Defending Monstrousness

When there was no-one, there was Buffy

Round about the year 2001, I was as lonely as I’ve ever been.

Working at the cinema, tearing tickets and sweeping up popcorn, I’d stand on the top floor for nine hours a day, entirely on my own, before coming back to my empty flat. While notionally I had friends, they were all just that little too far away to come and see me. For my part, I was entirely too poor to be able to afford the bus ticket needed to visit them.

By October, I hadn’t seen anyone socially in nine months. Days consisted of distracting myself from my isolation. Wandering into town to watch people, because for someone with my crippling social awkwardness, it was the only way I really had to get close to human interaction. Evenings were spent watching films.  I’d lose myself in computer games. Nowadays, this might have been a way to have some contact, however unpleasant. Of course, this was years before I could afford even a computer, much less an internet connection, so all my gaming was a solo affair.

In a very meaningful sense, my only friends at the time were Xander Harris, Willow Rosenberg, and Buffy Summers.

Sliding those VHS tapes into the VCR, the world changed. I could forget the emptiness of my home and heart, and allow myself to pretend, if only for a moment, that I had friends.

Obviously Spike was my favourite. How could he not be, the glorious, sarcastic bastard. Then came Giles, because how can you not love a man who faces interdimensional eldritch horror with steely determination and a cup of tea?

But that October, watching season 5, I was astonished to find that no-one’s favourite, Xander, was somehow really resonating with me. His character arc had him shifting from the kind of generically nebbish bloke I despised into a credible adult whose life arc seemed…

Well. I hate to say it, but aspirational.

I mean, look at what was on TV at the time; talent shows and nonsense. Young people screaming how they were mad for it or whatever. I didn’t want to be those dipshits. The kind of proto-alcoholic who drink the nightclub dry and pass out in a toilet. I just wanted a place in the world. A job that paid. An employer who valued me. People who wanted to spend time with me because I was a worthwhile person to spend time with.

And by season 5, Xander… man, he had everything. Putting aside the rubber forehead monsters, he’d gone from being an annoying boy with no meaningful skills, to a carpenter. Unlike me, he was someone who had parlayed his abilities into a meaningful life role. He did good work and was recognised for it; he could afford his own house! He knew people who valued him for his honesty, his integrity, his humour. He was loved. A million light years from the vile, materialistic, too-beautiful young people who filled everything else on TV, here was an average man doing really, really well. I wanted to be him so badly it burned.

A few years ago, I discovered that Nicholas Brendan is a piece of trash.

The fact he’s an alcoholic is merely tragic. I don’t judge him for that, and nor should anyone; alcoholism is a horrible disease, and I count several recovering alcoholics as friends. For that, he should receive help, not scorn. No, the thing I can’t forgive is that he’s a domestic abuser. There’s nothing lower than a person who betrays with violence the one they should love the most. For those who would argue that inebriation brings absolution, it’s worth remembering that no-one does anything drunk they didn’t plan sober.

Then Joss Whedon turned out to be a total dick as well.

Somehow, that one stings even worse.

My suspicions of Whedon were first roused after that dipshit, rambling speech he did about how he didn’t like the word feminism. It was jarringly inane horseshit. Then, slowly, more and more genuinely feminist writers I respected began to call him out as a bad ally in other ways I hadn’t noticed, the man’s star began to fall further.

All of which means that, for all my love of Buffy, I can’t watch Buffy and enjoy it the way I used to any more. There’s an argument to be made that an artist and her works are separate, but I just don’t subscribe to that theory. The meaning of a piece of artwork stands separate from the artists, absolutely, but the artwork itself stands as testimony to the person who creates it. My miniatures reflect only my aesthetics. My articles are little bits of me. My novel is a little piece of my soul. For better or worse, however bad or good they might be, the things I create are reflections of who I truly am; not the literal surface bits, but the deeper, realer parts.

I could watch Buffy, and lose myself in the nostalgia. Watch Xander’s journey again, and smile, comparing his story to my own, seeing in his growth a path that I didn’t take, but which my own life echoed in bizarre, unexpected ways.

But I wouldn’t see Xander Harris any more. I’d see Nicholas Brendon. I’d see Xander smile, and wonder if that was the same smile that lured in his victims. Remember the harrowed, bloodshot mugshot of Brendon, his eyes red raw with drink. The truth of the actor makes any suspension of disbelief impossible. And in losing Xander, I’ve lost the whole series.

That loss… it hurts.

The Weinstein Scandal

With the breaking of the Weinstein scandal, and the growing revelations that hundreds of beloved films were made by abusive, predatory men? Many others right now are experiencing that same, horrid sense of betrayal and loss.

My partner introduced me to WhatCulture? And I was really enjoying it, only for it to turn out that Adam Blampied – a charming, and entertaining man – is a skeevy, deeply unpleasant creeper. I’ve loved Honest Trailers since discovering it; the founder of the company that makes them is so prolific a harasser of women that the company he founded has fired him and released videos denouncing him. Labyrinth was one of my favourite films. On learning that David Bowie very probably committed an act of statutory rape, the whole experience of watching him act opposite a fourteen year old girl becomes far more uncomfortable. The first Jeepers Creepers film was a perfectly serviceable horror flick… made by a man who had served years in prison for filming himself raping little boys. Beetlejuice is a great film, possibly Burton’s best… but it stars a convicted child sex offender. The Ninth Gate was one of my favourite supernatural films… but that was before I knew about Johnny Depp’s history of violent attacks on women.

