Gut Check: The Swarm
Lions on the web, and lambs on the street.
So last week some conservative website posted a photo of a beloved conservative. When some readers saw that the picture was doctored, they tweeted an angry alarm (which is what you do these days; you go public with perceived injustice the moment it presents itself). The website blogger made the mistake of responding sarcastically, and his meaningless snark kicked the hive into full gear. A swarm of Internet bees chased him around the backyard that is the web until he finally apologized.
It was a sad thing to watch. When conservatives express outrage and demand scalps of contrition... over stuff like this... it kills me. It’s embarrassing. But lucky for me, I had other stuff to do. My eyebrows needed plucking. Seriously, it’s like a forest above both eyeballs.
Every day seems like there’s a new swarm of bees surrounding someone, or something. The swarm varies in intensity. Sometimes it’s mild. Other times vicious.
In one four day span, here’s a list of outrages spawned by words, not deeds:
- Paula Deen’s 300-year-old racial slur
- Alec Baldwin’s homophobic tweets
- The use of “creepy ass cracker” in court
- Michele Obama’s “the White House is a prison” joke
Each one of these created a mini-whirlwind of agitation, one destroyed a career, others just went away.
But it’s all the same; these are events galvanizing people to attack other people because it’s easy—and because it feels pretty damn good. It’s not about sincerely desiring an apology but instead just watching someone squirm under a collective, bullying pressure. It’s gross.
I wrote about this in my book The Joy of Hate, hoping my lovely tome might reduce this craze. I was wrong. It’s getting worse. Way worse. I may have to write another. In Esperanto, so everyone gets it.
Just to remind you: there’s still a kid named Justin Carter who’s in jail in Texas for making a “joke” about shooting up a school. He made the joke while playing a video game. He’s been locked up there for months. His family cannot make bail.
There’s a similar case in Mississippi—a lad named Josh Pillault—who was arrested last October for making threats while playing something called “Runescape,” and he’s been there ever since.
And remember that anti-Islamic filmmaker falsely blamed for Benghazi? He’s still in jail too. I can’t even pronounce his name, but I care.
This place is really beginning to suck.
We now seem obsessed with words. Not their actual meanings—but we relish the power we have to reinterpret the meanings. We are now the Masters of the Misconstrue, and when our hackles are raised, we want nothing short of our intended target of outrage crawling over broken glass. It’s fun to see the reward—when you never have to leave your pod, your room, your desk, your jammies. You made an impact, in between trips to the fridge.
Let me ask you: if someone were to make a sarcastic joke that you disliked, right in front of you, what would you do to express distaste?
Would you—knowing it was just a joke—pretend you didn’t hear it and move on? Or would you announce the horribleness of the sentiment to everyone within earshot? Would you then do it in a manner to encourage others to join in the mass outrage, hoping to humiliate said jokester?
Probably not. You’re normal. You would simply ignore it, and in a few minutes, it would be forgotten. You’d never think about it again.
But introduce the web into this premise, and many would take the more dramatic, absurd approach. The extra effort to express outrage, thanks to the web, is nil. So have at it. Eat ‘em alive.
Here’s my theory on this. The degradation of manners and decline of public decency in society has created a fear of confrontation among the rest of us.
We’d rather cross the street than deal with an angry drunk or face a rude group of teenage girls shouting obscenities. We’ve become cowards in our own culture—terrified that the aggressors could turn on us. This modern impotence has caused us to funnel our frustrations toward easier targets: people whose sin is saying something stupid or disagreeable. We’re lions on the web and lambs on the street.
I doubt the same person who jumps all over a blogger would also try to prevent an intense-looking man from playing music excruciatingly loudly on a sidewalk. The risk is too high for the latter act and almost nonexistent for the former.
The web has reduced the barrier for every kind of connection, so people can exert minimal energy when launching their attack. And the defender must then spend all day in crisis figuring out what to do to calm the phony outrage. Believe it or not, the hassle can get you. I'm going prematurely short.
There's absolutely nothing delightful about where this is headed. Words have consequences, sure.
But maybe you were just joking. And joking is legal. And joking is understandable, and joking is forgivable. But sadly, "I was being sarcastic" can be trumped with "That was hurtful." Especially when “That was hurtful” can be echoed by 1,000 other bored souls.
We are the free-est country on the planet, yet now we seem gladly willing to give up our right to free speech, every single day—to the horde.
Call it the thought jihad, when people claim to know what you’re thinking more than you. So they wage war on projected intent, making everything from bad jokes to sarcasm a cause for an apology that, in their heads and hearts, they don’t even want.
I call it a form of intellectual welfare. Since everyone else is doing it—attacking people for words and never deeds—why not just join in? If that tactic seems to be working, I’ll do it too! It’s a different kind of dependence—an addiction to adrenaline one feels from conflict. Imagine what we could be doing if we stopped doing that. I’d be knitting a sweater for my kneecaps.
Seeing what’s happening to America as it gleefully makes itself miserable; it’s like watching someone destroy himself with drugs. Will America finally seek help before it overdoses? Will it give up this stupid drug called outrage, rejecting its momentary pleasures for something more substantial? Or will we continue to police each other’s thoughts and words, to the joy of our enemies?
After all, the more we do to become as intolerant as they are, the less they have to do to achieve the same thing. We're just doing the heavy lifting now so they don't have to.
Greg Gutfeld is a mainstay on Fox News as co-host of The Five and the host of Red Eye. He's also the NY Times best-selling author of The Joy of Hate: How to Triumph over Whiners in the Age of Phony Outrage.