Why has media-driven offense-taking over minor, off-color remarks  become epidemic?

The other day Robert De Niro, speaking at a fund-raiser where Mrs. Obama was present, attempted a mild campaign-year joke:

“Callista Gingrich. Karen Santorum. Ann Romney. Now do you really think our country is ready for a white first lady?”

Part of the background to the joke is that De Niro’s wife is black, although probably most people don’t know that. Anyway, predictably, someone took offense — Newt Gingrich, evidently desperate to get himself back into the news (“the president should apologize for him”) — and before the whole thing died down, the First Lady’s press secretary declared the joke “inappropriate” and Bobby D. had to backtrack pathetically.

The comedian Bill Maher wrote an op-ed to the effect that we should all quit taking offense at this sort of thing. (“I don’t want to live in a country where no one ever says anything that offends anyone. That’s why we have Canada.”) But he didn’t address the question of why this sort of offense-taking has become so common in modern American life. Until that question is addressed, there is little chance that these media-driven offense-takings will stop infesting our news cycles.

Imho, all this has to do with a deep psychological reflex that (like the reflex that underlies psychiatric hysteria and its modern variants) has found a culturally acceptable way to surface. It is a reflex with which one calls attention to oneself as a member of a group — the cool people, the morally superior people. Of course it also defines the target (the person whose remarks supposedly caused offense) as a “bad” outsider, which is why it is used so often as a weapon in political contexts. But I think the original function mostly had to do with self-defining the accuser. In accusing, he or she declared: “I am cool; I am morally superior.” Essentially this springs from the human instinct to form groups and maintain their boundaries, which is to say — irony of ironies — it is closely related to racial prejudice.

Since our modern reality comes to us mostly via the media, these dramas also are played out mostly via the media. The offense-taker typically is some media-connected person or interest group that craves attention and respect (and, often, the money that follows), and opportunistically takes offense via press release or in an interview or media-covered speech. Some people and groups have evolved to live off this sustenance alone; their outrage machines sometimes resemble protection rackets. But if these professional outrage-ists are social parasites, let’s remember that the journalists who use and amplify and encourage their dramas are also parasites — parasites on the parasites. PC outrage has its own little ecosystem in modern America.

We sometimes term these PC dramas “witch hunts,” because they do obviously resemble the witchcraft hysterias of several hundred years ago in the US and Europe. The witchcraft hysterias eventually collapsed of their own absurdity; they relied on a belief-system in which demonic spirits were everywhere but invisible, and that belief-system gradually receded, leaving witchcraft hysterics high and dry, so to speak — in fact, as the Western legal system improved, witchcraft accusers became vulnerable to libel suits.

In the belief system of modern PC-hysterics, demonic acts and “witches” have been replaced by un-PC speech and “insensitive people,” concepts which, at least, don’t rely on dubious supernatural notions. Modern PC-hysteria also offers people a relatively guilt-free way to express self-defining condemnations of others, in a world where a lot of discriminatory language has been declared taboo. Moreover, I would guess that contagions of PC hysteria thrive in the warm, moist environment of the female cognitive style which has come to dominate American public discourse. In other words, this outrage phenomenon still has a lot going for it, despite all our complaints and deconstructions.