2010-2020: Living in the Age of Outrage

Within the tinderbox of Twitter, nothing burns so fierce and fast as outrage. For the past decade, we’ve been mesmerised by these spot fires of opprobrium yet, as we near the end of it, how many call-outs do we even remember?

Can you recall what Bert Newton said at last year’s Logies to get so many so riled? Do you know why Mia Freedman got cancelled? And how did you score the KAK v Yumi Stynes bout?

The debate raged on Studio 10 between Kerri-Anne Kennerley and panellist Yumi Stynes. Credit:Channel 10

How did we reach a point where a Eurovision Song contestant is accused of culturally appropriating a cat and a prom dress is declared racist? Where an ad for razor blades is seen as an assault against masculinity? What causes a left wing mob to turn on the lit queen of progressive causes, J.K. Rowling?

But first, a more fundamental question.

Have you ever stopped to think about the person at the bottom of the pile-on? We’re not talking about Harvey Weinstein or the dentist who shot Cecil the lion. We’re talking about the guy who makes a slightly off joke, the feminist who gets separated from the sisterherd, the writer who types across the eggshells of identity and unintentionally cracks a few.

American dentist and big-game hunter Walter Palmer poses with the corpse of a lion.Credit:Archive

Those who have been there can tell you it is a dark, cruel place. Only most of them won’t, because to revisit their public shaming is to invite another pile-on.

This is how it runs. First, the mob reacts to something you say or do. Second, you try to explain that wasn’t what you meant, which further inflames the mob, who accuse you of doubling down. They demand you apologise. When you do – as inevitably you must – they become angrier still at your admission of guilt.

They micropolice the wording and tone of your apology. They exhume evidence of grievance in other things you’ve said and done. They make stuff up. The advice from those who have survived an outrage attack is to curl in a ball, lie as still as possible and let them kick you. Anyone who steps in to defend you will also cop a beating. Anything you say will be used to beat you more.

It is not an assault that can be stopped by switching off your phone. It reaches into your real world and has flesh-and-blood consequences for your reputation, your family, your work and self-worth. Although the storm will soon pass, the scars can be lasting. A woman who copped the full wrath of a cyber mob says she considered killing herself just to make it stop. Then she realised; if she did they would accuse her of making it about herself and only hate her more.

Writer Catherine Deveny was one of the first people to lose her job because of a tweet. She was a columnist for The Age when, on the night of the 2010 Logies, she posted what she intended as a satirical comment about raunch culture in the television industry: “I do so hope Bindi Irwin gets laid.”

Irwin was 11 years old. Deveny was gone from The Age in two days. It was big enough news to get reported by the BBC. Deveny, a self-labelled atheist, feminist and socialist, says she is torn about the call-out movement or cancel culture, the Macquarie Dictionary’s world of 2019.

“On one hand I think it is really good we are calling out people like Louis CK,’’ she says. “I’m glad we are getting a more balanced picture of people who have had positions of power and have abused them. But within the call-out culture, women cop it more than men and when women cop it, they cop it bigger and it puts a bigger dent in their careers.’’

Melbourne writer Catherine Deveny was one of the first people anywhere in the world to lose her job over a tweet.Credit:Justin McManus

Mark Knight, a cartoonist who drew a caricature of Serena Williams which pitched him into the seething world of American race politics, says the most hurtful thing was seeing faces he knew in the cyber mob gathered against him.

“People who I’d worked with and known, people who I’d mixed with socially, were calling me a racist and a misogynist,’’ he says. “That’s where it seeped into my real world. Colleagues who I respected and considered friends were turning against me based on this online conflagration.”

Outrages real and confected are exploited by both sides of politics. Yassmin Abdel-Magied tweeted two years ago on Anzac Day: "Lest. We. Forget. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine…)". The furious response unleashed by conservative media figures and politicians dwarfed whatever genuine offence the comment caused. Deveny, a perennial critic of Anzac Day, was last year called in by Victoria Police after they noticed right-wing extremists they were monitoring started agitating against her. At the same time she was at police headquarters, four members of the extremist group paid a visit to her Melbourne home.

Within the left, there is an additional, internecine tendency within outrage which casts people out of their own tribe. University of Massachusetts' Trelawney Grenfell-Muir, a facilitator of large progressive Facebook groups, has witnessed this first hand. “I can assure you that the left loves to eat its own,” she wrote for the Feminism & Religion website. “No one is more eager than ‘good’ progressives to heap contempt on ‘bad progressives’.”

This makes online engagement in the outrage age particularly treacherous for feminists, as Dianna Anderson writes in her book Problematic: How Toxic Callout Culture Is Destroying Feminism.

