Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Phony Outrage

It’s not too often that I agree with Bill Maher. But an argument he made several weeks ago in a New York Times op-ed piece, “Please Stop Apologizing” (March 21, 2012) deserves at least one cheer or even two. Given the many comments he routinely makes to which many might take offense, there may be an element of self-interest in his argument that there should be less taking of offense in general. Even so, I think we all need to learn to stop shooting down the message just because we don’t like the messenger; and, in this instance, his point is well taken. “When did we get it in our heads,” Maher asks, “that we have the right to never hear anything we don’t like?” (Personally, I don’t like split infinitives, but in the spirit of this discussion I will refrain from taking any offense in this instance!)

Since Maher’s article, we were all treated to yet another over-dramatized instance of contrived outrage – the controversy about Hillary Rosen’s ill-phrased comment that Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life.” Hillary Rosen actually works for CNN – not for the White House or the Obama Campaign. Such, however, is the potency of phony outrage in our obsessive media culture that the White House and the Campaign were quick to distance themselves from her and join in the phony outrage frenzy. (Meanwhile, MSNBC has dug up something similarly outrageous that Romney himself said just last January, defending his proposal when Governor of Massachusetts to raise the amount of outside-the-home work required of parents on welfare. “I said, for instance, that even if you have a child 2 years of age, you need to go to work. And people said, ‘Well that’s heartless.’ And I said, ‘No, no, I’m willing to spend more giving day care to allow those parents to go back to work. It’ll cost the state more providing that daycare, but I want the individuals to have the dignity of work.’” Apparently for Romney being a stay-at-home-mom lacked the true “dignity of work” as recently as January – or perhaps only when the mothers are poor people.)

As a political maneuver, it certainly made sense for the Romney forces to deflect what was essentially a class reference to Mrs. Romney’s economically privileged position in comparison with that of most women and turn it into a debate about whether and how we should value motherhood. Similarly, it made sense for the Obama Campaign to react immediately to preserve its own commanding lead among higher status women (the infamous “gender gap”). The fact that it makes political sense to take this silly stuff so seriously guarantees, of course, that there will only be more of it.

Family issues really are important, of course. Strong and stable families effectively socialize the next generation in ways that are important morally, culturally, socially, and economically. How we define and support (or don’t support) strong and stable family structures is a legitimate subject for political discussion and debate – serious, rational debate of the sort we have very little of and which our morbid delight in constantly taking offense guarantees we’ll have even less of – precisely when we may be needing it the most.

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