The horrendous tantrum that started back last August rolls onward, which should surprise exactly none of you; these things tend to grow legs of their own accord and sooner or later nobody can catch them. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. The sense of sheer entitlement and exclusionism that started with “them damn feminazis tryin at take away my video games” has blown up into a general maelstrom of the Defenders of True Geek Culture trying to force out the insidious forces of “progressives” and “feels”, to ensure that the things they love will remain theirs alone and theirs forever– even if they were never intended for them in the first place.
Perhaps, then, the fact that Joss Whedon deleted his Twitter feed on May 4th– mere days after the release of his most recent film, Avengers: Age of Ultron– is not so surprising in and of itself. Whedon has always been a polarizing figure in geek circles anyway, with some people not liking that he tends to write the same “powerful” female characters in every work, and others just not really liking the over-reliance on under-intelligent banter. But up until yesterday, he was seen as “safe” from the criticisms and havoc that literally anyone else ever saying those things would have to endure, owing to his previous success much less than his birthright as a white dude. And I say that as a white quasi-dude. That he threw up his hands and walked away from Twitter should have been a wake-up call for those who sent anyone any kind of abuse. That it apparently hasn’t been is unsurprising, the inherent unsurprisingness of which leads me to believe that I really shouldn’t expect to be surprised at the depth of human sickness anymore. (I’ll try to stop saying “surprise” now.)
What we have here is a rather unusual counter-stroke to what the Internet had allowed to occur back in the 90s and early 00s in the first place: a sort of reactionary-revisionist faction seeking to isolate and disenfranchise people en masse. See, back in the early days of the Internet, it was a good thing that people with incredibly diverse interests could connect with each other regardless of their location. No matter what you were in to, be it Star Wars, Final Fantasy, anthropomorphic animals, sex with furniture, whatever– the odds were that somewhere out there was someone else with the interest who is probably dying for the chance to chat about it. (Although the sex with furniture thing is pretty weird. I’m not judging, just saying it’s weird and not my thing, but if it’s yours, you’re welcome to it.) For people who were of a certain mindset that wasn’t common in the era or area that they were growing up in, the Internet was a godsend.
At some point, however, there started to be a backlash against the background weirdness of the universe being brought into the foreground. Like nebulae condensing into stars, the scattered pockets of weird in the Internet were coalescing into groups, organizations that could support their members as needed. Some people thought that these pockets of weird should not exist, that it was “convincing people that they were normal when in fact, they weren’t”. People started highlighting these groups and shaming them, ostracizing them in much the same way that the individuals had been isolated in their everyday life. The concept of “live and let live” was sorely lost on these people.
Then you had the parts of the Internet where there were no rules, where things could get shocking and horrendous without warning. At first there was an unstated rule saying that it was all done in satire, that the racist, xenophobic material being bandied about like cat pictures on Saturdays wasn’t at all representative of the users’ actual views. But it was unstated, and stayed unstated, and assertions that it was serious were not taken as the kayfabe that it was proffered as, but instead at face value. Eventually even the unstated assertion fell away, and there were actual violent psychotic monsters posting in full sincerity. In some sense it is Möbius’ Aristocrats: a setup so filthy that it turns inwards upon itself, ever escalating, never reaching the punchline that renders what came before it benign and funny (if it ever could be considered so).
It’s not exactly clear when these two groups got together and birthed the mindset that the Internet was a horrible place, filled with depravity and devoid of mercy. Certainly, the mainstream media did not help matters; scare stories about websites where Your Children were At Risk of Predators were a dime a dozen in those early days. They’ve calmed down a little since then, but are still no more based in fact than the (similar vintage, but thankfully now-extinct) Ripped From The Headlines TV-movie about whatever scandal of the week. By calling out and highlighting the awful behavior of certain minority parties online, it painted the picture that the Internet was a lawless place free from consequences and populated only by unfeeling avatars. It was like a TV news crew broadcasting the exact times and street corners where a drug dealer hung out, in the hopes that the people who would make use of this information would be the police instead of the drug dealer’s customers. It attracted the people who would do these horrible things, and sought to make them “normal”.
But nonetheless, the mindset that outright hostility and sociopathic behavior were the baseline of behavior on the internet became the “accepted” norm. I say “accepted” because by and large the only time anyone calls this out is when they are themselves under attack. “Everyone else is fair game; hurt my feelings, though, and you’ve crossed the line.” And in a sense, it was the “live and let live” attitude from the early days that allowed that mindset to assert itself as “the way it is” simply because it didn’t want to tell those people they couldn’t do what they wanted. An abuse of logic allowed people to shoot down the argument of “you can’t bully anyone, they’re just doing their thing” by saying “well, bullying them is my thing, and by the same assertion you can’t tell me not to”. It again boils down to the unstated half of the axiom: “they’re doing their thing and not hurting anyone else“.
But getting back to Joss Whedon and the current state of affairs, the fight against the hostility which has now entrenched itself in the Internet that once brought people together is going… Poorly. The immediacy of the medium means that you have to be there to defend yourself, and if enough people push you to a breaking point through death threats or other promises of violence, well, you either soldier on or you fold up and go home. There is a severe lack of equilibrium within what passes for conversation online today: many can group together to attack, but a defender always stands alone. Faced with a crush of humanity in all its bile and wrath, what choice is there but to flee? Quite frankly, it’s probably safe to say it’s not worth fighting.
Except it is.
We are facing a new era of society: where our intrinsic selves are exposed to the entirety of humanity at a moment’s notice. Socially, this has not happened in several thousand years. What we are seeing is the throes of evolution at work; raw aggression, this time in social interaction, is being selected for as those who cannot properly process the emotions of seven billion humans being thrown at them are being weeded out of the gene pool. Unlike the evolutionary crises which allowed us to start using tools, or grasp the greater mysteries of the universe through advanced mathematics, however, we have a tool greater than any formula: we can become aware of what we are sacrificing in order to succeed in this new era of humanity. Who knows what skills or abilities we gave up when the Great Engineer of the Universe pushed us to our current state. But we know exactly what we are losing now: traits like compassion, empathy, gentleness, compromise. We are losing our ability to do the things which brought us to this point in our history.
It’s not my place to say whether or not the ultimate fate of humanity some hundreds of years from now is to touch the stars with the better angels of our nature by our sides, or to grasp them from atop a tower of our enemies’ corpses. However we are destined to survive this evolutionary inflection point, we must as a species do so. I will continue to fight for equality, for a world where hostility is the exception and not the rule, for a world where everyone is free to choose as dictated by the desires of their truest self, for the people who believe to keep believing, for the people who don’t know to find their answers wherever they may lie. I will champion the cause of positivity and compassion for as long as I live.
Which, of course, shouldn’t surprise you.