The Other Side: How to Understand and Overcome Our Addiction to Outrage

Today I want to talk to you about outrage and what I learned from filming my documentary, The Other Side: a liberal democrat explores conservative America. We’re addicted to it. It’s almost as if we like getting angry at the other side and we enjoy the delicious satisfaction of calling the other side ridiculous. But outrage is toxic – both for us and for our political process.

Let’s break down the anatomy of outrage.

This is from a recent post on my Facebook feed. It’s from Jim Gilmore, who is announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination for President of the United States:

“While Russia and China have dramatically increased spending for their armed forces, the United States military has had more than $1 trillion in budget cuts that have decimated our national defense.”

Here’s how my outrage looks:

The first phase is a mix of unpleasant feelings – hurt, offended, and angry. The second phase is me fact-checking – checking the military expenditures for the U.S., China, and Russia. And the third phase is me fighting back – in this case that means calling Jim names like “liar” and “stupid” and “ignorant” and “crazy.”

In short, the anatomy of an outrage is feeling hurt followed by fact-checking followed by I hurt you back. That’s what outrage looks like for me, and from what I see and hear from others, this seems to be the way outrage looks for most everyone.

Now I didn’t know it at the time, but my documentary, The Other Side, turned out to be a sort of experiment in overcoming outrage. Fair warning – what I discovered is hard. Incredibly hard. But it’s rewarding. Like sun setting, movie credits rolling, I can’t believe I’m lucky enough to be alive rewarding. Here you go:

First, I deal with my own experience. It’s not Jim Gilmore’s fault that I feel angry, hurt, and offended by what he said. Those are my experiences, not his. That might seem counter-intuitive, but that’s what people with healthy coping skills do. They take responsibility for their own feelings and deal with them without having to punish the people who caused those feelings.

Second, in the fact finding phase I look at all the facts, not just the ones that are convenient for my arguments. Here’s the military expenditure data for the U.S., China, and Russia for the years Obama has been in office, according to SIPRI (since Jim seems to be criticizing Obama, I look at his years in office.):

2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
U.S. $621 $667 $669 $698 $711 $640 $610
China $92 $112 $123 $147 $170 $191 $216
Russia $56 $52 $59 $70 $81 $88 $84

*Dollars in Billions

 

The first claim Jim makes is that Russia and China “dramatically increased spending.” I am surprised to find this valid since both nearly doubled their military expenditures during Obama’s time in office. I would definitely agree that’s a dramatic increase.

Next, Jim states “that the United States military has had more than $1 trillion in budget cuts that have decimated our national defense.” Looking at the chart, I see $11 billion – from $621 billion in 2008 when George W Bush left office to $610 billion in 2014. So he’s overstated that by $989 billion. Plus, that $11 billion decrease is a decrease of 1.7%. I would hardly call that decimating. Jim is mistaken or outright lying here.

Still, I concede that China and Russia have, over the last 8 years, “dramatically increased spending for their armed forces,” and I understand the concern. It’s valid. That China and Russia are increasing military spending while we cut it is a valid reason for concern.

That said, we still spend almost three times as much as China and over seven times as much as Russia on the military. Even if they teamed up and combined their expenditures, we still spent more than double what they did in 2014. I’m no military expert, but I think that’s plenty.

But see what happened? I no longer need phase three. I no longer need to call Jim a stupid, ignorant, and crazy liar because I don’t feel that he is. What’s more, I don’t feel outrage towards him. He’s made some claims that I find are false, but one of his claims is accurate and points to what I find to be a valid concern. What’s more, now we’re having a conversation.

This feels so much better than being outraged. I feel proud and powerful for having dealt with my anger myself and I’m actually interested in a discussion about how much military spending is appropriate. And I’m genuinely happy and as promised – the sun is setting, the movie credits are rolling, and I feel lucky to be alive.

Editor’s note: Joe McGovern created the documentary, “The Other Side: a liberal democrat explores conservative America.” FIVE/IVN recently partnered with Joe to finish production of the film. To learn more about the project, visit the documentary’s website or read the first article for IVN.