Moral Outrage, Righteous Anger and the Enemies of Compassion

A few weeks ago, I was fuming after reading one of Susan’s fantastic takedowns. I was yelling and swearing, sitting alone at my computer, and it felt good. My anger felt productive, like it was easing some of the helplessness I felt at the subject of Susan’s rant. I felt so certain I was on the good-guy side of the argument; I wore my righteous anger like a suit of armor. 

Fast forward a few hours, I was unwinding after a day of P-Mag and Day Job with a few TED Talks. Before you think I fancy myself as high falutin’, you should know I normally only watch the funny talks and the ones about super germs. On this particular evening, however, I clicked through to a special series by and about topics pertaining to women.  (You should mosey through when you’ve got some time; there are many fantastic talks in the group.) One in particular, “Compassion and the true meaning of empathy” by Roshi Joan Halifax, made me rethink how I’ve been looking at the world. Halifax works with people at the end of life, both through hospice and on death row, and the unconditional compassion she feels for her fellow humans (and other creatures) is palpable throughout her talk. (Need something lighter? My second favorite TED Talk of all time is J.J. Abrams talking about his mystery box.)

Halifax opens with this line:

Compassion has many faces. Some of them are fierce; some of them are wrathful; some of them are tender; some of them are wise.

She goes on to state that compassion has three components. The ability to know the nature of suffering, the neurological response to act or aspire to transform suffering, and the ability not to concern oneself with outcomes. That last one was a real eye-opener for me. Compassion can’t be conditional.  Halifax’s compassion is freely given – its strength isn’t determined by the person receiving it.

While my noodle was still twisting around Halifax’s definition of compassion, the following lines seriously fucked my shit up:

And what is fascinating is that compassion has enemies, and those enemies are things like pity, moral outrage, fear. And you know, we have a society, a world, that is paralyzed by fear. And in that paralysis, of course, our capacity for compassion is also paralyzed.

Every political argument, every internet fight, every single-issue protester, every time I personally allowed myself to get over-emotionally involved in a debate – it all made so much sense. Why does it appear like anti-choice protesters have no empathy at all for the women they yell at? Because they can’t experience moral outrage and compassion at the same time. Why do I turn into a giant, capsy rage octopus when I’m mad? Because I can’t either.

So much of what we do, as feminists, as allies and as advocates, is built on a scaffold of moral outrage. Our righteous anger at the people who impede our progress feels good, but at the same time, it lacks compassion. This lead me to two questions.

  1. Is compassion necessary when dealing with those who disagree with us?
  2. Is moral outrage necessary for progress?

What do you think, readers? Is it possible to be outraged and compassionate at the same time?

Here’s the full talk by Halifax. If you go to the TED site, you can read a transcript or view the video with subtitles.

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[E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

21 thoughts on “Moral Outrage, Righteous Anger and the Enemies of Compassion”

  1. I think sorting through the reasons behind the outrage can lead to compassion, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt outrage and compassion simultaneously. Or to be more clear, I’ve felt compassion for the oppressed while expressing outrage for the oppressors at the same time, just not outrage and compassion directed at the same target at the same time.

  2. I think compassion is essential if you actually want to solve a conflict. Moral outrage is great if you just want to yell at people, but all that will happen is both sides yelling at each other. If you have the compassion for them, you can begin understand the person on the other side of the line, and hopefully they can find the compassion to understand you too. When you understand each other, you can find a way to make things work. Moral outrage just makes you forget that the people who disagree with you are actually people.

  3. I constantly worry about this contradiction, if that’s what it can be called. So much of what I view as my basic morality is steeped in mutual respect and kindness – I believe in political correctness as the real-world linguistic implementation of an attempt to demonstrate respect, I believe in striving for social equality as a form of basic humanity, and much of my belief about how we interact with each other is based on the concept of humanity, of being kind, respectful, compassionate.

    And then I’m angry. And that’s incoherent, frothing, righteous rage. And that rage is felt, and it’s valid, and too often we dismiss rage as an emotion because it’s supposed to be illogical, and in doing so silence people when they need to be listened to. We silence our angry minorities because we think their rage is more abhorrent than our racism, and we stress respect for the bigot instead of defense of the victimised. To me, that’s wrong.

    Compassion, to me, is recognition of someone else’s humanness. It’s recognising that they’re a person, not a prop. It does not mean, to me at least, encouragement, approval, complacence or even ‘niceness’. It means that I will never deny the humanity of a racist or a homophobe, I will never deny their human rights, their existance as human beings.

