In which I wonder whether it’s worth going over this same ground again

I was going to blog about the Mail on Sunday’s piece* about Trussell Trust foodbanks that ran this weekend. I was going to point out that their account of a reporter being given food ‘no questions asked’ actually details the range of questions they were asked. I was going to rant a bit about the faux outrage that someone had had more than the usual 3 food parcels per year, as though it’s neither possible nor plausibly justifiable that individual circumstances might fall outside normal expectations. I was going to point out that as an exposé the whole piece is entirely misplaced. The Trussell Trust is a charity – so long as it’s acting legally and within its own constitution it isn’t governed by the need to avoid snivelling outbreaks of faux public offence. I would probably have finished by bemoaning the overall tone of the article – the view of humanity that says ‘these people who are different from me are out to get something, and they much be stopped.’

And at that point I decided to stop myself. Rather than expending anymore mental energy decrying the inhumanity of the Mail on Sunday, I’m going to take another path. I’m going to focus on offering some suggestions for how we might best deal with the Mail’s (and any other papers treading a similar path) spluttering fury in future. Essentially, the Mail (both Daily and on Sunday) is best viewed as an elderly and increasingly confused relative. The modern world scares them, and they’re becoming more and more convinced that the nurses are trying to take their jewelery. From time to time that confusion and disorientation comes out as anger, xenophobia, sexism and racism. The best response to this, given that we are dealing with a confused elderly person probably showing early signs of dementia, is to pat them politely on the hand and continue our conversation as if they’d never said anything at all. We could try to argue, but they won’t understand, and it would probably only add to their increasing paranoia and sense that there is some great rainbow-coloured evil out there that’s out to get them.

So that’s my new resolution, from now on I will view faux outrage clickbait articles in the media with a sort of weary patience. I refuse to get angry, because anger, like agreement, is a response, and it’s a market where any response at all translates into profit. Page hit figures don’t record whether readers were nodding in agreement or rolling their eyes. So instead of doing anger and outrage I shall do happiness and positivity. I shall remember that most people are perfectly pleasant and far too preoccupied with their own lives and families to be interested in hurting anybody elses. I shall remember that most people who use food banks do so because they’re in a really desperate situation and are thankful for whatever help they can access. I shall remember that most people who migrate to this country do so because they want the sort of stability and security that most people who already live here view as fundamental rights, and the accident of being born somewhere on a different side of some ocean shouldn’t remove those rights. And finally I shall remember that the nurses have no interest in stealing my jewelery.

But then, at some point, I’ll trip over some other article in some other rag that presents bile and venom as if they were actual news, and all my good intentions will fall by the wayside and I’ll be ranting on twitter with everyone else. And even though I’ve just established that that is Wrong, it will, in its own way, also be Right, because occasionally you do have to get angry and not turn a blind eye. Sometimes you do have to point out loudly and clearly how completely out of order a particular point of view is. It’s deciding when it’s worth the energy that’s the tricky bit.

 

*The article is here (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2608606/No-ID-no-checks-vouchers-sob-stories-The-truth-shock-food-bank-claims.html). I’ll leave it to you to decide whether to click the link. It’s a click bait article, so if you’re clicking in order to be outraged remember that that’s what the paper’s publisher wants you to do.

When is an outrage not an outrage

We’re fond of a nice bout of outrage every now and then, us humans. It’s not a particularly new or modern trait. Human communities the world over, and throughout history, have shared a tendency to proscribe certain activities. The resulting shared exclamations of indignation when the rules are transgressed are one of the things that bonds societies together.

However, we live in a society with newspapers and television and websites and blogs and social networking, and somehow, it does seem to me, that we might have let our outrage-ometer get a bit skewed. We are bombarded with scandals, shocks, and, apparently offensive behaviour. So in a given week or month you might have to choose whether to spend your affrontedness quotient on ill-judged comments by a motoring presenter on a tea-time talk show, a youtube video of some ranting on a bus, or polar bears being filmed in a zoo for a nature programme. It’s a lot to think about, so, for the sake of all our mental health, I’m suggesting we should just calm down, and learn when not to bother getting outraged.

 

Here are my top three situations where it’s really not worth getting worked up:

1. When you didn’t actually see the thing you reckon you’re offended by.

So Jeremy Clarkson said a ridiculous thing? So Rhianna wore a tiny tiny amount of clothes on the telly? If you didn’t watch it, then you weren’t offended by it. If you click on the link to watch it after the event on youtube because you’ve been told it’s shocking, then you’re choosing to be offended, and normal rules cease to apply.

