“What is the virtue of a proportional response?” asks Martin Sheen on The West Wing where he plays the US President. An enemy state has taken down a fully-loaded American aircraft and his advisors are gathered to decided what the US should do to proportionally retaliate. But President Bartlet is outraged. A proportional response just doesn’t seem enough to him.
“Did you know that two thousand years ago a Roman citizen could walk across the face of the known world free of the fear of molestation?” he asks. “He could walk across the earth unharmed, cloaked only in the words ‘Civis Romanis’; I am a Roman citizen. So great was the retribution of Rome, universally understood as certain, should any harm befall even one of its citizens.”
He thinks the American response must be severe, just like the Roman retribution. “Let the word ring forth from this time and this place, you kill an American, any American, we don’t come back with a proportional response, we come back [bangs fist on table] with total disaster!”
An unprovoked attack on a civilian is outrageous and it deserves retaliation. However, does it deserve a response that could lead to thousands of enemy and civilian casualties? Why was the leader of a superpower, who probably has to deal with attacks like that often, so outraged that he wants an extreme response?
The key is the context of the outrage.
I read ‘Talking to Strangers’ by Malcolm Gladwell recently. I had many problems with the book but it introduced me to a very interesting human behaviour (as most of Gladwell’s books do): the ‘Coupled’ behaviour or the importance of context.
Gladwell explained this with two examples.
- Suicide: We assume that when someone has decided to kill themselves, they will try to do so in any way they can. But that’s not true. A person with suicidal tendencies doesn’t just want to kill themselves, they want to do so in a specific way. And when their method of choice is taken away, they will most likely not go through with it. The method of killing oneself is ‘coupled’ with the act of killing oneself.
- Crime: We assume that if police crack down on high-crime neighbourhoods, drug peddlers and prostitutes will simply move to a different neighbourhood to sell their wares, so to speak. But that is not true. A person’s likelihood to commit crime is ‘coupled’ with the location.
I think this concept of coupling can be applied to our outrages as well.
There are objectively wrong things that everyone can outrage about: murder, rape, genocide, wars. But oddly, we seem to outrage more easily about less outrageous things. Do you think there are half as many people outraging about the murder of George Floyd as there were about the ending of Game of Thrones? On a personal level, do we outrage about the wars and famine as much as we do about our everyday indignities?
It’s not because we don’t care. It’s because outrage is not about any unfairness. It is about a very particular, personal unfairness.
What was the last thing you outraged about?
I clearly remember mine. The building next to ours is a school. The other day, I noticed their overhead water tank overflowing. I checked the premises to see if I could find someone to flag down. But whoever switched it on had forgotten about it and they were too far away to hear the buckets of water pouring down the three storey building.
I waited for five minutes. Then I started pacing up and down. Fifteen minutes passed and I looked up the school’s contact information online and tried calling them. No one picked up. After thirty minutes, I was so irrationally angry that I was preparing to go down to the site when I saw someone run towards the motor. I was livid for hours after that. I had to shut my ears with my hands while the last few litres drained out because I just couldn’t take it. All the while, I had the one question that any person outraging has “How dare they?”
Based on this behaviour, one might think I care a lot about water conservation or that I have keen civic sense. Sadly, no and no. I do care about both those things, but not enough to take it up as a cause to champion. Water overflowing is just my outrage context. I have always been triggered by that. I am a calm person on most days but I have yelled at neighbours through the walls if they let water overflow.
Similarly, my husband outrages when buses disobey traffic rules. He gets so angry that he starts cursing the bus driver with the conviction of a scorned chaste woman from middle ages. But he doesn’t have the same reaction to other vehicles violating the rules.
My father just can’t stand it when someone disrespects his religion but he is not a deeply religious person. A lot of people online just can’t seem to stomach it when a woman speaks her mind.
Some call this imbalance ‘selective outrage’. I don’t think it’s selective. I think it is contextual.
I spent an abnormal amount of my childhood being yelled at by my father for letting our overhead tank overflow. My outrage when I see someone else doing it is not just “How dare they?” it’s “How dare they get to let the water go to waste without being yelled at?”
My husband has gotten into many minor accidents with buses. In most cases, his car was stationary. So his outrage is not “How dare they disobey traffic rules?” it’s “How dare buses disobey traffic rules again and again without facing a penalty?”
President Bartlet was not just outraged because an American aircraft was taken down. His favourite doctor was on that aircraft – that was his context.
When we are outraging, the question is never a simple “How dare they?” It’s always a variation of the following contextual questions:
- How dare a person from this community/country/caste/gender do X?
- How dare they say/do this about my X?
- How dare they get to do X and face no repercussion?
For example, when ‘The Office’ was remade in Hindi, it caused outrage among a section of people. A TV show should not cause that level of anger in anyone. This outrage makes sense only when you apply the context:
- How dare Indians remake The Office?
- How dare they remake my favourite TV show?
- How dare they make a substandard remake and still enjoy viewership?
Outrages almost always lead to a response. When it’s about a TV show that people dislike, the response will probably not be that harmful. At the least, it gets trolled. At the most, it gets banned. But are the responses proportional to the ‘wrongs’ committed? I don’t think so. They are over the top and irrational.
We place too much importance on things that causes us to outrage that we stop thinking of a proportional response. In President Bartlet’s case, he was stopped from executing his extreme response by a group of his advisors. We don’t have an advisory committee to keep us in check. It is up to us to make an effort to understand the context.
The next time you outrage, ask yourself two questions:
- Is the thing that is causing you to outrage objectively wrong?
- Is your response proportional?
In most cases, even if the answer to the first question is a yes, the answer to the second won’t be.
I know your wrath feels righteous at the moment of outrage. But once it passes, sit down, take a deep breath, and analyse why you don’t feel the same level of anger for objectively wrong things like murder, rape, genocide, wars.
Outraging is not an action, it is a reaction. Placing a lot of value on our feelings or anger and hatred towards something without analysing those feelings can be very dangerous.
When we couple our outrage with the wrong context, it can cause lasting negative impact to the society. When countries criminalise gay relationships, it is not because of the question ‘How dare they love someone from their own gender?’ It’s because a lot of their citizens are thinking ‘How dare they get to love whoever they want without fear?’ or ‘How dare they do something that undermines my religion?’
Rightful and proportional outrage is key to societal change. With a slight reframing of the contextual questions, our outrage can become a positive force:
- How dare a person from this community/country/caste/gender not get to do X?
- How dare someone is being stopped from saying/doing this about my X?
- How dare someone faces repercussions for doing X?
I look forward to the day we all analyse the context of our outrage and opt to make a proportional response.