Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

The social (media) utility of outrage

What an American industrial tragedy from a century ago teaches us about outraging effectively

Tragically enough, the fire broke out a few hours before the end of the working day on 25 March 1911 at Triangle Waist Co.’s factory. Located on the top three floors of a 10-storey building near Washington Square Park in New York City, the company was a typical Manhattan sweatshop of the period. Inside the factory, 500 workers, mostly young immigrant women, toiled in dangerous and unsanitary conditions. They manufactured shirtwaists—a type of button-up blouse for women that first became popular in the early 1800s.

The factory floors featured long, crowded rows of benches, surrounded by heaps of cloth cuttings and scraps. Most fire-safety standards had been ignored. Indeed, the textile manufacturing industry in the US at the time had a reputation for timely fires that yielded owners convenient insurance payments.

Around 4.40pm that Saturday, the fire broke out on the eighth floor of the building. What followed was not so much a single horror as it was a series of unspeakable tragedies. Horrors in which 146 workers—123 of them women—lost their lives, all because the owners of Triangle Waist Co. had left the doors locked to prevent unauthorized breaks or theft.

Many workers died on the shop floor. Others tumbled out of windows, human fireballs that crashed into the pavement outside, searing images into the minds of witnesses that would haunt them forever. Some of the falling workers could be heard screaming as they crashed to their deaths. Some workers piled onto a poorly made fire escape that itself collapsed and crashed to the floor, taking them all with it. Six bodies were burnt so badly that they were only identified in 2011, a century later.

William Shepherd, a journalist with the United Press, witnessed the tragedy and later wrote about what he saw: “I learned a new sound, a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the sound of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk. Thud-dead, thud-dead, thud-dead. Sixty-two thud-deads. I call them that because the sound and the thought came to me at the same instant. There was plenty of chance to watch them as they came down."

Outside the building, helpless New Yorkers looked on in shock. Some fainted. Some fell to their knees and wept, powerless to do anything but pray for the victims dying in front of them.

What followed the very public Triangle Waist fire was a tidal wave of outrage. A tidal wave that took place at a particularly progressive point in American history.

Cornell University’s commemorative archives on the Triangle Waist fire says, “At the turn of the century, many quarters of society were concerned about the effects of unregulated economic development. Among the middle classes there was an uneasy feeling about the lack of a social safety net for the lower classes and about low wages, long hours, unsanitary conditions in factories, and crowded conditions in immigrant urban districts. This situation was believed to be at the source of militant strikes, radical working class politics, poor public health, low educational levels, and corruption in politics and government."

Part of the reaction, especially in the period immediately after the fire, was led by socialists, trade unionists and labour activists. At a public meeting organized at the Metropolitan Opera House on the weekend after the tragedy, trade unionist Rose Schneiderman delivered a landmark speech that has since been widely quoted in books, essays and Wikipedia pages.

Schneiderman stood in front of an outraged audience and told them that their public sympathy was noble but useless. “We have tried you good people of the public," she said, “and we have found you wanting." She had equally damning words for the government: “Public officials have only words of warning to us—warning that we must be intensely peaceable... The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable."

Schneiderman then rallied for a stronger working-class movement that could stand up for the rights of workers.

But many members of the public assembled at the opera house decided that more had to be done. It was not enough to mobilize workers. It was time to mobilize the government itself.

Frances Perkins, an activist for better working conditions and a professor of sociology, approached Al Smith, a member of the New York Assembly, with an idea. She wanted to establish a citizens’ commission to investigate the state of factories all over New York.

Perkins recounted Smith’s remarkable response at a 1964 lecture at Cornell University.

“You’re going to form a commission, that’s all right, that’s a good idea, but let me tell you. Don’t get started asking the governor to appoint a commission, or anybody else to appoint a commission of citizens," he said. “Citizens is all right, but they have got to be where they belong. If you want to get anything done, you got to have this, a legislative commission. If the legislature does it, the legislature will be proud of it, the legislature will listen to their report and the legislature will do something about it. But if the governor appoints the commission, they will just give it the cold shoulder; they won’t pay any attention to it."

On 30 June 1911, the Factory Investigative Commission (FIC) was formed. It functioned for four years, buoyed by sustained public interest, political patronage and the lingering memory of that terrible Saturday. The FIC was disbanded in 1915, but by then it had recommended 36 laws regarding working conditions that were enacted by the New York legislature, thus making New York one of the most progressive states in the US when it came to labour reforms.

Perkins pursued her cause with such passion and energy that she later devoted her life to policy and became the US secretary of labour in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration from 1933 to 1945. She thus became the first woman to ever become a member of the US cabinet. And in that position, she helped to extend many of the lessons and reforms from New York state and make them part of federal reforms.

