Outrage, Inc.

I’d written an earlier post about a gay NBA player coming out, and realized the post could use some clarification as to why it’s such a big deal that a man is finally out in professional sports when women have been out for years, starting with Billy Jean King in 1981 in professional tennis.

That clarification would require me explaining not only why America considers basketball a more “significant” sport than tennis, but also that women’s sports leagues don’t get the same kind of respect that male sports get.  And as a result, a man coming out in the NBA is far more impactful on the culture at large than a woman coming out in professional tennis.  Doesn’t make it right, but doesn’t change the fact that it’s true.

I re-read the paragraph that I initially wrote, then deleted it.  At the time, there was no way I could write what I meant to say without risking it coming across wrong, and offending someone.  So I gave up all together, and decided it was better to have a post that ignored women completely, than to risk including women and offending them at the same time.

It’s part of a growing problem I’ve noticed for years, but have recently felt coming to a head.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult to comment about far too many things in the public sphere without offending someone and creating instant outrage, often unmerited.  As a result, you end up not wanting to write about the possibly-offending topics, which works to the detriment of the topics involved, unless the writer is a flaming bigot.

In the past few months I’ve been accused of supporting rape, terrorism, and hating trans people, bisexuals, women, immigrants, and Bradley Manning, which apparently encompasses a larger category of mom-and-apple-pie things that I’m sure I must hate or at least have no respect for (apparently I hate Manning because I asked a simple innocuous question in order to better understand what most angered his advocates).

I also was recently informed that I have a visceral, cruel hatred of animals, because I keep posting funny videos of people and their cats.  Apparently, I’ve had this hatred of animals, unbeknownst to me, for years.

Anger via Shutterstock

Anger via Shutterstock

The need to be outraged about everything, and usually for insufficient reason, I’m calling Outrage, Inc.  It’s the Change-dot-org-ification of advocacy, where with only 30 seconds of effort, you too can be mad as hell about anything, everything, and nothing.

I say this, ironically, as a lead gay and progressive activist who has never backed away from using “outrage,” when appropriate, as a means of effecting change.  But outrage must be measured to be effective.  Being a good and effective activist and advocate isn’t about always being angry.  It’s about being angry when it matters, when it can make a significant difference, and channeling your anger appropriately.  It’s also about getting it right, i.e., getting angry when anger is merited.

A few years ago, a friend, trying to describe what we do as progressive activists, penned a  name for us: “A**holes for Justice.”   I liked it, at the time.  But now, with the widespread availability of the Internet, and the rise of Outrage, Inc., I fear more than a few people are at risk of losing the last two words of our iconic appellation.

The thing is, I’d be less worried about this if it were just the crazies (though crazy isn’t nearly as compartmentalized in the age of the Internet, where even the nuttiest can create a firestorm if they know what they’re doing).  But it’s not. The charges come from people who should know better.  People who are aware of your track record, of who you are as a person, yet they’re more than happy to jump to the conclusion that you’re the next worst thing to Rush Limbaugh, all based on a single 140 character tweet.

I’ve watched big-name liberals, far bigger than me, read a single tweet from an ally and inform their multitude of readers to go view the “train wreck!” rather than bother to engage a progressive colleague in an actual, respectful, adult conversation, even if that colleague might just be wrong.  If you veer from the acceptable – even dare to ask the wrong question – you simply must be destroyed, regardless of how long and how many times you’ve done good before.

And that’s messed up.

As a gay rights, and progressive activist, I’m not here to destroy people.  I’m here to change things for the better.  And I do that best by channeling outrage wisely and justly.  With the Change-dot-orgification of outrage, and the speed with which “news” travels online, it’s sometimes feels as if people would rather be first at being mad, than right.

The reaction to that country singer a few weeks ago, Brad Paisley, was a good example.  Paisley was deemed by many to be an evil southern racist who simply had to be destroyed.  Well, no, he was  a country singer with a record of being good on race and progressive issues, who wanted to help move the discussion forward on race.  And he failed.  That doesn’t make him evil.  But the response he received from his attempt pretty much guarantees he won’t try again.  And for anyone who thinks unnecessarily losing the support of a powerful ally is a good thing, well, then you’re not very familiar with winning.

Or there’s the leader of the bisexual organization who recently told me to get sensitivity training because I made a pun with the word “bi” in a title, just as I’ve done with the word “gay.”  I was informed that my 20 years of defending bisexuals against the disbelief in their existence from far too many gays never even happened, and that I was to not write about them, ever again, until I had undertaken my deprogramming.

Fortunately, I’m not in this for money, or I’d have stayed a Republican and voted for Bush instead of Clinton back in 1992, and never looked back.  And I have a bit of a big mouth.  And believe in the value of ideas, and publicly discussing them, even when they challenge one’s presumptions and maybe even annoy.  So I haven’t stopped defending bisexuals, or women, or even trans people (apparently, I really hate them).

But boy it’s gotten a lot harder to write about their issues as there’s a constant sense of walking on eggshells.  And far from making me a better writer about those issues, the constant nagging and vilification (I was criticized once for using the term “trans folks,” who knows why) has actually stifled my writing and made me more likely to punt, as I did in the case of women in sports, if I find the topic too difficult to explain “safely.”

Outrage and anger are a useful, important, means to an end, but they’re not a way of life.  Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m sensing a growing anger on the left (and perhaps on the right too, though they’ve always been angry).  It’s getting worse, and it’s not healthy (or effective).  And when it’s starting to make us eat our own, and it is, it really needs to stop.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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