Heels: The Siren Call of Outrage

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Andy Kaufman’s primary targets: The identity of Blue Collar southerners and equality of women.

An Introduction To Heels

A long time ago, when humans were forced to subscribe to a randomly selected list of cable TV channels consisting of content intermingled with ads on a preset schedule, Comedy Central had a great documentary about the saga of Andy Kaufman’s professional wrestling career called “I’m from Hollywood.” This documentary is still available online, you should go watch it, it isn’t too long.

If you are not familiar with the events of the documentary, the comedian Andy Kaufman risked his personal safety (really!) to engage in an extensive campaign of “trolling” against the fans of professional wrestling during the late 1980s. Along the way, he deliberately provoked a level of rage and personal hatred which has to be seen to be believed. As a result, it is safe to say that Andy Kaufman was the “greatest” professional wrestling Heel of all time, the Muhammed Ali of deliberately provoking public outrage. 

What is a Heel? What Role Do They Serve?

Among the many attacks Kaufman made during his stint as a professional wrestler, Andy was highly dismissive of (and publicly violent towards) women and the status of Blue Collar workers. In one provocative segment, he is shown smashing a woman’s head into concrete to illustrate his wrestling skill. While fake, these “Heel behaviors” were extreme.

Kaufman’s willingness to be hated defied all logic and raised questions. Why would Kaufman do things like this? Why would fans attend events marketed in this way? Why were people so fooled by his act? Before we can get into those questions, we need to first examine the role played by Heels.

A Heel is a character who deliberately draws the hatred of the crowd. The Heel is a villain who embodies everything their target audience hates. The ultimate goal for a Heel is to offset the “straight” characters around them (who tend to be boring to watch yet embody the ideals of the audience). Watching Heels get their butts kicked is fundamentally satisfying to our lower instincts ( and sells a lot of tickets). If you don’t have a villain, you can’t have a hero.

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The more hated Andy Kaufman grew, the greater his celebrity, the more people listened to him talk, the more attention he got, the more tickets were sold and the more popular he became, against all odds.

Characteristics of The Heel

While there may not be a specific template for a Heel, there are a few commonalities. Heels are better than you. They are richer, they may be from out of town (or a foreign country), they are smarter than you. And they rub this “betterness” in your face at every opportunity. Heels lack any sort of self awareness. Heels are at their best when in the act of condescension, lecturing you about your flaws. Heels may also be significantly better looking than the average citizen. Heels are judgmental.

When most people back off off a statement or position when confronted, Heels double down and drive over the top of their opposition. If you disagree with a Heel, they may immediately default to suing you in response.

The worst thing that Heels can do is directly attack the identity of your group.

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Sound familiar? Andy Kaufman did all of these things in the ring during his wrestling career. Kaufman played the role of “The rich guy from Hollywood” long before Donal Trump stepped into the ring (both wrestling and political). Kaufman threatened to sue anyone who disagreed with him. Andy made numerous derogatory remarks about women and even took pride in beating them up publicly on camera. He likened working class people from the south to monkeys and apes. He offered women who could beat him at wrestling the honor of his hand in marriage. In short: He was a massive dick.

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Another example of a Heel-like character is “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua, author of The Battle hymn of the Tiger Mother. Her message of tough parenting undermined common American parenting practices resulting in widespread consternation. As a result, the outrage provoked online by the debut of Amy Chua’s book was quite dramatic (and likely helped sell more than a few copies of her book). Being a Heel, when done properly, can be a profitable strategy indeed.

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Society Is Complicit With The Behavior Of Heels

If you look at your Facebook or Twitter feed, the most popular posts and news articles are those which are divisive, often over issues of identity and equality. Gun control, abortion, terrorism, racism, sexism, religion – these are the topics which make people click the “Share” and “Comment” buttons by a factor of 1,000x over anything else. The reason for this is simple: Human beings enjoy being angry. Specifically, we enjoy being outraged.

When I say “outrage” in this case I have a very specific meaning in mind. When you stub your toe you get angry. When you post an article about animal cruelty and 500 of your friends agree with you, you are outraged. Outrage is a public display of anger with the goal of receiving approval from your social group. This is fundamentally different than the mere feeling of anger. Outrage is about fitting in. Outrage is publicly justified anger.

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Society, in some ways, resembles a steam engine which must be fed constantly with coal in order to continue the outrage cycle. Our need for constant group validation is endless.

