TIME

The Art of Optional Outrage

The Great seal of the State of Maryland—with its scandalous words on the banner at the bottom
The Great seal of the State of Maryland—with its scandalous words on the banner at the bottom

We are getting very good at taking phony baloney offense at things—and that cheapens all of us.

I used to try to get upset about the motto of the state of Maryland, I really did. A few decades back, when I was a freshman at the University of Maryland and the women’s movement was still comparatively young, there was something of a kerfuffle about the phrasing at the bottom of the state’s Great Seal: Fatti Maschii, Parole Femine — words that virtually no Marylander had ever read and so could not be expected to know are Latin for “Manly Deeds, Womanly Words.”

This, of course, sparked the ire of, um, dozens, and there was brief a mini-movement to change the words to Fatti, Fatti, non Parole — or “Deeds, Deeds, Not Words.” The motto, nonetheless, has endured, not least because it dates back to the family crest of the first Lord Baltimore in 1622, and most reasonable minds agreed it could thus be grandfathered — or great-great-great-great-grandfathered — in. But not so a commentator in the The Washington Post this weekend, who authored a new attack on the very old words under the headline, “The Maryland motto is sexist in any language.”

To which I say: sigh, I guess, provided you really have the energy and bandwidth to give a hoot. And that is the bigger question.

As the recent faux scandale about Stephen Colbert’s allegedly racist Tweet showed, not all umbrage is created equal. There’s optional umbrage, reserved for things almost nobody really gets upset about until somebody posts them or publishes them with the sole intent of pointing to them in horror. There’s tactical umbrage, which is sort of optional umbrage with a purpose. And there’s real umbrage — which really should be the only kind, and yet, increasingly, is the least common.

It’s no surprise that in a multicultural society with nearly everyone’s defensive posture set permanently to DEFCON 1, it’s race that sparks the most optional umbrage. It’s the kind of thing that, as my colleague Jim Poniewozik pointed out, had people hurling brickbats at George Jefferson and Archie Bunker back in the 1970s. It’s the same thing that has people laughing today — but only guiltily — at Key and Peele’s two-partCollege Bowl” parody of African-American athletes’ names, despite the fact that Key and Peele themselves are both biracial and that, as with all good social satire, there’s some truth behind the humor. But even the guilt is getting harder to maintain, thanks to a sort of irony arms race underway among channels like Comedy Central and sites like Funny or Die. When even SNL, which may be one of the progenitors of the modern era of comedy but still makes its home on old-line network NBC, can run a cop show parody called “Dyke and Fats,” as it did this past weekend, it’s clearly getting harder to play at indignation.

Tactical umbrage is a different beast. It’s the stuff of the cheating husband whose wife finds a telltale hotel receipt in his suit and who responds to her charge with the outraged countercharge, “You went through my pockets?” (Hey, when it’s fourth and long, you throw the bomb.) It’s the stuff of political campaigns that take phony offense at anything they figure will get them a day’s worth of press traction, as in 2004, when Whoopi Goldberg was performing at a John Kerry fundraiser and told a shopworn joke that was a coarse play on George W. Bush’s last name. Bush staffers made a great public show of taking to their fainting couches, demanding all sorts of apologies from Kerry — until the next news cycle, when a fresh outrage was needed.

Bush himself fell victim to the same disingenuousness when, in a moment of admirable candor, he conceded that his war on terror would never end with a satisfying surrender ceremony on the deck of a carrier, allowing all manner of delighted Democrats to pile on, accusing him of the high crime of Doubting Our Troops. Bush was doing nothing of the kind, as those same Dems knew, but practitioners of tactical umbrage don’t have to be fair, they just have to pair up an idea or a person (Bush, Kerry) with an unsavory label (Quisling, creep) and hope the connection sticks.

Compared to its tacky siblings, real umbrage can be a dignified and bracing thing — both in nonfiction and fiction. It’s Army counsel Joseph Welch famously smacking down red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954 with his timeless question, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last have you left no sense of decency?” It’s Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning turn in Philadelphia, playing Andrew Beckett, a man dying of AIDS, who is asked by a punctilious librarian if he wouldn’t be more comfortable alone in a reading room and responds, “No. Would it make you more comfortable?” It’s every time you’ve ever been genuinely offended by something and have gathered yourself to defend yourself — with poise and proportion and a contained sense of outrage.

That’s not easy, which is one of the reasons it’s so rare. And it doesn’t always get you the quick win you want — the way a political cheap shot or a dust-up over a dead scrap of Latin does. But umbrage isn’t always about the offender — it’s about the offended. Handling it well is the true manly — and womanly — deed.

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