Following the news in 2014 is a bit like flying a kite in flat country during tornado season. Every so often, a whirlwind of outrage touches down, sowing destruction and chaos before disappearing into the sky.
These conditions are hardly new. Over the past decade or so, outrage has become the default mode for politicians, pundits, critics and, with the rise of social media, the rest of us. When something outrageous happens—when a posh London block installs anti-homeless spikes, or when Khloé Kardashian wears a Native American headdress, or, for that matter, when we read the horrifying details in the Senate’s torture report—it’s easy to anticipate the cycle that follows: anger, sarcasm, recrimination, piling on; defenses and counterattacks; anger at the anger, disdain for the outraged; sometimes, an apology … and on to the next. Twitter and Facebook make it easier than ever to participate from home. And 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.
This desensitization makes it tough to clock exactly how modern outrage functions. Is it as awful as it sometimes feels? More useful than it might seem? Should we be rending our garments about our constant rending of garments? Or should we embrace the new responsiveness of the social and hypersensitive Web?
And so—in an effort to answer these and other questions—we resolved to keep track of what people got outraged about every day of 2014. Since January, a phalanx of editors, writers, and interns has been scanning the horizons for funnels of fury. They used a Google doc and a bot that reminded us about the project any time someone used the word outrage on IM. The rage-a-day calendar above contains the fruits of their labor: a comprehensive listing of what was outrageous and whom it outraged, for every single day of the year.
The results, we think, are illuminating. People were upset about TV stars and wheelchairs and lattes and racism and war. Some days, people were upset about Slate. (Other days, we caught the outrage current and rode it a ways ourselves, as Jordan Weissmann details below.) Though it can be jarring to see something as nation-shaking as Ferguson alongside something as trifling as the cover of a magazine, it’s fascinating to look at how our collective responses skipped from the serious to the picayune without much modulation in pitch. So please explore the calendar above. Vote on which outrages still outrage you, and which you can’t believe anyone ever cared about. And read the thoughtful essays below, each of which examines some aspect of outrage culture, and explore the way it shapes our world.
Lena Dunham’s memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, arrived Sept. 30 to mostly pleasant, if often tepid, reviews in all the places that can still afford to publish book reviews. But a month after publication, a writer at the National Review finally took a read. The writer, Kevin D. Williamson, discovered a passage in which Dunham recalled at 7 curiously looking into her younger sister’s vagina. His critique was pretty righteously brutal, and headlined “Pathetic Privilege,” but the story, tweeted only 119 times, didn’t really hit. It was an aggregation of that piece, with a more straightforward headline and some juicy excerpts, that did the trick: “Lena Dunham Describes Sexually Abusing Her Little Sister,” wrote Bradford Thomas on a website called Ben Shapiro’s Truth Revolt. That piece is at, as of this writing, 2,936 tweets and counting.
These twin vines, both accusing Dunham of sexual abuse, took some time to flower. They were published on the same Wednesday, and it wasn’t until Saturday that Dunham went into a self-described “rage spiral” on Twitter. It was also Saturday when Dunham’s lawyers got a pretty stern letter out, claiming defamation and “false light” (malicious embarrassment, essentially). Truth Revoltdoubled down and refused to apologize, to much dismay, although they were quite right on First Amendment grounds.
On Monday, Dunhamannounced she was canceling her book tour events in Belgium and Germany. And also, a Tumblr emerged, or,as Bustle put it, “Lena Dunham Abuse Allegations Spur Awesome Tumblr Where Women Chronicle Early Sexual Experimentation.” By Tuesday, Dunham had issued an “exclusive statement” to Time (Time?),apologizing to those that’d been triggered or upset by her joking about molesting her sister.
This was a strange case where an outrage was begun by two publications, but it then spun freely off to feed itself on social media. Feminists divided against feminists. People—including Dunham’s own sister—were told they were child abuse apologists. But that energy needed to be quickly recaptured by publications—seized from Facebook and Twitter and monetized. Tuesday was the day that everyone got into the act for real. Jezebel gave Dunhaman exceedingly well-argued pass on the topic. Gawker called ina therapist specializing in child abuse. Here at Slate, a parenting writertalked to the director of the Sex and Gender Lab at Cornell.
