Razer on the outrage economy: see no evil, tweet no evil

On the practical advice of a cheap psychotherapist, I lost the habit of involvement in social media outrage about a year ago and have since recovered the ability to be cross at things for an actual reason. What I have also found, along with several new hours each day, is a growing unconcern for who’s-shaming-whom. However various the objects of these online disputes, their structure had become as predictable as any episode of Law & Order: SVU. Someone says something possibly bad. Many people point out the badness of this thing. Many more people point out the badness of the people pointing out the badness of the thing. Everybody hates each other but ultimately agrees that Freedom of Speech should always be very cautiously approached by whichever side you’re not on. Except, you know, if you’re a cartoonist pillorying Islam. Because, apparently, those guys are awesome and must be universally defended. Je suis Charlie.

It’s actually easier than you might expect to drop out of outrage. Once you see it as a procedural drama, the end becomes as inevitable as Ice-T shaking his head in surprised disgust at the presence of semen on a corpse. There is just, as far as I can tell, one difficulty and that is, by the time the very liberal and the very illiberal press start talking about such-and-such an internet outrage as though it were actual news, you feel reflexively obliged to keep up. It’s in the newspaper. So it must be worth reading, right?

Well, probably yes and probably no. The fact that, say, such-and-such a company produced “inappropriate” clothes for children and some mothers on Facebook paused in the work of parenting to agree for several hours that this company may as well be trafficking pre-schoolers for sale to an international pervert cartel is not news. The fact that forty-thousand of them were caught in precisely the same moment of uncritical idiocy where the real evil of child abuse is conflated with cheap clothing — itself only evil insofar as Bangladeshi children were likely forced to make it — is news. And it’s not even really news because these people are right in their unsupported claim that “inappropriate” clothing is harmful beyond the fact that certain parents feel that the mass market owes them “appropriate” dirt-cheap choices. It’s “news” because any story that deludes people into thinking that “people power” is real and that we can “act” to “end this injustice” gets a fuckload of clicks.

Of course, that a group of people can affect the market, as they did in the case of the “inappropriate” clothing protest, is, on one level, cheering. BDS strategies are not without the power to effect change. I’d say in the case of Oxfam releasing Scarlett Johansson from her role as Global Ambassador when she was also promoting wares then produced in reportedly unfair conditions in a West Bank factory was a good move. That this moment was considered in its approach and dignified in its execution probably led me to consider it more carefully. I had no previous notion that SodaStream was an Israeli company or that, in addition to the rest of the crap the half-citizens of occupied Palestine have no choice but to endure, West Bank labourers are subject to extraordinary exploitation.

I was able to learn something in this case and form a slightly more complex view about what it means to be, and what it means not to be, a nation state. Johansson was not hung out to dry for doing what so many other unfeasibly beautiful celebrities do but was simply discharged from a role. And, yes, it was not “people power” but the quiet and persistent lobbying of activists that led to the instructive response.

I was able to learn precisely nothing about the evil and the prevention of child abuse from a much more widely reported campaign.

Honestly, who the shit did? This was, as it often is, a mob moment stuffed with idiots who are not relieved from their idiocy by the malevolence of their target. Child abuse is horrible. Inappropriate clothing is just, well “inappropriate”. No one’s raping kiddies because they look like adults. I imagine this defeats the entire point of paedophilia.

But, what we do now is find someone to blame. We personify evil just as enthusiastically as we did in the Middle Ages. Yes, there are bad things in the world that desperately need amending. No, the way to go about it is not to punish those persons, or in the case of the clothing boycott, those frilly knickers, who seem to be vaguely responsible for it, or even by valorising its opponents.

Caitlyn Jenner describing her journey does not “make a difference” any more than Tim Hunt, a scientist currently in the news for his failure to engage a good speech writer, prevents a difference from occurring.

I’d been just about as successful in avoidance of the Tim Hunt affair as I had been in gaining any knowledge of the protein molecules that, apparently, made him famous. But this particular outrage procedural has now gone on for so long, it’s turned into “news”.

