By Isaac Butler
There was one thing I wanted to totally digress about in re: that awesome Erin Kissane essay about trolls, but it's not actually really related to trollery, but rather to reading and how we read online, so as to not be diverting from her point, or taking away from it, I thought I'd put it in a new post. I.e. this one.
Okay here goes. Erin writes:
I think most people find it difficult to hear criticisms of things they love. We often translate “I do not like X” into “you are a moron for loving X” and “I find Y to be troubling and kind of sexist” into “you are personally a sexist slimeball for liking Y, and I think you should be shunned forever.”
This essentialization of taste is pretty pervasive. The only way to defang it is to accept the idea that you can like troubling things without being a bad person, and that it’s a million times better to accept that some loved things are troubling than to go to the mat in their defense. It’s tremendously relaxing to accept that things you like can be imperfect, and that pointing out their imperfections doesn’t reflect on you. It’s also rare.
That's some truth right there. Nothing gets everything right. It's simply impossible. And it is very hard not to essentialize taste and not to take criticism of things you like/love personally.
I do think that this cuts multiple ways. Erin doesn't really talk about this in her post, becuase it's not the point (her post is about trollery, this post is not) but... we should be able to frankly discuss what is problematic about a video game/novel/play/film both aesthetically and politically without people feeling personally attacked or like we are equating them with those problems. At the same time, there is a kind of lefty holier-than-thou thing that's fairly common on the internet where people really are using political concerns to say that people who like something are bad people (or stupid people) or that pieces of writing that have problematic qualities reveal some hidden evil in the part of their writers.
I've been on both ends of this. I've written (or said) that people who like the films Wanted andWatchmen are bad people even though I have very close friends who like both, for example. And I've certainly read things in bad faith, or been accused of writing something that I just plain didn't write. This issue is not nearly as big a problem as a bunch of assholes trying to threaten an internet cultural critic with rape and violence until she stops talking about sexism, but it is a real thing.
Woven, sadly, into the internet is suspicion. It's a part of the blogging DNA. This kind of skepticism has been very helpful at times, but it also leads to people never giving what they're reading and responding to the benefit of the doubt. And if you can't agree to the basic terms of the writer-reader contract, there's no point to reading something. If you're not looking for what the action of the piece is but are instead looking for the ways it could fail you or hurt you, you are definitely going to be failed and hurt.
Earlier this year, an essay I wrote was published online. It's about my relationship with my older brother, who is both adopted and a person of color. The beginning of the essay references us wrestling as kids. I'm four in this part of the story and Bill is eleven. I mention in the piece that he's looming over me and he's much stronger than I am and he beats the bejeesus out of me. One of the commenters talked about how I was using negative stereotypes of large, aggressive, physically dominant black men. It then launched into a line-by-line "takedown" of the essay as being unexaminedly racist and revealing what a racist I was.
But here's the thing... the essay hadn't revealed that he was black yet. And, obviously, someone you are wrestling with as a little kid who is seven years older than you is going to seem like a giant. And much of the essay is about performing various problematic attitudes towards race our culture has and then contradicting and undermining them. But you have to actually read the piece to get that. And a combination between its new title (added by the editors) and its subject matter (transracial adoption and what it reveals about how we think about race in America) primed the reader to read it reactively.
I also can't help but think that its platform exacerbated this as well. Not the site it was published on, but rather the fact that it was published on a site at all. This kind of reactive reading-- which is really just reading in bad faith-- is par for the course on the internet.When we read this way, it becomes impossible to respond to the problematic aspects of a work in any kind of constructive, engaging dialogue.
Which is also not to say that everything must be responded to constructively. Sometimes you need to make a ruckus. Sometimes there are people who are beyond reaching, beyond engagement, and then they become, essentially, foils. Certainly, I don't think constructively engaging the folks who designed an online flash game where you can beat up Anita Sarkeesian is a good idea. I am definitely not saying that better ways of explaining to trolls what trollery is will improve their behavior. There's a difference between engageable people-- where sometimes, perhaps shifting your own rhetoric will have really great results-- and nonengageable people.
But I worry as more and more things move online that more and more readers will read reactively and defensively, wondering in a self-fulfilling way, when am I going to be hurt by this? so that they can get the pleasure of righteous indignation. There really is a difference between a piece of writing that exists to be hurtful (or is so problematic as to be beyond the pale like that John Simon women's tennis essay) and something that is an earnest attempt at something that has problematic things going on, and learning to discern between the two is a diffcult, ongoing task.
Oh, also, Gus has a good post up about how not to be a dick on the internet. Check it here.