An online publication that few people read recently published an article headlined “These 13 Jokes From ‘Seinfeld’ Are Super Offensive Now.” It predictably follows the latest fashion of taking something from the past and finding reasons to be outraged at it—evidently, these voracious outrage whores have run out of targets for their rage in the present.
One of the striking qualities of the article is how lazy it is. Discussing a joke in which Jerry asks how he can be racist to Chinese women if he “likes their race,” the aggrieved author says, “hopefully the issues with that exchange don’t require further explanation for anyone in 2018.” Responding to another joke in which Kramer mistakes a “fat little mental patient” as a “pig man,” the author simply writes “yikes.”
These types of responses are all too typical in such “think pieces.” Authors of such pieces often entirely gloss over what exactly they find offensive. They simply assume that all good people will agree with them. They do not even attempt to engage with readers who may differ or who may be bewildered at their moral outrage. Instead, they assume that these people are beneath reason and beyond the pale. Be that as it may, it is by no means clear whether they themselves have a good explanation for why the joke they’ve attacked is offensive.
The intellectual laziness demonstrated by these think pieces frees the professionally outraged from having actually to examine the joke or understand the nuances of what makes it funny.
For instance, the Chinese woman joke comes far more at the expense of Jerry than at the expense of Chinese women. The joke plays with different conceptions of racism and suggests that racism need not involve hatred for another group of people. That it might be just as racist to overgeneralize positively as it is to overgeneralize negatively. The joke is about Jerry being racist and has practically nothing to do with Chinese women.
The pig man joke comes at the expense of Kramer. He sees someone in the hospital and mistakes him for a half-man half-pig monster. We are not laughing at the mental patient but rather at Kramer’s lack of perception and common sense.
Of course, there might be alternate readings of the jokes and there might even be some strong arguments for why they are in bad taste. But if they exist, we never get them. We just get outrage.
Displaying outrage like this has proved a fruitful political tactic. After all, most people don’t go about their day-to-day lives trying to be offensive. And when people aren’t trying to be offensive, they typically react defensively to cries of outrage. They are often surprised and may try to make amends before examining the charge.
An outraged mob is a terrifying sight and isn’t particularly conducive to reasonable conversation. It attracts a lot of attention and often compels quick and thoughtless action. By the time that the outrage dies down enough for people to actually learn the details and nuances of whatever inspired the outrage, most people have stopped caring about the issue and have moved on to the next outrage. This makes outrage an extraordinarily potent weapon.
Outrage is also fun and remarkably addictive. It makes the outraged feel entitled. Entitled to an apology. Entitled to a change in action. Entitled to see the punishment of the offender. Entitled to be angry and to feel self-righteous. It also garners the outraged a lot of attention. Think of it as the adult version of throwing a tantrum on the floor of a supermarket.
The professionally outraged are addicted to being outraged and have adopted a particularly bleak worldview to fuel their fix. They assume universal bad intentions and happily read racism, sexism, and bigotry into everything. This makes them combative and irritable. They believe that they are at war with the world and are intent on punishing the deeply problematic people they think constitute the unenlightened, racist, sexist, ableist, transphobic, homophobic, Islamophobic . . . well, the list goes on. Deplorables, if you will. If they weren’t so dangerous, we might almost feel sorry for them. They must live in an exceedingly ugly world.
If everyone is offensive, then any conversation of any sensitive subject surely must be offensive. So, as soon as they hear someone say something that sounds as though it could be offensive, the immediate assumption is that it is offensive. This assumption comes without consideration of the context or a single iota of thought about what is actually being said.
Of course, a certain politician has been able to use the reflexive impulse of the professionally aggrieved in the news media to great effect. Donald Trump often says things that sound as though they might be offensive. The outrage machine starts and gives him tremendous publicity. But anyone actually listening to what he is saying will realize very quickly that what he said is not, in fact, the caricature painted by his opponents. The illusion breaks and they get disenchanted with the media.
Fortunately, people are tiring of the constant outrage and the weapon is petering out. Unfortunately, this makes genuine and necessary outrage far less potent. In the same way that the abusers of the terms “racist” and “sexist” have ruined the stigma of those terms, the professionally outraged have ruined the natural reaction to a truly outraged person. Instead of reacting with humanity and immediately trying to make things right, we now have to be on guard and defer any action until after we determine the validity of the outrage.
Just another thing that these jerks have ruined.
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Photo Credit: Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for hulu