So often, the phrase outrage culture (or the outrage machine) is lobbed by conservatives or liberals toward advocates of social justice (SJWs) who speak out online about subjects that get them, well, outraged. I’ve yet to see the phrase defined in a consistent manner, but it is often deployed by those who think that SJWs are sitting around on their computers just waiting for the latest story to get outraged about. And when that story hits, critics say, these irate activists will take to social media to express their anger, disapproval, and/or frustration. They’ll feverishly type away at their computer to produce condemnatory screeds directed at their latest target-usually a public figure who has made statements they find questionable or offensive. In a way, that’s what happens. But the critics of outrage culture use the phrase derisively. They’re mocking people who-in their eyes-are looking for reasons to get offended. They’re complaining that the “delicate flowers who are permanently aroused” are limiting free speech. And they’re characterizing those who express their anger and frustration online as “[…] an increasingly reactionary mob of self-centered narcissists who all have their own personal lines drawn in the sand”. That last one was from an article at Time, in which the author attempts to minimize and dismiss the anger felt by online critics while also declaring them unable to focus on multiple topics. This post is an attempt on my part to both understand where the critics of outrage culture are coming from, as well as formulate my thoughts on why it is a good and necessary thing.
As I said, in a literal way, advocates of social justice *do* take to social media to criticize or castigate public figures who make offensive comments. In her 2010 documentary ‘Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work‘, the late comedian made a joke that offended an audience member:
In 2013, Emma West launched into a racist tirade on a tram in England. She was secretly recorded, and when the video was uploaded to YouTube, more than 2 million people viewed her verbal harassment of her fellow tram passengers.
‘What has this country come to? A load of black people and a load of f***ing Polish. ‘You ain’t English. No, you ain’t English either. You ain’t English. None of you’s f***ing English. “It’s nothing now. Britain is nothing now. My Britain is f*** all now.’
Over 80,000 members of the public commented on the video and many people were inspired to record incidents of racism on public transport.
And when it was announced that Trevor Noah would succeed Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, several Tweets he’d made in the past resurfaced:
Behind every successful Rap Billionaire is a double as rich Jewish man. #BeatsByDreidel
— Trevor Noah (@Trevornoah) May 12, 2014
Originally when men proposed they went down on one knee so if the woman said no they were in the perfect uppercut position.
— Trevor Noah (@Trevornoah) December 20, 2012
Like many comedians, Trevor Noah pushes boundaries; he is provocative and spares no one, himself included. To judge him or his comedy based on a handful of jokes is unfair. Trevor is a talented comedian with a bright future at Comedy Central.
For those championing against the culture of outrage, this was likely a good response from Comedy Central. To them, the mobs of perpetually aroused, self-centered narcissists who got angry over Noah’s words are angry for inconsequential reasons. Just like those fragile flowers angry over the racist rant from Emma West. Just like Joan Rivers’ heckler. They’re all angry over minor comments not worth getting angry over.
The thing is: no, they’re not. They’re not angry over insignificant comments. Online critics are angry precisely because those comments do matter. They do carry weight.
When Trevor Noah joked about violence against women, he did so in a society where violence against women is an everyday occurrence. A 2014 report by the CDC estimated that 19.3% of women experienced rape during their lifetimes, 43.9% of women experienced other forms of sexual violence in the lifetimes, and 15.2% of women have been stalked during their lifetime. In other words, joking about violence against women-something that a great many women and girls have to deal with-is not something many people find funny. Whatever Noah was thinking when he joked about violence against women, it’s clear he failed to consider how his words might impact women. Even though he likely thought he was being humorous, comedy does not exist in a vacuum. When people listen to a comedian, they bring with them their experiences. And for many women, those experiences include violence from men. Perhaps if Noah were more aware of his privilege he might have stopped to consider how his “joke” might affect women.
