Judaism - Torah

Moral Outrage | Yom Kippur 5779

Draco Malfoy is a jerk.

Draco Malfoy – one of the antagonists in the Harry Potter series – is an elitist. He lacks compassion and empathy, revels in bullying, and – depending on where you stand in your reading of the books – he may have been an attempted murderer.

If you are not among the legions of those who have read or watched the Harry Potter canon, bear with me for a moment, as I paint a scene of Draco Malfoy’s malevolence. And if you know the series by heart, pay attention, because you might discover something new, like I recently did.

There’s this moment from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – my favourite of the books:

While Harry and his best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, are waiting in line for dinner, Draco Malfoy parades in. He’s obnoxiously reading aloud a newspaper article highly critical of Ron’s father. And then he fires off a crude insult about Ron’s mother’s weight.

Harry comes to Ron’s defense. He takes a pot-shot of his own at Draco’s mother.

And this is when Draco Malfoy casts a spell aimed at Harry, while his back is turned.

Like I said, Draco Malfoy is a jerk.

Nearby, one of their teachers, Mad-Eye Moody, has been watching. Not wanting Harry to get shot in the back, he casts his own defensive spell, turning Draco into a ferret. With magic, he torments the Malfoy ferret, tossing him around from floor to ceiling.

And this is when the calm, yet stern Professor McGonagall shows up. She puts an end to the draconian punishment. And with her trademark stoicism, she informs Mad-Eye Moody that this is not how they punish students.

 

This is from the fourth book in the Harry Potter series, and by now, our brewing anger and disdain for Malfoy has reached a boiling point. We’ve spent three and a half books learning of his cruelty toward Harry, and yet he never gets judged or punished. We feel morally justified in our anger toward him – just like Harry and Mad-Eye. Which is why it’s so satisfying to us when Draco is turned into a ferret.

But while a commitment to morals is one thing, resorting to outrageous and divisive acts in its name is another thing entirely.

I’ve been re-watching and re-reading the entire Harry Potter canon. It started off as pure entertainment, but the last time I read the first book, it was half a lifetime ago. Today, I’m struck by how remarkably they touch on some of the very challenges we confront every day: Fear of the stranger. Divisiveness. Unease at public dissent. Moral outrage.

Perhaps the fantasy world of Harry Potter doesn’t do justice to today’s stakes. Of course, moral outrage is not just an affliction plaguing the citizens of magical England. There is, we know an overabundance of it right now. On Sunday, the Washington Post published an article simply titled: Anger. “Anger,” it says “is all the rage right now. The rate of anger ‘reactions’ on… Facebook posts is rising rapidly…”

Back in 2016, the most popular emotional reaction on Facebook was “love.” Today, “[people] demand comeuppance for decades of injustice, as long-simmering furies boil over.” The publication, The New Statesman dedicated an entire edition to the phenomenon, saying we are now living in the “Age of Outrage.”

Just last week, I saw a political argument unfold on Twitter. After a few back and forth Tweets, here’s how it ended:

F-off.

Then keep f-ing off.

F-off until you come up to a gate with a sign saying ‘you can’t f-off past here.’

Climb over the gate, dream the impossible dream, and keep f-ing off forever.”

Such effort just to shut someone else down.

In many ways, the rise in moral outrage seems justifiable and understandable. We don’t have to look far to find offences which cry out to us for attention.

So one side of the argument goes: this is no time for civility. The moral causes of our time demand public shaming, harassment, and humiliation. To not be outraged is to be complicit.

The other side argues: while a degree of moral outrage can be useful in effecting social change, so much of it today is toxic. It has dangerous psychological implications. And we are becoming addicted to outrage.

Whichever side of the debate you land on, it’s hard to escape the feeling that our emotional spectrum has narrowed.

“Are we too easily outraged?” asks Sarah Kaufman, the Washington Post writer, in The Art of Grace. “Or are we numb to what is truly outrageous… because we’re outraged? Internet outrage has become a fact of life, a ritual of righteous indignation practiced after the inappropriate tweet.”

How much do we rush to stifle any opposition through our outrage, rather than engage in civil discourse?

How much do we assume we know the entirety of our opponent’s character, rather than opening ourselves up with curiosity to learn more?

And how much would we rather eliminate our ideological opponents entirely – like turning them into a ferret – rather than sharing space?

The answer, today, I think we all know, is far too much. Moral superiority is now claimed through outrage. The elimination of ideas and the debasement of others is par for the course.

It’s feelings like this that make it seem as though all examples of moral outrage are unhelpful. But that might not have always been the case.

Historically speaking, moral outrage wasn’t always as toxic and hateful as it is today. There were benefits to this emotion.

