The Anatomy of Outrage

If I had to pick an overriding memory of 2012, it was the sense that we as a nation were in a more or less constant state of being offended by things. Whether it was a megalomaniac lunatic grappling for relevance in the autumn of his life by making comments about the Prime Minister’s family, or sweaty and gross overtures to a political aide from the Speaker of The House, or sociopaths on Twitter behaving like sociopaths, or a comedian making a tasteless and cheap crack at a union dinner, or a tabloid elevating a horse to sportswoman of the year - any way you slice it, the past 12 months have provided no shortage of reasons for Australia to shake its collective fist at a thing, slap it with a glove and demand satisfaction. 

Monocles were shattered as they popped from our eyes in surprise and disgust, pearls were clutched so hard they choked us, cries of ‘well I never!’ echoed through the cities and towns. Though, if we were totally honest with ourselves, it wasn’t a case of 'well I never' at all, we went through this a week ago, and the week before that.

The only thing we liked talking about more than being offended in 2012 was why we shouldn’t be offended. And at the risk of adding to this tedium, let’s look at the anatomy of an outrage story in 2012. 

Specifically, the kind of story where someone says or does an offensive thing, parts the public get offended at that offensive thing, and the offensive person has to make some kind of recompense for being offensive. It often looks like this:

Stage one: someone - usually someone who makes their living being controversial and offensive - says something controversial and offensive. They do this because they’re sad. The inciting incident is then blown wildly out of proportion by a bored and hungry press in the morning, fuelled by social media in the afternoon and perpetuated by panel shows in the evening - kind of an unremittingly vapid riddle of the Sphinx.

Stage two: Once the initial outrage has died down after everyone has had a kip, two new kinds of articles are published: The outrage-about-the-initial-outrage column and the outrage-about-the-lack-of-outrage column. Neither of these articles are happy with how the press - that amorphous blob of men in fedoras with cards in the bands - has handled the incident. The former believes that it’s a beat-up, an attack on free speech, political correctness gone mad, and proof that you ‘just can’t say anything these days’; while the latter will cobble together petitions, call for boycotts, and accuse the other side of being insensitive dipshits. This will continue until stage three.

Stage three: The offensive person issues an apology or more often just sits in front of a microphone and tries to be humble, a task they then fail at. This does nothing to quell the outrage from either side, who either think that the apology was disingenuous or think that it was ridiculous that it needed to be issued in the first place. At the end of stage three there emerges a third group of people who, like bower birds, begin frantically searching for shiny, sharp objects so they can stab their own eyes out to avoid the continued coverage.

Stage four: The cause of the initial outrage has been lost to history, and now the discussion centres around lofty, philosophical notions of the freedom to offend versus the individual’s responsibility to create a civil society. This is mainly played out by people calling each other ‘faggets’ on message boards. By this stage, the press is actually starting to cover its own coverage of the event, giving you the uneasy feeling that the news is now being written by Charlie Kaufman. More soul searching results in either the conclusion that it’s our right, nay, sacred duty to be offensive; or that people who came to the first conclusion make an already shitty world just that little bit shittier and should probably shut up.

Stage five: The whole thing runs out of puff, we all return to our homes, slightly embarrassed about the whole affair. 

If it sounds like I’m irked by these episodes, it’s because I am. They’re annoying and distract from more important issues like education, poverty and where Edmund Barton’s gold is hidden. After all, no one, as it is often pointed out, has the right to go through life never being offended, and occasionally it seems like that has been forgotten.

However. And this is a big however - 

It’s also worth pointing out that no one has the right to go through life behaving like an unthinking dipshit without being called on their unthinking dipshititude. More than that, it’s possible to be offended by something and object to it without claiming that your rights have been infringed. The overwhelming majority of people do so. 

While we’re here, the phrase ‘taking offence’ is more than a little misleading because it suggests that offence is something you chose to take, like it’s the last Tim Tam or a mistress. Setting aside the kind of people who lay in wait, complaint-scribbling pens at the ready, being offended is something you very rarely have an agency in, it’s something that happens to you. 

And that’s why when people complain that these flare-ups are indicate an odious culture of over-sensitivity, it’s more than a little galling and not really their call to make. 

It’s worth noting that these protestations of persecution almost always come from people in a position of power - whether cultural or economic, which means that the people who are most likely to tell someone to take an offensive joke in the spirit intended are statistically the sorts of people least likely to find themselves on the receiving-end of such a barb. 

‘It’s just a joke’ does absolutely nothing to absolve you of responsibility. It’s a cowardly response to the accusation that you’ve behaved in a cruel or unthinking way. No one likes being called either of those things, and for some reason people have it in their heads that a joke can’t be cruel or unthinking - far better to be called ‘edgy’ or ‘totally un-pc’. 

I’ve been involved in comedy since I realised I wasn’t qualified to do much else about a decade ago, and of course jokes can be cruel, and a person can be called cruel for making them. You want to make offensive your schtick? You want to be known as the person who’s totally outrageous? That’s cool, if that’s the way you want to go, no problem here, but don’t behave like a pussy if people call you a dick. Don’t get all precious if people call you out on doing exactly what you set out to do. 

Most of these complaints are framed in the context of a freedom of speech argument, and if the Attorney General’s exposure draft legislation gets passed in its current form, then it may well be such an argument. But for now, freedom of speech has got bugger all to do with it.

This is all by way of saying that the cry of ‘you jut can’t say that anymore!’ should actually end with ‘ - without being called a prick’, which is fair enough really. 

So by all means find the anatomy of an outrage story tedious. By all means acknowledge that the media loves themselves a beat up. You can even complain that there are an awful lot of precious people who seem to be laying in wait to get their hackles up. But don’t pretend that this is tantamount to persecution in any way. It's an outrageous claim to make.

Ben Jenkins blogs at abafflingordeal.com and you can follow him on twitter @bencjenkins

profile of bencjenkins