Is this the Age of Outrage? (background to a song)
When I was a young warthog I did so much stupid stuff. This is a story from the 'Trying to be Funny in Front of Your Friends' chapter of my teens.
School was cancelled one afternoon, so I tagged along with some friends who skated, and we hung out at the local concrete half-pipe. I wouldn't call it an actual skate park - it was a bit like a big storm-water drain fell off a truck, rolled down the hill, broke, and landed in the dirt. It was a cracked-up graffiti covered ambulance magnet.
The graffiti was like a shrine of rest-in-peace messages. They covered most of the concrete in faded spray paint and markers. I asked if someone had died at the half-pipe, thinking someone had fallen victim to one of its jagged cracks, but I was told that a guy had died a while back - from an electric shock, unrelated to the park. It seemed so strange to me, like everyone had bottled up their emotions and waited until they got to the park to unleash their spray-can sentiments - here, of all places.
We're not taught much about anything useful in school, its a bunch of useless C's. Captain Cook (he's the Australian Columbus), condoms and calculus. All of which we forget about. We're certainly not taught how to deal with death and taxes, the inevitable duo. Shouldn't these be compulsory? So I'm guessing these kids had their own goodbye ceremony down at the half-pipe. With a bottle of grog, they probably cursed the universe, hugged it out, then said goodbye with spraypaint on stone. After all, graveyards are for flowers and old people, this was their ritual space of healing.
So stupid thirteen year old me - looking for a quick cheap laugh, found a marker in my schoolbag and scribbled eleven words on the concrete. An apology from the electricity company - for the inconvenience. This was the first and last time I 'trolled' and I always thank my lucky Zuckerbergs it was before social media. The giggles lasted 48 seconds. We all forgot, but 48 hours later shit hit the small-town teenage fan.
A group of very angry kids from the year above at another school wanted blood, because some prick had been writing shit about their mate who died a few months ago. They found the name of the perpetrator, and the story weaved and twisted through the local schools like string. It tanged me up like those concrete shoes in 80's mob movies and I was destined to swim with the fishes.
"They're over-reacting" I tried to sell myself. "I just highlighted the incompetence of the power company, contrasted against the overwhelming messages of sentiment in a strange location, its irony - not blasphemy". But I was wrong. I'd made a mockery of a sacred space and of the situation. These kids were hurting, and I'd stabbed a purple marker into an emotionally fragile space. I took a tragic situation and used it as a platform for making a clumsy wisecrack, and I was going to pay.
There was no moral lifeboat to climb onto, I was in a sea of wrong. Every day for weeks, new waves of anger crashed into me in the hallways. The thing that probably saved me was that I spent most of high school going under the radar. I didn't go around making enemies and wasn't a bully or anything, so when word was out, no one knew who I was. . My mates were honest. "you're in the wrong" (I knew it too) "we won't let you get completely belted up while we're around, but they're gonna get you eventually." I was fairly safe in the crowded bus lines each afternoon, but it was at a party months later when I got it.
Surprise punches to the guts are much worse than to the head, I've decided. Maybe its because I've just got a thick head and skinny torso. So when the fist hit my unaware guts I buckled on the driveway gasping for air like a fish thrown onto land. Three confused friends stood over me wondering what the fuck just happened. The charming lad who delivered the message walked off, and later that night kicked the family dog at the house where the party was at, giving it a hernia and killing it.
I got off much lighter than the dog. but after that I thought it best that perhaps I should stop going to parties for a bit. I got a night job and spent the rest of school keeping under the radar in super-stealth-mode, which was probably a good thing for my grades. I also learned to try to listen to that fleeting instinct that says, maybe they'll take this the wrong way before making stupid jokes.
Years later when social media devoured the youth - I didn't get involved in the trolling part of the ritual. There were people who followed a similar pattern to thirteen year-old me, but the internet really scaled things up for them. A girl tweeted eleven words on a plane, making a very clumsy joke about a delicate scenario to do with race and disease. The plane landed, and a tidal wave of outrage smashed her life to bits. Even people with the same name as her received death threats for months.
Our reactions seem to say more about us than the actual incident, though. I remember noticing that a certain portion of the outraged kids from my school didn't actually know the details, They were keen to unleash some of that spicy teen-angst, while achieving a bit of mammalian dominance at the same time. They flew off the handle and over-reacted and I started to understand that behind all that, there was something else going on with each of them.
Maybe the things that trigger us into outrage are an opportunity to get a glimpse into deeper things that are waiting to bubble to the surface. Every month there's a new wave of outrage. Last year in Australia, a bloke rubbed a ball and the nation lost its shit. Seemed like an over-reaction, but sports people are Gods here, so maybe we were startled that one of our Deities betrayed us.
Recently an advertisement for an event was to be projected onto the Opera House. Outrage. Or maybe Australia is pissed off because they're sick to death of rich old fat-cats abusing every scenario to make more money. Our internet is shit because some rich old fat-cat wanted to keep afloat his Foxtel business. Out national icon is now a billboard because some rich old fat-cat wants to make money out of his mates horse race. Notice how I'm actually outraged by this? My frustration with cronyism bubbles to the surface. Or maybe I'm just jealous that I can't use this space as my own personal billboard as well?
I used to think the outrage culture might be an age thing. I thought maybe the 'age of outrage' was over when you grew up and got some perspective. But even our Nans, who lived through great depressions and various world wars, spend their final years complaining about the biscuits. Maybe its a cycle of human history, like a subset of the digital age. You might describe it to your grandkids: "After the industrial age was the information age, we finally had ALL of the wisdom of the world in one place, and we bickered with strangers in 280 characters or less."
Maybe the solution, if there is one, is being held at bay. Things that make us agitated or want to fight like coffee or alcohol are accepted, but things that grow from the earth and chill people out are banned. According to the internet, Bill Hicks said “I'm glad mushrooms are against the law, because I took them one time, and you know what happened to me? I laid in a field of green grass for four hours going, "My God! I love everything." Yeah, now if that isn't a hazard to our country … how are we gonna justify arms dealing when we realise that we're all one?”
The good news is, we're all still legally free to be outraged about whatever displeases us. My hunch is that the bigger the outrage, the stronger the signal that there's something else going on, though.
Oh! This rant inspired this song. Or vice versa... Anyway, here it is:
Hi I'm Joel. I live in Sydney Australia. I do electrical draughting by day and play bass and write tunes at night with my girlfriend Jodie. We call the band 'Lese Majesty' but its not really a band. Its just us, being creative and writing tunes.
You can check us out at http://www.lesemajesty.com.au