Donald Clarke: Wittering recreational outrage is bad for the digestion

‘In 2016, a vast mob of the easily annoyed prowls the digital outlands in search of bile generators. You need a hobby, I suppose’

Last week, somebody on Twitter called me a See-U-Next-Tuesday because I didn't like a superhero film he admired ( Now, I guess this is "offensive", but I don't expect anybody else to get "offended" on my behalf. After all, female critics receive much worse treatment from basement-dwelling dweebs in Batman pyjamas every day.

Oh, sorry. What have I said, now? Are you pressing the signed photo of season-three Gillian Anderson to your face for comfort? My soul is in torment.

Okay, that is probably unfair to sci-fi fans and comic book enthusiasts. They have a right to be annoyed. If, however, you do not see yourself in that caricature, then stand down the fury. Recreational outrage is bad for the digestion.

This brings us to Stephen Fry and his latest evacuation from Twitter. The tempest stemmed from remarks the polymath made at last weekend's Bafta ceremony ( Following the victory by Jenny Beavan – who wore a grey scarf over a leather jacket – for Mad Max: Fury Road, Fry had quipped: "Only one of the great cinematic costume designers would come to an awards ceremony dressed as a bag lady."


The usual torrent of angry tweets followed. Fry pointed out that he and Ms Beaven were friends. She confirmed this and said she had no problem with the joke. Comedians waded in with suggestions that comedy was about to be declared illegal. Fry removed himself from Twitter.

Just a joke

Some people are too sensitive; others aren’t sensitive enough. The passion for recreational outrage threatens to close down spikier comedy. At the same time, we are reminded how flimsy the “just a joke” defence so often is.

You got a lot of the latter from the likes of Jim Davidson and Bernard Manning in the 1980s. Weirdly, we are still getting it from supposedly hip comics such as Amy Schumer. "I used to date Hispanic guys, but now I prefer consensual," she remarked in her stand-up act ( When quizzed, Schumer responded: "It is a joke and it is funny. I know because people laugh at it."

It certainly was a joke. It was a racist joke. You must decide for yourself whether or not you care.

The "just a joke" defence only works when the comedy undercuts or reverses the surface meaning of an apparently offensive remark. In 2012, comic Frankie Boyle successfully sued the Daily Mirror for calling him a racist ( a5ij2Q). One prime exhibit was a routine that found Boyle imagining a government official answering a phone with the words "Department of Ni**er Bombing".

The phrase may make you uneasy, but the “just a joke” defence makes sense. Boyle is suggesting it is the administration that is racist. It is an anti-racist joke. Yet, because there is a blanket ban on the n-word, it cannot be delivered in the same auditorium where Schumer’s gag is acceptable.

Casual outrage

The confusion has been doubled by our era’s unstoppable addiction to casual outrage. In earlier times, Fry’s remark would have caused some wincing on couches. The slow progress of communication would have allowed viewers and commentators time to cool down. In 2016, a vast mob of the easily annoyed prowls the digital outlands in search of bile generators. You need a hobby, I suppose.

Just before Christmas it emerged that Noma Dumezweni, a black actor, would be playing Hermione Granger in a theatrical sequel to the Harry Potter movies. ( Twitter was immediately swamped with furious reactions. How grimly predictable.

Well, yes and no. The happy news is that virtually every tweet was fighting back against racist dissenters. Because I had nothing better to do, I counted through the Tweets and registered 124 angry defences before coming across one that actually objected (mildly) to the casting.

Who are you all arguing with? There exists an array of people who, when they see a story such as this, cloak themselves in righteousness and begin bravely counteracting the presumed opinions of imaginary antagonists. Sure, some oiks whinged about the casting decision, but they were, in this medium, so hugely outnumbered by defenders that we must conclude the crusaders are talking to one another.

We practice recreational outrage because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Without leaving our sofa, we can stand up for the dispossessed, resist the unkind and clear space for the righteous. It just takes a twitch of the thumb.

Now, call me a fathead.