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Offense: Seek and Ye Shall Find

Outrage Junkies


(VANCOUVER ISLAND) As we move toward the middle years of the 21st Century (I can’t believe I just wrote that in a non-fiction piece), more and more people are reacting against “political correctness”. The phrase first entered the lexicon in the 1980s and was used in an ironic way. It referred to the increasing inclination toward orthodoxy in avoiding offensiveness in speech and actions. If someone, for example, wrote an article in a mainstream publication criticising feminism, shouts of outrage would be heard from all quarters and those in support of the author’s views would wryly remark that the writer hadn’t been politically correct. The phrase was an implied criticism; it rebelled against a perceived rigidity of culturally approved norms of behaving, speaking, writing, and even thinking. To say that someone was being politically correct was to say that whatever the person was saying was not thought out, was not original, or was not honest; it was saying that only an adherence to orthodoxy was at work. And, equally, to accuse someone of political incorrectness was an implied compliment; it suggested that the person in question was more honest, was willing to speak Bill-Maher-Quotes-3courageously, and wasn’t intimidated by narrow minded opposition.

That ironic phrase, political correctness, was the battle cry of the intellectual renegade who wished to defy convention and speak from the heart; being politically incorrect, at that time, meant being unafraid of censure for going against society’s grain. That’s why Bill Maher used the phrase as the title of his first talk/comedy/political show. And as long as we’re speaking of irony, that show, entitled “Politically Incorrect” was cancelled for being just that.[1]

Political correctness came to mean any position held by someone who was being careful not to offend a group or individual. Political correctness was the recognition that words could hurt, that everyday language had the capacity for causing offense. As reasonable people strived to avoid offending, others began looking for the slightest deviation from PC and calling foul when they found it.

Predictably, political correctness came to be seen as a reflexive kowtowing to outrage junkies. This opened the door for truly hateful bigots and racists to preface their most virulent bigotry with the claim that they were not being cruelly offensive, they were simply refusing to be politically PC Santacorrect. By invoking the despised label of political correctness, crudely vicious demagogues like Ted Cruz and, most obviously, Donald Trump can pretend that expressing their vilest thoughts is heroic in its courageous refusal to be politically correct.

In just a few decades, the phrase has come full circle. When Donald Trump or any other fascist-leaning demagogue begins with the phrase, “I’m not going to be politically correct here…” we can be sure that something of stunning offensiveness is about to be said. Being politically incorrect has reverted to its earliest meaning, but this time without the irony. Being politically correct, insofar as it means couching our language and moderating our actions in such a way as to avoid giving offense, is now a good thing. Being politically incorrect has come to mean being a loathsome human being without consideration for others.

However, those who turned PC into a bad thing, from an ironic way of describing something essentially positive, are still out there and they never seem to rest. The outrage junkies are still lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce on anyone or anything that can be shown to cause offense. And the outrage junkies can find offense virtually anywhere.

I just had a pointless online discussion with a woman who had always seemed to me to be reasonably intelligent and rational. She posted a reaction to a news story that went something like this: A man was interviewed after having saved a drowning woman. When asked by the interviewer why he had risked his life to save a stranger, he had replied something to the effect that he realised that the stranger was someone’s mother, wife, or beloved and he couldn’t let her just die. Now my interlocutor was enraged by that man’s answer; she was offended, she said, by society’s inclination to value women only insofar as they are a wife, mother, or whatever, and not as individuals in their own right.

I had commented that I saw nothing wrong with what the man had said and pointed out that men who are killed are routinely referred to as husbands, fathers, and sons; usually characterised by their utility joseph heller quoteat providing for others. She and another woman who joined in insisted that the cases were completely different and that I was being “snarky” and told not to be such a “jerk”.

I put it out there…I don’t think I was wrong. At least I don’t think I was being a snarky jerk. I don’t even think I was being politically incorrect. But it does strike me that if someone finds that a man’s recognition that a woman in peril probably had a family and loved ones offensive, that person is looking for a reason to be offended. If a rather quotidian but heartwarming story of a life being saved by a stranger leaves you with outrage as the main takeaway, I would say that you’re an outrage junkie. And the existence and ubiquity of outrage junkies is the reason PC has become a justification for the most egregious hate speech. The fact that some people, claiming to speak for many others, can find offense in the most innocuous and well-meant comment gives people with hate in their hearts permission to stop even trying to avoid hurtful statements. And that’s where we are now.

If, while we castigate those who genuinely say hurtful things, whether it’s deliberate or simply tone deaf (Donald Trump and his taco on May 5 for example), we also seek to interpret their words in a charitable way, we ourselves will be less angry. When we spend our time and energy trying to find something about which we can claim outrage, we are sure to find it; we’ll look stupid and petty, we’ll justify people not worrying anymore about hurting feelings, and we’ll be a lot less happy than we could be. To be sure there are offensive things to decry, and they are everywhere and easy to find. But if we can’t really find one, instead of manufacturing one, why not be pleased that today was an offense-free day? That would be a good thing.

Bottom line? I’m sorry if this is politically incorrect, but lighten the fuck up.





[1] The show lost advertisers largely as a result of Mr. Maher’s having said that the 9/11 terrorists, having committed suicide along with their mass murders could not honestly be called “cowards” as president George W Bush had just done.



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