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Policing Outrage: Are We Too Sensitive About Insensitivity?


Folk singer Ani DiFranco is criticized for scheduling a retreat at a Louisiana plantation. Musician and popular DJ Questlove mocks how Japanese speak English by reversing his Ls and Rs. MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry features a panel on her show that makes fun of Mitt Romney’s adopted black grandson. Educator and school reform advocate Grant Wiggins refers to the practice in many schools of separate bathrooms and lunchrooms for teachers and students as “apartheid.”

What do all of these incidents have in common? Charges of racial insensitivity, individuals on social media coming together to express varying degrees of disgust and disappointment with the person’s behavior, and, eventually, some sort of “apology” from the actor for any unintended offense.

The cycle of outrage and apology for insensitive statements has become all too familiar. But have we become too sensitive about insensitivity?

[pullquote]Who has the right to tell another person, “You have no right to be upset about that”? Who has the right to dictate what topics are and are not worthy of someone else’s ire?[/pullquote]

Online, and especially on social media sites like Twitter, the outrage meter seems to be perpetually set on high. Among my Twitter cohort, it has become a standing joke: “What we mad about today?”

Writing for The New Yorker, historian Jelani Cobb notes that “[t]here is still something worthwhile about the registering of collective disapproval,” but warns, “we may now be past the point of diminishing returns.” Perhaps Cobb is right that the returns of constant outrage are diminishing, but they are nonetheless present. Collective outrage serves an enduring social purpose. At its best, social outrage gives voice to groups whose voices are often ignored, and provides opportunities to educate the public about matters of history that are frequently overlooked.

The DiFranco situation served as both an opportunity to remind people of the enduring legacy of slavery and the limits of allyship. DiFranco’s initial public statement attempted to use America’s racist history to shield herself from criticism. Further criticism of her non-apology led DiFranco to finally release an actual, sincere apology for both her choice of venue and her original, dismissive response.

Similarly, Questlove not only apologized for his racial mockery of Asians, but engaged with people on Facebook in a constructive discussion about hurtful racial stereotypes. Harris-Perry, recognizing that she had deeply offended mixed race and transracial adoptive families, and that her brand identity of diversity and inclusion had taken a big hit, issued a tearful, televised apology, which Romney graciously accepted. Wiggins, after initially dismissing commenters who complained about his use of the term “apartheid,” did an about-face  and apologized – although some remain troubled by his deletion of the original post and its comments. While not every scenario ends with the contrition and an apology from the subject, the conversations can be informative, even when we don’t share in feeling offended or believe an apology is warranted.

Of course, there are days when the outrage machine surpasses the level of the absurd. But people are only weary of outrage until they themselves are outraged about something. And there is no shortage of topics that engender widespread disgust. Whether it’s contaminated water in West Virginia; anger over criticism of cancer blogger Lisa Bonchek Adams; ongoing music industry support for R&B singer and alleged teen sex predator R. Kelly; or the fact that young people don’t know the hip hop group OutKast anymore – social media provides a forum for people to vent about the things, big and small, that annoy, irritate, and enrage them. And who has the right to police someone else’s emotions? Who has the right to tell another person, “You have no right to be upset about that”? Who has the right to dictate what topics are and are not worthy of someone else’s ire?

The short answer is – no one. And attempts to set parameters around what people can and cannot get mad about serves only to protect those in power at the expense of those whose voices have traditionally been ignored.

Collective social outrage is here to stay. But instead of trying to define when it is appropriate to temper our criticism and when it’s permissible to go full blast, let’s consider some very simple rules to govern how we express our outrage:

  • Be civil.
  • Avoid polemics and false equivalencies.
  • If you don’t like the topic being discussed on your timeline, mute it or log off; don’t try to silence or derail the discussion.
  • The fact that you’re not offended by something, doesn’t mean that others won’t be.
  • The fact that you didn’t mean to be offensive or hurtful doesn’t mean that others won’t be offended or hurt.
  • Don’t say anything to someone – even if they’re a stranger – online that you wouldn’t say to their face.

Keyboard bravery on social media is a well-known phenomenon, but perhaps if more people voluntarily employed rules like this, the nature of our discourse around sensitive topics would improve. Common sense also helps. The First Amendment protects against laws that restrict freedom of speech, religion, or the press. It doesn’t protect you from the consequences of that speech. We all should govern ourselves accordingly.

There is bipartisan benefit in what Cobb refers to as “our common chorus of complaint.” At a time when people feel powerless to address economic, structural, and systemic inequality through our political system, using the power of social media to address micro-inequities provides a small, but meaningful, measure of comfort.

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  1. Pingback: Editor’s Note: Why So Sensitive? | Tue Night

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