On Wednesday, a full week in,Hollywood Life assessed Dunham’s apology: “We’re sure that Lena meant well, but this entire situation might be a little too controversial for our taste. So we’ll let you guys decide. … Share your thoughts in the comments below!” By Thursday,USA Today chimed in with their own set of therapists.
You might think the cycle of outrage had been completed by now. For some, the war is never over. On Dec. 13,Dunham tweeted birthday wishes to Taylor Swift: “I’m not the only girl you inspire but I am the only one you share nightgowns with.” Two minutes later,@Al_B_Damned replied: “You do realize that @taylorswift13 is not a toddler, right? Take your kiddie porn fantasies elsewhere.”
There was something for literally everyone in the Lena Dunham Molests Her Sister outrage story. If you hated millennials, here was one gone amok. If you despised successful people who never needed a leg up in the world, perfect! Think feminists are disgusting? Here’s the most disgusting one! Still others saw the awful machinations of the right-wing vilification and shame machine at work.
A Slate Plus Special Feature:
Slate editors Allison Benedikt and Dan Kois explain how they tracked down everything we were angry about in 2014.
Our Internet media is by turns and domain names objective and deeply partisan, expert and amateur, wide-scale and intimate. As the Internet packages John Oliver videos and hard-won print media stories alike, it also packages outrage specific to each site’s audience. If you are a member of a faction of some sort—and many, maybe most, of us are!—part of your duty is to be outraged by the trotted out offenses. Many of these things are, it turns out, actually outrageous.
And so you are in your bed watching The O'Reilly Factor, or you are on your subway reading your liberal New York Times, or you are, most likely of all, cruising through your Facebook flow. Then the item of outrage comes across your eyeballs.
We used to yell at the TV but it couldn’t hear us. Finally someone can. So you turn to all the people next to you, all the friends and followers, and you are typing and then you are hitting send, post, tweet, submit.
You have spoken. (Or so you think. Actually, you have published.) Maybe you were guided by fury. Maybe even as you cried out your emotion was moving on to Ferguson or Dogs Welcoming Soldiers Home. Maybe you were exhausted and ironic. Maybe you were playing to the cheap seats, broadcasting a simulacrum of a human response because you, without realizing it, have become a strange magazine of one, a media brand of yourself. Whichever, there are many hearts or stars or likes bestowed. There are LOLs.
You are speaking, first, into the echo chamber of your friends. But not everyone is in your silo. And so then some stranger is mad at you; then some friend is noticeably silent. You are blocked or you are yelled at. Spiraling conversations come from realms unexpected and unwanted. You are embarrassed, or you are angrier, defensive or passive-aggressive, or laughing at them all. It is a rush of emotion that stretches long but is only an instant. Then, with a slithery zip, the moment is sealed shut.
That cycle is replicating itself now all around you in spheres you cannot even see—sometimes identically, sometimes in the reverse. (“So glad Lena Dunham stood up to those bullies!” “How dare that molester show her face!”) It’s rippling over and over throughout this huge grab bag of plastic bubble wrap sheets that we each think of as our private digital home.
This kind of thing could take up your whole day. If you weren’t careful, our life of outrage might have eaten your entire year.
We think we know what we mean by outrage. It is one molecular component of the air we breathe on social media, swirling around alongside irony and manic enthusiasm. It comes in so many flavors! Conservative outrage. Feminist outrage. Entertainment outrage. Every club has its own vexillology of outrage.
And yet it’s hard to pin down exactly what outrage means—what makes it different from garden-variety pique or the simmering thirst for vengeance. Why is your blustery old uncle “outraged”by Obama saluting Marines while holding a latte, but the private incandescence of Achilles in his tent is just “rage”? Outrage, the subjective experience of being furious at something that crosses a perceived line. Outrage, the shocked or indignant reaction, spontaneous or calculated. Outrage, the pickup, amplification, and acceleration of that expression on social and traditional media. Outraged: one answer to the question of how to be in 2014.
Or is it how to seem? This common meaning for outrage actually grows out of a vagary of folk etymology. The word comes from an Old French noun that meant “crime” or “damage”; it fused outré (“beyond”) with a noun suffix, -age. An outrage was thus an act that went outside the bounds of what was permitted. It had a moral coloring. The word rage, which hails from rabies, the Latin term for madness or fury, cropped up separately. But we modified the meaning of outrage after it first appeared in English around 1300, over time entwining it with the aurally similar rage. (Ever wondered why we have no inrage to complement outrage? Because the linguistic bloodlines are unrelated.) By 1769, outrage had started to suggest a kind of ethical fury, one subtly directed out, and especially the visible state of being scandalized. Even now, it implies external manifestations of anger, fist-clenching gestures rather than inner fire.
