If you consume much conservative news, you’ve probably heard about it by now: Last week, a transgender burlesque dancer named Beyonce Black St. James danced, wiggled, twerked, and stripped down to her pasties as the in-house entertainment at a county-funded conference on combating homelessness in Seattle.
Video of St. James performing at the December 9th All Home King County conference went viral, largely because of Christopher Rufo, a former Seattle City Council candidate and resident conservative gadfly, who posted a clip of the performance on Twitter, which was then picked up by right-wing media (and then mainstream media after that). It’s been viewed over 1.5 million times.
Last week, Seattle and King County leaders hired transgender stripper Beyoncé Black St. James to perform at their annual conference on solving homelessness.
Here's how they're using taxpayer money: pic.twitter.com/J0lCKVVfgO
— Christopher F. Rufo (@realchrisrufo) December 15, 2019
Rufo spun this as a story about government spending. On Twitter, he wrote: “For years, Seattle has claimed that it ‘needs more resources’ to solve homelessness, but as the video shows, they find it totally appropriate to pay for a transgender stripper to grind on members of the region's homelessness nonprofits and taxpayer-funded organizations.”
This false statement was echoed by right-wing (and Russian) media. On RT, the (trans) writer Sophia Narwitz wrote, “Unless she's hiding another secret in her pants, it remains to be seen how using government funding to hire a chick with a d**k to sexualize what should be a professional event will cure the local homeless crisis. This is yet another negative mark against a city that's already wasting vast sums of funds to combat a problem it doesn't seem capable of solving.”
Turns out, there was no funding involved, government or otherwise. The county did not respond to a request for comment but according to journalist Erica C. Barnett, St. James was not paid for her dance.
Still, it’s not hard to see why this story has gone viral. The video might not be shocking to anyone who has been to a burlesque show before, but the fact that it takes place in at a florescent-lit conference center with no alcohol in sight does make for an incongruent image—especially when St. James sticks her tongue in an audience member’s mouth. The audience member, for the record, seems to enjoy it, although some others in the crowd look uncomfortable. According to the Seattle Times, attendees included nonprofit workers, government employees, and members of the faith community, and in a full video of the event posted on Barnett's website (which has since been made private) you can see one woman staring down at the table as St. James writhes around her, as though if she ignored if hard enough, the whole thing would just disappear.
Since this story broke last week, heads have begun to roll. Kira Zylstra, the director of All Home King County, was immediately suspended pending investigation. Then, on Monday, she stepped down from her job. That may have been inevitable, considering this thing has clearly been a PR disaster for both the city and county.
I’ve seen very few defenses of this choice of entertainment for a county-funded conference, although there are a few notable exceptions: On Monday, for instance, community activist, attorney, and former Seattle mayoral candidate Nikita Oliver tweeted: “More Ppl are mad a trans burlesque dancer performed at a publicly funded conference about homelessness; an issue which deeply impacts trans & queer communities, artists & sex workers. Do people get this mad when gospel choirs are the cultural performance at non-Christian conferences?”
If this hypothetical gospel choir tossed their robes off and started twerking in pasties, I suspect that, yes, people would have been mad about that, too. I wanted to ask Oliver why she thinks this event has caused such outrage—and whether she would have supported, say, the Chamber of Commerce or the Seattle Police Department using a burlesque dancer as in-house entertainment. But she declined to comment, as did St. James, and referred me to a statement by the Trans Women of Color Solidarity Network, which says St. James has been subjected to threats, harassment, and doxing.
Watching this story unfold and seeing the outrage it inspired, I was reminded of a recent segment on the NPR show Hidden Brain. The host, Shankar Vedantam, interviewed a journalist named Julie Zimmerman about the Covington High scandal, which, if you’ve wiped that particular outrage cycle from your memory, centered around a group of high school boys in MAGA hats who were accused of harassing an elderly Native American man in DC. That narrative ended up falling apart, which became national news on its own and spurned a thousand think pieces (my own included), but the question is, why does anyone care?
“If you were my editor and I came to you and said, ‘Yeah, this Native American guy and these kids in MAGA hats kind of got in this tense standoff on the mall today and I think it's a story,’” Zimmerman said, “any self-respecting editor would say, ‘Well, did somebody get shot? You know, how, like, how is this a story?’ Weird confrontations between people happen all the time, and we don't consider them to be news stories.”
That may have been true in the past, but now, interpersonal conflict and drama can quickly go viral, and then global.
I've begun to wonder why we get so mad over things that, when it comes done to it, don’t directly impact us. The attendees of the Home Away conference, who were reportedly not warned in advance, may understandably be pissed (although from the looks of the video, plenty of them enjoyed the show). But why the anger from anyone else, especially people thousands of miles away who don’t give a second thought to Seattle’s actual homelessness problem?
Social scientists have been studying the issue of moral outrage for years, and they’ve found, as anyone who spends a lot of time online has probably noticed, that the internet has vastly increased the amount of outrage we‘re exposed to. One study found that encountering outrageous events—or what they call “norm violations”—is relatively rare, but hearing or reading about them is exceedingly common online. Any scan of social media could tell you that’s true. In fact, social media thrives on it.
