The Last Gasps of Outrage Culture?

(Photo: Satori13/Dreamstime)
Jordan Peterson’s popularity as an author and commentator may indicate a coming backlash.

‘Don’t tell your problems to people,” football legend Lou Holtz once declared. “Eighty percent don’t care, and the other 20 percent are glad you have them.” That’s rather harsh, I suppose — I’m sure you’d love to hear about the rogue fire hydrant that leapt in front of my car as I blamelessly tried to park at the local Chuy’s last month — but it’s probably also not too far from the truth.

Don’t tell that to the purveyors of today’s simmering outrage culture, however. For a frightening amount of people, the art of being offended by everything — or, even better, loudly and publicly complaining about being offended by everything — is pursued with alarming dedication. For some, being offended is practically a credo and an all-encompassing way of life.

I find this all rather perplexing, even baffling. Who wants to live this way? I went to college in the 1990s, back when controversial guest speakers were still somewhat cool, not immediate spurs for earnest school-sponsored counseling sessions. Back in those ancient days, people even had hobbies other than crafting unnecessary protest signs featuring a mix of exotic swear words and scary emojis. Even today, I try to teach my kids to avoid sulking or feeling sorry for themselves. Sometimes I even try to use an imitation Lou Holtz voice to do so, which I’m sure is always charming and never annoying at all.

In any case, things are what they are. Self-pity, as we’ve seen, certainly stands as a natural and compelling human vice. Its current cultural appeal, however, translates into nothing good.

Here’s some encouraging news: If you’re with me on this, we’re not alone — and when it comes to constant outrage, we might be nearing a tipping point. Witness celebrity professor Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist best known for offending and outraging large numbers of people on television and the Internet over various fraught topics like transgender pronouns, gender roles, and identity politics. If you haven’t heard of Dr. Peterson, you probably eventually will: This week, he released a book that’s already shot to the top of Amazon’s new releases, titled “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.”

“No one trying to understand how to live should read this book,” wrote Julian Baggini in a review at the Financial Times. “Anyone interested in the growing assault on liberal values, however, should study it with fear and trembling.” This is a fascinating critique, given that no matter what you think about Peterson’s opinions on various topics — and there are many, ranging from proper posture to child-rearing to evolution to Communist propaganda posters to the work of Carl Jung — Peterson’s most consistent position centers on one of the most precious “liberal values” of all: free speech.

In certain circles, of course, free speech has lost its importance. We can’t go around offending people, after all! But Peterson’s success — in addition to his book and viral Internet presence, he draws devoted crowds to his lectures — suggests that many people have had enough with victimhood. “There’s chaos to confront, order to establish and revivify, and evil to constrain,” Peterson recently wrote on his Twitter feed. “Get the hell at it and quit whining. :)”  

In certain circles, of course, free speech has lost its importance. We can’t go around offending people, after all!

In the media world, Peterson has company. Blogger Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of Not Giving an F[-Word]” — he actually uses the real F-word in his title, minus one letter, but I run a PG-13 column here, folks — has dominated the Amazon “Most Sold & Most Read” book lists for 37 weeks. (At press time, it ranked second on both.) I first learned of Manson when I read his essay on modern feminism, in which he critiques the movement’s shift from a “philosophical” ideas-based foundation to a “tribal” focus with stifling groupthink. The feminist tribe, he wrote, has become “one of the oppressors.” This was, as you might imagine, somewhat controversial. Like Manson’s blog, it was also incredibly popular. 

In “The Subtle Art of Not Giving [a You-Know-What],” Manson echoes the “no whining” ethos of Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. Life is not fair, Manson argues, but whether you realize it or not, you get to choose what you freak out about — and people today are choosing way too many things. “As we get older, we gain experience and begin to notice that most of these things have little lasting impact on our lives,” he writes. “Essentially, we become more selective about the [you-know-whats] we’re willing to give. This is something called ‘maturity.’” It’s also an echo of the ancient Stoics, and certainly a far cry from today’s culture of earnest oppression-hunting.

Are we really nearing a backlash to our “I’m perpetually offended” outrage culture? It might seem unlikely, but as Lou Holtz once said, it’s always darkest before the dawn. (Okay, fine. Lou Holtz may have said that line too, but it was originally cooked up by the English theologian Thomas Fuller.) We humans are not very good at moderation, of course, so perhaps said backlash — when and if it ever comes — will be as wacky as its predecessor. That said, in terms of general goofiness, our current moment seems difficult to top. Please don’t be offended. It’s kind of true.


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