Banned in five countries! The lewdest, crudest movie you’ll ever see! The book that had people spontaneously fainting during live readings! From Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Palahniuk’s Haunted, writers and movie producers have long relied on the appeal of controversy to sell their creations.
In the 1980s it was an X rating; having your book or movie deemed “too bad” to be defined by the conventional ratings system would see commercial value plummet but your cult status soar as everyone clamoured to see what all the fuss was about.
Conversely one negative review can be all it takes to consign something to the trash forever. While the internet has significantly lessened the impact of X ratings, it has enhanced the power of reviews. All it takes are the right hashtags and buzzwords, coupled with rampant online opportunism, and a single review can convince people to join a vicious bandwagon regardless of how well they know the subject being destroyed.
Desperate to keep up with the appeal of the unfiltered, a number of news outlets now rely on this kind of outrage to sell their stories. We all know the format - Click-bait title leading to an article which bears only cursory resemblance to the headline and “You’ll never believe what you need to be angry about now?!”
Take the release of JK Rowling’s new novel Troubled Blood. Without having read a single page, news that its main villain is “a man who dresses as a woman” was enough to spark outrage among the trans community, already riled by the writer’s previous controversial comments about transgender women. Some fans are now calling for a boycott of her latest Harry Potter game, Hogwarts Legacy.
We know it’s happening, most of us like to believe we’re above it … but it’s just so easy. We don’t even have to read the article or have any more than a cursory knowledge of the subject. The headline is similar to a view we already hold, it mentions someone who we all know (because other headlines told us) is a bad person and there are already hashtags. What more do we need?
Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I prefer not to join a ranting mob before I’ve worked out what it is we’re ranting about. Torches run the risk of setting my hair alight and pitchforks can be unwieldy - I’d far rather have more than a hashtag’s worth of information before I go and raid the shed.
Likewise, I do not believe that, because something is offensive to me personally, I get to demand the rest of the world react in a similar fashion. If you watch the movies I watch or read the books I’ve read and have a similarly negative reaction - great. We share an opinion. I do not need a million people shouting about burning books as though it’s somehow progressive, to feel justified in my beliefs.
But let’s say we’ve done the research/read the book/watched the movie and we still think it shouldn't be allowed. Then what? Well, it still doesn’t involve a baying mob so you can put your megaphone back in its box.
Social media gives us all an equal chance to shout and be heard. If you find something offensive or harmful then you should absolutely be able to express this. However, that does not make it acceptable to create “death to X” hashtags or call for rape and violence towards the creator of the thing you find hurtful.
Actively calling for the death of those we disagree with is not progression. It’s totalitarianism.
It’s also a symptom of a society with an inadequate government. Children who come from homes where they have inconsistent parenting (and little to no control of their own lives) will often show hyper-controlling behaviour towards their friends.
For many of us right now, our lives feel out of control. We are living at the mercy of a flip-flopping, U-turning government which changes the rules as often as they deny their own rule-breaking behaviour. Our incomes, employment and education prospects may feel pre-determined and hopeless. A large number of people are feeling isolated and relying on social media as the one aspect of their lives they can control.
This makes (and has made) us incredibly susceptible to the manufactured outrage peddled by certain media outlets. Suddenly we are not alone in our distanced homes but, instead become a part of something. There are people (sometimes celebrities) who agree with us and our posts are going viral. We feel seen. Connected. Valued.
But at what cost? Do you really want your lifetime achievements to include “Hounded woman off Twitter”, or, “ Got guy I barely know fired”? These may all make us feel justified in the moment, while the internet is patting us on the back, but what happens afterwards.
Ruining the lives of others is not a long term solution to our own problems (however bad they may be). Instead of calling for the heads of our individual “enemies”, we would be far better off bonding over the things we do agree on and working against the government which led us here. It’s harder and the rewards are far less tweet-able, but I promise it’ll be worth it in the long run.