photo by Andre Hunter
by Andrea M. Darcy
Love to get fired up and set others straight? And defend what you ‘know’ to be true? How useful is your ‘righteous indignation’, and what could make it more worthwhile?
What is righteous indignation?
Indignation itself can be a run-of-the-mill conflict pattern in relationships, a perfect defence against shame. How dare you accuse me of such things and make me feel small or defective. And it often leads to turning the tables and escaping taking responsibility. And you’ve got a nerve to accuse me of that when you did this….
Righteous indignation in the public realm, on the other hand, becomes about morality.
Righteous indignation is anger driven by contempt. We are angry because we are disgusted at something we perceive to be morally incorrect.
And because we bring our sense of morality to our indignation, we can claim it’s an ‘acceptable’ form of anger. Even if we are actually using it as rage.
Righteous anger, or righteous rage?
Anger is not always a bad thing.
Research connects anger with a desire to change a situation for the better, or what psychologists Frijda et al. identify as ‘action readiness’. It’s even seen in the biological affects of anger. The left frontal hemisphere of our brain, connected to motivation, is activated, and blood flows to our hands.
Without anger we wouldn’t set boundaries, protect ourselves from abuse, and identify then move towards our personal values.
Rage, on the other hand, is unguided anger projected out onto others in destructive and often violent ways. It’s used to belittle and hurt. We don’t just feel wronged, we want revenge.
Positive and negative uses of righteous indignation
Without righteous indignation, we wouldn’t have speeches that have changed the world, like Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”. We wouldn’t see important changes in the world, like new discussions around black mental health.
But then we see religious groups use righteous indignation as a carte blanche to condemn others for things like their sexuality.
And politicians routinely use it to deflect responsibility. An example is a politician who attacks the other side for some perceived moral flaw, after he is exposed as breaking electoral regulations.
Righteous anger and moral grandiosity
Research also shows that righteous anger can be used to inflate our sense of self and prioritise our own opinions.
In their study “Self-enhancement, righteous anger, and moral grandiosity” researchers had some participants read stories about injustice, and then experience righteous anger. The other group of participants read about grocery shopping, and experienced neutral emotions.
Those who experienced righteous anger were then more interested in maintaining their anger. They chose to again read about injustice when offered a chance to read instead about happy subjects. And they rated themselves high on a moral scale.
The psychologists concluded that we in fact unconsciously choose to maintain our anger in order to allow ourselves to feel ‘morally grandiose’ — aka, superior.
Righteous indignation and grandstanding
photo by Andrew Neel
In our modern world, righteous indignation is also a social media phenomena.
If used correctly, it can share a useful message and create constructive, necessary conversations.
But why does it so often go wrong and lead to a game of attacking others? In their new book Grandstanding – The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk, authors Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke connect it to grandstanding.
Much of our discourse is so awful because it consists of moral grandstanding – roughly, the use of moral talk for self-promotion… People need to be able to talk about justice, freedom, equality, and the right thing to do. But we need to do so in ways that do good, and not just make ourselves look good.”
How to make righteous indignation constructive
1. Separate out the rage from the righteousness.
If you are full of rage work with that first. Dump your rage onto the page using journalling then rip up the pages. Rant out loud in the privacy of your own home or punch pillows. Use sport to move the energy.
If rage is a constant issue and might be connected to feelings of shame, go see a therapist. Sometimes we need to get to the root of the rage. It can have nothing at all to do with current events, and everything to do with trauma in childhood.
2. Use it for positive action over grandstanding.
Remember that anger is powerful and take responsibility for yours.
Anger influences our perceptions, beliefs, ideas, reasoning, and ultimately our choices”. The International Handbook of Anger, Litvak et al.
Is your indignation only used to endlessly rant on social media and gain followers and likes? Are you using it gain approval and a sense of identity? Or because you actually want something to change?
What action steps could you take to create positive change in your own unique way? Is that signing a petition? Joining a movement you care about? Creating a work of art?
3. Think about children.
“We don’t allow our children to mock, shame, or gang up on people who express moral views that we find offensive.”
Tosi and Warmke point out in their book that adults will use abusive behaviour in the name of morality, including threats or inciting suicide. But they would never accept their own child doing the same thing to another child.
Is what you are about to say or do in the name of righteous anger something you would be happy your own child said to another?
4. Educate yourself.
Righteous indignation and ignorance is a bad combination, yet a common one.
If we are riding our indignation and come up against an argument we don’t have the answers for, we can move into rage. Which, again, never leads to useful consequences.
Don’t assume you know things. Or assume what others are saying on social media or the pastor at your local church says is correct. Do your own research and form your own opinions.
Feel angry all the time about everything? We connect you with anger management therapy in central London locations. Or use our booking platform to find a UK-wide registered therapist or online therapy you can access from anywhere.
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Andrea M. Darcy is a psychology writer of thousands of articles. She has training in coaching and person-centred therapy. Find her on Twitter and @am_darcy.