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Obtuse abuse

Garlic knots and cellphone addicts are annoying indeed, but we’re getting upset about all the wrong things, writes David Cohen.

Ever wondered why young entrepreneurial types tend to spend more time reading publications such as this than they do these days on so much of our general news coverage?

The answer is as simple as crossing the room you’re in right now and opening the window. Go on. Now breathe it in. Do you recognise that heavy, oh-so-familiar scent wafting in from across the valley?

Of course you do. It’s Manufactured Outrage. Phony Indignation. Faux Affront. With a bit of ‘sparked fury’ for good measure. And that can only mean, surely, there’s a ‘Twitter storm’ on its way and controversy in the blogosphere and Facebook to shortly follow.

idealog david cohen outrage

Certainly, if a computer-search of some of the country’s major media archives were anything to go by, the news industry would be a much quieter business without it. In the past 12 months alone, according to a random search of one major publication’s online news archive, outrage cropped up in more than 500 news items. That’s up about double on the same period a decade ago – with as many mentions again for outrageous and a smaller but significant showing from outraged.

New Zealand personalities (a misleading term, it’s got to be said) show up in around roughly two-thirds of these reported controversies. Which is around 365 times during 2013. Interesting number, that. We have it on very good authority (Psalm 7:11) that God is angry at the wicked every day. Can the same be said about ordinary Kiwis?

The dictionary defines outrage as an act – and a response to an act – deemed to be grossly offensive to decency, morality or good taste. Are swathes of New Zealanders really clutching at their collective petticoats each new morning over the day’s latest outrage, squawking like constipated stoats and indignantly demanding that those responsible be brought to heel?

Or is it faintly possible that much of the outrage industry reveals less about the real world than a kind of elite hysteria?

One can’t help noticing a couple of things. First, these outrageous offenses always seem to be about race and/or sex, and never about some of the day-to-day stuff I really care about, like people who sign emails with initials or cellphone addicts or some of the really gruesome things (messianic loonies in the Middle East, child traffickers in Asia, narco- sadists in Mexico, etc) out there in this planet we call home.

Second, and even more curiously, the local news media here in Godzone generates almost as much of the outrage from within its own ranks as what it reports. Indeed, one of the very worst reoffenders on both counts is somebody called Paul Henry, the host of a pretty good new television news show and the author of a pretty bad book still in the best-seller lists titled … Outraged.

Read more: Our review of Paul Henry’s Outraged

Outraged is a pretty outrageous effort for all the wrong reasons. Henry bangs on and on about people who weigh too much or smoke cigarettes or sleep with members of the same sex. He could possibly benefit from slinging the odd shoe at his own reflection. The work brims with insecure diction and spurious dignity as the author belabors his prejudices, and his sentences bump and grind like mating cockroaches.

Not that I’m offended, mind, or demanding an apology.

Besides, I’ve just discovered a far superior book on the same theme, The Joy of Hate: How to Triumph Over Whiners in the Age of Phony Outrage, by American journalist Greg Gutfeld. Virtually all of the new-fangled outrage, Gutfeld decides, is about emotional gratification and emotional release: “As I have gotten older,” he writes by way of introduction, “I have come to realise how the things normally deemed offensive don’t bother me anymore. I’m speaking of sexual acts, explicit lyrics in music, garlic knots, staplers and tweed scarves.”

I’m with him on most of this (except the tweed scarves – how dare he?) and, especially, what he too identifies as the oh-so-liberal engine room of so much of this manufactured outrage: poor attempts at humour involving race or sex.

A recent ‘controversy’ here in New Zealand over a Facebook post by a local nightclub owner is the perfect example. According to news reports, Neill Andrews, a DJ who runs something called the Famous nightclub, declared that his establishment doesn’t welcome “groups of creepy Indian rapists” – not because the club is racist, he wrote, but because they “also don’t buy alcohol”. There followed the usual vats of moral outrage and demands for a tearful apology.

Don’t get me wrong. Neill Andrews – on this occasion, at least – behaved like an ass; indeed, if there’s ever been an expert on behaving like an ass, that’s me. But as far as profound outrage, here as elsewhere, I’m not much of a starter.

Racist remarks aren’t so much offensive; they are, as Gutfield points out, simply racist. Which is sort of helpful. You get to know who the racists are, and if you’re on the right side of the subject, you get to avoid them. What’s so outrageous about that?

Especially not in the same news cycle – as happened on this occasion – that also saw reports of alcohol-fuelled bashings and domestic violence at home, devastating weather conditions elsewhere and God knows how many new deaths in Syria.

In all these cases, not a squeak of reported outrage was to be heard – possibly, one supposes, because there aren’t any racist- sounding DJs in Damascus. Now isn’t that an outrage? 

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