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How Knee-Jerk Internet Outrage Is Turning 2014 Into the Year of the Apology

By Brock Wilbur | Think Pieces | February 7, 2014 | Comments ()


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A few weeks back, my friend fucked up. He fucked up badly.

For a brief period, he was probably the most hated person on the internet, at least in certain circles, and what he did permanently crippled his career and the image of those around him. He reacted with an apology/explanation that some felt heartfelt, but many more saw as insufficient penance, and he will no longer be creating in the manner he once did. It marked, at least the foreseeable future, the end of a promising person whose work raised up the work of others.

The specifics do not matter to this conversation. I feel no need to defend him, nor can I weigh in as the wronged party. What is of interest is the microcosm of a cycle that our online culture seems suddenly hardwired into, and the effect of this cycle on the year of 2014.

When my friend’s mistake became public, his name was not immediately attached. The wrongdoing I saw triggered a “ugh this guy should pay; probably burned alive or whatever we’re doing now” type of pitchfork mentality that I know we’ve all been conditioned towards, especially when presented by wrongdoings in simple terms such as a Facebook share or a screen-captured image or even an outsider’s response piece. When I found out who it was, I shut down completely, as a wave of panicked disgust took over. This was not some random idiot on the internet, this was someone whom I considered a peer, and based on our interests, personalities, and friends, someone for whom I might be interchangeable.

It was the disgust of seeing the internal become external and internal again. Of watching someone make a terrible lapse in judgment that I’d love to pretend I’m smarter than, but then of course, so did he.

Amidst the entire Shia debacle, in which a creator (yes, I’m using the term loosely) made a terrible error (and then a long series of errors), there was one moment that particularly stung me. I looked up to see the words “STOP CREATING” written in the sky above Beverly Hills, albeit with an insufferable hashtag. This idea has been a constant gnaw in the back of my head since last year, when video game designer Phil Fish, in an argument with a journalist, responded by cancelling his latest video game and leaving that industry forever. In a world that is similarly looking to redefine itself as intellectually safe, standup comedy, I’ve known several people who have given up entirely, out of fear of becoming the basis of someone’s reaction piece. The thrust here is the idea that creators, whether you agree with them or not, are giving up on trying out of the fear they will hurt someone’s feelings.

As a creator, I’ve experienced this feeling too. I’ve been accused of stealing jokes from people who have never seen me perform, nor have I seen them. I have offended people to the point they have written my employers, demanding my firing. Worse, I have been afraid to try out ideas on even very small crowds of people, because if not executed perfectly, I have seen how high those stakes can rise, very quickly. When you are creating on such a small scale with little by way of reward and the risks can spiral so quickly, why choose to express anything?

These reactions make my heart scream cowardice. Nothing has ever made me feel lower than the honest belief that I cannot speak my mind without fear of repercussion. But, and here’s the rub: The reason that so many people take to the internet to voice their displeasure is because for the very first time in history, all voices can be equal, and projected from a “safe” space. In all honesty, I wouldn’t reverse this cultural direction if I could, because it enforces a level of responsibility for all that my parents generation can only dream of.

For each time I’ve seen someone taken down unjustly, I’ve also seen an honest response to a difficult situation that has not only educated the person in question, but also educated me. For example, I don’t think that my Midwestern upbringing gave me the slightest clue as to what transgender issues might involve, but the discussion that the internet is having in regards to Jared Leto is the kind of thing that exposes millions of people to incredibly educational points of view and experiences. Likewise, if a fear of doing wrong towards others, especially artistically, serves to deter a creator from making or saying something, there’s an excellent chance this higher standard will serve to push them to creating stronger work. Those who make must do so in a way that no one could possibly confuse with the work of another. It leaves a very small target, like the thermal exhaust port on the Death Star, where we must now assume great art is made.

I spoke with someone about our friend’s fuck-up, referring to him as “the most hated person of the internet for at least the rest of today” and suggested we should all start keeping a stump apology on hand, because the update of the Warhol quote is that “in the future, each person will be hated for 15 hours.” That stump apology idea was not met with laughter, rather a knowing glance that indicated it wasn’t the worst idea. When Dustin wrote up the Stephen King twitter apology he did an excellent job of capturing that “oh shit” moment when the universe takes what you said the wrong way. In a world where anyone can make a huge mistake, from a film they worked years on to a drunken text exchange, it seems like we’re headed for a culture of constant apologies, ranging from the personal and painful to the meaningless. Why are we even invested in the knee-jerk opinions of a horror writer over a family he’s never met? Why are we trying to trap Jerry Seinfeld into a sexist quote? Do we honestly NEED this?

