Opinion

The left and the right are in an all-out outrage arms race

After years on the defensive, conservatives are annexing some territory in America's troubling war of hurt feelings and faux outrage. The recent controversies over a Kathy Griffin stunt and a Julius Caesar production are only two such examples.

Who can be the most offended? Get ready... go!

It is possible that some genuinely felt wounded by Kathy Griffin's stunt, but the outrage largely came off as contrived. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

After years on the defensive, conservatives are annexing some territory in America's troubling war of hurt feelings and faux outrage.

The national censure of comedian Kathy Griffin was a rare victory for Republicans, who called her out for an ill-advised publicity stunt in which she snapped some photos of herself holding up a mock severed Donald Trump head. Griffin saw her live shows cancelled, sponsorships dropped and she was cut from her high-profile role co-hosting CNN's New Year's Eve special.

A few weeks after that, right-wing activists made a splash by disrupting a New York production of Julius Caesar featuring the assassination of a character with an obvious likeness to President Trump.

To a degree, this is fair play for conservatives, who for years have had their minor gaffes turned into media spectacles and in some cases, career-ending offences. But it is nonetheless a troubling development, with conservatives now joining the chorus of voices demanding that heads roll over "offensive" acts.

Indeed, the Griffin and Julius Caesar episodes could have offered an opportunity for both liberals and conservatives to engage in some much-needed introspection, but instead, it seems to have only fuelled an increasingly vicious cycle of outrage politics.

Outrage as currency

Contrary to what some progressive pundits claim, the outrage over Griffin's stunt was not the result of "snowflake" Republican partisans. Rather, what grated conservatives was the naked hypocrisy of the photoshoot.

Griffin has previously slammed the toxic rhetoric of Republicans such as Sarah Palin, who she falsely blamed for inspiring the Gabby Giffords shooting back in 2011. Yet, here was Griffin adopting that same toxic rhetoric against a Republican president.

It is possible that some genuinely felt wounded by Griffin's stunt, but the outrage largely came off as contrived. Indeed, after years of watching how the currency of "offence" has delivered desired outcomes for progressives — they once got a rodeo clown banned from a Missouri fair for wearing an Obama mask — conservatives have no doubt recognized that faux offence-taking produces better results than complaints about left-wing hypocrisy.

Conservatives correctly criticize college students for shouting down controversial speakers, but have now stepped over to this dark side themselves. (Joan Marcus/The Public Theater/Associated Press)

We saw this same contrived offence-taking in the controversy over the Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar.

Conservatives might find the depiction of a Trump-like character being assassinated loathsome – particularly in the aftermath the recent congressional baseball game shooting, where a radicalized Bernie Sanders supporter deliberately targeted Republicans – but disrupting the performance is precisely what ostensibly pro-free-speech conservatives have railed against for years. Conservatives correctly criticize college students for shouting down controversial speakers, but have now stepped over to this dark side themselves.

Perhaps the conservative activists behind the disruption thought they were proving a point. See, progressives; it's not so nice to be shouted down, is it? But an ironic embrace of progressives' own tactics will soon turn into an accepted one once conservatives realize the unfortunate effectiveness of the heckler's veto.

These incidents should give pause to liberals and conservatives alike. Now that both sides have had a visit from the outrage brigades, one would think all players would recognize the need to drop outrage as a means of scoring cheap political victories.

Controversial academics should be allowed to give speeches without harassment; presidents can be lampooned – or worse – in the name of art. In reality, however, the outrage arms race will continue due to the narrow self-interest of the activists involved. The left will continue disrupting speeches, and conservatives will feel compelled to respond in kind; all to the continued detriment of open political dialogue and expression.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Allan Richarz

Allan Richarz is a privacy lawyer in Toronto.