If you’ve also managed to dodge this tale, I’m sorry and so just please think of this brief explanation as another plea to restore actual “news” and activism to a place far beyond the individual, to a place it should properly be.

In June, Hunt proved himself as bad at after-dinner speaking as he was good at winning research grants. In Seoul, he told a room of scientists that women were “trouble” and that he found that their creation of sexual tension in the barracks and propensity to cry was an argument for segregated labs. Outraged and 4G-enabled, some attendees posted these remarks to Twitter. Although Hunt explained, badly, that they were made in jest and served only to parody, and not embolden, such antique ideas, he was relieved of several of his positions.

Now, Hunt was probably a dick. He probably should have not said those things at an event that honoured such a notoriously sexist institution as science. I don’t know what he was thinking and it seems to me that such light-hearted restatement of a thing that some in the room and in the institution were likely, in any case, to believe was ill-advised. I would probably have the shits if I attended a literary event and some douche arose before dessert to say that women are terrible plagiarists who sleep their way to positions of literary influence. Both of these things have been said to me and I half-wish that I was bold enough to be the charlatan and slut I am in the minds of male colleagues.

I would get the shits. But, what I wouldn’t do is see this person as “the problem”.

In recent days, recording of the event has surfaced and even some of those who initially, and successfully, called for Hunt’s sacking have agreed that, yes, it did seem like he was joking.

I don’t think this “proof” particularly excuses Hunt from the charge that he can read a room about as well as Joe Hockey. But, it really doesn’t excuse misguided bloodlust, either.

I have read the arguments that it is moments such as these that are likely to dissuade women from becoming scientists and that unless we “call it out”, such things will keep occurring. But, I have also read, across the years, a dozen other more compelling rationales for the under-participation of women in STEM and these tend, like most things, to be a bit more difficult, and a lot less fun, to deal with than a sexist old blowhard.

Sure, he did nothing to advance women in STEM and frankly, having lost several jobs for saying the wrong thing before today, I don’t feel particularly surprised that Hunt lost his gig. Very few people in the world are employed just because they do good work. They must adhere, particularly in more elite positions, to a specific code of acceptable speech. I am also angry with Hunt for giving that tiresome old pilchard Richard Dawkins another cup of “feminist injustice” to flop about in.

But, more than anything, I am angry that this becomes another tiresome story which pretends to, but cannot functionally, point to a deeper truth.

This just in: science can be sexist. And it’s a particularly bitter kind of sexism because it’s an institution full of people, like Dawkins, who think that the objectivity of their study magically extends to the objective treatment of others.

But the freaking way to freaking go about fixing it is not in baying for blood.

Tim Hunt may, or may not be gone. Toddlers may or may not be dressed like strippers. The evil that we have erroneously come to see them not just represent but actually start remains untouched. And I will now resume the advice of my cut-price psychotherapist.

Featured image of Tim Hunt by Paloma Baytelman

23 responses to “Razer on the outrage economy: see no evil, tweet no evil

  1. Actually I would describe your progression of internet outrage as a discussion, albeit a massively public one: Event, cons, pros, cons again, pros again cons and pros altogether, hashtags. Should we give up debating societies because hooly dooly debating is formulaic? Why not just chuck in courts of law too? I humbly ( coz I quite like you, you know?) disagree about your evaluation of outcomes. Internet outrage causes riots, gets fucked up flags lowered from public institutions, gets Badass Bronnie some P plates, gets the U.S.A back in a landwar in the Middle East. etc… this is all different to say farmers in Vietnam or China who get shot whilst protesting some unfair Government decision… no internet, no internet outrage no change oftentimes.

