Why You're Being Kept In A Constant State Of Impotent Rage
Star Wars actress Kelly Marie Tran recently deleted her Instagram after a torrent of abuse from shitheads (she played Rose Tico in The Last Jedi). This comes about two years after Leslie Jones quit Twitter after harassment from angry Ghostbusters pissbabies.
And sure, most of that is coming from garden-variety racists and sadistic trolls, but they're not reading this and they're not the whole picture. When we talk about "toxic fandom," we're talking about something that grows out of layers of entitlement, bitterness, and frustration that run deep in a culture in which anxiety is so rampant that it's fucking killing us. So, yeah, this one isn't about movies.
There's A Thin Line Between Love And Hate
Here are the six stages of a toxic fandom, as perfectly expressed by author Sam Sykes:
1. "I love this"
2. "I own this"
3. "I control this"
4. "I can't control this"
5. "I hate this"
6. "I must destroy this"
But to be fair to the awful fans and their stupid, entitled rage, brands absolutely want you to be obsessed with their product, to treat it like a religion, a lifestyle -- that weird sense of exclusive ownership comes with it. Politicians do the same -- when a guy at a podium says, "We need to take our country back!" the cheering crowd thinks the USA is "their" country for the same reason those Star Wars fans think the franchise belongs to them: Because it profited someone else to make them think it.
This creates confusion about what we as individuals own and are owed, a confusion that will continue throughout your life, until one day you will find yourself in a hospital bed, your organs shutting down without your permission, at which point you'll realize the answer to both of those questions was always "Nothing."
But that's beside the point; our first response to seeing people acting like fools should be to make sure they're not, in fact, a reflection of something we're doing that's equally misguided. And in this case, I have some bad news ...
We Live In A System That Simultaneously Flatters Us And Makes Us Feel Like Shit
This system has a way of playing divide and conquer. And if you think it's dividing us up by class or race, that's true, but that's also the story the system has no problem telling you -- Black Panther put $1.3 billion in the pockets of several giant corporations. They weren't exactly worried that it would spark a revolution.
The real divide and conquer -- the one they don't want you to ever think about, and the one that makes it harder to solve the ones mentioned above -- is between you, the average hard-working employee/citizen/voter, and a mass of mindless consumers who are also you. The former gets shit on, while the latter gets pampered like a rock star.
You'll have an urge to reject that second part, because aren't consumers constantly getting screwed? You pay too much for the internet, goods seem designed to break or wear out after a month, customer service numbers are manned by foreign call centers or no one at all. But you perceive it that way only because your needs as a consumer are normally met so quickly and lavishly that it's a shock to the system when they're not.
The changes that have occurred on this end just in my lifetime have been startling. I don't just mean the televisions have more pixels now, or that phones are smaller. Up until my teenage years, ordering something meant it arrived in six or eight weeks -- now Amazon can get some packages there on the same goddamned day (the first time it happened, I thought it was a prank). I remember when you couldn't get every kind of fresh produce year-round -- they couldn't just import that stuff from warmer climates like we do now, which is why I didn't see a mango or avocado until I was in my 20s. There were only a few categories of fast food, the primary ingredient was grease, and if I went to a place that served sandwiches that looked like this ...
... I'd have assumed I was in a fancy country club restaurant for rich people. Go watch an '80s movie. If a character is drinking a cappuccino, it means they're some kind of fancy Eurotrash who'll probably get shot out of a window later; now it's annoying if I can't get one at a grocery store or gas station.
Up until high school, missing a TV show meant it was just gone from my life -- we just had to wait six months for it to show up in reruns (at the time, even VCRs were for rich people). If you were a sci-fi/fantasy geek, here's what your TV shows looked like in 1988:
And here's what they look like now:
I could do this the rest of the day, far faster than you can shoot them down. When I was 18, a service like Google or Wikipedia was the stuff of science fiction. The fact that they would one day be a reality and free to use would have sounded hopelessly Utopian; I was paying six bucks for magazines that could be read in an hour. "But ISPs screw you every chance they get!" you say, and I agree. Also, my internet connection is 50 times faster than the one I had in 2005.
