Beyond Outrage

July 14th, 2014 by |

Kanye West is a passionate dude.

The passion is what makes his art work. People connected to him because they can feel that passion. It’s visible through his work, whether it’s a banging beat or some deft observation about life. He has a habit of doing scheduled interludes at his concerts, where he talks about whatever’s on his mind. It’s the most direct way to view his passion, I think, because it feels relatively unfiltered—it isn’t, we know that, but it feels more raw than a song—and it’s not hidden behind layers of cleverness.

He’s talked about his struggle to gain traction in the fashion industry, despite his success with Nike. He’s talked about what he wants to be to society, who he respects, what he hates, and what he loves. It’s wide-ranging, but that makes sense, because West is self-admittedly a guy who is interested in a lot of things, from Margiela to Akira.

These interludes are almost always called “rants” by music journalists. Despite being planned, despite being a regular feature, they are “rants” because…Kanye West is a passionate dude, and sometimes he gets emotional when talking about things. You can see it when he goes in on Sway on Shade45 or when he got at George W Bush over Katrina.

By calling these interludes “rants,” the media is painting West with a very specific brush. The word rant implies that the thoughts are off-the-cuff, overly emotional, and therefore invalid. It’s “Look what this kooky guy said now!” instead of engaging with any of his points.

It happens to all of us, of course. We all have triggers that make us get weepy or excited in conversation, I know I have a lot of dumb ones, but that doesn’t make them invalid or malformed. It just means you care, right? And that your level of care exceeds your calm nature for a moment. The opinions you’re expressing aren’t invalid because you stumble over your words or have to pause to collect yourself.

Passion isn’t perfect. I think that’s pretty obvious. West isn’t 100% right about everything, but he has been 100% right about specific things. The presence of passion doesn’t mean that you have to believe everything someone says. It’s just a factor that will, or should, help you judge what they’re saying and where they’re coming from. By recognizing West’s passion, I can tell that he genuinely cares about the stuff he’s talking about, and that helps me evaluate how I feel about what he said and where he’s coming from.

But he’s not ranting. He’s speaking his mind.

Comics has an outrage problem.

I don’t mean people getting up in arms over things, either. That’s an issue unto itself, and like anything else, it could be better than it currently is in several different ways, but that’s not today’s conversation.

What I’m talking about is how we—the comics community—describe, talk about, and address the concerns of people who are upset about one thing or another. The way we talk about outrage fatigue, outrage-of-the-week, faux outrage, outrage-o-matic, misplaced outrage, another outrage, this outrage, that outrage, and why it’s gross and short-sighted. How we use “tumblr” as a pejorative but ignore the poison in our own forums and followers.

The way we use the word outrage suggests that the outrage in question is fake and irrational, on account of being poorly thought-out and overly emotional. It happens every time someone brings up a point to do with equality, sexism, racism, or justice. It’s the same tactic the music media uses to devalue Kanye’s rants. They’re invalid, an inconvenience, annoying, or fake because you can see the emotions driving it, and emotional reactions aren’t valid.

We use the presence of passion to first diminish and then dismiss arguments. The offended must play by the rules of the unoffended, or even worse, the offenders, in order to be heard. You have to tamp down that pain if you want to get help or fix it. You can see it when people say things like “Thank you for being civil” when arguing something heated with someone they disagree with. Civility is great, sure, but we’re forcing people who feel like they’re under attack to meet us on our own terms. In reality, passion shouldn’t be dismissed. Passion has a purpose.

The way we treat passionate reactions is unbalanced, too. We eat up gleeful reviews or tweets like they’re pudding and retweet them by the dozen. There are sites out there that have used the word “masterpiece” over ten thousand times. We promote fawning interviews and king-making, but never once question passionate praise the way we do passionate criticism.

Comics as a community tends to react to every new outrage with disbelief and scorn, lumping them in with “the crazy ones” or “tumblr” instead of looking at what they’re actually saying and figuring out what it means. Every once and a while we’ll band together like “Yeah! That IS bad!” when something is particularly egregious and “safe” to comment on, but a month later? We’re back to blindly propping up garbage men and ignoring people’s pain. The arc of the argument is the same, whether we’re talking sexual harassment or creators’ rights.

