I don't like the term "outrage." I think it's a way of reducing a side to mere impulsive, emotional outburst. While there's certainly a segment of that in any controversial flare-up, it's not the main phalanx of the argument, and it's certainly not the part we should be addressing. The term I wish people would refer to more is "criticism" - because that's a word that's worth addressing. It's sensible to ignore outrage, but you're not a full-fledged artist if you don't at least consider with criticism.
(For the record, I personally didn't find The Onion's derogatory tweet to be worth the size of its controversy. It was certainly a misstep, probably shouldn't have been done, and poorly crafted - but not major to me personally. But also! I hate that we have to qualify these posts with a note about our moderate position, as if people with the strongest opinions are somehow less credible. That's a shame! But if it's what I have to do to get my imagined devil's advocate take this opinion seriously, then I will do it.)
I like to believe that any communication is usually a net positive, but it seems like a small positive when we're having a debate about the pros and cons of attacking children, with specificity, vulgarity and over mass media. This controversy has a lot of angles to it:
1. Shock Jocks Suck, Especially When The Power Is All Wrong
Here's The Onion's joke: Let's say something we aren't supposed to say. Or, in even more basic terms: Here's something naughty. That titillation you feel will often lead to laughter, even if it's just the incredulous kind that makes audiences go "Oooh!" I rarely get psyched up for it, but hundreds of comedians have made careers off of it, as they should! There is a demand for it. But doing that at the expense of a 9 year old girl, with vulgarity, over mass media - that's a steep ethical price just to get some retweets, don't you think? If not, if there is no such thing as an ethical price to you because all humor is fangless and has no effect on culture - that's swell too, but it's unreasonable to expect that of everyone else. It will come with backlash that you will just have to own, whether that results in losing sponsors, mainstream opportunities, or a bunch of angry @ replies.
Shock humor, when punching downward, will be read as the opposite of humor. Comedian/TV Writer Jon Rogers said it well a whole 5 years ago:
We use jokes to steal power. We use jokes to steal power from the audience. We use jokes to steal power from smarter, better looking people. We use jokes to steal power from powerful men and women, politicians and celebrities. ... This is also why shock humor tends to work. The boundaries of polite, acceptable behaviour are set by society, which is immensely powerful. When you break those boundaries, you are stealing power from society at large. It does help, however, if you have a larger purpose in mind than petty larceny. ... America loves a rebel. America loves a bad boy. But America hates a fucking bully.
Backlash isn't the problem, it's part of the territory. The conflict comes when people act like a dick and then don't want to be treated like a dick. Freedom of speech, sure, but speech still has reactions! It doesn't guarantee you freedom from blog posts and scolding from LeVar Burton.
2. But It's Satire, Not Shock Humor
You might subscribe to the Dave Anthony position that this is brilliant, biting satire of TMZ, E!, Joan Rivers, and our general tabloid culture of tearing down celebrities in depraved ways. That's certainly a credible reading, and something worth satirizing! But that's not well established in the joke, but a tweet isn't an ideal place to establish context anyway. It's more obvious to read as just a simple shock humor button-push. An attack on an innocent just because you can.
But, The Onion often does random context-less jokes that do have larger satirical implications. Okay. Cool. But even if we accept that the target of this joke is TMZ and celebrity-hatred, this makes Quvenzhane Wallis collateral damage. Is that a worthwhile joke? Are you not then just perpetuating the thing you claim to be mocking? The defense is that Wallis' innocence makes her the best example to skewer tabloid culture. But let's suppose The Onion's goal was to make a joke about hypersexualization of celebrities instead. Let's suppose that The Onion opted to make an aggressive sexual joke about Wallis that even Seth MacFarlane would deem gross and creepy. Is it then still a worthwhile edgy cool guy joke? Is it worth the ethical price to make a point?
It's a weird vigilante mindset that says it's okay to hurt people in order to make a bigger point about hurting people. Your moral higher ground is eroded by the fact that you're working in the exact same muck. When Christopher Dorner was out in LA murdering cops because of their ethical breaches, you can tell he had lost track of the narrative because he couldn't see he what he was doing was in the same shade of evil and worse. You don't defeat things by doing them.