Which may explain why we both like and distrust it. Sometimes, outrage can be a useful social performance, as when activists collaborated on the viciously effective Cosby rape meme. It can pull you into moral synchronicity like a virtuous flash mob. And as a word, it retains its noble, righteous flavor: Some lines should remain uncrossed. But outrage can also feel showy and false, as when people who probably don’t care about Delta tweeting a photo of a giraffe to represent Ghana, even though there are no giraffes in Ghana, pretend to care for the benefit of Twitter. And because the word originally connoted breaking rules and violating norms, an outraged person risks casting herself as a prissy schoolmarm scolding glamorous revolutionaries, not a passionate person animated by heroic anger.
So, ironically, a term created to identify excess and extravagance (what lies beyond the pale) has combusted into a movement that is itself full of theatrical hand-waving, as well as sober determination. The vector of outrage—the way its rage radiates out—almost evokes a model where you throw a stone in a pond, and the ripples lose intensity as they travel. Signing onto Twitter can sometimes feel like an endless exercise in parsing whose outrage is legitimate and whose is opportunistic or fake. Whose outrage should we be outraged about? Whose ripples should we amplify? Whose should we ignore?
In February, Spike Lee appeared at a Black History Month lecture at the Pratt Institute, where he delivered a raucous, seven-minute tirade against New York City gentrifiers. At one point, Lee called out the white residents who dial 911 on the city’s established local musicians: “There were brothers playing motherfuckin’ African drums in Mount Morris Park for 40 years,” Lee said, “and now they can’t do it anymore because the new inhabitants say the drums are loud.”
Lee’s comments were fuel for Internet outrage, and freelance writer Rania Khalek spied a discarded piece of online kindling that could help fan the flames—a tweet published a month earlier by what appeared to be a privileged, white NYC gentrifier, whining about the drums.
Khalek gleefully pasted Spike Lee’s and Anna Holmes’ comments together, adding: “I couldn't resist!”
The mashup, which was retweeted 190 times, ultimately made its way back to the source. “I was referencing white hipsters in my predominantly white yuppie Bklyn neighborhood,” explained the tweeter, Anna Holmes, who is black. “But to clarify, is your point that I am a typical ‘white gentrifier’?”
“I don't know whether you're white or what,” Khalek shot back. A follower of Khalek’s piled on: “forever publicly shamed on Twitter LOL ... #whitetears.” When Holmes clarified that hers would more accurately be described as “black tears,” he replied: “my bad but still forever memed.”
Social media allows people who have been boxed out of journalistic, academic, and political spaces to speak out about their lived experiences (#ICantBreathe) and call on the elites to address their own unexamined entitlements (#MaleTears). The meme-ing of identity can be leveraged to crowdsource examples of social injustice, but it can also be used to cast aside nuances in the pursuit of an agenda. With a few assumptions and a quick Photoshop job, even a black woman complaining about a white dude on the bongos can be framed as an emblem of white entitlement. It might not be true, but it’s forever memed.
Throughout history, “race has taken geography, language, and vague impressions as its basis,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in the Atlantic last year. “Race does not need biology. Race only requires some good guys with big guns looking for a reason.” A privileged few have traditionally hoarded the tools for delineating these basic demographic identities, which then direct the courses of our lives. As Coates notes, “It is quite common for whites to point out that Barack Obama isn't really ‘black’ but ‘half-white.’ One wonders if they would say this if Barack Obama were a notorious drug-lord.”
But in the online era, it’s no longer necessary to be a gatekeeper with a gun to draw those lines. There’s a lot to love about this. Hashtags like #NotYourAsianSidekick serve as informal focus groups for discussing racist structures, no institutional backing required. Photo projects like #IfTheyGunnedMeDown stream into stunning media critiques. And turning “white men” into Internet shorthand for “ignorant blowhards” gives America’s most overrepresented identity a taste of his own othering. Disrupting the rigid structures of language and standards of argumentation enforced by the elites is part of the point. As New Inquiry editor Ayesha Siddiqi said of social media in an interview with the Guardian this month: “Work that’s meant to liberate all people cannot be presented in a language available to very few.”
