Victims, Villains, Heroes: Righteous Outrage and Political Power

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Politics and Social Status

People’s politics are partly driven by a desire for status in society.

People tend to express political views that will win the approval of their peers. They will get involved in causes that will win the admiration of their peers. They tend to remain silent if they hold opinions that would result in the censure of their peers.

These belief systems become self-reinforcing in each subgroup of society. Churchgoers will adopt the beliefs of their congregation. Hollywood actors will adopt the beliefs of Hollywood. Police tend to share political views with other police. And so on.

Each person is connected to members of many different peer groups, but people will tend to adopt the views of the groups with which they are most connected.

Righteous Outrage

The self-reinforcing nature of political beliefs is driven largely by shame. People dread being shamed for holding the wrong beliefs.

But why are people so afraid of being wrong? Don’t educated societies respect differences of opinions? Don’t people know that someone can be wrong without being bad?

Perhaps in the beginning they do. But as the the boundaries between correct and taboo beliefs begin to crystalize, a certain force begins to flow within a group: righteous outrage.

Eventually, the group becomes so convinced of the righteousness of their beliefs, that certain members feel safe in expressing outrage against those who express the wrong beliefs.

Next, people begin to fear this outrage, and the shame of being its target.

So people that disagree learn to be silent, or to join in the chorus of outrage to better blend in. This results in a feedback loop — Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence. Meanwhile, those most interested in status and power learn they can earn it by expressing their righteous outrage the loudest.

Victims, Villains, Heroes

There are three main rungs on the societal ladder:

  • Hero
  • Victim
  • Villain

Everybody prefers to be a hero.

The hero expresses righteous outrage against villains on behalf of victims. The hero is outraged against the baby killers. The hero is outraged against a system rigged against the poor. The hero is outraged against terrorists and racists.

One Man’s Hero…

But most political issues can be framed in ways that swap the role of hero and villain.

The villain killing babies is also the hero defending women’s rights. The villain dishonoring the flag is also the hero fighting for equality. The villain oppressing Muslims is also the hero defending the nation against Islamic terrorism. It’s an easy game to play.

The hero gains status and political power within his or her group by expressing the most righteous outrage against villains and the greatest sympathy with victims. So heroes put a great deal of political energy into making people into villains and victims — as defined by their group — and expanding the definition of victim and villain as much as possible.

However, in doing this, heroes open themselves up to becoming villainized in return by the heroes of other groups.

Not everyone has what it takes to play the hero. If you don’t, you might settle for being a victim, because you can at least benefit from the political spoils of your hero. Never be the villain, if what you are after is status or power. If you disagree with the heroes, remain silent, or start finding new friends.

Outrage is a Weapon

The left and right are in a perpetual war, where one of the main weapons is outrage. When deployed in concentration, political opinion-makers can create a veritable firestorm of outrage. Social media acts as a kind of accelerant, and the people are the fuel: by allowing themselves to be consumed, they keep the outrage raging.

By expressing your outrage, you are contributing to your side in this war. If you are on the right side, maybe this is a good thing. But you are also contributing to a society where outrage and shame have more power than empathy and reason. I would ask you to reconsider your weapons.

April 29th, 2017 by