I read an article today about a performance of The Mikado in Seattle recently that had people (rightly so) up in arms. The play was dominated by white actors putting on yellowface (that would be dressing up to appear stereotypically Asian) and being downright offensive in their portrayal of the play’s characters. Sharon Pian Chan, a columnist for the Seattle Times, called out the play publicly while the director called the comedy “fun.” One could not have a more perfect example land on their desk the day I wanted to write about appropriation, outrage, and the terror of being wrong in today’s internet.
The last few years the internet has become a wonderful and terrifying forum for discussions about social justice, appropriation, feminism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and any number of other issues. Mediums from Facebook to Tumblr and Twitter are filled with pages where people of all walks of life have come together to discuss, deconstruct, and often decry portrayals of identities or content in the world that is problematic. Song lyrics to movie content, books to television, there is scrutiny aimed at those putting out content, from politician to producer. And thanks to these forums, and the quick response time the internet has, we can share our opinions instantly and even reach those whose content we want to comment on to share with them our feedback.
So let’s talk about feedback for a second. Let’s talk about discourse, conversation, and the sharing of ideas. And let’s talk about fear.
As a creator in today’s environment, nobody wants to be seen as getting anything about equality wrong. There exists a standing terror by many who create today of being seen as in any way being against equality. They scrutinize their work, consider carefully each portrayal, and wonder before they comment online or put out a press statement about their product just how it will appear to the public. Is the portrayal of their lead lady character sexist? If a writer was aiming for a strong woman character, has it fallen into the trope of the ‘Strong Female Protagonist’ which is aimed to appear strong but instead falls back into safe stereotypical tropes, only under a different mask? Is the art in a gaming book inclusive and are any of the fantasy races bad allegories for already existing minority groups? Is the piece of art coming from a place of privilege and has that privilege been checked?
All of these questions and more have become part of the creation process for many making art. And that, in my eyes, is a wonderful, amazing thing. Within my lifetime, these kinds of questions about content in media would never have even been considered. I watch movies from my childhood in the 80’s and wince when I see big-name actors making clearly offensive gay jokes that today would launch a thousand blog posts. (Want to check out one that still makes me wince every time, check out how Mr. Green as a professed gay man in the movie Clue is treated. Comedy or no, that’s painful to watch). We have come in such a short amount of time to a place where inclusivity and equality, not just political correctness, is not only the baseline when people are reviewing a work, but it has become the baseline for many creators when they are making their product. And though we have miles to go in many arenas and conversations must still continue to bring better representation and equal inclusion for many groups, we have come a long way in a short time.
That’s why a recent trend has set my hackles on end. That trend is what I call communication by outrage.
Here’s an example: A creator puts together a piece of work – let’s use a game for example – and discusses said work on the internet. That creator has included in their game a culture to which that game designer does not belong. When discussing the game in public, the creator is asked about the issue of cultural appropriation by the internet audience, and whether the creator considers appropriation an issue. What did the creator do to mitigate appropriation issues? The creator is given a chance to respond, and the conversation continues.
This is communication, a back and forth dialogue in open and honest faith that both sides want to hear the other’s opinions and converse to reach a better understanding of the other’s opinion. This is what I thought the internet was all about, along with being the land of fanfiction and cat videos.
But this is not what I’ve seen a hell of a lot of lately. Instead, many times I’ve noticed this happening:
Creator: I came up with this game called Stories Of The Conquered: World War II. In it, we’ll get to explore the cultures that were damaged by the Nazis, such as those of the Jews in Eastern Europe.
Some Responses: You might want to think about how that might come across. It sounds like you’ll be touching some communities that faced serious tragedy during the Holocaust. Do you have designers on your team who have some experience with this subject matter first hand from their own culture? Or have you considered-
Outrage Responses: THIS IS APPROPRIATING AND I AM OFFENDED.
Creator: Okay, well, I didn’t think it was offensive-
Outrage Response: IT IS OFFENSIVE! YOU SHOULD STOP BECAUSE IT IS BAD NO MATTER WHAT AND YOU ARE BAD FOR DOING IT.
Creator: OKAY GEEZ I’M SORRY FOR BREATHING DAMN SOCIAL JUSTICE WARRIORS ARE SO ANNOYING!
First Response: Um, still an issue to discuss here?
Creator: I’M DONE WITH THIS CRAP I’M SORRY OKAY!
Outrage Response: YOU STILL SUCK.
See what’s happening there? Overdramatic as my example is, both sides of the conversation emphasized by me mashing my caps lock are entrenched in their positions after one side feels attacked by the other.
This also occurs when people who are speaking up for issues become attacked as well. We’ve all heard horrific stories of people harassed by trolls, harangued on social media for standing up for issues. This same dialogue of outrage is going on here.
Speaker: This piece of work is riddled with problems when dealing with female representation.
Creator: HOLY COW YOU TAKE THINGS SO SERIOUSLY THERE’S ONE WOMAN IN THERE!
Speaker: That’s part of the problem. Let’s talk about how that woman appears and how this flunks the Bechtel test-
Creator: OMG YOU ARE OPPRESSING ME AND MY FREEDOM.