His jokes about Jews received a similar condemnation. Though he was aiming for humorous, many critics were not amused. The stereotype of Jewish people as greedy is prevalent in society and informs the opinions of many people, which in turn contributes to a culture in which antisemitism can flourish. After all, when you see Jews as a collection of stereotypes, rather than individual human beings, you’ve taken the first steps toward dehumanizing them. Now, Trevor Noah is one-quarter Jewish, and that does matter. Its entirely possible he isn’t antisemitic. However. Internalized bigotry is a thing. It is quite common for gay people to hold homophobic beliefs or for women to hold sexist beliefs. Given that we’re all raised in a culture where homophobia and sexism are prevalent, it would be impossible not to be influenced by cultural beliefs. The same might be true of Noah. His humor “worked” by punching down on Jews-using a stereotype of Jews as the punchline of his joke. For all that those Tweets were dredged up years after he made them, its obvious that some people were worried that Noah might employ similar humor on The Daily Show-which is the last thing advocates of social justice want. Someone with the much-loved, much-watched platform that is The Daily Show ought to discourage anti-social attitudes, rather than bolster them. It is not inconsequential to be concerned about the reinforcement of negative stereotypes by someone who has the eyes and ears of millions. This is a lesson that Jim Norton does not understand. In speaking about the criticism Trevor Noah faced over his ill-conceived attempts at humor, Norton states:
He also neglected to take into account that Western culture as a whole has become an increasingly reactionary mob of self-centered narcissists who all have their own personal lines drawn in the sand. A comedian is fine unless he crosses their particular line, which, of course, in the mind of a self-centered narcissist, is the only line that matters.
People have lines in the sand that, when crossed, cause them to be angry and outraged? Say it ain’t so. Norton seems to think this is some sort of striking revelation, but it is hardly surprising and it is not a sign of excessive interest in oneself. It’s a reaction to comments they are angry about, and they have reasons to be angry. If a domestic violence victim read Noah’s Tweet and became angry, they are damn well justified in their anger (though Norton doesn’t think so). For them, domestic violence is no laughing matter. And it shouldn’t be. If someone read Noah’s antisemitic-leaning tweet and got angry, perhaps there’s a damn good reason. Maybe that person has to deal with antisemitism on a regular basis and that Tweet was the straw that broke the camels back? While critics of microaggressions laugh them off, they are real and more than a bit annoying. Or maybe some people simply saw what they perceived as antisemitism and chose to speak up in opposition to it bc they feel such attitudes should not be allowed to go unchallenged. What is the alternative he proposes? Nothing. Well, nothing stated outright. I’ll get back to that in a minute.
Where the antisemitic nature of Trevor Noah’s Tweet was meant to be humorous, Emma West’s rant on was blatantly bigoted. There are many people who live in the UK, and for them, someone openly expressing racist opinions is offensive. Who the hell is she to decide who should or should not be allowed to call the UK their home? For those concerned with promoting a pluralistic society where members of all cultures and nationalities are welcome, West’s regressive, conservative opinions were not appreciated. Contrary to Suzanne Moore’s opinion, the folks who expressed their displeasure were not “delicate flowers” living in a state of permanent arousal.
Nonetheless the “outrage” over Harris, as with Diane Abbott and Jeremy Clarkson and even the Racist Tram Woman, is overplayed. Public discourse often just is vulgar and offensive. I really don’t know where these delicate flowers who are permanently aroused live.
Vulgar and offensive though public discourse may be, that is a statement about the way things *are*, rather than how things should be. Moore’s rationalizations for racism are the equivalent of saying “welp, that’s the way things are, that’s the way things are always gonna be, best we just accept it and move on”. Thankfully, the critics of Emma West took a different tactic and shamed her for her racist opinions. Because those views shouldn’t be welcome in a society that seeks to be inclusive of all its citizens. As for the reaction being “overplayed”? It really is to laugh! The privilege of not having to be concerned with expressions of racism sure must be nice. Nice…and not terribly compassionate towards those who must live with such racism and its effects.
Moore goes on to complain that the culture of outrage is squelching free speech, and she’s worried about that. She’s so worried in fact, that she had to speak up in defense…of a human right she doesn’t fully comprehend:
Standing up for the principles of free speech is much more difficult than saying online that someone else’s joke is not very good. I was offended, for instance, by David Cameron’s patronising “calm down, dear” remarks, but no one died, as we say. The point is that people do die for the sake of free expression.
