Who Deserves Our Attention? On Outrage Blogging

Fellow Patheos blogger Chris recently had an interesting post about blogging, the internet, and outrage.

A few days ago I stumbled across an article by David Wong titled “5 Ways to Spot a B.S. Political Story in Under 5 Seconds.” One item in particular was uncomfortably familiar: “The Headline Is About a ‘Lawmaker’ Saying Something Stupid”:

A low-level politician with no power said something incredibly stupid, and the opposing party is trumpeting it from the mountaintops to make everyone in the low-level politician’s party look stupid.

Here’s one: “Kansas Lawmaker Says Women Should Plan Ahead for Rape: ‘I Have a Spare Tire’”

Now, that story is true. The guy did say that. But now we need to ask ourselves a two-letter question:

“So?”

In every single group of human beings, you have a certain percentage of crazy shitheads.

Wong goes on to point out that “there are literally high school class presidents who garnered more votes” than some state legislators, along with the even greater absurdity of reporting on things Ted Nugent has said.

If you spend a lot of time in the atheist blogosphere, does this all sound way to familiar to you?

It does for me… and I hate where that line of thought leads me for a lot of bloggers I like. I generally like Ed Brayton, but he does like two posts a day on crazy stuff said by people I’d probably have never heard of if I didn’t read his blog. And Hemant Mehta generally lives up to his “Friendly Atheist” moniker, but he does a fair amount of that kind of stuff too–just two days ago he dedicated a blog post to something some random “ Christian pastor” said.

On top of this, today I came across a book excerpt from last July on BoingBoing, which told a couple stories of one particular Jezebel writer ginning up outrage through completely bogus stories, including one case where a few posts about a bullshit controversy involving the Daily Show generated 500,000 pageviews.

500,000 pageviews with a few posts? Crap, if I could do that on a regular basis I’d be set, financially. But I won’t do it by generating fake controversies. Maybe I’m in the wrong line of work.

I think Chris’s point is worth thinking about. I do sometimes wonder if blogger activists, whether feminist or atheist or both, don’t sometimes do more harm than good by giving voice and credibility to fringe individuals no one listens to anyway.

This brings up a question. When should we, as bloggers or simply as people plugged into social media, ignore an outrageous statement or incident and when should we shine a spotlight on it? I suppose I personally have a two-pronged litmus test. First, is it an individual who has actual influence? For example, if James Dobson or Rick Warren says or does something particularly outrageous, that’s more worth talking about than if some random fundamentalist pastor no one knows or cares about says something hateful. And second, is there some greater constructive critique or point I can arrive at by discussing this remark or incident? If the outrageous statement of some unknown pastor gives me the chance to do some interesting thought work or consciousness raising, then it’s worth discussing regardless of whether or not he personally has any influence.

Still, even with this two-part formula, it’s not always completely obvious to me who matters and who doesn’t. For a while I’ve wondered if it’s even worth ever responding to Douglas Wilson, given how far out of mainstream evangelicalism most people consider him. Then, last week, while perusing Wilson’s blog I came upon this advertisement for his latest book:

Wilson is using the endorsement of Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today, to tout his book. Christianity Today is pretty much the essence of mainstream evangelicalism, and an endorsement like this gives Wilson credibility. And that’s bad. Why do mainstream evangelicals get suckered into things like this?

Similarly, I recently came upon an article by James Dobson in which he has a footnote to an article by the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer. While James Dobson, who founded Focus on the Family, has long been at the center of conservative evangelicalism, I had always thought Fischer was a fringe element whom no one really listened to. Now I’m having to rethink that, because apparently James Dobson listens to him, and conservative evangelicals definitely listen to James Dobson.

Debi Pearl’s books, for their part, are highly influential in Christian homeschool circles, as well as in many smaller fundamentalist churches. Mainstream evangelicals generally favor slightly less extreme how-to manuals for being submissive wives, but those in fundamentalist churches or those involved in the Christian homeschool movement sing Debi’s praises. She has influence in those circles, and that makes her worth talking about. And beyond simply that, looking at her writing gives me the chance to examine the myriad of themes and ideas that transcend just her.

