Friday 17 June 2016

What is ... synthetic outrage?

Outrage is a very useful tool for politicians and journalists alike because it can be used to sell political ideologies as well as newspapers. Some things are genuinely outrageous, and deserving of media condemnation and decisive political action, but often it suits the purposes of vested interests to manufacture a load of synthetic outrage in order to further their own objectives.

In this article I'm going to use various examples to show how the tactic of using fake outrage to sell political ideologies or newspapers is not a specifically left-wing or right-wing thing, but a tactic that transcends the political spectrum. I'm also going to consider how displays of synthetic outrage seem to be becoming ever more common as the standard of political debate in the UK continues it's lamentable and seemingly inexorable decline into the gutter.

Political correctness

Political correctness and manufactured outrage are clearly not the same thing, but there are links. The hard-right love to decry political correctness as some kind of leftist-liberal conspiracy to deny people freedom of speech, but they're simply wrong. 

Of course a lot of right-wingers would like to return to the past when it was considered perfectly acceptable to hurl racist, sexist and homophobic abuse around and do stuff like spit in the prams of mixed race babies and throw bananas at black footballers, but times have moved on. Whether they like it or not there is now a general consensus in the UK that kind of shit is completely unacceptable. Whether they like it or not, in modern Britain it's not OK to hurl insults, physically attack, abuse or discriminate against people based purely on their ethnicity, sex or sexual orientation.

This change in attitudes doesn't mean that hard-right people are banned from using disgusting language to denigrate people, it just means that the majority of people will recognise them as the nasty narrow-minded bigots that they are if they start ranting on about "niggers", "wogs", "spics", "pakis", "bitches" or "queers".

I think most people would agree that given the history of abuse and discrimination that used to be tolerated in this country, political correctness has a place and a purpose. However there are some who have taken it way too far, and resort to displays of synthetic outrage at the slightest provocation.

If someone has clearly demonstrated that they're a tiny-minded bigot, then it's fair to dismiss them as such because arguing with idiots is a waste of time, but if someone has simply mis-spoken, used archaic terminology or demonstrated that they might have underlying prejudices, it's an appalling and self-defeating idea to shout them down as a bigot, racist, homophobe or whatever. 

It's often the case that people don't even realise that what they're saying could be construed as being offensive or discriminatory, so it's best to try to reason with them first rather than snap immediately into hot-headed condemnation. 

A likely reaction of someone who doesn't think of themselves as being a bigot to a polite explanation of how their use of language could be considered offensive could be a change in their use of language. Their reaction to being immediately shouted down as a bigot is highly likely to be self-defensive, which could easily manifest as an reaction against all forms of political correctness due only to being hit with displays of unjustifiable synthetic outrage when they didn't even understand the problem with the language they were using.

Right-wing political correctness

Considering that the backlash against political correctness is a touchstone issue for so many right-wing people, displays of political correctness from right-wingers are drenched in hypocrisy.

One of the most appalling examples was the sudden conversion of millions of die-hard Tories to political correctness after the death of Margaret Thatcher. We all saw right-wingers suddenly switch from decrying political correctness as a toxic ideology of the left to sanctimoniously lecturing anyone who dared utter the slightest criticism of Thatcher or her appalling political legacy as being guilty of disrespecting the dead.

In the wake of Thatcher's death, it really didn't matter how carefully worded the criticism, right-wing people immediately snapped into synthetic outrage mode, decrying anyone who presented an evidence based critique of her political legacy with the same vitriol as they spewed at the "ding dong the witch is dead" people.

Just a month before Thatcher died, the left-wing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez died of cancer triggering a huge outpouring of delighted gloating from right-wingers. The death of the RMT trade unionist Bob Crow a couple of years later also triggered a similar wave of gloating, insult laden diatribes from delirious right-wingers. It seems that this "must respect the dead" element of right-wing political correctness only applies to dead people with right-wing ideological views. 

