This isn’t the column I wanted to write this week. I thought I’d talk about something fun: our day at the Olympia Comics festival, or Julie’s and my recent bookscouting trip to the Oregon coast, or maybe even how much we enjoyed Cobra Kai.
But the news this week has made me so sick and angry and helplessly frustrated that I can’t seem to put it away long enough to write a fun column.
I guess you could say the item about Kelly Marie Tran getting chased off the internet was the trigger but honestly it’s been bothering me for years. The first time I saw it play out was personal; it started the day I entered public school, getting picked on for liking comics and superheroes. But it’s been around forever. It probably happened with Cro-Magnons making cave drawings. And the jackasses doing it probably had the same lame excuses about how it was their duty to police cave painting fandom, or something.
I used to think the bullying I endured had some connection with the stuff I liked; it was too weird and freaky for people and they wanted to be sure they let me know how weird and freaky that made me.
I already KNEW I was weird and freaky. My parents spent a great deal of my childhood exhorting me to somehow be LESS weird and freaky. But I was never going to be good at sports, or popular, or any of the other things they counted as successful or even just normal. I’d had my mind blown by SF and comics and superheroes and not only was it joyous, it was my lifeline. It was my refuge from the real world, which was pretty horrible. Even that, of course, came under criticism– ‘escapist crap,’ ‘daydreaming your life away,’ ‘can’t live in the real world’… you know the words, sing along.
But here is a huge part of the attraction for me, then and now; the concept of social justice baked into the narrative. This is the Superman I grew up with…
That’s from 1953. Superman was on the same page with Black Lives Matter in the fifties.
Batman got there even earlier, in 1950. Bear in mind this is when bathrooms and lunch counters and drinking fountains were still sporting signs saying “whites only.”
Those are both from before I was born, but when I got into comics in the sixties and seventies, the message was still there. Here’s a sixties piece where Superman weighs in on the refugee issue.
But those are all PSAs, you say. Those were forced on the comics.
Okay. But this wasn’t.
…but, to be honest, this one imprinted on youthful me even harder.
This was my first time seeing the origin. And in a lot of ways I think it packs more of a punch than the first version of the story…because by now it’s been well-established how HARD it is to do what Spider-Man does. Peter’s vow on the dock there at the end? For me at age nine, that was one of the most powerful FUCK YEAH moments ever. It still gets to me. Because Peter Parker’s life was as screwed up as mine was. More, really. But he was going to power through it because it was the right thing to do.
It wasn’t just comics, either. My TV heroes were also all about fairness and decency as well.
These people were living in a way that I aspired to, that I wished the real adults in my life could.
I daresay to modern eyes these clips look corny, even camp. But I wasn’t looking at them that way back then. Even Adam West, playing it for laughs… what he was ACTUALLY SAYING still made sense to me when I was little.
And you know what? As a life philosophy, you could do a lot worse. I think I got more real parenting from TV and comics in those days than I did from my actual parents, who –through no fault of their own– were nevertheless utterly unfit for the job.
Plus, these moral paragons were still badasses.
There was nothing cornball or campy, as far as I was concerned, about being a good guy. That was the whole point. This was the way people should be. And in all the years from then to today, my experience has been that those principles are still perfectly sound. You can be a stiff and call it ‘good citizenship’ or be cool and call it ‘don’t be a dick,’ but fundamentally, the Golden Rule remains the same.
Back then, I used to dream of a day when my weird nerd stuff would be acceptable and then everyone would be… I dunno… nicer about it. The maddening thing is that the day of nerd acceptance has finally arrived–but the bullies are still being jerks and they are still everywhere. Nothing has changed at all.
…except that this time, the call is coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE. These are fans. People drawn to tales of heroism and decency and yeah, social justice… but who have no desire to have any of that idealism show in their own behavior.
The paradox is that as entertainment becomes more and more available and accessible, the more territorial and vociferously exclusionary these people get about it. Whether it’s pseudo-righteous Star Wars EU bullshit or GamerGate or Trekkies raging at Star Trek Discovery, there is no actual threat to the things they enjoy. They’re all still there and readily available.
But that doesn’t matter. The idea that some new version of the thing you are a fan of might be different than the one you originally loved provokes a kind of rage in these people that I can’t get my head around. I didn’t get it in the 1980s with longtime fans having a meltdown over post-Crisis DC and I didn’t get it with old-school Trekkies freaking out about TNG and I don’t get it with…. well, whatever franchise is being currently ‘raped’ or ‘ruined’ or ‘destroyed’ this week. If anything, they’re escalating. This level of fury is like what you’d need to survive naked in the jungle for six weeks.
Understand that this is not one or two isolated incidents. This is TYPICAL of internet harassment. For many entertainment figures this is just another day at the office. Hell, Jimmy Kimmel has a running bit about it.
We used to have a joke on the old CBR blog that we should take turns writing a column about fans called “What The Hell Is Wrong With You??” But the joke becomes less funny the longer this goes on.
