That’s Outrageous!

How dare they?! Who could possibly have conceived such a poorly thought out, backwards and insulting notion?  Why would they ever have done that?!

I could easily be talking about the recent snafu whereby Earls Restaurants Ltd. amended their supply of beef to be from producers who meet the Certified Humane label. Of course if you followed the ensuing social media outrage, you’ll know that means Earls eschewed Canadian beef farmers in favor of American producers that subscribe to this voluntary certification program.  However, I could just as easily be talking about A&W Canada’s decision to market their hormone & antibiotic free – but also not Canadian – beef as better tasting.  Or maybe I’m talking about the Alberta Government’s passage of Bill 6, a controversial piece of agriculture workplace standards and safety legislation. Or the carbon tax. Or American politics. Or the latest winner of whatever reality show has people captivated these days.

In reality, what I’m really talking about is our collective outrage. Or rather, perhaps it’s our awareness of outrage that seems collective. You can’t turn on your TV, radio, phone or computer without seeing, hearing or reading about someone who it outraged these days. It seems like we live in a generation of outrage.  So are we really more outraged than our predecessors or is it just our ability to connect globally through social media and the internet that allows us to perceive an issue as so much larger than it really is?

My problem with outrage is this: it makes for great headlines (and bylines) and it draws the clicks and the views and the comments but it also undermines the true message that organizations and individuals who are experts in the subject matter spend lots of time and money researching, cultivating and presenting.  In my view, outrage serves to polarize.  Those who agree strongly with your view already do and they were already your supporters anyway.  One only needs to look at the election demographic in Alberta to know that the Wildrose Party is preaching to the converted when they take up arms in favor of farmers or that the NDP has strong support from urbanites on things like public transit.  On the opposite side of the fence sit your detractors, or your opponents.  Stating your outrage, particularly in semi-violent or vitriolic manners, only serves to give them fodder for attacking your stance and “proving” how wrong you are or how out of touch with every day people you seem to be.  This type of opposition-based parrying will endure forever, so while it’s problematic, it’s not the root cause of my concerns.

No, my concerns lie in the normalized distribution of demographics.  If you remember high school statistics class, you probably know the bell curve. You know, the one where the vast majority fall within a certain percentage of the middle-ground, with fewer and fewer outliers (extremists) on each end.

Example Normal Distribution (the “Bell Curve”)

The outliers I’ve already spoken about, but it’s that vast majority of the population that falls within the “meat” of the curve.  Generally they may be unaware, or apathetic, or even willfully ignorant. But overall, they haven’t formed supremely strong, polarized opinions on a topic.  And because they represent the largest segment of the population, they are the swing votes.  They are who marketers target. They are who you try to convince to join your side in the debate.  They are the ones that really are who we try to attract when we market a product or service.  So how do we think they feel about outrage? About watching both sides of the spectrum spew off, with rants and raves either for or against a divisive topic?  Sure, maybe some are swayed to one side or the other because they had natural inclinations that way, but in reality they remain largely apathetic or unaware.  The lack of knowledge on a specific topic leads to that apathy. Or sometimes they know and they just, quite frankly, could care less.  There are more important things going on in their life than the tempest in a teapot the extents of the curve have created.  So, the vast majority go on doing just that – living their life.  They ignore the outrage, they might even be turned off by it, or maybe they haven’t even heard or read it.  But any way you slice it, the outrage falls upon deaf ears, if it reaches them at all.

Which makes me wonder how effective outrage is anyway.  I mentioned the organizations and experts that work to carefully research and craft messages based on that research. Does general outrage – particularly that which is ill-informed or out of touch – actually serve a benefit to these organizations?  I postulate that it doesn’t. You see, if I’m a farmer, I’m likely to be supportive of the research and messaging my farm association is responsible for; after all, I trust them as my research arm and my marketing body.  They advocate on my behalf.  So they don’t need to convince me to join their ranks, or vice versa.  Who they need to convince are the unconvinced, the unaware and the uneducated – the masses in the center of the bell curve.  They need to do this in ways that actually reach the intended audience, connect with the intended audience and provide something of value to the intended audience.  Those key messages?  They get lost in the static like your favourite song as soon as you reach the extents of the radio station’s broadcast range.  And the more static there is, the harder and harder it gets to decipher what is really coming through in the transmission.  The louder the competing voices are, the harder it is to hear the voice you are trying to listen to and the harder it is to have your voice heard amid the clatter.

There’s another pair of phenomena that accompany outrage or at least attempt to counteract it but are just as harmful to credibility. Time and time again I see these come to light, often with the best of intentions but a patent lack of understanding of just how detrimental they can appear:

  1. Boasting.  It’s wonderful to be proud of our product, service, industry or performance but when we start to throw around boastful claims that cannot be statistically or scientifically validated (things like “We know we produce the world’s best beef.” – what does that MEAN anyway????) then we undermine the credibility of the very thing we are trying to protect.  Leave the facts and the boasting to the organizations and experts that we pay to develop those messages.  Meme generation is a wonderfully easy thing, but if your meme facts aren’t correct, you’re doing more harm than good.
  2. Hypocrisy. We rail against Earls for choosing a “labelled” product over one that isn’t labelled but then we appeal for consumers to purchase a labelled product.  Albeit, the label is different, perhaps slightly more innocuous and certainly it’s in our favour because it is the product we are supporting, but still it IS a label.  Or we boycott A&W because we all know that “better beef” can’t be substantiated the way they are marketing it, but then we turn around and boast that “Alberta produces the best beef in the world” and expect consumers to just flock to our doors.  Throwing stones at glass houses when we live in one ourselves is a very, very dangerous practice that further alienates those middle-ground consumers and risks turning them away from us for fear that we simply aren’t being truthful.

Ultimately I suppose it’s futile to appeal for rationality and calm in a world where it seems that irrational emotional tirades grab the headlines and dominate the airwaves.  However, I would like to hope that we’re not actually a generation of people who are any more outraged than previous generations. I would like to believe that the quicker access to more global information just leads us to feel that way.  I would like to think that the vast majority of us are adequately able to filter through the BS to get to the key messaging.  Alas, I don’t know if all of those can be achieved.  Certainly they cannot be when we have adversarial rhetoric dominating the discussion.  It gets us absolutely no further ahead to threaten, belittle, deride or chastise each other based on our difference of opinions.  The beauty of humanity is that we were not all cast from the exact same mold. Individuality is key and our ability to achieve collective harmony is far more amazing than our ability to create collective discord.

I’ll leave with this thought…. Right now in Alberta, we are “outraged” over a private business making a decision to source their supplies of high-end beef from another country.  In other countries in the world, people are (literally) dying for a few grains, or for access to clean water, or because they have to hunt for their meat and their hunt is perilous and meals are few and far between.


Maybe if we take anything out of this, it’s that we are so spoiled to even be discussing these issues when there are so many others envious of what we already have.