Daily Archives: July 29th, 2018

QotD: “far from toiling in the furtherances of whichever noble cause they think they are, those who feed the internet outrage machine are under an illusion”

At what point do the outrage police become the outrage Stasi? Or at what point did they? For a measure of how far we haven’t come since the turn of the millennium, compare the cases of the Brass Eye episode entitled Paedogeddon and a forthcoming Netflix show called Insatiable.

In 2001, Channel 4 announced it would air a one-off special of the Chris Morris show, which would satirise the kneejerk populism and hysteria around the coverage of paedophilia. The outrage was predictably swift, as people fell into the old trap of confusing the subject of the joke with the target of the joke. Leading the protests was Beverley Hughes, a junior Home Office minister in Tony Blair’s government, who began by calling the programme “unspeakably sick” and worked up from there. The affair became quite the governmental pile-on, with seemingly every minister keen to find a microphone or TV camera into which to unleash their outraged take on it all. On behalf of the prime minister himself, a Downing Street spokesman wondered pointedly whether the UK’s regulatory framework was sufficient to cope with such a thing.

Quite a few days into her crusade, Hughes managed to land a spot on the Today programme. All was proceeding as might have been expected, until the minister committed a spectacular unforced error – she admitted she hadn’t actually seen the show. “To be honest, I don’t really want to,” Hughes continued, adding helpfully that the equally irate home secretary hadn’t seen it either, “of course”.

OF COURSE. It was too perfect, doing almost as much to satirise what Morris was chipping away at as the show itself. Not everyone shared this view, of course – plenty remained furious about wholly and often deliberately inaccurate summaries of something they also hadn’t seen. At some level, that’s the way of things. Hysterics gonna hysteric.

But, for many of us, the Hughes admission was so exquisitely hilarious because it felt like it represented one of the last howls of a dying era – a sort of silly, self-parodic throwback to the heyday of Mary Whitehouse and all the other frothing censors who were largely untrammelled by even a distant acquaintance with what the hell they were frothing about. Or to put it another way: wildly overpromoted junior ministers in the Blair Home Office WERE the joke – and it felt as though progressives got that.

Once again, my optimism turns out to have been preposterously, cosmically misplaced. We are all wildly overpromoted junior ministers in the Blair Home Office now. Or, rather, those who pelt furiously round the hamster wheels of social media outrage are.

And so to Insatiable, a Netflix comedy-drama that has yet to air, but is already the subject of a petition calling for it to be banned. A single one-minute-52-second trailer has been released, from which it can be inferred that the story concerns an overweight girl who is the victim of bullying. Owing to a plot device, she has to have her jaw wired shut during a summer holiday. The side-effect of this is that she loses weight. She returns to school looking like the classic high school princess – and hellbent on bloody revenge. From the looks of the trailer, chaos ensues. As one might expect in a comedy-drama.

At the time of writing (although the number is climbing fast), almost 170,000 signatories are demanding Insatiable never be aired, on the basis that it is “fat-shaming”. When I read this, my naive assumption was that the entire series must have leaked online, giving a complete overview of the story arcs, nuances and so on. But no – people who really do imagine themselves to be progressives really are calling for a creative work to be banned on the basis of a trailer. All manner of furious commentators weighed in, railing against what they think it is about, producing some fantastically witless statements, including a widely quoted one from someone who explained “physical violence is not an OK response to bullying”. Good point! Also, murder is terrible. There should be no shows about it.

Now, Insatiable’s creator has been pressured into defending her artistic endeavour from detractors who have not even seen it. “When I was 13, I was suicidal,” wrote Lauren Gussis in a statement. “My best friends dumped me, I was bullied and I wanted revenge. I thought if I looked pretty on the outside, I’d feel like I was enough. Instead, I developed an eating disorder … and the kind of rage that makes you want to do dark things. I’m still not comfortable in my skin, but I’m trying to share my insides – to share my pain and vulnerability through humor. That’s just my way. The show is a cautionary tale about how damaging it can be to believe that outsides are more important – to judge without going deeper. Please give the show a chance.”

Well, quite. From what I have seen – to repeat, a mere 1 minute and 52 seconds – Insatiable does not remotely condone fat-shaming any more than Morris’s show condoned paedophilia (something plenty accused it of). The subject of the joke has once again been confused with the target. It is clear the accidental weight loss precipitates a classic upending of the order, a hierarchy-busting plot device in which exciting and perhaps amusing dramatic conflict can flourish. I mean, honestly. Chaos, often questionably achieved, has been an intrinsic part of drama since for ever. You might as well try to ban A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the basis that its plot glorifies date-rape drugs.

As for where this latest outrage fits in to your week in outrage, it is difficult to keep track. I first heard about this row just after the defenestration of Guardians of the Galaxy creator James Gunn, which was orchestrated by Mike Cernovich, an “alt-right” goon and “men’s rights” wingnut whose chief claim to fame is having spread the lie that Hillary Clinton had something to do with a paedophile ring being operated out of the basement of a Washington pizzeria. So, yes, I heard about the Insatiable thing after the James Gunn thing, and just before the attempted defenestration of Community and Rick and Morty creator Dan Harman for a paedophilia sketch. Cernovich is in the vanguard of that one, too.

This is the way we live now, on left and right – but cui bono? If you haven’t read Jaron Lanier’s short but brilliant book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, I can only recommend. For technological idiots like me, who need the machine explained to them in a wonderfully eloquent and engaging fashion, it is a true mind-opener. Using evidence and his vast insider knowledge of Silicon Valley, the author and tech visionary makes it very clear that, far from toiling in the furtherances of whichever noble cause they think they are, those who feed the internet outrage machine are under an illusion.

They are nothing more than busy data ants, who in reality – BIG REVEAL – work for the likes of Facebook and Google. These are mass-behaviour-modification machines that thrive off discord and – without wishing to downgrade anyone’s genuinely impassioned and sincerely held beliefs – it really doesn’t matter what sort. Everyone’s participation, on whichever side, hastens the dystopia. Your causes, my causes, everyone’s causes are essentially meaningless – they are plot devices. And the plot is the mass, unprecedented manipulation of human behaviour and its subsequent exploitation for money. Everyone works for the machine, which doesn’t think that fat-shaming matters, or paedophilia matters, or black lives matter, or you matter. For a honeymoon period, it may feel as if that is a price worth paying if you are furthering a cause in which you believe – but, as Lanier shows, this always turns out to be a mirage.

Back when the Brass Eye furore was raging, Christopher Howse lamented that people couldn’t tell satire from voyeurism. From the looks of the Insatiable trailer, an awful lot of people can’t tell satire from fat-shaming. Maybe the show itself will get it wrong – but you simply can’t tell until you’ve seen it. That should be a basic principle for anyone, let alone people who wish to think of themselves as progressive. Instead, they are indulging in another form of kneejerk populism, which happens to emanate from people who imagine themselves as “the good guys”, but could just as easily be one of the plays of the “alt-right”.

Still, on it goes. Ban it; pre-emptively destroy it; don’t begin to attempt to understand it. One sadness is that we’ve yet to hear from Hughes on Insatiable. She is currently Manchester’s deputy mayor for policing and crime. We must hope she can be persuaded into a trenchant comment article in the coming days, as historical farce increasingly repeats itself as tragedy.

Marina Hyde