“Some new piece of art, movie, or fashion trend will come out and everyone will love it for a few days, until that definitive piece of criticism makes us look at it in a different way,” Anderson writes. “Suddenly it’s not OK, it’s not right, and we can no longer enjoy that thing. And we secret away our defences and our ideas about things for a feminist backlash, for fear of being the ones who causes controversy or worse, is accused of being complicit in the homophobia, racism, sexism, or ableism displayed by the original piece of work.”

Today that piece of work is Harry Potter… or at least its author. J.K. Rowling is being hammered for tweeting support for a woman who lost her job at an anti-poverty think tank for ridiculing a push for transgender people to have the gender they identify with lawfully recognised as their sex.

Rowling was one of the celebrities who led the mob against Knight and his cartoon. Now she has taken his place on the bottom of the pile-on. In fewer than 280 characters she has gone from anti-racist champion to transphobe enabler.

Mia Freedman is another woman savaged by her own. Called out by fellow feminists for supposedly fat-shaming American writer Roxane Gay, Freedman’s sin was to publish podcast show notes, attached to an interview she’d done with Gay, informed by private conversations with the author's publicity team. These canvassed practical, daily life issues Gay deals with as a self-described fat woman and writes about in detail her memoir Hungry.

Mia Freedman, co-founder and creative director of Mamamia.Credit:Cybele Malinowski

Freedman's mistake was to tell a story which wasn’t hers to tell. Such subtleties were immediately lost the moment someone sent a screenshot of the show notes to Gay. From that point, all that mattered was Gay was outraged. The ensuing pile-on was Yassminesque. Freedman apologised and in the two years since, has not returned to Twitter or her once ubiquitous role as a TV social commentator.

Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a lecturer with the University of Melbourne’s School of Social and Political Science, has also felt the bite of call-out cannibalism. Her offence was to write a column suggesting comedians shouldn’t have to keep apologising for jokes they’d written long ago. “People construed that as me defending racists,” she says. “And that was people on my side of politics. That is why I think progressives will end up eating each other alive.”

The emergence of cancel culture neatly overlaps with the growth of Twitter and other social media platforms. Rosewarne says rather than blaming technology for amplifying the worst of human instincts, we should ask why, as a species, we ever thought we’d be able to play nicely with so many people at once. We’ve made the same misjudgment about social media that we did about the internet 25 years ago.

“A lot of the literature spoke about this techno-utopia, this idea that it is the great leveller, a world where it doesn’t matter what your gender is, your sexuality, your age, what you look like; we will all be participants in this great new cyber-agora,” she says. “Those same grand hopes happened again with the rise of Twitter.

“It is not the platforms making us angry. We are the ones who are bringing that anger to the table.”

Former US president Barack Obama recently spoke against absolutism in the outrage age, the furious rush to judgment without heed to ambiguity or context. “That is not activism, that is not change,” he told an audience of young activists. “If all you are doing is casting stones you are probably not going to get that far.”

Former US president Barack Obama says young activists should quickly get over the idea of being politically woke.Credit:AP

Within some feminist circles, there is a growing push for people to call-in rather than call-out, to hold to ideals without abandoning your humanity. Cerian Jenkins, writing last year in Diva Magazine, a European publication for lesbian and bisexual women, warned against “echo chamber outrage” and urged women to use means other than public shaming to change behaviour. “Let’s cut each other some slack and promote compassion along the way.”

Sue Cato says this can’t happen too soon. As a go-to crisis manager for prominent people in serious strife, she has counselled many clients whose worlds, both real and online, have collapsed beneath the weight of public outrage. “While there are some people who are energised at being at the centre of a pile-on, for most mortals, whether they be CEOs, stars or just people with a view, it is shattering to their very core,” she says.

Keziah Daum, an 18-year-old American high school student, sparked unlikely outrage by wearing a cheongsam dress to her prom.

“Many professional and civilian commentators believe that anyone who shares an opinion is fair game. Even more so if the person is perceived to be richer or more powerful or more prominent. The reality is that we are all flesh and blood and many people are quite honestly emotionally scarred from being on the receiving ends of one of these events.”

To borrow a line from Taylor Swift, can we just stop and calm down?

Keziah Daum would like to think so. She was the senior from Woods Cross High School, on the edge of Salt Lake City, who found a vintage, red and gold cheongsam dress to wear to her prom night. When she posted pictures of herself in the dress, she became the unlikely face of cultural appropriation.

Her succinct online reply provides a billboard quote for the outrage age: “To everyone causing so much negativity; I mean no disrespect to the Chinese culture. I’m simply showing my appreciation of their culture. I’m not deleting my post because I’ve done nothing but show my love for the culture. It’s a f–king dress. And it’s beautiful.”

Should this give us any hope that the next 10 years might be less angry than the decade we’ve just lived through? The mere thought seems outrageous.

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