Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Age of Outrage (Complete)

The Full Text of Yesterday's Piece at the Daily Banter

All it took was one retweet for the wrath of God to rain down on me.

Last Friday morning I did what a lot of hacky self-proclaimed online pundits were doing in the wake of Geraldo Rivera’s galactically stupid claim that the choice to wear a hoodie is what got Trayvon Martin killed: I penned a quickie column on it for my blog. Like a lot of other ostensible progressives, however, I apparently had the bad form to not heap what I would soon learn was the universally agreed upon level of scornful indignation in Geraldo’s direction. On the contrary, while I said that Geraldo’s idiotic no-hoodie plea to American parents of brown kids was just that, idiotic, I argued that he did manage to touch on a larger issue that deserved at least some consideration. That issue is the role that someone’s wardrobe or style choices play in how that person is perceived by a large portion of the public. My point was that while I’m pretty sure Geraldo was wrong about Trayvon Martin’s hoodie having anything to do with George Zimmerman’s decision to confront and ultimately kill him, it’s common sense to note that what a person chooses to wear or adorn him or herself with influences how he or she is viewed. It may be unfair that people create preconceptions based on personal style, but that doesn’t matter one bit because that’s the way it is — and what this means is that while someone is free to wear whatever the hell he or she wants, that person has to understand that there may be unintended consequences to choosing to dress or look a certain way.

Now obviously I wasn’t saying that a kid in a hoodie deserves to be shot at for looking a little like the people Geraldo sees in stick-up surveillance videos all the time. Nor was I saying that a woman in a short skirt and high heels at a bar is asking to be sexually assaulted. I was simply arguing that while in a perfect world no one would jump to conclusions based on the way we choose to present ourselves — the key word is choice, as I’m not talking about physical characteristics that one is born with and which can’t be changed and therefore shouldn’t be judged at all on -- we don’t live in a perfect world. Shouting about how a black or brown guy in a hoodie, low-slung pants and a ball cap should be able to walk the streets and not worry that people will look at him like he’s a thug and a threat is a ridiculous conceit because if you argue almost anything from the point of what should be, the whole argument becomes moot. I should be able to fly -- but that’s not going to provide much consolation when I hit the sidewalk at 200 miles-an-hour. Until someone comes along and changes the reality of the situation and allows me to soar over the city, I’m gonna fall. Until someone changes perception — and I’m all for that — that perception will likely remain, and it borders on irresponsible not to be cognizant of it. Wanna buck convention? Have at it. Just understand that convention exists.

So, yeah, I dared to enter the Hysterical Indignation Vortex in the wake of the tragic and very likely criminal shooting of Trayvon Martin without expressing enough indignation to make the liberal masses happy. I know this because about ten seconds after my piece got tweeted out — admittedly by me, so I know that I get what I deserve — it was retweeted again and again and suddenly every friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend or nobody-in-particular with a Twitter account and a somewhat justifiable sense of outrage at the death of Trayvon was pounding on my digital door, ready to publicly flog me for my impertinence while basically misunderstanding every goddamned thing I’d said. Some of those raking me over the coals, in fact, admitted that they found my entire premise so “repellant” that they didn’t even bother to read the piece all the way through -- not surprising given both our 140-character attention spans and blinded-by-passion discourse these days, but still a lousy way to come out on top in a debate.

And it was all of this that got me thinking about Bill Maher. Namely, that he’s right.

Last week, Maher penned an op-ed in the New York Times taking aim at how we as a culture have elevated controversy -- the creation of it, often by the media, and instantaneous public response to it -- to almost slapstick-comical levels. It feels like we now live to be pissed off and offended -- at something, at everything, at anything —- and to voice that outrage in whichever direction the perceived slight is coming from until the cause of our collective torment is beaten into submission. We don’t just disagree anymore — we want to make the thing we disagree with go away. The fury comes from both sides of the political aisle and from every stripe within our society. Maher’s assertion is that we need to learn how to get the hell over things and get on with our lives -- to not immediately demand an apology every time we feel that someone has publicly offended us and to not be so quick to be offended in the first place. To those accused of saying or doing something that draws a coordinated public tantrum, his advice is simple: stop apologizing.

It pretty much goes without saying that, in a wonderfully ironic meta twist befitting the current fucked-up state of our culture, Maher’s column was debated at length in the media and throughout the social networking universe in the days after it was published. In other words, it drew controversy.

In the end, though, Maher’s right. Yes, there are a few notable exceptions to the Law of Unintended Controversy. There are times when someone can violate the standards of so many people so egregiously that a proportional public backlash is understandable. The problem is that it’s threatening to get to the point where it’s impossible to discern what is and isn’t a truly heinous and unacceptable affront because the machinery of indignation seems to wind up to the same deafening level for every perceived insult. As Jon Stewart once said brilliantly, “If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.” If we react -- or some large swath of us reacts -- with the same fervor each time we feel like we’ve been offended, the truly offensive crap gets lost in the echo chamber.

