Are Individuals & Brands Capitalizing on Being Offended?
It is absolutely undeniable that since our recent normalization of sharing unsolicited opinions online, we’ve witnessed a spike in expressed outraged. Digital mobs that have replaced torches with emojis run amock. But by no means should we trivialize the genuine thoughts and feelings of those who have been affected by negative events. After all, everyone has the right to be offended or outraged.
Relative to history though, it’s not that more outrageous events have taken place. Nor have our biology and emotions altered. Rather, what’s new is that we’ve developed mechanics of communication and expression, which are now perpetuating certain behaviors. This is due to our innate psychological wiring. And as we’ll see, this potent combination of man and technology, and its ensuing outrage is ultimately leading us awry.
Outrage at 39,000 ft
In 2017 when United Airlines was caught dragging a passenger off their plane, the story went viral. Outrage immediately erupted as we took to our keyboards in disapproval. Here was an opportunity for us to express frustration of our very own airline experiences, channeling Dr. Dao as an exemplary victim. This wasn’t about being upset with United. This was about taking revenge on an airline after years of our own mistreatment.
But was it even necessary to express outrage here? Wasn’t our disapproval non-verbally implied? Did we actually need to voice opinion that forcibly removing a paying customer, nonetheless a doctor, from their seat was bad? No shit what they did was wrong. Did we really need your hot take?
In this instance, outrage exploded, not just because what United did was undoubtedly wrong, but because it allowed us to make the story about ourselves. By merely sharing a single update, we could effortlessly and instantaneously join a global conversation, no matter how far removed we were from the situation. Expressing outrage during this time attracted more agreement from our following than resentment, and invigorated our social capital. We were putting our best face forward, aligning ourselves with an ethical and moral high ground, virtuously constructing elements of a self that we wanted others to see.
Ganging up on United, or any event or brand via social media, is the path of least resistance to making a story about Me, Me, Me. Being “outraged” at United was a net-positive, selfish experience as public opinion would serve no purpose in the company’s inevitable outcome. We did nothing but make the story about ourselves. And at the end of the day, the outpour of outrage toward United did nothing but gain us a handful of likes, and United increased profits. So at this point, we should ask, “What are we doing being outraged, and is it worth it?”
Why is This Happening?
Since accepting Facebook and Twitter, we’ve become increasingly conscious and comfortable with the blinking cursor in our pockets. Not only do we have an empty podium and live mic, but an awaiting audience despite any geographical or time restrictions. This is what Manuel Castell calls, a Space of Flows. With our new hyper-connective technologies, we’re communicating differently, but there are trade-offs to note. One of which is the fact that these platforms are beginning to condition our behavior.
Layered on top of these modern Web 2.0 features are Pavlovian dynamics, which reinforce our new behaviors. When we do something and are rewarded for it, we automatically strengthen the relationship between that behavior and the outcome. This occurs online as well. So when we express something such as outrage and are rewarded for it in the form of likes, shares, or hearts, we consequentially go out of our way to behave similarly. We seek those rewards and emotions once again. Facebook and Twitter are effective systems which allow us to be conditioned by notifying us when we’ve “done well” and by quantifying how “well we’ve done.” So while that notification gives us a hit of feel-good dopamine, it is disturbingly guiding what we share.
In order to understand the meat of what we’re sharing, we can look to sociologist Erving Goffman’s work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Here, Goffman proposes that life is similar to a performance. We simply strive to seek positive impressions from others who watch us like an audience. This self-presentation theory can also be found to exist online, and can be argued to even be heightened in this space. There’s no denying that we go out of our way to share the positive and to avoid the negative. Our social platforms explicitly allow us to measure and over-analyze the feedback we receive, therefore, it only makes sense that we’re going to prioritize sharing what receives the most likes. Outrage is one example.
Thoughts & Prayers
To observe these motivating elements in full effect, we can look at the reaction of terrorist attacks online. Often, we see many distant bystanders alter their Facebook profile picture, post condolences, or wax poetic. While, altering a profile picture can denote solidarity, sharing condolences can be absolutely well-intentioned, and penning a diatribe can inspire readers, in doing so, one obtains significantly more egocentric outcomes, also known as Slacktivism. By associating ourselves with the victims of a terrorist attack or other disaster, one joins a protected, seemingly selfless mob, putting on their best face, just like those outraged at United.
In his now infamous bit, comedian Anthony Jeselnik brazenly summarizes our points. He jokes, “They all write down the same exact thing. ‘My thoughts and prayers. My thoughts and prayers with the people in Aurora. My thoughts and prayers with the families on Boston.’ Do you know what that’s worth? Fucking nothing... All you are doing is saying, ‘Don’t forget about me today’.” While apparently selfless, we’re actually being quite selfish.
By making the story about ourselves, we collect increased attention, outpoured affection, and positive impressions. But at the end of the day, such actions do very little in the scheme of things. Not to mention, often, the resulting public outcry is disproportionate to other global catastrophes. We’re misdirecting our attention away from global disasters deserving equal if not more outrage, towards topics that are easiest to talk about.
