The world has been witnessing a scary new political communication/mobilization phenomenon: the routine deployment of the politics of outrage by tiny groups of individuals...but with epic consequences. And what is amazing is how stunningly easy it is to get this going. Consider, if you will, the emerging structure of the phenomenon:
- Somebody living in one of the liberal democracies of the West decides to test the limits of free speech by deliberating insulting the Holy Prophet in some way. They don't need to write an entire novel or make a full length movie. A cartoon is enough or the trailer of a movie.
- These days, the Internet does the rest: the provocation acquires the capacity to go global.
- Within the great Islamic community of the faithful are those just watching out for these provocations, rubbing their hands, and saying with Clint Eastwood: 'Make my day!' They take the largely obscure provocation and bring it to the attention of the entire community of the faithful.
- Then, of course, all hell breaks lose. This is now well practiced. Marches, demonstrations, riots. Like a Ferrari, the rage erupts from 0 to 60 miles an hour in seconds. Property is damaged. Lives are lost.
- Then it spreads from country to country, potentially all the branches of the community of the faithful. More lives are lost. Tragedy piles on tragedy. Throughout it all, only tiny minorities are involved in the displays of sulfurous rage. Most citizens get on with their lives. But that does not matter. The television images are powerful. It is the propaganda of the deed that counts.
- In all these countries, moderates are cowed and political leaders react depending on their political priorities or circumstances. Some try to exploit the rage on the streets, others are simply terrified, unsure how to react. The last is especially true of the new, relatively weak post-Arab Spring governments.
- A sense of crisis seizes the entire world for a few days or weeks. As the Cairo-based blogger, Issandr El Amrani, rightly points out: 'The resulting cascade of outrage is now predictable: Islamophobes in the West will say "we told you they're fanatics" and the crowd-riling demagogues here will say 'we told you they disrespect us". And politicians everywhere will use the language of outrage in their own petty calculations.'
- Eventually, the crisis subsides. The injured nurse their wounds. Families bury and mourn their loved ones. Seminars and op-ed pages erupt with analysis. And life goes back to normal for everyone ...until next time. And given how easy it is to get this going, we now know there will be a next time.
Photo Credit: omarroberthamilton on Flickr