Cohen says of the internet that if it has a soul, “a loathing of censorship stirs it”. I’m not so sure. Lately this soul is fairly delusional and this culture of outrage denies rather than extends civil liberties. Do not mistake it for a real argument about free speech when it functions as the diametric opposite. You have, you see, every right to offend me. But not to censor me. And vice versa. That difference, often lost in cyberspace, is the one worth defending.
Like so many, Suzanne Moore appears to believe denouncing the hateful words of a bigot somehow impedes their freedom of speech. On the surface, it looks like Moore believes that criticizing the hateful words of an individual somehow prevents that individual from spewing further bile. But in reality, that is not the case. While Emma West faced punishment by a UK court, that is an act of the state, not of a civilian populace angered over her vituperative language. For all that the public was outraged, they had no actual power over West. They had no way of preventing her from speaking, nor any way to enact punishment upon her. This was not an issue of censoring free speech and there is nothing for Suzanne Moore to defend.
And Joan Rivers. Ah, Joan Rivers. Listening to that segment of her performance was highlighted just how uncaring her comedy was. When called on her joke that used Helen Keller as her punchline, and made light of children with physical disabilities, did she back down? Hell no:
You can hear Rivers’s voice break as she verbally attacks her heckler and says, “Don’t tell me what’s funny.” She was always firm about what comedy is for, what it’s “allowed” to address, and she never backed down from that.
Instead of backing down…instead of apologizing, Rivers went on to berate the audience member who criticized her. The guy had a child who was deaf and didn’t appreciate Rivers making fun of people who are deaf. But to her, comedy is all about making everyone laugh-no matter what. Except that’s simply not possible. Not everyone finds the same things funny. Moreover, for some people, some things simply aren’t funny. Some people don’t find it funny to joke about men punching women, and some people don’t find it amusing to make fun of physically disabled kids. It takes a special kind of person to not give two shits about how their words affect others, but Rivers was just that kind of person. The comedy and the laughter was all that mattered. So what if someone got offended? The author of that Esquire article, Paul Schrodt, sides with Rivers, effectively pulling the same defense as Suzanne Moore when the latter defended Racist Tram Woman-that members of the public who criticize speech are somehow silencing or censoring conversation:
The world now, particularly in that outrage machine known as the Internet, is full of people falling all over themselves to apologize. Some say sorry for truly heinous things, others for trivial things, but the apologies rarely feel genuine in this noisy atmosphere. The apologizers are feeding a beast. That beast is a network of individuals who wake up wanting to be offended, who want to feel the indignity of the insult and the self-righteousness of their reaction, because it makes them feel better about themselves.
In general, those outraged people silence our conversation. They make us politically correct and occasionally highlight real injustice, yes, but they also make us less inclined to speak our mind, which is unfortunate. Silence is a capitulation to those who insist you can’t talk about those things. When a woman in Hollywood has plastic surgery and doesn’t talk about it or avoids the question, she is acquiescing to the moral standard that what she is doing is wrong. The same is true of comics who delete tweets or half-heartedly backpedal jokes that have offended that were nevertheless clearly funny, clearly well-intentioned. They have given up. That’s something Joan Rivers would never abide.
The goal of Rivers’ critic (as well as those who condemned the comments from Noah and West) was not to shut her up, nor to prevent her speaking her mind. His goal was get her to understand the effect her words have on others. Granted, he did not express him in that way, but his criticism of her was not an end unto itself. This is where critics of ‘outrage culture’ go wrong (well, one way). They think people get angry just to get angry, as if they get their jollies by being outraged. But what they fail to consider is the source of the anger. For instance, the criticism Rivers faced was intended to give her pause to consider how the use of people with disabilities as the punchline of a joke might affect those people who have disabilities themselves. Or how her words might be taken by people who care for those with disabilities. Those with disabilities are already treated as pariahs, misfits, and freaks by society. Using them as the butt of a joke just adds one more layer of hurt to their experiences (IOW, yet another microaggression they have to deal with). Why add to that hurt? Is the telling of a joke more important than displaying compassion towards marginalized people? Don’t they suffer enough?
