I came across a shared article from a good friend on Facebook. Gucci had a balaclava that looked like blackface.
People were upset. It’s racist. A famous black rapper called for a boycott of Gucci.
Welcome to the age of outrage culture and social justice warriors.
It started as political correctness
For me, it all started when I was 18. My friend and I were having a conversation about world news (which he was knowledgeable about and I wasn’t), when he threw out a new term to me: “PC.” I was completely uninterested in the conversation at the time, but I was curious the term and asked about it. He said it stood for “politically correct” — used to describe how people need to be careful with their language, so as to not offend any group of people. To be “PC” meant you should call black people “African American” and not negro or the N word, you should call women “women” and not sweetheart or broad, and to call overweight people anything but “fat.”
For me, PC was a bit confusing because you had to learn what not to say, but it made sense — all these terms were affecting groups of people who had been historically mistreated or in their lifetimes mistreated due to things mostly out of their control. I figured anyone with a minute level of empathy would buy in.
That same friend who taught me about PC also introduced me to football, so I was really into ESPN and the sports world at the time. Several years later, radio host Don Imus talked about some rugged-looking college female basketball players and he referred to them as “nappy-headed hos.”
This little snippet became news for the entire sports world. There was public outrage and calls for the cancelling of Don Imus’ show. The show was cancelled by CBS shortly after (link).
This was interesting to me: the comment was disparaging to black women, but I wondered: did the punishment fit the crime? He had an offensive phrase, but without speaking it, his commentary about how manly and rugged the Rutgers players were would have been ignored. To me, the lesson was that people should avoid words, while the content of a discussion can remain the same. I also believe his comment, in PC environments, was viewed through a lens of history, where white Americans had higher status than the black descendants of slaves. If a black male radio jockey said the same, the comment again, would have been viewed differently. This is troubling, because it means that in PC culture, your words are interpreted differently based on who you are.
All of this PC culture would start to permeate more facets of our society, as people became more and more interconnected with social media.
Political correctness re-brands as callout culture or outrage culture in the age of social media
I largely stayed away from the topic of PC things, mainly because I thought it was mainly irrelevant to me and it was only affecting famous figure heads and politicians.
Flash forward to recent times, and the term “political correctness” has re-branded itself as “outrage culture” or “cancel culture,” with the label of “social justice warrior” as someone who spearheads the movement. With social media now, ideas can gain traction, as more and more people of similar ideologies can join together easily.
Here are some examples:
- Papa Johns founder resigns after a private conference call is leaked, where he uses the N word (link)
- a woman losing her job because of a tweet about AIDS and Africa (link)
- a software engineer at Google was fired for writing a memo about why men were more suited for software engineering than women and questioned the company’s drive for gender diversity (link)
Then there are times when innocent gestures, which are perceived to be offensive, are victims to politically correct culture, such as my favorite: a Gucci balaclava is interpreted as “black face.” For those that don’t know, “black face” is when actors would put on black makeup to mimic and poke fun at black people (link). The balaclava meanwhile, is a full face ski mask (which looks like you’re robbing a liquor store, in style).
The Gucci balaclava went viral, the company was considered racist (link), and one prominent rapper, T.I., went as far as to ask for a boycott of Gucci. He even chided black people, such as Floyd Mayweather, for wearing Gucci!
The last one is particularly interesting, because although it’s offensive to some, it’s possibly unintentional, yet social justice warriors interpret it as intentionally racist. My counter-argument is this: Gucci wants to make as much money as possible. They do this by appealing to their audience. If Gucci wants to make a lot of money, why would they purposefully alienate their audience by designing a racist, overpriced sweater? What do they have to gain by being racist? That’d be the same as them releasing a handbag called “Stay in the Kitchen Tote,” offending a lot of feminists — even if they thought lowly of women, they would never do it as a matter of business decisions. Furthering this hypothetical scenario where companies are racist, why would we assume that people in companies aside from Gucci aren’t racist/sexist/agist/classist? Thus, I feel very confident saying this: luxury companies are non-discriminatory — they don’t give a fuck about you, they just want your money.
