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Ordinary Atrocities: Toward a politics of outrage

It was our original idea when conceiving of this special issue to not have it be a commemoration of 9/11. After all, we thought, there are numerous horrible things that happen in the world on a daily basis that qualify as “atrocities” and should provoke a sense of outrage, so why focus only on one day, one set of attacks? Naomi Mandel’s introduction to this issue has done a good job of highlighting the tensions between memory and forgetting, between protecting our own physical and psychic integrity, between feeling and not feeling for all of the bad things in the world. We find ourselves, in this the third year of the 21st century, stuck: the world can be a nasty place, but we live in Generica, that set of suburbs that looks like every other set of suburbs in North America, and it’s a nice place. How do we reconcile the two?

The usual response, of course, is that we do not reconcile them. We ignore the nastiness of the world, live in our nice suburban homes with our nice suburban cars, and forget that outside the walls of our gated communities (whether actually or only metaphorically walled-off from the rest of the world), that nastiness remains. Much of urban sociology done since the mid-1960s — in other words, since the dramatic overdevelopment of suburban regions that resulted, in part, from the “white flight” from American cities — has shown that everything from the architecture of suburban homes (no front porch, entrances not visible from the street, cul-de-sacs instead of houses along high streets) to the tendencies of suburban folks to go home after work and stay home indicates a tendency that some call “nesting”: of building some kind of safe place, a refuge from the world, where we go to have our lives.

There is a problem with this way of life, though — it pretends the rest of the world doesn’t exist, except through the rude interruptions of TV programs that we call “the news.” Wars, refugee crises, disease, malnutrition, poverty, global bankruptcies, and all other sorts of large-scale horribleness make their way into our homes every day. How are we supposed to respond to this? If we care as much as it would appear that not only CNN, but also Sally Struthers and Angela Lansbury, want us to, what do we have left for ourselves and the people who really matter? But to not care at all would make us horrible people, the kinds of unfeeling people who make all these atrocities possible? So what do we do?

Mandel is absolutely correct when she says that we use our everydayness, our mundanity, to protect us from atrocity. We have jobs, bills, child care, personal hobbies, and all sorts of other things that we have to take care of; how could we possibly attend to the Yugoslavian civil war, the Rwandan genocide, the AIDS epidemic in Africa, global environmental degradation, the dramatic underproduction of food across Africa, or the Palestinian/Israeli conflict? There simply isn’t time for it all, or even one key concern. So we privilege our safe, secure lives over those of peoples across the world who are killing each other/being killed by their neighbors/being ripped off by their political leaders/being oppressed by nasty people. Of course we do — that’s how we have to get through our daily lives, the ones for which we are directly responsible.

I’m not saying here that we are responsible for Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Israel or Palestine, at least not directly. Instead, my point is this: we take these things as facts in the world, other people’s problems, sad situations indeed, and then most Americans go back to their stock portfolios, SUVs, and their obsession with work. We feel we can do nothing about these big problems, so that’s what we do. And very often, we even forget these things happened or are happening at all. Ask a coworker, a fellow student, or someone who might be interested in world affairs about current events in Zimbabwe, and I would put money down that they don’t know what’s going on. In a world that’s wired for sound, sight, and information wherever one goes, there’s just no practical reason for not knowing what goes on the world — unless, of course, we simply don’t want to. That is, sadly, the sense of people in other parts of the world — that the majority of people in countries that are wealthy, relatively safe, and secure simply don’t care to know anything about anywhere else in the world. And when something on the order of 14 million Americans – out of over 200 million US citizens – have passports enabling them to leave the country, that perception gets intensified: Americans are primarily concerned with their own lives, their own country, their own way of doing things.

As my students remind me at the start of every semester — not intentionally, mind you — most Americans know very little about the world around them. Finding a place like the former Yugoslavia — or even Canada — on a map can be a challenge to them, and talking intelligently about what people might be like there or how they live their lives is simply inconceivable. And as the evaluations tend to say at the end of the semester, they don’t really care to — they don’t need to know. This is troubling enough, of course. But many of the students who attend my small, pretty-much-rural public university know very little about their own country, their own state, or sometimes their own city. I am regularly amazed at how many of them have never been to Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Washington DC, despite the fact that these glorious cities are about two hours’ drive from us. And if they have been there, it’s only been to go “the cool parts” of town — in other words, those parts of town where the hip bars, cafés, and restaurants are. They’ve never been in those cities; they simply consume the parts they want to consume, and get the hell out as quickly as possible.

