The Economics of Outrage

It was 1981 and Labour MP George Foulkes had just tabled a members’ bill to present to the UK Parliament. The Bill was in response to an insidious new pastime that had become increasingly more prevalent amongst British youth. Foulkes was outraged. In his words, the effects of this pastime were “catastrophic” with scores of young people rendered “addicts” to it. In Parliament, Foulkes elaborated on this explaining how young people had begun to resort to “theft, blackmail and vice to obtain money to satisfy their addiction”.

What was this devilish pastime? A dangerous new drug? A sinister alcoholic concoction?  Neither. It was the game Space Invaders. Unfortunately the Bill to Control Space Invaders and Other Electronic Devices was narrowly defeated and English youth have since been rendered delinquents unable to resist the addiction to destroy pixelated mother-ships in arcades across the UK.

34 years later the idea of regulating Space Invaders is laughable. However we today are no strangers to senseless outrage. In fact, recent decades have seen outrage become a near perennial feature of public debate particularly through the continued efforts of the ‘outrage enthusiast’.

The outrage enthusiast loves being outraged and demands a level of cultural homogenisation which exists the vacuum of his/her own values. Any deviation from those norms, any departure from a perceived consensus (however minuscule that deviation be) is cause for outrage.  The feeling of outrage, though necessary, is insufficient to satisfy the outrage enthusiast. To truly relish in outrage, he/she must express that outrage at those who dare operate outside of that which is politically correct. This outrage is expressed under the implicit assumption that those who deviate from what they deem ideal- do so with the most fatuous or malicious motives in mind.

2014 was a big year for the outrage enthusiast with a seemingly never-ending list of things to be outraged over. The film Gone Girl was incriminated for “recycling rape myths“. Concerns from staff and parents in Victoria ensured that children there were no longer taught the racist rhyme ‘Ba Ba Black Sheep’. NASA scientist Dr Matt Taylor, instrumental in placing a spacecraft on a comet, was forced to give a tearful apology for a ‘sexist‘ shirt (a shirt given to him by a female friend). Grand Theft Auto 5 was shunted off K-mart and Target shelves for ‘encouraging sexual violence’; health experts balked over ‘neknominate‘ and the patriots out there were outraged over the war… on vegemite.

So expansive is the ever demanding list of reasons to get outraged, so accessible the avenues to express our disgust- we have cultivated a whole new area of pseudo-commerce: a marketplace for outrage.

The producers in this marketplace, are none other than those in the media who pedal mindless outrage-the ‘health experts’, ‘social commentators’ and politicians who dispense adversarial angst and needless concern. The choice of currency in this market is one of the most inelastic goods we have to offer- our attention. Every ‘like’ on Facebook; comment in support; or status posted grants producers of outrage precious airtime and attention- a valuable commodity in the age of the 24-hour news cycle.

However, like in all marketplaces, the marketplace of outrage heeds the unalterable laws of economics- namely the laws of demand and supply. And herein is the dangerous consequence of our ravenous appetite for outrage- the ‘depreciation’ of outrage.

In this dangerous paradigm, we fret over the trivial as real injustices often escape our attention. Whilst we agonise over Dr Taylor’s shirt, a woman in Kabul dares to show her knees in public offending those around her. Whilst A Current Affair fears over the ‘war on vegemite’, wars in Syria and Iraq rage on.

Of course outrage does have its place in public discourse. In its quintessence, outrage is driven by a concern for the oppressed and when exercised by individuals, in the aggregate, outrage can lead to social change. However in many of the contexts we see it in today,outrage is another part of the proverbial 24-hour news cycle- far from the selfless act it ought be.  It is in this depreciation of outrage, that outrage, once an instrument of social change and catalyst for justice, is being rendered merely another means to reiterate a sense of intellectual/moral superiority over another. 

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About Jesse Parmar (1 Article)
Jesse is an Economics/Law student at the University of Western Australia. He has previously worked at the Department of Treasury & Finance and was an intern at the Institute of Public Affairs.

2 Comments on The Economics of Outrage

  1. Charlie Bentham // April 4, 2015 at 12:33 am // Reply

    So this article revolves around the premise that some outrage is ‘senseless’ and ‘trivial’, and is detrimental to society because it prevents people from directing their attention to other, worthier causes.

    Firstly, it’s interesting that the outrages you identified were predominantly left wing issues, and that you lambast them and the ‘outrage enthusiasts’ who created them for their attempts at ‘cultural homogenisation’. How about some other outrages that were propagated last year? Such as the outrage over Halal certification, despite the fact that ASIO (the most qualified body to make a determination on the issue) have found no credible evidence that would justify even launching an investigation into links between Halal certification and terrorist organisations. Or the outrage from Libertarians following the Sydney Siege that Australia’s strict gun control laws had caused the tragedy by removing the opportunity for good citizens to defend themselves (which gained a huge amount of publicity following Senator Leyonhjelm’s parliamentary speech on the issue). It seems that, somewhat ironically, it’s the author that is outraged by the outrage of certain, left wing members of society and what he considers to be their trivial issues. Issues such as representations of women in the media (and of course we know how powerless and trivial the media is), don’t fit with the author’s values of what is and isn’t an issue worthy of outrage. This article is guilty of the same cultural homogenisation that it takes issue with; selecting issues for public debate based on personal values.

    Also interesting considering that ‘political correctness’ is a practice that promotes heterogeneity by confronting practices that discriminate against minorities in society. But hey, if you want to go back to calling people retards and niggers in the name of cultural heterogeneity then go ahead.

    • Hey Charlie.
      Only seeing this now. Please allow me to respond, albeit belatedly.
      It seems your argument is threefold.
      1) The examples given were “left wing issues”.
      2) Thus I am only outraged by the outrage of the left.
      3) I am guilty of the same cultural homogenisation and want to “to go back to calling people retards and niggers”.

      Your predicated on assumptions (1) and (2). (1) is highly contentious and (2) is straight up false. You are right, the outrage over Halal certification and gun control are equally moronic. However the exclusion of these examples from the article was not ideological and the examples of senseless outrage described in the piece were anecdotal not comprehensive. Furthermore, at no point in the article do I suggest that a left/ right has a monopoly over senseless outrage. In fact you are the one who made the delineation between the left/right political spectrum. So your argument is the quintessential straw man argument.

      Finally, yes. I do think the furor over: Gone Girl, GTA 5 and Dr Matt Taylor’s shirt was senseless and “trivial”. However that is not to say that I don’t think issues such as the representation of women is important. But your inability to differentiate between such serious issues and the examples given reiterates my point. If you still truly believe that a scientist’s shirt is of serious detriment to women worldwide, below is a link to a website that I think you’re better off at:

      https://www.tumblr.com/

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