Outrage culture and the snowflakes and assholes that fuel it
I understand why political correctness exists: it’s because of history. History and the marginalization of people explain all of outrage culture. There is tremendous outrage over offensive remarks about black people, but very little over offensive remarks towards white people. Same goes for derogatory remarks towards women vs remarks towards men. Black people and women have had been marginalized in the past, and outrage culture is the response to that. Now, we see the complete opposite: the response to marginalization has resulted in some people seeing offensive remarks in many places, having a visceral response, and acting upon it.
The issue is this: “snowflakes”, or people who are easily offended, cannot take the world in stride — their identity revolves around being provoked and championing a cause. If they themselves are not victims or belong to a group of historically victimized groups, then they choose to be offended on the behalf of such groups and to be a champion for those people. This is where the pejorative term “Social Justice Warrior” comes from. The term “warrior” is very suitable, as usually the opposing group is seen as a villian that needs to be defeated. This sort of mentality provides identity and purpose, both critical to the human psyche. You can see why being outraged is so important then, despite the fact that our standard of living is much higher than many countries today and higher than the majority of history of mankind.
On the other side of outrage culture are the assholes or provocateurs. “Asshole” is a broad term that people use to describe anyone whose behavior they disagree with. In this context, an asshole is a term used to describe a person who says things without first thinking about how it will affect others or does not care. Furthermore, a provocateur, is someone who will say things knowing they will affect others negatively, in order to receive a reaction, which brings them fame and notoriety.
Snowflakes and assholes are such a small percent of the population, yet they always receive media attention, because they are very polarized, and thus, entertaining to watch, especially when in conflict with each other.
Even better is watching the fireworks fly when you pit the two groups together, such as during this protest in Portland. I honestly thought that coming to Portland, I would find a lot of outraged and unreasonable people. The truth is that the state leans liberal and there are occasional Black Lives Matters signs in yards, but most are reasonable people, and it’s the protests that bring out the people with radical ideas.
Oh, and lastly, if you say things without the intention of offense, but it unintentionally offends people, such as in the case of the Gucci blackface balaclava, then you are not an asshole, but rather, you are the collateral damage of outrage culture. Sorry, but this is the culture we live in.
The major dilemma of free speech vs resiliency
At the heart of outrage culture are words. Just words. The “N word,” “fat,” “midget,” etc. It is not illegal to say any of those. You will not be fined. But it has an impact on people. It triggers a sense of vulnerability and a feeling of inferiority, maybe one they distinctly remember feeling as a child growing up.
The reaction is anger. Maybe sadness. The question is this: is life meant to be smooth sailing? It never was. In fact, the smoother your life is growing up, the more likely an insignificant event as an adult can feel catastrophic. This is why depression and anxiety are high in youth in America, despite high standards of living. This is why resiliency is important — people will say offensive things all the time. If not your parents, then bullies, bosses, or random people in Reddit comments will say negative things. There is no way a person can be insulated from negative speech, and so there is a great amount of responsibility in us to be able to bear a certain level of offensive language. Intentional verbal abuse is something else, but we should distinguish the two and not conflate them.
My advice? Keep distance from polarized people or dont’ argue when they are emotionally triggered. At the core of outrage culture is a defense of the ego — that’s right, it’s psychology.
There is almost always a conversation to be had when a person says something offensive to you. There is a lot of ignorance out there. But when you close off that reasoning part of your brain and you respond to offensive words as though you’re being attacked (it’s the same part of your brain that reacts when you’re physically attacked), you close off that conversation and it becomes an act of self-defense and your goal becomes destroying the threat. Even worse, because you view that person as a threat, no matter what bad things happen to them like being fired, it becomes a feeling of justice, karma, consequence, when in actuality, it’s just revenge hiding behind that mask. Don’t fool yourself into thinking otherwise.