I think it was Tom Scocca’s Gawker post on Bill Cosby‘s history as a sexual predator that made me wonder if I even wanted to know about these types of things anymore, made me question if I had any more rage to summon, made me close the tab instead of scrolling through the comments. Or maybe it was when I saw that Stephen King had tweeted that Dylan Farrow’s open letter in the New York Times contains “an element of palpable bitchery,” leading a friend to ask, “Does this mean we have to start hating Stephen King?” Maybe that was when I doubted that I could work up enough outrage to write about the failings of yet another public figure. Maybe that was when I realized the Sisyphean quality of Internet outrage, and how—no matter how horrified and angry people get—there will always be something new and more terrible to get angry about tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. Whatever it was that brought me to the tipping point, I woke up this morning wondering, “Who will we hate today?” and then burrowed deeper under my covers, not wanting to think too hard about whether or not I’d soon find an answer to that question. Instead of feeling mad as hell and not wanting to take this anymore, I felt disgusted as hell and depressed about the futility of expressing anger about what would come next.
I’m not alone, of course, in lamenting the state of Internet discourse. It’s even a topic that I’ve
ranted written about before, lamenting the predictability of social media witch hunts during which some “idiot comes along saying some idiotic thing, and we obsess over it, ignoring anything more complicated and interesting going on in the world, because at least when things are this simple and reductive, we can feel good about ourselves…if only for the brief span of a news cycle.” Of course, there’s a world of difference between the type of Internet outrage that focuses on transgressions that—while reprehensible—are not necessarily worthy of the outrage that they generate, and that which focuses on the real problems that are representative of larger issues. Sure, Stephen King said a dumb thing (for which he later apologized). And maybe that means that some people might not want to read his books anymore, but it’s also a pretty good example of something that is too stupid, too base, too common to even get worked up over. Guess what? A 66-year-old wealthy white man made a sexist remark. It’s disappointing, yes, but not surprising, and yet the response to it—the flurry of think pieces, the twitter uproar—was not so different than the response to what King was initially commenting on, the alleged sexual abuse of a seven-year-old girl by her father.
Alexander Chee, in his excellent essay “I Did Not Sign On for the #Outrage,” writes that participating in social media has “started to feel like there was always a fight going on, no matter what it was about, and some of them seemed intractable—battles that kept coming back in different forms, usually the same person fighting the same kinds of people, over and over.” Chee began to feel “feed fatigue” and questioned the value of this constant, simmering anger, concluding that there is a purpose to it because “while it may feel dangerous that no one is above being taken down by Twitter, it also means that in its way, it is the one truly democratic institution left. It may be terrifying that it is the one place you have to be more careful than most, but that is also why, for now, it still matters.” On balance, then, it is better to take people like Stephen King to task, because while most of us wouldn’t want every stupid thing we’ve ever said to be examined by millions of people, this kind of intense evaluation and call to action might actually make things better in a larger sense—King did after all apologize, and will probably think carefully about why it was that his response to a young woman’s claims of sexual abuse made him call her a bitch. And, as Chee mentions, past Internet outrages have revolved around things like adding racial diversity to the cast of SNL (which ended in the hire of Sasheer Zamata) and questioning why a husband and wife team of editors would attack a woman with Stage 4 cancer (which resulted in a lengthy and illuminating dialogue, and responses from both of the media outlets that published the original editorials), leading many to believe that there is a point to Internet outrage, because it brings attention to injustice in a way that sometimes has an effect. It’s a case of using outrage to fix the outrageous, giving voice to those who were once voiceless, and it’s a very powerful tool.
There are, of course, limits to what Internet outrage can accomplish. Not long after Dylan Farrow’s open letter was published in the New York Times, Tyler Coates wrote that it “is a situation that is not well served by the kinds of debates that ensue on blogs and over social media” and that “the internet is a place for knee-jerk outrage, where social justice can quickly become vigilante justice for those who can comfortably hide behind Twitter avatars. It’s a place where everyone thinks they know best, even when they don’t know what happened at all.” Coates isn’t wrong, and it is important to acknowledge the ultimate futility of most bursts of Internet anger. Sure, SNL hired a black actress and Stephen King publicly apologized, but will anything ultimately happen to Allen? It’s unlikely. Purely from a legal standpoint, Allen is untouchable due to the statute of limitations on the initial (later dropped) charges. And even professionally, it is doubtful that many actors will refuse to work with him, and more doubtful still that it will impact his standing with critics or his box office returns (which, let’s face it, were never so impressive to begin with). And then there are all the other public figures accused of reprehensible things (like Cosby) who don’t even generate that much outrage in the first place. But so, do the inconsistency and futility of collective outrage mean that it is not a worthwhile endeavor, and that it is better to stay silent on these issues, as the public has stayed silent so often in the past?
Of course not. One of the reasons that Dylan Farrow’s story is so important to read is that too often the voices of the victims of all types of oppression are silenced. Historically, women, minorities, and members of the lower socio-economic class have not had a platform from which they could tell their stories. They have been dismissed and told to keep quiet. They have been told to maintain the kind of “peace” that has resulted in the perpetuation of institutions like segregation and gender-based wage disparity and dramatic income inequality. Survivors of abuse have long been shamed into keeping their experiences a secret, so as not to bring disgrace onto themselves, resulting in abusers being allowed to live freely, and abuse again. The Internet outrage that’s happening now, surrounding the Dylan Farrow editorial, is important for the simple reason that it is giving voice to the thousands and thousands of people who were always told that they didn’t have a voice, or that their voice didn’t matter and wouldn’t get heard. And if one of the results of all this anger is that groups of people who have traditionally been oppressed are able to have their voices heard, and realize that it is their right to speak out and attempt to affect change in the world beyond Twitter, then that is a worthy outcome, one which makes the question of “Who will we hate today?” a little more bearable. “Who will we hate today?” Whoever deserves it.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen