By Alison Parkes

May 8, 2013

This piece is written in response to these three articles which have appeared within the past couple of weeks

1)  Hooked on outrage in the Twitter wars  by Jacqueline Maley, 20 April Fairfax

2)  The left takes a turn for the ugly as power slips through Labor’s grasp by Chris Johnson, 28 April Fairfax

3)  Feminist backs Abbott on ‘calibre’ comment  by  Heath Aston and Jonathan Swan, 7 May Fairfax

What these three articles share in common is a criticism of how people, particularly those on the Left, use Twitter to express outrage at comments made by Tony Abbott, Alan Jones, and the politician Dennis Jensen. These three articles use outrage-shaming to mock the reaction of the Left to insensitive and offensive comments from the Right.

Outrage-shaming occurs when people in mainstream media (MSM) use it as a pulpit to shame people on Twitter over their outrage or reactions to a event. Recent articles based on outrage-shaming have targeted the Left, women and the working class, groups that have traditionally been shamed into silence for breaching the polite rules of society.

Too loud, too much, too emotional, too public.

If you don’t like something Tony Abbott said, and take to Twitter to express your opinion, people who disagree with you will dismiss this as inappropriate outrage. This can be also called faux-outrage or confected-outrage by those who think the reaction has gone too far.

Say too much and MSM journalists will write a newspaper column about you. Keep your emotions under control, don’t react, stay quiet, don’t get angry, say nothing – most importantly, do not get outraged. The MSM will decide the narrative and context and the circumstances in which you will be outraged.

This outrage as a means of control is not new. For centuries moral panics have come from the elites – the wealthy, the law, the churches, the men – from the top down, and have covered everything from witches who could wither crops with just a glance and Muslim terrorists to satanic heavy metal or the evils of jazz or rap music, unemployed single mothers on welfare to people in boats. Moral panics have been used to control behaviour, kids and their music, widowed women who owned property, people who prayed to a different God or had no God. Groups are held up as an example of how not to live, to shame those who have transgressed the boundaries, into repenting. Shaming also serves as a warning of what might happen if you, too, think about breaking the rules. The latest moral panic in MSM is ‘The Left are using Twitter to express outrage.

Feminist Eva Cox described the Twitter reaction to Tony Abbott’s “women of calibre” comment, from ordinary users as well as Penny Wong and Tanya Plibersek, as “an overreaction“. Sorry Twitter, you may react, just don’t over-react.

Of course you are entitled to free speech, be careful how you use it.

As Maley wrote in  Hooked on outrage in the Twitter wars:

Freedom of speech is one thing, but at a certain point in political debate you have to turn down the volume of the extreme voices at the edge of the debate, so you can have a reasoned one in the middle. You have to filter out the outrage and, even harder, not allow yourself to get outraged by the outrageous. –

So what if people take to their own Twitter accounts to express outrage?

People don’t always tweet expecting their conversations will be evaluated by mainstream journalists for levels of appropriate outrage.

And tweets that on the surface may appear to be an over-reaction aren’t always actually about outrage. Tweets can be used for humour, venting, sharing personal and painful experience and connecting with others. How different is this from the salons and cafes where people meet and talk, the turn of the century French Bohemian cafes or Dorothy Parker of the Algonquin Round Table and her acid-tongue put downs repeated to this day. Or the Pubs, the clubs and backyard barbecues and Sydney University Liberal Club president’s dinners.

Of course you are entitled to free speech, just not so outrageously public.

Tweeps aren’t like the street-corner preachers shouting their opinions of the world at anyone who passes by. Tweeps are having a conversation with their community. To outsiders these conversations may seem extreme. To insiders they are just chatting with friends and family. Twitter is an exchange of ideas – if you don’t like it, don’t read it.

Phrases such as “destroy the joint” (Alan Jones) or “women of calibre” (Tony Abbott) can hurt. They are judgement statements that value a person based on their gender or class or income. Sometimes the only way people have to deflect that hurt is to turn it around and share with others who may feel hurt by these statements.

Not everyone has a national newspaper column in which to share their feelings or clever, witty comments; for many people Twitter is their community and logging in feels like coming home.

