Outrage over Felicity Huffman Sentencing

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

If one is so inclined to read Twitter, which I am not, there was near-universal outrage over the sentencing of Felcity Huffman for her role in the infamous college admissions scandal known as Operation Varsity Blues (Varsity Blues just happens to be one of my favourite movies). Ms. Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in jail for paying $15,000 to have her daughter’s SAT scores corrected prior to being submitted. She is the first parent to be sentenced in the massive scandal that has led to criminal charges for dozens of wealthy parents.


News of Ms. Huffman’s sentence sparked angry reactions from many who felt that it was too leniant because she was white and wealthy. Many pointed to the 5-year sentence of Tanya McDowell, a black mother, who falsified her son’s residence so she could get him into a neighboring school district (in a rush to be outraged, the masses faield to consider that the 5 year sentence also included drug offences). Like so much outrage we see from the masses in high-profile cases, it is generally based on a complete misunderstanding of the facts and ignorance of the law. 

While I could spend days, if not weeks, writing about the public’s misconception with the legal system and blind outrage over sentencing, the focus of this blog will be on outrage itself. As I try not to prematurly age myself, I remember a time, before social media, where we as a society were not in a perpetual state of outrage. It seems that not a day goes by in which some segement of society is not in near-caridac arrest over something someone said or did, whether they actually said or did that thing is irrelevant. 

Anger is thrilling, though we’re loath to admit it. If cocaine was the drug of the 80s, outrage is the drug of now. Whatever our ideologial position, we get high on scrolling through social media or reading the news and taking a position on the scandal of the day. It keeps us up at night, waiting on the next comment from some anonymous troll angrily typing from the cozy confines of their mother’s basement. Yet we do it. We refresh our browser and become even more outraged when some “snowflake” takes a position contrary to our own. 


The Dangers of Getting Hooked

Anger and outrage has become a public epidemic. We’re becoming outrage junkies. Some argue that outrage is a positive thing because it leads to real change. They point to outrage over injustice – like sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement – fuels positive change and can cause a systmeic change in the way we as a society treat dangerous behaviours. 

Yet despite the good, there is a very real downside. We have become addicted to unhealty emotions and we constant chase that next angry high. This makes it impossible to have a reasoned debate over the criminal justice system, among other things. 

The psychology of outrage is of increasing interest to academics. According to University of Chicago legal scholors who studied jury deliberation processes, the more outraged we become and the more we see others upset, the more we feel justifed in being agry ourselves. One incenesed juror can inflame the entire group leading to wrongful convictions on the criminal side and inflated punitive damages on the civil side.

Notably, the culture of anger and outrage has had a dramatic shift on the way we treat each other. As observed by a Harvard paper examining academic literature on anger’s effect on judgment:

… once activated, anger can color people’s perceptions, form their decisions, and guide their behavior while they remain angry, regardless of whether the decisions at hand are related to the source of their anger.

Studies have shown that anger makes people indiscriminately punitive, careless thinkers and eager to take action. It colors our perception of what’s happening and skews our morals of right and wrong. 


While it cannot be denied that anger can be fuel of good, it is also causes us to act in ways we normally wouldn’t. Society’s addiction to anger has resulted in a significant increase in criminal charges for anger based impulsive crimes such as road rage, revenge porn and common assault. We have become hardwired to attack at the very perception of a slight. While most of those attacks are occurring online, the danger is when it transfers to the real world where there are very significant legal consequences. 

Cory Wilson is a criminal defence lawyer based in Calgary. If you have been charged with a criminal offence or are a suspect in a criminal investigation, call today for a free, no obligation consultation.