    But, in many ways, my recognition of their humanity, my compassion, my understanding of who they are – it reinforces the righteous anger. I look at a racist and I think “you’re human. You’re just like us,and you did that.” I look at a serial killer, and I think “You are just like me, but you did that.” I look at a child molester or an abuser or an anything-er and I think “You are just like me, but you did that.” I understand them. I recognise that they’re human, and I respect their humanity. But I respect them less for being aware and considerate of their morality. I don’t want to spit on Adolf Hitler’s grave, I want him to be recognised as a weak, angry, bullying human being who utilised charisma capable of goodness for unspeakable evil.

    Often, we like our evil to be faceless, to not reflect us, to feel “monstrous”; I imagine that’s because we feel that that way it’s not something we could reflect – a Dalek is not a human, I will not display “Dalek” traits because Daleks are clearly other. I think people do that with “Nazis” and “homophobes” and “racists”. But that dehumanisation isn’t helpful. It abstracts those things, makes them something that isn’t a part of humanity, and they are very much a part of humanity. Once I show them compassion and recognise their humanity and their…fragility, really – well, then I realise how pathetic those people really are. I realise how very ordinary evil is, and I understand that I, on some level, can take on that evil at any time. I could be a Nazi, I could be that way. My compassion towards them reinforces my own outrage at those acts – at how so much evil can come of something so…ordinary. How it really is them, they really do bear responsibility for their actions. And my understanding of who they are and who I could be helps me guard against becoming that way – it makes me aware of that kind of thinking.

    Sometimes I ramble. This is one of those times.

  4. Thank you for this video.  I don’t have time to watch it right now, but I look forward to it. I’m going to have to think about this a bit. As of now, I’m going to say no, one cannot feel both moral outrage and compassion at the same time…

    But I admit, I have a difficult time wrapping my brain around compassion.  I think the word is used very loosely. My first job out of nursing school was on an oncology floor and I did a lot of end of life care.  Those patients taught me more than I care to admit,  but one of the biggest lessons I learned was that my kindness towards them was not compassion – it was pity.  I will never ever forget the patient that taught me this.  I went home feeling confused, then I realized they were right.  I could recognize their situations as being horrible and my kindness was ultimately motivated by MY feelings.  I felt sorry for them.  I was glad it wasn’t me. I wished that if I ended up in their position someone would offer me the same kindness that I was showing them. It was me me me.

    Fear and moral outrage, I believe are the same. They are about how I feel and think.  Compassion, to me, is taking your feelings out of the equation.  It’s respecting and loving fellow people not because they are like us, but because they are also human. It’s not about showing kindness because they are sick and about to die, it’s about showing kindness because they are human.  It’s still something I struggle with, but this is just my current take on it.

  5. I agree with a lot of the comments posted here. Compassion doesn’t have to mean approval, definitely. And it’s certainly harder to be compassionate toward someone you can’t stand. I guess I’ve always thought of compassion as an important aspect of how we treat others, but I never really thought of it as being blocked by moral outrage, and I think that’s a very interesting point. I haven’t watched the video yet (videos make me tired at the end of a long day… I know people like to watch mindless things but something not-mindless takes energy!), but what I’m wondering is how we can use compassion to cause change. And I mean this seriously, as something I want to work toward in my life as well.

  6. This feels so true for me today. Last night one of my online groups was full of people being outraged at each other and I was one of the voices trying to go, look if someone’s hurt by something, try to be considerate. Though I could only give so much and I finally gave up when I said how I felt from the statement that started it all and got reactions of I don’t know how to feel about that, which made me angry again. As all the discussion seemed to be about how they felt which is important, I statements are good but so is listening. I think what made it so hard was the person who said what started it off, dropped this stinker of a statement, oh you police that kind of language but not this kind, how amusing you are and then left. It was so flippant that my first reaction was anger but then it turned into this weird logical argument of but those two aren’t equal and I didn’t mean it that way and on and on while what was lost was what was said was hurtful. Its so hard to be compassionate when its easier to be angry and go, no, you’re saying I did something wrong when clearly I don’t think I did.

    It hurts to see as it just goes around in a painful and awful circle, which is still going around in my head even now. Its hard to run up against that sort of thing in a place you go for solace. As I try to think well of people and hope they’ll listen and for me this argument was one more thing on top of some long weeks and my own compassion and patience were worn thin. Compassion and empathy are hard but important. I’ll try and watch that video tonight. I’m currently traveling towards a vacation. Sorry for how long this got, I’ve been driving and thinking this over and this post presented a place to write out my thoughts.