And who decides what’s truly offensive, anyway? I get that the democratization of the media means, in theory, that only the people who are pissed off at a given slight will react and make their voices heard, but have you listened to what it’s like out there lately? After a while it all gets Cuisinarted into one dull roar -- and it’s exhausting.

I’m certainly not whining about the fact that a lot of those who seem to be perpetually aggrieved unleashed their fury on me on Twitter. I put myself out there so I’m, ironically, given the nature of the subject I was writing about, asking for it. I’m also certainly not decrying social media like some antediluvian royal dismissing change from on-high. Far from it.

The point is simply that, as Bill Maher writes, if we constantly attempt to crucify those who offend our sensibilities, what we’ll inevitably be left with is a truly PC-beholden culture where no one ever says or does anything interesting. Where no one pushes boundaries. Where no one challenges us. In other words, a place where none of us, I would hope, wants to live.

We have to be able to debate and discuss without trying to decimate those who oppose us -- or those who we immediately assume oppose us.


T Bickle said...

They deem him their worst enemy who tells them the truth.

Claude Weaver said...

Right on.

I would say that a part of the indignation at your piece stems from guilt. Not that ridiculous "white guilt" crap, but honest guilt from having judged people based on appearances. To pretend like they have not is hypocrisy, and does more damage to the conversation than any idiotic statement from Geraldo ever could.

Personally, I try not to do such quick opinions on people, but dammit I do it. And I admit it. It is built into the very fabric of our social structure, even if time has proceeded to show the cracks in such a tool. Here is the thing: the only way I can address and fix that prejudgment is to confront it with facts. And I cannot confront something I do not believe exists. That is why I had no problem with your piece.

Just like recovering from an addiction or a bad habit: you have to first admit that you have a problem before you can do anything about it. That is what I got out of your piece.

Meanwhile, while liberals are all hand-wringing over the fact that maybe their perfect judgment may be suspect because they are (gasp) human beings with actual flaws, the far right are now trying to drag Martin's name through the mud in order to justify Zimmerman's actions. Because they know what happened was wrong, and they are trying desperately to find anything to show otherwise. THAT bullshit is what we should be focusing on, not this.

I am way more offended that some idiot is saying that a school suspension for a shaky reason (seriously, weed residue in an empty baggie that happened to be in his bookbag?) is justification for murder than anything Chez has said.

nicole said...

It's funny. After I read and replied to your post last week, you know, the one where you suggested that Geraldo wasn't a total idiot for having said what everyone, deep down, understands is true.
While I responded in my usual/often knee jerk fashion, refusing to admit any inclination towards judgement over what a person wears, after giving it more thought, I have to admit.......hey, we all do it, and it might not be a bad idea to admit it and deal with it so we aren't looking at more judgements gone awry in the future.

As an example, I have often looked at a woman or a girl dressed in a manner most would consider inappropriate for a particular place or time and thought "what a slut!" or "she looks like a slut". Doesn't mean I was right, just that I did it, and I am someone who is strongly, emphatically against stereotyping based on outer appearance or skin color or religion or pretty much anything except your political affiliation (i.e., if you're a member of the GOP, you are a damn stereotype)

Is it right to judge people based on outward appearance, on clothing?


Do all of us do it?

Yes, unless you are incapable mentally of making such judgements.

So, anyway, while I feel such judgements are an inevitable part of being human, I think that we should strive to do better than that, and certainly we should disallow such judgements when it comes to racial stereotyping or making excuses for rape.

I'm sorry you got jumped on Twitter, chez, especially since I'm pretty sure that you aren't a racist and that you don't approve of racial stereotyping.

Jody said...

While I don't agree with everything you say, I am an ardent fan and enjoy your writing. That said, I feel this is one of the best columns you've ever written. It's refreshing to see someone who might share a different political stance nevertheless state something that, right or wrong, is an indisputable truth.

amurph11 said...

I don't know, buddy. I don't think you got crucified, I think you got disagreed with. And I think many of those disagreements were legitimate. Nobody is asking you to spout the liberal party line (I'd stop reading you if you did), but to write the post you did without some understanding that your point (and Maher's, for that matter) comes from a very privileged position is just kind of naive. Using your tattoos as an example was cringeworthy for those of us who actually have been stereotyped for physical characteristics about ourselves that we can't change. See, you're lucky enough to be able to make conscious choices about how you are perceived, because you're working from the social blank canvas of a white male. Whereas young black men are going to be universally suspected of criminal misbehavior, even if they're dressed like a Harvard Professor (hey there, Henry Louis Gates). Similarly, while I appreciate your point that wearing slutty clothes isn't equivalent to "asking for it," you're missing the point - we get raped wearing sweatpants, because it doesn't matter what the fuck we're wearing. It just matters that we're female, and we're living in a culture that at best excuses and at worst blatantly encourages sexual assault against women. The reason people got upset when you made the point, "yeah, I know it's not fair but that's the way it is," is that it's pretty easy for you to say that, sitting in the social position you do. It's easy for you to say "we have to stop getting so easily offended!" because you're not the one getting slurs shouted at you.

