Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Outrage-Industrial Complex

That horrid intersection of partisan liberal agendas, partisan conservative agendas, and the bullhorn of social media.

Chris Rock, of all people, who has been making more sense on politics and the state of the society these days than any talking head or "expert" on television, nails it in a recent interview with Frank Rich.

What do you make of the attempt to bar Bill Maher from speaking at Berkeley for his riff on Muslims?

Well, I love Bill, but I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative.

In their political views?

Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.

When did you start to notice this?

About eight years ago. Probably a couple of tours ago. It was just like, This is not as much fun as it used to be. I remember talking to George Carlin before he died and him saying the exact same thing.

A few days ago I was talking with Patton Oswalt, and he was exercised about the new reality that any comedian who is trying out material that’s a little out there can be fucked by someone who blasts it on Twitter or a social network.

I know Dave Chappelle bans everybody’s phone when he plays a club. I haven’t gone that far, but I may have to, to get an act together for a tour.

Does it force you into some sort of self-censorship?

It does. I swear I just had a conversation with the people at the Comedy Cellar about how we can make cell phones into cigarettes. If you would have told me years ago that they were going to get rid of smoking in comedy clubs, I would have thought you were crazy.

It is scary, because the thing about comedians is that you’re the only ones who practice in front of a crowd. Prince doesn’t run a demo on the radio. But in stand-up, the demo gets out. There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy. It can get downright offensive. Before everyone had a recording device and was wired like fucking Sammy the Bull,4 you’d say something that went too far, and you’d go, “Oh, I went too far,” and you would just brush it off. But if you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.
Alexandra Petri picks up on it in this column:
2014, as Slate points out, was the year of outrage. We bounced from ire about Lena Dunham to ire about Uber to ire about nude photos and back again. Internet existence is powered by outrage. Indignation is a powerful force, as renewable as wind, and equally capable of leveling whatever is in its path. Hot air is never in limited supply.
You should read the Slate piece. It presents a day by day, nearly 365 so far, of "outrages" in 2014 that had people bloviating on twitter, facebook, instagram or wherever. We are so quick to judge, so quick to pass those judgments, and virtually impotent to withdraw a stupid opinion when confronted with reality that speaks to your wrongness.

As Slate notes, there's a cycle to it: "anger, sarcasm, recrimination, piling on; defenses and counterattacks; faux apologies; anger at the anger, disdain for the outraged, outrage that the apology wasn't sincere enough."

Lather, rinse, repeat; day after day, week after week, until your aneurysm subsides and you feel better about yourself. And worse, "the same cycle occurs regardless of the gravity of the offense, which can make each outrage feel forgettable, replaceable. The bottomlessness of our rage has a numbing effect."

It's a desensitization that eventually leaves us outraged at everything and yet nothing at the same time.

It is one thing to conduct yourself in a way that strives not to give offense. That’s polite. It is another thing to expect never to be offended. That’s impossible.

Now we’re at the point where, as Rock says, you can’t even be offensive on the way to being inoffensive. We’re governed by the thinnest skins.

Look at what FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff calls “disinvitation season” on college campuses, the very phenomenon Rock referenced. It’s not just No to Ann Coulter. It’s No to Bill Maher. No to newsmakers like Condoleezza Rice, Christine Lagarde, Robert Birgeneau. Soon, Lukianoff predicts, “the only people they can safely invite to speak will be those who have nothing to say.”

“People all over the globe are coming to expect emotional and intellectual comfort as though it were a right,” Lukianoff writes. “This is precisely what you would expect when you train a generation to believe that they have a right not to be offended.”

The outrage machine is so wonderful and well-oiled and efficient that it is easy to feel that it is right. Many individual times, it feels right. He shouldn’t have said that. I don’t approve of her joke. But on net, the effect is silencing.

And it’s interesting to map our disapproval in the context of today’s outrage (well, possibly yesterday’s — the cycle moves so quickly) over the pulling of “The Interview” from theaters. That indignation was pointed in a different direction than usual. It’s one thing when we go silent in the face of a threat. That, we can tell, is wrong. That is censorship. That is our free speech being shuttered. That must not stand.
And yet that's the precise endpoint for the Outrage-Industrial Complex: a sinister form of social control whose ultimate goal is silencing you and your thoughts (however incendiary, trite or stupid they may be).

You may think "The Interview"/North Korea incident is an exaggerated example, but it isn't. They may have threatened and carried out terrorist hacks against Sony Pictures, but how is that different from some idiot who is "so outraged" at something someone said, they publish names/addresses of people who have pissed them off? Or bombard a workplace with emails to try and get someone fired? Or file malicious law suits or seek frivolous indictments, simply because someone made you mad?

I love social media (duh). I enjoy being able to blog, tweet, post, like, share and write about things that generally piss me off. But we've become so unforgiving of routine mistakes today, where someone says something that "offends" you and boom! the world is going to end for that guy, because gosh darnit, I'm offended! We have fat shaming, conservative shaming, liberal shaming, slut shaming, religious shaming...on and on.

Do me a favor: the next time you get really worked up about something (irony alert: kinda like this post, right? Outrage about outrage?), by all means express yourself, but spare us the demand for a pound of flesh, the desire to defenestrate every, single person who ever hurt your poor little feelings.

You don't have a right to be offended. But people do have a right to be stupid. Including you and your "outrage."

UPDATE: NYT columnist Ross Douthat hits on similar themes in his column today (12/21/14) albeit from a more conservative perspective:
OF course it had to escalate this way. We live in a time of consistent gutlessness on the part of institutions notionally committed to free speech and intellectual diversity, a time of canceled commencement invitations and C.E.O.s defenestrated for their political donations, a time of Twitter mobs, trigger warnings and cringing public apologies. A time when journalists and publishers tiptoe around Islamic fundamentalism, when free speech is under increasing pressure on both sides of the Atlantic, when a hypersensitive political correctness has the whip hand on many college campuses.

So why should anyone be remotely surprised that Kim Jong-un decided to get in on the “don’t offend me” act?

Nor is it all that different from the arguments used in the United States to justify canceling an increasing number of commencement speakers — including Condoleezza Rice and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Christine Lagarde — when some hothouse-flower campus activists decided they couldn’t bear to sit and hear them. Or the mentality that forced out the C.E.O. and co-founder of Mozilla, Brendan Eich, when it was revealed that he had once donated money to a ballot initiative that opposed same-sex marriage. Or the free-floating, shape-shifting outrage that now pervades the Internet, always looking for some offensive or un-P.C. remark to fasten on and furiously attack — whether the perpetrator is a TV personality or some unlucky political staffer, hapless and heretofore obscure.
He goes on to make it sound like this is just a liberal thing, ignoring conservatism's over the top, reactionary bouts of P.C.myopia (see here, here and here for starters), but his larger point on the Outrage-Industrial Complex and its snuffing out of free expression stands.
“We cannot have a society,” President Obama said on Friday, when asked about the Sony hack, “where some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.”

In theory, that’s absolutely right. But in practice, Kim Jong-un has our culture’s number: Letting angry people impose a little censorship is just the way we live right now.

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