On “Phneh” and manufactured outrage

So, America’s right-wing has been complaining about an AI chat-bot gizmo the last day or two. Why? Because someone got the idea to hit the AI chat-bot gizmo with a hypothetical situation: there’s a ticking time bomb and when it goes off it will kill millions! But it can be defused by simply calling it a racial slur.

And the AI chat-bot gizmo said, “No.”

Cue the colossal weirdos. Here’s a good and satisfyingly pithy summation of this lunacy.

So much of what passes for “outrage” nowadays is purely manufactured outrage. It’s people not being actually outraged by something outrageous, but rather choosing to be outraged at something they have interpreted through tortured logic into something outrageous.

I have an actual example of this that I remember from my college years.

I was a Philosophy major, and we often delved into some very esoteric topics; and like any group of people studying the esoterica of a given field, we occasionally invented jokes that were probably the extreme version of “You had to be there.” One such bit of philosophy humor came in my Senior year, when I took “Contemporary Analytic Philosophy.” This class was devoted to the Philosophy of Language, as shaped by figures like Bertrand Russell in the early 20th century. Without getting too deep in the weeds here, one issue we discussed was the relationship between words and meaning: do words have inherent meaning, or do they only mean what we decide they mean? Putting this as a thought experiment: Just after the Big Bang, when the universe was just a week old, did the word cat still mean the four-legged beast we all know?

Yeah, I get it. Esoteric stuff. Boring, even, if you’re not a kinda-sorta wannabe 21-year-old intellectual.

But a friend and I decided that there should be a word that has no meaning. None. And not in the sense that “it can mean what you want it to mean!”, like a linguistic wild-card: the word has no meaning. Any time you utter this word, you have expressed no meaning at all. It’s like a linguistic version of the empty set.

The word we coined? Phneh.

We thought this was the funniest thing. We actually spread this around our circle, as only college kids can do. We discussed how even the linguistic representation of Phneh was unable to truly capture the meaninglessness of Phneh, which we illustrated through a notion ripped from Zen: “The finger pointing at Phneh is not Phneh itself.”

Look, you had to be there, OK?

It was all fun and games of the pseudo-intellectual sort until I took a marker, scrawled Phneh on a piece of paper, and stuck it on the bulletin board in the student lounge of the music building.

People would see it and say, “What is that?” And I’d explain the concept. Most people got it and if they didn’t see the goofball 4th-year Philosophy student humor of it, they at least went “Oh, OK” and wandered off, ignoring it.

One guy, however, did not.

This guy got really bothered by Phneh.

Like, really bothered by it.

It just annoyed the shit out of him that I would dare put a piece of paper with a meaningless word up on the bulletin board. So he started tearing it down.

I, of course, seeing an opportunity to take jabs at an easily-annoyed person’s tender spot, kept right on putting our meaningless word back up on the bulletin board, and he kept tearing it down. I figured he’d get bored with the whole thing–by this point the joke had likely well exceeded its sell-by–but not only did he not get bored with his fight against a meaningless word that had literally just been made up a month or two before by a couple of philosophy dweebs, he actually ratcheted it up. He started posting hand-written warnings of his own about the improper use of the bulletin board; then one day he showed up in the lounge with his girlfriend’s laptop (this was 1993, when laptops weren’t anywhere near ubiquitous, so to show up someplace and use one visibly was mostly showing off at that point) to type up a Very Official Memorandum in which he cited some actual shit from some college rulebook someplace about the use of bulletin boards and the required permission needed to post anything at all.

At this point some other folks were starting to think he was making an ass of himself; one person asked, “So unless we have official permission, I can’t post something about a party my housemates and I are hosting next Friday?” or “Do I hafta take down my ‘available for tutoring’ notice?” And he’d offer mealy-mouthed justifications as to why those were OK but Phneh was not. It was plainly obvious that his weird crusade, now being carried out under some kind of quasi-official (at least in his own head) banner, was directed at one thing and one thing only.

Eventually, though, someone asked him the money question. It might have even been me that asked, but I don’t recall, honestly. But someone did ask him: “If it’s a meaningless word, why are you so bothered by it?”

