The Outrage Brigade

NYer cartoon InternetThis cartoon by Bruce Eric Kaplan in the January 20, 2014 issue of The New Yorker says it all.

Never before in the history of mankind and communication have so many little people been granted so large a platform to air and share their views.  The Internet revolution should have spawned a Renaissance of insight and free expression and Socratic dialog, a democratization of knowledge and information that would lift the lives of downtrodden millions.

Surely it has done some of that.  But far more commonly, the Internet has created a pious, public platform for what I call the Outrage Brigade, giving throngs of people a chance to flog, publicly and mercilessly, any unfortunate souls who manage somehow to piss them off.

The Outrage Brigade thrives on umbrage, damnation and, above all, seething and unfocused anger.   While it might seem the concern is real and selfless, the true intent of the Outrage Brigade is self-aggrandizement and cheap thrills: to feel noble and superior without having to do much more than tap a few keys.  These people don’t get on Facebook to hear from others; they get on Facebook to tell others about themselves.  “It’s all about me.”  The Holy Trinity of social media—Twitter, Facebook and Google’s YouTube—has given this sliver of America the façade of something seemingly massive.

Right now it is General Motors’s turn to face the music.  It is under fire for a dozen or so deaths over a decade from an ignition problem that GM failed to fix even after spotting it years ago.  The company has said mea culpa and is investigating itself, but the Outrage Brigade is not there to forgive or to understand the possibility for mistakes, system failures, flawed quality-control measures.

The Outrage Brigade is there to be outraged, and these soapbox-thumpers want blood.

“Clearly like Big Pharma, GM views people dying as collerateral (sic) damage.  To them their profits always come first,” says one poster at  Another adds:  “In China, the executives would be executed.  I’m not saying I think the death penalty is in order (just serious prison time).”  Gee, a rare instance of restraint.

“Add GM cars to the list of things more dangerous to innocent people than my gun,” says a mash-up post from “Flange” at  Cicero43 writes: “303 Americans are also dead but you have to break a few eggs to make a crony capitalism omelette.”

No target is too big… or too small for this pack of fingerwagging commentators.  The patriarch of the reality show “Duck Dynasty” lets loose an anti-gay tirade, and the Outrage Brigade goes into how-dare-you mode:  We’re shocked!- shocked! that some ZZ-Top-bearded country bumpkin would dare say something so… ignorant.

Though doesn’t that kind of come along with the guy’s resume?  It’s reality TV.  Yet the brigadiers are every bit as upset as if the offense had been uttered by the U.S. Secretary of State.

Paula Dean used the n-word over 20 years ago, and the Outrage Brigade wants her destroyed.  Never mind that even Jesse Jackson said she deserved forgiveness.  (Or was it Al Sharpton? Same diff.)  Not enough: She has to lose her TV show and millions of dollars in endorsement deals.  Now won’t that improve the lives of impoverished blacks and let us all feel better about our contribution?

Actually, the outrage agenda doesn’t have a lot of room for worrying about the supposed victims themselves in any of these online shout-fests.  And most worrisome, the brigadiers’ oversized platform can end up shaping policies and perceptions and prosecutions in real life.

The band of online scolds rails against the supposedly offensive name of the Washington Redskins.  President Obama picks up the plaint and says if he owned the Redskins he’d change the name because it “offends so many people.”  Yet a poll last year found 90% of Native Americans themselves aren’t offended by the name.  An earlier survey of all Americans put the no-problem figure at 80%.  I talked about it in “What’s Bugging Me” last October. Link here:

The Outrage Brigade is our 21st Century online version of the crowd at the Colosseum more than 2,000 years ago, except this mob knows only thumbs-down: “Kill him!”  This blood lust can destroy the career of even the smallest offender with alarming quickness.

A little-known PR person for IAC, about to take off on a flight to South Africa last December, sends out a stupid, offensive joke on Twitter: “Hope I don’t get AIDS.  Just kidding.  I’m white!”  It gets retweeted 2,000 times and is picked up on Buzzfeed and dozens of other websites, and the PR handler is fired a day later, with IAC citing her “hateful” comment.

It wasn’t hateful—yeah, it was a stupid thing to say, tasteless blah blah.  But I don’t think this PR exec was filled with racism and hate, nor do I think the line hurt anyone with AIDS; they face much bigger  problems than what some stranger says in a venue they haven’t visited.  She was just trying to brag about flying to an exotic location, and she used a dumb one-liner to mask her own horn-blowing.

Regrettably, the world of social media has little room for forgiveness or understanding; you get more attention by being offended—and offensive, and getting attention is the real motive here.  By getting so overly upset about so many issues, almost none of which have any real impact on our personal lives, we lose track of what’s important.  And expend our most precious assets—time and focus and bandwidth—on a trifle, instead of dedicating it to better pursuits: feeling happy our kids are healthy, or grateful to be gainfully employed, or giddy to have dinner with our main squeeze tonight.

That old Bobby McFerrin song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” seems so far away right now.

Scroll to Top