Over-reaction Theater: How Our Culture is Turning Everybody into a Villain

Posted September 21, 2015

As a nation we have a problem with over-reacting.

Usually, our propensity for quick aggression comes to mind when people think of foreign policy tactics or the way in which we’ve decided to cover the news. However, recently it’s become a problem in cultural and social situations as well. As we continue to try and find the balance between being progressive and open-minded, while also ensuring that we maintain guidelines that hold people accountable for their actions, there continue to be instances in which we respond to difficulties by course-correcting too far in the other direction.

Earlier this month, The Atlantic did a fascinating, and disturbing, piece describing how this societal trend has been making the biggest appearance in colleges. It details an atmosphere on campuses where students and administrators have responded to the rising importance of student emotional well-being by stamping out any words or ideas that might cause harm (seriously, it’s a great read -probably better than this, so click on it). The article refers to the target of student criticism as microaggressions – “small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.”

For example, the article described a 2013 situation at UCLA in which students staged a sit-in during a class and expressed their concerns about a teacher’s hostility toward students of color because the teacher “had noted that a student had wrongly capitalized the first letter of the word indigenous.” The students argued that “lowercasing the capital I was an insult to the student and her ideology.”

It’s a prime example of our societal instinct to over-react. An English teacher correcting grammar is part of the job description, not a racist attack on a student. This type of aggressive response is something David D.Burns defines as magnification – “exaggerat[ing] the importance of things.”

Essentially, we’re blowing things out of proportion, and it’s beginning to have a ripple effect across our culture.

Sometimes these course corrections involve ideas that are of the utmost importance in our society, but we can’t figure out how far to go in policing the issue. HBO’s premiere of the Matt Damon and Ben Affleck produced show Project Greenlight showed a producer advocating for awarding the job to a directing team who was admittedly less talented because they were the only non-white contestants in the group. Curt Schilling was fired for tweeting a statistic that made associations between Muslims and Nazis, and a female lawyer publicly shamed a man for commenting on her LinkedIn profile photo, despite it being revealed that she had made numerous comments on the attractiveness of men in their photos.

In all cases, the reaction to a situation deemed unjust attracted more attention than the provoking moment. Our anger and desire to punish is taking precedent over our desire to make legitimate change in the way we think and behave as a culture.  The question we seem to continue to struggle with is: where is the line between standing up for a cause and needlessly criticizing the actions of others?

The trouble making this distinction reached a new level when Helen Mirren made comments in an interview last week, in which she discussed the way that women were still “toddlers” in modern society, by stating that she hates seeing men put their arms around women because she sees it “as a sign of ownership, and it annoys her.”

To me, the claim that men putting their arms around the women in their life signifies a sign of ownership is a clear example of magnification. When I put my arm around a girl I’m with, friend or girlfriend, I’m simply attempting to be close to her because I have a level of affection for her. Same as when I walk with my mother and put my arm around her; I’m not trying to claim ownership over my mother, but my mom can now blame Helen Mirren if I’m not as loving a son when we walk together.

Certainly everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but the problem with Mirren’s comment, besides my opinion of it being a gross generalization of one action, is the way in which it addresses the gender inequalities in our culture.

Instead of putting the public focus on the idea of women being treated as inferior in our culture, her comment did exactly what the Atlantic claims this current focus on microaggressions is doing: teaching people “to focus on them and then relabel the people who have made such remarks as aggressors.” Instead of focusing on the  issue that needs to be addressed, we attack the supposed perpetrator and turn the focus on he/she being a violent, dangerous, or insensitive person.

For example, Lucy Mangan of The Guardian wrote in response to Mirren’s quote: “it is a sign of ownership, undoubtedly. Not like a chastity belt or scold’s bridle, or marital rape, but a mild form of that almost equally ancient art of cockblocking. It’s the male equivalent of the girlfriend’s hand on a man’s lapel. Now that’s infuriating. Passive aggression. Demure possessiveness. Own it, girlfriend! Either grab him by the balls or join in the conversation like a person instead of a wilting lily.”

Putting aside the confusion in regards to whether her shouts for ball grabbing are as punishment or a similar sign of possessiveness, this seems like a crazy jump to make. Even a loose mention of putting your arm around somebody and rape in the same sentence is a slippery slope that is asking for sensationalizing over-reaction. While she admits that others may disagree with her, the fact that many seem not to, and are vocal about it, is confusing and ridiculous to me.

There are many disturbing examples of sexism that our society needs to pay attention to. There’s the alarming number of sexual assaults on college campuses, senators being told by fellow politicians that they “look pretty even when they’re fat,” sexism in many financial companies,  and a history of sexism in the culinary world. Yet, as with Mirren’s comment, we continue to find causes that take our attention away from the bigger issue.

If we keep running to express vitriolic support for every cause that claims sexism, or racism, then we lose the power behind the claims that actually require undivided attention. Instead of pointing people’s attention to larger issues, we have them focusing on whether they can pull their girlfriend in for a hug or put their arm around their mother when they walk down the street.

The time for aggressively attacking everything we don’t like needs to stop so that we can be clear-headed enough to fight actual problems.