I think the solution to the problem Chris poses is to make sure that we are purposeful about who we give time and space to, and about who we think merits our time and energy. It’s not that we should stop critiquing the writing and ideas of pastors, politicians, or leaders whom most people consider loony, but rather that we should make sure we have reasons beyond shock value for doing so.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • AnonaMiss

    I think that fringe personalities making fringe statements are worth covering when they are part of movements that primarily police the opposite fringe. No Republican cared about Todd “legitimate rape” Akin’s position until outsiders called them on it.

    Without mainstream exposure and ridicule, no one is disowned by the evangelical mainstream for being too fundamentalist; no one is disowned by the Republican party for being too reactionary. Extremists on the unpoliced fringe are only disowned when outsiders raise a fuss; e.g. the Westboro Baptist Church & Todd Akin, respectively. And because the policing allows one extreme to remain and not the other, the Overton window of the group shifts inexorably and sometimes dramatically. Directed memetic selection!

    It isn’t our responsibility to police reactionary fringes of subcultures more frightened of radicalism, but I don’t think it does any harm – and on those occasions when it catches the public eye, it can cause a dramatic reversal of (at least public) subculture-policy.

    • Jason Dick

      I think this is a really good point. In part, the response, “I’m not like those guys! You can’t tar us all with the same brush!” is exactly the response we want when criticizing the fringe: we want other members of the movement to distance themselves as much as possible.

      • Christine

        That being said, it’s not necessarily a good idea to report on something that some fringe element said and then use it to say that all [x] are stupid, because then the other members of the movement will just dismiss what you have to say (and there will be no dialogue).

    • http://dukesofearl.blogspot.com Joy

      Even low-level lawmakers have some power and their re-election can be prevented if their stupid comments are aired.

  • W.

    It depends…
    In some occasions it seems like bloggers find a particularly eccentric individual doing something outrageous and with the resounding outrage, give that individual more attention then they would have otherwise gotten. The incident of a small time preacher who resolved to burn a Koran comes to mind.
    On the other hand, I think individuals in the government, even small time individuals should have to account for their remarks. The individual who made a remark about preparing for rape faced a huge backlash, and if there is a large enough backlash from the public it can kill their political career and stop them from gaining more power. I’d rather rape apologists get outed and discounted long before they get elevated to the federal level or their party places them on committees.

    Other times it isn’t about the speaker, such as in my mind the case of Westboro Baptist. It is about looking at these absurd, bigoted ideas and demanding that the Christian community denounce said bigotry, and perhaps hold a mirror up to them, saying that these people are following the literal bible and that this is the logical conclusion of their own positions. I’ve had conversations with people who state that ‘they aren’t like that, they just don’t want gays to marry.’ and I say that the only difference then is that they lack conviction, because the feeling and justification is the same. There are some arguments that can be levied from the fringe.

  • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

    I think another point is that sometimes (often?) the minor person may be saying something that others are thinking. Those with power are also vulnerable, and aware of their vulnerability, to public opinion. A senator can lose their career if they say the wrong thing, so they’re more careful about what they say. The one who thinks they have little power has less to lose, and so less incentive to police their comments. They can say what others think. The “spare tire”comment? I bet plenty of others held that opinion (and still hold it).

    Truthfully, I don’t think any lawmaker should be considered “low power.” They may have less influence than some, but someone liked them enough to vote for them, to give them a platform. They should not be discounted. I would suggest something similar for even minor pastors.

  • Stony

    Let’s say an imaginary young adult or teen is living a fairly sheltered life and is having questions or doubts about all they’ve been fed over the years. They google their pastor, Brother Joe Blovious, and find some of his words or videos being mocked. The young person may react in outrage, and solidify themselves with the flock. Or, they may read the comments, the reactions…they may follow a link or two and find other ways of thinking, some of which echoes with their own doubts and questions. They may find a path out of a narrow and unhappy existence. This, btw, is a loose paraphrasing of my path. All I’m saying, is we don’t always know where the center is or where the fringe is, until we see a broader spectrum.

    • http://republic-of-gilead.blogspot.com Ahab

      I second Stony’s comment about how we don’t always know what is the center and what is the fringe without context. It’s harder to dismiss some fundamentalist’s wacky comment when we remember that they rarely operate inside an ideological bubble. People who make outrageous statements often network with and speak for larger subcultures, which we ignore at our peril.

