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Rise of the Overreactionaries: Outrage Over Outrage as a Silencing Tactic

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Did you hear? Did you hear what those stupid Internet outrage-mongers did THIS time? Now they’re mad at Reese’s, because their seasonal Christmas tree-shaped candy isn’t shaped like Christmas trees! Isn’t that a stupid thing to be upset about? Doesn’t it just make you SO MAD that someone would be upset about that?

Well, it probably shouldn’t, because the extent of the “outrage” appears to be a handful of tweets from random people, none of whom seem sincerely outraged and most of whom seem bemused at the very most (I, too, end my serious declarations of offended fury with “lol”). This UPROXX post about how “upset” people are has more comments than there are tweets about the candy in the post it links to.

This doesn’t matter, of course, because the real action nowadays is less in outrage and more in outrage over outrage. You can see it in the presidential candidacy of Mick Jagger jack-o-lantern carving kit Donald Trump, who has in recent weeks made his claim that he saw “thousands and thousands” of New Jersey Muslims celebrating the 9/11 attacks his big, yooooj, beautiful hill to die on. When George Stephanopoulos, in an unusual moment of willingness to call shenanigans, pointed out there was zero evidence of any such thing taking place, Trump responded, “I know it might be not politically correct for you to talk about it, but there were people cheering as that building came down.”

At first, this seems like his typical childish, repetitive word salad, but it was actually an extremely smart play by his standards. By introducing the concept of “political correctness,” as far as his primary demographic is concerned, Trump has identified Stephanopoulos’ objectively true assertion as just “more outraged whining from SJW pussies who need to go back to their safe spaces.” Describing a controversy, real or imagined, as “outrage” has the same effect; regardless of what you were responding to, it now looks hysterical and overblown, ergo there’s no need to engage it.

The other thing about outrage over outrage is that its promoters typically have, shall we say, limited self-awareness. Take last year’s sort-of-controversy “Shirtgate” (take it, please!), in which a tacky shirt worn by European Space Agency scientist Matt Taylor raised a few eyebrows and led some feminists to point out the implications about casual sexism and how it might discourage women and girls from entering the STEM field. Taylor issued a tearful apology, which no one was really asking him to do (nor was the controversy about him as a person), but it was still nice to see him acknowledge the validity of the concerns. Well. This, to put it mildly, did not sit well with the reactionary end of our fair Internet. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London (a person who, in theory, has other things he should probably be doing), sharted a column in the Telegraph in which Hizzoner compares Taylor’s critics to Stalin and Islamic terrorists and, apparently without irony, congratulates himself for having the courage to “take on the rage of the web.” Even if you don’t think Taylor did anything wrong, it’s hard to argue that the side comparing criticism of him to mass murder (coming, again, from elected officials) was on the side of keeping things in perspective. Meanwhile, journalist Rose Eveleth, who first pointed out the shirt on Twitter, was met with responses telling her to kill herself and people calling her a “fucking retard” who should get Ebola. Once again, these were the words of people who were mad because they thought she overreacted.

As the Reese’s affair demonstrates, the outrage-against-outrage machine doesn’t even require the stimulus of genuine outrage. In early 2015, Upworthy writer Parker Molloy tweeted a picture of a Kat Von D lipstick color called “Underage Red,” with, again, a tone of mild bemusement. In short order, however, Forbes and Business Insider decided Molloy was “outraged” and “disgusted”—and was also apparently multiple people. Before long, Kat Von D issued a statement refusing to yield to imaginary calls for her to pull the color from shelves, while also insinuating that only a pedophile would find the color name offensive. Way to strike a blow against hysteria and outrage there, Kat.

This is something the left can do to the right as well, of course; this very publication covered the hilarious, apparently sincere outrage from Men’s Rights Activists over Mad Max: Fury Road, calling for a boycott over its “feminist propaganda.” The thing is, no boycott ever materialized, because, far from being an organized campaign, it was only a single essay (albeit on Return of Kings, one of the primary cesspools of MRAdom). That said, warnings of the specter of outrage and “PC” destroying free speech and creativity are far more the purview of the right. When conservatives get upset about Starbucks cups or Frozen-borne lesbianism, we laugh, because it’s hilarious; we don’t publish ponderous thinkpieces about how Christianity Went Too Far This Time.

But ultimately, this is less a left-right thing and more an empathy thing. If you get all your information on why people you disagree with feel the way they do through the lens of people determined to discredit them, of course they’ll seem dumb and hysterical. Now, that’s not to say none of them are dumb and hysterical—plenty are. That’s just a conclusion you should reach based on firsthand knowledge, not an aggregated headline about how What Gravity Falls Fans Are Mad About Will Make You Cry.

(featured image via Studio Grand Ouest)

Zack Budryk is a Washington, D.C-based editor and journalist who is happiest writing about the intersection of gender issues, popular culture, and snark, which is more common than you would think. He lives in Alexandria with two badly-behaved cats, a fairly chill betta fish and his wife Raychel, a feminist, environmental activist and general force to be reckoned with. He recently completed his first novel, but don’t hold that against him. He blogs at autisticbobsaginowski.tumblr.com and tweets as ZackBudryk, appropriately enough.

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