Why The Moral Outrage, America?

by | Aug 20, 2015 | All Blog Feed, Healthy Relationships | 0 comments

Before you start reading, I need you to go track down your nearest string of pearls and get ready to clutch those bad boys tight, because what I’m going to tell you will leave you in a state of permanent shock at its abject horror:

Cheating and infidelity are issues in America.

Yup! And what’s worse – it’s not just your usual suspects of sex-starved bottom feeders preying on moral weaknesses of the usually moral middle class.  Oh no.  It’s so much bigger than that.  It’s your neighbor down the street, your boss, some high ranking government officials and even – oh gawd – dare I say it out loud:  a reality TV star!

Can you believe it?  Are you horrified and outraged? Or are you like me, scratching your head and looking around thinking,

“Why the hell is this news?” 

Yes, Virginia — Infidelity is Alive and Well in America. 

Infidelity isn’t new.  Adultery isn’t new.  Hell, adultery is so NOT new that it’s mentioned in many of the ancient texts of antiquity from the Ten Commandments to Hindu mythology. We see it referenced throughout the Middle Ages (i.e. Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale).  And it’s why Othello snuffs Desdemona in one of Shakespeare’s notable tragedies.

And in contemporary times, we’ve watched it from the sets of seedy day time talk shows with their endless episodes of paternity test results, and throughout some of our most beloved classic movies.

“Saturday night was for wives, but Friday night at the Copa was for the girlfriends.” – Henry Hill, Goodfellas

Suffice it to say, It’s something that we’ve essentially accepted as a realistic risk in relationships for a long time.

Moral Outrage or Something Else?

So why then the uproar over Ashley Madison?

Are we just disgusted that amoral behavior has become a publicly traded commodity?

Are we truly shaken to the core by the ease with which our contemporaries break their vows?

“Because for every one post I see on social media saying, “Those poor unsuspecting spouses!” there seem to be at least a dozen others seemingly reveling in the public shaming of both notable public figures, and the salacious Everyman’s in a neighborhood near you.”

Certainly there is no shortage of evils rippling through humanity— from child soldiers and sex trafficking, to pollution and violent civil eruptions fueled by polarizing ideologies.  So is this a case of moral outrage?  And if so, why is this particularly evil so worthy of our ire?

Just so we’re all on the same page, when it comes to defining moral outrage, I particularly enjoy Michael Mccullough’s working definition.  First he differentiates moral outrage from anger by explaining that anger is an emotion that we experience when we or members of our tribe are personally impacted by a wrong-doing.  We experience moral outrage, however, when the wrong-doing is experienced by others with whom we are not acquainted.

Thus, according to Mccullough, moral outrage is primarily fueled by our repulsion to social delinquency, and not the personalized impact of the act. “Upon experiencing moral outrage, it is thought, people become motivated to speak up, act out, and take action to correct the injustice and defend the downtrodden.”

Sounds great, right?

McCullough also argues that depersonalized outrage is a myth – noting that human imagination and empathy are likely driving forces behind our taking umbrage at so many different society ills. We think about how we would feel if an act were done to us or someone we love – and we punish based on that personalization.

But either way, in the case of the Ashley Madison leak, is that really what’s going on?

Because for every one post I see on social media saying, “Those poor unsuspecting spouses!” there seem to be at least a dozen others seemingly reveling in the public shaming of both notable public figures, and the salacious Everyman’s in a neighborhood near you.

For example, the BBC News reported today on two Aussie DJ’s, “Fitzy” and “Wippa,” interviewed a woman on their show about the leak. During the course of their conversation with her, they outed her husband as being listed in the database.  A revelation which clearly caused the woman distress, as she hung up sounding shocked and unsettled a few minutes later.  I can only imagine it was a devastating piece of news to receive so publicly.

Additionally, the internet was awash in new .gifs and meme’s that capitalized on some of the lists more famous names.  And some people described the leaks as “delicious” and “the best thing I’ve read all day.”

Hate to break it to you folks, but that’s not moral outrage.  That’s schadenfreude.

Schaden-what?

Schadenfreude. In German, the literal translation is “damage-joy”.  It means the “taking of malicious joy in the misfortune of others”.  In other words, reveling in the demise and destruction of another.  Sound familiar?  We use our superficial concern as fuel to tear others down when it’s socially convenient to do so.

“We want to be seen as people who get outraged about messed up stuff. So when an opportunity presents itself, I think we revel in the opportunity to flex our social superiority, and are secretly grateful that our culture keeps presenting us with such fantastic villains at which we can direct our indignation. “

Not, I would argue, in an effort to spread awareness or actually make a change, but rather so we can be seen in a certain light.  We want to be seen as people who get outraged about messed up stuff.  So when an opportunity presents itself, I think we revel in the opportunity to flex our social superiority, and are secretly grateful that our culture keeps presenting us with such fantastic villains at which we can direct our indignation.

Seems to me that most of the collective pearl clutching I’ve seen over the last 36 hrs or so has been of this variety rather than of any of the aforementioned.  We’re getting our panties twisted over this particular issue, not because we’re “mad-as-hell” at the notion of adultery, but rather because it’s something we can piss and moan about – and not have to do much else.

When you take issue with things like child sexual abuse, human trafficking or exploitation, there’s something to be done.  If we get outraged over those things, someone might ask us to actually go out and do something about it.

When we don’t, then we risk feeling guilt.  And that gets inconvenient.

We like our outrage to be like our ice cream – guilt free.