Community outrage: where does it come from and why is it so hard to shift?

Community outrage is the stuff of nightmares for any organisation that operates with the goodwill of the public. It’s particularly fraught for public sector agencies for whom political oversight is the primary condition under which they operate.

This article explores the roots of outrage in moral indignation and what that means for organisations and communications practitioners.

Community outrage comes in all shapes and sizes, and about all manner of issues. But, why outrage and not mere disgruntlement or even anger?  What is it that ties these issues together?  Thanks to the vast volume of work by Peter Sandman, a large proportion of discussion about community outrage is focused on “risk communication” mostly for projects or incidents with a potentially huge, and more often than not unplanned, negative impact on a large group of people and/or the environment. Think nuclear power plants, the Exon Valdez, Bhopal, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

We very rarely operate in these spaces. And yet, over the years, we have seen plenty of outraged communities.

The people of Newcastle (Australia) were outraged at the prospect of losing their railway stations. Others were outraged at the prospect of keeping them. The same community was similarly outraged at the prospect of an historic lighthouse being converted into a restaurant, or not being converted into a restaurant.

The people of Sydney’s northern beaches were completely outraged about off-leash dog walking on their beaches. Some were outraged that it might be banned, others that it might be permitted. The Blue Mountains community was similarly outraged about the prospect of off-leash dog walking on their sports fields; or the banning thereof.  (If you ever want to get a community activated, and potentially outraged, threaten to change off-leash dog walking rules.)

The accountants of Canada were absolutely outraged at the prospect of their professional associations uniting.

Some people are outraged about coal seam gas; some by feral pest management, others about roads projects, and still others about railway projects. People quite often get outraged about public transport projects, particularly any perceived threat to bus or rail timetables. And building heights. There is probably no more outrageous issue in land-use planning that “urban consolidation”. Threaten a neighborhood with apartment blocks and you will, most certainly, inspire outrage.

Some people even manage to find public art and public memorials outrageous. Perhaps not to the extent that they might find police brutality or political corruption outrageous, but it is nevertheless, a form of moral outrage.

Community outrage comes in all shapes and sizes, and about all manner of issues. But, why outrage and not mere disgruntlement or even anger?  What is it that ties these issues together?

A case study of community outrage

Many years ago the Bang the Table team were working with a smallish council – local government – in regional Australia. They needed to raise funds for a whole range of important projects. From memory, there was a particular focus on environmental works for improving catchment quality and flood mitigation. Both of which were very important local issues.

In order to raise the funds they needed to get the community to support what is known as a “special rates variation” or “special rates levy”. For anyone unfamiliar with “rates”, it’s the tax property owners pay to their local council to contribute to all of the local government services we all take for granted every day (and barely ever notice or acknowledge).

The reason council needed to build community support was because they didn’t have the power to increase the rates of their own volition. Rather, they had to go to the State government and ask the Minister for Local Government via the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) for permission to increase the rates for one or a number of years. Neither IPART nor the Minister take such applications lightly. So, along with the business case, wise councils will also demonstrate community support through some form of research or community engagement process (or both).

I say “wise” councils, because the last thing any politician wants, especially a Minister, is for someone to dump a big smelly fish on their desk and say “solve our problem.” In public policy generally, most Ministers want to know that the local community has, at the very least been listened to, and if possible brought into the process and is comfortable with the proposal. They, quite naturally, want solutions, not problems. This is particularly the case where new or increased taxes are involved. Unsurprisingly, politicians like to be popular, rather than unpopular.

Cognizant of this political and bureaucratic reality, the council in question decided to engage its community in a fairly intensive conversation about the need to raise this extra money. They did so by arranging a whole series of face-to-face “town-hall” style meetings in the main township as well as all of the surrounding villages. And, they set up an online discussion space using engagementhq to gather community thoughts on a range of issues.

All good so far. A nice inclusive, open and transparent process. All done with the very best of intentions.