The structures of racism, sexism, and homophobia are too powerful and ubiquitous to topple in a single blow, so online activists grab hold of millions of little examples and start chipping away. Take the case of Strange Fruit PR, an Austin, Texas–based firm owned by two white women that was publicly shamed on Twitter this month after Texas activist Julie Gillis noticed that the firm had stupidly borrowed its name from a Billie Holiday song about lynching—a screw-up too outrageous not to catch fire. Gillis boosted the signal to her Twitter followers, and the Internet did its work: Within days, Strange Fruit had apologized and rebranded as Perennial Public Relations. That is a very minor victory, but it works as an object lesson—the PR ladies were exhibiting the kind of white obliviousness that surely stretches far beyond themselves.
Other small incidents, however, prove an awkward fit for big structural critiques. Gender-aware observers raged this year over the fact that Taylor Swift’s album and Patricia Lockwood’s book of poetry were almost exclusively reviewed by male critics in mainstream publications. It packs an ironic punch to note that the worth of America’s most promising female artists is still being assessed by male gatekeepers, but it’s also an oddly glancing blow; female critics should be assigned to review U2 and Thomas Sayers Ellis, too, not just other women. And ironically, Collapse Board’s gripe about the dearth of female reviewers assigned to Swift’s 1989 made its point by totally ignoring prominent reviews from Molly Lambert at Grantlandand Lindsay Zoladz at New York—in order to prove that women aren’t heard, it suppressed their voices.
Some viral shamings are removed so far from their contexts that they end up undermining their own ideological goals. In June, a picture of an all-male CEO panel at a global women’s conference incited widespread head-desking: The image plugged easily into the narrative of entitled corporate bros, mansplaining feminism to women. But the broader context of the image was less damning: The conference was dominated by female speakers, who had invited just a few powerful men to the stage to hold themselves, and other male business leaders, accountable for recruiting and promoting women—an arguably heartening image, all things considered. (The seductiveness of the worldview-reinforcing meme is not, of course, just a progressive thing—playing for the other team this summer, Fox News bought a Twitter hashtag hoax that suggested that feminists want to end Father’s Day.)
These outrage incidents often play out like a game of ideological Mad Libs: Start with a broad worldview, pick an example, and add umbrage. Sometimes, the fervor to fill in the blanks ends up producing a truly unreadable document. In June, the New Republic took Chelsea Clinton’s astronomical $600,000 NBC salary and shoved it awkwardly into a feminist argument about equal pay for male and female journalists: “Her impressive paycheck, deserved or not, is a step toward balancing the scale,” Amy Weiss-Meyer wrote. It was one of those cringe-inducing feminist statements that ignore all other odious affiliations (wealth, nepotism) in the interest of gender solidarity. And Weiss-Meyer reinforced the point by including tweets from exclusively male journalists outraged at the figure—and ignoring all the female journalists who felt the same way.
Another popular strategy used to demonstrate the broad reality that certain demographic groups receive disparate media coverage and social protection: Pick a representative from each demo and place them side by side to reveal the contradictions. When Lena Dunham was accused by right-wing outlets of sexually molesting her sister, Grace, the writer and activist Mikki Kendall argued that Dunham’s racial and gender privilege had attracted her some unearned feminist sympathy. “If Lena Dunham was a man or a WOC I wonder how many folks would be handwaving these stories? Because I can just about guess,” Kendall tweeted, before contrasting the feminist treatment of Dunham with that of R. Kelly. “The gap between the attitudes that let R. Kelly prosper & the ones that excuse Dunham is incredibly thin,” she tweeted. “Nonexistent to be honest.” But there is more separating Kelly and Dunham than just race and gender—in both civil and criminal suits, Kelly has been accused of raping dozens of underage girls and producing child pornography from at least one encounter; Dunham has been accused, online, of touching her sister’s vagina, when she was 7. There is a compelling argument to be made about how black men are criminalized while white women are absolved; this isn’t it.
Sometimes, even a hypothetical construction will do:
Well, you can’t argue with fiction.
