Moral Outrage in an Election Cycle: Why You Need to Yell Louder

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During speaking engagements, I’m being asked more and more about the individuals running for President of the United States. This is not surprising since 1) I typically speak about leadership, and 2) we are in the midst of electing a new national leader. When these questions come up, I try to cover them with a nonpartisan response that discusses the candidates as more of a leadership case study versus delivering a political speech.

As much as I attempt to avoid focusing on a Presidential candidate’s ideological leanings, there are people who attempt to maximize their stage time during the Q&A segment with an impassioned lecture on the state of the country. They are then followed by an equally impassioned lecture on the opposite side of the issue. As their passion turns to outrage, I find my role shift from speaker to referee.

So much moral outrage. Its prevalent on the campaign trail, news programs, debates, and on the corner where people are holding signs in support of (or against) a candidate. This holier-than-thou indignation use to bother me; now I’m considering whether we should be harnessing it.

A recently published paper in the journal Nature has found that “people who invest time and effort in condemning those who behave badly are trusted more.” When denouncing wrongdoers, we appear to be vanguards of fairness and justice. Our vilification comes across as a selfless act thus, as the research shows, improves our reputation.

Our mathematical model shows that choosing to punish wrongdoers can work like a peacock’s tail — if I see you punish misbehavior, I can infer that you are likely to be trustworthy. – from the New York Times’What’s the Point of Moral Outrage?

According to an article in Psychological Science, the term ‘moral outrage’ suggests a high degree of anger. However, to experience true moral outrage, you must also feel and express disgust. This disgust relates to situations that engage your moral sense and violate your beliefs. For instance, a few summers ago, President Obama had the nerve to wear a tan-colored suit to a press conference. Marco Rubio caused a similar outcry when the American public rallied against his shoe selection. I’m not exactly sure why these incidents sparked outrage, but I own neither a tan suit nor shoes with a high heel… not that I am taking sides.

Whether running for office or leading an organization, expressing moral outrage serves as a form of personal advertisement. You are advertising that you are not just anti “bad stuff,” but that you are taking a public stand against said “bad stuff” and are willing to take action to prevent it from happening again.

Ironically, the research also shows that the need to actually take action is not necessary. Your visible outrage is all that is necessary to bolster your trustworthy quotient; pursing punishment of those accused is perceived as a weaker signal of trustworthiness.

While I agree with the above research, I will not recommend that you forget about Mark Twain’s infamous, “Action speaks louder than words.” See how far you will get in your career if you are all talk with no action. At the same time, maybe expressing some of your moral outrage is not so bad. Just save it for issues that matter, be well-informed before speaking, and be prepared for some backlash by those who don’t agree…. unless you are speaking out against tan suits; some things cannot be condoned.

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