In another style of outrage, we see hashtag riots reject brands left and right. Over the last couple years, Twitter users have “boycotted” brand names including Gap, Uber, Budweiser, BudLight, Starbucks, Nordstroms and even The Oscars and Hamilton. However, it’s not that these multi-billion dollar brands are afflicting so much suffering that individuals must banish them from society. Instead, it’s as if we’re actively concocting opportunities to align ourselves with an ethical or moral agenda at the expense of a faceless, corporate name who can’t come after us. Like how we frequently react to terrorist attacks, denouncing a brand is another path of least resistance to make ourselves appear noble.
In 2016 GapKids unveiled an ad with a black girl used as an armrest for a white girl, who ended up being her sister. Even so, within hours the ad was removed and Gap felt it was necessary to apologize after the outrage online. Was Gap intentionally instilling racial undertones in the form of a kids’ clothing advertisement? Probably not. But when we look for opportunities to make ourselves look good-will’ed, we’ll find racial undertones and the like anywhere. And at the end of the day, those outraged un-coincidentally were claiming to their online audience that they stood against racism. How convenient.
What results in these instances are statuses and hashtags worn as a badges of honor for those priding themselves on taking the high ground, all while vilifying brands. Anyone outraged at a brand is not utterly taking a stand against the company, but taking a stand for something they believe in. But using brands to exhibit self-promoting agenda can be risky as giant companies follow our lead.
The Next Wave: Corporate
One can ask, “So what?” “Is how we’re behaving actually concerning?” Well, as instances of outrage are visibly increasingly and the intensity is booming, there’s no end in sight. The final repercussion of online outrage is conscious restraint of potentially offensive action. What this manifests itself as is the curtailment of freedom of expression in a hyper politically correct (PC) culture.
Jonathan Chait, the author of NYMag’s modern piece on hyper PC culture, “Not a Very PC Thing To Say”, agrees that social media has something to do with it. “Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach.” The reinforcement of self-enhancing behavior by our digital platforms are to clearly blame for a shift in how we’re reacting.
We’re now beginning to witness the permeation of this online, hyper PC culture reach the arenas of brands, who too believe that they must not offend the majority and always put their best face forward. After the 2017 marches in Charlottesville, Tiki Brand believed they had to distance themselves from the white nationalists who used their torches. Tiki Brand put out a public statement, which reminds us of Jeselnik’s hurtfully truthful punchline, “Thoughts and prayers, but don’t forget about me!” Jonathan Salem Baskin, a Communications Expert, believes, “Brands are background in these stories, not the lead, so it’s doubtful that consumers expect to hear more about them and the offending events…”
Like how it was automatically implied that what United did was wrong, was it not automatically implied that Tiki Brand brand is against white supremacy? Are these statements now obligatory? What even constitutes the threshold of a brand taking action now? And more so, as major public opinion has not always been “correct” in the past, do we really want brands reinforcing standards which may change in the future? Without a filter, we’re viscerally reacting online, and brands are responding.
We’ve unfortunately already opened Pandora’s Box. After Tiki Brand’s statement, GoDaddy and Google refused to manage the domain registration for a neo-Nazi site, Daily Stormer, after outrage online. But was this just? The Electric Frontier Foundation (EFF), the leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world, worries not about PC culture, but the power certain companies are taking to appease the outraged. “All fair-minded people must stand against the hateful violence and aggression that seems to be growing across our country. But we must also recognize that on the Internet, any tactic used now to silence neo-Nazis will soon be used against others, including people whose opinions we agree with.”
What begins with outrage over a Gap ad, ends with the most powerful companies in the world following our lead. While outrage can be beneficial and promote necessary change, everytime we express discontent, we set an example for what should and should not be said. And with the current reinforcement of being offending and fear of offending others, we’re setting an alarmingly sensitive precedent.
In Dave Schilling’s piece on PC culture from The Guardian, he writes, “The internet is a choose-your-own-adventure of hateful, aggressive speech on all sides of the political spectrum, but no matter who you are — from a nobody calling out an athlete to an intellectual debating the merits of second-wave feminism to an audience of 30 white-wine-drunk adjunct faculty — there’s always the off switch in the corner of your computer or smartphone.”
Unfortunately, we can’t just turn off our computer or smartphone at this point. We’re in too deep. We depend too much upon these platforms to simply ignore them. So instead of being confined by hyper PC culture or avoiding it entirely, we should curb the superficial clichés and take the more difficult path, the one of honest discussion. If we don’t, we’ll imprison ourselves in a narrative that we may not be able to escape out of fear. To end where we began, while everyone has the right to be offended, “No one has the right to spend their life without being offended.” — Philip Pullman
Matt Klein is a Director of Strategy at sparks & honey and writer for Forbes, researching culture and the psycho- and sociological implications of our tech.