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Guilt, Moral Outrage, and an Oscar Speech 

Why has Joaquin Phoenix's speech angered so many people?

Joaquin Phoenix's recent speech at the Oscars was intended to stir connection and empathy. For many it did just that. For many others, it sparked moral outrage. Why?

Phoenix invited viewers to join " the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender, one species, has the right to dominate, use and control another with impunity."

Source: Cubankite/Shutterstock

For the majority of audience members, the call for human rights and equality produced a cognitive congruence — a psychologically pleasing consistency between Phoenix's words, their beliefs, and their self-concept. It was only when Phoenix added "species" to the list that nodding heads turned to furrowed brows.

Not only did some people dislike the lumping of speciesism with other forms of isms like racism and sexism, they felt compelled to take action, sharing their anger on social media.

Research by Rothschild and Keefer (2017) might explain this intense reaction.

After inducing moral guilt in their participants, the authors discovered that participants coped by finding a third-party target of moral outrage. For example, learning they had purchased clothing made by child laborers led to expressions of outrage against the wrong-doing corporation, which then reduced feelings of guilt and personal culpability in the participants. Rothschild and Keefer aptly named this reaction a "cleansing fire."

So, the moral outrage in response to Phoenix's speech might be a genuine expression of disagreement but, given the intensity of the reaction, it is more likely a coping mechanism for cognitive dissonance (a discrepancy between our beliefs and our actions) or a defense mechanism protecting people's positive self-concept. After all, most of us see ourselves as compassionate people who would never take advantage of someone weaker, but most of us also eat animals or use animals to our advantage in ways we don't even notice. Facing this discrepancy head-on is deeply painful.

If you've experienced a strong defensive reaction in response to Phoenix's comments (or in response to any other trigger, for that matter), it may be an ideal opportunity to pause, reflect, and gain greater self-insight.

To learn from your feelings of moral outrage, ask yourself:

  • Am I feeling threatened? (If so, what do I feel is at risk?)
  • Might I be feeling guilt or shame? If so, why?
  • How do these feelings clash with my identity, values, or self-concept?
  • What would make me feel more whole, clean, or aligned with my beliefs moving forward?

Real personal growth starts with spotting your own cognitive dissonance. This is the first courageous step toward self-knowledge and learning. Then, once you've come to understand your values and priorities and forgiven yourself for your past actions or beliefs, you can be deliberate in choosing your next steps.

To learn more about harnessing cognitive dissonance for personal growth, check out the “Busting Makes Your Feel Good” episode on our podcast, Talk Psych to Me!


A cleansing fire: Moral outrage alleviates guilt and buffers threats to one’s moral identity by Rothschild and Keefer (2017)

A challenge to human evolution—cognitive dissonance by Perlovsky (2013)