Down the Outrage Hole (Again)

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After the Social Media and Politics panel that we participated in last night at East Tennessee State University, Bob Cesca, Feministing's Vanessa Valenti and I -- along with our gracious host, "Comedy Fred" Poag -- sat down at a comfortable table in the bar of our hotel for a couple of drinks. The panel discussion had gone well, with each of us making the points I think we wanted to make about where social media is leading us and what effect it's having on the way we communicate, think and vote. But once we'd retired to our dimly lit spot near the fireplace just off the lobby of the Carnegie hotel and I'd gotten a pint of Gaelic Ale in me, I turned to Vanessa and dropped the question I'd been interested in asking all night but didn't want to bring up at the panel because the road it would've led down would no doubt take us far away from the basic topics we were asked to discuss. That question, again posed to the founder of Feministing, was, "Okay, so, what do you think of controversy over the Onion tweet?"

What resulted from that was a really terrific conversation between the four of us on misogyny in the media, the nature and impact of internet outrage and the benefits and dangers of "call-out culture."

Over the past week or so I've been pretty vocal about my own frustration with what I believe is the overreaction by some to both the ballsy yet ill-advised tweet from The Onion during last weekend's Oscars -- the one that used 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis and the word "cunt" to make a blistering statement about the way we beat up on female celebrities -- and Seth MacFarlane's litany of supposedly sexist jokes while hosting the awards. I stand by everything I've written and said about both subjects: I think the furious indignation over what amounts to humor, with one instance being biting satire aimed squarely in our direction and saying something that needs to be said, is, for the most part, ridiculous and unnecessary. It's one thing to be offended by a couple of jokes or to question the prudence of involving a little girl in a truly scathing piece of satire; it's another thing entirely to claim that those jokes celebrate rape, to use your seat in government to lobby the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to "disavow" Seth MacFarlane, or to demand that The Onion take a series of draconian measures as a necessary penance for its supposed sin. While I understand how some could be put off by MacFarlane's cracks and certainly by The Onion's comment, the social media-driven outrage over them are, to put it mildly, completely out-to-lunch.

Vanessa Valenti's take on the whole thing was, needless to say, a little more measured than mine, given that her perspective is one honed by the desire to see feminist issues given as much attention and lent as much credence as possible. For the record, not only is Vanessa a really smart and damn cool woman, her point of view when it comes specifically to the whole Oscars/Onion miasma is one absolutely worth listening to. I may not agree across the board that words like "cunt" in and of themselves are damaging or that it might be possible to draw a direct line from a Seth MacFarlane joke to Todd Aiken's repugnant views on what constitutes rape and what the female body can and can't do, but as usual, when you get a couple of people together to just talk about things, minus the noise of the social media echo chamber, each person is better off for it and comes to understand the other's thoughts with less of a tendency to dismiss them out of hand and move on. While I'll keep the specifics of what was said out of the public realm, it was a great conversation and one that, when it was over, Cesca and I agreed was necessary for us as men.

I do still, however, continue to have a problem with knee-jerk anger and the unprecedented authority it's been given -- the damage it can do -- in the age of the internet. We react without thinking, often inspired by no more than 140-characters, driven wholly by our gut, and enticed by someone else imploring us to be offended and outraged. I'm sure that there are those who say that it's not my place to decide who and what's worth losing our minds over and who and what's nothing more than a triviality -- and plenty more who would ludicrously claim that I'm not allowed to say anything because to do so would be to prove the insidious nature of white male privilege and my blindness to it -- but it's not like I came to these conclusions because of one or two incidents that I considered egregious. In other words, I didn't knee-jerk on this. The reality is that more and more we're becoming a nation where no one expects to ever be offended or have his or her sensibilities challenged and if, God forbid, we do, we freak the hell out and demand satisfaction on a grand scale.

In a display of irony so staggering that it might actually have the power to create some kind of singularity at the center of the Earth that swallows us all like the red matter in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot, Salon today published a piece called, "How To Do Outrage." In it, author Irin Carmon cites the "shaming" of Seth MacFarlane as an example of outrage done right. Here's the salient part of the column, which incidentally references a really good piece in Salon by Andrew Leonard that, as mine often do, laments our tendency to go-directly-to-fury instead of simply turning off or otherwise ignoring whatever it is that irritates us.