What do they miss by living these gloriously innocent consumptive lives? They miss the homeless people on the streets. They miss seeing people who sell drugs because that’s the only possible income for them. They miss the run-down warehouses where illegal immigrants from all over the world work twelve hours a day for a pittance because they heard somewhere that America is the land of opportunity. They miss the ramshackle public housing projects — if they haven’t been demolished yet so that condos for hipsters who love the city can be built — where people live within picket fences, constantly in fear of being bounced out because someone with a drug conviction could enter their house and jeopardize their lease. They miss what Pierre Bourdieu has called la misère du monde — the misery of the world. Leaving aside all the atrocities that happen outside of the US, there are countless atrocities at home that fly under our radar because of the particular lifestyle we choose to lead. I should restate that: we ignore these ordinary atrocities — these atrocious aspects of our everyday lives, ones that we see almost constantly — because we don’t want to see them.

Bourdieu, a leading French sociologist until his death earlier this year, organized a collection of social scientists to document these various ordinary atrocities for compilation into the book The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society. There, we find studies of structural racism, poverty, political disenfranchisement, anti-immigrant sentiment, but not run through the usual social-scientific paradigms of “these are structural phenomena that you never see” or “these are interesting objective facts.” Instead, interviews with a variety of people make up the bulk of the studies — white Frenchmen and Algerian immigrants living side by side; people whose jobs with the state have been turned into jobs begging for change on the Paris metro; people who have given up voting because no one listens to them anymore. None of these studies beat their readers over the head with the claim that “you should be angry about this;” however, the critical literature as well as newspaper reviews of the original French version all emphasized the fact that now, we could understand what the problems of society were and could begin to think of solutions to them.

You’ve never heard of this book? I’m not surprised. There are many other books like this, ones that show the plight of children living in public housing projects in Chicago, girls dealing with the oversexualization of women in American society, gang members and their reasons for joining gangs, and countless others. These don’t ever hit the New York Times bestseller list — we don’t want them there, and we don’t want to read them. These books remind us of how bad other people have it — or rather, how lucky we might be to have what we do have (including the internet connection to read this essay); and the books that we do want to see — Oprah’s book club — are individualized accounts of suffering, ones that prioritize individualized solutions to that suffering. We are rarely interested in seeing books about how The System or The Man screwed over someone; for when it comes right down to it, these books might compel us to question the state of American society, or — gasp — whether or not how we live our individual lives is the right way to live. They might, in other words, make us angry.

We can go even beyond what might be called “sympathetic scholarly work” — work that tries to evoke an emotional and eventually political response to the analysis of the social problems presented there to the Wall Street Journal, that bastion of capitalist news-making. (I often remind my students that if they want to know how the world works, they need a subscription to the Wall Street Journal.) Look at the last twelve months of American capitalism — the Enron, WorldCom, and Global Crossing scandals; the demise of the public surplus; the increase of consumer debt in order to “not let the terrorists win”; and layoffs in the airline industry, among others. Are these atrocities? Not according to the public mindset — they are the simple fact of doing business in America. People may have to be laid off. Businesses go bankrupt if they can’t compete. It’s too bad, but that’s how the world works.

Yet, if one looks behind the curtain (or between the lines), one can see that there is an element of atrocity to these mere news stories. Before Enron went belly-up, its chief administrative officers all sold their stocks, making millions of dollars for themselves, before the stock value plummeted — and destroyed the retirement plans, and thereby the safety of the “golden years,” for the majority of their employees. The Bush Administration, in granting a tax reduction that went primarily to the wealthiest people in the US, set in motion a chain of events that ensures that programs that go to public welfare, including education, Social Security, and others, would have to be cut to fund “the war on terror.” As the economy began to flag in October 2001, the Bush Administration came out and reminded people that one of the ways to prevent “the terrorists” from winning was to keep buying stuff, so we did, despite the fact that preliminary numbers suggest that real wages declined 3 percent since that time (meaning less money to buy more stuff, and thereby more consumer debt). Recent studies show that the average American carries more than 100 percent of their annual salary in consumer debt, and that real wealth — houses, investments, savings, etc. — has declined by staggering amounts over the last 20 years, while salaries and the net worth of CEOs continues to rise by astronomical rates. And even in periods where companies make amazing amounts of profit, layoffs are inevitable if the “shareholders” (more often than not, the administrators of these companies) are not making enough off their investment, so that at one point, General Motors made $9 billion in profits in one year, but laid off 30,000 workers.

