We’ve become accustomed to the Internet-style “outrage” that populates our news feeds, fueled by the political faux pas or celebrity smackdown du jour—whether it’s Melania Trump’s controversial fashion or Ariana Grande’s urge to lick doughnuts while denouncing America.
But what happens if, instead of indulging these impulses, we retreat and direct the conversation away from incendiary triggers? Dan Crenshaw might be just the one to illustrate what we would see.
Crenshaw ascended to celebrity status recently with his storied run for office. The Republican congressman-elect from Texas is a former Navy SEAL who wears an eye patch since losing his eye in an explosion while serving in Afghanistan.
But what really pushed him into an intense national spotlight was an insult directed his way on a recent airing of Saturday Night Live, where Pete Davidson mocked his appearance, saying, “he lost his eye in war … or whatever,” and compared him to a “hitman in a porno movie.”
The Strategy of Retreat
Davidson was roundly condemned, and Crenshaw said he woke up to hundreds of texts the following day.
The laws of public relations and acceptable political denunciations entitled him to a pulpit of righteous indignation. But instead of seizing the moment to decry what many undoubtedly saw as a “liberal” comedian insulting a conservative war veteran, Crenshaw politely declined.
He refused to take offense.
Instead, he agreed to appear on ‘SNL’ where he accepted an apology and reconciled with Davidson. Then, in an editorial published in The Washington Post, Crenshaw explained why he didn’t demand an apology from Davidson or lobby for anyone to be fired, saying that he refused to become part of the culture of outrage.
Assuming the worst about an opponent’s intentions “has the effect of demonizing their ideas, removing the need for sound counter-reasoning and fact-based argument,” he wrote. He opted to “send a message of unity, forgiveness and appreciation for veterans” instead—a message that ultimately received widespread national coverage.
Crenshaw told NBC he “would appreciate if everybody would stop looking for reasons to be offended.”
With that, he sidestepped an opportunity to engage the masses with a moment of “outrage,” in what surely would have garnered him countless Tweets and Retweets, and helped demonize his Democratic foes. Instead of condemning Davidson, he put our culture on trial.
We don’t have to agree with his politics, or even see Crenshaw as an ideal candidate to transcend the political divide in Congress or the cultural one in America. But it’s difficult not to see that his refusal to fan the flames had a significant impact on his message—or rather, it uncovered a much more powerful message that lurked below the surface, and resonated with an audience much larger than his conservative base.
Without the customary finger-wagging and scorn, a new message emerged. It was a moment so rare, it became its own kind of sensation. Instead of limiting the discourse to the potential hurtfulness of a bad joke, he created a platform to speak about unity, civility and the state of veterans.
It is a reminder that we don’t need to court controversy to be heard and that the message that screams the loudest isn’t always the most valuable one.