LOOONG ASS PIECE OF WRITING AHEAD.
Don’t get overwhelmed. Take sips of water. Go for a walk. Have some wine.
I am connecting points.
I am Kanye West.
I have leveled up from the mortal coil of humanity.
(Just kidding. I would never want to be Kanye West.)
Over drinks last night, a friend and I reflected a bit on the strange beast of internet outrage. It was prompted by the latest drama–that a Beauty and the Beast character in the new live-action remake, LaFou (Gaston’s sidekick), will be gay. An Alabama theater is banning a screening, and Russia is considering a ban as well, in line with their “homosexual propaganda” laws. (And, it’s Russia. What isn’t weird about that place?)
Note: the movie is not out yet. It releases March 17. March 17th is in 11 days. Prior to today, and I’m sure on each day leading up to the box office opening, people have found a way to misfire their attention on an acting choice. A quick Google search for “beauty and the beast outrage” brings up lines like, “Gay Character Sparks Outrage,” AFA Blasts Disney,” and “Josh Gad Addresses Gay LaFou.” In an article with USA Today, the actor (Josh Gad) explains his realization of the centuries old character. “What was most important to me was taking a character that is wonderful and so iconic, but is defined by cartoon conceits in the (original) movie… and expanding on that, giving him dimension, making him human.” A human. Imagine that.
Let’s look at this realistically. Beauty and the Beast is a French fairy tale. It’s been reshaped in various ways for centuries, some ways more sordid than anyone who can’t tolerate a gay man on screen could stomach. But I see the premise: Disney is “family friendly.” There’s an overarching expectation that it produce media that is at a bare-minimum of offense. No matter what people believe, everyone wants to feel like they can bring their four-year-old to a Disney movie and not think about morality, outside of “good guys” and “bad guys.”
But in this example, the outrage is sparking off the clash between religious institutions and society about whether homosexuality is “right” or “wrong.” (That’s a whole other topic you can have among yourselves, hopefully including actual gay people.) The dramatic reaction to a fictional character who may or may not be gay if he ever actually existed in real life and is going to fight a man who morphed into a giant beast is hardly the first instance of internet outrage.
Hundreds of think pieces have been written over the aughts about everything from political snafus, the average person who sticks their foot in their mouth, and celebrity missteps. Lena Dunham ring any bells? In the February issue of Nylon Magazine, a couple of Lena’s coworkers and friends spoke about the public’s bizarre need to shame her. Actress Jemima Kirke said, “I don’t know why Lena Dunham, more than anyone else, is asked to fucking apologize so much.” And writer Ashley Ford added, “I’ve never seen her not take the opportunity to learn how her words and actions might affect other people. She’s perceived to be this super-evil pinnacle of white feminism, but they haven’t even investigated those feelings. A lot of them decided a long time ago that they don’t like her.”
The person in question is rarely given any ground to speak for their own actions, and even when they do, few care to hear it. Doubt is immediately cast on their truthfulness or humility. Apparently, it’s too much to ask the populace to take a damn seat and think for a second. An article at the Huffington Post by Michael Shammas describes, “Hatred is everywhere; empathy and its cousin, civility, are nowhere.” You’re liable to be thrown into a well of judgement for taking the “wrong side” online or even in social circles. Any attempt at empathy or a listening ear is seen as weakness or surrender; critical thinking or thoughtfulness struggle to take root.
Now, generally, anywhere you have a large group of people you’re going to have disagreement. It’s unavoidable. Vox writes, “One of the most common human behaviors is also one of our most perplexing: Our tendency to get all worked up about other people’s business. Anyone on Twitter knows that people will jump on a hair trigger to condemn the moral failings of others.” Vox cites a moment in a particularly dark chapter of internet outrage (sarcasm) when Justine Sacco, a former communications director with IAC, tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
Ok. Yes. CRINGE. 😳
At the time she only had about 170 followers. It was a stupid thing to say, but who among us hasn’t said anything equally as dumb to our friends or any place where we felt safe? Vox continues, “But thousands and thousands of people responded to her tweet. The chastising was so extreme […] that it resulted in the derailment of Sacco’s life and career.” We don’t exist in a vacuum. No man is an island. Should Justine have thought twice about trying to be snarky online? Probably. Is there always someone on the receiving end of the criticism? Yes. So why do we do it? Where does this need to disgrace others come from?
