Manufacturing Outrage: Learning from Sarah Palin and Martin Bashir

Sarah Palin said something stupid this week. She compared Obamacare to America's history of slavery. Martin Bashir over at MSNBC feigned complete disgust on air Friday. Bashir read his audience quotes from Thomas Thistlewood, a notorious slaveholder in Jamaica. The madman's diary included extreme violent acts of degradation including rubbing painful substances in wounds and forcing slaves to eat human feces. After recounting these quotes, Bashir added with glee that such punishment would befit Sarah Palin. Predictably, he apologized on Monday.

Martin Bashir and Sarah Palin became interchangeable caricatures in this discourse by both using a horrendous chapter of history for cheap, meaningless shots at opponents. The problem is that it works. Being outraged has probably surpassed apple pie and baseball as an American hallmark at this point. This isn't surprising. The adrenaline rush from manufactured anger doesn't even require one to leave the couch.

The reason for it all is simple: advertisers. In a web-based society, traffic has become the key measure by which success is built in online advertising. Web users have even coined a term for particularly absurd content designed to shock: "clickbait."

In a new media environment, the concept of clickbait cross-pollinates with other media. If Martin Bashir insinuates on television that someone should beat Sarah Palin and defecate in her mouth, that clip will become a hit on YouTube. MSNBC can claim ownership of the clip on YouTube and show ads to each viewer who visits. Outraged individuals will incessantly share the clip, giving what started as a moment-in-time arguably infinite potential for ad revenue. So you, the outraged public, have essentially just become a free advertiser.

Some figures make an entire living off of manufacturing outrage. Ann Coulter has been arguably the most successful new media figure to survive on pure public outcry. Other figures use outrage as a supplemental force to propel their brand. Bill O'Reilly is the strongest example of this strategy. O'Reilly pushes the discourse to the level of unacceptability without crossing any major lines, then pulls the discussion back to the center. By cultivating anger at just the right level, he maintains relevance in new media without becoming so isolating that he loses mainstream appeal. This strategy can backfire when pushed too far. One need only recall Keith Olbermann's spiral into political irrelevance.

This is not all to say that argumentative discourse has no place in public discussion. HBOs 'Real Time with Bill Maher' is a strong, but admittedly flawed, example of productive argument. Guests from all sides of the aisle are invited to discuss the week's most pertinent political and cultural issues. But given the adult-oriented format of the show, which is hosted by an irreverent comedian, very little outrage is ever generated. Discussions often become heated, but the topic remains the subject at hand. Guests are expected to engage discussion thoughtfully and aren't given a platform to manufacture outrage since Maher's media savvy audience won't play into such manufacturing. Even Maher's cynical "New Rules" segment is designed for thoughtful laughs and doesn't incite the style of outrage generated by outlets like the Fox News machine or MSNBC's late afternoon lineup.

What's culture to do about this endless cycle of outrage that clouds progress? It's simple: grow up. Learn to read the media for what it is. Share thoughtful and productive content. Resist advertisers' cheap shots at spiking your adrenaline. UpWorthy, TED Talks, and the start of Al Jazeera America are just a few representations of the hunger for actual information in modern culture. But until thoughtful content draws the most attention, hollow anger is going to drive the discourse.

Polemic sells. I've made a profit off it for years, and I'm not sorry. But while some of it may be thoughtful or amusing, we must recognize inflammatory speech as nothing more than a rhetorical vessel and stop allowing it to dominate our entire discourse. Not every criticism deserves a retaliatory frontal assault. Your world won't end because a pundit says your party hates America. My world won't end because the aforementioned Keith Olbermann insulted me on Twitter or Amanda Marcotte thinks I'm a bit of an idiot. We'll all be just fine.

Now go read something useful.