"[Y]ou get a cookie for getting offended about something. People are like, “If I get offended about that, it means I’m righteous.” On Twitter, you get a cookie not only from more people approving of you but from more people following you. You raise your profile by being offended. So the natural consequence of that is that people get more and more offended. Because the thing is, there’s nothing to risk by being offended. Once you’re offended, you’re partly saying, “I’m more pure than this, and as such I reject this.” There’s just nothing at risk." — Mat Johnson
I've been kicking this essay around for nearly two years. This week I polished it up. And then Mat Johnson went and gave us this amazing article and quote which I found via Austin Kleon which I found to be a great abstract for what I've been trying to say.
I've noticed something lately. I've noticed that not a day goes by without me reading a tweet, article, or Facebook status claiming an offense was found in a piece of beloved popular culture. The situation normally plays itself out like this—the offended person tweets that New Movie X is racist/sexist/pro-gun/anti-gun/anti-vax/pro-vax/9-11 was an inside job/etc. Every like-minded person that is in the same tribe as the offended is expected to agree (and does). Any objectors are then accused of being in favor of the said offending thing. The objector is instantly changed from being a person claiming they do not agree that New Movie X is what the offended is claiming and are now a person who is in support of that the offense.
"New Movie X was misogynistic."
"I don't agree."
"Why do you hate women?"
What's more—people who like New Movie X are often shouted down. These people may not even be part of the original conversation. They may innocently tweet out in to the world that they loved New Movie X and in turn they're treated to a ton of @ replies from strangers on Twitter accusing them of being in favor of the offense that the offended is claiming New Movie X causes.
Now throughout this entire conversation whether or not New Movie X is or is not guilty of what the offended is claiming has not been discussed. There has been no conversation or intellectual debate. A vocal minority tweeted that New Movie X should now be labeled with the offending label. If you join in the conversation as an objector or even as a skeptic asking for clarification you are accused of being in favor of said offense. What's worse is if the person making the claim has any amount of status or a large amount of followers they will often retweet those that disagree thus instantly publicly shaming them and exposing them to thousands if not millions of eyes that otherwise would've never read the tweet.
This is a problem.
I'm not here to debate whether or not New Movie X is guilty as charged and we should all boycott it. It may or may not be. Maybe we should boycott it. But that is exactly the point. It instantly becomes labeled the moment someone tweets that it is without the willingness to back up that claim or engage with those that disagree. We're becoming a society that is replacing intellectual debate about pop culture. And (more importantly) scaring away would-be converts due to the tactics being used.
Everyone's upbringing and journey in life is different. Not everyone might be as enlightened as you are. You might totally be right. New Movie X might be the worst and we should all boycott it. But if you feel you are so "enlightened" wouldn't you want to help others get to your level of enlightenment as well? Wasn't that the goal of your tweet? Or were you simply looking for pats on the back in the form of "favs" from your followers and friends who already agree with you?
Because It's Cheap
Most likely the sad answer is "Yes, I was simply looking for pats on the back". It's cheap to tweet out about being offended by something because of some percieved wrong New Movie X possesses and immediately you're granted a badge of moral superiority. You look smart and progressive and sensitive and it literally cost you 140 characters or less. Forget about fighting for or against the cause of your choice. Forget about having a well-thoughtout and informed opinion. Forget about helping others see your side of things. You just instantly got branded as a smart, intelligent, and progressive and you did it for cheap. Never mind the fact that those praising you are just like you.
During America's 2012 election cycle the thing I heard most often from people, especially those over the age of 40, was that this nation was more divided and polarized than they could ever remember. Thanks to social media we all feel morally obligated to let everyone else know why we thought our candidate was the best person for the job. And it divided us. What was once a private thing for Americans was now public. It's tempting and frankly fun to point your finger at the opposition and their ilk and blame them for the polarization. Rather than listen to arguments or debates against our views we so often dig our heels in, call the opposition stupid and ignorant, and with a smug and satisfied smirk we pat each other on the backs and congratulate ourselves for being so much more "enlightened" than them.
Fear Of Challenge
Why are we so afraid of carefully and intelligently explaining ourselves to those who would beg to differ—especially if we truly believe we are correct? The answer is: because that would take effort. A lot of it. It'd be hard. And it's much easier and cheaper to snark and smug and publicly shame your way through any debate, particularly on Twitter, than it is to carefully articulate to someone why you believe New Movie X is offensive and should be boycot.
This behavior and mindset is the social media version of band t-shirts and messenger bag pins. I'm seeing a whole lot of folks that are deathly afraid that everyone's going to find out they bought their Minor Threat t-shirt from Forever 21.