The Outrage Manufacturing Process

by Michelle Dean

Slate has a big package today about “The Year In Outrage.” It’s thought-provoking, worth your time and effort.

I’d rather talk about it laterally, though, than re-litigate old social media controversies. There’s plenty enough of the latter in the Slate thing. Let’s, instead, consider the outrage manufacturing process, which I think is more complicated than usually described. You can do it half by accident. You know, by joking on Twitter.

For example: Last night I was reading Twitter when a link came into my feed. It was to an Los Angeles Review of Books essay about Joan Didion. I clicked.

The first sentence of the piece was a run-on sentence. Then it made proud reference to the author’s attendance at literary parties. I persevered. I was then rewarded with this paragraph:

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 11.10.53 PM

I hope I don’t seem too outraged to you when I say that this is not a good paragraph about Joan Didion. It tells you nothing about Didion. It also doesn’t tell you much about the writer, Emmett Rensin, other than his lack of apparent shame. It would be a pretty embarrassing paragraph to record in your private journal. But there it was, published by the Los Angeles Review of Books. The Los Angeles Review of Books is edited. An editor read this paragraph, and published it.

I have, in the course of researching a book that touches on Didion, read a great deal of writing about her. It is worse than you’d expect, and a lot of people expect bad writing about Didion. I like to point out a 1970 Los Angeles Times profile that called Didion a “haunted elf.” There are a lot of reasons why this writing is bad, but one is certainly the strong personal feelings Didion’s work seems to evoke. These personal feelings – say, “desire” – then run away with whatever self-control the writer-about-Didion ordinarily possesses.

There is probably a good, self-aware piece to be written about all of that. This Didion piece is plainly not that piece.

I found this paragraph so bad, in a funny way, that I took the screenshot you see above. Then I posted it to Twitter. People responded. My friends and I made some jokes. I decided to add, “My cat just threw up. I think she saw the paragraph about Joan Didion.” I felt momentarily better after a long day. I went to bed.

Because now, waking up this morning and watching everyone chatter about outrage, I feel culpable. In fact, I’ve now deleted that second tweet because it feels mean, the morning after. Obviously we’re talking about a much smaller scale than social media controversies tend to reach. But I’ve done just what everyone typically describes as a gesture of outrage: I’ve found something I think is bad, I’ve lifted it out of context, and I’ve explained why. As a data point, I don’t feel particularly angry about it. More… bemused.

But someone else might think I’m stoking outrage. And then write an editorial about what a terrible person I am for posting this out of context. And then: here I am, who with my laughter at this bad paragraph about Joan Didion, am participating in a force that is destroying culture.

Or… not?