deep dives

In the Internet Age, We All Live in a Culture of Outrage

Virtual morality is to actual virtue what sexting is to actual fucking.

by Jemayel Khawaja
15 June 2015, 12:10am

On the internet, you are the judge, jury, and executioner, and you can enact your verdict with a single click. As this week's frenzied uproar on social media surrounding Lithuanian house producer Ten Walls' idiotic comments about homosexuality reminded us, we live in a culture of outrage.

To fit the fast-shrinking attention span of the internet audience, there is less room than ever for nuance or subtlety in the current state of the digital content cycle. Stories come readymade in bite-sized, polarizing morsels primed to be chewed up and spit out by the end of your scroll. With that develops a troubling pattern: Offense! Outrage! Response! Vindication! Next!

There's nothing inherently bad about outrage—Ten Walls' statements were undeniably outrageous and wrong—but the manner in which the internet generation cycles through the process of electronic admonishment is a hollow sham of discourse. In many ways, it is an indictment of both our shallow relationship with and detachment from the IRL.

This is what you look like on the internet // Photo via Twitter

In electronic music culture in particular, outrage can have less to do with a deep sense of morals and more to do with the performance of inclusion in an often virtual community. In the most general of terms, it's a community whose membership is defined by an "us" and a reflexive exclusion of "them." When something unsavory happens, the bad actor becomes a human piñata; they are digitized lightning rods for much larger issues, forced to spend their day in the gallows no matter how sincere their apologies. A temporary zeitgeist forms around the pile of content candy that used to be the offender's life.

Dance music culture has always been an outsider institution, and to some extent, rituals like these are how we protect ourselves from invaders on the margins and define who we are and are not. Electronic music culture was once where outsiders found a home, but often in our efforts to maintain that sanctuary we neglect a perhaps greater duty to lead a few wayward souls to enlightenment. Memes and 140 character are often not enough to unpack the true issues that lay under all that feverish clicking.

The Headdress Headhunt

Photo via EDMSauce.com

In 2014, Lightning in a Bottle became the first festival to outright ban people wearing Native American/First Nations headdresses, a nearly-ubiquitous fashion statement at festivals around the world. Later that year, Bass Coast Festival followed suit. Already nearing curdled levels of cheese from a stylistic perspective, the practice wasn't embargoed in the name of sartorial sense, but rather out of respect to the half-millennia of subjugation by the American and Canadian governments still endured by North American Indians today.

With regard to LIB, it was a noble gesture from The Do LaB, a promoter that champions progressive culture and maintains strong ties to the Indian tribes upon whose lands it has held events in the past. Their fans voiced their support on social media and IRL, using catchphrases like "cultural appropriation" and "reinforcement of stereotypes" in a storm of virtue. Rightly, in 2015, someone wearing a headdress to any major festival on the west coast will provoke ire in their peers, or at least a lecture about cultural sensitivity.

Still, if festival culture's consideration of Native American and First Nations communities was a completed thought, there would be actions that extend beyond the banning of the headdress. At events like Lightning in a Bottle, there are a number of workshops led by and in homage of a general sense of Indian-esque spiritualism. At a more mainstream festival like Coachella, however, most people know it's wrong to wear a headdress because it's "offensive," but rarely consider why or further analyze what else might be insensitive or disrespectful towards the people who lived on this land before Europeans claimed it.

The imaginative sartorial stylings of Burners // Photo via Scott London

Another uncontested fashion trend in desert rave culture is probably best described as "Bedouin chic," an adaptation of the drape-heavy swaths of light-colored fabric, often worn around one's head. Originally created as a way to contend with the hot and windy sand-filled environments inhabited by the nomadic tribes of the Arabian and North African deserts. As some Americans are perhaps aware, many civilians of the Arabian peninsula have been displaced or worse as a direct result of North American and European foreign policies in the Middle East. In theory, borrowing the of a people oppressed by the US government could fall under the same scrutiny that American Indian headdresses do. Yet, without having been entered into the outrage cycle, the issue has never even been considered.

Ultimately, politicizing festival attire is a shallow task. We might be better served as a community if we engaged in a deeper analysis of our own groupthink. Borrowing from other cultures, when done knowledgeably and respectfully, can foster cultural growth, and is a cornerstone of American and Canadian identity. Festival culture itself is premised on unbridled freedom of expression. At the very least, we can agree that headdresses, even cultural appropriation, are transgressions of ignorance, not meant to cause harm, but what about when outrage is provoked in a much more aggressive manner?

Eat, Sleep, Outrage, Repeat

While covering the first weekend of Coachella this year, I tweeted a picture of a guy sporting a t-shirt emblazoned with what has now become an ill-famed phrase: "Eat Sleep Rape Repeat."

