Inuendo Studios presents an excellent and approachable analysis of the infamous Gamer Gate and its role in later digital radicalization. This video got me thinking about manufactured outrage, which reminded me of the fake outrage over such video games as Cuphead and Doom. This sort of outrage has also manifested against the She-Ra and He-Man reboots. More mainstream fictional outrage against fiction involved the Republican’s rant about Dr. Seuss being “cancelled.” In the world of gaming and media, this fictional outrage can lead to real consequences, such as death threats, doxing, swatting, and harassment. In the political world, this fictional outrage is weaponized for political gain, ratchets up the political divide between Americans, and escalates emotions. In short, this fictional outrage at fiction makes our world worse.
While it is probably obvious, I call this fictional outrage at fiction for two reasons. The first is that the outrage is fictional: it is manufactured on an imaginary foundation. The second is that the outrage is at works of fiction, such things as games, TV shows, movies, and books. Since Thought Slime, Innuendo Studios, Shaun, and others have ably gone through numerous examples in great detail, I will focus on some of the rhetorical and fallacious methods used in fictional outrage at fiction. These methods also apply to non-fiction targets as well, but I am mainly interested in fiction here—if only to point out that some people put considerable energy into enraging people about make-believe things like games and TV shows. While fiction is subject to moral evaluation, it should be remembered that it is fiction. Although our good dead friend Plato would certainly disagree with me here.
While someone wishing to generate fictional outrage can simply lie, this is often less effective than basing the outrage on a particle of truth. One way to do this is to make use of the rhetorical tool of hyperbole. Exaggerating a true claim allows the user of hyperbole to pretend that they have a foundation in truth while they generate the desired emotional impact. While this can be debated, hyperbole is usually distinguished from outright lying because hyperbole is an exaggeration rather than a complete fabrication. For example, a person who did not catch any fish would be lying if they said they caught a monster of a fish while a person who caught a small fish would be engaged in hyperbole if they made the same claim. It is true they caught a fish, while it is not true that it is a monster of a fish. There can be debate over what is hyperbole and what is simply a lie. For example, when the Dr. Seuss estate decided to stop publishing six books, the Republicans and their allies claimed that Dr. Seuss had been cancelled by the left. While it is true that six books would not be published, it can be argued whether saying the left cancelled them is hyperbole or simply a lie. Either way, of course, the claim is not true.
Even if the target audience is aware that hyperbole is being used, it can still influence their emotions, especially if they want to believe what is being claimed. So, even if someone recognizes that “wrongdoing” of a games journalist has been absurdly exaggerated, they might still go along with the outrage. A person who is particularly energetic and dramatic in their hyperbole can also use their showmanship to augment its impact.
The defense against hyperbole is, obviously, to determine the truth of the matter. One should always be suspicious of claims that seem extreme or exaggerated, although they should not be automatically dismissed: extreme claims can be true.
A common fallacy used in fictional outrage is the Straw Man fallacy. This fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position, claim or action and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated, or misrepresented version of it. This fallacy often involves the use of hyperbole. This sort of “reasoning” has the following pattern:
- Person A has position X/makes claim X/did X.
- Person B presents Y (which is a distorted version of X).
- Person B attacks Y.
- Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed/wrong.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because attacking a distorted version of something does not constitute an attack on the thing itself. One might as well expect an attack on a poor drawing of a person to physically harm the person. To illustrate the way the fallacy is often used, consider what happened to start the “outrage” over Cuphead. A writer played an early version of the game badly, noted that they were doing badly, and were generally positive about the game. All this was ignored by those wanting to manufacture rage: they presented it as a game journalist condemning the game for being too hard because they are bad at games. At it escalated from there.
The Straw Man fallacy is an excellent way to manufacture rage; one can simply create whatever custom villain they wish by distorting reality. As with hyperbole, there is the question of what distinguishes a straw man from a complete fabrication; the difference is that the Straw Man starts with some truth and then distorts it. To use the Cuphead example, if a person had never even played Cuphead or said anything about it, saying that they hated the game because they are incompetent would be a complete fabrication rather than a straw man.
