How Ideological Divides Threaten Storytelling
It shouldn’t be a controversial statement to suggest that the western world has become increasingly polarized in recent years. Some suggest the cause of this are pampered millennials who got one too many participation trophies. Others blame right-wing nutjobs who can’t deal with minorities having rights. For what it’s worth, I believe both of these claims to be not just false, but that they miss the point entirely.
In recent years, the political divide has widened to a level not seen since… well, ever within the United States. This isn’t just a wild claim based on feelings about the state of discourse. According to Pew Research, ideological silos are a common theme on both the left and the right-wing, and that the political minority with the faster growth is occurring at the extremes of either end of the ideological spectrum of politics. The political center is shrinking.
There are a number of theories suggesting the cause of this. From the right, the accusation is that Marxist ideas stemming from a postmodern reimagining of the ideology has begun to branch out and spread across numerous subcultures, in a way that bears a remarkable resemblance to Mao’s Long March through the institutions, alleging the subversion of society through infiltration of the professions.
And from the left, the accusation is that white supremacy has been allowed to flourish for far too long, and that it must be stopped by any means necessary.
For what it’s worth, I can’t be by any stretch be one hundred percent certain of the cause. I can only comment on my own opinions in what I see and experience. Of course white supremacy has always been a dark mark on the face of society, one would have to be blind not to see that. But when I was growing up in the 1990s in a city known for its foreign immigration from India and bible-belt attitudes, it was incredibly rare to find someone who was legitimately racist. Throughout my entire childhood, most of my friends had Indian surnames. We went to school together. Even after we all got out of school, we partied together for years until we all drifted apart, as high school friends often do. White supremacy was quite obviously something I took exception to, that angered me greatly, as their main targets were the people that I would have gladly taken a bullet for.
And yet, even in the bible belt, white supremacy was almost non-existent. Even among my white Christian friends, white supremacists were outright mocked and derided for their blind, unseeing hatred. My church had made it quite clear that such ideas were not to be tolerated within its walls. White supremacy wasn’t flourishing in the 1990’s. It was becoming an artifact of the past.
These days, it appears to be growing again, if we are to believe the media. Unfortunately, it seems there has been an alarming overstatement of exactly how many white supremacists, and an even more alarming conflation of conservatives with white supremacists. The two are, quite obviously, vastly different. Certainly it can be argued that conservatives are more likely to hold racist views. But even so, such views are exceedingly rare.
This isn’t to suggest they don’t exist, or that they aren’t a problem. Just that the problem appears to be vastly overstated, and methods of dealing with them are making little distinction between the two, which is, I believe, contributing to ideological polarization.
With that said, the question of how ideological divides are threatening storytelling subcultures must be asked. First, we must have evidence that they are threatening our beloved subcultures.
In 2014, the GamerGate controversy rose up over social media. This is a perfect example of ideological division, as many people who involved themselves with GamerGate were quick to point out that while they supported the discussion over issues of journalistic ethics, they also opposed the narrative pushed primarily by left-wing critics that the movement was a right wing hate campaign. GamerGate grew to untold depths, and while certainly there were a small number of white supremacists that had attached themselves to the culture, the vast majority of supporters simply wished to keep civility, free speech and truth intact within their gaming media. A data scientist researching the claims of it being a hate mob found that the vast majority of commenters over Twitter were actually more egalitarian than hatemongers, and focused more on the ethics of reporting on video games. Originally, this data was offered by the scientist through his web site, but after receiving a number of alleged threats, the data was scrubbed. However, the scientist’s story can still be heard via a Fireside Chat on the Honey Badger Radio YouTube channel.
Later, the Sad Puppies, a voting bloc of Worldcon members, alleged that Worldcon was discriminating against conservative authors and silently disqualifying them from nominations for the iconic Hugo Awards. This was roundly denied by other Worldcon members, and supporters of the Sad Puppies were derided as Nazis. Later still, another voting bloc called Rabid Puppies emerged, which had some members who supported ethno-nationalist ideals. Nonetheless, little distinction was made between the two voting blocs. The sins of the Rabid Puppies were placed upon the heads of the Sad Puppies. These Puppies didn’t, however, erupt out of a vacuum. There had been concerns raised about far-left radical ideologies erupting from the science fiction and fantasy writing scenes for some time before the Puppies became a topic of conversation.
Within the tabletop gaming community, a controversy erupted when Jeremy Hambly, a tabletop gaming commentator and critic, raised some concerns about the forcefulness of what he considered social justice ideology becoming a mainstay of the professional community of Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons, among others. Any concerns he raised were roundly mocked. Earlier this year, he was allegedly assaulted outside of a pub for criticizing feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian by a faculty member of Quinnipiac University.
And within the realm of comics, numerous commentators, critics and even some industry professionals have raised concerns about the seemingly unquestioning infusion of far-left political ideologies within the universes of Marvel, DC and others. Ethan Van Sciver, a Republican artist who has worked for numerous companies across the industry and winner of at least two awards was singled out by the mob for, among other things, having supplied artwork for Professor Jordan Peterson’s bestselling 12 Rules for Life.
None of these examples are outright designed to suggest there have been no sins committed by the people raising issues with the far left. But it’s also of the utmost importance to recognize that no person is without sin. We’re emotional beings. We react harshly, we behave in unexpected ways, and when we feel cornered and attacked, we lash out. Those sins can be answered for in ways that don’t involve hand-waving away their concerns.
The point is that there are concerns to be raised, and waving them away through character attacks regardless of whether or not the people making the claims are with or without sin is having a larger affect on the subcultures than there should be. What we’re seeing now is the rise of parallel, competing cultures within these story-related subcultures, and they are beginning to affect the overall cultures themselves through the consistent bickering and infighting occurring between factions.
Fans displeased with the treatment of the Star Wars intellectual properties since Episode VII have begun enacting a boycott against future installments of the series, instead turning to the Star Wars Expanded Universe of novels. In response to the boycott, director James Mangold warned that such actions will ward away talented directors from touching future projects and may leave future Star Wars films in the hands of hacks and corporate boards. Nonetheless, criticism can and should be levied to any story, particularly stories that people love, and fans are free to enact boycotts because ultimately, it’s up to the individual to decide whether or not a story touches them, and just how much it touches them.
Author and comics writer Blake Northcott recently penned a tweet in which she shared her rejection story from agents in her attempts to shop her novel The Northwoods Grimoire around. Among other things, she was told that men don’t read books with female leads, a statement that I believe is objectively untrue. A single look at my book collection is all it takes to disprove that. She stated that agents today look at fiction as edutainment, disconnecting the idea that as consumers, it’s escapism that we look for. The real world is political enough, readers delve into books in order to escape that, and that seems to have been forgotten. An author who is an activist isn’t inclined to write for their readers, they’re writing for their activism.
Threats of violence aside, I fear that if we continue to conflate our personal sense of politics within the realms and subcultures of storytelling, storytelling as a whole suffers the consequences. Storytellers become afraid to express new ideas for fear of being the victims of hate mobs from either side of the spectrum, and those that face those fears often become maligned in the process.
I’m openly a critic of Wil Wheaton’s hypocritical behavior online, for instance. And yet Star Trek: The Next Generation will always remain a classic to me. I have written at length about Joss Whedon’s behavior, and yet I still enjoy his creations. I find Tim Schafer to be a boisterous, self-righteous boor, and yet the Monkey Island series will always be mainstays on my Steam account. Many of us are still capable of separating the art from the artist, but I fear with growing polarization, the threat to our beloved subcultures will only grow.