In maybe one of the most uncomfortable NPR interviews since Joaquin Phoenix went on Fresh Air, the Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde spoke with Morning Edition’s David Greene on Tuesday about her book, Reckless. Or, more specifically, about the mass outrage sparked by the section in which she writes about being sexually assaulted at the age of 21 by a group of bikers, and of taking “full responsibility” for it.
GREENE: I’ll just read a little bit here: “The hairy horde looked at each other. It was their lucky day. ‘How bout yous come to our place for a party.’” And you ended up with them, and then you proceeded to describe what they were asking you to do. “‘Get your bleeping clothes off, shut the bleep up, hurry up, we got bleep to do, hit her in the back of the head so it don’t leave no marks.’” This certainly sounds like an awful, awful experience with these men.
HYNDE: Uh, yeah. I suppose, if that’s how you read it, then that, yeah. You know, I was having fun, because I was so stoned. I didn’t even care. That’s what I was talking about, I was talking about the drugs more than anything, and how f***** up we were. And how it impaired our judgment to the point where it just had gotten off the scale.
“I’m just gonna say it, Chrissie Hynde is a really tough interview,” Greene says early on. And in her conversation with him, Hynde is indeed difficult: She declines to expand on an anecdote about her love of The Rolling Stones from the book, stating that she doesn’t want to repeat what’s already out there, or feel like she’s at a reading. She’s brusque, even rude, in her manner. She’s also extremely defensive, particularly when pressed on her comments that women are sometimes to blame for being sexually assaulted, and the reaction that ensued.
“I’m not here as a spokesperson for anyone,” she tells Greene. “I’m just here telling my story. So the fact that I’ve been—you know, it’s almost like a lynch mob.”
No matter how Hynde seeks to qualify it, or declines to use the word “rape,” what happened to her at 21 was undoubtedly a traumatic and vicious assault—one that she’s possibly chosen to deal with for the past four decades by affording herself a degree of power and complicity in what happened. And there’s no denying that speaking publicly, as Hynde has done, about how women can be to blame for being sexually assaulted if they’re dressed provocatively is both wrongheaded and extraordinarily damaging to many victims of rape. But Hynde’s choice of words—comparing the outraged responses to her comments to a “lynch mob”—seems to demonstrate that she feels more victimized by the flood of comments and messages and thinkpieces and news hits responding to her story than she does by actually being assaulted in the first place.
Which raises the question: Is attacking Hynde for blaming herself (and yes, by association, blaming others) ultimately productive and worth the cost of revictimizing her? Or is the impulse to shame her and others like her sometimes more about self-gratification than advocacy?
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If 2014 was the “Year of Outrage,” as Slate posited, 2015 has been the year of witnessing how outrage manifests, and the consequences it can have on people’s lives in a matter of minutes. In March, the British journalist Jon Ronson published So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a book in which he interviews recent targets of popular opprobrium about the impact it had on them. In June, Rachel Dolezal resigned from her position as president of the Spokane NAACP after it emerged that she had lied about and disguised her race. In July, an American dentist, Walter Palmer, had to flee his home and practice after he was revealed to have shot and killed a protected lion in an African nature reserve. Last month, the BBC called the pharmaceutical CEO Martin Shkreli “the most hated man in America” after his company raised the price of a drug for AIDS patients by 5,000 percent.
Also in September, Hynde published Reckless, and gave an interview to The Sunday Times in which she said women who dress provocatively put themselves in more danger than those who dress and act modestly.
“If I’m walking around and I’m very modestly dressed and I’m keeping to myself and someone attacks me, then I’d say that’s his fault,” she said. “But if I’m being very lairy and putting it about and being provocative, then you are enticing someone who’s already unhinged—don’t do that. Come on! That’s just common sense ... I don’t think I’m saying anything controversial, am I?”
For many, she was. “Chrissie Hynde, the Pretenders’ Female Lead Singer, Just Blamed Rape on Its Survivors,” read a headline at Mic. On the outrage spectrum, Hynde’s comments fell somewhere between Dolezal/Palmer/Shkreli and the manifold micro-outrage storms that erupt on a daily basis—a Taylor Swift video shot in Africa featuring only white people, a reality star styling her hair in cornrows, anything Azealia Banks posts on Twitter. Still, they offer insight into how social-media users tend to respond to inflammatory opinions.
“Bile has been a part of the Internet as long as Al Gore has,” Teddy Wayne wrote in The New York Times in 2014 in an insightful piece about social-media outrage. “But the last few years have seen it crawl from under the shadowy bridges patrolled by anonymous trolls and emerge into the sunshine of social media, where people proudly trumpet their ethical outrage.”
Wayne cites a study conducted at Beihang University in 2013, which found that anger spreads more easily than any other emotion on social media, and considerably more rapidly than joy, the next most viral emotion. The study also mentions homophily, or the social phenomenon wherein groups of like-minded people band together, validating each other’s ideas and supporting each other’s reactions and feelings. On social media, this encourages ferocity and discourages nuance, particularly when thoughts are limited to 140 characters. “Twitter is basically a mutual approval machine,” Ronson said in a TED Talk in June. “We surround ourselves with people who feel the same way we do, and we approve each other, and that’s a really good feeling. And if somebody gets in the way, we screen them out. And do you know what that’s the opposite of? It’s the opposite of democracy.”
Outrage, in other words, enables people to tout their ethical impeccability to others while simultaneously being embraced into a vast and influential group. For such a negative emotion, it has a surprisingly warm and fuzzy effect—unless you’re the person on the receiving end.
In some cases, outrage can be productive. If reactions to a former hedge-fund manager gouging the most physically vulnerable people in society for corporate profit encourages more people to protest ridiculous prices on necessary drugs, that’s indisputably a positive. But the endorphin rush of expressing fury about something and seeing that opinion validated and shared by a significant number of others is presumably as addictive as any other high. After a certain point, as Ronson described, “it began to feel weird and empty when there wasn’t a powerful person who had misused their privilege.” And that means people like Hynde, who deserve sympathy as much as scrutiny, often suffer in the process.
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Forcing public figures to instinctively fear saying anything even remotely offensive doesn’t encourage argument, or intellectual rigor, or even honesty. Instead, it compels people to stick to bland soundbites and safe topics. But it also encourages the manipulation of outrage for publicity, for drama, and for financial gain. Presumably Hynde, a 64-year-old who clearly doesn’t manage her own Twitter and Facebook accounts, had no idea how provocative her comments would be. Generationally, she’s perhaps not as informed about sexual assault as many younger social-media users are. But it’s hard to imagine that her publisher didn’t take a guess, or that the wave of stories condemning her has had a negative effect on her book sales, even while it’s clearly traumatized her on a personal level.
None of this is to say that people shouldn’t be outraged about sexual assault, or about the incredibly misguided belief that women can be responsible for it happening to them. But the instinct to lash out at someone who’s honest about a terrible thing that happened to her, and to victimize her once again, ultimately says more about the people doing the shaming than it does the supposed perpetrator. Meanwhile, people are focusing on one part of Hynde’s book over everything else it contains. “The only reason I’m here and the only reason you’re talking to me is because I made some records, and I go on tour with a band,” Hynde told Greene.
But in the end, that wasn’t what they talked about. Instead, Greene focused primarily on the most provocative anecdote from her book (reading the section about the assault aloud), and challenged her on why she continues to insist that she wasn’t raped. The response on Twitter? A condemnation of Hynde for being so hostile.