No matter how you feel about whichever issue is at hand, whether you agree or disagree or loathe both sides, you should think real hard before responding to anything. Think about what the person is saying and where they’re coming from. Think about why they’re saying it. Think about your position in society, our culture, or our dumb little hobby and think about the position of the person you’re about to put on blast. Think about what you’re about to bring to the conversation. Think about how your words will be received, even if—especially if—the originator didn’t.

That’s a bitter pill to swallow, the idea that you should take your lumps and do the work you think somebody else didn’t do. But life sucks, y’all, and if I have to choose between someone who doesn’t like somebody else’s tone or someone who doesn’t really know how to argue but has fascinating points about our culture, I’m going for the latter, even when I’m the one under the gun. One of those people has a lot to lose. The other is inconvenienced.

That power differential is important to keep in mind. Despite the petitions, despite the so-called outrage, fans have very little real control over the comics industry. As professionals, as journalists or creators or promoters or whoever we are, our voice generally has a much, much broader reach than the offended. The weight of our reactions when criticized often goes much, much farther. We have less to lose by virtue of being in a position of power by default, and that makes it exceedingly important to check yourself and your reactions.

A lot of people don’t feel welcome in the greater comics community. We created and create this environment with our words and actions. If it’s not people hassling you over taste or creeping on you at cons or making “funny” jokes about things you care about, it’s seeing how people respond to outrage. When you see a community consistently dis and dismiss people expressing their pain, you’re less likely to share your own pain when the time comes, because odds are good you’re gonna feel a lot worse when the usual suspects get ahold of your words and the blowback starts coming in.

The way we talk about outrage-in-the-abstract has a way of building further outrage in addition to diminishing other types. Where some people will shy away out of self-preservation, others will go even harder because they know you won’t listen. They know their words will be skimmed and stripped of context before being ignored and insulted. To have a point you care deeply about and then to be told that point is irrelevant and invalid—that warrants anger, doesn’t it?

I have friends who simply don’t talk about things or hold back because they know their words will fall on deaf ears or worse. My friends have been screwed with on a level that’s incredibly frustrating and continually disappointing. In watching how they’re treated and talking to them about it, in watching what happens to the men and women who would rather send out tough guy threats and harassment, I’ve learned that a lot of things don’t get said because the offended doesn’t have any real power but their words, and others with more power will eagerly leverage their power to crush the dissent in the name of “keeping the peace.”

But we talk and we share and we know who is receptive to our stories, who will pretend like they are to gain brownie points or satisfy their ego, and who’ll smile and nod and move along at their earliest convenience because they just don’t care. We pay attention to the reaction to the outrage because the odds are good we’ll be in those shoes one day, should we decide our stories are worth the cost of the telling.

We’re in a complex place right now, in terms of our culture and people who speak on it. Suddenly a lot of people who were limited by the hateful whims of our culture in the past—non-whites, women, trans persons, gay people, and more—are able to sign up for a platform to express their views and speak their truth in a way that the mainstream has largely never seen before and often doesn’t know how to react to.

As a result, we’re realizing the way we enable -isms and hate by simply going about our daily lives the way we always have. We’re seeing the anger and sadness and passion that has been tamped down and ignored for years bubble up, and the conversations are often fraught with tension thanks to both sides and every participant coming from different places and contexts. There are more moving parts in these conversations than in two Space Shuttles.

Case in point: I realized I had to put subtle disclaimers in this piece just so someone wouldn’t get at me on some “Well, I don’t think all outrage is valid like you do, and here’s why you’re dumb for thinking that.” I know for a fact that’ll happen if I don’t try to beat it, even though other adults are clearly capable of understanding that talking about a thing isn’t necessarily complete unquestioning support of that thing.

That’s what I mean about the reaction to outrage being enlightening. I know the countermoves, the derailing moves, and I have to spin my wheels trying to head off the “Why don’t you get mad about real things?” or “You’re just angry all the time” or “Oh great, more faux outrage” goons on an essay that is fundamentally about how everyone should think more, jeer less, and process things a little bit longer before they react.