As for silencing? I’ve yet to hear how anyone is silenced by criticism or outrage. All that happens is that Public Figure A (PF A) says something offensive. Members of public criticize PF A. Sometimes an apology is asked for. Sometimes people just tell PF A to fuck off. That’s it. Nothing more. There’s no “let’s take PF A to jail”. There’s no “hang them up by their toenails and flay them alive”. Actually, to be fair, there are people who call for public figures to be terminated from their jobs or to lose endorsements. The key thing here is that the public doesn’t have the power to enact these punishments. They can apply pressure to companies to punish an individual, but civilians don’t have the power to directly punish a public figure whom they find offensive. So at the end of the day, all that’s left is criticism. And criticism doesn’t silence anyone. Asking for an apology silences no one. To hear people like Schrodt, Moore, or Norton, you’d think being criticized was akin to someone slapping super glue lathered duct tape over someone’s mouth. They don’t seem to recognize that being criticized for what you say doesn’t automatically shut anyone up. No one is required to apologize (cf. Joan Rivers), nor walk back their statements. And many people don’t. Many just keep on telling their jokes or making their comments (see Donald Trump) regardless of how their words impact some members of the public. It’s unfortunate when that happens, bc in my book, part of being a decent human being is acknowledging when you’ve made a misstep, or offended someone, and apologizing. With a sincere apology. Followed by a conscious decision not to make that same mistake again.
But that’s part of the rub with these opponents of so-called ‘outrage culture’: they don’t think any mistakes are made, nor harm done. “Manufactured outrage”, they’ll claim. Either outraged netizens are faking it and are really filled with ‘faux outrage’, or the source of their rage is of little consequence and not worth getting angry over. For whatever reason, these anti-‘outrage culture’-ists have created a narrative that treats the anger of others as illegitimate. Such an attitude is the perfect example of privilege. The Moore’s, Nortons, and Schrodt’s of the world so often have the social privilege that allows them to remain unaffected by offensive comments. But for marginalized people who frequently have to deal with all manner of daily indignities, big and small, what can seem minor to others can be significant to them bc it is just one more example of how society views them. Taken in isolation, a joke about domestic violence against a woman could arguably be seen as relatively unimportant. But such comments don’t exist in a vacuum. As mentioned earlier, they occur within a culture in which women are the victims of domestic violence on a daily basis. For people with physical disabilities, one context-free joke by Joan Rivers might not be that awful, but our society is hardly accommodating toward people with physical disabilities. Such a joke-one that punches down (i.e. targets victims of oppression, marginalization, and discrimination)-is yet another example of how they are viewed in society. And whether it’s the UK or the US, I hardly need to mention how expressions of racism reinforce racist power structures and serve as a reminder for People of Color that they are viewed differently…as outsiders…as the ‘other’ by members of the dominant racial/ethnic group.
One of the other problems I have with proponents of so-called ‘outrage culture’ is that they offer no alternative to critics who are incensed at comments made by public figures. Joan Rivers makes an incredibly insensitive comment that punches down on people with disabilities? Trevor Noah Tweets a not-so-‘funny ha ha’ joke about domestic violence? Emma West launches into a very public, very racist rant? The response from the Moore’s, Norton’s, and Schrodt’s of the world is “don’t you dare speak your mind and criticize these people because OMG free speech is threatened and we can’t have censorship!” But what does that leave? What option to critics have then?
Oddly enough, they offer nothing.
Nothing but silence.
They have nothing and offer nothing because what they appear to want is for critics to say nothing. They want the jokes to remain unchallenged. They want the racism to go unremarked. Joan Rivers, Emma West, and Trevor Noah can speak their mind…they can spout racist, sexist, ableist comments all they want. But people who don’t like that? People who want to speak their mind and challenge such bigotry? Uh-uh. No way. Can’t have that. It is they who ought to remain silent. It is they who should not speak up and share their thoughts. I ask WHY? Why should Emma West have the freedom to speak her mind and share with all the world the racism that flows through her veins, but her critics should not express their outrage in response? Why should Trevor Noah or Joan Rivers be free to joke as they please, regardless of the people who find their humor decidedly unfunny, but their critics should keep their mouths shut? Why does free speech only run one way?