After my friend posted his apology, I wound up running into him on the street. If you’ve ever held a conversation with the Most Hated Person Of The Day during their big day … Look, I think that “pitchfork mentality” trigger I once possessed is gone forever. Of the things we discussed, one was his admission of the overwhelming number of PR firms who had reached out to him, offering to help “spin” his situation. To his credit, his response was that “spin” was the last thing he wanted, in favor of publicly working through the issue and hoping both that his credible history and dedication to making this right would make for a better teachable moment than any misguided personal marketing campaign.

I’m not sure if you caught it, but I’ll repeat: there is an industry built on your personal outrage. We have been at this for long enough that redemption, education, and resolution have taken a backseat to a PR machine fueled by indignation. Take a moment to imagine if Philip Seymour Hoffman had overdosed, but had lived through it. Based on the people you saw that were furious/disappointed in his drug use, do you think it’s a stretch to imagine he would’ve had to offer a public apology? Does the very idea of this hurt you?

When Natasha Leggero was reprimanded over a joke she made on New Year’s Eve, she offered a public non-apology which was applauded for its unwillingness to bend in the face of selective outrage. I like this. I like this direction. I like how it dismantles a machine we all know we’re feeding. I like how my friend (who still very much fucked-up) opted for starting meaningful conversations in place of offering meaningless piecemeal, hoping his unfortunate choices could help others, and in the process, fix parts of himself.

Mostly, I like you. I think you’re smarter than this, because I’d like to think that I am too. I think if January is any indication, 2014 looks like a long year of apologies, and that does none of us any good.

Let’s have conversations instead. The only thing holding us back is trying to get others to agree to a level of reasonable discourse. The case for that is to remember what it is that disgusts you, and whether it does so because it was internal or external, and what that reflects about you. Admitting we’re all fuck-ups, in our way, does a lot towards building something permanent and positive in the face of fuck-uppery. I believe we’d all prefer that to this:

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Naye

    I tend to agree with the writer, but a personal issue I have had with Pajiba for quite some time now is what I like to term "hate-mongering" which is essentially this subject. If change is going to start its going to have to start here. But then, what would we talk about?

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Just found this and decided to steal it, because relevance:

    "There’s a common sense that the Internet is just a collection of sad
    adolescent trolls hiding in their parents’ basements throwing digital
    feces through the proverbial bars, but the truth is much worse. Everyone
    is throwing the digital feces. The trolls just enjoy it a little more.

    [...]

    Think before you speak. You fucking dicks."

  • HelloLongBeach

    Yeah, don't apologize if you're not sorry.
    The End.

  • addled mind

    I think conservative apologists apologize with stern sincerity to not do something or say something that has offended others (external, propriety) ...and I think liberal apologists feel the weight that their thoughts/actions has on others (internal, compassion). Of course, you could do both. People expect accountability. All this apologizing and learning stuff kind of deviates from the guilt aspect of accountability, so in a sense, you want to pardon the person for what they did if it fits in with yours biases. We may all wish to have moments of senseless folly...and that's when things happen. I think the online reflexive culture is striving for senseless folly and pop philosophy...and that can't be a P.C. thing. You can refine it with with political correctness, but you can't make the model p.c.

  • starkersinyeg

    When people make public comments, they should expect responses from the public. How is it a bad thing to hold people accountable for what they say? Sometimes the person who made the comment learns from the exchange, and there are positive results. A great example of this is when the Penny Arcade guy made some transphobic comments and ended up becoming more aware of the issues faced by transgender individuals, AND donated money to a transgender organization.

    I really feel like this think piece is partly in response to the flak Dustin faced from some commenters after his Woody Allen/Dylan Farrow piece, and you know what? I am done with Pajiba (and Uproxx). I am tired of visiting these sites and just feeling angry. From now on I'll get my pop culture news elsewhere. We're dunzo!

  • AudioSuede

    Am I the only one who doesn't know who the people are that are saying they're leaving? I would care more if I knew who they were.

  • starkersinyeg

    And I couldn't care less whether or not you care. Now, if you wouldn't mind ceasing the replies to me, so I could stop receiving notifications from this site, that would be great. Thanks.

  • AudioSuede
  • starkersinyeg

    So, obviously, this isn't enforced: "Comments Are Welcome, Douches Are Not"

    Look, I know saying goodbye is hard. You don't need to get so worked up about it. Sometimes people just go their own way. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

  • AudioSuede

    Bye!

