Education in the Age of Outrage

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

As an openly bisexual woman who did not have a single female professor throughout my college and postgraduate education in any subject, and who faced harassment and abuse, as well as downright sabotage in graduate school, I am sympathetic to efforts on campuses to give voice and equal power to groups that have been historically excluded and silenced.

Now, as a philosophy professor, I am part of perhaps the most male-dominated (and arguably least feminist-friendly) discipline in the humanities, and have dedicated much of my career to mentoring women and students of color. I understand that injustice and inequality remain firmly in place, and in order to eliminate it, much more work remains to be done.

So it is with some trepidation that I admit that the current political climate in academia confuses me. The more I read about trigger warnings, safe spaces and petitions to retract scholarly articles, the more my head spins. On top of that confusion, I harbor a fear of expressing views that will offend other progressives, scholars and teachers who may also be fighting oppression. And I fear being subject to public shaming on social media, and receiving private hate mail (I still am, after my response in May to the controversy over Rebecca Tuvel’s article in the journal Hypatia). In short, I find myself in an educational environment in which outrage, censoring and public shaming has begun to replace critique, disagreement and debate.

Public shaming always has a purpose, whether it comes from the left or right, from progressives or conservatives, activists or armchair philosophers. It may be an effective way to close down discussion, or deter others from taking certain unwanted political positions. It may also be a way to circumvent the status quo in the academy and challenge the standards of academic publishing and career advancement.

But the problematic effects of public shaming are many — among them, silencing “allies,” blaming individuals rather than examining social context, fostering intolerance and divisiveness, creating a “with-us-or-against-us” ethos, and reducing identity politics to a version of “oppression Olympics.” In cases where pain and suffering are equated with moral authority, calling out injustice can operate as a form of signaling virtue.

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Let’s face it, outrage sells. That’s why social media and mainstream news outlets are invested in promoting it; they can both fuel and produce desires by tailoring their content to suit individual tastes. The red and blue newsfeeds and the “click bait” that proliferate on them produce profits, but they have also helped to make our time one of deep divisions and reactionary hatred, with a radicalization of both sides in a culture war that risks deepening into a civil war, with militarized armies of fascists and anti-fascists fighting in the streets.

In a culture that increasingly values raw emotions uncontaminated by scholarly analysis, the uncritical legitimation of feelings as the basis for moral authority becomes a form of political leveling. If unexamined outrage is the new truth, then we are moving dangerously close to a form of reactionary politics that closes down difficult discussions and prevents us from distinguishing between sexism or racism and critical discussions of them. Certainly, as Pascal said, “the heart has its reasons of which reason knows not,” but we have arrived at a point where we need to analyze what they are in order to better understand ourselves and others.

Privileging raw feelings over the cooked analysis of them not only fuels anti-intellectualism, but also conceals the socio-historical context that produces those feelings. In other words, feelings are never completely raw, but always already cooked. So, too, analysis is never completely devoid of emotion. Pathos and logos aren’t polar opposites. Yet to authorize outrage (whether on the left or the right) as foundational and beyond analysis is to deny the ways in which race, class, gender, politics, upbringing, culture and history shape our emotions.

When outrage becomes an end in itself, it also becomes a form of fundamentalism and part of a dogma of purity that can be potentially aggressive, hostile and violent. When political activism becomes dogmatic and punishing, it uses the same techniques of exclusion and oppression that it rejects — only now in the name of liberation.

While political purity and fundamentalism are expressions of real distress, they close down self-critical examination of that distress, and our own investments in violence. And, they produce a need for ever more and stronger outrage. Furthermore, if unexamined feelings and outrage always trump arguments and analysis, then the unhappy consequence is that white nationalists and on-campus rapists will be as justified in their claims to victimhood and safe spaces as black men and women abused by police or women who’ve been raped. We need ways of distinguishing between calling in and calling out to fight oppression-based violence.

Leveling violence and harm, and ignoring socio-historical context, risks undermining the voices of victims of the worst abuse and oppression. Comparing the suffering of perpetrators of racial or sexual violence and hate speech to the suffering of their victims is an unacceptable consequence of accepting outrage as the source of moral authority. Comparing the pain and suffering of being raped to the pain and suffering of being accused of rape not only belittles the experiences of the rape victim, but also coops the discourse of victimhood in ways that demand analysis. So, too, comparing teachers and scholars criticizing sexism and racism to perpetrators of violence and hate speech closes down discussions necessary to address — and hopefully overcome — those very harms.

Obviously, as teachers and scholars, we make mistakes and need to be open to interminable education. But the conditions for critical teaching and learning are undermined when feelings are equated with reasons in call-out culture.

Certainly, outrage has a place in the academy and in politics. But when emotional pain and suffering are taken as the foundation of moral authority and cannot be analyzed because they are viewed as absolute truths or obvious facts, the mission of higher education — to examine unquestioned assumptions about the world and the self — becomes a mission impossible.

Although social media can be effective for organizing, and for forming communities (on both the left and the right), it is also often fueled by emotional reaction rather than thoughtful response. Life is flattened to fit the screen, and cute cat videos play next to photographs of the latest atrocity. Social media works by leveling and ripping bits of life from their contexts as a form of entertainment or news — the more outrageous, the better. As consumers, we engage in the virtual performance of pathos and moral virtue with our likes, crying or angry Emojis, and the circulation of outrage or sympathy through sharing petitions or calls for donations.

In academia, social media has become not just a way to disseminate research, or engage in debate, but also a way to close it down by shaming and cyberbullying. Outrage may be the first word in social transformation, but it shouldn’t be the last. In our racist and sexist culture, no one is “pure” when it comes to issues of race and gender, and the moral high ground is always precarious. As teachers, hopefully we can still agree that education has value, especially when it comes to educating each other and ourselves.