Monday, 6 March 2017

How was your weekend?

I have recently come to re-evaluate my opinion on those often described as ‘professionally offended’. I think there is an assumption – or, at least, I assumed – that this group of individuals who seem to always care to the point of outrage were a new, online phenomenon. However, I now believe this is unkind.

There is a news segment on the BBC called Newswatch, a feature where the editors of BBC News can be challenged to answer questions about the quality of the service fielded by members of the public (almost always referred to as License Fee payers, as if to add legitimacy to their concerns, but more on that later). I think the show is a good idea, and I think there is often cause for some discussion. I have also come to realise that there exist a great many people who seem outraged to the point of inconveniencing themselves over the most trivial of things.

Of course, what I consider trivial is subjective and possibly miscategorised, but still my opinion holds. There simply are, and always will be, people who revel in being offended. This is my re-evaluation; that the concept of the professionally offended is not a new thing, but merely a human condition. This, I believe, is very interesting.

Why do people so regularly place so much importance on trivial mishaps? By trivial I include the occasional shitty day at work, missing the bus by a few seconds, delayed service in a restaurant, buying the wrong sized garment in a store – what might be considered, ‘first world problems’. My thesis is this; people place importance on minor mishaps because when you’re sailing on a quiet ocean you notice and acknowledge the most minor of ripples. Mishaps – which oft turn into storied compliant in the appropriate company – embellish an otherwise uninteresting set of events. They make our lives more interesting not only by increasing variety but by adding, or at least suggesting, strife that we must overcome. Ultimately, this makes the banal feel more valuable.

I have three ideas about the rise of the professionally offended in the more contemporary sense, the third of which I add only for the purposes of showing an objective viewpoint, without which I feel my thesis would suffer.

Firstly, I suggest the emergence might be due to that previously discussed; that we use outrage or offense as a way of embellishing otherwise forgettable events. The changing medium – from newspaper articles and news segments to online forums and comment sections – merely reflects the changing structure of a person’s life and reflects their access to media. Though this argument is not without some merit, I would suggest that these people, no matter how technologically cosmopolitan they claim to be, would still encounter the events I have previously discussed, and should still, therefore, respond accordingly with coffee table debates and plastic cup politics. If anything, their wider exposure to technology should lead to more compliant and outrage.

This leads me onto my second proposal; that in a world of regular compliant and outrage, the social norm has changed so much that it is now banal to be outraged, and as such one must be even more offended to punch through this paradigm and into the realm of noteworthy. This is an argument that should offend some people, because it is essentially implying some sort of superiority complex, or, I guess – as some might say – that those who get offended are merely ‘special snowflakes’.

As an aside, I think calling someone a snowflake is unfair, because framing the debate in that way implies it is the person at fault, and not the new social norm. After all, outrage and offense is built upon some perceived violation of a social covenant, implying the offended occupies some sort of moral high ground. In that sense – at least in terms of elevation – they are superior.

My third reason; that there is simply more to be upset about, and that the rise of the professionally offended is due to the greater access of information that the Internet has enabled. Furthermore, the apparent rise in the number of people offended can also be attributed to greater access to virtual soapboxes that the Internet has provided. The problem with this argument is one I have previously mentioned; that some people will think something is very important, whilst others will think it’s trivial.

It is here a distinction should be made, because a difference of opinion both in how to deal with a problem but also whether a problem is a problem is what makes us all individuals. The issue many people have, in my opinion, is that the professionally offended do not care about the issue, they care about the outrage. This is a whole different type of debating style, and one that reinforces the concept of ‘special snowflake’. It also introduces the aforementioned idea of legitimacy.

Think about it; ‘professionally offended,’ does not specify any cause or set of beliefs about the person the term is being applied, merely that they are offended. Furthermore, the word professional evokes parallels with work, suggesting the purpose of the offense is not in response, but by requirement, and interestingly for the benefit of the offended. Ultimately, they care not for the issue, but for themselves, and this means they lack legitimacy.