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    This is an important question- and it’s hard to know how far any certain teaching has had an influence on people. Somewhat related: There have been times I wrote about modesty culture or purity culture, and people tell me “you take things too literally- no one is ACTUALLY teaching that” but then I think, the things I’m writing, pointing out how harmful those teachings are- I’m writing to myself, really. Because I really need to hear about how “modesty” and “purity” don’t make sense, and we should live in freedom, not fear. And if someone else who reads my blog needs to hear that too, great! But if not, if it’s something that people can’t relate to or didn’t know about, they don’t have to read it.

  • Azura

    I don’t know, I think anyone who speaks for more than just themselves or their family is worth the attention just for the sake of helping those under them. Keep in mind I’m a Canadian who is rarely influenced by any of the things written in American blogs beyond shared cultural stuff. A texan senator or something has negligible influence on a Canadian chick, but I’d still like to be exposed to his ideas so that I can evaluate them, probably rejects them, and then combat them if they manage to show up in the north. Any pastor or politician or lawmaker, no matter how small fry, can influence many, and it’s not a waste of time to try to counteract that. If a person puts their ideas into the marketplace via publishing, it is a valid piece of public discourse to analyze that and posting a personal analysis or frustration is what blogs are for.

    Hell, just a post of “I heard this guy talk and it pissed me off” is completely valid whether it furthers society or not. Not every blog post needs to be agonized over, sometimes people just want to vent, and the need to vent doesn’t really parse the difference between idiot individual at the mall the other day and Todd Akin. Both are annoying, and anything in person is probably going to infuriate and require venting more.

  • http://musings.northerngrove.com/ Jarred H

    The problem is, I’m not convinced that the people some try to dismiss as “fringe” are really all that “fringe” as opposed to “more outspoken and direct about what the mainstream is thinking.” I mean, look at both the American Family Association and the Family Research Council. Those organization and their spokespeople have said some truly horrific things. Things that are well documented. And yet, I’ve heard well-meaning people criticize the Southern Poverty Law Center for listing both organizations as a hate group, framing it as an issue of “declaring traditional Biblical values as being hateful.” The problem is, for them to do that, those same people have to be completely ignorant of the horrible things the organizations they’re defending said or are aware of what those organizations said and don’t consider the things said to be all that bad. Either choice doesn’t really pain the defenders in a flattering light, in my opinion.

    • http://republic-of-gilead.blogspot.com Ahab

      Voices from the AFA and FRC have also spoken at large-scale political events such as the Values Voters Summit. Tony Perkins of the FRC is a well-known commentator on cable news. Thus, we can’t call these groups fringe if they’re welcomed by conservative political leaders and they speak on a national stage.

  • Rae

    ““So?”
    In every single group of human beings, you have a certain percentage of crazy shitheads.”

    In the case of politicians specifically, I think it is worth talking about, because it’s destructive to our society to have “crazy shitheads” in public office. How is our system of government not supposed to fall apart if, every time a politician says something amazingly stupid, offensive, and/or ignorant, we just hand-wave it away saying “Oh, there’s always someone like that, there’s nothing we can do about them?”

  • http://thechurchproject.me Tracey

    False information/negative ideas can come from a variety of places; major or minor, intentional or unintentional. It may be worthwhile to pick them apart while still “small time”. In the age of the Internet stuff can become big in a hurry.

    One of my friends did an art project creating what she thought the next Vampire Weekend (a band) album would look like. She posted it and told people it was the new album. It was so spot-on to this band’s style that several articles referenced it without realizing she’d created a fake. While my example is fairly innocuous, it’s easy to come across bigger topics that have been infused with misinformation. I’m thinking of something like Michele Bachmann claiming a girl she met ‘caught’ autism from an inoculation she received as a TEEN. (several things wrong there)

  • http://theotherweirdo.wordpress.com The Other Weirdo

    I am not convinced that elected politicians, especially those who are members of major political parties, should ever been given a pass just because they hold a “fringe” position. A fringe position today can quite easily become mainstream tomorrow if nobody questions them.


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