We are constantly assaulted by tragedy in our connected world. The news of massacres in distant lands, societal injustice, natural disasters, and disease outbreaks flow through every stream we have. When faced with this abundance of bad news it seems that if we feel any genuine sorrow at all it is quickly replaced by anger and outrage. Surely this should have been avoided! Somebody should have seen this coming! It’s not really surprising. After all, tragedy exposes our fear of helplessness and anger feels productive. I won’t argue that anger hasn’t, at times, motivated action and substantive change and improvement in our world. However, outrage seems to always carry a distorting effect on our expectations.
Outrage makes people feel that they can avoid the consequences of a world where we all bump up against each other, and everything around us. If only we come up with a system complex enough and clairvoyant enough we can all live without fear of danger, injustice, or offense. Time and experience seem to prove the opposite. Well intentioned systemic interventions in our society introduce unintended problems while trying to target specific ills. A measured approach to problem solving is comfortable with this reality, but outrage is not. Outrage is a beast that can never be satiated, it only grows more hungry as utopian dreams are unsatisfied.
This is not to say that we should not try to solve problems, even with big sweeping programs. But we need to understand that any solution or system we come up with must be provisional, subject to revision or rejection. This is especially hard in government, where political will is much more limited than outrage, and once programs are established they are nearly impossible to kill. Understanding that solutions are provisional cuts off outrage at the knees. We know these are not perfect solutions, but that’s part of life, and we can improve them as needed.