As you know, America is a nation obsessed with being offended. We really enjoy it. We just love the feeling. We relish any opportunity to take umbrage at something. We revel in the insult. The outrage. The indignation.
It’s invigorating. It’s stimulating.
And when you mix our enthusiasm for outrage with the constant saturation of news and information, it creates an environment where offense grows like mold in a dark basement. Factor in our boredom, our warped sense of perspective, and our perverted moral compass, and suddenly you find offendedness thriving to a degree never before witnessed by man.
There is so much National Outrage that we have to stay up later at night and wake up earlier just to make time for it all. We squeeze in three or four outrages in the morning before breakfast, snack on a stream of offendedness between breakfast and lunch, and by the time we finish dinner in the evening we can scarcely remember what we were outraged about in the morning.
This is our culture. This is our country.
This is what we’ve become.
I don’t think I need to provide examples, but here’s the most recent one anyway. I call it the most recent, but by the time you read this it will be an ancient relic in the annals of The American Hypersensitivity Hall of Fame.
Two actors, Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans, were forced to issue formal apologies for making a disparaging joke about a fictional comic book hero. For anyone not familiar with the Marvel comic book universe — perhaps because you don’t keep up on superhero news, or because you’re a grown up — Renner and Evans both play characters in the upcoming “Avengers: Age of Ultron” movie. Scarlett Johansson also stars in the film.
Apparently, there is speculation among people who speculate about fictional superhero romances that both Renner’s and Evans’ characters will be romantically involved with Johansson’s character, Black Widow, in the new movie. When asked about this at a recent press junket, Renner joked that Black Widow is a “slut.” Evans laughed and muttered “whore” under his breath. Both men were obviously having a little fun by pretending they’re jealous of the other person’s fictional character for having a fling with the fictional character their fictional characters are also involved with.
I have now spent a paragraph explaining a superhero love triangle, which makes me weep inside.
Anyway, feminists and emotionally invested comic book fans reacted swiftly, calling the men “idiot frat boys,” and proposing that an off the cuff joke about a female superhero reveals how “deeply ingrained sexist attitudes are in our culture.” (Side note: isn’t it sexist to call two successful grown men “idiot frat boys”?)
The blowback was severe enough to prompt written apologies from both guys, but will it be sufficient to assuage the anger and heal the emotional scars? Will our country every fully recover from this moment? Will make-believe characters played by beautiful rich blond women ever achieve equality in our society?
These are the questions that plague us in the aftermath.
Of course, none of this surprises anyone. The crybabies took over a long time ago, and their Outrage Radar is so finely tuned that no offense, no matter how microscopic, can escape their teary eyed gaze.
This, after all, is the country that invented “trigger warnings” to prevent people from encountering opinions that might be traumatic to their fragile psyches.
It’s a country where college campuses set up “safe zones” to shield students from ideas that might be challenging and scary.
It’s a country where a man dressed in women’s underwear cries “transphobia” if he’s asked to leave a restaurant and go put on some clothes.
This is a country where dozens of media outlets have reported for days about a “controversy” surrounding the fact that Ben Affleck’s relatives owned slaves two centuries ago.
This is a country where students at Johns Hopkins want to ban a fast food company from their campus because its owner expressed an opinion two years ago.
This is a country where even our military members are subjected to sensitivity training and “white privilege” seminars.
This is a country where some schools set up anonymous tip lines to report microaggressions, which could include being asked where you’re from and if you speak Spanish.
This is a country where feminists complain that men who spread their legs too far on the subway are sexist.
This is a country where screenings of “American Sniper” are canceled when people complain that the film is “nationalistic” and “Islamaphobic.”
This is the country where people were upset that the smiley face cartoons on their iPhones weren’t ethnically diverse, so Apple provided a more racially sensitive selection, only to make more people upset when other people used them in racially derogatory ways. Finally, a detergent company Tweeted about the emojis and people were upset that the comment seemed racist. So, if you followed that one all the way through, there was controversy over the lack of multi-colored smiley faces, and then controversy about their inclusion, and then controversy about a soap manufacturer making a joke about the controversy.
These are just a small selection, off the top of my head, from the past few days or so. I haven’t even provided examples from my own life, of which there is a never ending supply. Of course, I write about “controversial” subjects, so hurt feelings are inevitable. But anyone who has an audience of any size knows that any statement of opinion — no matter the subject, no matter how its worded — will stir up anger and acrimony.
In fact, it doesn’t have to be a statement at all.
I’ve been fielding hate mail this week because I posted a new Facebook profile photo. I happen to be holding a cigar in the picture, which one woman told me “drove her to tears” because smoking is “sinful.” And that feedback was downright reasonable compared to some of the rest of it. Some people were mad about the cigar, others were mad that there was a beer visible on the table next to me, and others were perturbed that I have a tattoo on my right forearm. Still others felt the need to express their feelings about my beard and my clothes.
Several people accused me of “intentionally trying to provoke controversy” with the picture. If I was (I wasn’t), it’s quite a sad statement that controversy can be intentionally provoked with a picture of a guy sitting in a chair in his backyard.
As it happens, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that literally anything I do or say will upset people, so to minimize the hubbub I intentionally waited until Sunday morning (the slowest time for Facebook traffic all week) to post the provocative image. I’m not afraid of the “controversy,” I just find it irritating.
My plan didn’t work.
It never does. Millions of people sign on the internet each day determined to get their feelings hurt about something, and there’s just nothing you can do to stop it.