It sucks right now. I get that, and I empathize, whether you’re talking about the hate for the social justice conversation or the deluge of complaints that you can’t control and wish would stop. But it’s not gonna get better by going out of your way to talk about outrage and the outraged as if they were basic children, full of fury and lacking in thought. It’s not gonna get better when we have more editorials decrying “outrage” in general than we do editorials actively discussing and dissecting the outrage itself.

It’s not gonna get better if we choose ego instead of empathy every single time we’re up at bat. It’s not gonna get better if we aren’t willing to at least appear to listen. It’s not gonna get better if we paint every passionate criticism as “outrage” and stick our tongues out at it. It won’t get better if we pre-reject what people have to say.

If we paint every outrage with scare quotes and pithy jokes about the internet churning up outrage for no good reason, regardless of the outrage in question, we’re blocking progress. We’re telling some people not to share their thoughts, and we’re telling others that we don’t deserve their respect and honesty. Both are embarrassing, frankly, and abhorrent.

We need to be more kind, and this brand of kindness takes conscious effort.

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25 comments to “Beyond Outrage”

  1. Comments are open, and here is the whole of the law: be good or be silenced.

  2. I remember pretty distinctly a few years ago reacting against outrage. Someone was complaining about a book I liked because it didn’t have any trans characters. Not that it featured them poorly or trucked in outdated, toxic stereotypes, just that it straight up didn’t have any. I was halfway through a knee-jerk dumbass response (“Most books don’t have any trans characters, why are you picking on this one? There aren’t THAT many trans people so of course most comics won’t have any” and other tired bullshit) when I realized why the fuck should it bother me if that’s someone else’s meter by which they judge a book?

    It was a pretty simple switch from “that’s a shitty metric” to “oh shit, if you use that metric, then most everything is pretty fucked up.” It’s still not a measurement I’d use, but it became something useful to keep in mind on the whole.

  3. Not everyone’s opinion is worth our time just because someone screams really loud. People tried to get Rick fired, they lied to the public to do so, and used emotional pleas instead of telling the truth as an argument. End of story.

    Empathy is not an excuse to act like a brat

  4. @Conway: Thank you. Completely agree.

  5. I don’t think he’s saying that every opinion is created equal, just that outrage doesn’t discredit it. Yeah, in that one case it didn’t take much time to see that controversy was a fart in a stiff wind, but I also don’t think that was the “outrage fatigue” that David was necessarily referring to.

  6. @Conway & @Jake: This isn’t about that. It’s about how comics treats outrage. None of it says every argument is worth your time. It’s about how you treat the people making the arguments.


    Case in point: I realized I had to put subtle disclaimers in this piece just so someone wouldn’t get at me on some “Well, I don’t think all outrage is valid like you do, and here’s why you’re dumb for thinking that.” I know for a fact that’ll happen if I don’t try to beat it, even though other adults are clearly capable of understanding that talking about a thing isn’t necessarily complete unquestioning support of that thing.

    Both of you, Jack and Conway, are doing exactly what people do to derail arguments and turn comments threads into pits. If you’re not going to honestly engage with the topic at hand, I don’t want you writing here.

  7. @Conway: Uh, aren’t you doing exactly what David is talking about here. Instead of trying to figure out where that anger was coming from, or realizing how little power those people had (come on, they never had the ability to get Rick fired), you’re dismissing them for being emotional and “bratty” and not arguing at the highest standard. This piece is talking about how we RESPOND to people who are angry, esp when there are significant power dynamics and involve communities who already feel marginalized in the communit, regardless of whether or not we think they are right in their opinions or mode of expression.

  8. Thanks for putting this up David, I agree with most of it and was wondering if you think the “Don’t Read the Comments movement” plays into this at all?

    I can’t help but feel the hostility from all sides plays a huge chunk in all of this.

  9. @Conway: Maybe if Marvel had responded to readers’ complaints regarding Remnder’s OC back way back at issue #6, instead of dismissing the concerns as ‘fake geek girl’ outrage, then this whole thing could have been avoided.

