Experienced journalist Stan Grant recently described how the spectre of identity politics haunts our world, causing us to cling to our own and reject those deemed to be “outsiders”. Such tribalism has been a key element in the rise of the alt-right, the growing toxicity of social media, and most notably, the era of the outrage brigade.
Today, the bar for offence has dramatically lowered. It seems now that every week, there is a new outrage around some classic culture war flash point, be it race, gender, sexuality, or religion. The media is, at the very least, partially responsible, as clickbait is an increasingly important aspect of their ever-decreasing revenue stream.
This strategy makes complete sense.
Why write a well-researched, complex article that appeals to the small group of people who align with your editorial slant,when you can instead write a few hundred words of sensationalist and divisive trash and receive a promotion and a nice big bonus cheque.
The largest culprits in this area are the holy trinity of pseudo-leftist corporate rags: Vice, Junkee and Buzzfeed and alt-right fake news sites like Breitbart.
The situation is exacerbated further as the media increasingly consolidates into large institutions, dramatically reducing the diversity of opinions. In combination with the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle, it seems the situation is only going to deteriorate.
It’s a simple equation. Fewer journos are needing to produce more content in less time. Media outlets are increasingly reliant on cheap freelancers, whilst experienced veteran reporters are laid off. For consumers, that means more trash, and more articles designed only to generate clicks.
One of the most damaging examples of how problematic this era of outrage and media transition has become is the case of Margaret Court. In the middle of last year, Mrs Court told a Christian radio station that transgender children were the work of the devil and drew comparisons between the gay community and Hitler. Such comments objectively caused real and tangible harm to the LGBTQIAP+ community and are unacceptable for that reason. However, almost immediately, the media’s focus shifted to discussions of the cultural divide, and whether we should rename Margaret Court Arena. This inevitably led to the much-recycled conversations about freedom of speech and political correctness. The real issue, that the statements had materially harmed hundreds of thousands of people was quickly dismissed. Most unfortunately, such hollow conversations are intrinsically unable to cause any tangible change and move society forward.
Not so long ago, the liberal West held firm to the principle that censorship should only occur when speech provoked violence or material harm. This was the realisation of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle, that stated: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilisedcommunity…is to prevent harm to others.”Mill defined harm as an action that is damaging and antithetical to the interests of people, in contrast to the ephemeral and inconsequential notion of offence. Intrinsic to this notion is that silencing an opinion robs society. Firstly, a censored opinion may be correct, depriving society of the truth. Secondly, if a censored opinion is incorrect, it would prevent correct opinions from becoming dogma, as there was no opportunity for the person to be corrected. Put simply, free speech has an inherent value because it brings us closer to the truth, and curtailment should only occur if said speech infringes upon the harm principle. Nonetheless, it seems these values have long since departed, and in their stead, the vague metric of ‘offence’ determines censorship.
But who decides what is offensive?
Is it the government, where far-right demagogues like Peter Dutton can take offence to the reporting of horrific human rights abuses in Nauru? Is it businesses like Adani, who object to people revealing the potential environmental destruction and catastrophic consequences of their project for the Great Barrier Reef? Is it the media, like mogul Rupert Murdoch, who opposes to the new era of technological disruption? Without a material harm requirement, is it not a double standard to argue that one type of offence is justified, and another is not?
More broadly, the consequence of this culture is the downfall of healthy democratic debate. There is a straight forward reason for this – that people don’t like being called a bigot. You can see this occurring in the growth of extremist and fringe political groups across Facebook. As progressives deride and exile conservatives from mainstream discourse, conservatives seek a place where they still feel welcome to share their views. They find others experiencing a similar social exile, and before long, you have a breeding ground for political extremism. When people are only exposed to people with the same views, their values become even more entrenched, and the problem deepens further.
Eventually, we find ourselves where we are today, with hate crimes once again on the rise.
Democracy has never been perfect. I’m certainly not trying to say it could be. Today we face new kinds of existential threats, be they climate change, terrorism, or irregular migration patterns that are rammed into our consciousness daily. We lack a historical lens through which we can view them from, and are left with confusion, discord and an information overload. In combination with changing geopolitics, international uncertainty and most critically, growing socioeconomic inequality, it is no surprise that people are looking for alternatives, as neo-liberalism has consistently failed them. We need to look no further than the growth of the National Front in France, or Syriza in Greece, to see that politics in the West is more polarised than ever. Against this backdrop, it is not a tremendous logical hurdle to say that the culture of offence is only exacerbating these divides. The alternative is simple. Rather than labels, outcries and ostracism, invite people of different views into our political discussions.
Let us not look back and say division was the defining part of our generation.
Conor Friedersdorf recently argued how the rhetoric on the left fuels bigotry on the right, which I feel summarises my point perfectly. Labels are a great way to show you’ve lost an argument, and it seems the most-favoured ad hominem sub-genre today is reductio ad alt-rightium. Progressives too often fail to distinguish someone like Michaelia Cash, a moderate Liberal, from hard-line conservatives like Ian Good enough. As Bari Weiss stated, “When conservatives, classical liberals or libertarians are told by the progressive(s)..that they—or those they read—are alt-right, the very common response is to say: ‘Screw it. They think everyone is alt-right.’ Andthen those people move further right.”
Don’t believe me? We as progressives have argued the notion for years.
Since the turn of the millennium, progressives have harked on about the counterproductive of labelling extremist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda as “Muslim” or “Islamic” because we know, despite their allegedbeliefs, that the actions of these groups in no way represent the Islamic faith or the Islamic community. Most pointedly, to label the groups as such only serves to ostracise moderate Muslims and cause further division in our society.
So why do we use catch-all terms for the right? Claire Lehmann perhaps puts it most perfectly. “If you insult people they become defensive & are more likely to listen to people who don’t insult them. How is this complex?”
It is a truth universally acknowledged that conservative commentators will take any opportunity to criticise the left for their infatuation with offence. This has gone on for years, but it certainly seems to have intensified with the rise of the alt-right and their favourite insult: ‘precious little snowflakes’.
What the right consistently fails to recognise is this is not a trait unique to progressives.
For instance, go to an article in The Guardian. The top comment is, almost always, a lefty offended by how conservatives did [x]. Identically, go to an article in the Herald Sun, and the top comment is almost always from a conservative baby-boomer, offended by how progressives did [y]. This boomer’s profile generally contains a combination of links to Aldi vouchers of questionable authenticity, “back in my day” chain-essays, and well-articulated arguments on the complexities of immigration reform such as “if you don’t love it, leave it”.
Somehow, Lefties consistently fail to ever call out the right for this hypocrisy. The same problem exists with their inability to harness the rise of populism occurring throughout the Western world.
Progressives of the world, please get your shit together.
Both the left and the right are guilty of getting offended. That much is clear. I’m here to tell you that they’reboth in the wrong because offence is a scourge on modern society. Healthy debate and discussion are the only means through which a society can move forward, but outrage has suffocated this practice.
So, to all you Lefties, here’s a challenge: tonight, I want you to go home, have a soy latte, swoon over Tony Jones, and go to bed.
And for all you Tories: tonight, I want you to go home, have a Blend 43, swoon over Alan Jones, and go to bed.
But all of you, please stop spending your time getting triggered by each other’s bullshit.
Remember: Being offended doesn’t mean something was actually offensive. Being offended doesn’t mean you’re right. Being offended meansyou’re part of the problem.
Instead, how about you talk it through.
You never know.
You might actually get somewhere.