I should say at this point, that this process of seeking community and thence Ministerial approval for special rate levies is very common. Rates capping has existed for many years in NSW. Most councils are short of cash.  Dozens would go through this process each year. We have worked with at least a dozen that have been in a very similar position over the years. While there are inevitably, and probably quite naturally, a few disgruntled individuals, every other similar project we have been involved with since has sailed through the approval process without a backward glance.

Shortly after the launch of the engagement program it became obvious that something different was happening this time. There was a lot of interest. And by a lot, I mean A LOT!

The community was, by anyone’s definition, outraged.

The town-hall meetings were, quite literally overrun with people queuing out the door. Hundreds of people showed up to let their displeasure be known.

The online forums were overwhelmed by lots and lots AND LOTS of people who were really very angry with the council and livid at the idea that their rates might be about to go up. Given the scale of response, our moderators were kept busy, but, by and large, people were angry, rather than rude. But there was something bigger happening, people weren’t just angry, they were outraged.

The common theme that came through over and over again was that people were not at all happy with how council was being managed. There was a perception, fair or not, that money was being wasted hand over fist. And this wasn’t your usual “the government can’t manage money” cynicism. It came across as a deeply held conviction that had been festering within the community for a very long time. Fair, or not, there was clearly a lot of pre-existing anger within the community waiting to bubble to the surface.

Furthermore, the area is not a wealthy one – it has a very high unemployment rate and many people survive on welfare payments.  The expectation that the solution to council’s funding shortfall was to extract more money from the community was, for a large number of people, the last straw. People were seething at the prospect that their pockets were about to be raided to prop up, in their opinion, a poorly managed and wasteful council.

It was a very poor context in which to have a conversation about financial management, let alone to propose a tax hike.

Council, and by council I mean the Councillors, senior executive and operational staff were, almost universally, stunned by the community response. They had no inkling as to the way the proposal would be received. And so they withdrew.

Council dumped the idea of applying for the special rates levy and went into a process of intense introspection. Some time later I ran into one of the senior managers at a conference and it became clear that, more than introspection, they were in almost in mourning, and certainly in complete shock about both the scale and visceral nature of the community response. He was genuinely completely bemused by it all.

Unfortunately, not only did council pull back from the special rates level proposal, it withdrew from the public more generally. Metaphorically, at least, the doors closed. And yes, we parted ways.

I say “almost universal”, because not everyone was surprised. The community engagement team weren’t particularly surprised at all. They spent their days listening to the community and they knew there was a problem with the council-community relationship. It’s just that no one would listen to them.

Now they’re listening.

So, what happened? I’ll get to that. But first, let’s explore outrage a little more.

The moral roots of community outrage

In framing a response to reader outrage about a typically provocative cover image on the New York Times, Art Markman goes a long way to explaining why outrage is so important in a public policy context:

…while someone is experiencing legitimate outrage, it is impossible to have a reasoned discussion with them. Highly arousing emotional states are just not consistent with rational discussion. So, if you want to express any kind of affiliation with an outraged party, the easiest way to do it is to express outrage yourself.

There are lots of good reasons for an organisation, and more so, for the people within that organisation, to want to avoid citizen outrage.

From an organisational perspective outrage is damaging to the “brand”. For corporates this can affect their social license to operate which can have an influence on their relationship with government and their consequent regulatory environment. For government agencies, “brand damage” is articulated as a loss of confidence in an organisation to deliver results for the community. This can result in sweeping changes including structural reform and to the executive management team.

For the people who have to work within an organisation that is subject to outrage, the reasons are far more personal. No one wants to go to work each day and be subject to personal attacks. It is stressful, demoralizing, hurtful, sometimes frightening, and just no fun at all.

From a public policy perspective,  policy conversations, or debates, framed in the context of outrage are entirely antagonistic. There is simply no room for personal or group learning, and no room for dialogue. Inevitably, policies developed in this context as the poorer for it.

Art Markman notes that outrage is an emotion with three components:

First, it has negative affect. That is, it is a bad feeling.  Second, it has high arousal. That is, it is a strong and powerful emotion.  Third, it occurs when people experience a violation of a moral boundary.

Let’s break that down.

