2012-04-03

Righteous Indignation

Righteous indignation strikes me as being a very powerful force. It seems to possess an almost supernatural ability to change the behavior of susceptible people. And, in fact, most people appear to be susceptible to righteous indignation.

There are probably evolutionary reasons why righteous indignation has developed as a force within the social dynamic.But if you're a faithful Stationary Waves reader, then you already understand that I don't really enjoy looking at human behavior through the lens of evolutionary mechanisms. After all, when one becomes indignant, he is not aiming at any evolutionary purpose; he is not guaranteeing the success of his progeny. He is simply trying to get his way.

In my view, righteous indignation is more like a childhood temper tantrum. When a toddler doesn't get his way, he is quick to proclaim that the situation isn't fair, that people don't love him, that others have previously received the benefits that he himself is asking for now. The more resistance the toddler faces, the more indignant he becomes, right up to the point where he collapses on the ground, screaming and crying, in a last-ditch effort to evoke capitulation in others.

Naturally, temper tantrums only work on very weak parents. Then, why does righteous indignation seem to work on almost anybody?

Tyler Cowen and India
Here's a case in point. Last night, Tyler Cowen posted a movie review of the new movie Mirror, Mirror on his blog, Marginal Revolution. At first, I thought it was just another one of Cowen's movie reviews, but the commenters on the website knew better. First, I noticed this from someone calling himself "TrollsWillTroll":
Tyler gets bullied.
Tyler appeases bully.
Tyler sets precedent.
Curious as to what the context of this comment was, I read through the comments sections of the last few MR posts, and quickly found what I was looking for. On March 31st, Cowen posted one of his multiplicitous "Assorted links" posts, in which he provides bullet-point links with little or no follow-up commentary (the commentary is supposed to be provided by the readers. There, Cowen simply stated: "5. The rising hostility to foreign firms in India, worrying."

Pretty innocuous, and yet a character calling himself "Sandeep" went on a rather astounding flurry of righteous indignation, beginning with this:

#5 was not meant for analysis. TC posts such links only because he wants to trash a country that he believes is populated with subhumans. 
I say this because there has been an unmistakeably consistent pattern that: 1. While most links from TC about other countries contain both good and bad things (in some cases only good), India is the only country about which his writing has been almost exclusively negative (the remaining instances being neutral). 2. Usually defects in societies invites analysis at MR; but in the case of India, TC’s links NEVER goes into historical factors. Those articles only involve elaborate descriptions of how things suck in India. 
In contrast he has written positive things about Pakistan, posted a link claiming there was brain surgery in Turkey 5000 years ago etc.
It's difficult to take this sort of thing seriously, and the majority of MR commenters certainly did not. Cowen, however, did, and posted a comment of his own - albeit not as a "reply" to anyone in particular: "India is one of my very favorite countries and I wish to go back soon for a third visit!"

Combine that "appeasement" with the overly analytical movie review of Mirror, Mirror, and it would appear that "TrollsWillTroll" was exactly right about Cowen, at least in this case.

Ryan at a Panel Discussion
A few years ago, I attended a public panel discussion, the topic of which was a very controversial and highly visible international political issue. (For the sake of my example, the particular topic in question is unimportant.)

During the first half of the discussion, people were civil, mild-mannered, and engaged in good-faith, open, honest dialogue. The panel discussion was achieving its aim.

Then, suddenly, a woman in the audience stood up to "ask a question," and instead... yep, you guessed it. She became indignant, righteously indignant. She took offense to the whole topic as an affront to herself and her culture. She rambled on and on. Then, to my surprise, she continued rambling as she picked up her coat, kept scolding the panel, and continued this way as she walked right out the door.

It would have been hilarious, had it not completely changed the group dynamic. Something about her righteous indignation had sent a social cue throughout the entire audience. Suddenly, all good faith was lost. Suddenly, real open dialogue was impossible. People stopped making points. Instead, they began clinging to the most extreme versions of their points of view.