In the UK, though I suspect other places around the world have similar set-ups, there are regular Saturday-and-Sunday-morning debate shows. For the purposes of objectivity, the panel will almost certainly be made up of people from all different sides of the argument, all, in a kind of cringe-inducing way, forced to sit intermingled amongst each other.

This, as an aside, is clearly an attempt to show the person making the argument can be transcended so that only the argument, not the person, is being scrutinised and criticised, but anyway…

In the TV graphic that will appear maybe 2-3 seconds after the individual enters the frame (primarily as a none auditory way of introducing this person) will be a small detail or subtitle area which provides context to the person in question. The relevance of this to this piece as a whole is the following; regularly, and by regularly I mean weekly, there will be an individual whose detail box has fantastic word economy by only referring to them as, ‘activist’.

Now, there is some logic to why a person might be a professional activist. Firstly, they may care passionately for a cause that is ongoing (causes that come to mind are minority rights, but I’m sure there are other equally valid campaigns) and thus it becomes justified that they – the activist - become defined by that subject matter. If this is the case, why not dispense with the word economy somewhat and call them, for example, ‘civil rights activist’? Secondly, they may work as part of a group that provides logistical and/or other services to would be campaigns. I assume many protests require a number of professional skills, and that groups would form to meet these needs. If this is the case, why not say that? Both solutions would add context to the view and better represent the speaker. Therefore, I must conclude the only purpose for the vague description is by some unknown (at least to the viewer) design and as such intentional.

I acknowledge this is possibly tangential, and potentially more of a reflection of the production company behind the TV show and less a reflection of those who would be branded, ‘activists’. I also acknowledge I am now embodying that license fee payer previously discussed by communicating my grievance with what I see on television, which perhaps adds, unintentionally, credence to my point. However, I do believe the perpetuation of this classification – calling someone an ‘activist’ – implies that many of those classified are OK with it, which does add to the thesis of this piece.

Skin in the game matters. There is a non-discussed but totally required need to caveat some debate with reference to the devil; the purpose of this is to acknowledge that you have no skin in the game, and that the debate exists for its own sake. Lack of skin in the game – as might be suggested by calling yourself merely an activist – has the same effect as playing the Devil’s advocate. However, the difference is without the caveat of, ‘I agree, but I’m now going to disagree,’ the argument becomes at best muddled and at worst lost. Again, it becomes about the person, the snowflake, rather than the matter at hand.

This is the same issue that those described as professionally offended face, however those who occupy online forums and comment sections and blogs (I acknowledge the irony, now may we move on?) lack even more legitimacy, for at least the ambiguously named, ‘activist,’ is still being named as something, by someone. Behind the scenes, whatever that means, they – the activist – have done something to warrant their presence on the show. Whether validation from a TV network is good becomes irrelevant here – though many will believe this is all that matters – because at least this validation is not open to everyone. There is an expectation of exception, and that’s a powerful thing.

Platform, rightly or wrongly, provides legitimacy. The grace that the Internet has given is that everyone has a platform; the issue that has evolved from this is now economic, that of excess supply, with relatively unchanging demand. Further complicate this situation with the ripple on the ocean adage – the desire to embellish and escape the banal – and it becomes obvious how online forums can quickly reach a critical mass of outrage. This is a problem, not because people are talking and debating and (maybe) caring, but because no one is listening. Commentary without legitimacy is like screaming at a brick wall; mass commentary without legitimacy is just more screaming.

Of course some people are listening, but often they’re listening to their own words coming out of another person’s mouth. Sonically, the screaming becomes similar, and thus audibly understandable. So yes, I have re-evaluated by opinion of the professionally offended. They are not a new phenomenon. The Internet is not to blame for their emergence. But they raise an interesting idea in the context of the online world nevertheless, namely, how to we listen to each other when everyone is talking?

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