 

2. When the outrageous thing only affects a tiny group of people directly involved in said outrageous thing.

So a footballer has an affair. Are you his wife? His child? The partner of the person he had an affair with? You are? Ok then. Continue to be outraged. You have every right. If not, then really, this behaviour is absolutely none of your concern. Please feel at ease to continue with your day undisturbed.

 

3. When you can only tell the thing is outrageous because the describing words in the newspaper/website report tell you it is.

If you need the describing words around the actual story to explain that it’s outrageous then, believe me, it’s really not. Genuinely shocking things don’t need to be dressed up. For example:

Around 4000 children die every day because of lack of clean drinking water and sanitation.  (Save the Children; http://www.savethechildren.net/alliance/media/newsdesk/2010-03-19.html)

Do you see how there’s no need to jazz that up to make it sound horrendous? It just is.

Now take for comparison: “‘Organic’ celebrity gardener sparks eco row after saying ‘it’s good to use peat in your garden'” (Daily Mail; http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2074027/Celebrity-gardener-claims-organic-sparks-eco-row-saying-good-use-peat-garden.html#ixzz1gWWJyoU9)

This story is about Gardeners’ Question Time regular, Bob Flowerdew, who has come out (so to speak) as a user of peat-based compost. The key phrase in the headline is “eco row”. Clearly there has been some sort of big outrage over whatever Flowerdew said. I care about the environment. Maybe I should be outraged as well? Let’s read on.

“One of the country’s leading organic gardeners has outraged green groups by championing the use of peat.

Bob Flowerdew, 58, has admitted that he relies on peat-based compost to grow plants.

But his comments have outraged conservationists, who complained that they would encourage the destruction of wildlife-rich peat bogs by amateur gardeners following suit.”

Right. Well in three short paragraphs we’ve heard twice that conservationists are outraged. This must be a big deal. Otherwise they surely wouldn’t have had to note the outrage twice in such a short piece of prose. If this was mere mild irritation, we could have taken that in with a single mention.

I wonder what those conservationists actually said. And, if you’re reading along with the article, you’ll be wondering for a while. It’s a full 11 paragraphs before we get any specific comments from a representative of the environmental lobby, and then a spokesperson from Friends of the Earth says they are “disappointed” by Mr Flowerdew’s statement. Disappointed. Not outraged. Not livid. Not obviously spoiling for a fight at all. Simply disappointed.

If you thin this article down to the actual quotes alone, what you have is some people who disagree about peat-based compost. They don’t even disagree that extremely. No-one is advocating sprinkling peat liberally on your cornflakes. Mr Flowerdew’s original comments also touch on issues of sustainability. This isn’t a row. You’d struggle to call it a spat, but somehow the story has still made it into more than one major national newspaper. The Daily Express version of the story is, if anything, more sensational.  

Why? So far as we can tell no-one is actually outraged here. There might be a genuine story for the environment or lifestyle pages about peat-based compost. How environmentally damaging is it? Is any level of production sustainable? What are the alternatives for gardeners? etc But that’s not what either of these versions of the story are about. They’re both about a fight, a row, in the Express headline writer’s terminology, “A Big Stink.”

The underlying problem is that confrontation and outrage are seen as selling papers, so if no outrage exists it’s in the interests of the press to create one. Then other papers and broadcasters can report on the outrage that’s been reported, creating further outrage, which can itself be reported. Social networks feed into this process. As a journalist, you no longer have to wander into the street to find a person to express consternation at a given event. You simply open your laptop and do a little search. Between Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere you can pretty much guarantee that someone will have said something about the subject you’re writing up. There’ll probably be at least one comment that suggests disagreement. Ta-dah! Instant row generated. Now you just have to type it up and wait for the outrage to spread.

So let’s all agree not to play. Let’s all agree that the next time a TV personality says something stupid, or a popstar wears tiny shorts, we’ll just roll our eyes and not comment. If you must comment I’ll permit a non-commital sounding, “Meh,” noise, but nothing more. And then let’s get really outraged about something that matters. I don’t know if you’ve heard but, across the world, 4000 children die every day because of lack of drinking water and sanitation. 4000. Every single day.