My New Year’s Resolution: Choose Oultrage Over Outrage
I find it edifying to look up the definitions and etymology of words that represent abstractions. Today it’s “outrage.” It’s being talked about a lot, not least of all because of Slate’s recent collection of articles on the subject, specifically how it has been proliferated by social media.
The English definition for “outrage” is “an extremely strong reaction of anger, shock, or indignation” or “an action or event causing anger, shock, or indignation.” It originated from the French word “oultrage,” which has a subtly different meaning: “a wantonly vicious or cruel act; a gross violation of decency, morality, honour, etc.; or profound indignation, anger, or hurt, caused by such an act.”
The difference is this: In English, the primary definition is an action, and specifically a reaction. The secondary definition is the event spurring that reaction. The French definition for “oultrage” focuses instead on not just an act that elicits anger, shock, or indignation, but on the wantonness and cruelty, and the lack of decency, morality, and honor demonstrated by an act and only tertiarily on a feeling of indignation – not a reaction of indignation, but indignation itself – caused by an act that merits that indignation. The difference arises from the fact that in the English translation, the word has been perceived to be a compound of “out” and “rage,” whereas in French, “oultrage” is its own, distinct word with its own, distinct meaning. When we view it as “out-rage” it comes to mean rage that we project out of ourselves rather than a deep hurt caused by an act that is cruel, vicious act that is lacking in decency and morality.
It’s a nuanced difference, but it’s meaningful, because it defines whether that feeling goes inward or outward; it has a different emotional and social utility in each definition. The French definition calls for justified hurt following an emotional wound. The English version, on the other hand, evokes an image of a person shouting and shaking their fist at the sky; it’s a less directed anger, it has a less specific target, because the reaction comes before understanding why the reaction is happening – before understanding that hurt.
The use of the English word “outrage” peaked around 1850, hit its lowest in the 1950s, and has been on the rise since. We haven’t used the word “outrage” as much as we’re doing now since maybe the 1920s or 30s, and goodness knows, there was a lot to be outraged about in the 1930s. But Slate’s insistence that our outrage has something to do with our growing ability to communicate all the time, immediately, to a lot of people, hits something about the exact tenor of modern outrage, I think.
I said just the other day that it’s easy to get outraged online, that there’s a sort of outrage trap that’s seductive to fall into. I think the first time I really saw the outrage trap in action was in a seminal Jezebel article on internet trolls, “Don’t Ignore the Trolls. Feed Them Until They Explode.” It argues that if the internet, and Twitter especially, is too big to moderate effectively, women and others who are trolled shouldn’t just have to ignore the trolls. We should talk back, claim our space, respond with derision, retaliate. The author, Lindy West, is a (somewhat distant) professional acquaintance whose writing has shaped my own, who inspired me to write about the things I write about, and to write about them in the voice that I do. When I read this article, it felt like the right thing to do – it was published at a point in my physical-world (rather than internet-world) life when events causing not outrage, but oultrage, were at an all-time high. Outrage and retaliation seemed like a valid method to try out. I needed to claim my space and my voice and control my experiences.
But after a year-and-some, I’ve come to the point where I’ve been given a venue online to write about the things that I value and the things that have hurt me. I’ve been well-and-truly trolled, not by Twitter randos, but by a malicious set of misogynists who doxxed me and almost brought trouble into my life that I had gone through a lot of effort to eradicate from it. I’ve experienced a litany of microaggressions and reacted, reacted, reacted. It hasn’t proven useful. It’s resulted in a lot of emotional output with no effect on the people at whom I’m directing my anger.
Part of the problem is this: marginalized people experience microaggressions all day, every day. When we choose to react to one of them, we aren’t responding in proportion to the act committed by that specific person, we’re reacting to the totality of hurt that we’ve experienced in our lives. We’re making one random Twitter user into a figurehead for all the pain we’ve been through. And frankly, in a truly just world, that’s not really OK behavior. It’s mean. It’s an overwhelming reaction to the person we’re responding to.
I’m not going to go out of my way to accommodate the online rhetorical preferences of the cis, normatively abled, straight white men who tend to be my most frequent harassers, because the frameworks by which our culture and society and government work were constructed around their preferences as it stands. But if my oultrage caused by the whole group of them, little by little over time, is valid, so is their oultrage at being called babies and idiots and morons and being responded to for a silly, stupid statement with an overwhelming show of emotional force. In my ideal world, the feelings and perspectives of cis, normatively abled, straight white men would be precisely as important as mine as a bisexual cis-ish white woman with PTSD, or a genderfuck Black individual who falls on the autism spectrum, or a depressed gay Filipino, or a big-bodied dyke of Cuban descent, or a straight trans Chinese woman amputee. If that’s ever going to be the case, I have to start acting like it now and including cis, normatively abled straight white men more centrally in the realm of my compassion.
If I’m going to set a New Year’s resolution, it’s going to be to engage in oultrage, not outrage. I don’t want to project my anger outward anymore. I want to experience it, understand it, and validate it for myself instead of trying to get others to see and validate it by acting out toward my aggressors, and toward those who are aggressive to other marginalized people. On social media, it doesn’t mean ignoring the trolls, because that’s impossible. It doesn’t mean holding their hands and trying to reason with them, either, because they’re not interested in it and it’ll be a lot of work for me to little or no effect. It means observing them, understanding that they exist, and refusing to validate their bigotry and ignorance by responding. It means strategic silence and an effort to stay calm in the midst of feelings of justified indignation. In music, the rests are just as important as the notes; the silences are just as important as the sounds in creating a composition. I imagine the same goes for any other kind of creation, including the creation of arguments.
I’ve been thinking a lot about self-governance lately. I’m not convinced that, within the systems that are meant to dole out justice that exist already, real justice can actually be achieved, because we work on precedent, and our precedents pre-date slavery, suffrage, and civil rights. If I want to see real justice, I have to start living it myself. It’s that “be the change you want to see in the world” thing. And if not just my job, but really my entire social and personal life take place online, and that’s where I’ll interact with the majority of people I’ll interact with, then that’s where I have to begin.
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