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Outrage Projection

Several months ago one of my best friends showed me an episode of the comedy show Letterkenny where a tiki-torch wielding reactionary, "Hard Right Jay" (played by Jay Baruchel), arrives at the eponymous town and attempts to convince the denizens to be outraged over the fact that a local soccer team is planning to change its racist name ("Chiefs") to something that is more "politically correct." Not only does Hard Right Jay discover that most of the town doesn't give a shit about his cause, and largely has no problem with the reasons for the name change, but the episode ends with the Indigenous characters of the show confronting the attempted racist protest and uniting with other members of the town to punch the nazis.

Aside from the awesomeness of celebrating punching nazis in a popular comedy show right after Richard Spencer was punched on camera and liberals got upset about violence directed towards fascists, the depiction of the way in which today's reactionaries think and argue remains on point. The comedic tension of this episode was largely derived from the fact that Hard Right Jay was outraged by the fact that people were outraged by a racism. That is, he spent most of his time trying to convince people that they should just enjoy things, and enjoy "tradition", and that they were "triggered" and overly offended, when in fact he was overly offended (but without good reason) that nobody shared his white nationalist outrage. And this has been the case in the real world where reactionaries spend a lot of time complaining about the supposed hysteria of the so-called "PC" or "SJWs" or whatever they like to call actually sane thinking when in fact they are the ones who spend most of their time being illegitimately outraged and offended. (Look at the Freedom Convoy's illegitimate outrage.) They are really upset by the fact that there are people with legitimate outrage and offense, largely because they refuse to recognize any legitimate quarrel with their reactionary politics. The possibility that they could be wrong (and they are wrong) bothers them greatly, and because they have no rational basis for their understanding of reality (because they are wrong), they are always outraged by the fact that their worldview has been called into question, however marginal this calling into question might be.

Somewhat recently, the reactionary evopsych Peterson acclaimed hack, Gad Saad, performed the same kind of outrage projection. (It is always performative, even if they don't think it is a performance, because they fall into the exact same patterns of every other reactionary who has complained about "cancel culture", "Social Justice Warriors", "PC Culture", for decades.) According to people like Saad, the real problem with society is that progressives are overly sensitive and offended by everything. "Normal" people, according to this discourse, just want to get by and enjoy life but are kept perpetually on their toes by "woke" scolds who refuse to let them enjoy anything or live a life without being bothered. Saad tweeted a story about how his wife was at "a local cafe" and was "frozen in fear" when she encountered a worker who was "possibly transgender" because "she might use a pronoun that might offend." This totally real anecdote was then used as empirical proof (despite the inadmissibility of anecdotes as rigorous empirical justification) of how marginalized people and their allies are just waiting around to be offended, and force everyone else to live in fear of causing offense since they will––what?––publicly humiliate them or something for saying the wrong words.

Whether or not this anecdote ever happened is worth considering. The tweet was widely mocked with respondents pointing out that gendered pronouns are rarely used, and actually don't have to be used, when ordering something from a cafe. Indeed, I can't remember the last time I felt the need to address someone at a coffee shop with a gendered pronoun. Just last week, when I grabbed a coffee from a campus cafe, all I said was "I'll get a medium coffee, black," paid for it, and left. More considerate respondents emphasized the fact that, even if Saad's anecdote was true, taking offense at accidental misgenderings is not a widespread occurrence––in fact it is quite rare. If you don't know someone, or the last time you knew them they went by a different a pronoun, in my experience (and the experiences of so many others I know and the experiences of people who have been misgendered accidentally) people are by-and-large not outraged and offended as the Saads of the world suggest. They patiently correct, provide you with the information about their pronouns, and that's that. Unless you are a dick who consistently misgenders them to the point that it is clearly intentional.

