What Keith just wrote about civility and the drug of self-righteousness

Keith’s recent post gives me an excuse to recall Senator D’Amato pretending to cry.

I just want to endorse what Keith just said, about the need to presume good intentions in others and to be a bit slower in taking offense. Two years ago, a brilliant philosopher wrote in this space about my own favorite example of faux outrage on the campaign trail:

Readers may remember New York’s Al D’Amato, a.k.a. Senator Pothole. As the honorific implied, D’Amato excelled at constituency service. The somewhat unfair rap went: If you need a lecture, visit Moynihan. If you need a traffic light fixed, visit D’Amato, Our hometown Jewish Old Age home had a nice plaque thanking him for some timely help. So did dozens of other places around town. D’Amato was always on the sleazy side. He had various brushes with prosecutors and ethics types. He would not have fared well in anybody’s crusade against earmarks. To D’Amato earmarks, were kindof the point. Of course he inhaled.

Al also tended to the salty side. (This eventually landed him in hot water. In 1995, he got on the Imus show and mocked Judge Ito in a cheesy fake Japanese accent.) To anyone who followed politics, it was side-splitting watching him react when his hapless 1992 opponent Robert Abrams called him a fascist. D’Amato pretended to cry, choosing to interpret Abrams’ comments as a slur against Italians. I wish Youtube were around to record it. Jon Stewart couldn’t script it better.

American politics is filled with examples of faux outrage that make you wonder how the people feigning personal outrage manage to keep a straight face while they do it. Even when one is not feigning outrage, I wish people would holster their rhetorical blunderbuss (sorry for the dreadful metaphor) once in awhile to make possible more civil discourse.

At least people should wait until they’re genuinely offended. Can we at least agree not to fake greater outrage than we actually feel to sound the alarm here?

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

10 thoughts on “What Keith just wrote about civility and the drug of self-righteousness”

  1. One of my pet peeves. The faux outrage syndrome was particularly acute, and particularly damaging, during the primary campain, when Obama supporters were doing their level best to portray the Clintons as racists.

  2. Perfect example Harold, how vividly I remember that ludicrous moment of D’Amato whipping up tears, and the even more ludicrous phenomenon of the press reporting it with a straight face.

  3. I myself am very easily offended, indeed my touchiness is only exceeded by the Pooh-Bah’s. I didn’t choose to be this way, and like the Pooh-bah I abase myself again and again, but it’s inexcusable for Harold to ridicule people like me just because we’re handicapped by hypertrophic sensitivity. Faux indeed: Harold, I expect your apology for this insult to radiate from a million tweets and facebook pages.

  4. Things need words, ridiculous things need ridiculous words. How about fauxtrage (pronounced fout’-rage, I guess) for this version of crocodile’s tears?

  5. My personal favorite was Bill Clinton taking umbrage at Jerry Brown’s attacks on Hillary’s professional life during the ’92 primaries. He went deep on his drawl and talked about how you can pick on him all you want, but when you pick on his wife….
    That actually helped convince me to support him. I didn’t want another Dukakis, who had no idea how the game is played– I wanted to win.

    Anyway, I’ll try to save my fauxtrage (nice one, Dennis) for Justin Bieber and the Yankees.

  6. Newt Gingrich is the king of outrage, complete with the language to go along with his schtick!

    Anyone get any of the food stamps the president was evidently handing out recently to any WH passerby? According to Newt’s rhetoric, the Prez. has a stash of coupons for his homies in the hood!

    Newt is outraged! GFYourself Newtie!

  7. Food stamp coupons? Newt really needs to get out from under that rock. Food stamps have been on an electronic bank transfer basis for more than a decade. What a maroon!

  8. James,

    My dictionary gives the primary definition of umbrage as “offense or annoyance,” and gives no sense of feigned annoyance. This is a slightly different concept, at least in my reading, since the fact that the outrage is faked is essential.

    But I like wordplay, and neologisms are good for wordplay.

  9. I don’t see that the outrage being faked is so essential. Make outrage empowering, and people are perfectly capable of becoming sincerely more outraged. Make it futile, and they’ll become sincerely less outraged. When people change their behavior and attitudes, it isn’t just because they’re acting.

    Though when outrage is coming from politicians, that’s probably a safe assumption…

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