A few recent events have occasioned more than the usual “if outrage over this, why not that?” comments from leading journalistic sources. Three examples:
Since Cecil the Lion was trophy-hunted and killed by an American dentist, many major sites have asked: why the outrage over Cecil, and not all the other animals that have been killed before and since?
Since activist Shaun King was revealed to have lied to Oprah Winfrey about his biracial identity (turns out he’s white), sites have asked: why all the outrage over Rachel Dolezal, but not Shaun King?
Since the Ashley Madison hack began, and names have filtered out, people have asked: why was the Sony hack such a big deal, but not all these (wannabe) adulterous cheaters?
The answer is so simple that it doesn’t tend to come up on most of these sites: novelty. Sociological research proves that humans are hard-wired to pay disproportionate attention to something new. Perhaps this is an evolutionary advantage: one can imagine our watchful hunter-gathering ancestors on the African savanna, surviving longer than their cousins who weren’t as attuned to the new and different.
My post is no more and no less than a plea for the proviso-level recognition of the appeal of novelty. It’s a plea that will almost certainly fall on deaf ears. Because it’s much easier for ideologues to impute some kind of shadowy, nefarious agenda to their foes. It’s easier to paint enemies as hypocrites who loudly tout one set of data but muzzle themselves regarding a similar but problematic set of data. When it comes to people whose blog post is basically “where’s the outrage?”, it simply wouldn’t drive as much traffic to their rants sites if they were to follow up “where’s the outrage?” with “well, maybe novelty plays a role.”
Cecil was the first pre-named animal to be so blatantly enticed, hunted, and killed. Plus, they tried to cover it up. Good story. Rachel Dolezal was the first white woman to make headlines for apparent skin darkening and for taking advantage of opportunities meant for African-Americans. Another good story. A.O. Scott, the New York Times lead film critic, called the Sony hack and the mess over The Interview “something new under the sun.” You can’t expect the next dead animal, white poseur, or group of hackers revealing an employer’s inner secrets to make quite the same amount of press.
In the case of Shaun King, right-wingers are looking at the country and saying: where’s all your Rachel Dolezal outrage? And the left is thinking: been there, done that.
In the case of animals other than Cecil the Lion, hard-left animal-rights activists are looking at the country and saying: where’s all your Cecil the Lion outrage? And the right, and the rest of the country, is thinking: been there, done that.
In the case of Ashley Madison, some women are ready to impute a masculinist, adultery-forgiving bias to the media – which could definitely be there. But I think there’s also a bit of: been there, done that. (Not to say there’s been NO coverage, but the disproportion is there.)
There’s a lesson here for activists: you can’t expect to galvanize people, or the media, if you present that which has been seen before. Occupy Wall Street can excite for a month, but if someone doesn’t do something extreme, the same tableaus of the same signs are going to lose internet traffic in ever-increasing degrees. I feel the #blacklivesmatter movement learned this lesson well. Ferguson couldn’t be “just another black protest.” It had to last longer, it had to have new gestures such as putting up hands. The reaction to Eric Garner’s death had to be new – we needed NBA players wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts to compel New York mayor Bill DeBlasio to sound empathetic to compel his officers to turn their backs on him. All new. The exact same events would no longer elicit the same degree of reaction. Walter Scott was new: we hadn’t really seen a video of a white officer shooting an unarmed black man dead – and then trying to cover it up. The next such video won’t make the same headlines. And that won’t be because of a nefarious right-wing agenda. It’ll just be novelty.
So activists need to keep novelty in mind – many of them already do this – as they plan their next stunt.
By choosing examples like Shaun King, Cecil the Lion, Ashley Madison, and OWS, I’ve chosen bugaboos of oppositional partisan persuasions, and that’s to make the centrist, middle-of-the-road American point that novelty happens. But novelty – even as a caveat – doesn’t get recognized by the Huffington Post, Vox, and The New York Times, because they’re too far left, and it doesn’t get recognized by The Wall Street Journal, The Federalist, and The Weekly Standard, because they’re too far right. The adults in the room, the centrists like Politico and The Economist, don’t deign to employ bloggers who write “Where’s the Outrage?” in the first place, and thus can’t be expected to bother with writing a post like this one.
But just so you know, us populist centrist Americans aren’t being persuaded by the “Where’s the Outrage?” articles. That should bother the people writing them, when you consider that we were the ones, beyond their base, that they had a chance to persuade. One of our spokesmen mentioned our frustration during his final appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. When Stewart asked him what the media could do better, President Barack Obama said, “I think it gets distracted by shiny objects and doesn’t always focus on the big, tough choices and decisions that need to be made.”
So instead of asking, “where’s the outrage?” or “if this caused such an uproar, why not that?” let’s just advocate an agenda. Unanswerable rhetorical questions are so 2014.