Saturday, June 13, 2015

Let's have the talk about fandom and privilege

Earlier this week there was an interview with Cassie Clare and Maggie Stiefvater about dehumanizing authors. There was a point from Stiefvater about how hatred in her fandom isn't an issue of success. It's an issue of fandom. (That's rather paraphrased, so feel free to read the actual interview.)

It's a little horrifying that we don't stop and consider how toxic it is to normalize hating those who are successful. It's a shade of victim-blaming that gets a pass from a lot of individuals under the banner of dismissing anyone who has perceived privilege. Which only works if you subscribe to the belief that oppression is entitlement to dehumanize—and let's be clear, I don't subscribe to that belief. (Perhaps it is my privilege to believe that if one is going to disagree with someone, do it fully aware they are a person.)

For the sake of this discussion, let's posit that it is incorrect to normalize hating those who are successful. It creates a false hierarchy, in which we marginalize ourselves. We give power to successful people and then we hate them for the power we gave them, so we're awful to them as some sort of attempt to re-empower ourselves.

Why would we fall into this self-created trap?

Fandoms are pre-packaged social groups. It's an easy, instant connection over a shared interest. Meaningful connections are difficult to make, time is hard to find, and we are conditioned to accept easy solutions because they take less effort and are therefore less risk. If we identify as socially awkward and/or lonely people, this ease is that much more important. We're starving for the sense of community that fandom promises.

If the fandom we identify with hates an individual, then we also feel pressured to behave in this way. Especially if you've come to that group for acceptance and feel they are the people who best understand you. Risking not behaving as a group member could see you ostracized. When you're lonely, being left is the worst possible outcome. We contort ourselves to avoid it.

A toxic fandom forms from the mindset that authors and creators are Authors and Creators. They exist outside the group; they cease to be considered a group member. When this happens the creator isn't interacting with individuals within a group; the creator is interacting with a group. Unless influential members of that group adopt the requested behaviour, the situation won't change because the person asking for it is viewed as an outsider—a privileged outsider.

I grew up in various fandoms. I've had both personal and professional interactions with them. I've had the experience of being both a creator and an appreciator. Please note that I said experience and not privilege. It was part of my job to interact with the "famous" people of the book world—and it's not a privilege to do your job well. That's what a paycheque is for.

I left that job with suitcases full of scene points—the imaginary currency of status among fans. Whatever they might still be worth is the only reason I'm bothering to post a discussion I was content to have offline with friends. (I am leaving it to their discretion whether or not they wish to join this discussion online.)

If you got lost in the metaphor: I don't think I'm the influential member of the group who needs to say this, but I don't know who they might be. I also don't hear anyone else saying it.

I've worked two Cassie Clare events. I've seen firsthand how well she treats the people who come to her signings. I've also worked with Maggie Stiefvater and seen how giving she is to her readers. She treats us like people. Thus, I react very specifically when I see she is having to ask to be recognized as a person.

There's a distrust of people who are employed in publicity, because we're paid to be professionally enthusiastic. It's difficult, especially in a digital setting, to know if the genuine enthusiasm is being recognized among all the marketing. In a way, it's like when fandom has an edict of unquestioningly supporting anything the creator does. It doesn't build sustainable relationships, because people are going to make mistakes.

The other issue of fandom and publicity/marketing—a discussion unto itself—is that fandom is commonly used as publicity. When possible businesses reward fans (usually referred to as influencers) with perks like early access to items/events or access to creators and other exclusives. It's an acknowledgement of the work being done for the business. (If influencers are paid, then let's consider them marketers to keep the terms clear.) Many fans who aren't influencers—yet still actively promote books/movies/merchandise—exist as unpaid publicity.

While there can be an underlying resentment from some fans, an influencer has a safe kind of status. They're elevated in the perceived hierarchy, but they're still a member of the group. It's a specific kind of privilege where you're often protected from what creators endure, and people often look to you for behavioural cues.

The privilege of my marketing position—or any position like it—was imbued by people who thought the access my job gave me should carry status. So here's the inside of that: It doesn't mean anything more than we make it mean. The fame most authors have is entirely restricted to their fandom. It's a personally meaningful thing to interact with someone who has created something you love. If you're surrounded by people who also love it, then the event appears to carry a greater meaning.

