Ending the Internet Outrage Cycle

Take a deep breath, everyone.

AP/Riverhead Books/Reuters

The Trevor Noah Twitter fiasco of 2015 may mark a cultural turning point: Outrage is out, and outrage about outrage is in. On Wednesday, comedian Patton Oswalt published a 53-tweet tirade that sarcastically apologized for a "problematic" punchline and warned Noah that in 2015, “Jokes should always entertain. EVERY SINGLE PERSON WHO HEARS THEM.” Another comic, Jim Norton, wrote a scathing post at Time, saying that "Americans have collectively become the most hypersensitive group of whining milksops ever assembled under one flag" and that Noah "forgot that in the new millennium, there is a seemingly endless checklist of subject matter that has been deemed inappropriate to address with humor."

Reading these guys, it would seem like you need a liberal-arts Ph.D. to figure out why Noah's straightforward mockery of Jews and "fat chicks" might make some people not-totally-thrilled about the future of The Daily Show. But the Noah defenders aren't really out to defend the jokes; they're out to lambast the iron grip of the same “political correctness” that Jonathan Chait recently railed against in a New York cover story. They'll love Jon Ronson’s highly entertaining new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which vividly warns about the power of angry mobs online but ultimately misdiagnoses what drives the modern cycles of indignation.

Most online outrage targets governments, big companies, and celebrities (even new ones, like Noah), with goals identical to old-school letter-writing, picketing, and boycotting campaigns: to bring about change. But Ronson tracked down a few private citizens who’ve been caught in the line of digital fire. There's Lindsey Stone, who led tour groups for the developmentally disabled before a picture of her flipping off the “Silence and Respect” sign at Arlington National Cemetery, staged as an inside joke, went viral among Tea Party types. There are the computer programmers who made an offhand crack about “dongles” while in the audience at a tech conference before a woman who overheard them tweeted out their photo and caused a firestorm. And there's IAD public-relations exec Justine Sacco, whose comment "Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!", originally sent to her 170 Twitter followers, enraged people all over the world.

Almost all of these individuals lost their jobs, took hits to their psyche, and generally had their lives ruined for a time. Ronson spends a lot of his book hop-scotching, free-association-style, between cultural phenomena connected with the word "shame"—prisons, therapy groups, porn shoots—but the most compelling thing he does is make you think about the humans who've been buried under Twitter avalanches. "Sometimes, things need to reach a brutal nadir before people see sense,” Ronson at one point tells Sacco, in an attempt at comfort. "Wow," she replies. "Of all the things I could have been in society’s collective consciousness, it never struck me that I’d end up a brutal nadir.”

Did she, and the other Internet-blasted folks, deserve what they got? Almost certainly not, but Ronson doesn’t want the question even considered. “Since my book came out, a few people said to me, ‘I’m gonna send this book to my children, so they’ll think twice next time they make some sort of joke that could be misconstrued,’” he told New York. “And I’m like, That’s not the behavior change that I’m advocating, because that’s like saying, ‘Don’t wear short skirts, girls.’ It’s like victim blaming.”

With the rape reference, and by opting to use the paradigm of victimhood and shame rather than of offenders and offended, Ronson places online speech in the same ugly cultural tradition that led to medieval stocks, The Scarlet Letter, and the mean-spirited media treatment of Monica Lewinsky. But unlike those phenomena, the modern outrage that Ronson, Oswalt, and others believe to be ruining the world isn't usually directed at consensual sex. It's directed at political and social transgressions; often, it results from insults leveled against some of the most commonly insulted groups of people in history. Critics of online backlashes seem to think pure bloodlust determines what's being contested—"we are addicted to the rush of being offended," Norton wrote—but the fact is that the Internet has empowered folks who were ignored or silenced by society for a long time.

There are pluses and minuses to giving everyone a voice. In real life, most people know to tread very lightly when talking politics in mixed company, but there's a mass delusion that the Internet is different—a place where words deserve less consideration, not more, than at a dinner party. ("Twitter felt like a Garden of Eden; a place where people can be honest about their flaws and secrets," Ronson has said.) Stone didn’t mean for the image of her disrespecting a national monument to be seen by many people, but is it any great surprise that what’s literally the most anti-patriotic symbolic gesture a person can make might get out onto the wider Internet once it’s on Facebook? Sacco tossed into the world a joke about racism that actually came off, to many, as racist; is the takeaway that people are too sensitive, or that it's a good idea to carefully consider matters before sending out a joke about AIDS in Africa, of all topics?

Most of the people Ronson writes about (with the big exception of the disgraced journalist Jonah Lehrer) should have been given the benefit of the doubt by the online masses; their biggest sin was naivety. But the thing that enables both the outrageous and the outraged is the Internet's glorification of pointless babble; the way social media and the "hot takes" ecosystem ensure off-handed remarks become permanent statements with an unlimited reach. Might the solution be for everyone to quiet down a bit? It's not that no one should ever say anything controversial, but that a little more conscientiousness might prevent people from accidentally doing so. Take Noah's contested jokes: They are, if nothing else, very stupid. The world didn't need to see them. Same goes for Sacco's tweet. And Stone's photo. And yes, the same goes for much of the backlash to all of the above—the tweets calling for firings and life-ruinings where a simple "why on Earth would you say that?" might have sufficed.

In any case, the attacks on online culture have become at least as histrionic and imprecise as the outrage they're targeting. “We’re just like the Stasi!” Ronson told New York in an interview, and by "we" he means modern society. “Until we came along, the Stasi were the biggest surveillance network in world history—you know, everybody spying on their neighbors to make sure they were doing the right thing. And now, of course, we look back on that as monstrous.” The comparison is nuts. East German secret police covertly prosecuted private conduct and monitored dissent against a brutal government. Internet users, for the most part, publicly engage with public statements—a feature of a pluralistic and open society. If anyone is policing anyone's speech, it should be each of us to ourselves, not out of fear but out of common courtesy.