Straw Man attacks tend to work because people generally do not bother to investigate the accuracy of claims they want to believe; and even if they are not already invested in the claim, checking a claim takes at least some effort—so it is easiest to just believe or not without checking. People also expect others to be truthful, which is increasingly unwise.
The defense against a Straw Man is, obviously, to check the facts. Ideally this would involve going to the original source or at least using a credible and objective source.
A third common fallacy used in fictional outrage is the Hasty Generalization. This fallacy is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on a sample that is not large enough. It has the following form:
Premise 1. Sample S, which is too small, is taken from population P.
Conclusion: Claim C is drawn about Population P based on S.
The person committing the fallacy is misusing the following type of reasoning, which is known variously as Inductive Generalization, Generalization, and Statistical Generalization:
Premise 1: X% of all observed A’s are B’s.
Premise : Therefore X% of all A’s are B’s.
The fallacy is committed when not enough A’s are observed to warrant the conclusion. If enough A’s are observed then the reasoning is not fallacious. Since Hasty Generalization is committed when the sample (the observed instances) is too small, it is important to have samples that are large enough when making a generalization.
This fallacy is useful in creating fictional outrage because it “enables” a person to (fallaciously) claim that something is widespread based on a small sample. If the sample is extremely small and it is a matter of an anecdote, then a similar fallacy, Anecdotal Evidence, can be committed. This fallacy is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on an anecdote (a story) about one or a very small number of cases. The fallacy is also committed when someone rejects reasonable statistical data supporting a claim in favor of a single example or small number of examples that go against the claim. The fallacy is considered by some to be a variation on hasty generalization. It has the following forms:
Premise 1: Anecdote A is told about a member (or small number of members) of Population P.
Conclusion: Claim C is made about Population P based on Anecdote A.
- Reasonable statistical evidence S exists for general claim C.
- Anecdote A is presented that is an exception to or goes against general claim C.
- Conclusion: General claim C is rejected.
People often fall victim to this fallacy because stories and anecdotes tend to have more psychological influence than statistical data. This leads people to infer that what is true in an anecdote must be true of the whole population or that an anecdote justifies rejecting statistical evidence in favor of said anecdote. Not surprisingly, people most commonly accept this fallacy because they would prefer that what is true in the anecdote is true for the whole population. For example, if one game journalist is critical of a game because it has sexist content, then one might generate outrage by claiming that all game journalists are attacking all games for sexist content.
A person can also combine rhetorical tools and fallacies. For example, an outrage merchant could use hyperbole to create a straw man of an author who wrote a piece about whether video game characters should be more diverse and less stereotypical. The straw man could be something like this author wants to eliminate white men from video games and replace them with women and minorities. This straw man could then be used in the fallacy of Anecdotal Evidence to “support” the claim that “the left” wants to eliminate white men from video games and replace them with women and minorities.
The defense against Hasty Generalization and Anecdotal Evidence is to check to see if the sample size warrants the conclusion being drawn. One way that people try to protect their claims from scrutiny is to use an anonymous enemy—not identifying those in their sample but referring to a vague group such as “those people”, “the left”, “SJWs”, “soy boys” or whatever. If pressed for specific examples that can be checked, a common tactic is to refer to someone who has been subject to a straw man and just use Anecdotal Evidence again. Another common “defense” is to respond with anger and simply insist that there are many examples, while never providing them. Another tactic used here is Headlining.
In this context, Headlining occurs when someone looks at the headline of an article and then simply speculates (or lies) about the content. These misused headlines are often used as “evidence”, especially to “support” straw man claims. For example, an article might be entitled “Diversity and Inclusion in Video Games: A Noble Goal.” The article could be a reasoned and balanced piece on the merits and cons of diversity and inclusion in video games. But the person who “headlines” it (perhaps by linking to it in a video or including just a screen shot) could say that the piece is a hateful screed about eliminating white men from video games. This can be effective for the same reason that the standard Straw Man is effective; few people will bother to read the article. Those who already feel the outrage will almost certainly not bother to check; they will simply assume the content is as claimed (or perhaps not care).
There are many other ways to create fictional outrage at fiction, but I hope this is useful in increasing your defense against such tactics.