How Heels Tap Into Our Outrage

The behavior of Heels is directly keyed into our collective need for outrage. By provoking a group of people (frequently by attacking their identity), you provide them with a convenient excuse to resolve their stress by banding together. Andy Kaufman, for example, gave his audience a great excuse to drink beer and scream insults. Heels are constantly giving us “yet another” chance to feel that we belong.

Why go through the trouble to post things like this which are guaranteed to result in death threats and condemnation?
Why go through the trouble to post things like this which are guaranteed to result in death threats and condemnation? Well, it could be the book sales, paid speaking gigs, ad revenue and guest appearances on TV shows.

Being A Heel Is An Anti-Fragile Political Strategy

While pro-wrestling Heels may seem like a niche interest, the latest set of elections have brought attention back to the topic, as written about by the New York Times and Rolling Stone. Both articles have done an excellent job drawing parallels between professional wrestling and Donal Trump’s election-season antics. It turns out, the role of the Heel is alive and relevant.

What is striking about the character being played by Heels (and have no doubt: they are playing us) is how they gain in power and influence the more people  react. For Heels, rage is the fuel that drives them forwards and we, as semi-intelligent apes, are hardwired to need the validation this rage provides us. Politicians, musicians and celebrities who adopt a Heel-strategy are fundamentally Anti-Fragile: By committing to playing a Heel character, things which would destroy most people tend to make Heel’s influence and stature grow. The effect is counterintuitive.

Risks and Rewards for Heels

Of all the roles that can be played by a celebrity, The Heel is amongst the most difficult.

How many people feel comfortable being the target of open mass derision? How many people can confidently stand on stage in front of thousands of booing people who hate them? If numerous mass media outlets decided to carry negative hit pieces about your personal life tomorrow, would you be able to shrug off this abuse and keep rolling? Most human beings simply can’t do this – as a result, most humans are not cut out for the life of a Heel.

By being the source of derision and criticism, Heels provoke a strong negative outrage response. The sharper their tone, the more likely they are to be the target of similar speech and nasty personal attacks. Heels are not only able to take the abuse, they thrive on it, build their personas around absorbing it and have an extensive list of skills and techniques for dodging and winning verbal scuffles.

The life of a Heel is a high stress life. Heels are getting constantly punched from every direction, people dig through their garbage to find dirt to fling at them. As a result, the only way to survive as a Heel is to take pride in nothing, to be able to walk confidently across stage naked and, above all, to stay in character at all times. Heels must be exceptionally skilled “come-back artists” in order to survive.

Do you have any buttons or weaknesses? Are you sensitive about your height, weight, appearance, ears, nose or personal history? Being a Heel is not for you. Even President Obama (someone we all would think operates on a higher plane) once cracked his otherwise stately demeanor to strike back at a joke someone made about his ears.

If even the president of the United States can crack under a stupid personal comment, imagine what it takes to be a real Heel!

Sometimes, The Heel Wins

Political Wunder-Kind Marco Rubio may have fallen into the trap of being "too shiny" and "too perfect."
Political Wunderkind Marco Rubio may have fallen into the trap of being “too shiny” and “too perfect.”

While Heels may be fun to hate, there is a fundamental problem with Hero characters which are meant to offset them – While everyone likes a winner, no one likes being condescended or lied to. Heroes (and politicians) who are “too shiny” or “too perfect” set one’s teeth on edge. No one is perfect – yet it seems, too often, that too many political candidates attempt to project such spotless fantasy.

Over the last year, we saw more than 15 such “shiny” candidates being bulldozed by Donald Trump, who ate the vast majority of the media spotlight, endured withering criticism and seems none the worse for it (though a dip in recent polls may show otherwise).

When the “Hero” characters exude pomposity, condescension and cluelessness, the Heel risks becoming the actual hero.

Wrapping Up, Closing Thoughts

The next time you share a link on Facebook or Twitter, think about why you are doing it. Are you being “played?” Are you sharing that rage-link because you are so pissed off that you need other people to approve and validate your outrage? Do you really need other people to agree with you that you should be angry about that?

Chances are, you are getting played. A content marketer, celebrity or politician has figured out your buttons. They know what to do to make you talk about them and they do it because it profits them directly. You may be the victim of yet another Heel. Step away from your outrage for a moment, there is more to life than an endless succession of bandwagons to join. Save your rage for things that will have consequence.