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Outrage is Not Easily Contained

August 10th, 2019 by dk

I don’t attend many parties. It’s just not my idea of a good time, watching people vie for attention, competing with one another. I left two get-togethers over the past few weeks early — each for the same reason. That reason is not unrelated to recent headlines about gun rampages. It’s also relevant to the latest controversy on campus.

At the first party, people were chitchatting about innocuous topics, doing no harm to anyone. The conversation somehow landed on airline mishap stories, with each person telling a more harrowing tale than the last. It became weirdly reminiscent of scouts telling spooky stories around a campfire.

Sharing little frights can be a pleasant way to pass the time. But it didn’t stop there. Which airports are the least convenient? Which airlines have the worst policies? What’s the worst excuse you’ve received from customer service?

I felt bad for those poor employees, who became the characters in the stories we were swapping. They weren’t at the party to defend themselves or to fill in details that might have made each story less absurd. They were straw men, buttressing our judgments.

That wasn’t a fun discussion for me, so I exited early. Less than a week later, something similar happened. This time the company person, a Starbucks barista, was cast as a hero. A rude customer played the villain. He was asking for a free cup of ice on a very hot day.

The young employee told the man that she wasn’t allowed to fill his outside cup with ice. He became angry. “I understand that it’s the rule,” he bellowed at the teenage girl, “but it’s a bad rule!” He continued berating the poor employee, with my friend watching as the next person in line.

Unable to persuade the employee to violate store policy, the non-customer raised the rhetorical stakes. Slavery was a “bad rule” that he certainly wouldn’t have followed. (He was white. She was not.) Equating a cup of ice with owning another human being blew things out of proportion in a hurry, but it also did something else.

Everyone at the party leaned in, hanging on every word. “Can you believe this?” “What happened next?” “I hope you left that poor girl an extra tip!”

I watched how outrage brought people together more powerfully than anything else. It worried me. Outrage is rage aimed at outsiders. Both halves of that formula are dangerous. We don’t usually have the tools or the courage to stop what we’ve started.

Shared outrage gets everyone’s attention, and who doesn’t like that? But who among us will step in its path to slow its spreading destruction? I left the parties early, but that was hardly a profile of courage. We must learn to identify a straw man before setting it aflame, whether it’s invading immigrants, a heritage statue, or a cup of ice.

Outrage at somebody who isn’t named or known will draw rapt attention. But rage spreads in ways we cannot predict or control. The same force that quickly brings us together can just as quickly blow us apart.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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