Ellen and How Oversimplification Is Fueling Outrage Culture in Politics
Every day, a new Twitter battle fires up. Two ideological factions, as radically opposed as can be, take up arms in a fierce brawl for rhetorical supremacy. In the middle, the reasonable folk, the silent majority watch on, trying to identify with the arguments of one side or the other. Too often, we get wrapped up in the fighting, getting down in the trenches with those holding the most extreme version of our belief, and becoming dismissive of how simple and idiotic the other side must be.
To illustrate how toxic oversimplification can be, take the recent example of talk-show superstar Elle DeGeneres. Earlier this week, Ellen was caught chilling with former U.S. President George W. Bush at a sporting event. This seemingly innocuous image lit Twitter ablaze. Then came the apology, which made matters much worse. Now celebrities are pitching in, other talk shows are giving their take, and news shows are reporting this as news. The trenches have been dug, the sides are clear. Are you pro-Ellen or anti-Ellen?
There is of course a third choice: not to care. But that’s not enough. There should be a fourth — mild concern and slight disgust. And a fifth, and a sixth, and ultimately an infinite number of nuanced choices depending on the moral values and ideological upbringing of each and every one of us. Sadly, the way modern news and social media works is to eradicate that nuance with a flamethrower, leaving only the ashes of honest debate.
An oh-so-terrible non-apology
I’m always amazed at how some of the most media-savvy individuals in modern history can at times be completely tone-deaf. Ellen’s apology was a formidable example in condescension, and a beautiful demonstration of one of the things you should never do when taking on public controversy: oversimplify the opposition’s argument.
George W. Bush has a complicated history. Depending on where you are on the political spectrum (and how disingenuous you are), he is either a swell fella’, an OK president, a simpleton, or a war criminal. In all transparency, my position is that he is an enabler of war crimes. George W. stumbled into the presidency by appearing folksy and down-to-earth, then got wrapped up into the bloodthirsty neo-conservative war machine. He probably would have made a fine president in a country where nothing ever happens — I doubt he would have done much damage as the Prince of Liechtenstein. But for the U.S., he was in over his head, subject to forces he didn’t understand and couldn’t control. Those forces pushed him into allowing for atrocities to be committed, something for which he deserves the kind of punishment he is unlikely to ever face.
Then there’s the LGBTQ issue. I’m not going to go into detail (many writers can articulate the argument much more eloquently than I), but needless to say Bush and Ellen’s positions could hardly be further apart. Many in the LGBTQ community see Ellen as a representative that they have supported and trusted, and has betrayed them. On the flipside of the argument, I’m not familiar enough with Ellen’s work to know if she sees herself as carrying that banner, so I leave that debate for the knowledgeable.
In her apology, Ellen blissfully ignores all of this background. She doesn’t address any of the legitimate and intellectually honest concerns of those attacking her. To some degree I can understand — when attacked by a mob, we see and respond to the enraged psychopaths at the front, not the many reasonable concerned individuals following along. But this is a mistake. Those going after Ellen with no rational underpinning for their argument are unreasonable, and therefore need not be reasoned.
What Ellen did is respond with a platitude. “I am friends with people who disagree with me.” She essentially tried to school her way out of the argument through condescension, implying that those attacking her were basically children, incapable of talking to people from the other side. This response is particularly egregious given Ellen’s status as an elite, a superstar, whereas those she is responding to are mostly just aggrieved average people. The attack is unfair, reminiscent of an aristocracy afflicted by a superiority complex, assuming “Those who aren’t as successful as us must not be as smart, or else they wouldn’t be against us.”
I would like to give Ellen the benefit of the doubt here. I don’t think her intent was to do this. She just fell into a psychological trap. She debated the loud irrational hooligan rather than the composed rational protester, and generalized her simplified argument as if it applied to all of her critics.
Oversimplification is toxic. I can hope she and other celebrities will learn this moving forward.
Let’s not fall into the same trap
I’d like to end on an invitation to those who are also critical of Ellen’s apology and think what she did was wrong: Let’s show some empathy. I know some will respond “but George W. didn’t show empathy to the people of Iraq!” but that would be responding to an oversimplification with another oversimplification. Laughing along with someone, even if that someone is a war criminal, doesn’t make you complicit in committing atrocities.
The only valid accusation is that Ellen’s positive image is helping rehabilitate a man who doesn’t deserve rehabilitation. It is a serious accusation, but one that deserves an appropriate and equal response, which is most certainly not to be crucified by mob rule.
Let’s face it, celebrities are often not intellectual giants. They make mistakes, sometimes big ones. Their apologies can suck, but honestly, apologies are hard and most people suck at them. Because of their fame and access, the stakes for celebrities are much higher than for the rest of us, which means they are more often exposed to all sorts of ideological manipulation, and it’s near impossible to stay tall and principled at every moment of every waking hour.
The elites of our society do what elites do. They hang out together and do things normal people can’t do. Rarely do they have the presence of mind to think of what’s going on below. At the end of the day, Ellen has more in common with George W. Bush than she does with her average viewer.
I hope Ellen will issue a nuanced apology and that she will read up on the murdered innocents of Iraq . But I doubt it. After all, she is human, she has a human brain, and she has chosen her trench. It may take a while for her to come out and see the world in all its nuance — if she ever does.
In the meantime, I believe our role as a reasonable public is to show her that there’s a way out, not to push her deeper in.