Tag Archives: hate speech

Shaming Vs. Criticism: Why The Difference Matters

Let’s be honest. It’s very difficult to have honest, civil discourse with anyone these days. I won’t say it’s impossible, but it sure feels that way sometimes. Try expressing any opinion about any issue that’s even mildly controversial. Chances are you won’t spark a civil discussion. You’ll likely trigger a flame war, especially once Godwin’s Law comes into play.

Now, I’m not going to blame all of this on the internet and social media. I don’t deny that it plays a role, but let’s not miss the forest from the trees here. We, the users of these tools, are the ones driving the content. We’re the ones who guide these discussions towards angry, hate-filled outrage. The medium is only secondary.

There are a lot of reasons why civil discourse is so difficult, but I want to highlight just one that has become far more prominent in recent years. It’s an objectively bad trend and one I genuinely believe we need to reverse. It involves this inability to distinguish shaming someone from criticizing them.

It goes like this. Two people connect, either in person or via the internet. They have a disagreement. When there’s criticism, it tends to go like this.

Person A: I hold Opinion X.

Person B: I hold Opinion Y.

Person A: Why do you hold that opinion? I don’t understand how you could.

Person B: Well, it’s because of X, Y, and Z.

Person A: I don’t disagree with Y and Z, but I take issue with X.

Person B: Why is that?

Person A: Well, it goes like this…

Ideally, both people in this exchange get something out of this discourse. Person A offers Person B another point of view. Person B has their opinion challenged and they’re now in a position to defend it. In doing so, they may reaffirm or question their position. They may even convince Person A of the merit of their position.

That’s a healthy level of discourse, guided by fair and civil criticism. There’s certainly a place for that. I even see it on social media from time to time. However, that’s not what makes the headlines. It’s the shaming that usually generates the most noise. Shaming is very different from criticism, both by definition and by practice. At its worst, it goes like this.

Person A: I hold Opinion X.

Person B: I hold Opinion Y.

Person A: What? You’re a horrible human being for holding an opinion like that! You must be a fucking asshole fascist Nazi prick!

Person B: Fuck you! Your opinion is a goddamn atrocity! Only a true fucking asshole fascist Nazi prick would even entertain it! You should be fucking ashamed!

Person A: No, you should be ashamed! You should lose your job, your money, and all manner of sympathy for the rest of your fucking life!

Person B: No, you should be ashamed! You should cry like a baby, get on your knees, and beg everyone like me to forgive you! And you should also lose your job, money, and any semblance of sympathy until the end of time!

I don’t deny that’s an extreme example. I wish I were exaggerating, but I’ve seen stuff like this play out. I’ve seen it in comments section, message boards, Twitter threads, and Facebook posts. It’s not enough to just criticize someone for holding a different opinion. People have to outright shame them to the point where they’re mentally and physically broken.

In some cases, people look for that kind of rhetoric. Some people just love trolling others by posting opinions they know will piss people off and start a flame war. They don’t care about civil discourse. They just care about riling people up. It’s what gives them a cheap thrill.

Those people are trolls. The best thing anyone can do is ignore them.

They’re also in the minority. They may be a vocal minority, but they are the minority. Most people, in my experience, are inclined to be civil. They’ll give people a chance, even if they don’t agree with them. Things just go off the rails when they interpret criticism as shaming. It’s not always intentional, either. Some people just frame their criticism poorly, which sends all the wrong messages.

Whereas criticism is impersonal, shaming evokes some very basic emotions. There’s a tangible, neurobiological process behind it. It’s linked heavily to guilt, an objectively terrible feeling that most people try to avoid at all costs. Shame attempts to impose guilt. While there are some things we should definitely feel guilty about, holding certain opinions is rarely one of them.

Does someone deserve to be shamed for how they voted in the last presidential election?

Does someone deserve to be shamed for believing “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” was a terrible movie?

Does someone deserve to be shamed for thinking certain female characters in media are too sexualized?

Does someone deserve to be shamed for thinking they shouldn’t believe every claim a woman makes about being sexually harassed?

These are difficult, emotionally charged issues. With that kind of complexity, there’s going to be many points of criticism. Some have real merit and they should be discussed. That’s how we learn and make sense of our world and the people in it. Once shame enters the picture, though, the merit tends to vanish.