A crass adaptation of Fatboy Slim's 2013 track title, "Eat Sleep Rave Repeat," the Twitter photo of the offending shirt was immediately picked up by media outlets all over the world and the deluge of outrage it set off was swift and unequivocal. Reactions were largely those of shock, disgust, and dismay. Still, a vocal minority suggested enacting some form of violence towards shirt's wearer.

Of course, people say shit on the internet that is often less than true. Still, if those offended by the shirt's endorsement of sexualized violence were genuinely interested in curtailing its message, suggesting someone inflict retaliatory violence upon its wearer is hypocritical. Violent messages are not solved through acts of violence, physical, verbal, or digital.

While the internet response to the shirt and its wearer were vehement, the IRL reaction at Coachella was meek by comparison. Did anyone tell him his shirt was offensive? Did someone from the festival ask him to turn the shirt inside-out or leave? Was he heckled by crowds of people standing up for the rights of sexual assault victims? Not that we're aware of. In an space where outrage might have made an impact, outrage did not happen. By contrast, internet outrage becomes pantomime. THUMP never identified the shirt-wearer, but other outlets did, prompting him to disappear from social media and reportedly retreat into anonymity (as much as is possible in a digital era).

As pantomime, outrage is often blunt, misdirected, or under-informed. Many individuals (and a few blogs) misidentified the photographer (me) as the wearer of the t-shirt. I can personally weather the deluge of angry tweets and Facebook messages, but if someone doesn't take the time to read a sentence of context, what right do they have to weigh in so aggressively on the subject? Online, our vitriol against (virtual) human targets is amplified, but there is no accountability required for those who choose pass judgment. The ramifications of people's actions on the internet take place IRL, but for many, these viral witch hunts are games we play on Facebook and Twitter, akin to Angry Birds or Farmville.

Media Frenzy and the Fall of Ten Walls

None of this is to diminish the importance of these issues, but sometimes the response to them overshadows solving the problems themselves. On Thursday, June 4, web outlet Gay Star News ran a story about Lithuanian house producer Ten Walls' delusional and hate-filled Facebook post against homosexuality. The original post, in Lithuanian, didn't get picked up for a few days after it was first posted when a Lithuanian activist provided Gay Star News with an English translation. Even then, the story didn't break in the music media until Sunday night and Monday morning—nearly a week after the offending message first went live.

Once it did get picked up, the story travelled through every electronic music-facing media outlet on the internet almost instantly. As the story spread, festival organizers, artists, and promoters moved as fast as possible to cancel Ten Walls events and distance themselves from him before any finger-waggers caught up to them. After years of steady work as a producer and DJ and only a year after releasing his breakthrough tune, "Walking With Elephants," a UK Top 10 hit, Ten Walls' career was over in a matter of hours.

Certainly, Ten Walls was not the first homophobe inside dance music culture. Though the scene originated in gay clubs, it has since been commandeered by straight people, some of whom are indifferent to the culture's gay origins. Ten Walls also won't be the last homophobe inside dance music culture either. But the swift reaction to his comments wasn't a part of a larger effort to stop anti-gay policies or sentiments, but rather a display of limited and perhaps shallow solidarity against the expression of an idea that is (rightly) deemed as inappropriate for today's broad-minded and theoretically inclusive dance music audiences.

This evolution of societal engagement through internet rage cycles has been a symbiotic one between media outlets and audiences. Just as print publications were once motivated by subscribers, internet outlets are motivated by clicks. Clicks keep the lights on. Given the appetite for outrage, shaming someone for their homophobia can be a traffic coup, made traffic bonanza by the follow-up stories about how an industry or community rallied around the cause. The imperative for any outlet is to follow the numbers. If people keep clicking, the posts will keep coming.

By and large, banning Indian headdresses has not had an effect on the lives of North American Indians. The tsunami of tweets around that guy's dumb shirt at Coachella has had little bearing on the prevalence of rape culture in America. Ten Walls, like the government of his home country, Lithuania, is likely still homophobic (though perhaps wise enough not to post about it on Facebook). The outrage culture these stories fed into is limited in its effectiveness because it operates in an online vacuum. Social media outcry does not manifest in the real world where real life happens, and the lessons we could be learning and progress we could be making disappear as quickly as the stories drop down your newsfeed. It's like he real world serves the online world, not the other way around.

How do we turn internet outrage into meaningful IRL change? If you find something offensive, have an actual conversation about it with real people, hear other's opinions and understand the nuances of what is almost always a layered situation. Outrage for the sake of outrage is a useless endeavor but it suits the short attention spans and fast pace of the internet well. Maybe if we all take responsibility for our outrage, we can use it to impact society instead. Shouting with a mob of digitized strangers into a vacuum isn't quite cutting it.

Offended? Outraged? Let Jemayel Khawaja know on Twitter.