Credit: Kirsten Colligan

Outrage culture: welcoming or a wake up call?

Ruairidh Campbell

Outrage culture is a phenomenon that appears unable to shy away from the headlines recently, particularly when set in a university context. A combination of extreme overreaction and a populist mass body now often creates situations whereby individuals are sometimes unfairly met with calls to resign despite on the face of it having done very little wrong.

Last month threw up yet another case of left-wing outrage; Sussex University Student Union President Freda Gustafsson came under fire after “fraternising with extremists”, seemingly giving the student electorate reason to a vote of no confidence in her leadership.

And the crime? Gustafsson had her photo taken with Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg. The campaign itself lasted barely a week before its creator James Hutchison proclaimed: “Fuck this. I’m being terrorised by The Sun and Daily Mail so I’m out.” Indeed, he felt the full backlash of the British right wing media, who quickly denounced his actions as little more than a desperate act for publicity over what was essentially a non-story.

Although the petition – with a total of 14 supporters – failed to build any sort of momentum for a vote of no confidence, it does highlight the worrying trend that seems to be growing at an exponential rate; that of the online outrage culture where individuals come under an incredible level of scrutiny in every area of life, public and private. However, whereas in the past many could simply ride a wave of fury, the escalation of social media now often produces a tsunami of resentment, devastating all in its path.

It is perhaps unfair to single-handedly blame left wing activists for the development of this phenomenon, especially given the barrage of rather dangerous abuse often thrown from the other side of the political spectrum. However, incidents like what has transpired in Sussex does little to help limit the moral panic that arises when individuals refuse to engage in debate with opposing viewpoints.

Opinions, and that includes some from Rees-Mogg, can certainly be considered “dated” in a modern context, however the real crime is committed by those who choose not to broaden their horizons to the wider debate, and instead remain transfixed on their narrow-minded ideology. The sensitive issue of no-platforming on university campuses is a tempting tangent, however that is a separate argument, and one best saved for another day.

Crucially, the problem here derives from an apparent inability to accept when someone possesses opinions different from their own or, if they make an error of any magnitude, to immediately escalate the situation far beyond what is usually considered necessary. However, given the potential size of any backlash, a group of complaining individuals have the potential to cause far more damage than can be reasonably expected.

The culture of outrage is not a new occurrence – indeed, it has long been driven by the tabloid press desperate to squeeze a story out of even the most mundane events. However, the ever-increasing expansion of social media as a platform for opinionated individuals to express views of all kinds has only accelerated outrage culture. Just like newspaper editors cramming to create the most outrageous front page, some individuals say what they must to gain wider attention online.

This is only part of the problem. In the left in particular there seems to be an endemic case where to even entertain the ideas of another group is deemed grounds for exclusion. Remember in this example that Gustafsson – a strong socialist campaigner – faced calls to resign over simply having her photo taken with a right wing MP while visiting Parliament.

Hutchison, who began the campaign, was criticised for his lack of forgiveness for what was apparently only a small mistake from his student union President. However, to even call this incident a mistake is ludicrous. Without the likes of Gustafsson meeting and debating staunch Conservatives like Rees-Mogg, any desire for reform will remain nothing more than a dream. Choosing to rant and rave online to an echo chamber of comparable views rather than take direct action is a waste of time.


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