Being a Fan of Problematic Things
"I know the writer is a sexist, homophobic bigot but I really love this show and I can't stop watching." Statements like this are common but they cause very strong reactions with many fans feeling insulted that their idol or favourite television shows are being accused of some pretty harsh things. Others, however, feel offended that the fan is still watching despite these things. In this session we ask how it is possible to still enjoy television programmes, movies, books and the works of controversial creators when we as individuals or community groups consider the subject matter or means of representation problematic. We also ask why some fans react so badly to this criticism and if there is a way to make the bitter pill easier to swallow."

So, this panel struggled to stay on topic, but was sporadically interesting. Early on, the moderator spoke far too much and with little of significant value. There was then a long but interesting digression into the nature of trolls on the internet, which is relevant in that it's about the reaction to it being suggested that a thing you like is problematic (the example given was Tolkien and Orcs), but it suggested that, assuming you weren't screaming death threats in the comments, you were OK, and I'm not convinced that's the case.

There was then a spectacular drive-off-the-cliff derail from the audience which included a non-ironic use of "political correctness", a use of the N-racial epithet in a completely off-topic trip to Mark Twain-ville. There was a moment when I actually wondered if the audience member was a stooge, sent in as some kind of unfathomable but memorable demonstration.

Between these exciting diversions (I'm unconvinced that "what software you use to moderate" was within the core brief) there was some useful but fairly uncontroversial discussion. I came out thinking a few things.

Because our societies are unequal, and all works are products of those societies, all works are in some way problematic. Which isn't intended as a "so anything goes" comment, but more of a "we all have feet of clay". I do think that it would be better to focus on "how is this thing problematic?" rather than "is it problematic?"

That being the case, we have a choice of how to react to criticism of things we like. We can ignore it (and actually I think this is often the best option, though sometimes very very difficult), or we can engage, which means at the very least listening, and trying very hard not to take it as a personal assault. Whether we then choose to respond is another question entirely, and one I'm still conflicted about.

As a corollary, if your intent in criticising a work is to have people engage with you, and to persuade them, then it's probably better to try to avoid saying or strongly implying that they are... whatever you think the problem with the work is. "This is a racist book and anyone who likes it is a racist" is the kind of thing you should only say if you really mean it, and if you're prepared to lose friends over it.

At the same time, it can be confusing, upsetting, and anger-making when someone likes something you think is beyond the pale. “I thought we shared the same values, is that really not the case? How can you not see how bad this is?” Particularly if it's something that presses points where your personal experience has hurt. I don't know that it's actually much consolation that your squee-post over something else probably pressed someone else's buttons. [1]

There's a general belief, when commenting on works, that you should play the ball and not the player (i.e. criticise the work, not the artist). I think that's mostly a laudable aim, but I'm not convinced many people do it very well. I do worry about the tendency to infer authorial approval to character statements - sometimes even when it's "obvious", it's wrong, and it's often more complicated than it's given credit for. This is separate, obviously, to circumstances where an artist has made statements outside of the work, though even that, I think, should be approached with caution. People say stupid things they don't mean, or are misquoted or misinterpreted. But on the other side, how can you change things if you don't cause a bit of a stir? Would J J Abrahams have apologised for that scene in Star Trek Into Darkness if people hadn't got in his face about it? (We don't know if he won't do it again, and it's hard to tell if it had any impact on anyone else, but the apology was good)

I do think there's a question, often, about venue. Do people seek out your blog entry, or whatever, or is it pushed upon them? If it's the latter, in what context? If it's an article about, say, Breaking Bad, on a Breaking Bad forum, then that's maybe different to sharing with your social friends on Facebook, which is different again to commenting on someone else's blogpost. I think that changes the nature of the communication (and I think it's always about communication), which does change the expectations of the interaction.

That leads me on to the "responding when challenged" thing. So, you've said something like "I really enjoy the Kinks." And someone responds to you with "Yeuch, transphobic much?" (I write such good dialogue). How do you handle it? Your options are 1) Don't, 2) Denial/defensiveness, 3) Engaging. I think (1) and (3) should be viable options, and (2) is the pitfall that, from bitter and embarrassing personal experience, it's all too easy to fall into. Where I have a problem is with option 3 - I see so many examples of it all going horridly wrong, and not many of it resulting in a useful discussion. If anyone has any thoughts on how to discuss the problematic elements without agreeing with every proposition, I'd love to hear them.[2]

So, to sum up - I like problematic things. Not, in general, because they're problematic, but I do try to recognise it, or at least (where I'm blind) accept the possibility. I believe everyone does, because all things come from our cultures, and our cultures are inherently problematic. It doesn't diminish the fact that they are problematic, but I think a general recognition of this might raise the quality of discussion. Normal remains White, Male, Straight, Cis, Middle Class, and a citizen of the USA.[3]

[1] Really, ask me about tea sometime. But not if you really like tea.
[2] I'm very aware that one's tolerance for problematic elements varies depending on life situation and experience, and I'm aware that "you're wrong" is not the right (or helpful) response when someone tells you their experience but there should be more discussion possible than it sometimes seems there is.
[3] All but one member of the panel was from the USA. Oddly, it was the one thing that didn't get discussed.
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