Molly Crockett, a Psychology researcher at Yale University, teaches that moral outrage “evolved in the context of small groups, where people interacted face to face and formed long-term relationships… Outrage was optimized for this environment… it served a valuable social role by providing powerful incentives for moral behaviour – if you stole from your… partner, he could get you kicked out of the group, and since being in a group was crucial for survival, ostracism was a death sentence.”

Once upon a time, moral outrage helped groups cooperate, established trustworthy relationships, and effected positive social change.

In the very Haftarah we read today, the prophet Isaiah “cries out with full throat, without restraint,” attacking the false piety of those who claimed to be religious, yet ignored the cries of the oppressed, the hungry, the poor, and the homeless.

Especially known for his moral outrage was the prophet Jeremiah, speaking 2,600 years ago. He railed against the moral failings of the Jewish community in Jerusalem. He excoriated the wealthy for their indifference to income inequality. With blistering outrage, he condemned those who failed to protect the most vulnerable: the orphan, the widow, and the homeless. His prophetic poetry tireless assails those lacking the compassion and humility to care for the most innocent.

“In the 52 chapters of [the] moral opus [of Jeremiah],” the writer Talia Lavin observes, “he lashes out at Jerusalem with such ferocity that the modern English word for a castigating speech is jeremiad.”

So there’s good precedent for outrage at the very same moral offences we see today. “There is no value to meekness or servility,” Lavin argues. “The most moral figure in the Bible is its leastcivil. Jeremiah never considers electoral strategy, or even the popularity of his cause. He speaks what he knows to be just.”

Or, for more recent examples: Without moral outrage, the civil rights movement wouldn’t have gotten very far. And you wouldn’t have Black Lives Matter or #MeToo. “Without a healthy sense of what’s morally agreeable and what’s morally reprehensible, progress of any kind is likely impossible.”

So maybe Jeremiah would have sided with Harry Potter against Draco Malfoy. He may have thought Professor McGonagall too timid. Were he alive today, perhaps he would be among the most prolific Twitter users, inventing his own biblically-tinged resistance hashtags.

Something tells me, though, that things are different for us than they were for Isaiah, Jeremiah, and even MLK. And new research indeed suggests that our ancient outrage instincts may be ill adapted for the modern world.

Once upon a time, moral outrage functioned well in communities where we saw each other face-to-face. It broadcast an idea of goodness, deterred bad behaviour, signalled our trustworthiness, and established communal cohesiveness.

But today, the internet in general, and social media specifically have radically changed these incentives.

If moral outrage is a fire, the internet is like gasoline.”

Now, we effortlessly broadcast our outrage to an audience bigger than it ever has been before, but rarely to the person or thing we’re outraged by. We don’t have to see the faces of the people we shun. With just a few keystrokes, we advertise our morally good behaviour to our entire social network and beyond. Our so-called virtue goes viral.

But what of it? A consensus is growing that moral outrage is not improving our communities as it once did. We don’t engage in face-to-face rebuking for the sake of social improvement. We signal our virtue and morality to others more and more, but actupon it less and less.

And with the anonymity of the internet, we shame and degrade each other more often. Social divides are deepening, a desire to punish others and make them seem less human is growing, and we may be losing our ability to distinguish “the truly heinous from the merely disagreeable.”

My point is not that we should all just be moral relativists, indifferent, or apathetic. But we must challenge the idea that moral outrage should be entrenched as a default, habitual behaviour.

Because this isn’t just a societal concern. It’s happening inside us – within our very hearts and minds.

Facebook and Twitter know about our evolutionary capacity for moral outrage. And they have preyed upon it. To get us to spend more time online, we are fed a continual diet of content selected just for us. And these companies know that anger engages.

We are being incentivized, like a science experiment, to react with moral outrage in ways that we wouldn’t normally. Our behaviour is being changed by computer algorithms that aren’t accountable to anyone or anything except growing advertising revenue.

Dr. Molly Crockett sounds the alarm: “On a psychological, neuroscientific level, our behaviour is being rewired. We’re less goal-directed, intentional, and deliberate, and more automatic and habitual.”

Increasingly – and largely unconsciously – we are developing habits of outrage. This is profoundly troubling, particularly on this day of atonement and introspection – how are we to accept responsibility for behaviours which are becoming increasingly involuntary?

 

Think back to Harry Potter. Draco Malfoy – Harry’s nemesis – has been transformed into a ferret. We laugh alongside Harry and his companions. Why? Because finally, Draco gets his just desserts! His day has come. And we revel in his humiliation.

