Freedom of Speech and the Outrage Industry

Originally posted on February 7, 2013

A lot has been written in recent months about freedom of speech and the so-called “outrage industry” that turns the raw material of actual or feigned hurt into products for the use of political or religious  factions.

To bring some clarity to this issue, I will trace the history of some of the terms being used, providing links to selected articles, blogs and interviews.

The term “outrage industry” seems to have been coined in 2008 by Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj of Tufts University. They used it to describe the methods of “certain kinds of advocacy organizations and media outlets” who promoted “a highly polarized view of American politics”. Berry and Sobieraj concluded that, for such groups, manufacturing outrage was very effective strategy that was “likely to persist”.

By the middle of 2012 the term “outrage industry” was being tossed about by writters, bloggers, and talking heads in the United States and elsewhere.  Bobby Ghosh wrote in Time just after the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi of “a global industry of outrage” that was “working feverishly to give and take offense, frequently over religion, and to ignite the combustible mix of ignorance and suspicion that exists almost as much in the U.S. as in the Arab world”.

A few days later later Salman Rushdie – making the rounds to promote his new book – told Charlie Rose that powerless people made use of “manufactured outrage” to help them “find their identity in their rage”. Responding the next day to a question from Jon Stewart, Rushdie said that most of the insult that enraged people claimed to feel was the result of “cynical manipulation” by the captains of the outrage industry.

In an excellent editorial published in The Hindu three months later, the writer noted that “in a country [India] where there is a flourishing outrage industry – helped by a slew of laws that takes the feelings of easily offended individuals very seriously – there is a great deal of publicity and political capital to be gained in claiming that sentiments are hurt” <  >.

Here I must pause to look at the terms “hurt sentiments” or “hurt feelings”. When I first came to India years ago I was puzzled when I read in the newspapers that a riot had been started by a group whose feelings had been hurt by something another group had said or done. In the US, at least when I was growing up, “hurt feelings” were something that only little children were likely to be troubled by. (A girl runs to her mother, tears in her eyes, saying “Johnny told me I was fat.” Her mother tells her: “Don’t let him hurt your feelings, dear. Sticks and stones … etc.”)

It’s never fun to be insulted, but it has always seemed to me that grownups are supposed to keep their negative – and postive – feelings to themselves. (On a more elevated level, the Bhagavad Gita says that the self-possessed man or woman is untouched by the dualities of praise and blame, etc.)

It was apparently with something like this in mind that the blogger Anshul Kumar Pandey wrote in DNA on Februry 1 of people in India who jump “at a moment’s notice to demand the immediate curtailment of someone’s work of art or literature in the name of hurt sentiments. In a civilized society, those with hurt sentiments would have been immediately referred to a competent psychiatrist.” Pandey called his piece The Republic of Hurt Sentiments.

Since then two significant discussions of the problem have appeared. Suketu Mehta, writing in the New York Times on Tuesday, spoke of recent events – the Maharashtra Facebook arrests, Rushdie’s exclusion from the Kolkata literary festival, the famous Nandy affair – that demonstrated how freedom of speech in India was “highly qualified”. He ended by holding up a monitory finger and declaring: “Indians must understand that free speech — the right to think and exchange ideas freely — is at the core of the democracy they cherish.”

This morning Pratap Bhanu Mehta tried to go beneath the surface of the issue in a piece published in the Indian Express. Agreeing that “the future of free expression looks very bleak”, he still found reason for hope. It may be, he wrote, “that society is actually getting more tolerant”. Threats to freedom of expression come from three sources: “thuggery”, “patriarchy”, and “the vicious cycle of of competitive offense mongering”.  Yet attempts “to consolidate group identities through a politics of competitive hurt” were taking place “against a backdrop where identities are becoming more fluid and open.” What is needed, he said, was for liberals to come forward to raise their voices against the “loony fringes”.

For the moment I find it hard to share in Mehta’s optimism. But who knows, it may be true that thing are changing for the better, and that, as he concludes, “History is on our side.”

New start

For five or six years this site was hosted by Microsoft Office Live Small Business, a free service that allowed me, a writer with no knowledge of website creation, to put up some basic information about myself and my publications. Office Live Small Business gave up the ghost in May 2012, so I moved to a new host and rebuilt the site on the WordPress platform. Many thanks to Alec Heehs of Watermark Studio for helping with this transition.

I’ll begin posting on this blog after I have reflected on what I want to say. My current idea is to write in an unstructured way on miscellaneous topics that are of interest to me and may be of interest to some of my readers. At least in the beginning, I will not invite comments.