“Research on virality shows that people are more likely to share content that elicits moral emotions such as outrage,” wrote Yale psychologist Molly Crockett in a 2017 paper published in the journal Nature. In other words, we get madder online than we tend to in real life, and this is reinforced by the algorithms that feed us content. As Columbia psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman told me, online, “You aren’t rewarded for being reasonable but for being passionate.”
The negative consequences of the ever-present cycle of outrage are obvious. For one, it’s divisive, contributing to the escalating tribalism and culture wars between left, right, and center. Plus, individuals, businesses, and institutions have lost their reputations and money after inspiring online outrage campaigns. The Hallmark Channel is learning about this right now: After a conservative group was outraged by a commercial featuring a lesbian couple, the channel yanked it from circulation, only to outrage progressive and LGBTQ groups, whose outrage got Hallmark to apologize and reverse course. That's another thing that has to be acknowledged: Outrage from minority groups over how they are treated does get things done sometimes.
Still, researchers have found that constantly feeling outraged not only reduces empathy, after a while, it creates a sort of numbness. Outrageous events start to take on less meaning, a proposed phenomenon some psychologists refer to as "outrage fatigue.” We can only handle so much before checking out. As Molly Crockett told me in an email, “If everything is worthy of outrage, effectively nothing is.” This can mean truly outrageous things (for instance, US drones killing civilians in Afghanistan) inspire less outrage than strippers at conferences or kids wearing MAGA hats. (There are, I should note, multiple reasons we tend to care about dumb shit, not just outrage fatigue.)
And yet, the negative consequences of outrage may seem small compared to the benefits. Outrage can force action; it can signal “I, personally, am on the right side of history”; it can increase one’s social position; and it can serve as a kind of bonding mechanism. Outrage can tear people apart, to be sure, but it can also bring them together.
There’s also a sort of visceral gratification associated with outrage. Getting outraged, and then acting on it, particularly by shaming the norm violator, activates parts of the brain associated with reward. But while the internet may have made outrage more ubiquitous, it’s not like any of this is new: In fact, it’s deeply ingrained in human behavior, according to Kaufman, who notes that for individuals who score high on traits of narcissism, expressing outrage online can be particularly rewarding. It doesn’t just bring us attention, it also brings us esteem. The novelist Aldous Huxley wrote about this phenomenon in 1921: "To be able to destroy with good conscience, to be able to behave badly and call your bad behavior 'righteous indignation'—this is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats." It feels good, so we do it.
On the plus side, outrage really can lead to social change. #MeToo is a movement built on outrage, it’s undeniable that it’s had a real impact on the culture, mostly for the better.
Unfortunately, outrage also has a tendency to obscure reason. Take, for instance, an incident at NYU, where last year, stereotypically African American food served at the cafeteria during Black History Month (including fried chicken and watermelon water) caused such outrage that two people lost their jobs. But, as New York Magazine detailed, both of the staffers fired were black and, what’s more, the menus were designed by black employees. That, however, didn’t matter. Outrage demands someone—whether it’s the villain or not—take the fall.
Where outrage typically fails, however, is in changing minds. As Shankar Vedantam said on his show, “It can feel good to start a fire, to see all the push notifications that come to your phone as people like and retweet your outrage.” But, he adds, “When was the last time you changed your mind because someone screamed at you?” If you are anything like me, the answer is never. That’s the thing about outrage: It rarely works on an individual basis. Outrage may feel good from within your echo chamber, but expressing it is less likely to change someone’s mind than listening, forming common ground, and asking questions designed to make people inspect their beliefs.
So what can we do to end this constant cycle of outrage besides chucking our phones off a bridge and moving someplace with no cell service?
This is something I think about often, and yet, I also have a confession, because I, too, was part of the outrage cycle over Beyonce Black St. James. While I wasn’t outraged by the performance (it struck me as more amusing than enraging), I did feel a bit outraged by Nikkita Oliver’s defense of it. And so I did the thing that you do: I shared it on Twitter.
“I’ve been waiting for the first full-throated defense of hiring a stripper to perform at a county-funded event, and I finally found it. From a former city council candidate, nonetheless,” I tweeted. I wasn’t just wrong in my facts (Oliver was a mayoral candidate, not a city council candidate) but in feeling. Yes, the likes and the retweets gave me a quick reward, but I know the problems with the outrage cycle better than most. And yet there I was, perpetuating the very thing that I hate. So I deleted it. I disagree with her take, but who cares? She’s as entitled to her opinion as anyone else.
Until algorithms stop rewarding outrage, perhaps the only thing each of can do is to inspect our own part in the problem. This is a little like trying to solve climate change with reusable bags and bamboo straws—the problem is too big for choices like that to have much of an impact—but for those of us sick of these cycles, maybe the first step is to stop taking part.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly named the agency involved, which is All Home King County. We regret the error.