Shocking the Shockable Classes
Over at Electrolite, Patrick Nielsen Hayden is more than a little frustrated that the general discussion he wished to have about the utility of shocking the bourgeois has become a specific discussion of Ted Rall’s recent attempts to shock the said class, through the Pat Tillman cartoon and a column this week, which begins: “Now it’s official: American troops occupying Iraq have become virtually indistinguishable from the SS.” Well, that’s the nature of allowing just anyone to step up to the mike (in the form of blog comments): It makes you aware of the schism between what you want to present and what the readers take away.
However, I am interested in the question of the utility of shocking the masses, and I find myself largely in agreement with Patrick in wondering what the point of it is. In my particular case, it’s because a) given the ubiquity of extreme views in our culture, and the enthusiasm of (at least the appearance of) deep ideological divisions in our country, the rhetorical value of shock is somewhat less today than it might have been at other times, and b) people of opposing viewpoints are, I suggest, less than genuinely shocked when someone comes out and says something “shocking,” and indeed crave the outrageous statements from the other side. This is particularly the case in the blogoverse.
Not to nitpick on the various right-ish bloggers who spun themselves up into a tizzy about this week’s Rall cartoon and column, but to be bleakly cynical about it, I have rather large doubts that all of them were so terribly upset that Ted went off on another one of his flights of outrage, since the reaction was exactly as it ever was:
1. Look! Ted Rall’s Gone Insane Again!
2. He’s Just Another Example of the Depravity of the Left!
3. We Should Boycott Everyone Who Has Anything To Do With Him, Ever!
4. And, We Should Ignore Him Forever From This Point Forward! That’ll Teach Him!
But they can’t do that last one — they won’t — because he’s too useful an example of #2. Which is why in six months or whenever, when Ted does another cartoon or column that seems especially cracked, they’ll all get the vapors and declare how disgusting Ted is and post their links to his stuff so all their readers can share in the outrage. Replace “Ted Rall” with “Ann Coulter” for the opposing team, and everyone’s as happy as punch through the election.
I’m not saying these people aren’t actually disgusted or appalled or whatever. Some of them probably are. But their moral disgust is far outstripped by that part of their brain that suggests that this would be an excellent thing to blog about; they are, in effect, rather more opportunistic than outraged. A blog is its own gaping maw: It must be filled. And it must be filled in ways that readers expect. Or so I suspect most bloggers believe and have internalized; outside of the Livejournal ramblings of teenagers describing their day at school, I think vast swaths of bloggers have either consciously or unconsciously tailored their output to what they think will sell – “sell” meaning to encourage others to link and/or retain what readers they’ve already accrued.
So, yes, allow me to suggest that if folks like Ted Rall and/or Ann Coulter (or Michael Savage and Michael Moore, Rush Limbaugh and Janeane Garafalo, blah blah blah) didn’t exist, the blog world would be bereft and inconsolable and filled with more pitures of cats than it already is. Which is not the same thing as being shocked. We are opportunists when it comes to selling our viewpoints, and cheap and easy extreme opposite opinions attract us like a brightly colored and scented lure attracts a rainbow trout. The difference is we know what we’re biting on and we bite on it anyway.
(Ted, by the way, is posting some of the more colorful of his hate mail in his own blog. If you scroll down from there, you’ll also see some further comments he has on the Tillman thing.)
It’s not the blog world alone, of course — in the larger universe, the blogverse is still an inbred and slightly mangy playpen in which geeks play. All media outlets get play out of this stuff. The blogs didn’t invent the appropriation of shock for feigned moral outrage; they learned it from other media. Someone wondered if more than five of Ted’s usual clients would run the Pat Tillman piece, but when you consider that Ted got newspaper editorials and radio interviews and an appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s television show out of it, honestly, what does it matter? Criticize Ted if you will for making the cartoon (and for capitalizing on the ensuing controversy), but save at least a share of your outrage for folks like Bill O’Reilly, who see Ted as a useful tool for their own agenda. And all that manufactured outrage from the right in turn gets made into useful fodder for the left-leaning folks. It’s the circle of shock, and it moves us all.
I’m not personally shocked by much of what people write or say anymore, and I think generally speaking I don’t pretend to be. At best I’m irritated, which I think comes through when I rant about something here, but I don’t see much value in suggesting that I’m more worked up about something than I really am. Like any bloviating writer, I can get myself worked up if I really want to. But to be genuinely shocked about something, it would have to run deeply counter to my expectations of humans in the real world. There’s not much that does that.
What would be nice is to have some way of knowing what is actually shocking to people. Sometimes you can tell: For example, I think the Iraqi prison story is genuinely shocking: Our image of what our country is runs deeply counter to the pictures and news, which is why by and large there has been unanimity nationwide in the revulsion we feel that some of “our” people have done that. But it’s not trivial to note that this is not a shock manufactured by a writer or artist — it’s a shock that comes from real life.
It’s interesting — and a good thing — to note that our thrill at providing ourselves fake outrage to play with has not blunted our ability to feel genuine shock when it’s warranted. At least, it hasn’t blunted it yet.