The Death of Outrage

So there I was sitting in a traffic jam the other week when one of my kids says: “Jesus, this traffic is f*****g bad”. There was a pause. Then I screamed: “Jesus,I’ve told you not to use the F-word.” I was shocked. He wasn’t. Indeed he proceeded to ask me to remind him about the C-word. At this point his brother joined in and said, “Is it church dad?” I swear I am going to sell them both on eBay.

I blame Gordon Ramsay. His language lingers in the mouth like rancid milk.
But what’s really shocking about Gordon is how ordinary his attics now seem. A few years ago he would have been hauled up for using language like his. Now he just gets a second TV show. The media is pretty much to blame for this although we are fairly complicit. If someone lurid or something shocking goes down on primetime TV the ratings do up. Size is all that matters because large audiences attract big advertisers.

On TV there are shows about human dissections, surgery and people dying. On the Internet there is all this plus there are user-generated sites like Youporn where people that should know better pretend to be porn stars. Some of this has been going on for years. The difference now is accessibility. Once upon a time you had to be a medical student to see a live dissection. Now all you need is plasma TV to see some real human blood. Equally, instead of reaching for the top shelf in the newsagent to get a glimpse of something shocking all you have to do now is get an internet connection (what, you thought kids with internet enabled mobile phones were just sending clips of Big Brother to each other in the playground?). It’s just entertainment in the age of Youtube and mobile phone bullying.

What’s shocking here is that we are no longer shocked. This lack of distress and disbelief could be because everything is now blurred and ambiguous or it could be that we no longer react because we live in a twilight world where the real has become a form of fiction or fable. Beautiful Princess dies in car crash (true). Refugees throw kids overboard (fiction). Meanwhile, in the art world (another strange land marooned between fiction and reality), you can witness blow-up dolls engaging in sex acts, rotting flesh being eaten by maggots and vases showing scenes of child abuse. And that was just the Turner Prize Exhibition entries back in 2003. Art is supposed to be a mirror. These days it’s just another indiscriminate cluster bomb.

What is truly scandalous about all this is how outrage has been quietly killed off in the name of entertainment. Fictionalised images have become so real and ubiquitous that their authentic counterparts rarely register. When fact does occasionally penetrate the fog (usually something suitably cinematic like starvation in Africa, 9/11 or the Tsunami of December 2006) we are beside ourselves with collective grief.

What I suspect is going on here is that as a society we are anxious and unsure. We therefore cocoon ourselves in inner worlds of fantasy and escape so that we do not have to confront what is happening outside. Struth. That was all a bit heavy.

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