Outrage News Is Powerful Storytelling

Recently I played a form of mixed doubles tennis in which the final point is served from female to female, or male to male. At our small club, when it comes to tennis skills there’s no clear division along gender lines. A number of the women can outplay the men.

So I mentioned maybe we could ignore that rule, depending on who’s playing. I’m also mindful of being gender inclusive. The distinction between male and female has been shown — across different disciplines — to be nowhere near as binary as previously decided by culture. Our club may, in the distant future, seem sufficiently liberal that a gender non-conforming player joins in for the occasional hit. That’s my goal.

But my politically conservative tennis partner, who vociferously voted against marriage equality in Australia last year, chortled at my suggestion and said, “Don’t you know there’s 33 different genders now?” (Subtext reading: Once we get started down that line, where do we stop? How are we meant to play a fun game of mixed doubles with 33 different genders!)

I had no words. Words were useless anyhow, as our opponents on the other side of the net agreed that all of this leftie gender talk is nonsense. We continued to play. We served the decider woman to woman, man to man.

I had no words at the time, but have since encountered the phrase to describe the so-called 33 genders article as recalled by my tennis partner:  ‘outrage news’.

Outrage news describes media specifically designed to undermine a movement by making it out to sound ridiculous. Readers are thereby encouraged to focus on ridiculous non-facts of the movement, and feel justified in dismissing everything said by the movement’s informed activists after that point. It is remarkably effective as a tool of propaganda.

Sure enough, 33-genders-guy has referred to that ridiculous ‘fact’ about gender more than once since then. Whenever anyone says anything about gender, he comes out with that.

As is the case with most outrage news, the outrage article he read was based on a kernel of fact.

Here’s the fact: As part of a new anti-discrimination policy, it was reported that Australia is preparing to introduce at least 33 different gender OPTIONS on birth certificates and passports.

To those who know nothing about gender, ‘gender option’ (the box one ticks on a government form) becomes conflated with ‘gender’, which actually lies on a spectrum.

Pick your number, because the number doesn’t matter. Other articles will declare 63 genders. Some say 37, because apparently it’s newsworthy that Tinder offers 37 gender identity options in its efforts to not be assholes.

To conservatives who insist on the importance of a clearly delineated gender binary, the higher that ‘ridiculous’ number, the more they like it. I won’t link to the outrage articles themselves, but what these articles are describing is ‘language’. The English language is a constantly evolving beast, used across many, many different cultures and subcultures. Of course English contains at least 63 different ways to talk about various gender identities. Next year we’ll be up to 150, I guess. And then, next time anyone tries to bring up a real issue regarding gender, conservatives can bring that up, too.

Or maybe they’ll bring up the following 2018 pre-Christmas outrage article courtesy of Fox News:

Some say it’s time for gender neutral Santa.

A classic outrage news template: [X] group petition against [much beloved pop-culture/tradition] because [discrimination].

Here’s a classic template from Fox 13 News Utah:

Petition against ‘Deadpool’ promotional poster says its [sic] religious discrimination against LDS Church

Super popular fictional stories, such as say, an X-Men comic, are vulnerable to the outrage news treatment, especially when paired with major religions:

Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men Wipes Out Centres of Catholicism, Islam and Hinduism

No. No one is saying that, apart from the people who wrote that article.

This is why the following Onion parody works as parody:

Radio Station Playing Controversial ‘Little Drummer Boy’ On Repeat In Defiance Of Those Who Claim It Contains Sexually Predatory Themes

Oftentimes, the title is an outrage title but the few people who read the article within learn that the title doesn’t match the contents:

This Australian University Is Under Fire For Offering A Controversial Western Civilisation Degree

Read the article and we learn the main concerns are not about the degree itself, but the fact that it’s sponsored and run by the Ramsay centre and not the university. The course was rejected by other universities because it takes away their autonomy and allows a third party to control their courses. But the outrage title encourages the casual scroller to assume a different article: That it’s not okay to offer a course Western civilisation these days, because it might offend the non-Westerners (or the ‘PC’ crowd). However, a title about internal university politics isn’t near as interesting, let alone outrageous.

When we feel outraged, we hit share. And we remember the basic message. Outrage is a strong emotion; any strong emotion makes memories stick. Worse, in this case, the disseminators of outrage news believe they themselves are the lone skeptics, living in a world gone PC mad.

Such is the power of story.

We love stories for many different reasons:

  • To see ourselves reflected in others
  • To question and to think
  • To feel a strong emotion, perhaps as catharsis
  • To feel thrilled, excited, turned on, horripilated, depending on the genre

But sometimes, unfortunately, we also have the capacity to hold on to any story which makes us feel something, especially if it confirms our existing beliefs about how the world should work.