  7. I think Susan hit the nail on the head. We try to be open-minded because, duh, this is a good thing. But there are limits to a sort of… I guess… “moral relativist” approach. I’ll grab some popcorn and watch the vid (I’ll admit I haven’t yet), but my gut reaction honestly is: There are plenty of things worth getting pissed the fuck off about.

    As feminists, I think plenty of folks will be familiar with the tendency in society to dismiss any strong reaction as “over-emotional.” You should be all un-biased and stuff, right? But when I get into it with someone over abortion, for example? No, I’m not ok with them using the term “pro-life” – the movement overall includes primarily individuals who support war, the death penalty, and denying basic healthcare to the poor. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to show “compassion” to a worldview that as a matter of principle has no compassion for others. It’s like being tolerant of intolerance (wish I could find that Wonka meme talking about the KKK right now). Look, some shit is just wrong – specifically, when it advocates mistreating others. I really don’t have compassion for misogynists or homophobes or racists, because what I’m being asked to be “compassionate” about is their lack of compassion for others.

    1. I think I’m going to take the idea of being “compassionate” toward misogynists or racists or such is trying to remember that they’re also human. They’re very rarely crazy psychopaths. But that sort of makes the fact that they are huge racists or such even worse, at least in my mind.

      I don’t know, I’m sort of conflicted on this article.

  8. This was quite wonderful. I look forward to watching the talk, but I’m late for a date with some cheesecake which I also need to save from the cat’s paws. But briefly:

    1. Is compassion necessary when dealing with those who disagree with us?
    2. Is moral outrage necessary for progress?

    I’m going to say no. At least, at the moment, without having spent more than a few minutes talking about what’s going on.

    1. Compassion can be part of dealing with those who disagree but I don’t think it’s necessary. What I feel is necessary, is acknowledgement and acceptance.

    2. I don’t think so. Though perhaps I’m wrong. Progress needs the knowledge that there is something better, sometimes anger can be a part of that, but anger is exhausting and can – again, as I see it – exhaust resources that could otherwise forward progree, but in turn outrage can be a fuel, too.

    What do you think readers? Is it possible to be outraged and compassionate at the same time?

    Oh, yes.

    1. Interesting. I think it’s a balancing act. I try never to get into the trap of assuming anyone who disagrees with me, even on issues I care deeply about, is The Enemy. I think you hit on it when you referred to something more like “acceptance” rather than compassion. I do think it’s important to look at someone who is on the opposite side as you and try to figure out where they’re coming from, and why. Not to make excuses for them, but to better understand what the underlying issues are. Maybe that’s compassion though; I’m not sure. This is a complicated topic.

  9. I think compassion is necessary when dealing with those who disagree with us.  But I also think that turning off the moral outrage is a bad, bad idea.  In my opinion, you can feel compassion for a person and be morally outraged at their actions/opinions.  Setting aside the moral outrage may indeed make us more compassionate – but there are fights that must be fought.

    1. What I took away from the vid is that compassion is what motivates us to act, while the fear, pity and outrage paralyze us. I don’t think Halifax is advocating that we not fight at all, only that we fight with our compassion fully engaged. Compassion doesn’t mean forgiveness or approval, to me.

      1. That makes sense, and I haven’t watched the video, just thinking about compassion and moral outrage in general.  I think that compassion is necessary – but I think outrage is a motivator.  Fear and pity may paralyze.  But outrage – I can’t help but think it’s necessary.

        And I definitely don’t think compassion means forgiveness or approval.  I think we’re in agreement on that.

        1. I think there might also be a difference between outrage at a system and moral outrage, which seems to be on a more individual level. Does that make sense?

          I don’t think we’re disagreeing at all, Halifax just really turned me on my head and made me think. I totally failed Philosophy in college (I still contend that Plato’s cave had nothing to do with abortion, which is why I failed.) so I’ve floundered with this topic.

    2. Yes, compassion is necessary, because to be honest, sometimes it can help you to see things for what they are.  Antichoicers, for instance, like Selena talked about, are full of moral outrage, yet lack compassion to see how their actions affect the people against whom they are acting.  However, a pro-choice person with compassion can call it for what it is, that these are people who need some abstract thing to fight for instead of taking a look at the suffering around them and trying to do positive things for the people who are already here.  They need something to hate and an outlet for their desire to hurt and humiliate, and if a prochoicer with compassion can see that, then it prevents a prochoicer from loweing himself or herself to act out of hate and malice like antichoicers do.

      Am I making sense?  Because this seems really convoluted.

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