The outrage economy

There are many ways to attract attention. Most of them require talent. You create something of use, insight or beauty and people come to look. If you lack talent, you can buy attention. If you lack talent and money, one surefire tactic for attention is to cause offence.

Offence is perversely attractive. It has parallels with comedy, compelling the kind of titter of shock that accompanies the most outrageous jokes. The laughter to these jokes is a form of nervous bonding: “we all get this, we can cope, can’t we?”

The true artist of outrage mixes in two further colours. Firstly, offend a specific group, preferably an ‘out-group’ to your fans, so that everyone else can gather as a spectator rather than a target. There is nothing like closing ranks against a victim to enhance that warm glow of unity. Secondly, choose a victim who will answer back. This is the bullseye – the start of an insult/offence cycle that gains momentum, gathering even more attention. The media gather round like school children at a playground scrap, chanting “fight, fight, fight”. Although, once we’re grown up, we call it a “balanced panel”.

Tell it like it is. Stand up for common sense. Share uncomfortable truths. Give a wake up call to public sector workers / bosses / students / middle England / immigrants / Brexiteers / remoaners. There is no side of the debate with a monopoly on this tactic.

It can be painful to watch someone grow in profile and stature as a result of a careful strategy of outrage and offence. It is certainly distressing to be their target. But there is consolation. Outrage is a drug; you need successively stronger doses to reach the same high. The offender must go a little further each time. But there is an invisible line. Cross it, and your allies abandon you. You’re not funny any more; you’re just a bore, or a bully, or a crank. The outrage addict cannot avoid this line – they need an increasing dose to stay relevant, and they cannot see the line ahead of time. You’re untouchable, right up to the point they lay a hand on you. You’re Teflon, until something sticks.

The next time you’re in the sights of the merchants of outrage and offence, it may help to remember this well trodden path to self-destruction.

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