I am definitely not one for living in an overly sanitized, PC society. But I'm also not for a society in which marginalized people stay silent about the indignities of how they're viewed by society because of "I know it's not fair, but that's the way it is." Believe me, I don't enjoy pointing out the many instances of rape culture out there. I feel like a fucking killjoy every time I do it. And I know that most black people don't enjoy calling out examples of institutional racism. But we do it anyway because if we don't, then things stay the same. If you see that as hysterical indignation, then I guess enjoy being someone who doesn't have the deal with the actual consequences of this kind of shit. But whatever you may think of its tone, the backlash to Geraldo is a good thing, because it's bringing to the forefront a conversation that we as a society don't usually want to have, and that's never a bad thing. I'm glad you were part of the conversation - I didn't agree with you on this one, but that's okay, because I enjoy hearing from smart people who disagree with me. You should, too. Sure, you got some shrill crazies, but many of the arguments against your original post were intelligent, well-reasoned and respectful (TK's, in particular) - worth much more, in my opinion, than this kind of eye-rolling "oops, pissed off the liberals, everyone's so easily offended" response.

NoxiousNan said...

I'm having trouble articulating my feelings, but in attempting to do so, I learned an interesting thing about myself:

When in the past I have donned slut-gear, I have never thought, "If I wear this I might be raped." But I have thought, "If I wear this and get raped, the courts will blame me."

What that speaks of beyond my cynicism about our judicial system, if anything, I can't say.

Chez said...

Amurph, the piece was aimed less at the well-reasoned responses than the 140-character angry tirades aimed in my direction. And again, I expected it but I feel like it's worth commenting on.

I get what you're saying, but I still feel like -- despite very good intentions and a highly articular argument -- you might be missing the point just slightly. And I say that as someone who appreciates your view.

The tattoos analogy was only meant as an example of a choice that I made which changed my appearance. One that may always be held against me by a certain segment of the population. I said at the beginning that the things about yourself that you can't change you shouldn't be judged on nor does any of it give anyone the right to harm you. (Actually, neither does anything you wear or adorn yourself with.) I also understand that for many, the main reason to hurt, kill, rape or simply target someone else has to do with the things about themselves they can't change. In other words, even if Zimmerman had stalked Trayvon because he was wearing a hoodie -- his reaction would have been different had the kid been white and in a hoodie and would've been close to the same if he'd been black and wearing just about anything -- it was the black part that was the big problem.

But when it comes to what you can change about yourself -- the way you choose to dress -- you may not necessarily deserve to be judged on it, but you almost certainly will to some extent by a large group of people.

Anonymous said...

"...even if they're dressed like a Harvard Professor (hey there, Henry Louis Gates)."

Probably not the best analogy.

If you revisit that Chapter in History, you will recall that Mr. Gates was arrested for Contempt of Police.

This is a civilian issue.

Anonymous said...

waaa waaa waaaa ... christ. Aren't you sick of them all YET??

Seriously, mate, get the hell out of that fucking mad house and move to Australia. Oh wait, your little girl ... hmmm... well, hide her in your suitcase :)

Your country doesn't deserve you. You are sane.

Eric said...

I don't disagree with the premise that how you choose to present yourself will inevitably affect how you're perceived, rightly or wrongly.

But what I can't get my head around in this instance is what Trayvon Martin should have been wearing on a Sunday afternoon for a jaunt down to the drugstore for Skittles and tea. I think this is where things fall apart: we aren't talking about Trayvon Martin not getting a job he was qualified for because he didn't dress well for an interview or any other situation, really, in which he "should" have been wearing something else.

He was chilling. He was walking back from the store and talking to his girlfriend on the phone. He had his Skittles and his tea and it was a Sunday afternoon. He was supposed to rent a tux for a trip to the convenience store? At least wear a tie for the special occasion of stepping out the front door? What, a guy who evinced the paranoia Zimmerman did with all those 911 calls would have thought Martin less "suspicious" if he'd been dressed like a Mormon door-to-door proselytizer?

Stephen Colbert nailed at least half of it: if we stop talking about hoodies, we have to start talking about guns. (Because, you know, racism aside, maybe if George Zimmerman had been armed with nothing more than a big stick instead of the surrogate cock Florida's crazy gun laws and batshit NRA-written redefinition of self-defense allowed him, maybe he would have stayed in his goddamn truck when the 911 dispatcher told him he didn't need to follow anyone around.) The other half is that maybe Geraldo Rivera ought to have been discussing why a black kid can't dress like a white adult for a weekend walk through a family member's neighborhood.

robpo said...

Well said brother. Sometimes we can recognize truth by the sting it leaves on us.
I would like to take a step further and comment: another reason this teenager was murdered, was because he lived in the cesspool we call Florida.

Mart said...

While we were out of town a very remote acquaintance shoot her three beautiful daughters and then committed suicide. The Google provided a couple straight news stories. She was white and her husband was black, so unfortunately these sick fucks also popped up on Google:

I don't think this is ever solved, maybe just gets better.