Via Chris Dillow, I came across this piece by comedian Frankie Boyle. It’s on the topic of “Offence and Free Speech”. Part of it talks about the modern phenomenon of ‘outrage’. Someone says something that could be interpreted in different ways, it’s stripped of all context and written up as someone saying something unequivocally awful. Boyle writes:
“I find it incredibly worrying that we no longer need to hear the actual content of the thing we’re told to be offended by. We hear of people being arrested for tweets without the tweet being reported; comics are blasted for routines that aren’t printed; newspapers hire lip-readers to find something to get offended by at the tennis and then print the resulting fuckfest as asterisks. And who decides whether we should be outraged at something we haven’t seen or heard? The press. Our seething collective Id. None of us would trust a journalist to hold our pint while we went to the bathroom, yet we allow them to be ethical arbiters for the entire culture.
I don’t read newspapers anymore – I just lie to myself and cut out the middleman, but I think it’s important to note that the press themselves are not actually outraged by what they report on as being offensive. No tabloid journo -whose life is invariably a shattered kaleidoscope of prostitutes, gambling, cocaine, self-loathing, literally going through a strangers bins, erectile disfunction and cocaine- is genuinely offended when some students dress up as the Twin Towers for Halloween. Outrage just makes good copy. It’s easier to write, and simpler to understand. A tabloid hack knows that their average reader can barely read and they’re not going to try to communicate anything like ennui in the vocabulary of a ten year old.”
I’m seeing examples of this every day, I may even have shared and commented on some of it myself. There is now a whole industry created by people who seek out Tweets, Facebook posts and even photos posted to Tinder to try and whip up a storm, usually about somebody nobody has ever heard of. In the realm of politics, the aim is to damage ones opponents, force a resignation, or just imply guilt by association.
This has two damaging consequences in my view. First, now we know it’s open season on everyone’s social media histories, anyone with any even wild aspirations to get into politics will refrain from expressing any opinion which might be deemed offensive (which rules out a hell of a lot). The result will be bland, boring politicians operating within a tiny box of acceptable opinion.
The second, related consequence is that rather than the media discussing important political issues, where the parties differ, and – more likely – where they are the same, this discussion is replaced with mere fluff – tittle tattle, “He said this isn’t it awful?” “Why did they say that, what point were they trying to make?” “Doesn’t matter. Isn’t it outrageous?”.
Here’s a rather trivial example. A UK candidate (who in my opinion is an idiot), made a slip of the tongue and said “What happens when renewable energy runs out?”. She meant subsidies for renewables, but the media and various blogs reported along the lines of “isn’t she stupid to think renewable energy will run out?”. Well yes, she probably is stupid, but not for that reason. Her mangled question could have sparked a decent debate about energy subsidies for both renewable and non-renewable sources, where technology is likely to take us, and therefore how best to proceed policy-wise, but instead, that hole was filled with silliness.
Anyone who is interested in progress, social change and improving the country we live in should be concerned by this. When we are replacing political debate with fake outrage and trying to ‘expose’ opponents for saying not very controversial things, we have a problem. There are many things that seem offensive when stripped of all context, but if people actually took the time to understand their opponents arguments, they might find they actually have interesting ideas, even if they disagree with them.