Outrage And Privacy

Phoebe Maltz Bovy —  Dec 20 2014 @ 10:53am
by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

I want to second Michelle’s endorsement of the outrage year-in-review over at Slate. The item there that jumped out at me was Jordan Weissmann’s account of having played a large part in sparking a “cycle of viral outrage” against a Harvard professor who had “raged [in email] at a local Chinese restaurant that had overcharged him a mere $4 on a takeout order.”

Weissmann cops to a history of producing clickbait outrage journalism, but explains, “It’s something I feel ambivalent about as a writer.” He makes the case for what is, after all, his livelihood. Shaming bad behavior is maybe a good deed? Plus, these pieces apparently function for a place like Slate the way lose-weight-and-get-a-man ones do for women’s mags – they pay for the serious but tough-to-monetize pieces. He also insists that, in this case at least, his target is unlikely to suffer financially. (“And I doubt his $800-per-hour corporate consulting business is going anywhere.”) These are all fair points. But I came away from the essay unsure whether Weissmann had succeeded in convincing himself that viral outrage – that is, of the sort sparked by the ostensibly private slip-up of someone who isn’t in the public eye – is defensible.

The problem with the current media climate is that all outrage-bait is, in a sense, equal. The impact of a celebrity’s gaffe and of an ordinary person’s off day are both measured in traffic. And all such moments are becoming equally accessible. As Adrienne LaFrance notes, commenting on a Pew report, “While privacy once generally meant, ‘I assume no one is looking,’ as one respondent put it, the public is beginning to accept the opposite: that someone usually is.” Once content is out there, it all just sort of feels equivalent – the virally-famous maybe shouldn’t have become public figures, but once they are, no one thinks twice before commenting on them as if they were.

I suppose the Apple Store Lady is the example I keep coming back to because a few unpleasant-looking seconds of this random woman’s life made her the face, as the headline would have it, of “The First-World Problem to End All First-World Problems.” To go viral as the face of unchecked privilege, you don’t have to pass terrible legislation, or even to write an oblivious essay for Thought Catalog. All you need to do is live in a place where people have smartphones and be someone who isn’t entirely delightful every moment of every day. Or you can be a complete and utter saint and have your actions altered or taken out of context. In her installment in Slate’s outrage coverage, Amanda Hess writes, “With a few assumptions and a quick Photoshop job, even a black woman complaining about a white dude on the bongos can be framed as an emblem of white entitlement.”