Remember Halloween? You might not, as it in internet time it was basically 10 years ago, so let me refresh your memory: it's the holiday where most adult-ish people dress up in silly costumes so they look different than they look on a normal day. And drink.
But for certain online news outlets, it is instead a four-week outrage fest that starts the second someone posts a picture of themselves wearing something offensive on Facebook.
You thought costume outrage was over? That the starlet in blackface was all you had to worry about this year? It's never over.
It's possible the dribble of stories about offensive costumes, from "sexy 9/11" to "Klu Klux kid," into your newsfeed has somewhat abated, but Thanksgiving is just around the corner, bringing with it a whole new crop of offensive costumes, and soon people will once again start sharing these stories that basically say: "Oh, HELL no."
So maybe it’s time to take a serious look at what’s wrong with outrage journalism.
Outrage incorporates the word "rage" which is pretty sufficient when it comes to describing white-hot anger. So why outrage?
Well, to put it in terms of the SATs: rage is to outrage as joy is to :).
Rage is to outrage as deep, overwhelming heartbreak is to :(.
Rage is an emotion you feel about injustice or abuse. Outrage is an emotion you have at your friends and people you met once at a party, just to let them know how politically correct you are. Outrage is put-on, it faces outward. Rage comes from within.
But what’s wrong with showing people you are don’t agree with blackface or sexy 9/11? I mean, those things are BAD right?
Of course they’re bad (this is me, getting in a rhetorical fight with myself for your benefit)! There are very few regular Americans under the age of 95 with whom you are friends on Facebook that still think it’s cool to wear blackface. Or dress your kid like a Klan member.
Julianne Hough is an idiot who made a mistake. But probably more people know her now, due to her terrible rendition of Crazy Eyes, than knew her before.
Just sharing her picture and typing: "WHITE PEOPLE! Get it together! Stop dressing in blackface!" doesn't mean we're actually helping to make sure racism is dead. It clearly goes a lot further than blackface. So one celebrity wore blackface? When one person does something it is not a trend. In the world of statistics, it’s not even a thing. And this is the problem with outrage journalism: it's a distraction from the issue it supposedly addresses.
Gawker or Huffington Post or Jezebel find a thing, a bad thing, a thing liberal college graduate types can all agree is TOTALLY HORRIBLE. They post it. They get a million clicks which is good for ad sales and you get to share the piece and show your friends and yourself how righteous you are. "I’m not a racist," you say. "I would never wear BLACKFACE." And then you get in your car and drive your kids to a private school. Not because you don’t like black people per se, in theory, you would, it’s just that the public school system in your city has such bad TEST SCORES and you care about your children and would never intentionally allow them to fall behind.
There’s a difference between malignant racism and stupid people who we shouldn’t pay attention to. For example, see this tanning salon in Alabama and Florida and their new ad campaign, saying the Native Americans brought "sexy color" to Thanksgiving and so should you. Is it in poor taste? Sure. Should you spend a time getting outraged about it? Only if you absolutely have nothing better to do.
Think about child abduction. It isn’t the only horrible crime for sure, but it is one of the most highly visible ones. Stranger abduction, especially, and usually cases involving molestation or murder. Horrible. The worst.
No one supports child abduction. NO ONE. But everyone likes to read about it and express disgust. And the media picked up on that, saw how these stories sold papers and kept them glued to a epic CNN play-by-plays.
And so people decided this was the real problem, children getting snatched out of their bedrooms by bearded men and made into child brides. Sex offender laws got tougher, against everyone, not just child abductors. But these laws are backfiring all over the place. Why? Because there aren’t really that many evil obvious bad guy child abductors — according to this fact sheet from University of New Hampshire, in 1998, 1,009,000 children suffered from maltreatment, child abuse, and neglect at the hands of relatives while 200 to 300 were kidnapped by strangers. The real problems involving violence against children are complicated. They encompass economics, gender, mental health, and many grey areas. They aren’t things that you can scream your outrage about in one shared post on Facebook.
So, yeah, it’s terrible to wear blackface, and dressing your kid up like a Klan member is probably child abuse. But joining the pitchforked mob and storming the village idiot’s cottage with torches lets us off the hook about the real evil: the attitude of the town and the social and economic inequalities that exist within the systems we live in, which remain unchanged.
Mobs don’t engage in meaningful discourse. They burn things as symbols. It's time to add some complexity instead of just expressing outrage. It’s harder to share on Facebook — and maybe that's okay.