Or: how I came to disclaim the disclaimer and keep it to myself
Words & images © Paul Ransom
NOTE: Before I go any further, let me just say that I have nothing against disclaimers.
Outrage porn is huge these days. You can get it free on the internet. Seems like everybody wants to share their bitch.
But I am not here to bitch about the bitchers…even though I am somewhat over the bitch. Rather, my intention is to investigate whether it is still possible to raise a point or argue a case without causing offence, enraging the politically convinced1, being cancelled, or having to make subsequent grovelling apologies. (Not that there’s anything wrong with saying sorry.)
- Incidentally, when I say ‘bitch’ I do not mean to imply a specific gender or denote any kind of submissiveness, real or perceived, sexual or otherwise. Neither should you imply from my use of the b-word any problem with its application in hip-hop, nor, importantly, draw any conclusions about my lived experience or prevailing attitude towards romantic relationships. In fact, aside from being a lame play on words – for which I accept full responsibility and offer heartfelt apology – I have endeavoured to use the word in a manner designed to cause the least possible offence. Please continue reading with this in mind.
Yet, on reflection, we might well ask whether the contemporary rush to righteous rage is anything new? Perhaps our proclivity for being riled has only been magnified (rather than created) by the advent of non-stop social and news media, and in truth we have always enjoyed being offended. After all, the sins and stupidities of others only serve to remind us how clever and upright we are. Unlike those awful sheeple people over there…let alone the other one percent.
- In saying this, I am in no way suggesting that all outrage is self-serving reflex or virtue signal. Likewise, no political point scoring or generational/nostalgist sentiments are intended. Indeed, I acknowledge your right to take umbrage and respect your choice to cite this article (and myself) as examples of egregious, elitist pontification; although I hasten to add that no such thing is intended and, in advance, offer further apology for any offence or misunderstanding my careless words have caused.
Beyond the (not so) secret buzz of feeling superior, outrage is enervating. It makes us feel alive. It can also focus our energy and inspire us to seek redress. Indeed, outrage might well be the true engine of justice. When our moral sentiments2 are affronted we are stirred to take action against those who would offend against us. Furthermore, we are hard wired to respond to negative stimuli – to anything in our world that registers as a potential threat – and the words and deeds of others can indeed be a threatening prospect (especially when re-tweeted as part of the daily doom-feed).
- Please note that I am not endeavouring to minimise or reduce to banality the desire for justice. Moreover, the implied reference to evolutionary drivers is not intended as a comment upon (or judgement of) Creationist or Ancient Alien worldviews. Also, my appeal to these mechanisms should not be taken as tacit approval of Social Darwinism or Eugenics, nor indeed as evidence of crypto-fascist or cyborg-friendly leanings.
No wonder we find it so hard to have a ‘rational discussion’ about politics and economy, or reach consensus about how to organise ourselves socially, let alone concur on matters of individual morality. Whilst we might politely disagree with a fellow mathematician, we find it harder to stay calm when confronted by ideological and ethical constructions that appear to suggest we are either less worthy or more sinful, or when we feel that cherished norms are being carelessly overturned or harmful ones stubbornly maintained. Disputes over number theory are far less likely to cause bloodshed than religious, ethnic or class conflict, where the stakes are usually higher and the threat to life and livelihood more apparent. In short, we get steamed when it really matters – or rather, when we convince ourselves it does.
Thus, with all due respect to the frictions caused by the hurly burly of mathematical debate, they pale when compared to the amplified, instantly shareable fury and polarisation that has come to typify the so-called discourse. A lot of us are clearly in a tizz right now.
Doom, disease, dark forces, dystopia.
Arghhhh!!!! Everything’s fucked!
If at times the ongoing ‘end of days’ drama looks like civilisation on the brink, mostly it comes off as a self-reinforcing spiral of righteous (though admittedly enlivening) indignation. Either way, it encourages me to think twice before wading in.
- Btw, did I mention that I totally respect the importance and vitality of mathematics? Maths matters!
- Further to this, I intended no insult nor sought to cast any aspersions about mathematicians, and I ask you, dear reader, to join me in refraining from the common practise of crudely essentialising said boffins.
- OMG, apologies for that. When I said ‘boffins’ I was trying to be light-hearted and kind. (Not that mathematicians are a cohort in special need of kindness, nor indeed any kind of singling out…other than for their entirely meritorious talent with numbers.)
- Sorry too for my continued use of disclaimers and explainers. It’s just that I’m trying to not to outrage you. I wouldn’t want you thinking I’m part of a shadowy NWO clique or woke vanguard fiendishly plotting to abscond with your precious freedoms.
- Yes, I know…your freedoms are precious. (Absolutely. I get it.)
- Mind you, so are other folk’s freedoms. (Not that I’m implying you aren’t down with this. Just saying. Doing my best to be inclusive, etc.) 3
In truth, the jihadist pugilism, millenarian hyperbole and declinist woe cluttering the airwaves and ruining otherwise very agreeable dinner dates, has me scampering for the small print. Like an insurance company, where everything comes with lashings of caveat.
For instance, should I now be addressing my use of the word ‘lashings’? After all, it’s a quaint, anachronistic British term beloved of the long dead authors of now unread children’s books. It could therefore be regarded as deliberately excluding people born after a certain date. Worse, it could be mistaken as a coded message of encouragement to those in favour of public floggings and, subsequently, invite the attention of security services worried about Sunni extremism. Next thing you know, my self-indulgent use of outmoded Anglo phraseology gets me hauled off for a fortnight of water boarding fun courtesy of the Five Eyes.
Serves you right, arsehole, some of you would doubtless declare.
In the end – as you can tell – it all turns into a bad read. A minefield of eggshells, littered with constant interruptions and tiresome over-explaining. It’s enough to make me not bother. Why risk getting my head blown off in the crossfire of a divide/conquer culture war?
If the only forms of viable speech are ideological tantrum, identity based assertion, and the catechisms of dystopian dread and cancellation, judicious silence may well be a better deal.
But wait…isn’t that kind of like censorship?
1: In my opinion – which I understand may trigger some readers – the ‘politically convinced’ are the new PC. Where possible, avoid.
2: I hereby apologise for making oblique reference to Adam Smith* and for implying support of laissez-faire capitalism and/or emboldening those seeking to misrepresent the views of the famous Scottish Enlightenment thinker for narrow ideological self-interest. (Pardon the pun.)
3: Naturally, I am wracked with contrition over my shallow appropriation of the word ‘inclusive’. Likewise, I beg the forgiveness and ask for the understanding of those offended by my resort to woke jargon. (But at least I’m being ‘inclusive’ with my apologies.)
* Lastly, a big sorry to those of you who didn’t get the Smith ref. There I was trying to be helpful; but instead I’ve simply laid bare my unconscious Caledonian bias. Quick, cancel me now. Before I accidentally hit the great re-set button. Please.