The hypocrisy of right-wingers describing socially liberal political correctness (which has the purpose of protecting living people from insults, attacks and discrimination) as an attack on their free speech, whilst using displays of synthetic outrage to make others conform to their special brand of right-wing political correctness (that criticising recently deceased people is completely unacceptable if they happen to have had right-wing views) is a clear demonstration that an awful lot of right-wing people are completely immune to cognitive dissonance.

A fake storm of misogyny

It doesn't take a great deal of nous to recognise that the BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg is severely biased against the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Eventually, after another particularly egregious display of political bias, someone set up a 38 Degrees petition against Kuenssberg's biased reporting. 

This petition was obviously uncomfortable for the 38 Degrees team for some reason, so they had to invent a reason to delete it. The story they eventually concocted was that the petition had been hijacked by a bunch of misogynists, which gave Tory politicians including David Cameron and the disgraced death threat inventing liar Lucy Allan a perfect platform to air their synthetic outrage about this fictional hoard of misogynistic lefties attacking a journalist just because she's female.

The spectacle of right-wing MPs (one of whom has been guilty of using deeply patronising and sexist language in the past) lining up to attack the left as sexists was almost too much to stomach. Anyone with the vaguest semblance of political literacy understands that the left stood up against the sexism and bigotry of the right-wing political establishment, so to see right-wingers gloating and posturing with coordinated displays of synthetic outrage was utterly nauseating.

The big problem with these Tory displays of synthetic outrage was that the 38 Degrees team completely invented this tide of sexist abuse, meaning that these displays were not only manufactured for political convenience, but also based on nothing but a pack of lies.

I've been a big supporter of 38 Degrees work over the years, but I was appalled that they decided to lie about the behaviour of their own supporters and hand a load of free ammunition to the Tories to launch a sustained synthetic outrage attack the liberal left, but I'm even more appalled by their bone-headed refusal to apologise for what they had done.

Tabloid outrage merchants

Frankie Boyle explained the way that the mainstream press use synthetic outrage in a brilliant blog post about offence and free speech. The whole thing is wort a read, but here's the relevant extract:
"No tabloid journo - whose life is invariably a shattered kaleidoscope of prostitutes, gambling, cocaine, self-loathing, literally going through a strangers bins, erectile disfunction and cocaine - is genuinely offended when some students dress up as the Twin Towers for Halloween. Outrage just makes good copy. It's easier to write, and simpler to understand. A tabloid hack knows that their average reader can barely read and they're not going to try to communicate anything like ennui in the vocabulary of a ten year old."
The right-wing tabloid press love to use synthetic outrage to sell copy because they know that it's easy to write and simple to understand, which is essential given that their whole purpose is to cultivate large audiences of simple-minded people to uncritically absorb their hard-right political propaganda and then repeat it as if it's their own brilliant insight, rather than just some drivel they rote learned from the S*n, Star, Mail, Express, Telegraph, Evening Standard or Metro.

Guardian above-the-line trolling

The Guardian has been on a slow rightwards trajectory for over two decades, but in recent years they've given up almost all pretense at being a left-liberal publication and veered sharply towards actively promoting pro-austerity hard-right economics in their editorial stance. 

Despite this ever faster sprint towards hard-right economic orthodoxy in their news coverage, there's still stuff worth reading in the opinion section (especially contributions from the likes of Frankie Boyle, Stewart Lee, Harry Leslie Smith, Robert Skidelsky, Ha-Joon Chang, Owen Jones ...). Unfortunately, in order to find the good stuff you have to wade through some utterly appalling drivel that I have begun to think of as reverse-psychology clickbait, which consists of synthetic outrage articles written in the most intensely patronising and alienating language. 

In my view the Guardian editorial team have either lost the plot completely by deciding to post so many articles consisting of little more than synthetic outrage drivel, or, more likely, they're playing a cynical game of publishing the most infuriating articles possible in the hope of attracting a load of clicks, comments and advertising revenue as people wade in to criticise the woeful pap they've been presented with.

