I think we’ll all agree that 2014 was the year Outrage went viral. Everywhere you looked someone was getting angry about something. And it’s not that there weren’t things to get angry about. I won’t go into the sad sordid details of what was terrible about 2014 because you probably lived through it, and the moment I wrote ‘outrage’ your mind flashed to something that may have outraged you. Hell, in the time I started drafting this blog post to actually posting it people got outraged over the Oscar nominations, a female-male rape joke on Broad City and a bunch of other things.
In college I was friendly with a girl. Not romantically, just friendly. Saw her at various shows, saw her around campus. But she always had some cause she was fighting for. Always some injustice to right. And while we could converse about music, and movies, and life stuff she would inevitably steer the conversation around to what she wanted to talk about. Petitions were usually involved, as were invitations to marches and meetings and sit-ins. And while I agreed with her points, and the things she fought for and why she fought for them, it got to the point where I was starting to avoid her because I knew if we crossed paths, and grabbed coffee, soon she would be railing against whatever was outraging her that day. Because her perpetual outrage drove away someone who could have been an ally. It was exhausting to listen to, and probably exhausting to her as well.
Oh, and her outrage? It totally burnt her out. Last I heard she was doing … nothing in particular. Certainly not saving the world.
I *get* that people have things to be outraged about, especially the marginalized. But if all you have is outrage, people will start tuning you out, even if they want to support you, even if they agree with you. Because it’s exhausting for them to always hear your outrage. It’s inevitable – not because people don’t care, but because it’s exhausting hearing someone go on and on endlessly about the things that should make you care.
[Though I will make the somewhat controversial statement that much of the current outrage du jour movement is fueled by narcissism more than any quest for justice; that some people must be a part of the conversation and if that conversation isn’t what they want, will do everything in their power to steer it to territory where they can hold sway]
I call this Outrage fatigue. It’s a very real thing. A self-perpetuating Ouroboros of anger forever swallowing its own tail. It closes down the opportunity to discuss the reasons behind it, and eliminates any chance to change things for the better. I’ve seen innumerable instances where potential allies were turfed out of the cause for making the suggestion that there has to be a better way to solve these problems. I’ve heard people claim that if you’re not as outraged as they are about the cause then you’re on the side of the enemy. That your silence implies consent. Just when a turning point, an understanding could be reached, BOOM. Headshot. Brain matter everywhere.
Comedian Patton Oswalt said something to the effect that the best response to awful things is to not get outraged over them but to laugh at them. To rob them of their power. Naturally he was pilloried for this, because some people take a general observation as a personal attack because they have to remain part of the conversation even when it isn’t about them. But he was 100% right.
To me, the best response to outrage (and in fact a much better use of your energy) is to laugh at it. No matter the righteousness of the cause, no matter how entrenched your opponents are, once you laugh at them you shut them down. Because there’s no response to a good belly laugh. None.
Satire, and humor, can be a much more effective weapon than outrage ever will be. And it can accomplish much more than being angry about things. Because being angry burns you out quicker than anything. I’ve seen people drive themselves to the point of near breakdown because they’re just so tired of being so outraged all the time. They’ve become addicted to the endorphin rush righteous anger delivers. But like any addiction, that “hit” needs to be stronger every time you take it, and soon enough it destroys you. One drink needs to become three, needs to become a dozen. And soon you need that every day.
I’m not saying anger isn’t an appropriate response to bad shit in the world. But what I am saying is that anger has a tendency to drag you down to the level of the people and things you’re angry at. The internet is pretty much fueled by anger and outrage – Salon.com did an Outrage Calendar that detailed on a day-by-day basis what people were getting angry about. There wasn’t a single day that was blank. Every day was outrage. But looking deeper you see how much of that outrage lasted barely a day. Someone tweeted something others took offence at, the pitchforks and torches came out, apologies were made, accounts deleted, and the mob moved on to the next thing.
Quick quiz: what were we all outraged about this day a year ago? Without peeking at that Salon calendar. You can’t do it can you. Because in outrage you sweat everything; small stuff, large stuff, and soon enough you’ve become the Boy (or Girl) who cried I’M OUTRAGED, and everyone else has stopped listening.
To me the best way to bring people together is through laughter. To make someone understand a different POV, is through laughter. Through comedy, through satire – through art. And I speak from experience, as you’ll see with the inevitable anecdote.
Flashback 1990. I’m in High School, living in a small town in Easter Ontario. A small, conservative town in Easter Ontario. So not the most “progressive” of places. Largely white, Anglo-Saxon protestant. It was actually settled largely by United Empire Loyalists, fleeing the aftermath of the American Revolution. And it retains those roots to this day.
But it was, for the most part, a nice, safe place to grow up. Unless you were different. A visible minority. Or gay. Especially the latter. And the honest truth is as a teenager I was probably a little bit homophobic. Not out of any genuine malice, but because that was the environment I was growing up in. Not at home – my parents were and remain quite progressive, having grown up during the Civil Rights era. But in the 80s words like “fag” and “queer” and “homo” and “dyke” were insults. The worst acts I performed would have been using those words in a derisive manner.
The reason was because the world was smaller then, more a greenhouse than a garden. We had no internet, no social media. The next town over might as well have been a million miles away. And that was the environment I grew up in.
So what changed my attitudes? Television, and specifically this show:
And this actor:
Who most famously played this character
I detailed a couple years ago how Kids in the Hall was an important TV series in my life. I trekked all over Toronto one Saturday just to get my hands on a cassette tape from the band who performed the music for it. I taped every episode, and watched every episode multiple times. It was my generation’s Monty Python, and it changed my life in many ways. Particularly one sketch, which you can watch below.
Needless to say I was blown away. Because here was this actor, who made me laugh every week, basically coming out on nation-wide television.
And you know what? I was okay with it. Because it was my favorite show, because Scott was my favorite performer on that show. So yes, in 2014 speak it made me “check my privilege” not by throwing outrage everywhere, but making me laugh at myself and those attitudes I carried. And not two years later I was in university, at a downtown Toronto campus at the edge of the “Gay Village” of Church Street and College. I had classmates who were gay, the security guard at our residence was transgendered. And I was fine with all of it, because the Kids and Scott had opened my eyes to the world, to made me see it in a different light, and to laugh at the absurdity of judging someone because of their race, gender, and orientation. It made me laugh at myself.
Because what Scott taught me was that there was nothing about gay people that I should fear. Because that’s where prejudice comes from – fear. And outrage comes from an inability to control that fear and anger, to make it your weapon, rather than being consumed by it.