Perkins later called 25 March 1911 the day the New Deal began, referring to a historic series of reforms and relief packages unleashed by the Roosevelt government to help the US recover from the Great Depression.

Thus, the outrage that followed the Triangle Waist fire did not just flare up and die, but it smouldered on for three decades. Eventually an opera house full of citizens helped to alter the course of American history.

***

More than a century later, we live in a time when it has never been easier to mobilize outrage or express it. It doesn’t matter if our outrage concerns something that has happened in our immediate neighbourhood, or it concerns an atrocity half a planet away. It doesn’t matter if we have witnessed it first-hand, like those New Yorkers watching the bodies fall in 1911, or if we picked it up somewhere along the international media supply chain. Thanks to modern technology, proximity is no longer a prerequisite for outrage.

All it needs is a few words and a tap on a screen.

Instantly, we feel, we have become part of an international moment. A moment when we come together in white-hot rage. Even if it is borrowed rage.

It has also never been safer to express outrage. We don’t have to careen into police lines, avoid government minders or fling Molotov cocktails to make ourselves heard. All it needs is one expertly worded tweet, one journalist in the right place at the right time, and one little article on Buzzfeed to send corporations, public relations companies and prime ministers into a tizzy. #IStandWithCharlieHebdo.

And yet, never has the gap between the ferocity of outrage and an appetite for political mobilization been more stark.

Just look at the outcomes of some recent topics of Indian media outrage—Maggi noodles, women’s safety, farmer suicides, domestic insurgency.

Each of these issues raised uncountable articles and open letters and expertly reported news stories. Most of them created online frenzies of such temperature that they quickly became matters of shallow, international debate.

Yet almost none of these outrages have ended in any kind of meaningful political mobilization. We are no closer to understanding how to make our cities, leave alone our villages, safer for women. Farmer suicides, meanwhile, remain the appendix of the Indian political body. We have no idea what to do with it and we all just hope it will go away one day with minimal displeasure. Most of all, we are still no closer to co-opting anyone within the democratic political establishment to pursue these causes with party-agnostic sincerity or trend-resistant persistence.

Why, when we have had so many Rose Schneidermans to speak and write passionately about these topics, have we had so few Frances Perkinses ready to fight the fight and not just thump the desks?

Because, contrary to the general cynicism revolving around such things, this kind of political mobilization is entirely possible.

Take the deeply unintuitive case of Net neutrality. Take one step away from the glib sloganeering and it is an exceedingly complex topic that is anything but a black-and-white issue. Does zero-rated Internet access violate Net neutrality? Is Net neutrality good for consumers and companies? Or bad for both? These are deeply nuanced debates that are nowhere near even conceptual closure.

And yet the Net neutrality movement has been, at least politically speaking, a success. Thanks to expert leadership and persistent commitment from a group of Internet policy wonks, the issue was not only raised with gusto but also cleverly married with an ongoing government consultation process. Thus, activists such as Nikhil Pahwa were not only able to co-opt MPs and ministers into the outrage—which is never really that hard, given their ability to outrage on demand—but also elicit responses from a pathetically risk-averse private sector, and channel public outrage into the policymaking process.

What is more, many of these wonks remain committed to their cause. They haven’t packed their tent, trekked up and pitched it over the latest outrage du jour.

Devoid of political mobilization and persistence, our outrage has little social utility. Even if we are able to set in motion a process of snowballing outrage that ends with a prime minister showing solidarity with us, this moment is fleeting if it doesn’t commit our political system to a considered, educated response.

Indeed, the transactional nature of the outrage we see today, measured in trends and hashtags and not in policies or politics, is pernicious to any of these causes. Democratic institutions—press, parties, legislatures—have learnt that the intensely centralized nature of social media and the electronic press is exceedingly forgiving. Because everyone is worried about everything but nobody really cares for anything, media organizations have learned to build conveyor belts of issues that parade rent-a-quote talking heads across our screens and pages. The belt just needs to keep looping.

Politicians and parties have also learnt useful lessons. They are increasingly becoming experts at a type of plausibly deniable solidarity that is tailor-made for the 21st century. But you can’t blame them. Why would you worry about something longer than your voter will?

Combine this with a growing disrespect and contempt for any kind of organized activism—be it environmental, poverty or human rights—and you have a system where, powered by the unprecedented tools of the Internet, most dissent and outrage is a powerless caricature of itself.

We need more Frances Perkinses and Al Smiths. We need people who will pick up causes, big or small, get political buy-in, and then stay outraged about them for months and years. Because India has a million problems. And none of them can be solved in 140-character instalments.

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