The discussion evaporated. The panel wrapped up, and we all went home, somewhat dumber than we were when we arrived.

Ryan In School
One of my favorite stories to tell people is the one about the time I was sitting in a high school civics class, discussing the multiple facets of the abortion issue. The first day we tackled the issue in class, nearly everyone there was open-minded and curious about things. When the teacher solicited everyone's opinion, the students gave cautious, balanced statements that conveyed the fact that they were simply unsure about these things. They were high school students. It was a normal reaction.

Yet, when we returned to class the next day, I suddenly discovered that my classmates had magically become polarized on the issue. I presume that they had returned home the previous evening and discussed it with their parents, whose views of abortion were much more solidified than those of their children. And what debate inspires more righteous indignation from people than the debate around abortion?

It is certainly conjecture on my part, but I think it nonetheless a reasonable inference to suggest that these poor, confused teenagers had tried to discuss a complicated issue with their parents that night, only to face their parents' righteous indignation on the issue. The impact of this on the children was to make their views - the children's views - more polarized.

After a single evening, they had completely altered their approach to the issue from being one of cautious open-mindedness to one of complete and polarized closure.

A couple of my regular readers were in that class. I hope they remember it, too. It was a formative couple of days in my life.

The Magic Power of Righteous Indignation
What is it about this force that inspires such complete capitulation in social groups. Why is that one indignant person can change the dynamic of an entire social group from being open-minded to being close-minded?

For those of you familiar with passionate religious groups, I am sure you will agree that they are another classic example. A group of believers can be as moderate as they please, up until the point that one of them starts pointing out all the sin in the room; suddenly, everyone becomes the most pious religious adherent ever seen. (I have witnessed this happening among people of virtually every major religion in the world.)

How many political negotiations have been completely undone by righteous indignation? How many governmental compromises have been negated by one or more sides becoming thoroughly indignant, throwing the political equivalent of a fit, and polarizing their views?

I would never suggest that every compromise is a good one, but certainly good compromises do exist, and many of them have been destroyed by indignant reactionaries. You may fill in the blanks with your specific examples, if you wish.

The fact remains that what would be a temper tantrum in a small child suddenly becomes black magic in the hands of socially connected adult. Admonishing the broader group for their wrong-headedness and unfairness, an indignant person can alter the course of that and all future discussions within the group.

It is like clockwork. Two people can be having a good, positive, and open discussion, but if a third chimes in with indignation, at least one of the first two parties will end up siding with the third. The issue is irrelevant. The only relevant fact is that there exists righteous indignation in the room. Righteous indignation always wins.

So What Do We Do About It?
I am probably not the best person to provide a way forward when it comes to these situations. For one thing, I consider indignation to be some variant of a childish temper tantrum. Put another way, righteous indignation is powerless against me. I don't take it seriously. I consider it a major shortcoming of those who exhibit it.

For another thing, I have never been in a discussion in which righteous indignation was overcome by the group. It has absolutely poisoned each and every discussion it has touched, as far as my own experience is concerned. This is true regardless of whether I have been an active participant in the discussion, or a mere passive observer.

Finally, the vast majority of people appear susceptible to it, as far as I can tell. So if others dislike it, you wouldn't know it from their propensity to console the indignant at every opportunity.

Therefore, as unhelpful as this suggestion may seem, my recommendation is to mostly steer clear of it. It is a good thing to foster positive, open discussions with other people. However, we must learn to accept that as soon as righteous indignation enters the room, all hope is lost. The discussion cannot continue. Our best hope is to wrap things up quickly before they get out of hand, and perhaps attempt another discussion at some later date, and hopefully without the person who became indignant the first time around.

This nasty, poisonous stuff called righteous indignation can only be avoided, because there is no winning when pitted against a person whose sole objective is to inspire others to feel sorry for him or her.

If reason and open-mindedness are the goals, you simply will not find them in the indignant.