Outrage Culture: Punishing Offenders Like Hulk Hogan

Hulk Hogan 04 (14029003947)
By GabboT, via Wikimedia Commons
It appears that we have yet another excuse to discuss outrage culture, so let's do it.

Suppose you were to learn of an incident in which a waitress at a popular chain restaurant called a customer a racial slur that many people find offensive. It would be perfectly reasonable for the customer to complain to the manager and to expect that the waitress might lose her job. After all, she said what she said at work while performing the responsibilities associated with her job. The employer almost certainly has policies indicating that this sort of thing is not tolerated.

Now suppose that the manager and even the bosses up the line decided to do nothing. The manager took the customer's complaint but decided not to act on it. The customer, who is understandably angry by this point, takes to the Internet to tell her story. It generates considerable buzz, and this is where you and I first learn about it.

The question I'd like us to consider is what, if anything, you and I should do in this situation. Specifically, should we as persons not directly involved in the incident join the online mob in demanding that the waitress be fired and/or her employer be boycotted at least until they do fire her?

It seems to me that reasonable people can and probably do have different opinions on this question, as well as the many related but distinct questions the situation raises. Note that the question of whether the waitress should lose her job is a different question from the one I asked above about our role as persons not directly involved in the incident. I might, for example, believe that the waitress should be fired without necessarily believing that it is my right or responsibility to try to make that happen. Similarly, I might hope that bad things happen to the waitress without deciding that I personally need to act in order to bring about such bad things.

In many respects, this situation I've described here is not terribly complicated. If we were to believe that this incident is unjust, we'd almost certainly do so because the waitress escaped punishment for her behavior. We would be upset, at least in part, because it looks like she got away with something we would not expect her to get away with. And if we felt this way, we'd almost certainly have a desired outcome in mind: we'd want her to lose her job. It would make sense, then, that we might seek this desired outcome by joining the online mob in pressuring her employer to fire her. We might even see this as little more than encouraging her employer to "do the right thing."

Now let's take on a far more challenging scenario. Suppose that our waitress said nothing even remotely inappropriate at work. She's a model employee who receives rave reviews from her customers and it well liked by all of her co-workers. Her performance on the job has been exemplary, and she might be the only waitress employed at this restaurant who has never received a customer complaint.

While enjoying some much deserved time off from work, our waitress finds herself at a party and drinks more than she probably should have. She wakes up the next morning with one hell of a hangover and discovers that her memory of the previous evening is spotty. After asking a friend what happened, she hears a disturbing story. "I don't know what got into you last night," her friend tells her. "You went on a rant about what poor tips many of your minority customers leave at the restaurant. It wasn't pretty, and I think some of the people at the party must think you are a racist." The friend mentions a couple of the racial slurs used, and the waitress is horrified.

As it turns out, someone at the party was offended, armed with a smart phone, and covertly captured the entire rant on video. She was so offended, in fact, that she posted the clip on her blog along with the name of the waitress, her place of employment, and the address and phone number of her employer (i.e., a thorough doxing). You see the video, and it isn't pretty. It is not clear how intoxicated the waitress is, and since you've never met her and know nothing about the sort of person she is, the video is all you have to go on. It is all any of the online mob that quickly forms to call for her head has to go on.

Once again, the key question I'm interested in is what, if anything, you and I should do in this situation. Should we join the online mob that is demanding that the waitress be fired and threatening to boycott her employer?

Some of you will probably disagree, but it seems to me that these situations are fairly different and that the second is more challenging than the first. In this scenario, our waitress has done nothing wrong at work. She was filmed without her consent or knowledge at a party, and she was drunk. Based solely on what I have described here, I'd certainly be reluctant to label her a racist no matter what she said. But she did undeniably say something racist. Should she lose her job for that? And if so, should we participate in the process of trying to bring about that outcome?

Hulk Hogan

Employers often have the right to fire employees for little or even no cause. If an employer decides that an employee's behavior, including their behavior off the job, is tarnishing the employer's image in some way, they might opt to fire the employee. This is an interesting subject and one worthy of discussing, but it isn't my focus here. I'm far more interested in the circumstances under which you and I might decide that we have the right and/or the responsibility to participate in the process of punishing someone who has said something we do not like.

What is interesting to me about the recent Hulk Hogan episode is not that the WWE decided he was no longer good for their image but the eagerness with which the online mob sought to ruin him. Even after he apologized for his comments and was dropped by the WWE, the social media outrage continued. What does the mob want from Hogan at this point? If losing his job and being erased from WWE history was not enough, what else do they want? He apologized, and his apology did not read like one of those non-apology apologies we see so often in these cases. But that clearly isn't enough either. So what is the desired outcome here?