What Ails Us?

BY Joel Bleifuss

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Does George Bush get you down?

Does your mind go numb when you read another story about another GOP-legislated atrocity?

Do you feel that you just can’t take any more of it? That you just are too tired to care?

You could be suffering from outrage fatigue. In which case, you are not alone.

The other day an editor here groaned, “Not another torture story.” A colleague snapped back, “That’s a win for them.”

The Web has been abuzz with discussions about “outrage fatigue” and its debilitating effects. Consider the following thoughts on the syndrome, gleaned from postings over the past couple years.

There is despair:

“I’m sorry guys, with so many things to be outraged about I’m worn down. It’s partly because it feels like nothing you do with the outrage has any effect,” writes Spocko.

“There has been so much to be outraged about from the Republicans the past six years and yet they have never been held to account. It is easy to just feel powerless and give up. It hurts too much to care about the state of the country,” writes Erik.

There is resignation:

“I just can’t get too outraged anymore since every day brings a new outrage. Law of diminishing returns and all that jazz I guess,” writes Cursed Pirate Monkey.

“It used to be I’d have opinions on the latest scary news of the government and all that shizzle, but over time, U.S. political shit has ended up provoking more a ‘meh’ reaction than anything else. … Just how mad can any single thing make a dude? The answer is that each drumbeat of the march in the wrong national direction reduces the capacity for outrage. Hence outrage muthafuckin’ fatigue, yo. My friend Bill is one of those lefty dudes who sends tons of e-mails like, ‘Man, can you believe this shit?’ Sorry Bill, but the muthafuckin’ truth hurts: I usually glance at your forward, think to myself, ‘Yes, that does kinda suck,’ then instantly trash the e-mail and go back to Fark,” writes Pat in Politics.

There is fear:

“The effect of outrage fatigue is actually scary–things that should be considered very damaging by the American voter just get slipped under the rug with very little notice. … The Bush White House has successfully recalibrated outrage meters so dramatically that we, and the American public, can hardly remember how we used to react to various kinds of events,” writes Frankly0.

There is backlash:

“As to outrage: What matters is getting Bush out of office. … The Bushies could care less how outraged you are. It’s the rope-a-dope defense. By November, all of our outrage reservoirs will be completely empty and we won’t even have the energy to vote,” writes Cleek.

“There’s this new chic meme out there in the blogosphere that people are calling ‘outrage fatigue.’ I dislike the term immensely. I actually think there’s this kind of spiritual battle between the concept of ‘standing up for what’s right’ and the concepts of cynicism, snarkiness and bitchy hopelessness. Referring to ‘outrage fatigue’ is just another way to make it okay to lose hope,” writes Curt. To which Cat, in despair mode, responds: “When you say ‘Outrage Fatigue,’ I interpret it as that awful feeling when you just have to stop reading the news for a while. When you fear that if you hear one more crappy thing, you’ll just crawl under your bed and die slowly.”

While Suzanne Marshall had this to say: “Even though I know how seriously messed-up the situation is in Iraq, I’ve became inured to all but the most extreme levels of wrongdoing. For months, no amount of civilian bombing could get me mad. Then those amazing photos of the tortured Iraqi prisoners hit the streets, and I got that old rush of overwhelming disgust with my government. Then more photos came out, and more officials were implicated, and now–I don’t know. It’s like a switch in my head turned off again.” Whoops, that last quote was from the Onion, playing off the zeitgeist.

Like its cousins–combat fatigue, donor fatigue, compassion fatigue, chronic fatigue, metal fatigue–outrage fatigue has yet to be recognized, or even noted, by the American Psychological Association. That could change as it begins to turn up in therapists’ caseloads. Jon Carroll reports in the San Francisco Chronicle, “A therapist I know says that more and more people are showing up at her door with a nonspecific anxiety disorder, which turns out to be shame and confusion about the state of the nation.”

So what’s the cure?

Outrage is a little bit like anger. Therapist Margaret Paul observes, “Anger that comes from an adult, rational place can be called outrage. Outrage is the feeling we have when confronted with injustice. Outrage mobilizes us to take appropriate action when harm is being done to ourselves, others and the planet.”

And like anger, when we don’t express our outrage, we repress it and turn that outrage in on ourselves.

That can have bad effects according to Ease@Work, a company that advises businesses on how to treat employees. “Repressed anger is unexpressed anger. Some people can internalize anger so that they fool others, and sometimes themselves, into believing they are not angry. The problem with repressed anger is that it is turned back inside the person, leading to health problems such as hypertension, stroke, and heart disease. … Bottling up this powerful emotion can make some people withdraw and lose interest in others and in activities, common signs of depression.”

In the case of a person grappling with outrage fatigue, the easiest solution is to protect yourself from bad news and learn not to care. Another solution is to do something about your outrage. Nurture it. Express it.

Bang a pot. In December 2001 in Argentina, pot bangers led a popular revolt against IMF-imposed economic austerity measures and toppled the government.

That has been tried here. As the Washington Times reported earlier this year, “Liberal activists–among them graying leftovers from the Vietnam-era antiwar movement–plan to gather near the Capitol tonight, banging pots and pans to drown out President Bush’s State of the Union address.” Maybe it didn’t work, but it no doubt felt good.

Managing Terror

While the American Psychological Association has not begun to address the needs of our brothers and sisters suffering outrage fatigue, it has worked closely with the White House in the war on terror. Heeding a call following 9/11 from Presidential Science Advisor John Marburger, the APA asked its members “for examples of research vignettes that might inform (directly or indirectly) strategies to deal with the aftermath of the nations terrorist attacks.”

One of the problems the APA addressed: “What can be done to help people cope with the ongoing threat of terrorism?”

What is known as Terror Management Theory (TMT) has the answer. According to the APA, “From the perspective of TMT, the recent terrorist attacks provided Americans with a massive reminder of death and the fragility of life, coupled with an attack on the psychological structures that normally protect us from fears of death and vulnerability.”

Indeed the public reaction to the attacks is very similar to what psychologists had previously discovered in more than 150 experiments on how people responded to reminders of death and threats to their cultural worldview. According to the APA, these responses include:

  • People respond more negatively to those who criticize one’s country and behaviorally distance themselves from such individuals.
  • People respond more positively to those who praise one’s country and behaviorally approach such persons.
  • People have increased attraction to heroes and greater reverence for cultural icons, such as American flags or crucifixes.
  • People have an increased desire for punishment of moral transgressors.
  • People experience a shift toward desires for security and away from desires for freedom.

No wonder we have outrage fatigue.

Postscript

As I was writing this, I was also working with Kurt Vonnegut on something he is writing for In These Times. That is, until I received a fax from him that said: “Forget it. I don’t want to fight any more.”

I faxed back, “Do you think you are suffering from outrage fatigue?” Adding that, if he was, did he have any thoughts about the condition?

The next day I received this fax: “About Outrage Fatigue: I knew what it was like to lose a battle. Now I know what it was like to lose a war.”

Fatigued, perhaps. But I am not going to let that get me down. I prefer to ponder the last joke Kurt told me: “George Bush is so dumb it wouldn’t surprise me if he thought Peter Pan was a wash basin in a whorehouse.”


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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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