Overreaching Outrage

‘Society’s rewarding of outrage means we are ever less-inclined to give people what we used to call “the benefit of the doubt”’

The Outsider's Diary
Sean Spicer: The Press Secretary's public embarrassment wasn't enough for some  (Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0)

The words of the White House press secretary are particularly vulnerable to hostile interpretation. Not that Sean Spicer helps himself much. His comment that the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons “sunk” to depths not explored by Adolf Hitler naturally caused the world’s media to leap on him. Did he mean to suggest Hitler had never used chemical weapons? Or that he hadn’t used them on the battlefield? Subsequent corrections showed Spicer at the limits of his historical knowledge as well as guilty of rhetorical over-reach.

Yet as in so many other recent cases, public humiliation and abasement were not enough. Chelsea Clinton was widely praised for suggesting on Twitter that Spicer ought to visit the nearby Holocaust Museum in Washington. A group calling itself the “Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect” (which has recently emerged as a shrill far-left pressure group with no connection to Anne Frank or her family and no recognised expertise in Holocaust study) went further still. It issued a public statement (in upper-case letters) insisting that Spicer must be fired immediately “for engaging in Holocaust denial”. Do such groups have any idea of the damage they are doing?

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As well as being one of the great delaying mechanisms of modern times, YouTube is one of the great gifts of our age. It not only allows us to watch  videos of cats and people falling over, but also serious discussions like the recent one between Tim Keller and the sociologist Jonathan Haidt at NYU. What a model discussion it was. Haidt (whose book The Righteous Mind is one of the best explanations of modern politics I know) is respectful towards religion while being an atheist. Keller is a deeply learned reader of philosophy and sociology, and a pastor. Perhaps most striking was the agreement from both speakers over not only what is broken in our culture but what might be done to fix it. Particularly interesting was the observation that our society’s rewarding of outrage (fuelled by social media) means that we are ever less-inclined to give people what we used to call “the benefit of the doubt”. Increasingly, we put the worst possible gloss on people’s words and intentions so that any discussion across boundaries (believers versus non-believers, Left versus Right) becomes almost impossible. Can the urge be resisted? Perhaps, but we would have to have the right role models. Haidt and Keller are certainly two such.

As Anthony Powell noted at length, the universe sometimes resolves into what almost appears to be a pattern. So it looked to me when Martin McGuinness died of natural causes and was immediately eulogised by the political mainstream. Twenty-four hours later Khalid Masood drove a car into the pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and slaughtered a policeman at the gates of Parliament. Another 24 hours later and the House of Commons joined together in repeating the mantra that we never give in to terrorism. The universe itself might have snorted.

I happened to be on the BBC’s Any Questions that week and Masood’s actions had already knocked McGuinness off the agenda. As the programme came to a close I remarked to the presenter, Jonathan Dimbleby, what a shame it was that our verbosity on other matters meant we hadn’t got around to McGuinness. So, with their consent, after recording we gave the live audience a McGuinness debate for free. I thought it the most telling exchange of the night.

The Green Party’s Caroline Lucas shook her head continuously while I reminded people of the deaths McGuinness had been involved in. And when I pointed out that any future terrorist might look at the former IRA leader’s career path and wonder whether political murder mightn’t pay, she sighed dramatically. But I think the point stands. If Masood had survived his attack and gone on to lead an organisation that killed hundreds of policemen, rather than just one, there is no reason why he could not one day have become a respected public servant.

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Some years ago a friend passed on the superb advice that whenever someone recommends (or much worse, gives you) a mediocre modern novel you should read a great novel you have never got around to. In just such a situation I realised that there were several stories by Turgenev that I had never read.

After reading “Mumu” in one go, I spent the following days reeling from the upset. Without giving away the plot to anyone who has not read it, it is about a mute serf who befriends a stray dog. Great literature often provokes this feeling of simultaneously recognising how much you have gained from a work and almost wishing you had not read it. There may be no serfdom to rail against today, but cruelty towards animals suddenly becomes a burning concern.