Public shaming can serve a purpose. It can demonstrate to some that their behavior is socially unacceptable, and to signal to others who might do the same that no one’s going to put up with it. Some people skid so far off track, they don’t respond to anything that isn’t mirrored at them on just as grand a scale. (Think Martin Shkreli or Milo Yiannopoulos. And even then, many have given themselves over to ego and bravado, and don’t seem to care who doesn’t like them. It can fan their flames.)
So, what’s the benefit? There is scientific evidence that shows inflicting punishment activates our brain’s reward center. It feels good to tell people what’s what. Particularly when the shaming keeps a social structure in balance. Most of us would leap at the chance to berate a bully. Or, if you’re like me, when you hear news of rape or abuse, imagine a dressing down of whatever sociopath moron thought it’d be a good idea to attack someone. Vox adds to this with insight from Yale psychology researcher, Jillian Jordan. She said, basically, that it feels good because “people are punishing selfishness to convey to other people that they are trustworthy.” (There you have it. I would punish an assailant. I am extremely trustworthy 😸.)
There are a number of findings that confirm humans are social creatures who need acceptance to whatever group they’ve committed themselves to. This could be any group–religion, politics, friends, community, family. Even if you’re an introvert or don’t live life on a grand scale, you still probably seek validation in some way from whoever you interact closely with. We are more likely to uphold the sanctity of that group’s code of ethics in order to be seen as trustworthy and not rejected (to protect yourself), than we are to disagree with that group’s code and face rejection (then, you’re not protected). What does any of this matter online, then, where we’re faceless and usually nameless? What group ethics do we have to risk in the digital ether that make us turn against each other?
Let’s think about it like this: what’s the name of the fear of rejection? Insecurity. Even in the most “noble” fights. Internet outrage is an easy way to grab onto an “opinion” when people don’t actually have one or feel engaged when they aren’t really doing anything. The internet is a transaction. We arrive at it with our biases, no matter what we search for or read about. For most people, it’s easier to go with the pull of the group than strive against it in a much smaller group. Or alone. Have you ever tried to stay civil in the face of outrage? It can seem like there are, like, five insane reactions to every one fair point. Or, have you joined in a mob mentality that crushed an opinion, but damn, it felt good to rise up in the swell? And because the internet never really leaves us (like how you can’t actually go off the grid without digging an underground cave…), it influences our real life interactions.
Going back to that Huffington Post article, Michael writes, “Listening is hard, and sitting still can be taxing, especially when someone is being belittling, condescending, or immature. But outrage culture is so much pricier. By naming all disagreement problematic–“ignorant” (to the close-minded leftist), “naïve” (to the close-minded right-winger)–it trashes thoughtful deliberation.” He links it to the progression of democracy in that we are incapable of having productive conversations with each other when one group is intent of shutting another down. “No one’s mind is malleable, nothing changes […] Many people with valuable insights refrain from contentious discussions since they’re afraid of being called names.”
So, here are our tools to subvert outrage culture: empathy, civility, listening. All of which require a level of security in oneself, not insecurity.
Empathy asks us to share each other’s feelings. Civility asks us to have basic courtesy toward each other. Listening asks us to take notice of and act on what someone says.
Some of us have these character qualities naturally, but the cool thing about having a brain is that you can also teach yourself the ones you lack or are underdeveloped. The rewards of practicing empathy, civility, and listening are far richer and productive than the immediate gratification of punishment. I’m not saying we should all be immune to outrage culture and get our shit together NOW, but I am saying it makes no sense to say we want change in society or ourselves, but keep practicing behaviors that squelch growth. In getting comfortable with some of these tools, I hope we can all try a little bit more to be open to all kinds of discourse, online and in life.
These are links for anyone who doesn’t know how to start learning. Don’t be embarrassed. Just do it! (Heeey, Nike!)