So, yeah, those previous generations also had more job security with cheaper education, but that's the point. The system lavished us on the consumer end to make us okay with getting pummeled on the other. That's the divide and conquer.
We Are (Literally) Our Own Worst Enemy
Amazon can deliver goods same-day at little cost only because they ride their warehouse workers like animals. We can summon an affordable Uber ride like magic because the drivers get paid shit and work themselves to exhaustion. We're all very aware of this. We'll see a news story about those companies' work conditions (on a website that got paid ad revenue to run it) and maybe share it on social media (generating ad revenue for Twitter/Reddit/etc.) and feel like we've done our part to fight back ... but we sure as hell won't stop using those companies.
This is why we can bemoan how the evil 1% is automating away our jobs, while also statistically spending more when we're allowed to order our McDonald's from a kiosk. It's why when London cab drivers went on strike to protest Uber, consumers responded with a 850 percent increase in Uber app installs. Statistically, some of those people A) probably wound up driving for Uber themselves and B) bemoaned the shitty pay and benefits and wondered what evil billionaire created that situation.
Likewise, right now, some fellow internet writer is raging about how outlets expect them to write for free in the name of "exposure" ... but they're doing their raging on Twitter, literally writing it for exposure while enjoying tweets other people wrote for exposure, on a site we expect to be free but that can only be free if it doesn't pay for content. (Note: Cracked pays its writers, and will pay you, too.)
I'm worse than anybody about this; I've verbally screamed "Fuck you!" at a paywall more than once, even though all of my friends need publishing to remain profitable if they want to buy food. Users -- including me -- will revolt if content is put behind a paywall ("Content should be free!") and will block banner ads ("They're annoying me and tracking my browser!") while also expressing solidarity with writers who want better pay and benefits ("They should get a bigger cut of the, uh, zero dollars this website made from my consumption!").
The contradiction is staring us in the face 24/7, but we've been taught to ignore it. There's a reason for that -- and that brings us back to the angry Star Wars fanboys.
The System Will Always Give Us What We Want, And What We Want Is Someone To Blame
Because of who I follow on social media, I get a steady dose of "Capitalism is the problem," but when pressed, those friends' complaints almost entirely boil down to "The rich are keeping too much of the money," not "I want tanks to roll in and seize the factories." And hey, if you want to raise taxes on the rich, do it. Raise mine, too. Push for a higher minimum wage. But know that mathematically, that doesn't create the perfectly just system you're picturing in your head. You can't, for instance, fund universal healthcare purely with a tax on the rich -- let alone free college, more robust welfare, etc.
As long as you, the consumer, want an ever-expanding selection of affordable comforts available on-demand, there will be a stressed, exhausted, underpaid worker on the other end trying to make it happen (or a robot that just put that person out of work). The goal of the system is to make sure we never feel guilty about that by always giving us someone else to get mad at. Who caused global warming? "The oil companies and their evil shareholders!" Yes, it was definitely them, and not me, the guy who just visited Amazon on my coal-burning computer and ordered an ironic T-shirt manufactured in Bangladesh and told them to overnight it to me via an airliner and a truck that belched clouds of CO2 every step of the way.
That means that in this system, the job of the media is to give you a series of enemies you can hate so that you never realize that call is coming from inside the house -- that the evil investors don't get rich unless you the consumer use the thing they've invested in. "They should be required to use green energy!", we say, but it's not like we're going to boycott them until they do. The pressure we apply is limited only to yelling about it.
So, the media will feed my left-wing friends tales of evil billionaires, ignorant monsters in Trump country, or alt-right harassers. My right-wing family will get headlines about lazy welfare queens, immigrants and Chinese factories taking the good jobs, plus commentary painting themselves as the victim of the greedy tax collectors. The media doesn't care which of these narratives accurately portray reality; their only agenda is making sure there is endless low-level, risk-free conflict, because their traffic stats prove that's what we want.
