Too Much Outrage, and Not Nearly Enough

Bush Health Care Plan Ted Rall
My favourite cartoon from the ever-provocative Ted Rall

I‘ve been trying to figure out why some people love Michael Moore’s new movie Sicko, and others hate it. The wildly divergent reactions, it seems, have less to do with political view and more to do with the perceived solutions (or lack of them) to the outrageous situation that Moore presents — the utterly dysfunctional and egregiously expensive and inequitable US healthcare system.

Consider some of the other outrages that the daily news inundates us with daily:
  • Exxon’s and Big Oil’s effective lobbying of the Bush Administration to deny and ignore global warming, and to dismantle and not enforce environmental regulations;
  • The tragedy of diseases in struggling nations causing such misery — easily preventable, curable or at least treatable, if only the drugs and equipment were made affordable;
  • Koch Industries (the largest private company in the US), guilty of hundreds of horrific and deliberate environmental infractions that would have an ordinary citizen behind bars for life, escaping with tiny fines in out-of-court settlements orchestrated by good buddy and campaign recipient Bush;
  • The fraudulent war in Iraq, the abuse of civil liberties and other criminal responses to the events of 9/11 which have made the world much more dangerous and much more miserable, and left the US treasury bankrupt;
  • The obscene salaries of executives in the global corpocracy, funded by taxpayers through the massive subsidies these corporate welfare bums receive in return for their campaign contributions to establishment politicians, salaries of more in a single hour than the minimum-wage earner gets in a year, and more thanthe average struggling-nation wage-earner gets in their short lifetime.

These stories provoke two simultaneous reactions in most people: outrage and a feeling of impotence to do anything about them. Why would people tell us stories that make us so angry and conflicted? Several reasons:

  • Propaganda and manipulation: to instill fear and cow people into compliance with the established order;
  • Laziness: it is easier to stir people up about a problem than to do something about it;
  • Money or fame: outrage gets attention, with can produce ratings, fame and fortune;
  • Search for help: frustration and bafflement at not knowing what to do can cause people to shout out for answers, to whistle-blow, or to engage in curious gossip.

Stories that provoke helpless outrage are infectious, viral. They spread easily and quickly. But as the audience or storyteller, these stories have a toxic effect on us:

  • They make us angry and fearful,
  • They instill a sense of Learned Helplessness,
  • They provoke us to want to act, a willingness to do anything,
  • They make us want to inure ourselves from the helpless rage, through denial or just turning away, and
  • Most of all, they raise our stress level.

Not healthy. After awhile, some of us just turn it off, refuse to pay any more attention to the news.

What should we do? While some of these stories are trumped up or exaggerated, a lot of them are horrible truths, and ignoring them just plays into the hands of the perpetrators and their accomplices.

A healthier, more effective response would be:

  1. Critically assess the information: Consider who has the most to gain from exaggerating or denying it. Ask yourself whether it makes sense. Consider the source.
  2. Filter out information that is unactionable: If there’s nothing you can do about it, why worry about it? There are more than enough causes of stress in our lives without exposing ourselves pointlessly to more.
  3. Tease out actions that are simple and effective: If there is something you and others can do about it, make it simple to act, and ensure that action will be effective. There’s only so much time for activism, so we need to use it advantageously. In my experience, petitions rarely work. Good investigative research can accomplish a lot (the mainstream media, with few exceptions, are too lazy, cheap and compliant to do it, but they’ll often publish it if it’s handed to them. Direct face-to-face confrontations sometimes works. Street theatre sometimes works. Pick a strategy that’s novel and likely to get attention. If there isn’t one, then it’s unactionable — in which case see rule #2.
  4. Don’t pass on the information unless it’s credible and actionable: Gossip and rumour can be dangerous and cause suffering or litigation, and set back your cause. And if it’s unactionable, passing it on is just stressing out other people.
  5. Don’t mistake passing information on for action: If it’s actionable, act. Pass it on after you’ve acted, not instead of acting. Tell people what you’ve done that’s made a difference. Be a model.

So how would you apply these rules to Moore’s new movie?

Don’t go see it. There are better things to do with your time than to get stressed and frustrated about problems that have no answer.

What would it take to fix the US healthcare system? The same thing that, eventually, ‘fixes’ any dysfunctional complex system: crisis. When the system gets so overwhelmed, so expensive, so broken, that it falls apart, and there is enough of a sense of near-unanimous urgencyfor creating a new one, it will happen.

A few million people outraged and feeling impotent won’t be nearly enough to bring about change.

This entry was posted in Collapse Watch. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Too Much Outrage, and Not Nearly Enough

  1. Chris Hardie says:

    Thanks for the great entry, Dave!I agree that the natural outrage we tend to feel at the “state of affairs” in the world is often exploited and redirected inappropriately by the media machine. I also think increasing outrage has it’s helpful place in provoking action or a desire for specific action, where it might have been less focused before.I blogged some more about this in the link included.They key, as you note, is to distill out the stuff you can’t do anything about, and take on the items where you can make a difference.There’s also some raw pleasure for me in knowing that a main stream movie theatre that is so often just a conduit for spewing crap all over the place is actually being used to trigger important conversations about very relevant issues. I know, I’m still being exploited to some degree by paying for this passive entertainment, but it has a sense of providing some balance, however eventually futile, at the same time.

  2. lugon says:

    Seeds in the desert: create small things that work and that will be available when the crisis comes.Or, if you want a cruder analogy, “tents outside the twin towers”.Things that work today (even if at the margins) and will make a difference tomorrow.This is at least a complementary approach, I think.

  3. L L Donovan says:

    Engaging people in an emotional maelstrom is cruel and destructive. It’s easy to make people feel small, ineffectual and manipulated by the system. You are so right, Dave, in saying that if we attend movies, choose media pundits, or otherwise get behind some Pied Piper, it amounts to taking whatever personal power we have and relinquishing it for no discernable solution. It has frustrated me that people cannot see the self-serving nature of Michael Moore’s movies. He is making a fortune . . . filling his bank account. If he were truly concerned to get his version of the truth out, he would give the movies away.

  4. Terry says:

    Fortunately we have a much better health care system here in Canada. My brother in law was recently in a serious car accident in which his friend was killed. The last four months of free care he received was wonderful and free. Miraculously he is back at home, will never work or drive but has all his basic motor skills and has completely recovered from horrific brain damage. While in the good.old USA half of the personal bankruptcies are medical related. And 75% have insurance. What a mess. So. How do we save the world? How about incorporating the best practices of other countries instead of floudering around on our own? I don’t know. It’s a start.

Comments are closed.