Sometimes something which should be a non-news, non-story becomes a huge story solely because of the ridiculously over-the-top reaction which it generates, a phenomenon which seems to be magnified by the instant networked communication made possible by the internet.
Such is the case with a recent Playboy article by Guy Cimbalo which was basically a “hate fuck” list of conservative women with commentary on why he found them physically attractive despite finding their views intellectually abhorent. The article was clearly written as satire and has some intentionally offensive description of the women and acts he’d like to perform, but nothing one wouldn’t have expected to see in similar satirical articles in outlets like National Lampoon when I was in college.
Cimbalo’s remarkable achievement is that his weak attempt at biting sarcasm was rapidly transformed into something so toxic that not only was the article removed from the Playboy website, but other articles discussing it or even highly critical of it have been purged from the internet. One site which posted snapshots of the article seems to have been taken completely offline, and an AOL writer who covered it was fired by AOL.
The progress of events was that the Playboy website published Cimbalo’s article “So Wrong It’s Right” on the Monday. Almost immediately two normally antithetical groups — right wing moralists and left wing feminists — began twittering and blogging about it. Pretty soon the internet was ringing with complaints that it objectified women, that it advocated rape, that it was grossly sexist, that it was politically biased (duh), and so on. But the second generation of bitching about it really passed over into the surreal, as feminists complained that fellow feminist Anne Schroeder Mullins of Politico was a thought criminal just for reprinting the names from Cimbalo’s list with none of the commentary. And then the reaction went beyond ridiculous when AOL’s Politics Daily fired Tommy Christopher for writing an article highly critical of Cimbalo’s work, and possibly also for his role in blowing up the whole situation on Twitter. By Thursday, sites which quoted or even referred to the article were being shut down and articles were being taken offline, though for the time being the content of the article is still cached on Google.
Cimbalo has achieved a sort of trifecta of online journalism. He offended liberals and conservatives, he wrote something you could get slagged on for supporting or criticizing, and he managed to create a discussion so provocative it became toxic and started tumbling web pages like dominos. Even if he’s not particularly good at satire, Cimbalo proved that he was a master of creating controversy, though he certainly had a lot of help from self-righteous twitterheads and moralistic buffoons all over the net.
Ironically all of this attention — the heads exploding, the reputations trashed, the pink slips being handed out — came over an article which is juvenile and at best mildly funny, and no more offensive than myriad articles in Hustler or The Onion or National Lampoon which are given a pass because they are clearly satire. Whether it was well written satire or not, Cimbalo’s article was still obviously intended to be humorous, if perhaps only appealing to the not terribly intellectual audience that reads Playboy and whose idea of feminine beauty involves breast augmentation and airbrushing.
What Cimbalo may have proven is that the combination of satire, partisan politics and sexism in one article is just too much to handle for the humorless and self-important moralists who think people want to actually read their tweets about the sandwich they had for lunch and how offended they are to see a woman in a burkha on their bus. Cimbalo triggered a feeding frenzy and each new contribution to the online library of outrage built it to a higher level, until the outrage was the story and any sense of perspective or proportion regarding his original article was lost.
In fact, I suspect that many of those expressing the greatest outrage over this incident have only read reports on the article without reading the actual article itself, and if they did read it, by the time they got to it their ire was so aroused and their objectivity so tainted that they could no longer see it for the pointless piece of drivel which it is.
Coming from the perspective of a former fratboy and lover of satire who once got his fraternity on “double secret probation” for writing a party poster which offended feminists, if Cimbalo committed any real sin, it was that his satire did not go far enough. For something this offensive to work as satire it should have actually been more outrageous than it was, because clearly there are a lot of people whose sense of humor is so atrophied that they need the satirical equivalent of being hit in the head with a brick to realize that something is supposed to be funny and temporarily suspend their self-righteousness. Cimbalo’s piece seemed a little too earnest and a little too much like a personal fantasy to work as believable satire.