So yes, some white male teenager is being fed a narrative about how SJWs ruined Star Wars because he too needs somewhere to put his self-loathing. Before the world's greatest blogger The Last Psychiatrist disappeared in 2014, he flexed on all of us with this piece about another prominent woman (writer Amanda Hess) getting harassed online:
"Hess yells about a world of masculine power because she has the power to yell at it. But of course her power is limited only to yelling, she is impotent against a troll who yells at her. But her mistake is in thinking he has the power. No one has it, the system doesn't allow it ... This is the true critique of the system, not simply that one group reliably oppresses another; but that the entire system is based on creating a lack. This lack is not a bottomless hole that nothing could ever fill, but a tiny, strangely shaped divot in your soul into which nothing could ever fit: not money, not sex, not stuff, not relationships. Nothing 'takes.' Nothing counts. Nothing is ever right. Only novelty works, until it wears off.
This lack of power -- not power to rule the world, but existential power -- what is the purpose of my life? What is this all for? I get that I'm supposed to use my Visa a lot, but is that it? Shouldn't I be able to do more than this? Everything is possible, but nothing is attainable. Nothing tells them what is valuable; worse, everything assures them that nothing could be more valuable."
He wasn't excusing the abuse, and neither am I. What he was saying is that this system has a magical way of making even a hugely successful person feel helpless, because they're being attacked by nobodies who lash out because they also feel helpless. This helplessness comes from being raised to expect things from the world that it can't actually give you.
We Attack Each Other To Avoid The Real Problem
This, then, is one way you get skyrocketing suicide and addiction rates in a country in which advancements in mental health alone should have pushed both the other direction, and rising standard of living should have done it even more.
And when I talk about standard of living, remember I'm including the meaningful stuff, too -- acceptance and general awareness of alternative lifestyles, the ability to keep in touch with friends and family, availability of long-distance travel, exposure to art and culture, the ability to connect with fellow enthusiasts of niche hobbies. Even sex and dating should be easier and safer in the Tinder era, especially for LGBTQ populations. All of the things we've decided are good for the soul are more available to the average working person than they've ever been.
But your scented candles were made in a sweatshop and your yoga teacher has three jobs. This is a system that runs on anxiety even more than it runs on fossil fuels, and the same media that connects us profits by making us all feel like we're under siege. As I'm writing this, my feeds are dominated by this news story about some random fuckshit in rural Tennessee who put a "No Gays Allowed" sign on his hardware store after he badly misinterpreted a recent Supreme Court ruling.
The reaction from my side: This is part of the unstoppable Trump wave, now armed with a friendly president and Supreme Court determined to return us to the dark ages! Meanwhile, let's hear it from the hardware store guy:
"Christianity is under attack. This is a great win, don't get me wrong, but this is not the end, this is just the beginning ... dark days will come."
Then we all took to social media to argue about it, many millions of banner ads were displayed, many millions of advertised products were sold, and I'm telling you that if that guy hadn't put up the sign, the media would have kept hunting until it found someone who did. I mean, look how far they had to dig to get that story. "What, am I supposed to not care about the blatant discrimination against that store's customers?" I'm saying if that guy's entire town was destroyed by a chemical plant explosion tomorrow morning, you'd forget about it by lunch. You were encouraged to dunk on that guy on Twitter because it generates ad revenue for the platform, and for no other reason.
The Outrage Acts As A Placebo
I've seen many, many news stories about about Kelly Marie Tran being driven off Instagram by trolls, and most leave out the fact that, as of this writing, she never actually said that's why she left. But why wait to hear? This is the narrative that gets people the most upset -- oh, and by the way, it's also the narrative that most emboldens the trolls, who are now famous within their own circles. Meanwhile, we get to retweet the right articles and words of support for the victim and feel like we've fought the good fight ... which means the trolls have performed a service for us, too, giving us an easy, risk-free target to smack while staring at our phones on the toilet.
