Beards and Circuses: Feeding the Great American Outrage Machine

Let’s get two things out of the way right at the start:

Thing One: Phil Robertson is an American citizen and he has the right to say anything he wants about anuses, vaginas, trailer parks, and just about anything else. That’s how democracy works.

Thing Two: A&E is part of two massive multinational corporations (Hearst and Disney) that have the right to fire anybody they think might be getting in the way of their sacred right to make as much money as possible. That’s how capitalism works.

Things One and Two aside, however, everybody I know seems to be outraged — outraged I tell you — and the Great Duck Dynasty Debacle has become the most recent battle site in a culture war that seems capable of interpolating everything that happens in America into its relentlessly simplistic narratives. Both Phil Robertson and A&E are now wholly owned subsidiaries of the Great American Outrage Machine.

The Outrage Machine, of course, works on the two great rhetorical principles of over-generalization and confirmation bias. The two principal belligerents in the culture war each have a narrative in which they are the oppressed victims of the relentless bullying and narrow-mindedness of the other guys, and they are both very good turning everything that they see into part of those narratives.

Liberals (in their own narrative) are standing against bigotry and oppression and for a society governed by basic respect and human dignity. Conservatives, on the other hand, are standing fast to protect the values they cherish against the overwhelming onslaught of secularism and moral relativism that will destroy everything that made America great. And both sides have developed the remarkable ability to interpolate almost anything that happens in America into their pre-existing narrative about how horrible the other side is.

So along come a bunch of guys who look like ZZ Top and talk like Archie Bunker—and a TV network who makes buckets of money by carefully editing the outrageous things that they say into little snippets of redneck wisdom. By editing a week’s worth of material into 22 minutes of screen time, A&E can make the Dynasty just provocative enough to appeal to middle-American conservatives while staying off of everybody else’s radar screens. Those who watch the show love the fact that men with eccentric facial hair say outrageous things, and those who do not are just happy that the masses have their bread and circuses

The two principal belligerents in the culture war each have a narrative in which they are the oppressed victims of the relentless bullying and narrow-mindedness of the other guys
Michael Austin
Until last week, A&E had to walk the fine line of appealing to one segment of American society without attracting the attention of another—and this is why Phil Robertson’s GQ interview was such a disaster. It was not because he was out of character, but because he was agonizingly in character in front of an audience who had not been paying attention. A&E, who had been doggedly trying to serve two masters, had to choose between God and Mammon. They chose Mammon, of course, because that’s what corporations are supposed to do.

But now Duck Dynasty is on everybody’s radar screen, and everybody is outraged. Liberals are outraged that a major television network is providing a platform to somebody who says racist and homophobic things. So A&E suspended Robertson, prompting one of the quickest and most massive backlashes in the history of corporate greed. Now conservatives are outraged that the liberal mainstream media is taking away free speech and punishing a guy for believing in the Bible. Both sides now see this whole affair as one more example of how things always work.

But it isn’t. Phil Robertson is not a typical conservative; if he were, he would not have his own TV show. He is interestingly precise because he is eccentric—and because he says things that most people don’t or won’t. And the good people at A&E are not typical liberals; they are corporate managers trying to protect their brand.This is a contract dispute between millionaires about how to go about making even more money.

The standard outrage narratives just don’t work this time because there are no actual victims in this dispute. Nobody is David, nobody is Goliath, and everybody is going to walk away from this richer and more famous than before. And this is a spectacularly bad reason to manufacture so much outrage the week before we celebrate the birthday of a guy who told us to turn the other cheek.