Wednesday, April 10, 2019

What Aliens Teach Us About Abortion: Symbolic Interactionism at Work in Outrage Culture

When Nathan Pyle began his comic Strange Planet, he was almost certainly unaware that his comments on the absurdity of human behavior would become an example of social interaction in the outrage era of the internet. Strange Planet features stereotypical grey aliens taking part in everyday rituals that most of us take for granted. In fact, Pyle demonstrates a natural talent for exercising his sociological imagination, with each comic interrogating how a common situation might be viewed from an outside perspective.  Recently, Pyle’s comic has provided its own insight into the kinds of interactions he frequently deconstructs through an unexpected route.
            Pyle has joined the growing ranks of internet celebrities to have their Twitter history meticulously examined in search of past wrongdoing. Sometimes the search almost seems malicious in nature, as in the case of James Gunn, fired by Disney in response to offensive tweets made a decade ago. On the other hand, even for decidedly normal people there is no room for mistakes in the outrage culture. Measured conversation about hot button topics has become more difficult as a direct result of the insulating power of the internet. Social media sites like Facebook, Reddit, and Tumblr have created communities where everyone participating in the discussion shares identical views and deviation from those views is harshly sanctioned. Internet echo chambers actively discourage the kinds of interactions that foster growth as a community.
            Pyle continues to provide an excellent example through the content of his offending tweet, which expressed affection for his partner while she voiced her support of a pro-life movement. Abortion is undeniably one of the most polarizing issues currently facing the American public. The debate draws in moral, religious, political, economic, and social views in a way which is unlike many other issues of public discussion. Each side of the debate often expresses the view that their side is the only reasonable option, and yet, Gallup polling shows that the percent of Americans who consider themselves pro-life is nearly exactly the same as those who consider themselves pro-choice, sitting at 48% in each camp when polled in May of last year. Abortion is, in many ways, the ultimate outrage debate.
            Pyle focuses on small interactions in his comic, staying away from most controversial topics, and symbolic interactionism provides a powerful framework to understand why outrage conversations play out how they do. When individuals enter an online space with particular views, they start having small, constant interactions which reinforce desired behaviors and beliefs. They find hard boundaries which outline the acceptable views of the community and moderators and other users are quick to remove unwanted participation, up to and including banning users who disagree from participating at all. For the most part, these interactions are short and personal, not systematic implementations of oppression.
            Symbolic interactionism might just provide a way out of the echo chamber outrage as easily as it facilitates it in the first place. If people focused more on the individual and less on the outrage that individual represents, small interactions could teach us that we have more in common than we think. The same Gallup poll from earlier which showed a polarized public also shows surprising agreement. 60% of those polled said that abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy, while 81% said it should be illegal in the last three months. Those responses show a much more harmonious public than simple asking people whether they were pro-life or pro-choice. The agreement continues when considering specific situations. 83% and 77% said abortion should be legal during cases when the woman’s life is endangered and in cases of rape, respectively, with the highest levels of support for abortions taking place early in the pregnancy.
            This information could provide a new place to start the discussion, and in some cases people seem open to it. After conversations with those who worked with him, James Gunn was hired back to his original role. Pyle seemed open to conversations on Twitter for a time before he was drowned out. These situations only happened because people were willing to sit down and genuinely interact with each other, even when the outrage culture would tell them not to. There is a fine balance that needs to be struck between using social media as a tool to chip away at oppressive structures through successes like the #MeToo movement while also focusing on the battles that are worth the effort. We must remember to allow people to change, because without change there will never be improvement. If people are punished for growth then no amount of interaction or outrage will solve society’s problems.

Friedersdorf, C. (2018). Reflections of a Year of Outrage. Retrieved from
Gallup. (2019). Abortion. Retrieved from
Pyle, N. W. (2018). Honor. Retrieved from

1 comment:

  1. As a fan of the Strange Planet comics I was eager to read your blog post. The subject of how polarized many people are on the internet is fascinating to me. It feels like we made the internet without understanding what effects it would have on us as a society, and as a result, the abundance of polarizing viewpoints and a refusal to acknowledge other opinions on the internet seems to have increasingly been seeping into real life.

    Even though the idea of having a system that allowed you to communicate with anyone anywhere in the world might have seemed freeing at first, these days it feels like it traps us into small communities with very like-minded people, which in turn shuts us off from the people that may be around us or have other ways of thinking. It's hard for me to imagine a solution to this might be, but I think some individuals are doing a great job at deradicalizing some groups of people, like ContraPoints on YouTube. I've noticed she appeals to an alt right audience by understanding their humor and utilizing it, and genuinely considering why she disagrees with their points without making them feel belittled or shamed.


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