"But bringing awareness to the issue of online harassment is the first step to solving it!" Who said anyone wants to solve it? It sounds like everyone's cashing in. And what does solving it even look like? "Social media needs better moderation to stop trolls!" You mean buildings full of actual well-paid humans to respond to the millions of complaints they get every week? How much would Instagram/Twitter/whatever have to charge us in order to cover those costs? Whatever it is, not one in ten thousand of us would actually pay it. The executives and investors both know this, and also know that the way we'll express our anger about Twitter's moderation is by posting about it on Twitter.
As a result, if you are a public person in 2018, you will at some point be used as a punching bag by a bunch of strangers. That's the purpose you'll serve in their life, a thing they can hate without risk, and then forget about. It's part of the tradeoff of being a public person, and oh by the way, in the social media era, everyone is a public person. Did you see the viral story of the group of Star Wars fans demanding a chance to remake The Last Jedi to their specifications? It was mocked by TLJ director Rian Johnson, trended for several days on Twitter, written up in Slate and GQ and on hundreds of large sites and, oh by the way, the anonymous Twitter account that made the original announcement had less than 100 followers at the time. It could literally be the work of one actual child.
We recognize their mission as a ridiculous waste of time and energy, but don't see that our decision to attack them is just as wasteful -- that we intentionally picked an easy enemy that costs us nothing to fight. Media in 2018 is a machine designed to create straw men we can burn, and to convince us that burning them actually makes a difference. Meanwhile, the one thing that would actually make a difference is the one thing we won't do: Make personal sacrifices.
What Is Satisfying In The Short Term Can Kill You In The Long Run
"Entitlement" can be a good thing. You should expect to get more stuff for your dollar. You should expect to get paid more for your work. Entitled people change the world. It only turns toxic when we have the attitude of entitlement without the willingness to sacrifice to get what we want.
It's obvious to us when we see it in other people -- when incels think women owe them sex, when Christians think the world owes them hegemony, when comedians think they're owed rape jokes, when the rich think they deserve to make ten thousand times more than their rank-and-file employees. But our own misguided entitlement is so well-hidden from ourselves that when somebody comes along and points it out, it feels like the most brutal of injustices: Victim blaming. "Yes, I just used my iPhone to post about overthrowing capitalism. How can you call me a hypocrite when the 1 percent control half of the wealth?!?"
Now watch the retweets roll in, reaffirming that you're right, that none of this is your fault, all while someone else collects the ad revenue. Neatly concealing the fact that if we wanted to, we could shut this whole thing down. If we were willing.
But at the end of the day, almost none of us will actually sacrifice comfort to affect change -- refusing to buy the device made with sweatshop labor, turning down the good job with a company with questionable environmental policies, accepting poorer-quality goods and slower service from a place that treats their workers better, undoing the "consumer comforts for spiritual misery" devil's bargain that apparently is driving us to suicide and mass shootings. Hey, did you know Chick-Fil-A's sales have nearly doubled since we all swore we'd boycott them a few years ago? Sure, we care about gay rights, but not so much that we'll settle for our second-favorite chicken sandwich at lunchtime.
"I don't have anything to sacrifice!," you'll say, "based on how hard I work, I should have more stuff, not less!" I completely get why you say that but know that this belief also serves the system. Every sitcom barista lives in a $5,000-a-month apartment, every 1950s coal miner supposedly owned a Victorian mansion and a pool. The urge to keep up with what our life "should" look like will push us to take on a side gig and credit card debt, all the while expressing our frustration in ways that are hugely profitable to other people. All of it reinforcing the very system that we supposedly find intolerable.
And the wheels of that system will keep turning because at the end of the day, that angst is a feature, not a bug. If at some point we decide we've had enough, the next step is figuring out what exactly we're willing to give up to change it.
Don't be a troll, watch the Trolls movie instead
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