Another shot of outrage, anyone?

mobThe joke goes something like this.

A guy walks into a bar and orders a drink. The barkeep pours it, and the guy picks up the glass — and then splashes the booze all over his face. “Geez, buddy,” says the surprised barkeep, “why‘d you do that?” The man, genuinely perplexed, says, “I wish I knew. I‘ve been doing it for years. Every time I pick up a drink — bam! All over my face.” The barkeep nods wisely and tells the guy he should see a psychologist about it. And so he does.

Week after week, month after month, year after year, the guy delves into his psyche, his childhood, his parents, his dreams, his sex life, his hopes and his fears. And at last, after ten years of therapy, he returns to the bar and triumphantly orders a drink.

The barkeep pours him a shot and stands back expectantly. The guy raises the glass, winks confidently at the barkeep — and then splashes the booze all over his face.

“Aw hell, buddy!” says the barkeep. “I thought you spent the last ten in therapy for that.”

The guy nods, very pleased with himself. “I did,” he says. “And now I understand why I keep throwing it in my face!”

A psychoanalyst told me that joke, partly as a self-deprecating wink at his own profession, but mainly as a gentle reminder that understanding doesn’t help much if it isn’t coupled with action.

As a professional opinion-haver, I must admit that the punchline feels like a gentle indictment of what I do.

I‘m not speaking for other columnists. I‘m not side-eyeing, subtweeting, or any of the other fun words the kids are using to describe passive-aggressive finger-pointing. Their motives and methods are their own. But I can‘t help wondering if some of them, like me, have subtly fallen prey to a particularly pernicious assumption, namely, that talk is action.

I wonder if we have allowed ourselves to be seduced by that completely hollow phrase, “address the problem”. We hear it all the time, used by politicians and business people and call centres, so perhaps endless repetition has numbed us to its ultimately hollow meaning. It just sounds so good, like an official, hands-on-medal-bedecked-heart promise to fix something. And yet, all it actually promises to do is to look at the problem; to stand a safe distance from it, and to stare at it.

I’m not sure our outrage is actually outrage.

I also suspect many of us who stand on soap boxes and shout (whether for money in the media or for free on social media) have unconsciously signed on to a bizarrely impotent social contract in which we have agreed that we have a moral duty to be outraged by anything deemed outrageous. Once we’ve signed up, we are required by this contract to point our angry thoughts and words at the source of the outrage, and to be furious about it for as long as is socially acceptable — between one and three weeks, depending on the magnitude of the original crime.

But I’m uneasy. I’m not sure our outrage is actually outrage. If it was, I think we’d be doing something, like challenging people to duels. I suspect what we’ve been told is outrage is actually just anxiety created by being shown too many horrible things over which we have absolutely no control. It’s despair at seeing the vast, immutable systems that guarantee that more horrible things will follow. We’ve been told that as modern media consumers we are addicted to outrage, but are you really an addict if you’re being force-fed?

Most worrying, however, is that there is no clause in the social contract that requires us to follow up and see if our outrage has had any positive effects or changed anything. The arms deal, xenophobia, educational dysfunction, Nkandla, Eskom, xenophobia again, Marikana, Eskom again — hell, even the poor rhinos: all have had their moment in the spotlight of our collective anxiety. Each of them triggered this feeling of helpless disbelief we have decided to call outrage. But then the spotlight moved away, as it always does. The feeling abated, as it always does. The powerful got away with it, as they always have, and the weak got screwed, as they always will be.

I‘m starting to feel like I‘m in that bar; endlessly served another shot of dysfunction and anxiety; endlessly trying to swallow it but instead splashing it all over the place. And knowing why it‘s happening isn’t going to help. Words can only go so far. It‘s time for deeds, which is my cue to pipe down. Besides, I don‘t have answers to my own questions. I don‘t know if more words are a help or a hindrance. So I‘ll just drink my drink. The same again? No thanks, barkeep. This stuff will kill you in the end.


First published in The Times and TimesLive

Published by Tom Eaton

Tom Eaton is a columnist, satirist, screenwriter and sometime-novelist.

11 thoughts on “Another shot of outrage, anyone?

  1. I quite enjoyed that joke but would not have the same take on the punchline. Surely the point is that it’s not the behavior that’s the problem, but how we feel about it?