    1. So, a symbol of an unforgivable past is lowered and no longer seen. But, the absence of this flag, along with the absence of other symbols of racism, is hidden, while the inequality against which so many fought is on the material rise. But it’s okay. Because we had our moment. One that demands not a real change or a material one but the hope that a hidden Confederate flag will somehow shine a light on inequality?
      I’m no fan of symbols of racism. But I imagine that if I were subject to racism, I’d be even a less of a fan of the structural manifestations of racism. And, like MLK, I might actually say, as he did in the Letter from Birmingham Jail, that I’d prefer to deal with the Klan than the well-meaning moderate whose “support” often extends to hiding evidence of racism and never actually changing it. And what MLK and other civil rights leaders achieved was not through recourse to debate of the kind I was talking about in this piece.
      As for the USA being in a landwar? I think many foreign policy analysts have it that at this point they should be, but really are not. And how did “debate” of the public sort prompt action, even it can be said to be occurring? My knowledge of theory on how the nation state acts is sketchy but I think it’s safe to say that state actors work in their own interest always. I think the Treaty of Westphalia has more impact on the US going to war than “debate”. Of course, liberal democracy loves the appearance of debate. It makes us believe that we are powerful and permits power to hide.
      I am not sure if you’re talking about Bronwyn Bishop. If you are and you’re suggesting that it was public outrage that has led to, what seems like today, no kind of censure from the PM at all, and not what has happened for decades in politics, I can only suppose you must be so young you can’t even remember Peter Slipper. It wasn’t public outrage that hauled that man through a trough of despair for some very mild infractions. It was the Coalition.
      I am not, at any point, saying that “debate” (if that’s what you choose to call the disinhibited bullshit that happens on social media) is wrong because it is formulaic. I am saying that it is wrong because people believe it can redeem them. And they believe it can produce a result. You don’t shift the terms of power just by “calling it out online”. IN fact, it assuming that you can, you allow power free passage.

  2. I’ve had my fair share of getting riled up about this and that.
    Eventually I realized that whatever I said didn’t change the opinions of those who disagreed. In other words it’s a waste of time. If anything the web provides a vent for people to engage in protest without physically changing anything, the perfect tool for those who don’t want change.

    Most people don’t read what others say anyhow, they’re only interested in what they say themselves.

    1. Bullshit. I am as much for reading the comments as for the articles written by a writer that has brought a perspective to the Australian narrative long overdue. Also it is about perspectives. And that is written from my perspective.
      Cheers

  3. I agree that social media outrage can be a tedious confection, Helen. But I was at the lunch where Tim Hunt made his remarks. Neither I nor the guy from Cambridge I was sitting beside took his comments to be a joke. They were totally inappropriate and, well, dumb. Hunt went on to make the same comments later at the conference and back home in the UK. Frankly, he earned the public censure he got, though not the abuse.

    1. I believe I agree and said so in the piece.
      Even if we agree that clumsy speech is a problem which will be routinely met with punishment, especially in elite and public professions, we do not necessarily agree that this moment is “instructive”.

  4. I had to skip semen reference. Glad for forensics(mix of law and science) when they find no sperm in semen~ some condition which starts with descriptor “a”(as in “not” or “no”) has “zoo” and ends in gawd knows when experts give a forensic analysis which means it is quite probable this bloke did this heinous crime because the odds against him being the only one are quite miniscule.
    Wondering ,meanwhile, how I know what happened to me, despite flavoursome amnesia(check out Judith Herman’s classic book on Trauma and Recovery) and even as explained by the likes of you Helen~ it still feels inexplicable for someone like me with a good memory.

  5. Let me save you the few bucks on the quack & just put it down to that ol’ chestnut ‘projection’.
    Sounds more like your lookin’ for the bad guy.
    Outrage is in the eye of the beholder.
    Take it from me a professional idiot ‘outrager’, I just like arguing a point. I enjoy vigorous discussion on current affairs. You know, just as Epicuras would have wanted. We are not all motivated by rage. Its intriguing & eye opening.
    Opening up the debate on sexism & racism opens minds that would never have deeply considered these issues or themselves as bigots. Its also a great barometer to public feeling as ugly as some of that is, we know where we stand.
    On the surface it may appear as nit picking the players & maybe for some it is, but it does quickly grow beyond the initial subject to the issue.
    Shutting down ideas you disagree with by hitting the ‘outrage’ button is no different from shutting down freedom of speech.
    Or is only the ‘Intelligentsia’ worthy of this?

