How Do We Decide Where To Direct Our Outrage?

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The last few weeks have been filled with “news” reports of celebrity indiscretions and beauty pageants, but does any of that really deserve so much of our attention?

Monday morning I got up and turned to my favorite mainstream media outlet, Facebook, to see what was going on in the world. According to many posts in my news feed, controversy was brewing over the new Miss America, who was born in New York to parents of Indian ancestry. Many people had taken to Twitter the night before with an onslaught of racist and otherwise demeaning remarks, much to the consternation of U.S. media and bloggers everywhere.

First, I was surprised that the pageant still exists. Then I was curious if contestants still parade around in swimsuits. I Googled it, and holy mother of all that is sacred and feminine, they do. Because it’s a “scholarship” pageant, and what better way to judge a contestant’s scholastic merit than by seeing her in a bikini? Finally I wondered how people knew who won. Do people pay for cable TV and choose to watch beauty pageants? Apparently they do. And some of those people feel compelled to spew ignorance in a public forum like Twitter.

Later in the day I saw a few links to the shooting spree at a Washington Navy Yard. At least a dozen people died and more were injured when a civilian subcontractor drove onto the grounds of the Navy Yard, walked into Building 197, went to the fourth floor, and opened fire on the crowded atrium below. Despite a criminal history that led to his discharge from the Navy, and a documented escalation of mental health issues, the shooter had security clearance to the Navy Yard and had legally purchased the shotgun he used that day. Reactions to this news verged on resignation. Surprise, surprise: another mass shooting.

But back to Miss America. It turns out many pageant viewers were disappointed that Miss Kansas didn’t win. According to these indignant patriots, a blonde Army sergeant who enjoys hunting, archery, and shooting M16 rifles clearly loves her country more than a dark-haired, dark-skinned New Yorker who recently graduated from the University of Michigan with honors and dreams of becoming a cardiologist. I mean, Miss Kansas is definitely not an Arab Muslim extremist like Miss New Y—wait, what? Yes, hundreds of Tweets claimed that the new Miss America was a terrorist.

We act shocked when stupid people say hateful things with which we don’t agree, but what is the point of our outrage? We won’t convince bigots that they’re wrong. We won’t eradicate racism or any other prejudice by being offended by it. We don’t have to like what bigots say on Twitter. In fact, we could just ignore them because they’re strangers who have no role in our lives.

It’s not illegal to be stupid or ignorant. It isn’t a crime to be a racist, sexist, homophobic, intolerant imbecile. It is a crime to act on those beliefs, through discrimination or violence. But we live in a country where the First Amendment guarantees everyone the freedom to express their stupid, ignorant opinions on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, or other social media.

And we are equally free to ignore them. I am not proposing we ignore prejudice. I’m positing that the best way to address it is not by giving airtime to strangers on social media, but by finding ways to combat it in real life. In the dark corners of our own subconscious, in conversations with people we know, within the broader realm of activism.

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I would argue that the same principle applies to any scandalous public behavior that isn’t illegal. Why do we pay so much attention to the latest celebrity indiscretion? Why does the media spend days or even weeks dissecting possible motivations and repercussions of a cheating politician, the cover of a magazine, a singer’s raunchy performance?

Scandals are as fleeting as attention spans are short. Taking a stand on the controversy du jour—writing, reading, and talking about it—is easier than forming a cogent opinion of one of the countless ongoing social, political, or economic issues that affect people worldwide. The old saying, “If it bleeds, it leads!” has been replaced with, “If it twerks, it works!”

Some pop culture chatter is fine, obviously. Most people don’t want to bump into a colleague at work and debate gun control or U.S. foreign policy. Laughing about celebrity gossip or political gaffes is arguably more appropriate when talking to acquaintances.

Nor am I suggesting that we should ration our outrage or grief. One can be annoyed by an arrogant rant by Jonathan Franzen and still be horrified by the possibility of a U.S. airstrike in Syria. Yet sometimes we are so easily distracted by “light” news that we lose perspective. We fail to talk about or perhaps even pay attention to what’s happening outside our bubble.

So what about our internal dialog, or our conversations with close friends and family? If we haven’t bothered to read past the screaming headlines, how will we feel connected to the rest of the world? How can we be part of the larger community if we are unaware of its beauty and cruelty, its joys and tragedies?

Not everyone cares to venture outside of their comfort bubble. Because of that, news outlets are in a position where they must resort to “click bait” in order to make enough advertising money to pay for high quality reporting. As a result, much under-reported news—both bad and good—is eclipsed by media coverage of pop culture. That disconnect perpetuates the cycle of ignorance. Ignorance can lead to prejudice, and that prejudice will end up on Twitter.

While Miss America contestants prepared to compete for a crown, a sash, and their share of $360,000 in scholarship money, Jonathan Ferrell, a 24-year-old former Florida A&M football player, was fatally shot by police in North Carolina as he sought help after escaping from a serious car accident. He was black, and he was “moving toward” police officers.

The same day in Boston, a homeless man found a backpack stuffed with almost $42,000, which he turned over to police.

On the 12th anniversary of 9/11, Gary Brown, an unelected city official in bankrupt Detroit, turned off part of the city’s power grid to send a “strong message” to customers who weren’t complying quickly enough with requests to turn off their air conditioners. With temperatures in the 90s, dozens of people were trapped in elevators and numerous buildings were evacuated.

These smart people are gaining supporters for their campaign to impose a tiny tax on Wall Street transactions. If they succeed, the tax would generate hundreds of billions of dollars each year and force the financial sector to “pay their fair share to clear up the mess they helped create.”

This shocking article/book review explores how jellyfish are taking over our oceans, not something you hear every day. And an enterprising 19-year-old has invented a device that could clean up a third of the plastic from the world’s oceans in five years.

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Back at the Washington Navy Yard, employees were allowed to return Wednesday to collect personal belongings, and the facility is scheduled to reopen Thursday. The shooter’s mother apologized and said, “My heart is broken.” Authorities remain baffled as to what might have motivated the killings. Less confusing are his means and opportunity. There were failures at every level, from security clearance to mental health care to gun control.

So who should decide what is worth media coverage and public interest? I decide for me. You decide for you. Meanwhile, I will fantasize about a society that consumes pop culture a little less enthusiastically, one where news outlets can afford to invest in quality journalism without relying on sensationalist garbage on the front page, one where we are interested in reading real news—good and bad—that affects our lives and the world in which we live.

Does real news include hateful tweets, or anyone twerking? No. Just no.

Role/Reboot contributor Laurel Hermanson is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, OR. Her first novel, Soft Landing, was published in 2009. She is currently working on her second novel, Mommune. She blogs about almost everything at Grace Under Pressure. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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