Why don’t these count as atrocities? Mandel’s discussion of the flexibility of the definition of atrocity comes into clear view here: these don’t count as atrocities because we don’t want them to. Imagine, though, losing your job through layoffs — and every other company in your sector of the economy laying off workers as well. Would that thirty, forty, fifty thousand dollar per year loss cause your life significant damage? Would your entire standard of living change because of it? Damn straight. Your life might be irrevocably ruined because a number-cruncher somewhere said the company wasn’t making enough money. You and your family might be forced onto the street. You might be forced to beg for change from unsympathetic workers, tired of seeing panhandlers on their way to get a half-caf nonfat latté on their way to work. Would this count as an atrocity? Damn straight — for you; for mutual fund managers and corporate wonks, it’s part of the perils and privileges of the capitalist system. And your unemployment, regardless of what these “why-bother” latté drinkers might think, isn’t your fault. Isn’t that the core characteristic of any atrocity — that it is some action caused by someone else that violates the safety and sanctity of your life?

Yet, as Mandel reminds us, the vagueness in what we consider an atrocity “puts the definition of atrocity firmly in our hands and makes us responsible for what we choose to be outraged by.” We don’t choose to be outraged by corporate layoffs, excessive profiteering, declining wages, and increasing personal debt loads. We don’t choose to be outraged by rising incarceration rates, declining educational standards and results, homelessness, the warehousing of poor people in public housing projects, ghettoes, or prisons. We don’t choose to be outraged by increasing costs for higher education, declining benefits from a bachelor’s degree, or the inability of intelligent, worthy university graduates to get stable, good-paying jobs. And we don’t choose to be outraged by increasing health care costs, decreasing resources for social safety nets, the unequal treatment of women and people of color in our society, or the harassment of anyone who might be “different” from us (and this in a society that sells itself to the world as the “melting pot,” the great immigrant society, where anyone is welcome so long as they’re willing to work for their greatness). That is, we don’t choose to be outraged by these things unless (or until) they directly affect us. Across town, or across the world, we see these as interesting facts — sad, yes, but merely interesting.

This, to my mind, is the second key characteristic of an atrocity — one has to be outraged by its existence, by even its mere conceivability. The fact that something like this could even happen must invoke a sense of rage and of fury, and must impel us to act to ensure that it can never happen again. That is, after all, the slogan (for lack of a better word) of those who would ask us to recall the Holocaust: always remember, so that it can never happen again. Atrocity compels outrage; if there’s no outrage, there must be no atrocity there. And this is what prevents us from seeing all of the social problems that surround us as atrocities — we’re not infuriated by their existence. Homeless people are obstacles to be stepped over on our way to the bank machine; poor people are to be pitied or reviled, depending on their willingness to get a job; people who live in the “projects” either deserve to live there or are too lazy to get real jobs and real housing; and people who can’t get “real” jobs riding cubicles are either stupid or slothful. If there is an emotional response evoked by their presence — if we even notice them, if we even end up in areas of the country where we could notice them — it’s not rage or fury; it’s contempt.

Our daily experience, though, tells us exactly why these ordinary atrocities are never seen as atrocities — we’re too immersed in our daily lives to feel anything for these people or their plight. In general, we don’t care to know why the women begging for change near a machine that only dispenses $20s is there; we just ignore her because we have dinner reservations at 8. We don’t want to understand what it feels like to see no future for oneself. We don’t want to care about people who can’t afford any other education than auto mechanic school; we just want our car back in 30 minutes or less so we can get to the next business meeting. Our mundanity does indeed insulate us from atrocity — but it also makes possible the perpetuation of these ordinary atrocities. Because we are so embedded in our own thing, we aren’t generally willing to exert the time or energy to be pissed off when thousands of people lose their jobs so that ten people can make millions off them, to be angry when one thousand people living in a housing project are evicted so that luxury condominiums can be built, or even to be slightly miffed when for-profit corporations take over our public schools and convert the curriculum into mere job training.

So, if an atrocity can be characterized as an action that grievously harms a person or persons, and it can be characterized by the rage and fury of its mere conceivability, then why don’t we see more atrocities in the world? Precisely because we protect ourselves with our own mundanity. We are right when we say that we have our own lives to worry about; we do, because we live in a world that makes our success, and even our very survival, dependent on what we do. But when we immunize ourselves to the ordinary atrocities going on around us by invoking our right to mundanity, when we say that the problems of homeless people, people who are uneducated or unemployed, or people who are raped are not our problems, we essentially try to absolve ourselves from any responsibility for the world which allows these things to happen. And when doing that, we become responsible for them. In taking on the role of bystander, in not doing anything about these ordinary atrocities, we sit by while these decisions that negatively impact (and often destroy) the lives of people around us are made, and we say nothing. Scholars ranging from philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty to writers like Primo Levi see the bystander role as one of complicity — if something awful happens in the world and we say nothing, we allowed it to happen, we took no stand against it, and in some respect, we might as well have pulled the trigger ourselves. We may not have decided to fire 30,000 workers, cut resources to get people off the streets, reduce funding for K-12 education, or start the Rwandan genocide; but in not saying anything against these things, we might as well have sent out the pink slips, crossed out those lines in the budget, or picked up the first hatchet.