Because some folks can’t handle the cart being upset. The cart, of course, being the social status quo. For the longest time, only a select few in society had a platform to share their thoughts. Those with the money, the fame, the power, the influence-these were the people who were heard. Once upon a time, a comedian could make rape jokes, nigger jokes, or joke about people with disabilities. Politicians could speak about women belonging in the home or about the dangers of homosexuality. And they could do these things without being vilified by the public, at least not immediately. And certainly not with the support of like minded individuals. But the times I speak of were the days before social media. Today, the social pariahs, the marginalized people, the oppressed segments of society…they have a voice. They can speak up with immediacy on Twitter, Facebook, in the comments section of news sites, on their personal blogs and more. Across the planet, people who once had no voice, now have a voice. No longer must someone with physical disabilities be prevented from sharing their disapproval of the “humor” from a comedian. No longer are racial minorities limited solely to writing letters to their elected officials criticizing racist rhetoric. Moreover-and just as important-these oppressed groups have found that they are not alone. They have found entire communities of support. They have networked with individuals across the planet, and found that their anger and frustration is shared by countless others.
I think it is this-the changing social landscape-that critics of outrage culture fear. Of these critics, I can see two groups. The first is composed of the people with social, political, or economic power (and their followers). They see their influence in society waning, and fear the loss of dominance. Where once they could say what they wanted, how they wanted, when they wanted, and face no opprobrium, the same cannot be said today. You can see it in the whining about “political correctness” from the likes of Ben Carson, Jerry Seinfeld, and Donald Trump. “PC” is nothing more than treating oppressed, marginalized people with respect and decency. Don’t use “faggot” as an insult against anyone. Don’t use sexist slurs like “whore” or “slut”. Use inclusive language when discussing groups of people so as not to leave others’ out. Those who whine about PC think such suggestions are a call for (surprise, surprise) censorship, but they are not. They are requests. Requests for people to moderate their own language. Requests for individuals to choose, on their own, to use language that is respectful, rather than demeaning or disparaging.
The second group is comprised of those who consider themselves good people. Think about it-requesting that others moderate their own language such that they avoid offending others, especially those who have been shat on by society? For people to admit they have been doing so-using offensive terms and phrases-carries with it the implication that they have done something wrong or bad. If you think of yourself as a good person (and I imagine most people do), how do you deal with the possibility that you’ve said something that hurt another person? On top of that, the very admission of wrongdoing is often perceived as a sign of weakness, and who wants to be viewed as weak? For many people, it is far easier to reject the idea that another has been harmed by their words, than to accept being wrong or weak.
All of this might appear as if I deny the existence of a culture of outrage, and I do. Sort of. I deny that self-absorbed people are sitting around waiting for the clarion call of battle, whereupon they leap to their computers to lambaste the latest offensive or insensitive public figure. I do not deny that a great many people choose to speak up in opposition to hurtful, hateful rhetoric from public figures. I do not deny that these people will castigate those offensive individuals for demonstrating anti-social attitudes. And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it is healthy. For people who have been denied a voice for so long, being able to share their thoughts and emotions is a wonderful. No more bottling such turmoil within themselves. Now they can share it with others, including the targets of their outrage. And those targets can benefit as well. There is neither shame, nor harm in admitting wrongdoing. No one need be worried about being perceived as weak for such an admission. We all make mistakes. Sometimes we do so unintentionally, other times on purpose. But if we are the good people we all think of ourselves as, we ought to accept that we have a responsibility to minimize the harm we cause others. That means when we step on someone else’s foot and they cry out in pain, we acknowledge the harm caused, apologize, and work to ensure we do not cause that person any further pain. And that, I think, is at the heart of so-called ‘outrage culture’. It’s not about silencing. It’s not about censoring others. It’s about telling people they have brought harm to others and giving them the opportunity to demonstrate empathy and compassion, and in so doing, becoming a better person. Is that not a worthwhile goal?
I say yes, it is.