The sheer volume of online discourse means that pointed examples rarely need to be literally invented to support a worldview. Any opinion, no matter how odious, has likely already been tweeted by someone, somewhere. With a targeted search, I can find an online adversary willing to publicly proclaim any number of offensive ideas, like that Eric Garner “died of gluttony and sloth” (I’m horrified!) or that Beyoncé is an “old slut” (sexist and ageist!) or Emma Watson a “biased bigoted bitch” (who can write a quick blog post?) If the tweeter in question is unfortunate enough to work for a recognizable company, she won’t be working there for long.
But it can be difficult to judge whether an offensive tweet represents a serious undercurrent of thought worth examining, or just the pathetic ramblings of a random moron. And there’s a real danger in pinning a big idea on the wrong 140 characters. As Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig wrote in an incisive Jacobin essay on the unraveling of Rolling Stone’s UVA rape story, “The strength of leftist critique is that it concerns itself with the broad, the historical, the powerful, the structural,” but when journalists tie those arguments on one outrageous anecdote, the broader message lives or dies on the credibility of just one example.
It’s great that critiques of the status quo informed by race, gender, and sexuality have found a prominent platform in the digital age, both on social media and in the traditional publications that often mine online networks for grist. (I’d personally like to thank this development for paying my rent.) But this new subindustry of identity-based outrage has created its own rigid conventions, and thinkers who don’t play by the rules will themselves be made the target of outrage. (When Michelle Goldberg laid out the phenomenon in The Nation in January, she was deemed a racisttransmisogynist.) In this environment, any argument alleging sexism or racism is seen as irrefutable, particularly if it’s lodged by a member of the aggrieved class. Challenging the argument itself is tantamount to denying that racism or sexism exist, or worse, rejecting the lived experience of a marginalized demographic.
The unfortunate result of that dynamic is that a new media order that should be teeming with more vibrant viewpoints than ever is at risk of calcifying into a staid landscape, where original thought is muffled by the wet blanket of political correctness. "There’s a funny, recurring instinct on the Internet now that if you don’t agree with something someone’s written, that it’s not fair or relevant and that it shouldn’t exist,” Jezebel editor Emma Carmichael said recently on the Longform Podcast. “Online feminism has more and more rules lately.” After editing out all of the statements that could be perceived, no matter how crudely, as biased or insensitive, “There are only so many things you can say.“ Even Suey Park, the creator of #CancelColbert who has drummed up Twitter outrage and caught her own backlash many times over, appears to be questioning the social media status quo. “I myself have mistaken pile-ons for justice when oftentimes there was a small miscommunication. I would assume the worse of everyone,” she tweeted this month. “But twitter can give you tunnel vision. It’s fickle, fast-moving, and full of miscommunication and fabrications. It can be self-destructive.”
HBO’s True Detective was one of the year’s quintessential TV shows. It had the memes, the themes, the inside jokes. The show that popularized the Yellow King and insisted that, whatever it means, time is a flat circle, was also the apotheosis of the McConaissance and Reddit sleuthing. It contained the latest iteration of the indefatigable antihero, the supremelyhubristic showrunner, and the unsatisfying ending. Also, it had a woman problem.
But what show doesn’t? Identity politics has become an increasingly powerful lens for critiquing television (and podcasts, and pop music, andmovies), and in 2014 it wasn’t just True Detective that found itself under the microscope. Fargohad a woman problem, unless it really didn’t. The Emmys definitely had a woman problem. Game of Throneshad a problematic rape episode. Louiekinda did too. Aaron Sorkin is an idiotaboutrape. Tyrant definitely had a rape problem—and maybe also a race one. Girls has been trying to fix its race problem. Saturday Night Live has been trying even harder. Looking, a show all about gay men, still had a lack of gay sex problem. And all the while, various motivated viewers lobbied True Detective to get a black or female or trans detective on board for Season 2. (It didn’t work.)
Auditing cultural products for their treatment—or lack of treatment—of marginalized groups of people can seem like an antiseptic way of consuming culture, more head than heart. Instead of taking in a story in its totality, a viewer (or tweeter) breaks it down into its component, offending parts. Though frustrating at times, I think reading shows this way comes from a passionate aggravation with the status quo, not some starchy desire to treat cultural products like controversies-in-waiting. The Golden Age of television, which changed much about TV, most especially its overall quality, has, generally speaking, been characterized by shows about ethically challenged white, male antiheroes. The best versions of these shows—Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Deadwood, etc.— had rich female characters who were often despised by members of the audience for “getting in the way” of their morally reprehensible husbands anyway. The lesser, copy-cat versions of these shows dispensed with such characterization almost altogether, and cast women as corpses, as prostitutes, as cardboard cutouts. The Wire, ever the exception to the rule, was one of the few great dramas with a racially diverse cast. If you watch enough TV, where so much of the most serious stuff is solely concerned with the experience of white straight men, it’s not dispassion that motivates you to see “problems” everywhere—it’s outrage. These series made their lily-white, macho beds, and deserve to be called out for lying in them.
