I can’t stop thinking about “professional outrage” as a framing device deployed to delegitimize opposition to hegemonic structures. Particularly interesting has been the migration of “professional outrage” from a pejorative used more commonly, at least in my lifetime, by those of a socially conservative persuasion, towards one that has found a fecund existence in leftist discourse. Tracing this transformation almost inevitably involves highlighting the experiences of various feminist projects. Why is this link to feminism so unsurprising? It might have something to do with the fact that, while feminist perspectives have undergone well-documented struggles in finding a political voice on the right-wing, they have all too often been treated as peripheral on the left-wing too.
“Political correctness” – inherently “gone mad” – is a term more comfortably associated with the likes of The Daily Mail and UKIP. Easy targets for our [feminist] ire, propagating myths of how oppressed “British values” have become, threatened by an elitist, sanctimonious attack. The demonic forces of political correctness (the “PC Brigade!”) to me always seemed most coherently expressed as a triad: the multiculturalists, the feminists and the [champagne] socialists, who purportedly operate as a sort of co-ordinator, whipping up the PC madness for their own agenda of electoral viability. In truth, the Richard Littlejohns of this world have been banging that drum for years, and I’ve got little interest in revisiting. What I would like to suggest instead is that in 2015, while there are subtle differences in how this logic operates, it persists under the guise of “professional outrage”, and in an arguably more insidious fashion.
Hordes of the “professionally outraged” are everywhere. They’re bringing down “sexist” scientists, “racist” student bodies and “transphobic” academics. Navigating the below-the-line comments section of any major online publication is to be caught up in swarm of righteous anger, fury and disbelief. How could people behave this way? Isn’t it disgusting? We deserve better than this. These voices, however, are not the “professionally outraged”. To be quite clear, the most vitriolic online outpouring of recent months has been on behalf of those who – deep breath – are outraged by the outrage. And, quite revealingly, this responsive outrage often matches and surpasses the original aggrievement itself!
The most obvious example of this dynamic is that of afore-linked Tim Hunt, already something of a fable among the “professionally-outraged at the professional-outrage” crew. In case you don’t know, the story follows a familiar trajectory: senior man says women pose a unique problem in his working environment (“You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.”) and the audience remain largely silent – I think it is safe to assume that at least in some cases this would qualify as uncomfortable silence. So far, so standard: while this case has become communicated as somewhat unique in the mainstream media, most people who work in and around universities will hardly be dropping their jaws at the notion of a greying, established academic making casually demeaning remarks in an attempt to, in his words, provide “ironic” and “jocular” funzies for a crowd. What made Tim Hunt into a target of online ridicule and anger was hardly merely the content of what he was saying, but rather the perfect storm of a large, twitter-savvy audience, the particularly clumsy stench of his comments and a pre-existing narrative of public-power anchored by the role social media plays in public life. See it as an auxiliary of Jodi Dean’s concept of “communicative capitalism”.
Just as quickly as the backlash against Hunt, came the backlash against the backlash. The endless accusations of professional outrage, of people looking for a problem. Hunt, and his similarly esteemed partner Professor Mary Collins, were interviewed barely four days after the controversial event in The Observer. The article included the editorial line that “His treatment also demonstrates the innate cruelty of social media, and in particular the savage power of Twitter”. I’m reminded here of Jon Ronson’s engaging and timely – if, to my mind, flawed – book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”. Flawed, because Ronson omitted the backlash – the voice that he was articulating, in fact – from thorough critique. Social media pile-ons are a regular occurrence, but I’d wager that the experiences of many feminists with an online profile would challenge the object of Ronson’s book. By focusing on figures who have been shamed for perceived racism or sexism, he neglects the rampant shaming that greets those who highlight problematic behaviours in the first place. In the case of Hunt, could we argue that the voice hurt most by this whole imbroglio might not actually have been his, but the women forced almost immediately onto the defence for finding what he said problematic?
So this is where we are. The derision that the trope of “political correctness” once invited has been slowly folded in on itself, so much so that supposedly “progressive” types (Richard Dawkins and Brian Cox spring to mind) express righteous indignation in defence of Hunt losing his honorary titles. And this isn’t to mention that, naturally, several well-respected members of the governing Conservative Party felt equally compelled to express their concern at a “witch hunt” culture too (see Boris Johnson). The narrative propagated of a lone purveyor of “common sense” or wise-cracking comedy (Hunt) under siege by a multitude of angry tweeters is misleading to say the least. What does “political correctness’” reincarnation as a cross-spectrum shut-down device mean for feminists in 2015? I hope it serves as a warning. To quote Sara Salem’s previous post on this blog:
“What is even more astounding about the feminist-as-killjoy “accusation” is that it is feminists who have to defend themselves by showing that they’re *not* angry, sensitive, PMSing, and so on”
Isn’t the accusation of “professional outrage” eerily similar to that of the feminist killjoy? The flipping of accuser into accused, of the problem itself becoming recast as the problem of perception (to borrow the title of a fantastic Sara Ahmed post on this topic). It reminds me of the furore that greeted tumblr’s embrace of intersectional feminism, and its infamous mantra / Flavia Dzodan’s brilliant spiel: my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit. Back then (all the way back in 2011!) notable left-wing political writers (and many feminists) queued up to bemoan the crassness of its “identity politics” (Mark Fisher provided the most lucid example of this with the aptly titled “Exiting the Vampire Castle”) and refer instead to a materialist critique that avoided foregrounding identity as anything other than a sub-category of capital exploitation. A legitimate debate indeed, but the tactics of disavowal – you’re being solipsistic, you’re looking for fragmented discrimination – again hark to the problem of perception, and the idea that the intersectional feminists writing online, many of them young, were simply looking for problems. I’m not sure what we can learn from, or how we can weaponize this discomforting experience of being called professionally outraged (as if it pays!), but I’m confident we should be especially vigilant whenever we hear someone use it as a way of dismissing an outrage outright, whatever their political persuasion.