“The Outrage Culture, from the Campus to the Real World”

Abraham Lincoln once observed, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next,” and I believe some of the bad habits of campus are increasingly bleeding their way into the larger society. A striking example of this happened in March 2012, when the conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh mocked Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, calling her a slut (among other things) after her Senate testimony about contraception. Rush Limbaugh, who rarely apologizes for anything, publicly apologized as the uproar increased.[i] In an attempt to find a liberal double standard, some commentators turned their attention to the comedian Bill Maher, who had never minced words about or hesitated to insult Sarah Palin, among others.[ii] The spiral of blame reached its crescendo, however, when Newt Gingrich demanded an apology from President Obama after Robert De Niro made a joke that included a reference to Gingrich’s wife Calista.[iii] The joke was: “Calista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney. Now do you really think our country is ready for a white first lady?”

In response to all these controversies, Bill Maher wrote a March 21 op‑ed in the New York Times titled “Please Stop Apologizing.”[iv] Maher poked fun at the culture of outrage in our society and proposed, “Let’s have an amnesty—from the left and the right—on every made-up, fake, totally insincere, playacted hurt, insult, slight and affront. Let’s make this Sunday the National Day of No Outrage. One day a year when you will not find some tiny thing someone did or said and pretend you can barely continue functioning until they apologize.”

Maher was saying something that our society and especially our campuses need to hear. Outrage can, of course, be real, but it also can be insincere, tactical, and self-serving, and once people start to understand the power of outrage, they can easily use it to manipulate others against their own pet targets. While many were outraged at Limbaugh and Maher, and maybe some were even angered by De Niro, others simply saw it as an opportunity to go after someone whose politics they did not like. This phenomenon is not new, but I believe it has become so much more common in our larger society because outrage is a weapon of choice that is widely used and legitimized on college campuses. Students are learning that a claim of outrage can get whichever professor you dislike punished (including entirely innocent people like Lisa Church), whichever cause you dislike silenced, or just let you take the moral high ground in an argument you were losing. We should not be surprised that students bring this useful tool with them into the real world or that our national discussion suffers for it. Yes, there are many things in the world to be outraged about, but if campuses want to produce a generation that knows how to solve problems rather than resort to cheap tactics to shut down debate, it needs to teach the habit of hearing the other side without throwing a fit.

[i] Dean Shabner and Matt Negrin, “Rush Limbaugh Apologizes for Calling Sandra Fluke a ‘Slut,’” ABC News, March 3, 2012, http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/OTUS/rush-limbaugh-apologizes-calling-sandra-fluke-slut/story?id=15841687#.T4Sa1ZdSQmQ.

[ii] Kirsten Powers, “Rush Limbaugh Isn’t the Only Media Misogynist,” Daily Beast, March 4, 2012, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/03/04/rush-limbaugh-s-apology-liberal-men-need-to-follow-suit.html.

[iii] Jennifer Epstein, “De Niro suggests it’s ‘too soon’ for another white FLOTUS,” Politico, March 19, 2012, http://www.politico.com/politico44/2012/03/de-niro-suggests-its-too-soon-for-another-white-flotus-117963.html; Elicia Dover, “Gingrich Says De Niro’s ‘White First Lady’ Crack Is ‘Inexcusable,’” ABC News, March 20, 2012, http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/03/gingrich-says-de-niros-white-first-lady-crack-is-inexcusable/.

[iv] Bill Maher, “Please Stop Apologizing,” New York Times, March 21, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/22/opinion/please-stop-apologizing.html?_r=1.