Opinion: Carolina Journal Opinions

Ham and Benson: The Outrage Machine Just Needs To Chill Out

• Mary Katharine Ham and Guy Benson, End of Discussion: How the Left’s Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun), Crown Forum, 2015, 277 pages, $29.95.

As I began making notes to review the delightful End of Discussion, at long last the debate over secretly recorded videos of Planned Parenthood officials advocating horrific practices had reached the mainstream media and received a thorough vetting.

Well, not really. During the Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library, GOP hopeful Carly Fiorina made an impassioned plea for Democrats, particularly 2016 front-runner Hillary Clinton, to watch those videos. And then after watching them, to continue defending federal taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood.

The immediate response from Democratic operatives and media outlets was not to approach Team Clinton but to attack Fiorina and the pro-life guerrillas posting the videos.

In other words, attempt to shut down the discussion before it really started.

It’s this tendency — mainly but not exclusively among the Left, its “thought leaders,” and the prestige press — to silence and discredit those who don’t agree with the modern liberal world view, that motivated conservative writers and commentators Mary Katharine Ham and Guy Benson to write End of Discussion. (Full disclosure: Ham’s father Jon is Carolina Journal’s publisher.)

What sets End of Discussion apart from other recent exposés of the excesses of political correctness and what’s now called “shutuppery,” including Kirsten Powers’ Silenced and “The Coddling of the American Mind,” a much-discussed recent cover story in The Atlantic Monthly by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, is the great good humor and conversational style Ham and Benson deploy throughout.

From the opening pages, Ham and Benson lament the Left’s “weaponization of outrage for ideological and partisan ends” of seemingly innocuous occurrences, minor errors, or innocent gaffes. “The object is not to declare our words or actions offensive, which would be preposterous enough given their innocuous nature, but to slowly but steadily declare our very existence offensive” (emphasis in original).

Less-skillful authors might rant and rave about these developments, but instead, Ham and Benson steer clear of bombast. Their approach is more along the lines of: Can you believe this is happening? The ample use of pop-culture references and self-deprecating humor make End of Discussion an indispensable book to share and discuss with friends and acquaintances with even a casual interest in political and cultural events, no matter what perspectives they hold.

It also may be the first political nonfiction book to include its own drinking game.

The authors outline the “Six Ways the Outrage Culture Is Turning Your Entire Life into a Political Campaign,” from converting every person who participates in social media into a public figure and a potential object of vilification; elevating every issue into a struggle of good against evil; and “the professionalization of outrage,” the insistence of using online petitions and campaigns making every social interaction an opportunity to urge millions to demand that something must be done.

As an example, they cite the Chapel Hill DJ who was fired because, at the pub where he worked, he played “Blurred Lines,” the popular Robin Thicke song (which reached No. 1 on the U.S. pop charts), because a UNC-Chapel Hill student at the bar said the song’s suggestive lyrics might “trigger” sexual assault. The student posted her concerns on Facebook and threatened to launch a boycott of the bar unless the DJ were fired, because hearing the song “harassed” her. Of course, the bar caved and sacked the DJ.

A number of British universities actually banned the song. While Ham and Benson are no fans of the tune, “What we object to is pre-emptively declaring your opponent too insensitive to engage” in a debate over its merits.

As a proper response to a tasteless tune, the authors cite three female New Zealand law professors who rewrote the lyrics with a feminist twist. I’d add the approach taken by the brilliant parodist Weird Al Yankovic, who used the music from “Blurred Lines” as the backdrop for “Word Crimes,” a song attacking bad grammar (and subtly poking fun at the notion that a brainless pop hit could inspire sex crimes).

“More speech, more effective, more fun,” the authors say.

End of Discusssion includes plenty of other instances of double standards and shutuppery:

• Rutgers University diverted major amounts of student fees in 2011 to let reality show star Snooki address the student body; three years later the state university disinvited former Secretary of State (and Bush administration alumna) Condoleezza Rice from giving the commencement address following protests by noisy left-wing faculty and a handful of students.

• Brandon Eich, the former chief executive officer of Mozilla (creators of the Firefox web browser), was fired because gay activists learned he gave a donation to the organizers of the California initiative banning same-sex marriage.

• In 2013, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder associated the Tea Party’s invocation a desire to “take back America” with racism, even though the next year, campaigning for Democratic congressional candidates, Vice President Joe Biden told audiences, “It’s time to take back America!”

The authors expose the Orwellian speech police on college campuses, demanding “safe spaces” protecting fragile young minds from “microagressions,” “triggers,” “rape culture,” and “white privilege.”

Surprisingly, President Obama seems to have gotten the message. During a late September speech in Des Moines about college costs, the president chided campuses that had banned speakers who were considered “too conservative.”

The president said: “I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. I think you should be able to — anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with ’em. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, ‘You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.’ That’s not the way we learn, either.”

If only he would treat his political adversaries (Republicans and Democrats) with the same respect.

There’s also a wonderful chapter showing how even stand-up comics and comedy writers are being ostracized by the perpetually offended.

Not surprisingly, Ham and Benson aren’t presumptuous enough to offer any sweeping solutions. Instead, they offer several reasonable suggestions to conservatives, moderates, and liberals that might minimize some of the social and cultural damage.

My favorite recommendation is to create and recruit a Coalition To Chill The Hell Out. When the Outrage Circus gets exercised over some trivial matter, the coalition — an “alliance of shruggers” — would sign online petitions saying, in effect: Meh. This is unimportant. We don’t care. Move along.

Mostly, they encourage people of all political persuasions to keep talking to one another, even if the discussions get uncomfortable at times. That’s sound advice for all.

Rick Henderson (@deregulator) is managing editor of Carolina Journal.