Tuesday, 04 September 2012

The Culture of Offence

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Did you read something in passing today that irritated you a bit? Start a facebook group and a hastag! Validate yourself and your opinions with a wave of outrage! Mmmm trollish goodness.

The other day, I made sure people on Twitter knew the dangers of smug hipster couples on public transport who pause from their iphones to look derisively at other passengers. Before that, I unfriended someone who barks like a querulous dog over unnamed frustrations (unnamed because they’d never have the real life moxie to confront anyone). Prior to that, I unleashed a torrent of abuse about a US Senator and waited to see who would like or share my bile on Facebook.

Obviously, I’m a people person high on acceptance.

But I’m not alone with this affliction. In fact, Facebook is awash with contagious offence. My timeline oozes with the apoplexy of the masses fuming over Smiths Chips, Coles’ milk, Vodafone’s reliability in comparison to the Mars Curiosity Rover, Channel 9’s Olympic coverage and Target’s clothing. Long, impassioned monologues, each of them garnering tens of thousands of likes.

With the immediacy and ease of social media, I am able to update everyone I know (and quite a few I don’t) on what offends me with equal immediacy and ease. No delayed gratification, no need to wait, think or process conflicting views, just hit send the minute your synapses start to fire wildly. In fact, it’s generally best when you don’t think and just let your vitriol erupt.

For offence to be truly worthy of attention, it helps if the person feels marginalised to some degree and, if offended, shriek their discontented warnings like Cassandra with a smartphone, tweeting the impending destruction they alone can see.

As soon as the first complaint about Target’s product range for girls was submitted, a rockfall of accusations followed. Some jumped onto Ana Amini’s initial rancour, echoing her dissatisfaction with trampy clothes, while others shared their umbrage over the use of skeletons in designs, material quality to ethical trading and manufacturing practices.

Once open season has been declared on a person or brand, a berserker rage takes hold. Speaking to Emily Bourke on ABC radio’s ‘The World Today’ (14/08/12), Dr Brent Coker, an Internet consumer psychologist at Melbourne University said “as soon as things get going it’s almost like the gates open and…the public, it’s like a mob with pitchforks chasing the brand.”

These angry hoards have adapted as quickly as Facebook and Twitter, whose updates provides ample fertiliser. With the new sharing options, one idle offence can be retweeted and shared and liked to thousands and amplified. It’s far removed from the loud voice in a public space – we are individually broadcasting to a far higher audience than ever before and the noise can be both deafening and potentially damaging.

But technology alone isn’t the sole reason social media has become the white noise of offence. Media and politics have also played their part.

The 24 hour news cycle can stoke pitiable phrases into full blown fracas. In a world where anything is content, everything is worthy of coverage, even Facebook posts. This instant barometer provides not only immediate content for news outlets but also for reactive governments desperate to find the day’s direction.

Offence has become popular currency with politicians, particularly with the divinely-inspired theocrats in right-wing conservative clothing, positioning themselves as vanguards against moral offence.

If you accept that the media and politics benefit from stirring offence and technology provides an expedient platform for broadcast, the question remains whether we’re as offended as before or have a reduced tolerance for conflict.

We’ve always had the capacity to be offended, whether it took the form of the zombified Rev Fred Nile, Mary Whitehouse or Tipper Gore, all railing against filth and depravity of society that has given them offence.

Offence is nothing new. So why does it feel so overwhelming right now?

It may come back to technology. The Internet has excelled at creating communities, villages that sprawl more widely than before. People seek out others like themselves, building a community homogenized to their beliefs – an online echo chamber.

No matter what you feel or enjoy, there is a community online to celebrate, educate and validate your choice. Previously in short supply, this newfound instant validation gives confidence to thoughts and fears that used to be hidden from public discussion. Before social media people had to take time and make an effort to express their views to the general public. Now you can access thousands of people ready to click ‘like’ your micro-monologue.

In the event that dissent occurs, many are able to either quickly corral support from other like-minded online friends to wage war or simply defriend and block, shutting down conflict. In fact, it’s incredibly easy to create and maintain a world where one’s outlook isn’t challenged in any meaningful way for a long period of time. Perhaps the impact of this is that we’re less able to cope with or calmly discuss conflicting views.

The construction of online monocultural communities starve their populace of reasoning and experience. With only their homogenized familiars on hand, they have no contrast to file away for classification or reference – no experience with people of different ethnicities, class or philosophical view. With no conflict, skills in rhetoric boil down to either all caps or blocking. It becomes a vacuum of ignorance and insulation, leaving their participants unable to relate to the world in a measured or tolerant way.

This is why offence seems more bewildering and traumatic these days. We’ve built such insular little enclaves for ourselves so we don’t have to engage with the mess and conflict of humanity. When we are confronted with dissent or challenge, our reaction can be complex. For some it can feel personalized, as if the conflicting point is a direct attack on them and their beliefs when nothing can be further from the truth (especially when we consider everyone is in their little matchy matchy communities and has no idea their impact on others).

That people are often able to flock together and share their mutual apoplexy is a wonderful thing. That the world would need to navigate around their offence stunts everyone.


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Last modified on Tuesday, 04 September 2012
Amy Gray

Amy Gray is a writer and broadcaster from Melbourne, Australia.

Follow her on Twitter @_AmyGray_