Where has all the outrage gone?

The Baltimore Sun

People realize, along about middle age, that we have to pace ourselves for the long run and can't go around expressing moral outrage all the time. You just shouldn't get too worked up about too many things -- the 48 million Americans without health insurance, for instance, or the official foot-dragging on global warming, the ever-increasing disparity between the rich and the poor, or the failed war on drugs and how it has given the United States the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world. Most of us prefer not to get too worked up about these things every day. It's bad for the heart and can be ruinous to friendships.

And so solutions come ever so slowly to long-standing problems that really ought to be treated urgently in an affluent, well-educated and resourceful society such as ours. The middle-age caution about not getting too worked up about anything has taken root, and we've created a nation of socially inactive couch potatoes. Taking a cue from the adult role models around them, younger Americans, who are growing up in an unprecedented age of comfort, seem less inclined to stir the pot, even as a traditional rite of passage.

John F. Kennedy said: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

Four decades later, George W. Bush says it's sufficient sacrifice for Americans to watch TV news about the Iraq war and feel distressed. After the terrorist attacks of 2001, he did not call for more volunteerism and public service; he suggested "live your lives" and go shopping.

David Halberstam wrote a reflection on the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and he called reversing years of segregation and hateful discrimination America's last unfinished business.

I agree that that was important business in building the country, but it was not our last unfinished business. There is plenty left to do.

But, as we found in the civil rights movement, big movements that lead to big change begin with moral outrage, first by a minority and eventually a majority.

Why do more Americans seem to reside in a state of denial than in a state of moral outrage?

Though it requires some translating, here's an explanation by New York University's psychology department in the March issue of the journal Psychological Science:

"People who see the world as essentially fair can just maintain this perception through a diminished sense of moral outrage. ... Psychologists have long studied system-justification theory, which posits that people adopt belief systems that justify existing political, economic, and social situations or inequities in order to make themselves feel better about the status quo.

"Moreover, in order to maintain their perceptions of the world as just, people resist changes that would increase the overall amount of fairness and equality in the system. Instead, they often engage in cognitive adjustments that preserve a distorted image of reality in which existing institutions are seen as more equitable and just than they are."

Can you follow that at home?

Here's a translation: We believe what we need to believe in order to justify our existence (and all the shopping we do). We are comfortable with our prejudices, and we don't really like to feel guilty about things, particularly the concentration of wealth in contrast to the growth of dire poverty.

It goes something like: "How I'm living is just fine. I don't need to change anything. Anybody having a problem in this great country of ours is just not trying hard enough."

The NYU study confirmed something I know from years of writing for a newspaper: People love Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches stories -- not just because they are inspiring, but because they affirm a belief that life is fair and just, and that anyone can be a millionaire, if they just try hard enough.

The study indicates that we're less inclined to identify with the plight of innocent victims because such stories underscore the failures of our culture, government and economic system.

"We assume that people care about justice, at least to some degree, and are bothered by potential departures from fairness," the study said. "In order to maintain their perceptions of the world as just, however, people do not necessarily strive to make changes that will increase the overall amount of fairness and equality in the system." An NYU graduate student named Cheryl Wakslak was the study's lead author. 'These results," she said, "show that people who see the world as essentially fair and just can maintain this perspective if their sense of moral outrage is diminished."

Or vice versa: Maintain a low diet of information that would lead to moral outrage and you can maintain your sunshine view of life. No fear of cognitive dissonance. It's my theory on why American newspapers -- and academic researchers -- are often accused of having a liberal bias: The most vigilant ones publish an inordinate amount of articles and reports pointing out injustices and systemic problems (see The Sun's series on Maryland ground rent, or The Washington Post's stories on Walter Reed Army Medical Center). They do this with the hope that they will ignite moral outrage, that things might change, and that this rich, smart and resourceful nation can be better than it is, and that we might one day finish unfinished business.


Hear Dan Rodricks from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays on "The Buzz" on WBAL Radio (1090 AM).

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