On Outrage Culture

To all people of normal character and constitution, I ask you to take a moment to reflect on the number of times in your life when you felt genuinely offended.

I wager that you will be hard-pressed to find any, and the ones that you do find will undoubtedly be starkly terrible and something that all moral and ethical people in the twenty first century would condemn without reservation.  We can all conjure memories of the school yard playground in which we were subjected to juvenile antagonization, or the high school bully that made it their business to terrorize the student population whenever the opportunity arose. But these are not the case studies that dominate our public conversations, nor the scenarios that anybody has in mind when the topics of cultural appropriation or sexual harassment, for example, are broached. We are conditioned daily to feign outrage and offensive at positively banal social interactions; indeed, those able to perfect this act consider themselves to be on higher ground, and we continually allow them treat us as racists, sexists, bigots, and moral degenerates.  At the heart of this well of social justice movements is the idea that being offended automatically validates whatever you have to say, and indeed, occasionally extricates you from having to produce a cogent argument at all.  This is not a way to argue; it is not a way to get your point across; it is short-sighted, self serving, and divisive, and can lead only to a culturally, artistically, and socially stagnate society; or social civil war.

Consider say, cultural appropriation.  Almost immediately after the words were formulated by the tongues of college students and activists nationwide the confusion and distaste set in.  Cultural appropriation, strictly speaking, is the act of appropriating, or taking away, aspects of another culture, but is most commonly used to condemn things like cornrows, halloween costumes, sports team’s names, etc.  The moral vertigo induced by such a phrase, I believe, comes not from the definition, or the merits of such a concept, but from the leap that is made from the definition to its application.  There is a reason that most people are not offended by say, a white man dressing up as an Indian for Halloween, and it is not because of cowardice or a lack of critical thinking; it’s because they understand the accused’s intent.  There’s a world of difference between participating in another culture, and stealing it; and between participating in another culture, and a Halloween costume.

No doubt you have seen the famous Yale University skirmishes, in which dozens of distressed students surrounded a professor in the university’s quad and berated him, for merely defending the person (his wife, admittedly) who sent an email in which it was suggested that we should be skeptical of giving institutions the power to police social norms, such as which halloween costumes were acceptable.  Students were literally crying, claiming that they no longer felt safe at school, and were ashamed to have this man as a professor.  Apart from the disproportion with which these students reacted, what made this display truly egregious was the fact that no one seemed to have a clear consistent objection other than they were offended by what they perceived the email to say and how the professor reacted to it — the offense was all that was necessary to justify the formation of a mob and the libelous attack on a respected Yale professor.  The professor was criticized for not knowing the names of other students, for unintentionally smiling while the students were speaking, for raising his voice, for trying to reason with his accusers, and most importantly for not issuing an abject baseless apology outright.  He was forced into a situation in which nothing he said could have cleared him of the charges; he was condemned before the conversation even began.  At the risk of sounding trite, this is authoritarian.  It’s the rule of a capricious mob that does not listen to reason because it believes that its worldview is absolutely pristine.  It seeks to become the judge, jury, and executioner, and exhibits absolutely no tolerance.  We permit this behavior at our peril.

One might be tempted to say that this is just an unfortunate side-effect of democracy, and that the policing of social norms should be handled by the people, and not through legislation.  While I would whole-heartedly agree with that sentiment, there are limitations to what responses are warranted; mob justice is not the framework in which we want our society operating.  The lynching of African Americans throughout the 19th and 20th centuries was not society using the freedom of speech and expression to correct itself — it was murder.  Similarly, when groups of people call for those with whom they disagree to be terminated from their employment, de-platformed, or openly label them as racists, bigots, white supremacists, they are not engaged in civil public discourse; they’re engaged in slander with the intent of ruining their target’s life.  Simply not registering for their classes, buying their books, attending their speeches, or following them on Twitter is not enough.  This movement wishes to silence and crush their dissenters, and prevent all others from hearing what they have to say.

We cannot continually bend to the will of those who claim to be offended.  This claim can be made be anyone, about anything, and to any degree.  And the only way we have hitherto been able to wade through this marsh is by using our reason.  Continuously acquiescing to those who make the loudest noise will lead to a world in which no person would want to live.  Another Red Scare where everybody is so afraid to cause offense that we end up in a cycle of constantly trying to one-up each other, and pointing fingers at those who fail to meet the ever changing bar.

Be offended, be outraged, and protest.  But also listen, and be open to changing your mind when you’re wrong.  Intolerance of intolerance is still intolerance.  We’re all people with opinions, and the only way we’re going to continue progressing is to accept that they will often be wrong, and should be constantly challenged.