The Latest Outrage

Who Represents?

There are idiots all over. Why are we paying so much attention to what they say?

02.19.13 4:49 PM ET

I saw this item on TaxProf, and like many of you, I gaped, and then cringed:  

The instructor at the West Virginia public institution included some possible news sources, such as The Economist, BBC, CNN and The Huffington Post. But the instructor also specified that two sources could not be used. One was The Onion, which the assignment notes "is not news" and "is literally a parody."

The other barred source is the one that got the instructor -- Stephanie Wolfe -- scrutiny this week. She banned articles from Fox News, writing: "The tagline 'Fox News' makes me cringe. Please do not subject me to this biased news station. I would almost rather you print off an article from the Onion."

Just as I gaped and then cringed when an obscure state-level GOP official made repulsive, inhuman jokes about a dead kid on Twitter.  Which got me thinking about how these incidents play out in the media space, and in our brains.  

The rise of the internet, and particularly the rise of social media, has given us unprecedented access to the stupid opinions of unfamous people.  Sure, we knew when Jesse Jackson talked about "Hymietown", or Gerald Ford bizarrely claimed that "there is no Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe and never will be under a Ford administration."  But these people were prominent figures on the national political scene.  It did not, however, used to be national news when a state commiteeman somewhere said something dumb, because news is supposed to be rare and interesting, not common-verging-on-banal.  

Now it seems like every week, my twitter feed blows up with some completely moronic thing said by some completely unimportant person who I have never heard of--and who I will never hear from again, after their Two Minutes Hate/fifteen minutes of fame.  I mean, who cares what an instructor at West Liberty University thinks?  I understand that her students do, but this is a matter for the administration, who are presumably fully capable of telling her to stop being such a partisan fool.   Nonetheless, the tremendous power of social media relentlessly amplifies these sorts of cretinous musings as if they actually mattered.

And in the process, it amplifies the feeling that everyone on the other side must be terrible people.  For starters, most people can't even remember the idiotic things said by people they identify with.  Liberals can instantly call to mind this infamous exchange between a Fox News host and Bill Nye, the science guy, about global warming and volcanoes.  But how many of them remember the CNN host who asked whether the Russian meteorite had been caused by global warming?  Conservatives, meanwhile, all know about the global warming meteorite, but have a much less encyclopedic command of stupid utterances by conservative types.  

It isn't, I think, that they don't encounter these stupidities; in fact, whenever one of these stories goes viral, the folks who share a party ID with the speaker generally spend a couple of days getting mad at the other side for blowing this up all out of proportion to its actual relevance.  

Rather, it's that we take the stupidity from the other side as representative, and the stupidities from our own side as sui generis.  It's easy to understand the temptation to view these things as symptomatic of something larger, because of course, there is some grain of that in both episodes.  Most professors do cringe at Fox News and would rather it didn't exist.  Most Republicans were far more sympathetic to George Zimmerman than most liberals were.

But really, it's a tiny grain; it's also true that most Republicans do not take to their twitter feeds with terrible jokes about dead teenagers, and most liberal professors do not allow students to use liberal news sources like Huffington Post while banning conservative ones.  

When it's our folks we recognize the rarity.  But with the other side, we tend to take the appalling as somehow representative--if not of how people are in public, then of how they are in secret.  That is what we do when we "other" people: we put them in a different, simpler basket than ourselves.  There's a rather striking post about Game of Thrones that illustrates this point pretty well, in the difference between the way that George R. R. Martin treats members "western" cultures, and the way he represents barbarians like the Dothraki:  

The brutality of Dothraki culture is actually a red herring. The problem with their depiction is not that, in a world of aggressive phallocrats, they are the biggest and most violent dicks. It is interesting and revealing that, where a Westerosi soldier is a “knight,” and a Free Cities soldier a “bravo,” an individual Dothraki soldier is called a “screamer,” but the troubling thing about the Dothraki isn’t how different they are from the Westerosi. It’s how similar they all are to eachother.

Every difference all the same.

Consider the the rival powers in Westeros. The Starks are fatalistic, duty-bound, honorable but kind of unsophisticated. The Lannisters are appetite-driven plutocrats. The Baratheons were markedly varied, but the surviving one is driven and joyless, having perhaps inherited the Stark “hat” now that there’s not a Stark head left to wear it. The Martells are given to plotting and sexual license. We know less about the Tyrells, but they seem to value chivalry and court culture: consider Loras’ prowess, consider the splendor of Margaery’s entourage and weddings, consider how much more talented the Tyrell fool Butterbumps is than any of the other fools we’ve met.

Now, consider the rival powers among the Dothraki. Was it Khal Jommo’s khalasar that valued chivalry? Were Khal Ogo’s people the least trustworthy? Did Khal Drogo’s have a unique worldview shaped from their long tradition of cultural exchange with the Free Cities? Or are all the khalasars exactly freaking the same, because that’s how it works when you’re an oriental other in speculative fiction?

Isn't that really what all these daily outrages are about?  We're creating the other in our own little piece of speculative fiction.

Though not necessarily intentionally.  If you're liberal, and you think the GOP is racist, it's easy to assume that some minor party official is somehow symptomatic of the entire movement, or at least a significant swathe of it.  But when you see a professor telling her students they can use MSNBC as a source but not Fox News because the latter "makes me cringe", you understand that this woman is an idiot who is inflicting her personal political preferences on her class in a way that most professors would not condone.  

And of course, if you are a conservative and you see these things, you write the loudmouth jerk making Trayvon Martin jokes off as . . . the kind of appalling boor who says terrible things to get a rise out of people.  You personally would never make those kind of horrifying jokes about a dead teen, and neither would any of the Republicans you know.  On the other hand, you're well aware that professors are mostly liberal, and they don't like people like you very much.  So this professor just seems to be confirming what you've always suspected.  

In isolation, combing the internet for horrible things said and done by our political opponents seems largely harmless, and one hopes that it may even cut down on the parade of horribleness.  However, there's also a pernicious effect.  The sheer number of these "Outrage of the Day" moments is multiplying, and it seems to me that increasingly, these episodes are being used as "proof" of propositions like "the GOP is overwhelmingly racist" or "professors just use their position for political indoctrination".  

But there are tens of millions of liberals in this country, and even more tens of millions of conservatives.  At any given moment, statistically, thousands of these people are saying or doing things that are horrible and idiotic.  Sheerly by chance, some of those scrofulous churls will have some minor position of power in one institution or another.  

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What we are seeing on Twitter and Facebook is not the veil being ripped from some black, secret place deep in the heart of the other side.  It's just the law of large numbers playing out in a nation of 300 million people.  

Calling attention to these people gives them an importance they don't deserve.  And it takes from us something even more precious: a sense of perspective.

But of course, if one side gives up their outrages, while the other side keeps them, this will hardly be fair: one side gets to have all the fun, and all the misplaced self-righteousness.  So I'm proposing a moratorium.  Let's shut down the outrage machine entirely.  Or at least, give it the year off.