The problem is that once the shaming starts, it escalates quickly. It doesn’t even need to escalate that much before a person stops listening and gets defensive. At that point, there’s basically no going back. It’s less about understanding someone else’s perspective and all about defending yourself.

That’s not a metaphor, either. Like it or not, people take their opinions seriously. Attacking them with words, even if it’s through a computer screen, still feels like a physical attack on some levels. You’re not just attacking an opinion, anymore. You’re attacking a person. You’re throwing metaphorical punches that have non-metaphorical meanings to those you’re attacking.

With that in mind, look at it from a purely instinctual level. When someone is physically assaulting you, is your first inclination to engage in a reasoned, civil discussion? For most people, it’s not. You go into survival mode and that often involves attacking the attacker.

You throw your punches.

They throw theirs.

They call you a fascist, Nazi-loving bully.

You call them a worse fascist, Nazi-loving bully.

There’s no logic or reason to it. Once emotions override everything, criticism becomes a moot point. It’s all about hitting back to defend yourself. It’s not about being right. It’s about survival, at least from your brain’s perspective.

If there’s one silver lining, it’s that people get burned out quickly on this kind of discourse. You can only hear two sides call each other fascist for so long before the rhetoric loses its impact. It also gets boring. It takes too much energy to sustain that kind of hatred towards someone you don’t know. Most people who aren’t trolls have better things to do with their time.

As I write this, I understand that we live in contentious times. I see the same heated debates online and in person as everyone else. I know that civil discourse is a scant and precious commodity at the moment. That’s exactly why we should make the effort, regardless of what opinions we hold.

Once we stop shaming each other for daring to think differently, we’ll realize just how much we have in common. We don’t have to agree with one another. We don’t even have to like one another. We can and should still be civil with one another. That’s the only way we’ll make any real progress.

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Filed under Current Events, human nature, outrage culture, philosophy, political correctness, politics, psychology

How The Idea Of “Toxic Fandom” Is Fundamentally Flawed

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The internet is a vast, wonderful place full of mesmerizing gifs, amazing stories, and the collective knowledge of our entire species. I would argue that the internet is one of humanity’s most important tools since the invention of fire. I strongly believe that is has done more good any other tool we’ve created.

I have a feeling that this rosy view of the internet is a minority opinion. These days, all the good the internet does tends to get lost in the stories that highlight its many dangers. I don’t deny that there are dangers there. The internet does have some dark places where hate, harassment, and outright depravity are on full display.

More and more, it seems, the internet is becoming an enabler of a new manifestation of popular culture. It’s called “toxic fandom” and it relies on the greatest strengths of the internet to bring out the absolute worst in people. It didn’t start with the heated fan reaction of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” but it certainly made it relevant.

Before I go any further, I want to make one thing clear. There are assholes on the internet. There are also assholes in real life. The internet doesn’t make them that way. It just gives them a platform to be an asshole on a larger scale. That’s an unfortunate side-effect of the internet, but one that tends to obscure a larger narrative.

That’s because, much like inane terms such as “toxic masculinity,” the idea of toxic fandom relies on a series of assumptions that only ever have a sliver of truth behind them. It builds around this idea of there’s this grand, over-arching effort by immature, angry young men who secretly wish they could sexually harass women with impunity. It’s not quite on the level of an Alex Jones type conspiracy, but it’s close.

There have always been overly-passionate fans. It existed long before the internet and would still exist if the internet disappeared tomorrow. “Toxic fandom,” and there’s a reason I’m putting it in quotes, is something very different.

This doesn’t involve obsession with a particular celebrity. It involves a particular type of media like a movie, a TV show, or a video game. In some respects, this sort of fandom is a byproduct of overwhelming success. When something like “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” comes along, it resonates with an audience on a profound level. That sort of impact can last a lifetime.

I can attest to the power of that impact through my love of comic books. I’ve even cited a few that I find deeply moving, both in good ways and in not-so-good ways. Most everybody has had an experience like that at some point in their life, whether it’s their reaction to seeing “Titanic” for the first time or the feeling they get after they binge-watch “Breaking Bad.”

