DISCLAIMER: This is a rant. It probably has typos, and it probably makes some overly reactionary statements, and it’s definitely unncessarily long. That said, this is something that has been on my mind lately, and while I may very well spend time cleaning this up, shoring up it’s points, this is how I am feeling in its raw form. And I think that has value.
Oh and there’s gratuitous use of bold text. You’ve been warned.
Joss Whedon left Twitter this week, and everyone is falling over themselves telling us why. Nobody actually knows, but when has that ever stopped someone from writing? The narrative getting traction right now is that the Nasty Feminists ran him off the Internet after Age of Ultron came out because of Black Widow’s characterization in the film. Needless to say, that’s an insultingly reductionist interpretation of what happened. That doesn’t mean that the counter-headlines declaring Joss a false feminist and mocking his white male tears are really much better.
And, for fuck’s sake, the movie is a work of art that can — indeed, MUST — be interpreted. And your interpretation is subjective and varies. It’s not like this is a clear-cut case. To wit: a handy dualism.
Could it be possible that Natasha’s part in Age of Ultron was indeed problematic, but was still a far-better-than-average role for a woman in a far-better-than-average summer blockbuster with a direction who at least TRIES to be openly progressive in his life and his art? And that it’s problematic nature hinges on a reading of the film that is not universally agreed upon, even among avowed feminists. Indeed, this is a clear example to me of the no-man’s(ha!)-land between what is deemed problematic (e.g. “don’t relegate your only lead female to romantic interest”) and what is the stated desire of feminists and intelligent people everywhere (i.e. “give women well-rounded and interesting characterizations in film.”) Things are only problematic insomuch as they get in the way of the latter, and the former is highly subjective.
But The Web isn’t the place for nuance. Twitter, by it’s very structure, is anathema to nuance.
I feel guilty even typing this, because I feel I am risking my membership in the Young Educated Progressives tribe. I sure as hell grok the frustration that feeds self-satisfied asshats pouring out hot takes about how Joss Whedon is the victim of those scary SJWs. That said asshats are obviously just looking for any excuse to sling mud at their ideological opponents makes it easy dismiss everything they are saying. But they are responding, in part, to a very real phenomena of online life.
There has been a gradually building tension, especially within progressive circles, let alone outside of them. You cannot make mistakes. Especially if you openly declare yourself aligned with or allied to an -ism of any kind. There a mob waiting, eager to let you know in know uncertain terms when you fuck up. If you try to engage, to explain, to learn, you are as likely as not to be quite gleefully told Intent Doesn’t Matter. (Except it fucking does, because we do not execute people for manslaughter.) It’s a reductionist approach to to the principles that lead people to embrace any of the subsets of progressivism. It is based on enforcing the laws as perceived instead of the actual principles of your chosen group. It’s simpler than reasoning from the ground-up every time, and it cements your status in the group. Plus, who the hell doesn’t enjoy feeling self-righteous? (And yes, I am aware of the irony of that statement in this context.)
Before you worry this is the beginning of my descent to Breitbart, let me be clear: this very much a problem in “But think of the men!?!” crowd too.
I’m starting to have trouble seeing the difference between the two camps in this culture war, though. The most strident voices are the worst to hear but damn do they ever carry.
Remember Colbert’s favorite demand? “PICK A SIDE. WE’RE AT WAR?”
Yeah, well, the entire fucking Internet is apparently at war and the casualties are not the zealots; not the misandrists and misogynists; not the people who use their badges — whether they read SJW or Police — as excuses to be bullies. The casualties are people who are trying to have a conversation, who want to engage with other human beings as human beings, who are more interested in what the principles underpinning progressivism than its self-imposed laws. The casualties are questions like “How do we ensure that we preserve the essential right to challenge and offend while not protecting verbal abuse?”
I’m not convinced, anyway, that my fellow progressives — myself included — have really figured out the endgame. I know I haven’t. We must create a society where people do not have their freedoms limited (in practice, if not in law) by their skin color, sexual orientation, gender, weight, godlessness, et cetera. This is a moral imperative.
But offense cannot be treated as sacrosanct, anything said in public will always cross a line for someone, and a world where nobody was ever would be a world of stagnation. What if we add social power as a condition? Because of the power imbalance between a black woman and a white man, for instance, when she is offended by him she must be heard — she’s been denied a voice too long. Him? He’s benefited from a world where his skin color and sex give him the power, whether he realizes it or not, to talk over her and be listened to. Ye social power is dynamic and the cutoff point isn’t clear. There will always be a group that is more disadvantaged than the one you choose to support. It might seem like these are reductions to absurdity. Perhaps they are. But the underlying principles of an ideology are the absolute key, and the mores of that ideology are simply an attempt to articulate those principles.
For that matter, making social power a key component also fuels identity politics a constant internal one-upsmanship to see who can be the most radical, the most sensitive, the most aggrieved.
Look, I care about these things. Deeply. I have spent three hours of my night editing something I just said I would be posting totally raw because getting this right is such an important thing. I know I’ve been harder here on my allies than I have on my “enemies”, but that’s only because I identify myself as a liberal progressive and have paid special attention to my tribe’s behavior.
It seems obvious that dropping a bomb of nuclear scorn at every perceived slight — or, for that matter, screaming “Help! Help! It’s the P.C. Police!!” every time someone so much as dares to question your choices — isn’t going to help anything.
If you’d feel uncomfortable joining a jeering crowd around the town square hurling rotten fruit at someone because they showed too much ankle, maybe think about how you interact with the world — regardless of your particular -ism.