    1. An interesting take. For me, the drink-throwing is a self-defeating, frustrating behaviour that is definitely a problem. Hence my interpretation of it as something needing to change.


  2. Enjoyed this piece. Reminded me of my son’s comment when he saw me reading Russell Brand’s REVOLUTION. Brand’s great, he warned, when it comes to spotting society’s problems, but useless at offering solutions. Guess you’d agree.


  3. Take it one step further when you see outrage over those who are outraged. Or outrage at those who are so outraged they are actually doing something (even if that something is rioting in the streets of Baltimore because every other avenue is closed and blockaded). Meta-outrage? FB outrage? Surely there will soon be an accepted lexicon entered into the DSM.


  4. As the Hopi’s Rainbow prophesy once cautioned. We need to ‘put our faith in deeds not words’. Or as Chaplin once said, ‘Actions speak louder than words’. Or Alice Walker – ‘Without action, there can be no salvation’ Even Elvis – ‘A little less conversation a little more action, baby.’ The trouble is – South Africa is such a huge country, with so many full-on issues and injustices and corporate crimes happening all over, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible to tackle any of them in a profound way. But I remain as active as I can be, and certainly never as pessimistic as you sound. I guess I’ve seen more miracles than you. Here’s one, for example – xx


  5. Reblogged this on Laurel's Reflections and commented:
    Words about words, shared in the place to come to use words to express myself… But every now and then I stumble across words that articulate something I have concerns about but have not put focus thought into, for which I am always grateful.

    So the question for us all, it seems to me, is what actions are we willing and able to take in our lives; our world? How creative can we be in find concrete ways to shifts things, and how willing are we to step outside our comfort zones, and look at how we can have a meaningful impact in the world, rather than admiring others who do so or berrating those who we perceive to have the power to change things but do not?

    For me personally at the moment my comfort zones are my work – where we make a practical difference in the lives of many people impacted by poverty and HIV/AIDS – and my volunteering with the More To Life programme, where we touch many people’s lives and provide them with tools for empathy, love and transformation. The biggest challenge for me at the moment feels as if it is around my bitterness at the destruction man-kind wreaks upon nature and other animals, and I feel the need to identify some practical steps to make even a small impact in this area. I shall put more focused thought into it, but in the meantime any ideas and suggestions are welcome!


  6. I agree wholeheartedly with you. What is even sadder is watching a tragedy unfold, listen to the outrage, and then the comments of talk show hosts talking about said tragedy as this week’s tragedy that everyone will forget in a few days. Knowing that people recognize this and still take no further action may be the bigger outrage.


  7. This is profoundly important and something for all of us who spend much time like you throwing stones or raising awareness or washing our slacktivist shirts – i do think there is value in what we do [and yet a lot of it takes SOOOO much time and moves people slowly, slowly] BUT for me i decided that i need to do something practical as well and so i’m about to start volunteering to help at an after school homework program my church is running – not that that is hugely significant in and of itself [well maybe for the people i’ll be helping] but on the off chance the rest of the stuff does prove to be meaningless one day then at least i’m doing something… but also just because it doesn’t feel right always pointing, alerting, educating and not actually being involved practically and so the combo feels like it might be worthwhile and it’s easier to talk from a place of doing than just from a place of knowing.

    Thank you
    love your work
    love brett fish


  8. I rarely read any blog or post appearing in my snapshot of social media unless it appears to be of direct interest to me or my immediate social clan.

    In this case I was lured in by the enticing possibility of a joke thought by Gareth to be worthy of sharing with those of us who hold his outlook on life in some esteem.

    Skimming through the comments I read one that reflects my abject apathy towards the comments and opinions offered in the others.

    I am aware of the level of contradiction involved in offering my two cents worth, but if anyone else points it iut, see previous paragraph.

    Forget the outrage, forget the willingness to spend hours engaged in meaningless discussion and debate over as is quite rightly reglected in the story “issues over which you have little or no control”.

    Channel this energy instead into positively affecting the issues and people around you where you do have a direct influence. In this country you don’t have to look far to find a soul in need of at least some positive energy or if you are more motivated, positive action.

    Don’t live your life only in the pages of your social media. There are real people not far away. Interact….. Make a difference. You’ll be surprised at the difference doing so will make in your own experience.


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