Creator’s Supporters: YEAH FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION! YOU FEMINISTS SUCK, SOCIAL JUSTICE WARRIORS RUINING OUR FUN!
Again, a dramatization but my point stands. In no way is it considered all right for folks to troll and harass someone for standing up for what they believe in as an advocate for social change. We hear stories about this kind of trolling and we decry the folks who would harass activists and supports of equality. So when did it become okay to use similar shouting rhetorics to pressure people into silence? Isn’t the purpose of activism to cause change? If so, the pressure of shame and mob mentality less causes change than it does fear.
It’s not a matter of what a person or a creator believes anymore, or even what they actually put into their products or their art, but the perception of what others infer by their work. A creator must not only consider how issues of representation and appropriation are handled in their art (as they should) but now must consider the kind of backlash they might receive should they include anything considered hot button or problematic. Even the best intentioned work is scrutinized and may incur furious responses, without allowance for nuanced conversation. Where once the inclusion of questionable content might have started dialogues, a lot of those dialogues now have become shouting matches between entrenched viewpoints. One side is the offended party, shouting the parlance of internet discussion until the words become nothing but buzzwords without meaning any longer. When terms like social justice warrior is flung at anyone who is trying to bring up relevant points but are lumped in with loud voices meant to silence and shame. These days, you can’t actually use the term check your privilege without someone getting furious and indignant, sure they’re about to incur the wrath of someone uninterested in their ideas.
Worse yet, a good number of these conversations are no longer about the issues, but now aim at the individual.
Creator: I’m running a World War II game where players can choose to play Nazis.
First Response: Wow, I’m a little uncomfortable with that. Here’s why.
Outrage Response: YOU LET NAZIS IN YOUR GAME! OMG THAT IS AWFUL! I AM OFFENDED BY YOU! YOU ARE AN ASSHAT AND A HORRIBLE PERSON AND I NEVER WANT TO GO NEAR ANYTHING YOU DO EVER AGAIN BECAUSE THEN I WOULD SUPPORT A NAZI LOVER.
Note that it isn’t ‘offended by your choice’ but offended by YOU. While actions and choices can be used to judge and identify a person’s ideas and ideals, personal attacks don’t actually engage any kind of communication. They just work to further drive a wedge between those two entrenched sides until any conversation is impossible. Then we are left with the two shouting groups, offended and hurt, with no hope of an understanding or actual exchange. This is why the term communication by outrage is meant ironically. Outrage can be felt, but the bellowing at one another from across the gulf that has become all too common doesn’t actually facilitate communication. It doesn’t foster growth. It fosters fear.
Too many good people, thoughtful people who are interested in learning more about inclusivity, equality, and so many issues that face our communities are terrified these days to speak or act. They’re afraid to be in the crosshairs of shouting voices calling into question every word, picking apart and scrutinizing every syllable. They’re afraid to be seen as other than they are, misconstrued and called racist or bigot or misogynist. They’re afraid to be wrong. The same goes for those involved in the discourse of activism. Not only are people afraid to speak up because they can incur the wrath of the angry hoards of trolls to harass them, but they’re afraid to end up on the wrong side of an issue and be labeled all the things they hate by the angry masses.
In other words, conversations have gone from this:
…at which point everyone else gets involved:
….which leads to a great deal of this:
I want to emphasize one thing: this communication by outrage is by no means the only discussions going on out there. There are true social justice conversations, real exchanges of ideas, yielding understanding and growth within communities. They are dominated by folks who might be offended, outraged, angry, and frustrated but instead of falling back on personal attacks, instead extend ideas rather than entrenched rhetoric. They express themselves rather than personally attack folks. These conversations take place on the very social media where people are bellowing at each other, fostering progressive dialogues in environments where aggressing on another person is still considered, y’know, unacceptable. And there are websites, blogs, speakers and groups that are reaching out to point out problems, like the above website did calling out the performance of The Mikado that does so with anger and serious axes to grind that does not fall into the parlance of outrage.
This isn’t about tone policing. This is about the loss of nuance in conversations, the lack of acknowledging people as complex creatures that can both believe problematic things and still be human beings worthy of being treated as such. This is also about recognizing that people even with the best intentions can misstep or misspeak and that browbeating one another only produces fearful silence instead of discourse.
I’ve seen a lot of this lately, a lot of this shouting and a lot of this fear to speak for fear of getting ganged up on, mislabeled, misconstrued. And maybe I’m dating myself here, but I remember days when I would sit around with friends and talk about issues, either in person or online. We wouldn’t be afraid of misspeaking, but would be able to earnestly say what we felt and explain ourselves or apologize as needs be. Recently, I tried to have a conversation about serious issues only to have friends balk out of fear of ‘saying something wrong.’ Even in the most safe of spaces, the fear of being on the wrong side of a conversation has led to a growing culture of silence that only seeks to limit the sharing of ideas and the growth of our communities. So let’s think before we pick up the pitchforks and call people names for their choices, before we further turn the greatest tool of communication in history into a tool for destroying conversation and progressive thought.