  10. @CH: I’d rather not re-hash that argument here! It’s part of the point, but beside the point, if you get me. I think it’s important to look at in light of comics & controversy, but this isn’t necessarily the place to “solve” it. Those guys aren’t interested in a debate, anyway.

    @Rick Vance: I think it plays into yet, yeah. I’m a comments reader. I think the feedback or additional discussion can be valuable, but only if you’re willing to weed your comments. But “Don’t Read The Comments” builds an atmosphere where the only people worth listening to are those with established platforms, and that often cuts out people with valuable things to say. Instead of “don’t read the comments” it should be “make sure your comment is additive” or “take better care of your comments section,” really.

    The hostility is a problem for sure. I don’t know how to fix it. A lot of it is warranted, I’ve been That Guy, but it’s tougher to conversate when both sides are out for blood. I mean, case in point—I said “let’s be kinder” and two dudes showed up to tell me that I’m wrong about something I didn’t even talk about. The game’s messed up right now.

  11. Thanks for laying this out. Last week was a cluster all around, but the point at which I finally threw my hands in the air was all the aftermath comments that consisted of, “Well, if you people hadn’t been so angry we could have had a conversation about the underlying issues.” All I could think of was, “Since when?” Dismissal of concerns from those outside of the traditional target audience is pretty standard, this time there was just a stronger than usual excuse. Complain about sexism or misogyny? You’re lucky if you get a response as civil as, “You don’t like it? Don’t read it.” Complain about racism, the erasure of sexual identity, or queer stereotypes? “I’m not looking to push an agenda.” And on, and on. There are some professionals who are willing to engage in a good faith discussion, sure, but by and large it seems like most look for an excuse — any excuse — to avoid looking at exclusionary content head-on. If the larger part of the industry actually wanted to have these conversations as productive discussions, we’d be having them already, and to hear folks pretend that the people they’ve managed to upset are the reason it’s not happening gets really, really frustrating after a while.

  12. @Rene T.: Yeah, something I couldn’t get into was the issue of perceived anger instead of genuine anger. Sometimes talking about sensitive things passionately to one degree or another makes people who aren’t up on those things—white people when talking about race, heterosexuals when talking about homosexuality, etc—take it like you’re upset, instead of delivering facts. Someone once asked a friend of mine if being around me was like being at a black power rally all the time, which I thought was funny at first but tastes sour the more and more often I think about it. People can read into your words and reply to their reading, instead of what you actually said, not unlike Conway and Jake up there.

    It’s a very difficult situation to navigate sometimes.

  13. @david brothers: My apologies – I definitely do not (and frankly don’t have the energy) to re-hash the whole debate, or to derail the comments. So let me try this again – there’s no question that comic fandom has an outrage problem. But what is more serious and troubling to non-white/straight/male readers is that the professionals and the creators have an outrage problem, which is what last week’s incident really exposed.

  14. I teach college writing and one of the biggest points I make throughout the quarter is the importance of empathy to writing: just the simple process of understanding your audience enough to be able to tailor your thoughts to communicate them. Failing to perform this simple act of empathy is a disrespect aimed directly at your reader – and this is true whether or not we’re discussing a history essay being graded by a burnt-out TA or a snarky reply in the comments section when someone offers up a personal story about abuse or assault. Disrespect deserves disrespect in return.

    Courtesy and respect seem like such small things in isolation. Whenever I see someone acting like a tool online I just have to wonder at how badly their parents failed to instill good manners in them. Do they slam the door on people in wheelchairs and spit at fast-food workers? Probably . . .

  15. One really important thing that I think you hit on that doesn’t get quite enough attention is the idea that the triggers that make us react passionately are signs that we care.

    There is a sincerity present in those passionate reactions that is often dismissed and practically reviled in an arena where the critical yet often emotionless “think piece” or purely analytical review dominates. It’s the same reason why “tumblr” is used as a pejorative—it’s a realm where feelings and emotions are actually treated with some respect, where it’s okay, perhaps even cool to like or dislike something because of how it makes you feel, even if it’s a critically horrible piece of media.