Either the Guardian have lost the plot completely in allowing the likes of Jessica Valenti to call for Orwellian style cleansing of the language and claim that "all the worst words used to insult men are distinctly female" (erm ... cock, prick, wanker, creep, perv, dick head ...) or they're playing a very cynical game of attracting clicks by deliberately winding people up with contrived synthetic outrage articles and then watching the advertising revenue flow in.

David Cameron's lies

One of the most glaring displays of synthetic outrage I've ever seen came from the Brexiter Tory MP Nadine Dorries, who decided to attack David Cameron as a liar for daring to suggest that Turkey are a very long way from being able to join the EU, (even if their membership application isn't vetoed by the French). She worked herself up into such a fit of manufactured outrage that she even ended up calling for Cameron to resign over the issue.

The bizarre thing about it is that she has repeatedly bitten her lip and said nothing when David Cameron told lies about not planning to increase VAT, about not wanting to cut, privatise or top-down reorganise the NHS, about the national debt (the exact same lie twice), about the UK economy having been "bankrupted", about the leader of the opposition, about having no plans to slash working tax credits ...

It's extraordinary that Dorries could calmly say nothing for all those years as she watched Cameron lie, and lie, and lie, and lie, and lie again - but as soon as he says something that conflicts with her anti-EU sentiments, she ends up shrieking and wailing about it, even though Cameron's claims about Turkey were a case of over-egging the pudding at worst in comparison to his track record of telling outright porkies.

Moral high-horsing

Perhaps the most disgusting displays of synthetic outrage I've ever experienced came after I posted a heartfelt tribute to the humanitarian work of the murdered Labour MP Jo Cox.

Most of the people who commented left condolences and tributes, but a vocal minority set about moral high-horsing as if posting a tribute to the political work of a murdered MP is somehow completely unacceptable.

To pretend that there was no political aspect to the killing, or that it's somehow morally wrong to even consider the political aspects is a bizarre strategy that is strongly suggestive of extreme-right sympathies (because any political analysis is certain to conclude that the killer was a mentally unwell person with a head full of violent, extreme-right, white supremacist politics). 

Had eyewitnesses said that the killer was shouting "Allahu Akbar" rather than "Britain First" and initial investigations found that he had links to radical Islamist groups rather than neo-Nazi groups, does anyone seriously believe that there would be so much of this sanctimonious moral high-horsing and demanding that people don't consider the political dimensions of the killing?

Some of these moral high-horsers tried to claim that it was somehow disrespectful to her family to use a quote from one of her own parliamentary speeches to "promote an agenda" (her own agenda) and even called for the Another Angry Voice Facebook page to be shut down. 

I will not apologise for trying to ensure that Jo Cox's voice was heard louder on the day of her death than it ever was when she was alive and fighting for the welfare of Syrian refugees and their children. Remember what her her husband Brendan said about what Jo would have wanted: He said that she would have wanted people to unite against hatred. In the current political climate, where hatred of refugees is so commonplace, I'm sure that posting a quote of her expressing her concern for the welfare of Syrian refugees is respectful to his wishes.

Some of these moral high-horsers even used phrases like "her body isn't even cold yet" as an attempt to silence me, and other who were expressing their views.

It's completely twisted to imagine that a tribute consisting of a quotation of his wife saying something that she cared deeply about would be more offensive to Brendan Cox than someone harking on about the residual heat of her corpse in order to stoke up synthetic outrage and silence other people from talking about her or the circumstances of her death. It just goes to show how warped people's perspectives to become when they allow themselves to get worked up into fits of synthetic outrage.


Synthetic outrage has always been a thing, but the declining standards of political debate, and the fact that the Internet gives pretty much anyone a platform to air their views, mean that it's becoming ever more prevalent in political discourse.

Sometimes displays of synthetic outrage are simply annoying or hypocritical, but when people begin manufacturing outrage in order to disparage and silence people with whom they disagree, it's much more dangerous. It's perfectly possible to use synthetic outrage to sell newspapers, generate online advertising revenue or promote particular political agendas, but when people start using it as a tool to silence others it stops being just a crude propaganda tool and becomes a weapon of oppression.

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