You have to give the Perpetually Offended this much: they are, if nothing else, observant and resourceful. I mean, even if I wanted to find every possible reason to get bent out of shape, I don’t think I would have noticed or considered the emoji selection on my iPhone. Neither would I, on my best day, think to whine because someone accused a superhero of being promiscuous. And although I think of myself as a relatively creative guy, I don’t believe I possess the vision to turn a question like “where are you from?” into an ethnocentric assault on the human dignity of racial minorities, nor would it occur to me that the beverage in some stranger’s Facebook photo might be a fruitful source of indignity.
Truly, our society’s bellyaching sissies are in an elite category. They are like the Navy SEALS of offendedness. They demonstrate unmatched skill, dedication, and dexterity in imagining new and exciting ways to be insulted.
But why? Why are we in this permanent state of outrage? Why are we constantly dismayed and disgruntled and disturbed by every little thing?
This is a riddle anthropologists will be debating for centuries to come. They will look back at our culture and wonder what sort of cataclysmic event turned generations of Americans into spineless, translucent, liquefied puddles of whimpering mush. They will argue amongst themselves and write many scholarly articles to explain how there could have ever existed an entire society of finicky, overly emotional schoolgirls.
They will marvel at us. We will be history’s greatest mystery.
I have posited my own hypotheses over the years, but I think I’ve always missed the mark because, when dissecting our touchy, psychologically delicate society, we usually start from a flawed premise. We begin by assuming the outrage is genuine, and proceed to investigate how these people could be so consistently and sincerely outraged by so many ridiculous things.
I’ve come to understand the issue differently, however.
The truth is, nobody cares. That is, in fact, the worst thing about our culture of permanent outrage: it isn’t real. At least, if people were actually concerned about an insult against a comic book character, or the pigment shades of smiley faces, I could give them credit for caring about something. It’s a stupid thing to care about, but hey, it’s something. And I imagine it would require, on top of emotional fragility, a certain sort of empathy to be authentically distressed by these trivial matters.
I would still be annoyed, but that’s probably all I would be. As it happens, though, the Offended Masses aren’t merely sensitive — they’re dishonest.
These controversies come and go and people move on to the next one within hours, sometimes minutes, sometimes seconds. That’s all it takes to read a story about someone doing or saying something offensive, send out an outraged Tweet or comment on the subject, and quickly continue along to the next slab of raw Outrage Meat.
It’s all a show. Nobody cares. That’s why there’s never really any reason for the the Villain of the Moment to issue his formal apology and beg for forgiveness from people who don’t actually give a crap. Wait it out for a day or two and everyone will forget. They always do.
Meanwhile, there are real outrages happening on the planet. There are actual travesties and atrocities occurring, ones in which anger would be an appropriate response. One example is the ongoing genocide of religious minorities in the Middle East and North Africa. There’s something to be profoundly offended by, if you’re looking for a new target.
Less important but still genuinely offensive is the fact that a current presidential candidate used the State Department as a personal fundraising mechanism. That’s corruption and abuse, right here in our country. Want to be upset about something? There you go.
But the problem is that a true outrage requires our full attention. It may even require action. It can’t be condensed into a headline or a Tweet. We have to read into it, analyze it, investigate it. It compels us to think deeply, to focus, to deal with difficult realities. These are things that won’t be resolved in 12 minutes, things where you can’t “win” by forcing someone to issue an apology and feign remorse.
These are also things that — especially in the two cases I mentioned — might challenge our political allegiances and ideological convictions. They might not be terribly useful to us. They might even interfere with whatever political or social agenda we subscribe to.
So the Perpetually Outraged cannot be outraged by these outrages. In fact, outrages are the only things they aren’t outraged about. And that’s part of the reason why they compensate by scouring the internet for something more easily and comfortably offensive.
They prowl about looking for “transphobia,” “microaggressions,” and “sexism” because they’re bored, and because, like all humans, they feel an innate desire to fight against the injustice in the world. Having disqualified the true injustices, they replace them with a steady onslaught of minor slights and trivial complaints. Righteous indignation builds up in their souls like fluid in the bladder. When it’s finally let go, it pours without any sense of proportion, prudence, or justice.
Choosing to ignore the substantive barbarities of our time, they’re forced to take a quantity-over-quality approach, and each of these petty issues receives all of the fury and exasperation that should have been delegated to the real horrors.
That’s what this is all about. The Perpetually Outraged are perpetually outraged because they’re not outraged. This also explains how we could be at once the most apathetic and the most easily offended society in the history of the world. Looked at on the surface, those two characteristics seem contradictory, but it turns out that they go hand-in-hand.
It’s a bad situation, and quite aggravating for someone in my line of work.
But the good news is that if you ever find yourself on the receiving end up this petty outrage, you don’t have to worry about it. People will say the angriest, most ferocious things you can imagine. They will tell you to kill yourself, they will promise to destroy your life, they will call you the Devil and Hitler and Darth Vader all rolled into one. The rage will be relentless and, to the uninitiated, kind of scary.
And then it will stop.
It always stops.
That person who unleashed that vulgar tirade and told you to jump in front of a train and burn in Hell? He doesn’t care. He’s pretending. He’s probably said that to 14 different people today (all anonymous on the internet, of course, because he’s a coward).
Just wait it out. It will go away. It always does.
And when it does, the next step is to pray that maybe one day America will wake up and find the virtue and energy to heap its righteous scorn somewhere more deserving of it.
I don’t think that will happen anytime soon, but I can dream, can’t I?
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