In a somewhat neglected quote from his much-shared interview with Frank Rich, Chris Rock nails an increasing problem:
I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative…. Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive. (bold mine)
This kind of cringing terror of giving offense is not just on college campuses. It plagues comedians everywhere, because everyone is now capable of recording, transmitting and taking out of context. Rock said:
It is scary, because the thing about comedians is that you’re the only ones who practice in front of a crowd. Prince doesn’t run a demo on the radio. But in stand-up, the demo gets out. There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy. It can get downright offensive. Before everyone had a recording device… you’d say something that went too far, and you’d go, “Oh, I went too far,” and you would just brush it off. But if you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.
What Rock is talking about in both cases is the extinction of context.
We used to have context, back when we had time to read things in full before getting upset about them. We no longer have that luxury.
2014, as Slate points out, was the year of outrage. We bounced from ire about Lena Dunham to ire about Uber to ire about nude photos and back again. Internet existence is powered by outrage. Indignation is a powerful force, as renewable as wind, and equally capable of leveling whatever is in its path. Hot air is never in limited supply.
The outrage economy goes hand in hand with the abolition of context. Context is so 1995. Now we’re in a 25/7 news cycle, and it’s physically impossible to read everything that everyone is talking about. So we do the next best thing: We get angry about the out-of-context excerpts that are brought to our attention until whoever made them apologizes, loses his job or is otherwise silenced.
It’s bad for comedy, it’s bad for speech and it’s bad for thought.
The outrage economy is like feasting with panthers, to borrow a phrase from Oscar Wilde. You’re always an inch or two away from the career-ending tweet. And in the meantime you feel that the constant indignation is fine and fair and justified, that the voices it silences and the opinions it eats are only the price of civilized conversation. The people who lose everything — well, they had it coming. You think that right up until it’s you.
And one of these days, it will be. Remember #CancelColbert?
Part of it’s our attention span. It’s grotesquely short. The other day I got berated by a goldfish for being too easily distracted. We bounce from excerpt to excerpt, taking it on good authority that we ought to be upset about the two-minute clip that we did see from a nine-hour interview that we didn’t. We are bothered by what we saw, and surely that is enough.
Look at the Lena Dunham book outrage. The book came out in September. Months later, someone read part of it and shared that excerpt in the most indignation-making way possible, and then, once it had been winnowed down into a consumable chunk, everyone grew an opinion about it and talked it to death.
It is one thing to conduct yourself in a way that strives not to give offense. That’s polite. It is another thing to expect never to be offended. That’s impossible.
Now we’re at the point where, as Rock says, you can’t even be offensive on the way to being inoffensive. We’re governed by the thinnest skins.
Look at what FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff calls “disinvitation season” on college campuses, the very phenomenon Rock referenced. It’s not just No to Ann Coulter. It’s No to Bill Maher. No to newsmakers like Condoleezza Rice, Christine Lagarde, Robert Birgeneau. Soon, Lukianoff predicts, “the only people they can safely invite to speak will be those who have nothing to say.”
“People all over the globe are coming to expect emotional and intellectual comfort as though it were a right,” Lukianoff writes. “This is precisely what you would expect when you train a generation to believe that they have a right not to be offended.”
The outrage machine is so wonderful and well-oiled and efficient that it is easy to feel that it is right. Many individual times, it feels right. He shouldn’t have said that. I don’t approve of her joke. But on net, the effect is silencing.
And it’s interesting to map our disapproval in the context of today’s outrage (well, possibly yesterday’s — the cycle moves so quickly) over the pulling of “The Interview” from theaters. That indignation was pointed in a different direction than usual. It’s one thing when we go silent in the face of a threat. That, we can tell, is wrong. That is censorship. That is our free speech being shuttered. That must not stand.
People often make the point that there’s free speech and then there’s paid speech, and while you have the right to the first, you don’t have the right to the second. You don’t have the right to a platform. But this can bleed out in dangerous ways. Instead of accepting the possibility that something might be briefly offensive on its way to being powerful, we cut down each tree before we can see what the forest might look like. Whether it’s by law or by tacit understanding, this kind of hair-trigger indignation (hey, less to read!) limits the range of things that get made and thought and experienced. It’s not just a question of “The Interview” not getting seen in theaters, or the Steve Carell-starring “Pyongyang” getting red-lighted. What about all the other things that we’re missing, that we’ll never even know about?
We can tell it’s wrong when the censorship comes down from an outside source — North Korea, say. It’s pretty generally agreed that pulling “The Interview” from theaters was a cowardly move by Sony. But when it’s something we do to ourselves, the impact is the same: silence. Less choice. Less freedom to make up your own mind about what bothers you. Safer, gooier things, like Chris Rock said.