The internet is a perfectly efficient outrage generator. People need things to be super-pissed about, so that they can express their social positions to their friends; they burn through that outrage in an orgy of vague, well-intentioned social media protest; they look for something else to be super-pissed about, having become, by now, pissed off generally. It's perpetual motion, only the product is cause-based Facebook memes instead of energy. Now Michelle Shocked, who was not even in the Observer two weeks ago, is sitting between American Idol recaps and Taylor Swift TV cameos on Yahoo! Music, because she hates gay people or maybe doesn't.
It's been a terrible couple of weeks to be Michelle Shocked, but it's probably been a great two weeks to be her back catalogue. That's a problem, maybe.
It's not a problem that any one person got angry about Michelle Shocked's comments, but it's a phenomenon we're going to have to deal with, as a culture that's grown to love being furious.
There are two sides to it--the first is that when something like this goes viral, you're giving it a platform it wouldn't otherwise have. 10 years ago a rant like this would have reached the people at the show, their friends, and whoever read the subsequent alt-weekly exposé about it. Now Michelle Shocked is probably more famous than she's ever been, such as it is.
The second problem with our new addiction to hate-hating is that we're getting all these viral moments that weren't being transmitted before. This is the insidious one. That first issue is just a bunch of new McDonald's franchises opening up, so that more people we don't know can each have one Big Mac.
This one is as though a McDonald's has opened up right behind our house, and every couple of hours, if we want, we can get the Big Mac that used to be a once-a-week guilty pleasure. The world is almost certainly less racist, sexist, homophobic, Tumblr-cause-ist than it has ever been, whether that's faint praise or not. But the internet allows us to hook ourselves up to a carefully curated drip-feed of all manner of bigots. It's never been so easy to be Mad As Hell and Unable To Take It Anymore--just follow the right people on Twitter.
(Are you like me? Do you have a favorite kind of internet bigot? I'm definitely a Surprise Bigot guy, as opposed to the more predictable Politician-Gawker-Has-A-Google-Alert-For Bigot.)
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For me, then, the problem isn't that a lot of people are only now learning about Michelle Shocked. It's that a lot of people feel compelled to note, a couple of times a day, that they are outraged by someone they never would have come into contact with before. (Remember when it was difficult for Ted Nugent to make news? Wasn't that nice?)
It's difficult to work through, because we should be outraged when someone says something outrageous. That's the point. But I'm not sure it's to our benefit that every local source of outrage is now a national source of outrage--that outrage is a tool we have to use this often. As Kiernan alluded to when he wrote about the Shocked story in the first place, outrage is valuable, but it's also dangerous; it's dehumanizing, inasmuch as it treats the object as unworthy of debate, and it's alienating, because internet-outrage is on some level about establishing a large in-group of people like you who know to be outraged.
That social amplification means there's no small outrage on the internet; no matter how tiny or twice-beaten the object of your outrage is, your pellet gun will eventually get retweeted into an elephant rifle. I'm just not sure I want to shoot until I'm certain the target is really an elephant.