4. The Sanctity Of Comedy Seems To Mean No Joke Can Fail
I understand the appeal of a mythic comedic integrity that isn't accountable to anyone and is so self-important that it actually changes the world by being so raw and real. But the issue seems to be that receiving criticism on any politically charged joke -- sexist, racist, homophobic, whatever - is that it becomes about how they don't get it and how they are stifling your freedom of speech and how they are just the PC police that can't laugh at something that's actually so funny. But if it was any non-political joke that got an undesired reaction, the comedian might think it's their fault. This joke wasn't crafted well enough, it needs some work, I'll figure out where the glitch is.
That seems to me to be the response that any outrage/criticism should be. You'll never please everyone, but surely you can broach certain topics without inspiring a firestorm. There is a middle ground between starting a firestorm and being a neutered white bread comedian - people work in that middle ground 99% of the time, in fact. That sweet spot is there if you want it. If you don't, that's fine too, but that's like settling on a joke about airplane food that no one's laughing at. You can talk yourself into thinking this joke is the greatest and the audience is dumb, or you can figure out how to evolve it until it works. (Perhaps the humor in it is not bright enough to overcome the darkness!)
I agree that comedy is important, but not so important that it should be immune to criticism and social pressure. If you decide to be the mythical Lenny Bruce trailblazer, and that makes it harder for you to find work, that's just the market, isn't it? You're making something most of society finds abrasive. You might lose your AFLAC spokesperson job, to which no one is entitled to. At least in the internet age, the consolation prize is that it's easier than ever to build a career off a niche audience that doesn't find it abrasive.
5. Edginess And Falling Off
Gabe Delahaye makes a point that it's totally okay to apologize and still be yourself:
... somehow to apologize for making a mistake is to show some devastating and irredeemable weakness. NEVER APOLOGIZE! Well, why not? If this is the community that is supposed to be so open and honest that it can make fun of its own flaws and weaknesses, those flaws and weaknesses can’t stop at Irritable Bowel Syndrome and being BAD AT FLIRTING. Come the FUCK on. If you are able to admit on stage (or in an article) that life is a short-term nightmare from which the only escape is our inevitable death, then surely you can also admit that sometimes you hurt someone else’s feelings and that wasn’t your intention. Big whoop.
In the world of comedy, apparently, the only thing more offensive than calling a 9-year-old child a cunt is apologizing for anything ever.
I think it's perfectly possible to apologize and still retain your sense of humor. In fact, that should only help define it! Why does edgy comedy actually in fact mean there is no edge? If your brand relies entirely on walking the line, by definition that means you can fall off of it. That's okay. We all do it. It's okay to misfire, but it's even better to correct course.
6. You Don't Have To Do Anything You Don't Want To
This is an inalienable truth! You don't have to comply to anyone's boycott, online petition, Tumblr campaign, or media criticism. The Onion didn't have to offer an apology. "But they did!" you might say. "Otherwise it would hurt their brand and business! You PC fascists made them compromise." This imagining of freedom of speech has people begrudgingly giving money to people they hate, with gritted teeth, because god damn it this is America and I have to financially support even things I don't like.
The market for a malicious humor site is smaller than that of an absurdist newspaper site. It's going to have some detriment if you decide to be a product that some consumers don't want. The business entity of The Onion weighed the costs of apologizing and not apologizing, and deemed one of them to be far more beneficial. They didn't have to. They could just work within their slightly smaller, but appropriate audience.
If I'm selling burgers, and then I let it slip that every once in a while I'll put horse meat in and HEY WHERE ARE YOU CUSTOMERS GOING YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH HORSE MEAT - well, sometimes people just don't want to eat horse meat. I can't make them. It's not PC thought police if I decide of my own free will that I want to keep my burger chain at this exact level of economic success, so I phase out horse meat.
I guess what I'm saying here is that picking on little girls, even to make a point, even under the guise of humor, is just a bucket of horse meat. I would hope that you have it in you to change, because people like compassion way more than they like horse meat.