And yet sometimes, especially when you aren’t aghast yourself, all this outrage can feel like a reductive way to consume art. Isn’t it more pleasurable to watch Fargo without seeing it as yet another noxious antihero tale? Isn’t it easier to enjoy True Detective if you’re not convinced it’s uninterested in the female experience?
All of the outrage about representation on television has been—or is starting to be—effective. The people who create and make television are still predominantly white and male, but at least executives and show creators know they are going to be asked what they are doing to change that, about the casually racist jokes in their sitcoms, about the makeup of their writers’ room. On-screen diversity has been embraced by ABC, which has essentially tasked Shonda Rhimes with saving the network, relying on the ratings success of her Thursday night lineup—Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and new hit How to Get Away With Murder—to buoy the channel and to anchor a multicultural lineup that also includes one of the season’s few other hit shows, Black-ish. (Rhimes was also at the center of a related outrage, one of the fall’s biggest, when the New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley described her as an “angry black woman.”) Netflix’s flagship series may be the antiheroic House of Cards, but its most-watched show is Orange Is the New Black, about the most diverse group of female characters ever assembled. And it’s Orange, more than House of Cards, that Amazon imitated with its buzzy Transparent, a groundbreaking show about, among other things, the transgender experience.
Even when the outrage gets cacophonous, and maybe a little tiresome, even when you find it completely wrongheaded and misguided, it’s a stubborn, insistent reminder of the very diversity these television shows often elide. Outrage has forced TV providers to think not only about who they put on screen and behind the camera, but who is off screen, on the couch—women and people of color and of different sexual and gender orientations who might like to see, on occasion, themselves.
For a few days in March, liberal Twitter—or at least, its left-most wing—was consumed in a campaign to “#cancelcolbert,” meaning Stephen Colbert, the liberal satirist and Comedy Central host. The offense was a tweet, sent from the official Colbert Report Twitter account: “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”
On its own, the tweet read like an offensive display of anti-Asian racism. But there was a context to the message. On his show, Colbert had mocked Washington football team owner Dan Snyder’s plan to address criticism of his team’s name by founding an organization to uplift “original Americans.” As part of this, he made a callback to an earlier gag, where his character was caught making racist jokes about Asians. To atone for this, said Colbert, he would create the “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”
The context didn’t matter to the Internet outrage machine, which was swift. Led by Suey Park, a 23-year-old freelance writer and activist who had made a name with the “NotYourAsianSidekick” hashtag, thousands of users tweeted with #cancelcolbert. Park’s argument was that, by encouraging the audience to laugh at a racist joke, Colbert was all but negating any anti-racist message carried by the performance. And apparently a lot of progressives agreed.
It’s easy to see the problem with the “Ching-Chong” bit. Not only was Colbert walking a fine line by using racism to critique racism, but he also relied on a double standard: The odds that Colbert would have made this joke with anti-black slurs are close to zero, but there’s still something socially acceptable about anti-Asian slurs, whether they are part of an anti-racist critique or not.
Colbert never apologized for the tweet or the joke, but the outrage storm was loud enough to prompt a response. “I just pray that no one tweets about the time I said that Rosa Parks was overrated, Hitler had some good ideas, or ran a cartoon during Black History Month showing President Obama teaming up with the Ku Klux Klan because, man, that sounds pretty bad out of context,” he said on his show.
What’s striking about this episode—why it still stands out, nine months later—is how emblematic it is of how outrage has operated on the left this past year, at least on social media. The objects of liberal outrage are occasionally on the right (MSNBC specializes in directing dismay and scorn at conservatives). But the greatest vitriol online is saved for those on the left. Sometimes, as with Bill Maher’s comments about Muslims, this stuff is genuinely objectionable. But more often the left-on-left outrages are about the kind of language and “privilege” policing we see with the Colbert affair. And more often than not, there are no concrete wins. Nothing changes—but the outrage leaders can rest assured that they’ve exacted some kind of social price from those who make the mistake of talking in the wrong way. Sure, Stephen Colbert will keep making the same kind of jokes, but at least everyone knows that some people find them unacceptable.