But as Steve Albini pointed out in response to Saad's tweet (side point, I am so happy that indie music icon Steve Albini is not a reactionary edgelord like other 90s indie icons), the Gad Saads of the world "make up these stupid, folksy, fanciful stories… in order to create a 'reasonable' framework." The whole point of Saad's tweet, like so many other similar claims, is that it is entirely "reasonable" to carry on with business as usual even if this business as usual harms––and thus "offends"––marginalized people. More importantly, these stories are meant to emphasize the point that marginalized people should not be offended by being marginalized, that their being offended is in fact an offense to "common sense". It is thus "reasonable" to be appalled by the demands of the oppressed and exploited; it is "unreasonable" when the oppressed and exploited are appalled by oppressive and exploitative behaviour.

A big part of reactionary thinking, then, is the projection of its own outrage at having the status quo challenged, even minimally, upon the very people it wants to stay silent. For example, this is why white conservatives in the US were extremely upset when Jim Crow was challenged and thus depicted those challenging segregation as violent and ungrateful malcontents. The point was to present the state of affairs as natural and rational; those challenging this state of affairs were treated as an irrational mob. Weirdly, at the height of this period William F. Buckley Jr. could pass himself off as a rational and measured conservative intellectual when in fact he was rabidly outraged by any demand for equal treatment on the part of the oppressed. This "rational and measured" veneer that he cultivated was ultimately a performance: a reactionary is never rational or measured––there are no "conservative intellectuals" in a meaningful sense. As much as liberals, who always enable the outrage discourse of reactionaries, like to sing Buckley's praises, the fact is he was canny manipulator of this outrage machine whose mask always dropped whenever he was pushed.

So back to "Hard Right Jay" in that Letterkenny episode. All complaints about "PC Culture", "SJWs", "wokeism", or whatever new outrage terminology reactionaries popularize, are driven by a deep sense of outrage and offense that they project upon those people who have a right to take offense. That is, the latter have this right because they have been unduly harmed. But the the status quo that reactionaries want to buttress and return to an even more exploitative and oppressive period––the status quo that is doing the harming––is treated as normative, natural, and just the way things are. And the "Hard Right Jays" of the world end up being super offended, rabidly outraged, at people who challenge this status quo and even people who don't care about this challenge. A whole bunch of them were recently involved in a "Freedom Convoy" that demanded that everyone they bullied in the course of this convoy should be outraged by health measures in the midst of a pandemic, deeply offended that their lives were mildly inconvenienced by even the mildest health measures––most of which are being dropped in the next month or two anyhow. And like "Hard Right Jay" the same people are also outraged by "wokeism" and "PC Culture" and anything that gets in the way of them doing whatever they want whenever they want.

People who possess this mindset are not people who can be reasoned with, pacified through liberal dialogue, as some of their supposedly "rational" supporters claim. (Although it is indeed funny that reactionaries appeal to the very liberal mechanisms that they want to see annihilated, the mechanisms that enable their bullshit in the first place.) Unfortunately numerous "left" liberals––so certain that the solution to any problem is dialogue and free debate in the marketplace of ideas––suggest that we must not isolate these offense mongers and instead it is our fault if we isolate them, treat them as enemies, because we are supposedly pushing them further to the right. Once again we have the adage that reactionaries become reactionary due to the actions of the left, as if they were "pushed" into monstrous anti-people politics because of progressive intolerance. I've complained about this nonsense in the past so I won't bother elaborating too much on why it's nonsense. Only to again say that someone who is drawn to a fascist or fascist-adjacent position is not "pushed" there because people are rightly offended by the reactionary bullshit they spew. If my first inclination is to embrace white supremacy because I've been called out for racism, then maybe I'm the problem and not not my critics. Point being: you cannot reason with people who are already embracing a position that refuses to accept progressive rationality anymore than you can reason with a flat earth conspiracy theorist by assuring them that the earth is, in actuality, round. So it was that, at the end of this old Letterkenny episode, the solution to the problem of "Hard Right Jay" and his friends was not a friendly discussion but a united front between the Indigenous and settler characters of the show in beating the fuck out of the reactionaries. Because outrage is legitimate, just not the bullshit outrage of the hard right. Rather, response to this hard right demands outrage from anyone who cares about a humane society.