‘out’ in order to fit in. This can sometimes create the impression that if you are not performing outrage, you are doing something wrong.

You get your rage ‘out’. And then? Because outrage is cathartic, it is possible to release it and move on. Outrage can appear momentary – especially in the fast-moving world of social media, it often settles on the next case while the previous one is unresolved. This differentiates outrage from anger, which Lorde sees as a potential catalyst for conversation. Outrage is a statement: we are outraged about something; we are outraged about something else. If the catharsis of outrage is enough for us, it can become an end in itself.

There are similarities between outrage and hatred. Ahmed writes that hatred is always of something or somebody. For Ahmed hate often focuses on the generalised Other: in contrast, outrage tends to coalesce around a specific individual, and sometimes the institution or group which has failed to deal with them. This failure is also largely seen in terms of ‘outness’: while we get our rage out, we also want its subject out – of our organisations, of our communities. It is much easier to mobilise outrage around removing an individual than to focus on changing the structural and systemic context which has allowed them, and probably others like them, to thrive. Hate becomes a death wish for the hated; outrage demands its subject begone.

Where does the subject of outrage go? There is often an appeal to carceral systems to take them away. Outrage regularly uses what Lorde would call the ‘master’s tools’ – the state and the corporate media – to inflict a social death on its subject and demand that they disappear. In an individualistic, punitive context with very few avenues for rehabilitation, there often seems no other option. And of course, there is a difference between a social death visited on the powerful and the hatred which can bring actual death to the powerless. However, emboldening the master’s tools with the former is not unrelated to their role in the latter. Outrage at Stanford student Brock Turner’s rape conviction involved demands for a much harsher prison sentence, but if we fortify the carceral state this will not primarily affect men like Brock Turner. Outrage at abuses within the sex industry produces client criminalisation policies which feed stigma and violence against sex workers, and make abuse more likely to occur in a variety of tangible ways.

I have worked for ten years now in a field in which there are periodic swells of outrage. Sexual harassment and violence in higher education institutions is absolutely outrageous. When outrage swells, I feel vindicated and supported – when it ebbs, I worry about what happens next. One of my key concerns in these ‘between’ times is the unchecked power of the neoliberal university over its students and staff, and of the neoliberal state over us all. I understand why outrage produces demands for punishment: in this system it is the only justice survivors get, and ostracism and incarceration of perpetrators seem the only routes to protection. Furthermore, outrage does not welcome complexity, and although I do not want to bolster punitive and carceral processes, in a similarly unproductive way my outrage has led me to imagine tearing everything down.

My fantasies of demolition bring me back to Lorde: she writes that anger alone cannot create the future, it can only demolish the past. Due to the qualities I have described, perhaps this is even more true of outrage. Tearing down is not helpful unless I am prepared to build something better. Of course, I am not suggesting that we ‘work within’ the system rather than raging against it: it is much more difficult than this, and requires a great deal more thought. I am also aware that Lorde writes about women connecting across their differences – she does not advise entering into relationships with the kyriarchical state. Indeed, she warns against white women in particular being seduced into joining this oppressor under the pretence of sharing power.

With this in mind, I am certainly not aspiring to a politics constituted by compromises within, or with, dysfunctional institutions: particularly since it is always the most compromised who end up compromising the most. But I do want outrage to be more than catharsis. As it ebbs away I want more of us, especially those with social and institutional privilege, to stay behind to do the work of thinking, and enacting, alternatives. This need not take place within institutions: when issues are particularly outrageous, sometimes we can work more productively outside them. But the work must happen nonetheless – survivors need and deserve that too.

Dr Alison Phipps is Reader in Sociology at the University of Sussex