All of this raises a question: If nothing comes from the outrage, what was the point?
It feels good to express disgust, of course, and when that comes with social affirmation—favorites, retweets, followers, blog posts—there’s an incentive to show more anger. But I think there’s more to it than that. In a world where prejudice and privilege still rule the day, it’s cathartic for a lot of lefties—even straight white dudes—to show outrage, even if it leads to nothing in particular. By raging against something like Colbert’s joke, you can voice your anger at the status quo, which, in the past year especially, seems to have frozen in place. And with a simple retweet, you can signify just what camp you’re in. In a sense, for the social-media left, cultural outrage is a substitute for politics.
You may not be able to move the Democratic Party toward a more populist agenda or stop the Republican takeover of state governments across the country or protect abortion rights or even make media more inclusive. But you can punish social transgressions and in doing so, affirm the values that are missing from so much of the digital and analog worlds. The problem, unfortunately, is that this doesn’t give you a material win. It doesn’t ameliorate any actual injustice. And it might, in the end, harm efforts to make change. If outrage stands in for activism, if we’re focused on the moral temperature of Internet individuals, then we’re distracted from the collective action—and collective institution building—that makes real reform possible.
No one felt the wrath of conservative outrage this year quite like Melissa Harris-Perry. On Dec. 29, 2013, the host and a panel of guests spent about a minute joking about the fact that Mitt Romney’s adopted grandson is black. The backlash was mammoth. Sarah Palin and Scott Brown leapt into the fray, Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle questioned why Harris-Perry wasn’t fired, and Jeffrey Lord opined at the American Spectator that the incident showed how liberals are the real racists because they are “using race to control. Anything. Everything.” Conservative Twitter was irate, and commentator Michelle Malkin tweeted that Harris-Perry and other “MSNBC racists who mock adopted babies” ought to “lean forward...into a pit of hellfire.” Conservative ire was so great that Glenn Beck told people to back off. (Seriously!) Harris-Perry gave a tearful apology on Jan. 4, 2014, and it still stands as the year’s great right-wing pile-on victory.
The anti-Harris-Perry mob is fascinating because it exemplifies a shift in conservative activism, and because it suggests that shift is permanent. Conservative outrage is starting to look a lot like liberal outrage.
Conservatives, by disposition, ought to be outrage-averse. Kate Fox’s joke about British protests—“A truly English protest march would see us all chanting: 'What do we want? GRADUAL CHANGE! When do we want it? IN DUE COURSE!”—could once have been leveled at conservatives with equal fairness. Conservatism, as understood by Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and William F. Buckley, is the opposite of radicalism. It eschewed the mob impulse, the scalp-hunting instinct, and the bellowing ire that’s come to be business as usual in some quarters of the right.
What changed? The Tea Party. Consultant John Feehery argued at the Daily Caller that Tea Partiers’ instincts are radical, rather than conservative. And at the New York Times, David Brooks argued that Tea Partiers, with their anti-establishment energy and eagerness for combat, had more in common with hippies than conservatives.
Feehery and Brooks’ concern makes more sense when you remember that Tea Party leaders and activists had a complicated love-hate relationship with Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky, himself a target of Fox News outrage. Many Tea Partiers—including former FreedomWorks head Dick Armey—deliberately use Alinsky’s organizing tactics to fight against his ideological heirs, as chronicled by Kenneth Vogel in Politico. In a Wall Street Journal obituary for Andrew Breitbart, James Taranto argued that the antagonistic conservative activist and commentator was Alinsky’s true heir. And there are at least three books endeavoring to teach conservative activists the Alinsky way, with delightfully similar titles: Rules for Conservative Radicals, Rules for Conservatives, and Rules for Radical Conservatives. You get the point.
Of course, outrage on the right isn’t new. Radio talkers, Fox News hosts, and social conservative activists like Phyllis Schlafly have long looked to channel conservative ire into social and political change. The difference now is that social media makes it much easier to see causal links between what people like Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin, and Kimberly Guilfoyle say and what their listeners and viewers do about it. And just as perpetually outraged Fox News inspired perpetually outraged MSNBC, the PC policing from the left has gained a little traction on the right.