  • AudioSuede

    .....

  • AudioSuede

    ....

  • AudioSuede

    ...

  • AudioSuede

    Gah, I keep hitting the wrong button. Ol' Butterfingers over here. I was going to say, I hope you enjoy the rest of the internet.

  • AudioSuede

    Woops, accidentally commented on your comment again. I'll stop doing that now.

    Oh, and by the way

  • AudioSuede

    Okay, I will stop replying now.

  • Guest

    Hey, has anyone here ever tried Eritrean food?

  • disqus_dIn5QsXhrL

    I don't plan on leaving Pajiba - I think there's much, much more good than bad here - but I agree with you that this Think Piece seems to be at least partly in response to what happened with Dustin's article. And so that seems to detract from the sincerity of his apology a little bit.

    But now I wonder if we'll get another response from one of the Overlords saying that the two articles are unrelated, that different Pajiba writers have different views, etc. And so now I'm thinking that THIS is at the root of what some of us are viewing as Pajiba's problem lately. Maybe it's not such a good idea to have people writing pieces that don't mesh so well with the feel of the rest of the site? Or writing pieces that seem to diminish other things that have been posted recently?

    If this article was intentionally posted to boost Dustin up (like, "Hey, this dude shouldn't have had to apologize; it's you catty bitches who tried to take him down a peg that are at fault here"), then I find that rather distasteful. And if it wasn't posted with that intention, then it still seems a little shortsighted. In my opinion, Dustin already did a beautiful job of handling a crappy situation. I respect him for that. You guys could have left well enough alone.

  • Hazel Dean

    Well said.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Holding people accountable is fine, as long as the reaction is appropriate. IIRC, the responses to Dustin's thread were mostly pretty rational. He also apologized for the whole mess.

    I just can't figure out how that is making you leave.

  • starkersinyeg

    Are you questioning my knee-jerk, internet outrage to this article? ;)

    Yes, thankfully, Dustin apologized, as did Stephen King, and I felt both apologies were completely warranted.

    And then comes this article, lauding non-apologies and an "unwillingness to bend," arguing that this should be how one responds to being called on their nonsense. One step forward, two steps back.

    It just seems to me that lately, when I visit Pajiba the articles are more irritating than enjoyable or informative, and I don't feel like it's worth it anymore.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    It's ironic since I see so much knee-jerk overreaction here at Pajiba... an article chastises a celebrity and the herd follows suit. Anyone in disagreement is buried with down votes. I've been losing that loving feeling for this site for quite a while.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    It's one perspective and by a new writer. (Granted, it is a bit weird to introduce yourself like that.) I think it is a valid perspective from someone who may have to deal with "internet outrage" one day. It is also designed to make you think as a commentator person about how you respond to an article that makes you angry, lest writers stop writing. Everyone can make a mistake. Removing them from their job isn't the answer most of the time.

  • kirbyjay

    If Starkers and Hazel jean are leaving, may I move up a few notches?
    Sorry, I work in a union shop and it's all about SENIORITY!!!
    JK
    I'm not big on public apologies. If you said it, you probably meant it and no PR apology is gonna change that. The sad thing about the internets is that it doesn't matter what you say, someone will be offended.
    "I like daisies"
    Next thing you know, you're bombarded by the Anti-Daisy Society and the Petunia Lovers of America.
    Yeah, I know there are serious subjects like rape, racism, sexism, etc.... that people trip over all the time, and there is no reason not to offer a different opinion, but the commenters that get personal are as bad as the ones that made the offending comment.
    How about we agree to disagree?

  • Hazel Dean

    I've been visiting Pajiba since 2007 (when I stumbled upon a link from Go Fug Yourself), but I have had enough, as well. Just removed Pajiba from my bookmarks, and I don't think I'll miss it. The Mary Sue, Den of Geek, heck, even the AV Club is better than what Pajiba has become.

  • Yocean

    See, in both East and West there is a saying "The Silence is Gold" or something in that vein but a Japanese Buddhist monk who's known for communicating a lot with common folks has actually preached the importance of speaking lightly, or more expression. Because without speaking out, one would never know how wrong or right one could be. That's the only way we can develop to think better by exposing our thoughts to public criticism. And apology is the part of that process. Your friend, and anybody, creators - and I don't accept the excuse of being comedian because I am one too and know the difference between lazy racist picking on the audience type of non-humour and actually offending certain sensitivity to shake things up for the purpose of putting a mirror to it -are responsible for how and what we think and if we did not have those offensive thoughts, we would not have uttered them. So it's good that your friend exposed and great that he apologized sincerely.

