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The Age of Outrage

By Chez Pazienza: All it took was one retweet for the wrath of God to rain down on me.

Last Friday morning I did what a lot of hacky self-proclaimed online pundits were doing in the wake of Geraldo Rivera's galactically stupid claim that the choice to wear a hoodie is what got Trayvon Martin killed: I penned a quickie column on it for my blog.Like a lot of other ostensible progressives, however, I apparently had the bad form to not heap what I would soon learn was the universally agreed upon level of scornful indignation in Geraldo's direction. On the contrary, while I said that Geraldo's idiotic no-hoodie plea to American parents of brown kids was just that, idiotic, I argued that he did manage to touch on a larger issue that deserved at least some consideration. That issue is the role that someone's wardrobe or style choices play in how that person is perceived by a large portion of the public. My point was that while I'm pretty sure Geraldo was wrong about Trayvon Martin's hoodie having anything to do with George Zimmerman's decision to confront and ultimately kill him, it's common sense to note that what a person chooses to wear or adorn him or herself with influences how he or she is viewed. It may be unfair that people create preconceptions based on personal style, but that doesn't matter one bit because that's the way it is -- and what this means is that while someone is free to wear whatever the hell he or she wants, that person has to understand that there may be unintended consequences to choosing to dress or look a certain way.

Geraldo Rivera.

Now obviously I wasn't saying that a kid in a hoodie deserves to be shot at for looking a little like the people Geraldo sees in stick-up surveillance videos all the time. Nor was I saying that a woman in a short skirt and high heels at a bar is asking to be sexually assaulted. I was simply arguing that while in a perfect world no one would jump to conclusions based on the way we choose to present ourselves -- the key word is choice, as I'm not talking about physical characteristics that one is born with and which can't be changed and therefore shouldn't be judged at all on -- we don't live in a perfect world. Shouting about how a black or brown guy in a hoodie, low-slung pants and a ball cap should be able to walk the streets and not worry that people will look at him like he's a thug and a threat is a ridiculous conceit because if you argue almost anything from the point of what should be, the whole argument becomes moot. I should be able to fly -- but that's not going to provide much consolation when I hit the sidewalk at 200 miles-an-hour. Until someone comes along and changes the reality of the situation and allows me to soar over the city, I'm gonna fall. Until someone changes perception -- and I'm all for that -- that perception will likely remain, and it borders on irresponsible not to be cognizant of it. Wanna buck convention? Have at it. Just understand that convention exists.

So, yeah, I dared to enter the Hysterical Indignation Vortex in the wake of the tragic and very likely criminal shooting of Trayvon Martin without expressing enough indignation to make the liberal masses happy. I know this because about ten seconds after my piece got tweeted out -- admittedly by me, so I know that I get what I deserve -- it was retweeted again and again and suddenly every friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend or nobody-in-particular with a Twitter account and a somewhat justifiable sense of outrage at the death of Trayvon was pounding on my digital door, ready to publicly flog me for my impertinence while basically misunderstanding every goddamned thing I'd said. Some of those raking me over the coals, in fact, admitted that they found my entire premise so "repellant" that they didn't even bother to read the piece all the way through -- not surprising given both our 140-character attention spans and blinded-by-passion discourse these days, but still a lousy way to come out on top in a debate.

And it was all of this that got me thinking about Bill Maher. Namely, that he's right.

Last week, Maher penned an op-ed in the New York Times taking aim at how we as a culture have elevated controversy -- the creation of it, often by the media, and instantaneous public response to it -- to almost slapstick-comical levels. It feels like we now live to be pissed off and offended -- at something, at everything, at anything -- and to voice that outrage in whichever direction the perceived slight is coming from until the cause of our collective torment is beaten into submission. We don't just disagree anymore -- we want to make the thing we disagree with go away. The fury comes from both sides of the political aisle and from every stripe within our society. Maher's assertion is that we need to learn how to get the hell over things and get on with our lives -- to not immediately demand an apology every time we feel that someone has publicly offended us and to not be so quick to be offended in the first place. To those accused of saying or doing something that draws a coordinated public tantrum, his advice is simple: stop apologizing.

It pretty much goes without saying that, in a wonderfully ironic meta twist befitting the current fucked-up state of our culture, Maher's column was debated at length in the media and throughout the social networking universe in the days after it was published. In other words, it drew controversy.

In the end, though, Maher's right. Yes, there are a few notable exceptions to the Law of Unintended Controversy. There are times when someone can violate the standards of so many people so egregiously that a proportional public backlash is understandable. The problem is that it's threatening to get to the point where it's impossible to discern what is and isn't a truly heinous and unacceptable affront because the machinery of indignation seems to wind up to the same deafening level for every perceived insult. As Jon Stewart once said brilliantly, "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing." If we react -- or some large swath of us reacts -- with the same fervor each time we feel like we've been offended, the truly offensive crap gets lost in the echo chamber.

And who decides what's truly offensive, anyway? I get that the democratization of the media means, in theory, that only the people who are pissed off at a given slight will react and make their voices heard, but have you listened to what it's like out there lately? After a while it all gets Cuisinarted into one dull roar -- and it's exhausting.

I'm certainly not whining about the fact that a lot of those who seem to be perpetually aggrieved unleashed their fury on me on Twitter. I put myself out there so I'm, ironically, given the nature of the subject I was writing about, asking for it. I'm also certainly not decrying social media like some antediluvian royal dismissing change from on-high. Far from it.

The point is simply that, as Bill Maher writes, if we constantly attempt to crucify those who offend our sensibilities, what we'll inevitably be left with is a truly PC-beholden culture where no one ever says or does anything interesting. Where no one pushes boundaries. Where no one challenges us. In other words, a place where none of us, I would hope, wants to live.

We have to be able to debate and discuss without trying to decimate those who oppose us -- or those who we immediately assume oppose us.

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