Way back in early 2009 the American journalist David Sirota wrote columns in the Huffington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle about the concept of ‘fake outrage’, where people feign public anger at a non-issue while privately being somewhat guilty themselves. So not only is the outrage fake, so is the issue.
Examples given by Sirota of incidents that caused fake outrage included President Obama (remember him?) being driven around in a limo, John McCain wearing expensive shoes, Michael Phelps smoking some weed at a private party (even though nearly half of Americans have allegedly smoked pot), and he also mentioned the following:
A nation of tabloid readers is apoplectic that Brad and Jen divorced, even though one out of every two American marriages ends the same way. A country fetishizing “family values” goes ballistic over the immorality of Paris Hilton’s sex tape…and then keeps spending billions on pornography. – David Sirota
Sirota went on to write about how there is a “Fake Outrage Machine that warps our political discourse and ultimately our public policy.” He also begins and ends the articles with the following:
Welcome to a nation now addicted to fake outrage — a nation that feeds on made-up controversies about total non-issues…Our addiction is to the same high that every pothead craves: the high of escapism. Nerves fried from orange terror warnings, Drudge Report sirens and disaster capitalism’s roller-coaster economics, our narcotic of choice is fake outrage – and it packs a punch. It gets us to turn on the television, tune in to the latest manufactured drama, and drop out of the real battle for the republic’s future. – David Sirota
And all this well before we entered the era of Trump! Now that we find ourselves well and truly living in this nail-biting era of the Donald, what of fake outrage now? What levels of crazy has it reached? Well, for one thing it has well and truly infiltrated the world of satire and comedy. As a result many people have commented on how satire may indeed be dying. Writing for the BBC Nicholas Barber asks if we have “lost our sense of humour” due to audiences being “so sensitive.” And here we have Emma Burnell lamenting about the failure of modern political satire:
Modern satire only really speaks to the audience it makes comfortable rather than challenging the establishment. Satire hasn’t had any real “effect” on political culture for decades…Laughing at the establishment not only doesn’t have the shock value it once had, it can actively empower those currently leading the world in an “anti-establishment” populism. – Emma Burnell
Stewart Lee, arguably Britain’s finest stand-up comedian, recently said something similar about the power hungry Tory politician Jacob Rees-Mogg, a man who is mocked by many but seems to take all insults in his stride. Lee poetically bemoans that:
Satire only makes Jacob Rees-Mogg stronger…You cannot hurt the feelings of the honourable member for the 18th century. He ingests our insults and owns them…You have nothing. Your arrows of satire are blunt before him and your broken spears sleep in your hands, clawed uselessly into the shape of decades of lunchtime pints…You cannot hurt his feelings. He admits to none. You may as well stand in an aquarium hurling insults at an eel or swear at a chutney. – Stewart Lee
This decline in the power of satire maybe due to audiences being more sensitive (hyper-sensitive?), more ideologically divided, and people being more cocooned in which ever echo chamber they have unwittingly climbed into. It may also be down to increased political correctness which, according to Jessica Brown, “is forcing more comics to delicately tip-toe around issues of race, class and sexuality…Audiences no longer pick up on the nuances of jokes.”
This loss of comedic nuance is something that other writers have also picked up on. Here’s Nicholas Barber again:
Nobody seems to be able to tell the difference between a racist joke and a liberal joke that comments on racism. The condemnation is harder and colder now, too. Someone whose joke lands badly is being treated with the same ferocity as a racist cop in Texas. They’re treated as if their secret evil has been uncovered, but some misjudged gag at a comedy club is not the clue to someone’s secret evil. Young people have decided it is, but it’s not. – Nicholas Barber
Adding to all this is the fact that we are all online now, making it easier to share your outrage. British comedian Gina Yashere, who now lives and works in the US but began her career in the UK, recently argued on BBC radio that there’s been a “big shift in everybody getting offended about everything”. She said social media has amplified how audiences respond when they hear something they don’t like. “Usually, when people were offended they walked out and told their friends and family and that was the end of it. Now, everybody has an opinion and everybody has to let everybody else know what this opinion is and something has to be done about it.”
This zero tolerance approach to anything you find disagreeable even in the slightest is why you have controversies surrounding the likes of Sarah Silverman, Saturday Night Live, and the British comedian Andrew Lawrence (there is a brilliant documentary about Lawrence by Sky TV called The Outcast Comic, well worth watching if you get the chance).
