On the Exploitation of Outrage

Over the past few years, the following sequence has occurred often enough to have become a familiar pattern.

1) Professor X, a relatively obscure academic (as most academics are), shares an incendiary statement on social or broadcast media. While recognizable as a left position on racial justice, Palestinian rights or the Trump administration, it is conspicuous for implicitly or explicitly condoning violence. Furthermore, its tone is emotional, overheated and hectoring. Few regard it as highly effective as it is more likely to antagonize rather than convince those not already inclined to agree.

2) The right seizes on the most extreme interpretation of the statement, calling for X’s firing, sometimes being able to recruit elected officials in their support (particularly if X is at a public university). Whatever the subsequent outcome, it is mostly irrelevant as the main purpose is to fan the flames of right wing vitriol. The story is invariably entered into wide circulation at Breitbart, Fox and talk radio, likely (though this can’t proven) advancing both the right agenda and the range and intensity of its influence .

3) The left responds (reasonably) by strongly defending X’s first amendment rights. Letters are circulated with hundreds of signatures, including from those who have serious reservations about the original statement. For so-called free speech absolutists, the content of the statement is irrelevant as the right to free expression should always be defended. These and other statements of support are widely reported on left wing media such as Democracy Now, the Real News, Jacobin, etc. X is a frequent guest on these and other outlets.

4) As a result of 3), X is no longer obscure, rather the opposite: having made the rounds of left wing media X is now a bona fide left celebrity, a status which is maintained after the commotion resulting from 1) has subsided. They go on to become go to sources for a left perspective on their own areas of expertise, race relations, Middle East politics or Central American liberation movements and sometimes even outside of these.

As should be obvious, 4) should be a matter of some concern. That’s because those who should be speaking for us are those who can be counted on not only to represent a left consensus viewpoint but to do so effectively. The paradox here is that they are being promoted to this status is for exactly the opposite reason: Having put the left on the defensive and provided the right with an issue to exploit for their own advantage is an indiction not of successfully communicating our message but of failing to do so.

At this point, it might seem required to mention some of the values for X applicable to the above but I’m not going to. More useful is to note that the most skilled rhetoricians on the left are aware of the potential for their words or actions to function as weapons in the hands of the right.  One of these was Malcolm X who understood the neccessity to “be peaceful, be courteous . . . and  respect everyone.” If we do, the right will be able to fan the flames of hatred only by lying shamelessly and transparently.   Ultimately, their smears will backfire as their base recognizes them for what they are. The tenuous unity of their alliance will begin to fracture, as was apparent when the right turned its guns against Bernie Sanders.

Conversely, by capitulating to the understandable tendency to lash out against those we perceive to be our enemies only makes the job of the right much easier.

Those who have not learned this lesson should not be speaking for us.

(1) Thanks to Will Shetterly for reminding me of the relevance of this remark.

One thought on “On the Exploitation of Outrage”

  1. I love that quote for several reasons. I’ve seen it abused by people who think the full version changes it, so here’s the full version and why the whole is consistent.

    “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.” – Malcolm X

    “Obey the law” does not mean submit to authority. King believed in nonviolence and Malcolm believed in self-defense, but they had more in common than not, including a preference for legal protest. Thinking in terms of tactics alone, a speaker is more effective in public than in prison.

    Because Malcolm believed in self-defense, his “if” is essential: Has someone laid hands on you? If not, stay peaceful and respectful. That does not preclude disagreement, as proved by every speech and interview he made.

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