    And it’s something that’s bred into the way we teach people how to write. Many of us are taught that arguments are made weaker by the use of “I feel,” that proper debates are regarded as logical, emotionless things because people confuse civility with a lack of emotional engagement. If you are talking about your emotional reaction to something, then it had better have something to do with the actual quality of the story and not something that the majority may view as ancillary.

    I think we’re going to see a bit of a shift in this kind of thinking as time goes on. David Foster Wallace predicted a “New Sincerity” that would replace the ironic detachment that has prevailed for some time now, and I think we’re seeing that start to take shape. The response to outrage borders on a generational clash between those who learned in their formative years that it wasn’t cool to have your emotions on display and those who think sincere emotional reactions are an appropriate level of truth that should be treated with more respect than they currently receive.

  16. The reason I think people react so negatively to outrage among the fanbase in comics is that we only see the loudest, vilest comments and think that’s all there is to it. They are the ones that jump up and grab us, first and foremost.

    I know this isn’t only about the Rick Remender debate, but using it as an example I can say, having watched it unfold on both twitter and tumblr, it really did start with the ugliest possible types of threats. Threats of beating up Remender, castrating him, burning down his house, outright murdering him, and of raping him. A lot of good criticism and concern was lost in that storm of death threats and intimidation. I cannot really blame anyone who was watching, particularly in the early days, for being dismissive of the ‘outrage’when that seemed to be the majority of the message. I cannot blame creators for seeing that and getting immensely shocked and defensive of their fellow creator. It really was vile in a way that just should not be acceptable. It was identical to the firestorm on CBR over the Teen Titans cover and Janelle Asselin, it was just coming from a different section of the community.

    Threats seem to be a loud and consistent element of fan communication in comic books, no matter the particular section of the comics community we are talking about. Threats are thrown around with reckless abandon by every side, at creators, critics and fellow fans.

    It was disturbing to watch, and made me rethink my active participation in the comic book community.

    Call it passion if you want, but calls for mutilation, rape and death are never acceptable, no matter who it is targeting and no matter who is saying it. Cloaking criticism of a comic book in that kind of violent rhetoric is not the way forward.

  17. […] Read the rest of David Brothers’ Beyond Outrage on his blog. […]

  18. First, I agree with this piece. I think we should all be thinking critically when we’re criticized, and not dismiss those criticisms out of hand due to their source.

    It’s not gonna get better if we choose ego instead of empathy every single time we’re up at bat. It’s not gonna get better if we aren’t willing to at least appear to listen. It’s not gonna get better if we paint every passionate criticism as “outrage” and stick our tongues out at it. It won’t get better if we pre-reject what people have to say.

    I think this applies to all sides. Everyone in the world, even the people you disagree with, is a person, and people are worth of empathy. Empathy is not the same as agreement, or passivity, or being a doormat. It means that you are more likely to accomplish your goal, whatever it is, if you consider the person you’re talking to as a human being with complex thoughts and emotions.

    It also means you maintain basic civility when you’re talking with someone. I’ve seen people defending sexism hope that “those feminists get raped”. I’ve also seen activists say that they hope such-and-such creator would “just die” because “he’s a piece of human garbage”. That’s not ok. No matter how mad you are, or how justified your anger is. It’s not acceptable to wish death or violence on another human being.

  19. @Nick: there’s a tangible difference between “he’s a piece of human garbage” and threats of rape. hell, there’s a tangible difference with colloquial use of “just die” and threats of rape. They aren’t equivalent and presenting them as such does little to help your point.

  20. @destro:

    First of all, I could make an excellent case that the way that teenage boys make rape jokes or even rape threats is “colloquial” and therefore acceptable. I don’t because that’s stupid and harmful.

    Second, Of course there’s a difference in context and the two statements are not equivalent in intensity or effect. One is less harmful than the other. It doesn’t mean it’s not harmful.

    If I break my arm and you twist your ankle, the fact that my injury hurts more doesn’t mean that yours doesn’t hurt. I’m not arguing that they should be prioritized the same, that you should get the same medical treatment as me or the first ambulance that comes. I’m saying it’s possible for me to tell you about my broken arm without kicking your twisted ankle.