"Take the misogyny and bigotry on display at the Oscars Sunday, and everything that followed. Salon’s Andrew Leonard may be right when he says that 'in our pre-Twitter past, we might have simply turned off the TV or switched channels once MacFarlane started singing his dumb song about boobs. But now we stay watching to share our hate!' ... Sharing that 'hate' en masse happens to be a communal experience, something that has its own virtues in this atomized, time-shifted age. But it also exorcises demons that without something specific on which to fix righteous rage, are suppressed or implicitly accepted by society. Everyday slights and institutional discrimination are hard to point out on your own. Watching them on a screen or finding them in a tweet helps make them visible."

If I'm reading this right, and I'm afraid I am, what Carmon is saying is that the average person may not know on his or her own what to be pissed about but, thankfully, the perpetually aggrieved social media horde can help solve that problem by pointing out what's offensive. In other words, people can be influenced to be angry by someone else who's found something to get angry over -- and this is supposedly a good thing.

True, in the case of, say, Todd Aiken's comments on "legitimate rape," internet publicity and the entirely justified outrage and mockery brought a reckless and stupid neanderthal's Senate hopes crashing down in flames. But no matter how far you try to stretch a correlation -- no matter how many tenuous leaps of logic you're willing to make to serve your purpose -- there's a hell of a lot of space between a couple of sexually themed jokes by a guy who delights in taking on everyone, leaving few sacred cows, and the very real danger posed by a man running for Senate with that little regard for women or even basic knowledge of the female anatomy, apparently. Seth MacFarlane is a good-natured humorist. Todd Aiken is a lunkheaded misogynist. There's a difference. And to conflate the two is, at best, to miss the point of comedy entirely and, at worst, to raise every supposed offender and perceived offense to the same level and therefore risk drowning out the truly grievous injuries.

MacFarlane is currently getting it from all sides: Women's rights advocates are decrying his supposed sexism, the latest cries of foul coming from Jane Fonda and, of all people, Lena Dunham, both of whom say that the inexplicably infamous "We Saw Your Boobs" monologue sketch was insulting to women. (Dunham's criticism is especially amusing given that she chooses to incessantly play her own nudity for uncomfortable laughter on Girls, the implication being that as a woman she can show her body off as much as she'd like in what's ostensibly a comedy series but no one's allowed to actually laugh at it in a way she disapproves of.) Meanwhile, Hispanic-American organizations are claiming that his line about Latino actors being difficult to understand is beyond the pale. And of course, some African-American activists have called his crack about Quvenzhané Wallis being too old to date George Clooney in 16 years not only sexist but racist.

All of this -- all this outrage -- over a series of jokes. There are so many who love to dismiss the argument that, well, humor is humor and it's therefore not only harmless in the big picture but should be protected as a special kind of very necessary speech. They love to dismiss it, but you know something? In the end, it is just humor, and it is important to let people laugh at us and, occasionally, even at our expense. They're jokes, delivered without even the slightest hint of intended ill-will. And elevating them to the level of being truly damaging or considering them little more than teachable moments about how not-funny it is to ever push the envelope or buck convention in a culture that's becoming increasingly constrained by political correctness and subject to chastising by a few angry people who use social media to turn their personal indignation into a rallying cry and silence those who offend them -- there's something about that that should make everyone a little queasy.

The right way to "do outrage?" Maybe it's to not apply an equal amount of it to every single affront. Maybe it's to realize that these days a little indignation can go a very long way, spiraling out of control, traveling around the world and eventually becoming an overwhelming cacophony that's ultimately comically disproportionate to the act that birthed it. We still have the ability turn off or ignore things we don't like. We don't have to demand that those things be silenced, punished or taken back. We don't have to "hate watch." Our call-out culture doesn't have to call out every single fucking thing. We're not always owed an apology.

As I sit here at Dulles Airport on my way back to Los Angeles, I'm watching a fiery, contentious roundtable debate on CNN over whether Joan Rivers "crossed the line" by making a joke about Germans shoving Jews into the oven during the holocaust. The Anti-Defamation League is demanding she say she's sorry for it. My first thought: Jesus, we suck. But Joan's refusing to apologize. My second thought: Maybe there's still hope.

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