The Pleasures of Outrage: Why We Love Demagoguery

By Ivana Porashka
Staff Writer

Professor Patricia Roberts-Miller of the University of Texas at Austin, author of Demagoguery and Democracy (2017) and Rhetoric and Demagoguery (2019), recently held a lecture in Gailor Auditorium, followed by a reception and book signing.

The rhetoric program at Berkeley, her alma mater, was the premier program in the country during her undergraduate enrollment; she was able to work with the very best minds at the time. In her most recent books concerning demagoguery, she wrestles with the question that has driven most of her scholarship: What kind of rhetorical deliberation leads to good decision making?

What exactly does it mean to call someone a demagogue? Dr. Roberts-Miller elaborated that “it’s what people in rhetoric call a devil tongue.”

Her area of scholarly expertise is referred to as “pathologies of deliberation,” but she personally calls it “trainwrecks in public deliberation,” the study of how communities take time to make a decision that they later regret. “Things like the Sicilian expedition, the commitment to a particular artillery strategy in World War I, the Holocaust,” she cited as examples, “all sorts of very different cases… Puritans hanging Quakers… why would you do that? They’re pacifists,” she added humorously.

Professor Melody Lehn remarked on the dichotomizing nature of politics discussed by Dr. Roberts-Miller. When visiting Lehn’s class, she “urged us to all reflect upon how we might actively see and listen beyond our ‘informational enclaves. In so doing, [we] resist the impulse to reduce complex subjects, situations, and controversies into simplified and unhelpful ‘either/or’ arguments.”

The concept of ingroup/outgroup thinking permeate the American public. One of the pleasures of outrage is that people convince themselves that they are like good people and unlike bad people. Nonconscious factors affect perception of others that is not necessarily relevant.

“We have a tendency to reason from identity and trust people who are similar to us,” Dr. Roberts-Miller stated, “How we think we reason and how we actually reason are two very different things.”

The issue of preconceptions affects how policy is made in American government, how media is wired for viewership, and how cultural chasms between political parties widen. Dr. Roberts-Miller suggested that “we cannot suppress or ignore those nonconscious factors, so we can’t do anything about them as long as we don’t acknowledge they exist.”

Inoculation has saturated media sources, and Dr. Roberts-Miller argues that this will rip apart the foundations of democracy. “If I’m relying entirely on ingroup informational sources, they’re going to misrepresent the opposition,” she explained.

“This leads to the corruption of public deliberation. Values like willingness to compromise, open mindedness, listening to both sides, all went away,” she noted.

The current political culture’s obsession with anger is the focus of Dr. Roberts-Miller’s most recent books, Demagoguery and Democracy (2017), and Rhetoric and Demagoguery (2019). She discussed how this anger can strengthen party divide and lead to unproductive discussion.

“Abandoning inclusive policy argumentation in favor of reducing every argument to how your party can trounce the other, destroys democracies,” Dr. Roberts-Miller said, “And we are in that culture.”

She went on to explain that the solution to this issue is to change how our media operates, make conscious efforts to consider multiple points of view, and be more open to changing our minds. Dr. Roberts-Miller ended her lecture with a quote from Thucydides’ in the Mytilenean debate of 427 B.C.: “The good citizen ought to triumph, not by frightening his opponents, but by beating them fairly in arguments.”