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Bill Maher, Robert DeNiro and the Outrage Wars on Astini News

Bill Maher makes an important point in today's New York Times: outrage has become increasingly ubiquitous in America's media culture, and thus increasingly devalued:

When did we get it in our heads that we have the right to never hear anything we don't like? In the last year, we've been shocked and appalled by the unbelievable insensitivity of Nike shoes, the Fighting Sioux, Hank Williams Jr., Cee Lo Green, Ashton Kutcher, Tracy Morgan, Don Imus, Kirk Cameron, Gilbert Gottfried, the Super Bowl halftime show and the ESPN guys who used the wrong cliché for Jeremy Lin after everyone else used all the others. Who can keep up?

Now, maybe you don't like Bill Maher. He did say truly offensive things about Sarah Palin (and many others). He wants to be able to insult and demean people and not be called on it. So his motives are hardly pure.

But he's right that opportunistically ginned-up outrage is filling all available media space. As Maher notes, Newt Gingrich's attack on Robert DeNiro falls into this category; there was nothing offensive about DeNiro's joke. (It wasn't a particularly good joke, but let's set that aside.) Yet the White House and DeNiro were forced to publicly back away from it, just to defuse any potential controversy. The threat of a media eruption over some random culture-war based offense is now a constant presence in daily politics, White House operations, the media itself, and social media. Setting off such explosions seems to be the raison d'etre of the Breitbart empire.

The preferred solution is apologies (or non-apology apologies) and instant resignations (that is, by people less powerful than Bill Maher or Rush Limbaugh). This chokes off the political conversation. There are multiple minefields where if you say the wrong thing, or what you say is willfully misinterpreted, you're doomed: race, gender, religion, terrorism, the Middle East.

An underlying problem here: there are no shared standards anymore. Outrage is no longer a moral or ethical or personal sensibility thing, it is a political thing, a weapon to be used against your enemies, and a public sign of your political and ideological allegiances. And if everything is offensive, then, well, nothing is.

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