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MIA: In the rush to be outraged over everything, we dilute what's truly shocking.

Sarrah le Marquand

Yesterday, Australian writer Sarrah Le Marquand did a terrible thing. Unforgivable, it was.

She wrote a column about the recent spate of flare-ups in restaurants and cafes between customers with kids vs customers without.

But it wasn’t the subject matter that provoked outrage, it was her use of one word.

She wrote:

Once a word associated with the horrors of racial segregation in South Africa, a new form of apartheid has crept into the restaurants and cafes of suburban Australia. The divide is as simple as it is absolute: those who sit down for lunch in the company of their crayon-carrying offspring, and those who do not.

You don’t have to be that smart to see that irony and hyperbole were being used here in the same way that someone may have called this issue a first world problem.

But why debate the point when you can decimate the writer for her choice of words instead? It’s easier.

Today, US website Jezebel devoted an entire column to attacking and humiliating Le Marquand for her offensive use of the word apartheid, calling it:

Describing Le Marquand as, “offensively ignorant, desperate and ill-advised”, the Jezebel writer goes on to get even more worked up.

 I honestly cannot figure out whether Sarrah le Marquand is trying to use the term “apartheid” (God, I shudder every time I type that), which, again, refers to a brutally inhumane decades-long system of racial segregation and violence, in a positive way.

Shudder? Really? We can’t even write a word down now without having to have a physical reaction to it to show your outraged empathy? 

Please. I’m suffering from outrage exhaustion. There’s just too much of it going around.

Peter Greste.

I’m not exhausted by the big stuff. Peter Greste jailed for seven years for simply doing his job as a journalist. A Sudanese woman sentenced to death for marrying outside her religion.

A pregnant woman being beaten to death with bricks by a crowd of men including male relatives who felt ‘dishonoured’ by her marrying without their permission. 

There are a lot of despicable things going on in the world deserving of outrage and at the top of my list are things like injustice, abuse and misogyny.  Everyone’s list is different. Outrage is subjective.

But I’m finding myself exasperated and exhausted by the length of some people’s lists. It’s not that I’m trying to dictate what offends others, it’s more the expectation that to be a decent, thoughtful, considerate person in 2014, you must take on everyone else’s outrage as your own and attack everybody for everything, regardless of what they were TRYING to say.

I find this hard.

Here are some of the things I’m not outraged about: metaphors and analogies. Comparing one thing to another, more dramatic thing to help illustrate a point does not fire me up.

For some people, though….comparisons are RIGHT UP THERE on their list of offensive and outrageous slurs against humanity. And these people tend to shout very, very loudly giving them disproportionate power to distort public opinion.

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Some recent examples:

1. CHARLIZE THERON: Asked if she ever Googled herself, Theron said, “I don’t do that, so that’s my saving grace. When you start living in that world, and doing that, you start I guess feeling raped.”

CUE: OUTRAGE BECAUSE MEDIA INTRUSION IS NOT THE SAME AS RAPE, CHARLIZE. #SHAMEONYOU

2. GWYNETH PALTROW: Speaking about the effect of Internet trolls, Patrow said,  “It’s a very dehumanizing thing. It’s almost like how, in war, you go through this bloody, dehumanizing thing, and then something is defined out of it. My hope is as we get out of it, we’ll reach the next level of conscience.”

CUE: OUTRAGE BECAUSE ONLINE ABUSE IS NOT THE SAME AS GOING TO IRAQ, GWYNETH. #YOUAREADISGRACE

3. LUPITA NYONG’O: When asked by Vogue magazine about the fashion buzz she created during awards season and what that felt like for a newbie, Nyong’o said: “The red carpet feels like a war zone, except you cannot fly or fight; you just have to stand there and take it.”

CUE: OUTRAGE BECAUSE DIDN’T YOU LEARN ANYTHING FROM THE GWYNETH WAR BACKLASH, LUPITA? #IGNORANTFOOL

In this case, Nyong’o did learn something. Immediately after the words left her mouth, she saw the future and tried to stuff them back in. “I hope they don’t make that the big quote!” she fretted to the interviewer. “Because that would be sad! Tell them not to do that!” Vogue didn’t need to make it into a big quote. The outrage happened anyway and Nyong’o was slammed.

 These are three intelligent, articulate, socially aware women who were simply trying to use words to explain very specific emotions and experiences about which they had been directly asked, to people who will never walk in their shoes.

And for that, they were publicly crucified. [CUE: OUTRAGE BECAUSE HOW DARE YOU COMPARE A HOLLYWOOD ACTRESS TO THE SUFFERING OF JESUS ON THE CROSS, MIA #UNFOLLOW]

Lupita Nyong’o

And what did this achieve? Not a nuanced, important discussion about the actual issues they were speaking about. The distressing proliferation of online abuse and its devastating effect on its victims.

The appalling intrusion into the lives of famous people fuelled by an industry that essentially profits from stalking and harassment. The worrying objectification of women on the red carpet and how actresses must now also look and act like models.

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None of these issues were fleshed out. Instead all the angry coverage was about how Gwyneth and Charlize and Lupita were offensive jerks.

I say, enough. The outrage volume cannot be sustainably turned up to 11 on Every Single Issue.

For example, there is a difference between stoning a woman to death and innocently describing someone as “autistic” instead of  “a person with autism” (even those in the autism community are divided on this. There is no single ‘right’ description).

This is not a defence of sexist, racist or bigoted language. God no. Words are important and our use of them matters. And I’m a big believer in the‘teaching moments’ that language can provide.

Mamamia’s Kate Leaver wrote a thought-provoking piece after the Charlize ‘rape quote’ incident that more broadly looked at how the term ‘rape’ and ‘rapey’ was becoming mainstream slang and how diluting its power could have unintended, negative consequences.

Charlize Theron

Commentary is not the same as outrage. Opinion is not the same as outrage. The alternative to outrage is not blind, passive acceptance.  There’s a valid place for criticism and discussion and pointing out when things feel wrong to you personally.

What I feel is missing from the over-wrought reaction to quotes like the three celebrity examples above is context and more importantly, intention.

When Alan Jones sneeringly told a room of people that Julia Gillard’s father “died of shame” he was deliberately trying to be cruel. His words were appalling. But this couldn’t be more different to this well-meaning use of a phrase.

And surely the intention behind what someone says should calibrate the level of outrage with which it’s received.

When you’re trying to help someone understand the way you feel about something, especially something that effects you profoundly or dramatically, it can be helpful to use metaphors. “Your words cut me deeply”. Like that.

No, you weren’t trying to be disrespectful towards stabbing victims. You were just trying to convey how hurt you were.

Language is the most powerful weapon we have. It can end wars, spark revolutions, inspire greatness and move us to tears. Of course it shouldn’t be used flippantly but at the same time, constricting ourselves to the safest, most factually accurate and boring use of language doesn’t help either. Language matters. Words matter. But so does the intention behind them. And maybe we should all start paying a little more attention to that.

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