No one wants to feel bad. Not you, not me, and not anyone I know. But there are lots of bad feelings. Grief is a bad feeling. Humiliation is a bad feeling. There is nothing unique in this regard about outrage. Having a bad feeling about something is not enough to provoke outrage.

There are also lots of “high arousal” emotions; love, hatred, joy, exuberance. So being “highly aroused” doesn’t feel like the defining feature of outrage to me.

It’s the final condition that interests me, that the behavior is a “violation of a moral boundary.”

So, if someone expresses outrage, then they are turning an event into a moral issue.

A sense of right and wrong is at the core of each of our personal belief systems. Anything that transgresses this in a major way is, as likely as not, a provocation for moral indignation.  This is particularly important in the context of citizenship and public policy because, as Reis and Martin, writing on “Psychological dynamics of outrage against injustice” explain:

…in a tacit social contract, people grant certain powers to [leaders] with the expectation that [leaders] will offer protection and some degree of justice.When [leaders] violate common expectations – for example by imposing excessive punishments – this will be perceived as unjust and cause an adverse reaction.

While Reis and Martin were writing in relation to “big”issues like torture and war, we frequently see the same visceral response to perceived “injustices” on a much smaller, more localized scale. “Injustices” are just as readily, and perhaps even more viscerally, perceived in the home, neighbourhood, workplace, school, and community, as their are in a broader global context.

For the person who’s only daily joy is taking their old dog for a romp each day, the idea that that could be taken away by government is very quickly framed as a repressive personal injustice. Equally, for the person who is terrified, or disgusted, by dogs, the idea that someone else’s mutt should impinge on their daily constitutional is not merely an inconvenience, it’s a transgression of a social contract in a civil society. And therefore immoral. You start to see how these things quickly elevate!

For the person who survives on a government pension and who’s only means of communication with relatives on the other side of the world is regular letter writing, affordability is a moral issue, rather than a practical one. For the student who’s only means of transport is the local bus service, a threat to that service is a threat to their education, which is a threat to their future aspirations. It’s not a practical issue, it’s an injustice.

It doesn’t matter whether you or I think this is a reasonable interpretation of the situation. And it certainly isn’t helpful to wonder whether is it “fair”. It only matters that we, as communicators and community engagement practitioners, can empathize with the position of the community (and ultimately the individuals within that community). Because if we can’t empathize then we can’t even begin to have a conversation. Particularly given their highly aroused state.

And so it goes….

The authors of a very well researched article about “The Emotional Components of Moral Outrage and their Effect on Mock Juror Verdicts” note:

Research in moral psychology has demonstrated that when people witness moral transgressions, they react with moral outrage. Moral outrage has been defined as a constellation of cognitive (e.g., attributions of blame), behavioral (e.g., desire to punish), and emotional (e.g., anger) responses to perceived wrongdoing. Disgust and anger are both emotional components of moral outrage, and are intimately linked in their ability to predict people’s moral outrage in response to a moral transgression.

Is it any wonder that things take us by surprise and blow up so very quickly.


Back to our Council friends. What happened?

The community, very quickly, turned the issue into a moral one.

“I have very little money. You are meant to be managing my contribution to this community efficiently and effectively. I don’t believe that you are. In fact, I believe that you are wasting my money. And now I find out that you expect more from me. This is an injustice. You are behaving immorally. You have broken the social contract between us. I’m going to get really angry and let you know how I feel about it.”

On reflection, and with the benefit of hindsight many years later, we all missed one contextual factor right up front.

No one thought to ask what the pre-existing relationship was like between the council and the community. This would have given us a critical insight into the likely community response. It would have allowed everyone to think through both the proposition and the communications plan much more critically and perhaps lead to a different path.

Of course, there were many other sociological factors at play in this particular community. But just imagine if every time we were thinking about asking the community for more money we asked ourselves, “is this a moral thing to be doing?”. What difference would that make? Would we avoid community outrage? Not always, but perhaps occasionally, and we’d certainly be better prepared and, hopefully, more empathic.

More Content You Might Like