    It would be polite for you, right at the moment that that I’m screaming in pain, not to complain about your twisted ankle, or claim that you know how I feel because you sprained your wrist back in seventh grade. It would also be polite for me not to scream in your face because you pissed me off with your clueless statements and claim that you had never known pain ever in your life. It would be absolutely justified of me to act that way, but would it be right? When did we decide to stop trying to be better people then those who hurt us? When did we decide that sinking to their level was a good idea?

  21. Off topic a bit, but it’s funny about the “disclaimers,” because although we’ve met only briefly, you seemed like a dude who enjoys life quite a bit. I wonder if people think you’re angry all the time because you actually write about things that make them uncomfortable, which is a different thing altogether. But one of the reasons I like reading your stuff is BECAUSE you write about topics that a white, straight, male American like me has no context for. Are you sure On-Line David Brothers and the Real World David Brothers are the same person? 🙂

  22. Thanks for this, David. For the record, I don’t think you’re just talking about comics culture. I can think of several other, vastly different conversations that this adds significantly too–which really just proves your point. Why must all these differently constructed, differently nuanced conversations in so many different contexts all end up sounding so damn similar? Because no one’s fucking listening.

  23. […] offers a piece to think about before you dismiss criticism as “outrage” — or worse, “faux […]

  24. @HD: I think that you have brought up a good point here, more often than not there are a number of uncalled for and disturbingly violent reactions in the comments section of this or that. I certainly agree with this article- empathy and respect are important when dealing with others and when considering how we will respond to a variety of situations. I am a high school teacher, I often promote discussion among my students, but one of the most difficult things to teach them is how to respectfully listen to a differing opinion, then respond to one another in a polite manner. However, I think that there are two elements that we have not yet considered in this discussion.

    The first is that most of us (hopefully) would not act that way in our everyday lives, yet there are a plethora of individuals whose comments are violent or distasteful. I believe that some of this “tough-talk” is the result of the anonymity offered by the internet. If these discussions were taking place face to face I’m sure they would play out differently. Of course there are always going to be violent or crude individuals, but most people put more effort into controlling their reactions when they are face to face with another human being. I have never, and probably never will, see any of you. Thankfully, we are all willing to share our comments and reactions in a respectful way, but had I chosen to be rude then I would never have to face the concequences. Though some of you may react negatively, there is nothing forcing me to respond or even look at these comments ever again, meaning there are no concequences for my choices. For some people this seems to be a free pass to behave in a way that would normally be socially unacceptable.

    When considering communication on the internet I feel we should also consider the fact that it can sometimes be difficult to determine someone’s “tone of voice” from text. We’ve all probably experienced a time when we sent a text to a friend, but our intentions were misunderstood due to the fact that either we misused a word or our tone was misunderstood. A close friend recently told me about a fight that occured on her facebook wall (an essay unto itself) that started because her cousin asked one of her friends a question about a phobia. This person’s husband was furious with my friend’s cousin simply becuase the cousin used two question marks when asking a genuine question. The cousin was trying to indicate surprise, but the husband was almost violently offended even though his wife was not upset by the question.

    I believe that this also happens over email and in the comments sections in every corner of the internet. I think that these misunderstandings contribute to some of the knee-jerk reactions that people have when they respond to “outrage” on the internet.

  25. This is a long essay; I disagree with large sections but unfortunately I can’t address them all point by point as I would really like. But I will say this – they way you say something matters just as much, if not more than the way you say it.

    Furthermore, there are both constructive ways and ways not so constructive to demonstrate passion. Complaining about your problem on twitter is usually the latter, instead take a five minute break and write a rational letter or email to the person\people that can do something about it. I’m a very political person, I get passionate about a lot of things, not once has complaining on twitter using #HashtagOftheWeek done more good than a calmly worded email to my MP. From anti-terror legislation to equal marriage, I’ve held her to account.

    In the far less important world of comics, or indeed any art, I put my money where my mouth is and refuse to buy the product if I don’t like it’s direction and\or the creator. For example, I refuse to buy anything that lines the pockets of Orson Scott Card because I disagree with his political beliefs. I think that’s a more effective strategy than complaining on Twitter about whatever new rubbish he’s spouted this week but buying Enders Game on DVD anyway.