His response: “If it’s meaningless then I can interpret it as being offensive, which means it is offensive.”

That is, as near as I can recall, his verbatim response. And in all honesty, this response just stopped me in my tracks. I’ve never been a good verbal debater; I’m not often quick with a response, especially when the logic I’ve just been offered is so obviously bad that it takes me a bit of time just to wrap my head around the notion that someone has offered up their argument at all, much less processing all the ways it’s bad. All I could manage, when I recovered my wits enough, was to ask, “So…when you encounter something and you don’t know what it means, you first assume it’s ‘offensive’ until you learn otherwise?” He had a mealy-mouthed reply to this that I did not commit to memory.

Later on I related all of this to my former classmate with whom I had coined Phneh in the first place; in the meantime he had left that college to go to another that offered a drama program. When I told him this story, he laughed so hard I thought he was going to fall on the floor. He found the whole thing hysterical, and when he stopped laughing he said, “Why would you voluntarily offend yourself?”

That was really the heart of it, wasn’t it? The guy was offended, obviously. But equally obviously, he wasn’t offended by anything I had said or done, because there was literally no offense to be found there. He had manufactured his offended state, all by himself. All I gave him was the impetus to get offended, but I gave him nothing to be offended about.

So yeah, that was my first experience with manufactured outrage. This guy in college got himself worked into a holy lather that he manufactured out of whole cloth, over a completely meaningless thing that I and a friend had in turn manufactured out of equally whole cloth. The whole episode was one of the weirdest damned things I remember from my college years. I am shaking my head in disbelief as I write this about it. That incident has, as the kids say these days, lived rent-free in my head since 1993.

But that really is what manufactured outrage is, isn’t it? It’s exactly like what all those right-wingers got all upset about last week when a computer program couldn’t be tricked into saying the N-word. It’s amazing how much gets decided, policy-wise, on the basis of manufactured outrage. And not just policy: in his book On Writing, at one point Stephen King discusses all the angry mail he got when an evil character in one of his novels killed a dog. And he’s thinking, “The guy is evil and he does evil things, it’s kind of the whole point of that novel, and also, the guy isn’t real and the dog isn’t real!” (Bad example for me, maybe; for obvious reasons I am now much more sensitive to the fate of fictional dogs.)

So how did the whole Phneh crusade turn out? Well, I guess he won, because ultimately I got bored and moved on to other things and there’s only so much amusement to be gained from poking someone in their sensitive spot, even if the spot is only sensitive because they got up that morning and decided they were sensitive about it. But a few days after the last conversation about all this, the Music Building’s secretary expressed exasperation to me: “I shouldn’t have to field complaints from people about a nonsense word!” As if it was all my fault. (Well…maybe…but anyway) I responded, “Is it people, or is it one person? And you yourself just said it’s a nonsense word, so why are you taking the complaints seriously?” She didn’t have a good answer to that, either. But that’s when I decided to start hanging out someplace else for a while, having decided that maybe I shouldn’t wear out my welcome through use of a word that literally had no meaning.

It’s always worth asking ourselves, though, when we feel our outrage meter rising, “Is this a real thing that I should be getting outraged about?” Because the answer might well be, “No.”

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3 Responses to On “Phneh” and manufactured outrage

  1. Roger says:

    I am SO upset with your use of… the P-word; I can’t even write it…

    The problem with manufactured outrage is that it’s just as loud, or even LOUDER, than real outrage,such as systemic racism (examples abound without looking very hard.) So the importance of almost EVERYTHING is determined by the number of decibels generated

    • ksedinger says:

      An awful lot of manufactured outrage is absolutely created just to give ourselves an excuse to NOT be outraged over something deeply real. Also, manufactured outrage can almost always be spun from something that can be blamed on a single person or entity, thus allowing us to maintain the fiction that *systemic* outrages simply do not exist. Witness all the clods who respond to discussions of reparations with some version of, “Why should *I* have to atone for what my great-grandparents did?”

  2. Lee McAulay says:

    “Why would you voluntarily offend yourself?” – good question. Some people have a habit of letting stuff “push their buttons” and others have learned this can be entertaining (ask me how I know this after years of humdrum office work…) Better yet is learning how to walk away…

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