We’ve Lost the Outrage

You can never take society’s moral outrage seriously because society doesn’t want to rock the boat.

Remember a few weeks ago, when Janet Jackson flashed her jewelry-encrusted boob to millions of average Americans on primetime television, sending the entire country on a weeks-long bender of moral high horse-ery? Everyone was outraged, and the fires of the age old debate about media and morality flared anew. Even MTV, that great bastion of pop whoredom, got in on the act and moved some of its raciest videos to the overnight hours, long past the bedtime of its target market (who have to get up early in the mornings for junior high).

Which, of course, made one wonder if that left any videos out of the seven or so that make up MTV’s current rotation for primetime. But noone really seemed to care. MTV did their civic duty, as any responsible media outlet should (Clear Channel recently did the same with Howard Stern and Bubba the Love Sponge).

Concerned parents and media watchdogs everywhere could now breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that Britney’s skin, Blink-182’s lesbian flings, and Ludacris’ booty-shaking would no longer influence their impressionable teenagers (at least, not this way). Instead, such fare would be reserved for lonely thirtysomething males who couldn’t afford real porn channels, but still needed something to watch after a long day at the local 7 – 11. And all was well in America.

Until now.

Don’t get me wrong — I think most of what MTV stands for and promotes is absolute shite and brings little, if anything, of real value to the culture. But I expect that from MTV, and so a) it doesn’t offend me when they do stuff like that, and b) I can easily avoid it. It didn’t surprise me one bit when they went back to the way things were. But now I’m curious about the response. Has there been any backlash, any decrying of MTV’s about face? Apparently not, because MTV certainly feels comfortable bringing them back.

What with all of the outrage surrounding Jackson, I found it rather ironic that MTV has been bringing back those raunchy little nuggets because — surprise! — people want to see them. Evidently, people actually want to watch half-naked girls shaking what God gave them.

That’s why I always find people’s “outrage” over the immorality in the media so perplexing, if not downright hypocritical. On the one hand, people moan and wail whenever something like Jackson’s “accident” takes place (or when Bono drops the F-Bomb, or Johnny Knoxville sets himself on fire). They bemoan the lack of standards and agree that something needs to be done, examples need to be set, blah, blah, blah.

However, I hear no outrage or concern over shows like My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance, Survivor, and American Idol (Or, How I Learned to Throw Away My Dignity and Enjoy Getting Reamed by a Snobbish Jack-Ass on National Television), which I would argue are far more damaging and questionable than any nipple flash. Why?

Because they’re entertaining, almost subversively so. It’s easy and enjoyable to laugh at people making fools of themselves, at people degrading themselves, because it allows us to feel superior to them, to lord over them and judge them. I hear such comments everyday from friends and co-workers, judgmental statements that they’d never say to a person’s face, and… they… love… it. And they’ll defend their right to love it, even when you point out the hypocrisy of enjoying people being turned into laughingstocks while being outraged when a silly publicity stunt gets out of hand.

You can never take society’s moral outrage seriously. Why? Because the things that provoke such outrage aren’t wrong? No. I find much of what pop culture promotes and shovels down our throats to be very immoral and unsatisfying — wicked even. It’s because society doesn’t want to rock the boat. We want to be outraged, to feel morally indignant — so long as indignation doesn’t interfere with the TV shows we want to watch, the food we want to eat, the clothes we want to wear, etc. (Or in my case, as I’m just as guilty of this as anyone, the movies and CDs I want to view and hear).

Society wants the status quo — wherever that might rest. And we’re perfectly fine with the hypocrisy of it all, so outrage follows a cyclical pattern. What was the last big media outrage? Michael Moore’s speech at last year’s Oscars? Bono’s use of “fuck” on live television? Britney and Madonna’s liplock on the MTV Music Awards? When was the last time you heard anyone decry those things, let alone mention them? We’ve been bombarded by this crap so much, and for so long, that we’ve become immune to it (which is probably why no one’s voiced a protest like this over nudity in primetime before, although it has occurred).

We’ll voice some protest over it, Mr. Powell at the FCC will launch an investigation (which will quickly get bogged down by legislation), some fines will be levied against this TV network or that TV network (which may or may not get paid), and we’ll go on living the way we’re used to — leering over Britney as she flaunts her goodies at impressionable youth, laughing at a stupid girl getting embarrassed by an obnoxious fat guy, wishing our husbands would get “queer” makeovers, holding our sides as wannabe divas get squashed by Simon Cowell, etc., etc., etc.

And it simply won’t matter anymore.