Responsibility, though, is a hard thing to handle, even in a society like the US that attributes everything to individual responsibility, and as Mandel points out, it is an even trickier thing to attribute. We don’t like to know that we’ve hurt other people, so we try not to think about it. We don’t look at the “Made in Cambodia” label in our Gap clothing. We avert our eyes when we drive past row after row of underpaid migrant farm workers, often surrounded by clouds of pesticides. We don’t make eye contact with kids bouncing balls off the chain link fences surrounding their “home.” We’ll even go so far as to suffer through a horrible long-term relationship so that we don’t cause our partner pain because we can’t bear to know that we hurt someone. Yet, we cause these pains all the time: our desire for inexpensive clothing and food ensures that American workers lose wages and that foreign workers make infinitely less in atrocious working conditions; our desire to keep property values high ensures that poor people can only afford to live in blighted areas of cities without futures, and ensures that their kids, whose educations are supported by property taxes, don’t get an education. In not seeing our responsibility, indirect or not, and in not having an emotional reaction to these problems, we allow them to continue and worsen.

So what do we do? Do we sacrifice our own lives and benefits and commit ourselves to improving the lives of others? Do we pursue absolutist altruism instead of the absolutist individual benefit we now commit ourselves to? Do we, in other words, give up ourselves for the sake of the Other?

None of these are what I am suggesting, nor am I suggesting that after reading this article and this issue we forget all we’ve learned. Instead, in an attempt to develop a politics of outrage, I propose the following recommendations for improving all our lives.

Inform ourselves. It is altogether too easy today to gain access to a variety of information and a diversity of perspectives on the problems of the world around us. Instant communication around the world, whether by telephone, television, or the Internet, has made it so that we can find out what’s going on with a few punches of buttons or a few clicks of the mouse. Yet, Americans still tend to rely on American television for the majority of its information about the world; and given the major news networks’ penchant for toeing the politically acceptable — or designed — line (in part because of fears of not being “patriotic,” in part because of their fear of losing advertising dollars), we find out what those in power want us to find out about the world.

But there are countless other avenues for gaining access to the kind of information we need to make up our own minds about what causes the problems around us and what we can and should do about them. A simple search of other global newspapers and a quick comparison of what they say with what our media tell us about anything from the drastic inequity of income distribution in the US to how other countries feel about America can speak volumes. Of course, every information source, be it a friend, a politician, or a news organization is going to have a bias; but if we find out enough about a situation, we can sort through the biases and come to some semblance of the truth.

That, though, takes a particular effort on our part. It’s easy to rely on Headline News or Fox News to give us “what we need” to know about the world. We have to want to find out what’s going on elsewhere. In order to do that, we have to care about what goes on elsewhere.

Care. Discussions such as those reported in the August 30/2002 New York Times about 9/11 curricula in schools focus in part about our emotional responses to the attacks and all the concomitant issues that are raised by them. Some curricula were criticized for being too concerned with children’s emotions about the attacks; others, such as that implicit in Phyllis Schafly’s criticisms, suggest that what’s really needed is no discussion of emotion, but a focus on math and science instead. Neither of these options is wholly acceptable.

Instead, what we need to do is find a balance between care for ourselves and care for others. Currently, we care altogether too much only for ourselves — our interests (whether defined individually or in terms of family units) outweigh all other concerns, leading us to do things like purchase SUVs (increasing our dependence on foreign oil, our economic fragility, and pollution) and fight against any suggestion that educational funding be standardized across school districts in a state (because “why should I pay for some kid in Los Angeles to be educated when I don’t see any benefit?”). This is, as I’ve suggested, a significant part of the problem. We need to begin to see that we benefit from being concerned about the well-being of others — education, for example, is something that travels across state, and even school district, lines, while environmental policies impact everyone around the world thanks to the mechanism of wind — and we need to begin to obsess less with the prevention of sacrifice on our part. We are, after all, interconnected, not just with people in the next town who don’t want the county landfill expanded to collect our trash, but also with people around the world, who depend on us as we depend on them through the economy, through the developing “global culture,” and through the decisions made by our politicians. Because of this, we need to act on that interconnectedness, to act with concern for others and the impact of our actions on them (and vice versa), and to make clear that we live in the world and not on its back.