Quite often the outrage is not confected, it comes from the hurt caused by insensitive or offensive comments. And what many critics miss in their outrage at the outrage is that much of it is humour.

Laughing at Tony Abbott takes away his power to hurt. Laughing at one of Tony Abbott’s insensitive comments is one way to take the sting out the hurt those comments may cause. The way many people express this hurt if they don’t have a national newspaper column is that they share with their friends and community. Should it matter if those friends are in person or online? When MSM journalists like Maley or feminists like Eva Cox or Mia Freedman (who runs a blog worth millions of dollars) try and explain the context or the narrative or defend these comments, they are minimising this hurt and the injustice by focusing on the reaction rather than the comments that caused it. This compounds the hurt and further feeds the outrage.

“Outrage” also depends on your political views. When reading Twitter though a filter of your own political views you are more likely to see any reaction you don’t agree with as criticism. If you feel picked on by the Left (Maley: “Twitter trolls – who in my experience, tend to be nasty left-wingers more than conservatives”), perhaps that is because you are viewing Twitter from the Right.

If your starting position is sympathy for Tony Abbott, you will likely see people using Twitter to mock Abbott and his comments as too much outrage, and unlikely to understand the people who Abbott is passing judgement over.

Who decides how much is too much, or how much is just enough? Who does? Twitter users, that’s who. Much in the way ‘The Simpsons’ newsreader Kent Brockman watches the Duff blimp go down in flames and mutters “Oh, the humanity… anyway”, the users and consumers will decide for themselves. People vent, people will rage, then they move on to the next thing they enjoy getting outraged about. If something is no longer interesting, people will find something else to tweet about. That is the nature of social media.

As Bob Dylan said The times they are a-Changin’.

Mainstream media is a one way conversation. You see what they print, you see what they broadcast, you don’t get to talk back. Twitter, however, is a two-way conversation, and you choose information you want by choosing who to follow. It is an exchange – you get to talk back, publicly.

Malcolm Turnbull in a speech to parliament succinctly described what this new way of consuming online news and media is having on major media organisation:

Established players are under great threat. Rupert Murdoch… has said that the internet will destroy more profitable businesses than it will create, and certainly a lot of Rupert Murdoch’s businesses are very much under challenge.

Media giants need to rise to the challenge that is social media, not just sit on the sidelines and take cheap shots at the players. The journalists too, and not only those who work for Murdoch’s New Limited, are not enjoying the transition to social media or an old media/social media hybrid.

With social media, the readers talk back. The power structure has changed – it is no longer top-down. News, opinion and entertainment have become more democratic, peer-to-peer, and the old players have to evolve or get off the playing field.

Perhaps it’s time the Old Media (MSM) stopped telling us what the context should be and let us decide for ourselves. It’s time old media stop telling us we are are over-reacting, or expressing too much outrage (or too little) to comments which they would all but ignore if not for the outrage coming from Twitter.

If the most important wrap-up at the end of the day is how people reacted on Twitter, instead of an examination of the policies and promises coming from politicians, then our media have long since ceased to be relevant in most peoples lives.

Instead of telling us what to feel, how about we have a conversation of why “women of calibre” offended people, or why “destroy the joint” started a movement, or why “died of shame” shocked the nation. Rather than criticising Twitter users for reacting, let’s look at why they are reacting.

How about we look at Shock Jocks and newspaper columnists who are informing the nation with their opinions. It’s certainly time we took a longer look at Tony Abbott, the man who so often makes these comments which cause an uproar amongst Twitter Left. Let us look at the man who would be Prime Minster and his policies and attitudes towards women. Instead of concentrating on how people are reacting to what he is saying, let us take some column-inches to reflect on why Tony Abbott is saying these things, or spend a few less airtime minutes on the latest handbag purchase of an athletes wife and look at why Tony Abbott’s comments hurt people.

Let us look at the message, rather than attack the messenger.

There is an old saying, on Television legal shows:

1. If the facts are against you, argue the law.
2. If the law is against you, argue the facts.
3. If the facts and the law are against you, thump the table.

This MSM outrage at the Twitter outrage (outrage-shaming) is thumping the table. It does not examine why people are outraged, or why people are turning away from Mainstream Media and are exchanging ideas on Twitter, Old media is thumping the table.