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Outrageous Acts of Outrage

September 15, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

In Totem and Taboo, Freud writes on the role of outrage and its response. He writes of a “violation of taboo”, an action where a social rule is broken. What follows these violation is the issue, existing in a world where immediate punishment does not follow, there is no lightning bolt from the clouds, we must take upon ourselves as a society to enact punishment. The reasoning for this, Freud writes, is to “deprive the envied transgressor of his enterprise”. He describes the pleasure that stems from these violations as “fruits” whose infectious nature make them behaviors which if left unpunished will, placed into contemporary terms, go viral and increase in our behavior. If no-one pays for gas, if everyone steals the candy bar, will everyone do the same?

A certain level of paranoia permeates this perspective. Freud links these actions with “the savages”, a group without specific historical placement and one whose actions closely mimic those of “the neurotic”. Here again Freud uses an entity to represent the collected mass. These specific cases representative of the populace at large are the basis of science (experiments of a few derive conclusions from which larger actions can be taken).

Back to outrage though and this recent news story of a t-shirt company printing a college logo with blood stains. The college, Kent State, was the scene of “the shooting of unarmed college students by the Ohio National Guard on Monday, May 4, 1970 (Wikipedia). Though never explicitly communicated by the shirt, the blood stains suggest the shootings and aim to convey to the viewer the historical event. We see the blood and see the Kent State logo and remember the event on May 4, 1970.

In response to the shirt, Kent State issued a press release expressing their “offense” and “great outrage”. Using collective pronouns like “our” and “we”, the press release expresses the opinion of the University at large, seeming to include some unknown quantity of individuals associated with the university. And yet on what basis does this outrage extend to those involved? The authors of the release do not write on their experience with the event. It remains unknown how those directly affected by the events of May 4, 1970 feel.

Perhaps they are offended and perhaps anyone who has ever attended or even heard of the Kent State shootings is included in the press release. Are we to specify who is allowed to feel outrage at the t-shirt? Of course we’re not, but in this immediate response one wonders how far the extension of outrage goes. What is the purpose of Kent State’s response? Is it outrage or a collection of needs? Might Freud’s observation that the need to punish also extends to a need to control future insults? Would another company violate the norm and print similarly themed shirts if Kent State didn’t respond with this release?

All of this remains a mere observation of a series of events. One cannot fully comprehend the intentions of all involved. Why was the t-shirt made? “There’s no such thing as bad press” is often cited and is perhaps linked to Oscar Wilde who wrote ” the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” Was the t-shirt’s aim to¬† upset one to garner more attention? One will never know the reasons but inherent in these actions are the raw, exposed emotions that lurk beneath the surface. Contained within our tragedies and lurking in our memory is a raw fuel. Companies might choose to engage with this fuel and ignite it with an action, but in doing so the reaction will be unpredictable and intense. Do they want this reaction? For what purpose was the fuel engaged? Offend to sell a t-shirt?

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