The Pitfall of Moral Outrage

Lately, a discussion I have had among many friends, both online and off, has been about how deeply engaged in the world we can be as Buddhists. Did the Buddha espouse a philosophy of world-denial and escape? Or was his teaching aimed at creating greater engagement through understanding and compassion?

Over the last couple years, my own orientation has been much more toward engagement, especially in response to the suffering I witnessed after the 2016 US elections. I recall at the time being grateful for my meditation practice, returning to my breath and my bodily grounding in this time of great human uncertainty.

At the same time, I knew how deeply privileged I was to be able to “breathe through the chaos” of that election and what I could reasonably see coming in the months and years to come. As a white male, I wouldn’t have to worry about increased restrictions on women’s bodies, decreased fair labor and wage laws for women, decreased care for the elderly and disabled, decreased funding for refugees and immigrant services, increased funding for military-style law enforcement, increased anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-women rhetoric, and the ensuing rise in hate crimes against these people.

I could “breathe” my way through all of this unaffected in my body and in my day-to-day living.

But instead I chose action, engagement, working with local friends, mostly women who were deeply concerned about the impending loss of their rights, loss of programs that serve them, loss of levels of equality which they and others have fought so deeply for. I reached out to people of different religious backgrounds – interfaith work being one area where I knew I could serve deeply.

But along the way I also found myself worn out several times, and at some of those times deeply resenting those with energy and resources who I felt weren’t pitching in. I was caught between people more oppressed and suffering than me who nonetheless worked and continue to work tirelessly for their rights and for others around them, and people doing fairly okay for themselves or better, working maybe just a bit here or there on social issues. The more I saw this, the more a “moral nerve” was struck and the more angry I became: both at the inactive well off folks and at the system which continues to reward privilege for privilege-sake and to disempower those who work hardest to establish fairness in society.

To give a concrete example, the other day a white southern woman was interviewed on NPR about her family’s slave-owning history and the legacy of lynching in America. She was deeply aware of that history and the way that slavery shaped and continues to shape race relations in America today. The interviewer asked something like, “what about people who say we just need to move on beyond this now; people can just work hard and get ahead and maybe that’s what they should have been doing back then [in the Civil Rights era] as well.” Her response, without missing a beat, was that “those people of color who worked hardest in that time were the ones who were lynched. That violence was meant to send a message to ambitious people of color: keep your head down.” And this violence continues today.

This is true. And it can and perhaps should motivate moral outrage for everyone in America today.

And yet, the pitfall of moral outrage is the kind of anger that blinds you. It also burns; as the Buddhist story of anger being like a hot coal; we pick it up to throw at others but we ourselves are first burned.

I had the honor of seeing Roshi Joan Halifax this week as she visited Seattle to kick off a book tour. She spoke directly to this problem, of the toxic nature of moral outrage if it isn’t quickly turned toward transformative action. Once that transformative turn is made, there is room for joy and community and even success in overcoming the object of outrage. Without it, there is just anger, and the objects of moral outrage so often feed off of the anger of those they oppose. So it weakens the just and upright and emboldens the perpetrators of harm.

Slowly, but hopefully surely, I’ve been working my way out of this state of outrage. It’s a pit in many ways and it’s not necessarily easy to get out of. But with the help of good friends, I’ve shifted my energy more and more toward solutions, away from the many sources of strife and conflict (and there are so many).

This is the side of Buddhism that I think lifts us up – moves us away from the world in a sense, but absolutely not out of it or away from it. The image I have is of Buddhist practice helping us look up at the world fully and honestly, whereas too often we get fixated on the square inch of pavement in front of our feet. If our head leans up too far we also get a bit lost in a different way, but somewhere in the middle we find clarity: both the equanimity of seeing wide and far and the engagement of looking with honestly and clarity at the suffering of the world.

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