By R.L. Stephens II
Jan 23, 2014
I’m exhausted. I can’t keep up with the latest social justice outrage.
In any given week, the internet will be in an uproar over the latest sensational headline. Ani DiFranco’s racism. Beyonce’s feminism. Duck Dynasty’s bigotry. It doesn’t stop.
We condemn or defend the person, and in about a week we move to the next controversy. Justine Sacco who?
Media outlets have got this viral internet craze thing down to a science, literally. It’s not really about creating quality content; the internet game is all about getting as many readers to view and share the story as possible.
In this context of shareability and hair-trigger publishing, outrage is one of the most reliable ways to draw attention to a story. In social justice circles, like many other places on the web, the outrage machine often operates at a fever pitch.
In a way, it makes sense that a lot of our political energy is wrapped up in these outbursts of outrage. Mainstream culture is very powerful, and how your identity/ideology is represented within it can have a tremendous impact on your political success.
Though cultural representation certainly matters, I can’t escape the feeling that we’re simply posturing, moving from outrage to outrage without ever building any committed practices to intervene and dismantle the systems that we claim to oppose. Outrage within social justice circles grabs attention, but is outrage enough?
Is The Outrage Machine Working?
I first began to question the social justice outrage machine during the Rick Ross fiasco in spring 2012. Rick Ross’ lyrics were certainly evangelizing for rape culture, and it was more than right to oppose his efforts.
Yet, the majority of the outrage essentially asked Reebok to discipline Rick Ross over rape culture, with almost no one noticing that rape culture is something that Reebok itself also perpetuates. Reebok uses sweatshop labor. Sweatshop labor is disproportionately made up of young women (and girls) who are often beaten and sexually assaulted on the job. Here is a video of women in Thailand standing up against Reebok’s exploitation:
By firing Rick Ross, Reebok got to appease 1st world activists while continuing to abuse 3rd world women. They came out as the “good guy”, a real PR coup. Something is deeply wrong with this picture, and I don’t think it’s just a failure of “intersectionality”. Oh well, within a week, we had already moved to the “accidental racist” controversy.
More recently, we have the Ani DiFranco drama. Yes, public outrage shut down her ridiculous retreat at a slave plantation. Yet Nottoway Plantation remains open, emerging from the PR wreckage largely unscathed. The plantation was even able to continue portraying itself as a benign educational site, despite the fact that it’s nothing more than a racist shrine to the “good old days”. For Nottoway Plantation, a successfully managed scandal is just free publicity.
I don’t want people to stop talking about these issues, they are important. However, are these discussions providing us with real analysis of oppression, or is it just shallow posturing? I’m not entirely sure.
Reacting Without A Purpose?
Outrage isn’t bad. Outrage is a weapon. When I went to Occupy Wall Street in September 2011, I was plenty outraged. For years, social justice organizers mobilized our outrage and channeled it into political movements. Yet, it seems that many social justice circles have traded mass movements for massive traffic.
Media outlets are manipulating our good intentions in order to boost their web traffic, and the aimless outrage has many social justice circles spinning their wheels and going nowhere. We can’t build transformative change that way.
Cultural critiques are important (I enjoy them), and I support people standing against injustice wherever they find it. However, a knee-jerk reaction is not the same as a thoughtful criticism, and outrage without understanding is futile. Don’t forget, “there are levels to this shit“.
I want to find ways to accurately describe and dismantle oppression, and that doesn’t happen if we’re constantly reacting to shenanigans. In my opinion, we’re looking for politics in the wrong places.
R.L. Stephens II - I'm a graduate of Carleton College, almost finished with law school, and a soon-to-be teacher. I like talking about race, culture, and radicalism.