CW: Mention of transphobic arguments and transphobic video.
When you hear the term “manufactured outrage,” it calls forth an image of a media outlet or a talking head vomiting out some overblown garbage, mother-birding it to the masses for consumption. The consumption of the outrage is a turning inward, into the viewer, the watcher, the listener. The outrage festers there. It can motivate them to take action, to vote in a certain way, or sometimes to commit an act of violence. In other words, it can eventually move outwards, but it is first directed inwards like this:
[media outlet] → false outrage at something asinine → [listener who absorbs the outrage and internalizes it]
A widespread version of this can be identified in conservative depictions of trans women. It may sound so 2015 to harken back to commentator Steven Crowder doing a bad crossdressing bit and demanding that Planet Fitness allow him to use the women’s restroom, but trust me when I say that this stuff remains incredibly prevalent in conservative circles. I know because I’m in them. On Facebook, I have access to twice-removed cousins in Texas, homeschool moms, friends of the family, and regular churchgoers—in short, people who spend a lot of time sharing political memes. It’s less popular these days, I’ve noticed, for these people to be overtly racist or homophobic, but trans people are still an easy target in these circles. Gender in these circles still seems an ineffable truth, something innate, biological, cemented. So, it’s easy to use trans people as a battle ground upon which to argue the absolute idiocy of liberals. One of the more recent memes I came across was titled “The stupidity of the trans movement.” It pictured a little kid asking their father a series of questions:
“Can I get a tattoo?”
“No you’re five years old?”
“Can I get a piercing?”
“No you’re five years old.”
“Can I get hormone replacement therapy?”
“Sure! You know best.”
I pointed out in the comments that a five year old would never get HRT because five-year-old children are hormonally all the same, the same way I’d argued on a different post the day before that there are no young children receiving bottom surgery. My comment was promptly deleted. But I’d at least disrupted the space as well as the logic that these memes operate upon.
The thing that’s manufactured about these posts, and that you can definitely see in the Steven Crowder video, is that they take the argument for trans rights to an illogical extreme. They position the argument as though five year olds are getting HRT and gender confirmation surgery. Or the ever-popular argument embedded in Steven Crowder’s bit: that trans women are just men who have put on an ill-fitting dress and wig as a thinly veiled pretense for getting access to women’s spaces. They take the logical limits of the liberal argument to such an extreme that they become almost a satirization of themselves. This is traditional manufactured outrage: taking something with reasonable argumentative backing and turning it into an extreme straw man fallacy.
The current ordeal surrounding Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head is actually a bit more complex. The manufacturing happens not by taking a pre-existing liberal argument and distorting it, but by producing an argument that didn’t exist in the first place, and then attributing it to a group of people who aren’t even aware of the thing which has outraged you.
For those who do not know about the Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head controversy, it’s been a big fucking deal on conservative Facebook. The gist of the argument goes like this:
“Dr. Seuss has been canceled and he’s not even racist.”
“They [the liberals] are taking Mr. Potato Head away.”
“Disney is removing titles because liberals are too sensitive.”
Here is what is actually happening:
Some Dr. Seuss books have been pulled from print for racist imagery, because a board of suits decided it would be more profitable.
Mr. Potato Head is getting named Potato Head because a board of suits and some focus groups decided it would be more profitable.
Disney has removed some titles like “Lady and the Tramp” and “Peter Pan” from the profiles of young children (not removed them from the Disney+ streaming site) because they feel that to appear socially conscious is more profitable.
The difference between these two readings of the situation, I would like to say, is the difference between reality and fiction, though of course I’ve included my own political bias. These pulls are a result of the marketplace, not gay Gen-Z protesters rioting in the streets over Mr. Potato Head being an extension of the cisheteropatriarchy. However, by focusing on these supposedly innocuous children’s items, it’s easy for conservatives to wage political war. You’ll notice that there is a theme of conservatives frequently implicating children with the supposed intent to protect and preserve them.
Similar to the memes about trans people, this response relies upon the assumption that something for children, something so seemingly innocent, could not possibly be racist, and as a result, it is the liberals who are so obviously irrational, because they’re the ones upset over something so silly and innocent. The trouble in this case is that no one was upset, so the process toward outrage needs to take another logical step. Rather than distorting a pre-existing argument, it creates an argument that didn’t even exist, projects outrage onto the group that was not outraged, and presents itself as responding in a cool, collected, and rational manner. You might more simply call this projecting. The way this process functions looks something like this:
[media outlet] → creates false outrage and attributes it to the party → [recipient] directs sarcastic response to the supposedly outraged party → ← [absent party does not receive the message, so it doubles back onto the conservatives and makes them feel really smart and good about themselves].
[party that exists here, outside the space of the discourse, has no clue what’s going on].
The unfortunate thing about my position is that I get to see the whole discourse playing out on Facebook. I’m implicated, in this case, in the irrational party, even though I had no idea about this whole discourse until conservatives started creating poorly rhymed spoofs on “The Cat in the Hat,” insisting that I (a young Gen-Z liberal) must be very triggered about the whole thing and that I ought to go cry about it. When you try to disrupt this whole process by drawing attention to its mechanisms (e.g. pointing out that no one was vying for these changes but that they were made by faceless corporations to improve profits and, hey aren’t conservatives about the free market anyway?) the whole thing breaks down. My comment is deleted, or they stop replying to my Facebook messages, because they don’t really get what I’m saying, and now instead of talking about whether children receive gender confirmation surgery at the age of eight, we’re talking about God and Jesus and my immortal soul. A key tip: telling an atheist they’re going to hell doesn’t do anything. That’s the whole trick of being an atheist.
Now the reason that I’ve written this in my smug, liberal arts student, know-it-all, daddy pays my tuition, pussy-hat wearing tone is not to teach you about the Dr. Seuss controversy and how conservatives are implicating you in something you probably didn’t know about. Nor is it to try to reveal to conservatives the faulty logic that they’ve based their argument upon. I don’t think I’ll convince anyone. I’m just really, really tired of opening Facebook, seeing this kind of discourse unfold, trying to engage with it, and hitting a block when the logic breaks down. I end up talking in a space outside of the conservative discourse, while they are still talking at a false, straw man version of me.
And really, I’m mad because every time I try to hit unfollow, I can’t reasonably justify it to myself. I can’t tighten the space of the insular community around them, around myself. I have to keep disrupting, keep engaging. I have to, at least, see and try to understand what they are doing over there, all the homeschool moms and people I used to see every week at church. I can’t cut them out entirely or deny myself the knowledge that I used to be one of them. I most importantly can’t become the thing that they implicate me as. I have to prove them otherwise.
Katie Livingston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.