Go back a few decades and you realise that the over-enthusiastic Ben Elton failed to bring down “Mrs Thatch”, Rory Bremner failed to stop the Iraq war, and (let’s face it) all of the comedians alive today who are doing jokes about Trump, which is most of them, will not bring down his presidency. Not only that, Trump and the fog of madness (or the “haze of bullshit” as author Johann Hari puts it) that surrounds him has made it very difficult for comedians to put their best satirical foot forward, a point depressingly noted by some comedians:
The political situation has been so stupid now, for so long, it seems beyond satire. In print, and on stage, I reach for ever more desperate methods to mock it. – Stewart Lee, Jan 2018
2017 made it too easy to write satire for comedians. We are very creative people. We don’t like it when the news story can just be said and you think it’s a joke. So myself and all other comedians hope that 2018 will be a year where satire is harder to write. – Daliso Chaponda
What we have seen so far of 2018 suggests that Chaponda and others will continue to find it too easy, or too hard depending on their perspective, to write satire. Despite this difficulty we must keep comedy and satire alive, we must keep laughing, and surely the main reason as to why is given by Harry Shearer (who does many of the voices in The Simpsons):
Good satire is the greatest weapon against arseholes, and the world is full of arseholes. – Harry Shearer
Well said that man. And nodding in agreement with Shearer is the current godfather of American satire Bill Maher who recently said that:
In 2018 it’s more important than ever that we ALL KEEP LAUGHING! The nothing-is-funny-people are trying to take over the world and we can’t let them. – Bill Maher
I too am hoping that these people fail in their bid to take over the world. With that in mind, presented below in full is an article written in 2015 by the American comedian Jim Norton. Norton was writing about the fake outrage, or the “Manufactured Outrage” as he likes to call it, in response to a Twitter storm that erupted because of something or other that the South African comedian (and current host of The Daily Show) Trevor Noah had said. Details of the storm are not as important as the reaction, which clearly had a vitriolic effect on Norton, enough for him to seriously and hilariously put pen to paper. In the article he wrote he defends his fellow comedian from the backslash he faced, and he also discusses how certain parts of society are becoming more and more superficially enraged by satire. Anyways, enjoy!
Trevor Noah Isn’t The Problem. You Are.
Jim Norton, 01 Apr 2015, time.com
People say that Americans trends are transient, but the one activity we never seem to tire of is being outraged. Boy, do we love it! We simply can’t seem to get enough of that rush we feel when something offends us. It’s like the dopamine drip we get from that first drink or the first drag of a cigarette after getting off a cross-country flight. And what is our favorite thing to be outraged over? Well, it’s certainly nothing petty, like homelessness, or the fact that every single person we elect to public office is a manipulative, groveling, poll-obsessed liar. Nope. We’re not stupid enough to waste our energy on such nonsense. We save our collective outrage for the really important stuff, like things comedians say.
Which brings us, of course, to Trevor Noah, our guest star on this week’s edition of Manufactured Outrage. When Comedy Central named Trevor as Jon Stewart’s successor, our trusty, tireless brigade of social-justice warriors immediately went to work digging through his tweets and stand-up to find something, anything to be upset about. Much to their relief, Trevor didn’t disappoint. Being a working comedian, he’d made plenty of jokes over the years that a susceptible person could pick up, blow the dust off and aim at themselves to achieve martyrdom.
Trevor, while tweeting things with the intention of being funny, had gone…yes, you guessed it – over the line! (Click here for dramatic organ music.) In his rush to be funny, he had broken what has become the new golden rule in American public life, which is to never say anything (or, God forbid, joke about anything) that may be deemed even remotely offensive or upsetting by any segment of the population for any reason. Trevor forgot that in the new millennium, there is a seemingly endless checklist of subject matter that has been deemed inappropriate to address with humor. And by no means is that checklist final; it’s constantly changing and morphing and contradicting itself without warning.
He also neglected to take into account that Western culture as a whole has become an increasingly reactionary mob of self-centered narcissists who all have their own personal lines drawn in the sand. A comedian is fine unless he crosses their particular line, which, of course, in the mind of a self-centered narcissist, is the only line that matters.
Being outraged and upset and feeling bullied or offended are not only things we enjoy, they’re also things we have become thoroughly addicted to. When we can’t purposefully get our feelings hurt by a comedian, we usually find another, albeit less satisfying, source of indignation. A few of the old stand-byes are sports announcers, radio hosts, Twittering athletes and paparazzi-hating actors. These are always great sources to look to when we need to purposefully upset ourselves. And make no mistake about it: Upsetting ourselves on purpose is exactly what we are doing. At least that’s what I hope we are doing. Because the other alternative is that Americans have collectively become the most hypersensitive group of whining milksops ever assembled under one flag. I find this second choice to be particularly humiliating, so I opt for the first. I choose to believe that we are addicted to the rush of being offended, the idea of it, rather than believing we have become a nation of emasculated children whose only defense against an abyss of emotional agony is a trigger warning.
The image people have of comedians staring defiantly over a stationary line of good taste is simply inaccurate. We don’t approach this line, put our toes over it arrogantly and then scamper back to safety. The line doesn’t exist. The correct image for people to have is one of a circle, with a comedian standing in the middle of it, surrounded by a myriad of races, religions, social beliefs, sacred cows and political ideologies. And in these groups are endless numbers of sub groups and personal boundaries. There is simply no way to consistently do the type of comedy that addresses these things without upsetting somebody. No matter which direction you turn to aim the joke, someone is getting hit. And while the person who has been hit jumps up and down and exaggerates their injuries, everyone else in the circle is telling them to shut up and learn to take a joke. Until they themselves get hit.
Trevor Noah is a great, relevant young comic, and Comedy Central is smart to stand by him. I read the tweets he was “under fire” for, and some were funny, some weren’t. The thread that connected them all for me is the embarrassment I feel for anyone claiming to be offended by them. They weren’t vicious or written to be harmful. And everyone reading them knows that. But knowing his tweets weren’t intended to be harmful isn’t important when people who list ‘victim’ as their occupation smell blood in the water. Because their outrage is a lie and their motives are transparent. They are simply using his tweets to get their dopamine drip.