And anyway, it’s not really a fandom thing. Fandom is just where it’s intersected with my life.
Watching this over the years, I’ve come to believe that it’s internet culture itself. It’s the power that comes from anonymity and distance. For a great many people this seems to mean that now that they need not face any social consequences, they can just say whatever horrible things pop into their heads, no longer bothering to suppress their basic mean-spiritedness. The more appalled the reaction, the more they seem to enjoy it.
Worse, though, is our acceptance of this phenomenon as being somehow natural and inescapable.
Bring this topic up anywhere– but particularly at fan gatherings– and it’s shrugged off with the equivalent of, “It’s Chinatown, Jake.” It’s just life on the net, people are assholes, whatcha gonna do? When I was a board admin at CBR, long ago, in the pre-column days, this was a constant topic of disagreement among the moderating staff, especially with folks who prided themselves on having survived the early days of online culture (like being a veteran of Usenet was somehow the equivalent of being the baddest gun in Dodge City, or something. Surviving that abuse was a badge of honor.) The internet SHOULD be the Wild West, they’d say; it’s about free expression. Everyone deserves a seat at the table.
No, they don’t. Assholes and bullies do not deserve a seat at the table.
Really. They don’t. Full stop.
It has nothing to do with philosophy or unpopular points of view. Certainly, it’s nothing to do with fandom. If it wasn’t Star Wars or videogames or scrapbooks, it’d be something else. The pathology would come out somehow. Being a bullying asshole is about the rush that comes with being shitty to other people. That’s what exalts them, that’s the part that’s attractive. The anger itself, the wallowing in self-righteous fury.
I don’t understand that and never have. Being genuinely angry has never been fun for me. Sure, there’s the brief rush of righteous fury that comes with the yelling, but I get short of breath, my heart speeds up, I feel sick and nauseous and ashamed after. It’s not recreational for me.
But it is for the creeps who went after Kelly Marie Tran. And Brianna Wu. And Marina Sirtis and Anne Wheaton and Sonequa Martin-Green and… hell, the list goes on and on.
There’s always the ‘yeah, but’ defense. as in, Well, yeah, but those people were really, really upset about the direction Star Wars seems to be going. Or whatever.
I have two words for those people: Fuck that.
I don’t care how justified the anger might be. That’s got nothing to do with it. This behavior is not defensible.
Look, I know how maddening it can be when a beloved franchise takes a wrong turn. I had really strong feelings about, for example, Jim Starlin’s Batman run that culminated in 1-800-KILL-ROBIN. There have been numerous times I’ve been hugely annoyed about the direction of James Bond in print and on screen. Star Trek… well, any Trek fan has a list of Stuff They Would Wipe From Canon.
Nevertheless, it would never cross my mind to stalk the creators of those things, to badger them online, to try to bully them into doing things the way I want. Because bullying is wrong. There’s no argument to be made in favor of it and, just to address another stupid point I see brought up again and again– no, it’s NOT bullying to kick the bullies out of the room. It doesn’t make us ‘as bad as they are.’ It makes us people in favor of civilization and common decency.
As one friend of mine put it, “You have a potluck and sure, there’s different kinds of food there and you’re not going to like all of them. Other people do. THAT is a difference of opinion. But one guy thinks it’s funny or provocative to bring a big plate of dogshit as the contribution to the potluck, there’s no argument to be made that it’s not a dick move. There’s no reason to waste time trying to be inclusive saying, let’s give the dogshit a chance, it deserves a place. It’s still fucking dogshit, man, you don’t argue over it, you throw it out and tell the idiot that brought it to get lost until he’s ready to participate with actual food.”
Or as my Junk Shop colleague Jim MacQuarrie said the other day…
It’s obvious these grotesquely malformed man-children cannot be reasoned with; they are immune to shame and incapable of common decency. The only way they will ever be stopped is by fear or force. They will not stop until somebody stops them. They will only get worse. It’s only a matter of time before an actress is murdered for the crime of appearing in a film one of these shuffling pustules doesn’t like.
If you see a friend posting vitriolic abuse on a celebrity’s social media, go to their house and make them stop. If it’s your kid doing it, take away his computer, phone and iPad.
The thing that allows this to happen is “decent” people tolerating it. No more.
I have nothing to add to that other than a heartfelt “Amen.” That’s my idea of social justice: to have a society that doesn’t reward, or even just tacitly endorse, people trying to tear it all down out of some damaged need to act out. That was the position of the “Social Justice Warriors” I grew up on and I think their attitude is still perfectly serviceable.
I am okay with that label. “SJW” is not a pejorative in this household. We’re trying to have a society here. People sabotaging that, well, as far as I’m concerned they absolutely deserve to be on the receiving end of a superhero’s fist.
In the real world, I’ll settle for shaming and de-legitimizing them. That’s not bullying, it’s just common sense.
Back next week with something cool. And a little lighter, I hope, now that I’ve got this off my chest. Because I really don’t enjoy being angry.