    And this is where I agree with you, on that as a whole we do need to understand this process and be more patient and discerning. I do dislike the entitled types who use "only God can judge us" as an excuse to get away with doing awful things. Those do not understand what God's judgement is. It's absolute, terminal and there is no going back. We judge and check each other because we do not want to things to get so bad that the total annihilation is the only option. That's why we judge and check each other, with kindness.

    It's a learning process but texts and manuals have been written already by great prophets/messengers of the past. Like that Buddhist Monk Renyo. Let's smiles and tell each other when they are being wrong, because even if they are strangers, they are still of same humanity. Because the other option is waste land.

  • Here's the sad cynical truth, and I say this as a web publisher myself: when you're in the pageview business, outrage is great for business.

    When Brock talks about "a machine we all know we’re feeding," I winced because on a certain level... even for those of us who hate it, there's no denying that internet outrage hits a gross sweet spot between human behavior (GET THE PITCHFORKS!) and publisher profit (EVERY COMMENT IS A PAGEVIEW IS A FEW CENTS).

    Really loved this post. So much to think about. Thank you.

  • googergieger

    Ugh.

  • BWeaves

    What scares me is that we have a couple or generations of people whose parents have convinced them that they can do no wrong and that they shit diamonds and rainbows. And now these people have crashed landed into the real world and expect their every word to be accepted as genius. Twenty years ago, they would have been the jerk at the company water cooler. Today, they are tweeting. The global backlash and hate is akin to bullying. It's extreme on both sides.

    It's so hard to convey via words, what tone of voice and a raised eyebrow can convey. It's so easy to take things the wrong way.

    I'm reminded of a quote from Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. I can't remember the exact wording, but it was something to the effect of, "If you want everyone to like you, say nothing."

    P.S. Brock, I sincerely hope your friend is able to get past this.

  • emmalita

    My father's favorite quote is from Abraham Lincoln, "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt." Which is a good point. Sometimes I'm willing to make an ass of myself, and occasionally the thought in my head comes out the way I meant it to and I say something worthwhile.

  • K11Win

    Is Creator the new form of Makers? Instead of Takers are the rest of us non-Creators, someting like Destroyers?
    I get your point to an extent, but some of this comes of as a bit pretentious and somewhat whiny at least to me. I definitely believe that the "outrage machine" has gone a bit overboard, but I also think that holding people accountable for their actions isn't a bad thing either.
    I have no idea if your referring to the "Dr. V" Creator, but holding ESPN, Grantland and the writer to account for misuing and abusing their power isn't a bad thing in my book, though of course wishing for their deaths is. Jerry Seinfeld, who got rich and powerful off of a lot of female/minority eyeballs, decides to be flippant about any representation from that audience and I guess I'm supposed to show him empathy that he doesn't extend to others. I just don't think that its all that harmful to have those with a platform hear the cries and complaints of the masses.

  • AudioSuede

    I agree with this article very much, especially since there's no black-and-white declarations that apologies are always a bad idea. People need to own up to their mistakes. The problem is there's been a growing culture of "Think Piece" activism (of which I'm also guilty) that trades a nuanced argument away for a vitriolic stand on the moral high ground.

    There are times when apologies are necessary, and then there are times when people need to recognize that a celebrity doesn't owe them anything other than quality entertainment. When Daniel Tosh told a joke about rape, instead of everyone going, "Let's have a conversation about context," there were several days straight of either total fury and offense or total douchebag pro-rape-joke defense. By the time everyone got sick of the story (in which an apology was offered and nobody cared), nobody learned anything, except that now apparently "rape" is the comedy equivalent of the n-word.

    Patton Oswalt got forced into a mess like this when he chewed someone out for illegally taping one of his open mic performances and the offended party took to their blog to mount an angry firestorm about it. There's a time and a place for an apology, but if everyone has to apologize for everything that anyone finds offensive, apologies will become totally meaningless. If Coke apologizes for that Super Bowl ad that got racists and xenophobes and a-holes into a tizzy on Twitter, I will seriously consider never buying a Diet Coke again in my life. Which is, of course, how situations like this SHOULD be resolved. Someone doesn't like Fez? They shouldn't buy Fez 2, and they should leave Phil Fish alone. Shia Lebouf plagiarized something? Well, don't give him your money at the box office for that thing. Maybe wait until he makes another thing that isn't plagiarized and decide for yourself like a full-grown adult whether you'll indulge in whatever entertainment he's trying to provide. Tiger Woods cheats on his wife a billion and three times? Don't buy a t-shirt with his face on it, and let him save the apologies for the people who deserve it like his wife and family.