We also need to begin to get angry when atrocities do happen — whether they are ordinary, like layoffs so that CEOs can make millions or the reduction of public health insurance, or extraordinary, like famines, epidemics, and wars. We need to learn to articulate that anger, so that instead of the implied “passivity and helplessness” Mandel attributes to outrage, we feel as if we must do something. Politicians, after all, rely upon what we (or at least those of us who are polled) say about their policy stances. If they continue to think that we don’t care about either ordinary or extraordinary atrocities, they will do whatever they like.

Participate. Part of the reason that atrocities continue to happen, whether in the US or abroad, is that people simply do not participate, whether by structure or by choice. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Americans cheered when citizens of former Warsaw Pact countries went into the streets and said “no more,” commencing the transition from Stalinist political regimes to “democracies.” Yet, the US, that bastion of democracy, has electoral participation rates of only about 30%. American politics relies on our unwillingness to vote, to say what it is we think, what it is we want our delegates to do for us, and what kind of world we want to live in. As members of the Republican Party reminded us during the 2000 presidential scandal, the US isn’t a democracy — despite the fact that we claim it is. Democracies require participation; politicians’ power relies upon our power. By raising our voices and saying “we will no longer tolerate X,” perhaps politicians will no longer tolerate it either.

There are, of course, other means of participation, such as letter writing, membership in lobbying groups, and protests. I don’t want to go so far as to recommend that everyone get out into the streets or sign up for interest group Y, but these are viable options, excellent ways to make clear what it is we want to see happen to our world. Voting is the most frequent way to stake our claim to power, but it is not always the one with the most clarity. Did the people who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 really want to see Nader in power, or did they just not like Gush or Bore? We don’t know. We need to find ways to make clear the kind of world we want to live in, the kinds of policies that we want our political delegates — and every elected individual, whether a mayor, a member of Congress, or the President, is our delegate, the person to whom we have delegated the responsibility for managing our common affairs — to enact. Avail yourself of the opportunities that exist, and create new ones if need be.

Envision the world you want to live in. All of what I’ve said here is about enabling one element of the mission of Journal of Mundane Behavior, an element that has been implicit throughout our three years of existence: that to understand our everyday lives in a deeper and more sophisticated manner enables us to decide if those are the lives we want to live. In other words, awareness of what goes into producing “everydayness,” “ordinariness,” and “mundanity” enables a decision-making process about our future. If we begin to care about the future of our world, and we begin to think about whether or not that future is one we’d want to live in, then we can begin to envision what can be done about making the world a better place for all of us.

In order to do this, though, we have to begin to get angry — we have to feel the kind of outrage we insulate ourselves from. The world, for all intents and purposes, is not a pretty place — it’s an amazing place that we tend to ruin through our actions and inertia, and it’s a place that could become better for all of us. But we need to decide that something’s wrong, figure out why it’s wrong, and decide what we want to do about it. And in order to do that, we have to care. These steps toward a “politics of outrage,” one that takes what may be a passive, helpless sense of fury and turns it into a motivation for action that can change the world, are designed for that purpose.

* * * * *

I was asked recently in Toronto, Canada, whether or not America had learned anything from 9/11. Did they learn that not everyone loves America? Did they learn that the American government often does nasty things behind its people’s collective back, leaving them to shoulder the burden of anything ranging from personal anti-Americanism when abroad to terrorist attacks? Did they learn that they have to concern themselves with the welfare of the rest of the world? Did they learn anything?

Sadly, my answer had to be “No, I don’t think America did learn anything.” We still live the same lives, we still have the same self-interested concerns, and we still don’t think we rely on anyone else in the world for the lives we lead. We still don’t see that much of what we do reinforces the situations that allow more atrocities to occur, whether they are extraordinary attacks like those of 9/11 or ordinary atrocities like continued homelessness or racism. If there are lessons to be learned from 9/11, America hasn’t learned them. And if they aren’t learned soon, then all of us will be responsible for whatever happens.

Author: Scott Schaffer is Managing Editor of Journal of Mundane Behavior and assistant professor of sociology at Millersville University of Pennsylvania. His work – moving between social ethics, social change, and everyday life – works to further the kinds of issues discussed here. He has contributed chapters to Ed Wakin and James Cortada’s Betting on America: How the US Can Be Stronger After 9/11 (2002, PrenticeHall), as well as The Anti-Capitalism Reader (2002, Akashic Books), edited by Joel Schalit.

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