And why shouldn’t we? For the most part, he’s a morally repugnant character whose aggressiveness, belief in ethnic purity, and hostility toward the proverbial “other” demand moral opposition.

But here’s the new insight that caught me off guard:

There’s a podcast called Harry Potter and the Sacred Text that studies the series similar to the way that we study Torah. In their commentary on the altercation between Harry and Draco, the hosts – Casper and Vanessa, Fellows at Harvard Divinity School – suggest something fascinating:

They teach that Harry and Mad-Eye – in their quest for emotional revenge – have developed a codependency on their nemesis Draco. They depend on Draco as an antagonist for their own sense of self-worth. And they bring us along with them. Look how good and moral weare, shutting down our villainous opponent.

But Professor McGonagall, “with her poise and good judgment,” even though she knows that “Draco’s a jerk… and in a karmic way had this coming,” has a firm understanding of her responsibility. She speaks up and acts out against a situation she finds morally untenable, but doesn’t make it about Draco or herself. There’s no personal judgment or codependency getting in the way.

 

How much do we depend on our opposition to others and their ideas to build up our own moral self-worth, and broadcast it to our supporters?

To put it another way: Given all the emerging research, how much are we letting our emotions and intellect become hijacked by others?

Do we really want to cede control of our strongest moral emotions, becoming codependent upon internet companies that are indifferent to our own welfare?

The expression of moral emotions is core to our identity and our humanity. So they should be under our control and intentional. And we should be concerned if there are forces making those expressions less intentional.

The question isn’t whether or not moral outrage is okay in and of itself. Moral outrage can be a force for good. But we must be mindful of who it is serving. If it’s just ourselves and our egos – it’s no good. If it’s a habitual, mindless anger – it’s even worse.

 

How can we fight back against the habit? Here’s one way, inspired by a story of divine patience.

Amongst our prayers on these holy days is an especially stirring moment when we describe the attributes of God:

יְהוָ֣ה ׀ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽתנֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙

God, merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, assuring love for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon.

According to our tradition, one of God’s qualities is profound patience. God is erekh apayim– slow to anger.

The ancient rabbis want to know more about this – what does it mean that God is slow to anger? They tell this story:

There was a king who had a very powerful army. The king said to himself: “If the army is stationed with me in the city, then when my citizens anger me, it will be too easy for me to be tempted to send my army against them. Instead, I will station the army far away. That way, if my citizens anger me, then by the time I am tempted to send for my army, my anger will have calmed, and I can forgive them.

– Jerusalem Talmud Ta’anit 9a

This is what it means to be slow to anger.

We all have the urge to go on the attack; to express moral outrage; to send our proverbial armies out into the world. Even God is imagined to have these urges! Social psychologists tell us that this is normal, even helpful at times.

But what is less normal, and clearly much less helpful, is always being in an offensive posture.

So can we work to keep our army – our desire to be outraged – a little further away, so that we don’t default to this stance?

Russ Roberts, an economist at Stanford University has written about the moral outrage epidemic. He has a few pieces of advice for how to deal with it. Among them are three that land squarely with our focus right now:

One: Spend less time with computers and more time with human beings. We’re already succeeding at this right now, as we sit here with each other, and undertake some of the most critical tasks of being human.

The importance of human-to-human contact can’t be understated. It’s how we receive real honest feedback. It’s how we make sure constructive criticism doesn’t devolve into hurtful outrage. It’s how we practice grace, kindness, compassion, love, and gratitude. You can’t do these things with a computer algorithm.

Two: Engage with more humility. It’s so easy to assume that our own moral barometer is always just, without considering our own biases. This is one of the reasons why on Yom Kippur, we admit our failings in the plural: ashamnu; bagadnu; gazalnuwehave done wrong, wehave been unfaithful, wehave taken what is not ours. We resist the temptation to only blame others, and instead reflect on our communal responsibility.

And Three: Hold your anger for a day. Like the king in our story, we need the wisdom and foresight to acknowledge that for now, at least, we’re fighting an uphill battle.

 

If we give ourselves time to approach our opponents – real or imagined – with humility, curiosity, a desire to learn more, and a moment of patience to determine if our moral outrage is needed, then when the moment calls for real moral outrage, we will have some perspective and balance.

Then, we can bring the fullness of our emotional selves to the task at hand.

Then, perhaps, can recapture some of the prophetic wisdom offered up so long ago.

Then, we can help rebuild trust and community.

Then, we can share space with each other, and bring more goodness into the world.

Then, we can echo the very words we say about God:

יְהוָ֣ה ׀ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽתנֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙

God, merciful and compassionate,
slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,
assuring love for thousands of generations,
forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin,
and granting pardon.

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