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.