The toxic part usually comes when the media they’ve come to love manifests in a way that’s not just disappointing. It undermines those powerful feelings they’ve come to associate with that media. The results can be very distressing and until recently, the only way to express that distress was to sulk quietly in a darkened room.

Then, the internet comes along and suddenly, fans have a way to voice their feelings, for better and for worse. They can even connect with fans who feel like they do so that they don’t feel alone. The human tendency to form groups is one of the most fundamental acts anyone can do as a member of a highly social species.

Now, there’s nothing inherently “toxic” about that behavior. It has only made the news because the passions/vitriol of fans is more visible, thanks to the internet. Just browse any comments section of any movie or show on IMDB. Chances are you’ll find a few people who claim that this thing they once loved has been ruined and will use every possible medium to voice their displeasure.

This is where the “toxic” aspects of fandom start to have real-world consequences. Most recently, Kelly Marie Tran became the face of those victimized by toxic fandoms. After her portrayal of Rose Tico in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” she became the most polarizing figure in the history of Star Wars since Jar Jar Binks.

The story surrounding Ms. Tran’s harassment, which was objectively horrible, became vindication for those who believed that the Star Wars fanbase had become a mess of angry, hate-filled fanboys. They didn’t like that something they loved was changing and becoming more diverse. As such, their criticisms don’t matter. They may as well be wounded storm troopers in a room full of angry wookies.

The problem with this assumption is the same problem we get when someone writes off facts as fake news or diversity efforts as a neo-Marxist conspiracy. It’s a simple, convenient excuse to ignore possible flaws and justify personal assumptions. It also conflates the inescapable truth that assholes exist in the world and there’s nothing we can do about it.

None of this is to imply that harassment is justified or that fans can be exceedingly unreasonable. By the same token, this doesn’t imply that studios don’t deserve criticism when they attempt to revamp a beloved franchise in a way that does not keep with the spirit of the original. It’s only when criticism gets lost in the outrage that the “toxic” behaviors become more prominent.

It’s within that outrage, though, where the true flaws in the “toxic fanbase” narrative really break down. To a large extent, the “toxicity” that many complain about aren’t a product of unhealthy attitudes. They’re a manifestation of an inherent flaw in the relationship between fans and those who produce the iconic media they love.

To illustrate that flaw, think back to a recent controversy involving a “toxic fanbase.” Before the reaction “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” became the poster child for this issue, the all-female “Ghostbusters” remake was the most prominent example. It earned a lot of hatred for reasons that I’d rather not scrutinize.

With that hatred in mind, imagine a long-time Ghostbusters fan seeking to express their dismay. They decide to write a kind, detailed, and thoughtful letter to the studio, the director, and anyone else involved detailing their dismay and their criticisms. They may even cite specific examples on what they felt was wrong with the movie.

Chances are this sort of thoughtful, well-worded message would get deleted, ignored, or just plain lost in the digital landscape. Even if the head of Sony studios read it and agreed with every point made, they wouldn’t respond. They wouldn’t do anything ot change it. That would just be too inconvenient and it would look bad publicly.

From the perspective of the fan writing the letter, though, it sends the message that their sentiment doesn’t matter. Their passion for the media doesn’t matter. They might as well not even exist in the eyes of the producers. The only way for them to even acknowledge their existance is to be louder, angrier, and even a little meaner. Even if the reponse is negative, it at least acknowledges their existence.

It’s not the same as trolling. Trolls just want upset people for the fun of it. Fans voicing their displeasure are more sincere in the sense that they believe they’re protecting something they love. Whether or not that’s misguided is debatable. Some, namely those who harass and make threats, are more misguided than others. However, they only ever make up a very small percentage of fans.

In the end, that’s the most important perspective to have when it comes to fandom. Those who are the loudest tend to be the most obnoxious, but they’re loud because they feel like they have to be. The internet just gives them a way to be heard, which is something most fans haven’t had before.

That’s still not an excuse for being an asshole, but it’s also not an excuse for using those same assholes to call an entire fanbase toxic. It overlooks and undermines the genuine and sincere love people have of these cultural icons. As as a result, when someone feels like their love is being ignored, that’s when toxic hate often finds a way to fill that void.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, Current Events, human nature, media issues, movies, political correctness, Star Wars