    I half expected someone to demand an apology from Philip Seymour Hoffman's ghost. This whole "demanding a public apology then acting pissy because we think the apology we demanded was insincere and only a PR trick to keep us from demanding any more apologies" cycle needs to stop, lest we stop learning anything of value and stop trusting our fellow human beings to utilize whatever salvageable brain cells they have left in the future.

  • brite59

    Sir, this was a meticulously written piece on what's been on my mind for sometime now. I was going to try and pull one quote that grabbed me, but, nah, it was the whole piece, thank - you.

  • seth

    ...You're the Creator?!

  • Fabius_Maximus

    If you fuck up (in public), you deserve to get flak. It's the only way to know that you've made a mistake.

    It is scary, of course, because among the responses will be some - or a lot, depending on the topic - that are way out of proportion.

    That's why you're not a coward. You're actually pretty courageous to publish under your real name (although "Brock" sounds like it's fake ;) ).

    Speaking from a personal perspective: I regret quite a few of my comments here and elsewhere and those have been written under a nickname. (I've also lost time during presentations in university, so I'm someone who's terrified of "going public" in any way.)

    I also know how it is to be overly critical with yourself and others. It is something I have to overcome, because it's holding me back and can cause conflict with people I work with. I wouldn't read comments under articles I wrote and I'm dreading to read reviews of stuff I've published, minor as it may be.

  • lowercase_ryan

    ok some thoughts:

    As I understand it Fish didn't quit because he was afraid of hurting people's feelings but rather he was tired of negative feedback. I'm not terribly familiar with the situation but didn't he rail about the overwhelming negativity of the internet?

    The target you speak of, excellence, has ALWAYS been a small, tiny, exhaust port of a target. Thanks to the internet we just have so many more people taking shots that miss. But there is a MASSIVE difference between fucking up on a huge project than sending a misguided text while drunk.

    There is also a huge difference between apologizing because you are sincerely sorry and apologizing because your PR firm (or your lawyers, Shia) tell you too. And woe be the arrogant prick who thinks we can't tell the two apart.

    In the case of the person I believe to be your friend, I absolutely believed his apology. If I'm right about the situation you're referring to, I think others jumped at a chance they had been waiting for, for years. So when they had the opportunity to bring an issue (an issue whose time had legitimately come and was needed. I personally learned a lot from the experience.) to the forefront of the internet for a couple of days, they pounced. I think the negative attention your friend received was greatly increased because of this, which I think is unfortunate.

    But I think apologies are very necessary. As more people take their shot and we see more and more fuck up, we need a way to distinguish between those deserving of another chance and those we can right off for good. Isn't that really what an apology is for? Why would we ever want that to go away? It's all about the sincerity and we know it when we see it. We really are that smart.

    Finally, I admit I may have failed to grasp some of your points. That's what happens when you post a very lengthy and very thoughtful article on a Friday afternoon (seriously, this is deserving of a Tuesday mid-morning/lunch post when the bains around here are attentive and revving. Don't let it happen again. I accept your apology in advance.

  • Maya

    Can I ask who you think his friend is? I know it's not really the point of the piece but I'm so curious.

  • lowercase_ryan

    As it's only a guess, and the author specifically left that out, I don't think it's right of me to even post my guess. If Brock is ok with it, then I'd be happy to post my guess.

  • ZombieNurse

    I'm beginning to think that people on the internet are participating in "Vigilactivism." We all want to be smart and supportive in certain situations, especially when whatever is going on involves touchy subjects, but mostly it just devolves into perfect strangers taking it upon themselves to publicly destroy whomever the offender of the day is. I'm not saying there isn't a time and place to voice disapproval, but sometimes I think it gets taken too far.

  • manting

    Emily is that you?

  • wonkeythemonkey

    I like that word, and the sentiment it conveys. I try to stay clear of any public "conversations" that are built primarily on a foundation of anger because anger, for all its raw power and motivating energy, has a way of shutting down critical thinking and prudence.

    A public outcry based on disgust? Great! Disappointment? Works for me.
    But anger? I'm headed to the storm cellar until it blows over. There's no stopping that force of nature once it starts.

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