Brooks and Feehery seem to doubt conservatives can use the devil’s tools to do the Lord’s business. Breitbart’s fans are in the opposite camp. Conservatives successfully used Alinsky’s tactics against Harris-Perry. And that suggests that in the battle between Brooks and the late Breitbart for what conservatism looks like and how it operates, Breitbart’s camp is winning.
Here’s how Harris-Perry got Alinskied:
For starters, Harris-Perry’s detractors attacked her for violating her own rules, using Rule No. 4 in Alinsky’s book. Harris-Perry’s show puts significant focus on the state of race relations in the U.S. and the importance of being racially sensitive. The average Tea Party tweeter, to put it lightly, does not share those concerns. Harris-Perry had broken her own rule, and conservatives knew it, so they pounced.
Conservatives also leveled maximal ridicule at Harris-Perry (Rule No. 5) and kept going after her and going after her and going after her (Rule No. 8). From Fox News to Twitchy, there was a spirited, days-long, full-frontal assault on the host and her panelists. It made news and it worked. And it’s important to note that Perry’s critics weren’t all grass-roots Tea Party activists. Conservatives from across the ideological spectrum joined in, including Fox hosts and radio talkers. In other words, the Harris-Perry criticism wasn’t a Tea Party thing; it was a conservative thing.
To be fair, Harris-Perry still might have apologized without a Twitchy nuclear meltdown. But regardless, conservatives targeting Harris-Perry got what they wanted: The host’s minute of toddler-bashing got widespread attention from mainstream media outlets, and she made a contrite apology. Conservatives have been criticizing media liberals for decades, often with disappointing results. This time, situated in a larger culture where social media outrage gets people fired with surprising frequency, was different.
The Tea Party activism that exploded in the early years of Obama’s presidency has largely died down. But while the tricorn hats and Gadsden flags of 2010 may be mostly gone, the strategic shift is here to stay. Conservatives know how to channel their outrage into wins—even if those wins are entirely symbolic. They’ve eaten from Alinsky’s Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and, David Brooks be damned, they aren’t going back.
I didn’t have to think long or hard before deciding to help ruin Ben Edelman’s month. On a recent Tuesday, Boston.compublished a now infamous email chain in which the Harvard Business School professor raged at a local Chinese restaurant that had overcharged him a mere $4 on a takeout order. Edelman accused Sichuan Garden’s owners of violating a consumer protection law, complained to local authorities, and told a reporter he was considering additional legal action. The story had been popping up on my Twitter feed for much of the afternoon. And of course, it came packaged with a perfect villain: a pompous Harvard professor (and lawyer to boot!) who saw nothing wrong with waging holy war against a mom-and-pop business over a tiny mistake (they’d raised their prices by $1 but forgot to update the online menu he’d ordered from).
I sent a note to my editor: “This seems like obvious traffic if we want it.” He responded: “Bwaha. Sure.” So I took a moment out of my day to write a short, very sarcastic post. It was a gimme, the blogging equivalent of a 3-inch putt.
Predictably, my squib blew up, just like the Boston.com piece. So did similar posts from Gawker, New York, and lots of other sites. By Wednesday morning, half the world seemed to loathe Edelman. Sichuan Garden was getting supportive notes from as far away as Australia. Eventually, the Harvard prof broke down and apologized on his personal blog.
This is how the cycle of viral outrage goes. A clicky, infuriating story breaks. A few writers like me glom on. And suddenly, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people find themselves reading about a random academic’s crime against common courtesy. Or maybe about a semi-literate, one-paragraph essay that helped a college athlete get an A minus in his class. Or about a billionaire who compared progressives to Nazis. I didn’t become a journalist to peddle indignation on Facebook. But it sells—the page views don’t lie. And while Slatemay be running an entire special package dissecting the ways our perpetual umbrage colors and sometimes poisons discourse, we play a role in it.
It’s something I feel ambivalent about as a writer. Instant, social media–fueled outrage can be a force for good. It can punish a wretched billionaire like former Clippers owner Donald Sterling. It can help
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indignation, shock, anger, rage
atrocity, crime, horror, evil
violation, injury, violence, shock
offend, shock, upset, pain
abuse, injure, insult, desecrate
rape, violate, ravage, ravish
More Synonyms of outrage