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Being Angry at Zoella – What Moral Outrage Tells About Us

If you are like me you did not know who Zoe Sugg – known as Zoella – was before she published the fastest selling debut novel ever, “Girl Online”. Since then, I learned that Sugg is a video blogger on YouTube, publishing tips about beauty and life. More than 9 million people have subscribed to her channels (Ref). My immediate suspicion was that pretty soon snobbish intellectuals would start writing articles about how the success of a book written by a vlogger would indicate the end of the world. Yet, the backlash came in a different form. Shortly after the book was published, people started to question how much writing Sugg did and how much help she got: Did she write the novel herself? The publisher subsequently admitted that she had help (“To be factually accurate, you would need to say Zoe Sugg did not write the book Girl Online on her own,” Ref) and a lot of people on the internet got morally outraged.

But why are people surprised that a celebrity had a ghostwriter by her side writing a book. Christmas is each year the heyday of wonderful celebrity autobiographies, and probably nobody believes that these famous people wrote them. However, the critics claim, this case is different; Sugg did something morally wrong:

“Girl Online is different to your standard ghost-written book, and that’s because of the implicit promise that Zoella makes to her followers. Their relationship is based on a fundamental understanding that she will be honest with them.”

In short, the accusation is that she betrayed her fans; she lied to them. The lie itself seems to be about the degree of which Sugg is giving the people involved in writing the book credit since she acknowledged the role of the editors shaping the book “each step of the way” from the beginning. While is a rather innocuous offence, the personal attacks caused Sugg to quit the internet – at least for a day – which then was questioned again as being just another lie; the internet takedown had begun .

The signature of public moral outrage is often the counter-intuitive fact that the person we are outraged about committed not a strong moral violation (which the world is full of each day) but rather a comparatively mild, at times even harmless one. Yet, despite the lack of severe consequences, our moral feelings convince us that it would be right to insult the offenders, go after them online or even in real life. Psychologists argue that this moral outrage is deeply embedded in our mind because it helps us to identify who a good person or a bad person is; a task that used to be critical for survival and nowadays,  is critical for identifying whom we can trust when making important decisions. We have a constant motivation to evaluate the moral character of the people in our lives. In philosophy, this approach is encapsulated by virtue ethics, which emphasizes the role of the moral character in determining the right ethical behaviour.

Most critics of the vlogger Zoella seem to understand that the action they are criticizing her for is not that bad, yet they still feel compelled to personally attack her. And this is in line with recent findings about moral outrage; people do not necessarily think that a person who does something horrible has a worse character than a person who does something less horrible. Participants, for instance, think it is worse to beat up a woman that cheated on you than to beat up her cat. Yet, the person who beat up his girl-friend is seen as a morally better person than the person who beat up the cat. People deeply care about what an action might tell us about the underlying character of a person, independent of what we think about the moral status of the action. A person who beats an innocent cat can be trusted less than a person who beats up a cheating girl-friend.

The strong emotional reactions we have to moral transgressions indicate the importance of the moral character in evaluating another person. People perceive the moral character as the essence of the self, for themselves and others. Losing all your memories, losing your intelligence, or your wonderful accent does not make you a different person, but losing your moral compass does (Ref). And if we feel that we finally discovered the true moral character of a person in our lives, and we do not like what we see, a rush of emotions will suggest to us that we should cut all our ties with that person, and maybe even, unsubscribe from their video blog.

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