Outrage culture is out of control

What you find offensive, and what you don’t is, I suppose, your business. I’m not going to lecture to you about what deserves your scorn, and what doesn’t, although I do reserve the right to describe all the ways in which I think you are wrong to be offended by something.

These debates about what each individual person, and what large groups of people see as offensive are fine. Conversation is good. Talking is good. Debate is good. Speech — especially uncomfortable, provocative speech — is good, and if you don’t like what you hear, the cure to that thing you don’t like is more speech. Yours.

But there’s a big difference between a healthy dialogue between people with true differences of opinion, and weaponized, irrational social activism meant to terrify people into doing what you want them to do.

This week, Nike had planned to release a new shoe. That shoe was an Independence Day-themed shoe, with the Betsy Ross flag on the back heel, meant to coincide with the July 4th holiday. This would of course be something that basically every clothing and apparel company does every year.

Nike is pulling these flag-themed shoes after former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick complained to the shoemaker, according to the Wall Street Journal. (Nike via AP Photo)

Hearts and bears around Valentine’s Day. Shamrocks and green stuff for St. Patrick’s Day. Eggs and rabbits for Easter. Flag stuff on the Fourth. Pumpkins and skeletons for Halloween. You get the idea.

All of this is normal. All of this is rational. And all of it is innocuous to virtually every person in this country.

But it isn’t innocuous to Colin Kaepernick.

When Kaepernick — a Nike endorser — got word of the shoe release, he contacted Nike to register his objection to the design. Kaepernick claimed that the Betsy Ross flag is associated with racism and slavery.

According to Slate, the denunciation of the flag traces back to 2016, when a Michigan chapter of the NAACP claimed that the flag was associated with “militia groups” that promoted white supremacy. The Michigan group’s statement was issued after some students at a local high school football game flew the Betsy Ross flag with a flag that supported President Donald Trump.

Nike, as it seems all major corporations do these days, immediately panicked and stopped shipment of the shoes. Having shipped some already, they asked for the shoes back to the places that had already received them.

Kaepernick’s two main objections to the flag were that it was flown during an era in which slavery was being practiced in America, and that it seems some white supremacist groups occasionally use the flag, sometimes.

These two standards are, of course, insane. The usage of a flag during a time when a horrible sin like slavery was practiced does not mean that a flag symbolizes that sin. If it did, we should burn every state flag in existence prior to 1865, as well as any national symbols of that era as well. If anything, the flag represented an ideal that the country failed to live up to in its early history. But that ideal was still an ideal.

And as to the adoption by white supremacists, it isn’t surprising they adopt early American symbols of all kinds. But that doesn’t mean we have to allow them to own those symbols. They don’t belong to white supremacists just because they occasionally use them, and ironically, by Kaepernick’s declaration that they do own them and his retreat from them in fear, he has now given them more power than they ever deserve to have.

Every day, millions of Americans wear items that feature an American flag, and they do so with pride, and without malice. A handful of hateful, violent psychopaths should never be allowed to co-opt those things for their own. Sadly, people like Kaepernick are letting them.

But more importantly, we have got to stop with this outrage culture. It is exhausting for everyone involved, on all sides. Being offended by something does not mean we need to fear it and seek to destroy and silence it. Denounce it if you must, but stop trying to bully everyone into sharing your opinion.

And corporations have got to stop giving into this nonsense. People keep doing this because, to this point, it has worked. Nike should have said, “thank you for your opinion, Colin, but we will be releasing the shoes as planned. If you have an issue with that, we understand.” Because in their fear of offending Kaepernick, they have now created a larger and more important backlash, which will hurt their company more.

By the way, happy Fourth of July.


Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.