My point: Toxic fandom reinforces among fans the very privilege it punishes creators for. Access to creators and attention from them gives fans status. But if those fans become creators, then they have to fear what will happen if they are perceived to no longer be a fan. I know someone who lost friends after she published because she was then viewed as an Author instead of a person. When I left my job, I feared people would stop being my friends. (Spoiler: They didn't.) Toxic fandom, like all toxic systems, lies to you. It tells you that need it. That you're either part of the group or an outcast.

We as a digital culture are embroiled in some serious and much-needed conversations about privilege. Legitimate conversations about systemic issues in our society. But when we hijack these conversations to use privilege as permission to be awful to people, we are still stuck in the thought-process of these toxic systems.

When a group of people wants to say Cassie Clare was a bully in Harry Potter fandom so she deserves getting bullied by her own fans—that's victim-blaming. Should she have to disclose if she treated people poorly in the past? No, because it's dismissive of the experience she is having now. Let me translate this for you: It doesn't matter what she was wearing or where she was walking or how many guys she smiled at before—she didn't ask for it. The fans who are being abusive have the agency to choose not to be abusive.

Harassment is abuse. I'm tired of hearing people claim that discussions of abuse can only focus on specific systemic issues. We are able to have more than one conversation without it diminishing the importance of the multiple things being discussed.

Of course, that's another problem of toxic fandom: The inability to be more than one thing. Because the group demands your complete attention it fosters this mindset that everything is a zero-sum game. If you're talking about the dehumanizing of Cassie Clare and Maggie Stiefvater, then you aren't talking about why it's harmful to joke about creating allegations against John Green, and if you're decry the allegations against John Green then you're ignoring the need for diverse books or the abuse those marginalized authors have each day.

Bullshit. It's a big world. There is room in it for all of these conversations. They don't cease to exist if they fall out of the trending topics. You can participate in all of them. You can participate in some of them. You can participate in none of them. That's the power of individual agency.

I realize the new social norm is to diminish our pain because someone else's suffering is perceived to be greater. But it doesn't logic. Allowing people to use oppression as privilege creates a system based on suffering. A system based on suffering is not a healthy one; it's the same issue of inequality with new wallpaper.

Social media is trembling with the underlying fear of someone saying we are privileged. It is damaging our abilities to make any real progress, because we have people who are using privileged as the new mean. "This person is so privileged, isn't that awful? Let's publicly shame them!" You are not automatically a terrible person because you are privileged, and you are not automatically a wonderful person because you are marginalized. People are more complicated than that.

Look at the social consequences of Rachel Dolezal, who marginalized herself for access to opportunities. Privilege is a nuanced and complicated discussion. It requires critical thinking beyond the simplicity of rigid binary systems. Which we can't do in toxic fandom, because we are so afraid of saying something that causes us to be abandoned by our peers.

Also, much of our social media wasn't built for nuance. It was built to be nimble and highly reactive. Twitter limits how much can be said in a single tweet. Tumblr minimizes the ability for users to directly interact. We classify into groups because it helps give a sense of order to a place that is only beginning to examine how to govern itself. So we punish others for not behaving as we believe the group should behave—without recognizing there are multiple concepts of what the group's good behaviour should be.

Do you see how big this is? I'm sorry, but if you want to be serious about intersectionality and addressing systemic issues then we also need to build better systems in fandom. Social Justice has a fandom, too.

My concept of good group behaviour is that someone I know never has to clarify all she is asking for is to be treated like a human being. My concept is that no one should ever have to ask for that, because it should be basic human behaviour. But I understand that is not the concept shared by everyone. When I say that fandom is why I can't have nice things, this is what I mean.

The answer to this is not pick a side and try to yell the loudest. That doesn't resolve conflicts. It just enables toxic fandom. We also can't expect the creators to fix this for us, because that's still treating them like they have god-like abilities.

My answer to this is to continue to interact with people like they are human beings—to talk to them like they are more than a common interest or a thing they created. I also need to critically examine the things I love, pull them apart and put them back together to see what I can learn from them. I don't insist anyone else do that. All I ask is that we respect we each have ways of enjoying stories.

The only agency I have over the world is to govern myself, ask of others what I would like them to do, and listen when they tell me what they would like me to do. It doesn't sound like much, but it's a place to start. It's forward instead of this loop that toxic fandom insists is the best we can do.

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