    1. I appreciate that many people hold this view and hold it through reason.
      I would also say that in the period where we have enjoyed an apparently open society where “real issues” are spoken of and the individual opinion elevated, by means of television and then social media, we have also endured increased inequality.
      As one of my favourite books says, this is a time of “psychoanalysis in reverse”. We speak our way to not getting to the problem.
      I am not “shutting down debate”. How could I? I am simply pointing out that this excitable speech is chiefly of benefit to its participants.
      It feels like an important plot point to talk about the “truth”. It feels like catharsis. But for all this progress, the opposite of social progress is actually occurring. I believe this is made possible by the idea we folks of western liberal democracy have that we have true “freedom” in our speech when what we actually have is an obligation to speech.

      1. Totally. I hear you.
        Freedom of speech without boundaries is horrifying & I don’t do or believe in Twitter for debate as a result, only moderated publications. Sorry, I should have made that clear.
        But in Hunt’s case from what I witnessed (albeit in various controlled circumstances) the support for him was substantially in his favour (not that I thought it should be) despite the initial ‘twitterstorm’.
        Theres no doubt theres inequity through ‘outrage’ bullying but that does’nt negate the potential value in the exchange of ideas or prove this to be ineffectual in understanding real issues just because an overwhelming amount cant or wont learn….yet.
        In any case its here to stay & who knows it maybe the only remedy to a steady diet of the Daily Rupert & co which fuels much of it. Fight fire & BS with fire & reason or nothing?
        Maybe i’m just too naive to give up on the ‘human spirit’ yet.
        Thanks Helen, really appreciate your work.

        1. My claim is that this sense we have that our voices “matter” and that we are “changing minds”, despite great evidence to the contrary, is an anesthetic.
          Simply, we falsely believe in our own power. Meantime, power continues untrammelled and we are satisfied that our hashtag or our spirited real life debate has changed things. When it serves only to maintain them.
          You can say that I’m projecting but this topic, as someone who has made a living for more than 20 years by “speaking boldly”, concerns me. I know I have made no difference. I think it’s a dangerous delusion to believe that I have.
          And apart from and much more important than my own experience, I am just saying here what Adorno, Deleuze, Baudrillard, Zizek, Foucault and others say on the matter of “free speech”. Which is that it is an illusion of liberal democracy which serves and never changes the institutions that produced it.
          Sure, it feels good to have a rant. Sure, sometimes you might convince someone to think a little differently. But, then one? This “If I can change just one mind” stuff is hooey. Changing one mind or even many is pants. Changing the world is different. And to think that it changes because individuals think more morally is a very liberal delusion. Again, this is to believe that we have the power. And we really don’t.

  6. Excellent post Helen. Totally agree that energy invested into outrage over superficial occurrences tires us to the point we can’t ‘get activist’ over the real tragedies.

  7. Tim Hunt, Nobel prize winner, fighter of cancer, loses positions for defending women in science because a fraudulent so-called science journalist took a quote out of context to deliberately push an agenda. Connie St Louis needs to fired and Hunt re-instated.

    1. Thanks for respecting the spirit of this article and continuing to rage on with hot futility.
      You’re as bad as each other, Kids.

  8. Yes, it is a choice just to turn off and tune out.

    While in the past having had my fling posting to many a website, the same things just came up again repeatedly, and the same culprits went on the same attacks, blah blah blah.

    So I tuned out, don’t go there any more, and that was just one website, although my main web forum activity at the time.

    Life is a lot easier when you realise that just being there is feeding the trolls.

  9. You did seem to fall off the wagon there lady. Meditate, stat! (Though the world lacking an outraged Razor would be a poorer place).

    1. ??
      If you could tell me how I erred in analysis rather than simply pointing out the fact that I had, perhaps I could improve my ways?

      1. Not a thing wrong with your analysis. Simply that your therapeutically induced non-outrage appeared to have slipped a bit – as you pointed out, and all for the good so far as your loyal punters are concerned. As for “Razor” – sorry. Damn autocorrect.

          1. Ha! Well look. I’d love to. But I’m afraid it will be difficult as I agree with pretty much every damn thing you say woman. (Hence my reading of you to reinforce my own world-view blah blah echo echo).

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