Last August, when Patton Oswalt took to Twitter to make a point about reactionary observers, I wrote an article lauding the comic for the deft way that he played with the form and those observers. Last Thursday, when Oswalt used the medium to once again to poke fun at the same lot by apologizing for inflammatory tweets that he never actually posted, Daily Dot writer Miles Klee wrote, “Why I Unfollowed Patton Oswalt — and You Should Too”, an article that took Oswalt to task for his “almost pathological need to confuse and belittle that ubiquitous Internet specimen, the Easily Outraged Commenter.”

Later in the article (which was swiftly re-published by Salon.com), Klee went on to ask,”is there anything remotely amusing about watching a guy using his considerable talents to simultaneously mock the stupid and needle the allegedly ‘humorless” online?'”, and to that I say yes there is, but this is about more than entertainment value.

Patton Oswalt (who spoke about this issue during his recent appearance on The Late Late Show), is going up against a segment of the population who, according to him, go “out of their way to find something to be offended about because they are trying to drum up controversy and attention onto themselves”, but while Oswalt says that that group is small, I worry that it is quickly growing in both size and impact.

Right now, we are trapped in a moment where very real consequences exist for those who express themselves since free expression has to constantly observe a line that keeps moving. A line that, when crossed in certain forums, prompts some people to dedicate themselves to the cause of inflicting punishment on those who have offended them, because to some (and for whatever reason), the sound of a word is the sound of a gun going off to call them to war; even if the shot was fired into the air and not in offense. Nobody hears the explanation and nobody takes a moment to read something twice in pursuit of its meaning or the intent of the author. They just hear that shot and charge in; flipping over tables and painting people with general labels — racist, sexist, rape apologist, homophobe and so on — that can infect a life and a career. Are these labels sometimes deserved? Absolutely, but not nearly as often as they are thrown around.

It’s collateral damage doled out in defense of our fickle hive sensibilities and a campaign that lashes out against not just our ability to be offensive on twitter or other corners of the internet, but our ability to debate and discuss salient issues that can, at times, be uncomfortable and even offensive. Satire is a tool of that pursuit and so is fiction and other works of art, but if the people that create those tools feel as if their livelihoods are under fire, can we blame them for retreating and creating a bland and gelatinous thing that goes down smooth enough to avoid getting caught in anyone’s throat?

The fear of censorship (self, societal, or otherwise) is neutering. Oswalt spoke about it, and despite my relatively low station, I personally feel those fears about a professional backlash when I open my mouth from time to time in this climate. But while some will say that it’s good that we think before we speak (I agree with that in general) and that we consider the effect that our words have on others (again, yes), those have to be checkpoints, not brick walls standing in our way; and we also need to consider the effect that we allow words to have on us, and the effect that our easy outrage has on society.

It’s tragic, we’re surrounded by words — on Twitter, Facebook, via text, podcasts, TV, blogs and news sites — but rather than embrace the flood or filter out the most worthless, we often bathe in frivolity and clutch at our pearls.

“It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.” – Stephen Fry

The point of that quote as I see it? Outrage does not entitle any one person to any one thing, least of all the right to burn down the house of our discourse.

I’m not just entertained by Patton Oswalt’s occasional twitter stunts against the hyper-offended, I’m inspired by them.

“Whatever” is a new column on Nerd Bastards. It will appear randomly and it exists as a place for me to get on a soap box about… well, whatever. 

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