Before I knew that Roman Polanski’s raped a child.

The Weinstein case is the bursting of particularly disgusting boil. More and more predators are being revealed, but it’s always been this way since the days of Roscoe Arbuckle.

With so much horror revealed, it leaves us, as hopefully decent, moral consumers, with a horrible problem. Much of our art, it would seem, is created by predators. On a personal level, we can do nothing to prevent their crimes save believing their victims and demanding change, which can feel horribly disempowering.

So what do we do?
Crucially, I think, we can at least avoid providing them with a payday. As a result, personally, I don’t support the work of men who are confirmed predators.

I also try to educate myself as to who they are. While it’s fashionable to complain about social media and the evils of new technology, the truth is that those of us who are engaged know far more about famous art creators than ever before. Digital platforms enable us to learn about their lamentable beliefs, their minor transgressions, and their most despicable crimes. Sites like Your Fave Is Problematic and others make it easier than ever to find out exactly who has done what, and, more importantly, who is making amends.

The morality, for me at least, is fairly simple: by paying for their art, I inevitably pay artists money. Perhaps some, perhaps very little. In this way, I support artists. However, by clicking, by watching, by lionising, by simply being a fan, I support them too. ‘Word of mouth’ means that even if I contribute not one penny to their bank accounts, I still contribute to their success.

Which can mean that simply by mentioning these pricks, we might be supporting the insupportable. I mean, I’ve recommended The Ninth Gate up there; you click on it, you maybe buy it, and I’ve unwillingly contributed to a convicted child rapist who admitted his crime making money.

Walking away from the things you love

Thing is, it’s easy to ignore people you don’t like. Sean Penn’s a despicable piece of trash who beats women… but he never made a single film I gave a shit about, so I don’t have to worry about accidentally supporting him.

But when it comes to something we care about? Or worse, something that’s part of who we are. Man. Walking away from that can be agonising. At one of the lowest points of my life, Buffy was literally the only thing that kept me going. When I had nothing and was at my most desolate, Buffy was there for me. Even now it’s part of my history; part of me. I completely identified with Xander and I’d never done that with a character before. That means something to me; it always will, and I can’t change that.

It’s no surprise that this kind of thing almost immediately produces cognitive dissonance. Confronted by the one truth that we love something, and the other truth that the same thing is unworthy of that love, it creates a horrible sensation. We’ll do almost anything to switch that feeling off, to mentally shield ourselves from the discomfort of knowing two mutually contradictory ideas.

Denial is the most obvious response. To avoid the pain of cognitive dissonance, people will deny anything and everything. They’ll deny that the criminal committed the crime, that the crime was that serious, that the criminal has gone unpunished. They’ll point out all the ways the criminal is a good person, because the fact he’s fun at barbecues makes what he did okay.

You can see this denial so clearly with a figure like Polanski. This is a man who anally raped a drugged child – and admitted to doing so –  yet had one hundred respected individuals from the film industry write a letter in 2009 supporting him. Reading their comments on him, you can see the same pattern.

He has paid for this.

Other people who committed the same crime weren’t punished as severely.

Things were different back then.

It was so long ago now.

The victim has forgiven him.

So many supporters, all minimising what he did –  which was, to be crystal clear, anally raping a drugged child – a crime he admits, for which he has not served an appropriate prison sentence.

Would these supporters be so fervent for a random man off the street? Before embarking on his career as a serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer committed almost exactly the same kind of crimes. Had Dahmer not progressed to murder, would these people now be arguing he be allowed to go about his life happy and free?

That Polanski’s art is exceptional is inarguable. His films are superb. The man’s art has undoubtedly moved his supporters utterly. The simple truth is that reaching a person’s deepest feelings… that has an incredible power. Heart will always win over head, and if a predator can engage our hearts, well. That can go a long way towards convincing us – reminding us, in fact – that they are not monsters, just humans with hearts, insights, and feelings as keen and real as our own.

This is because their art is as true as their crimes. Life is complex. People don’t easily slot into good and bad. Roman Polanski is an incredible, talented artist, capable of making the most wonderful, humane films.

He also raped a drugged child. Further victims, recently come forward, suggest that he may have raped many. That he may be a serial predator.

Does a man’s inherent humanity forgive his inhumanity? Do a man’s good deeds forgive him his crimes? Does the fact Polanski made wonderful films excuse the horrors he has inflicted?

For me, the answer is obviously not. No. Are you kidding? Never. I don’t give a good Goddamn how good Polanski’s films are, that despicable piece of shit raped a child and got away with it. You don’t defend someone like that; you make an example of them by sending them to prison and never, ever letting them out.

When I see an injustice, wherever possible, I don’t tolerate it. The standard you walk by is the standard you accept.

Games are art too

Wargaming can be problematic.

The word ‘problematic’ doesn’t mean ‘evil’. It means ‘this is a problem’. Problems come in different shapes and sizes. Some, like the crimes of Polanski and his ilk, are deeply, unforgivably serious. Sometimes, problematic means ‘criminal’.

Sometimes it doesn’t.

Sometimes, it’s describing something so minor, so insignificant, that when faced with something like the Weinstein scandal, they seem almost a joke.

Add stuff for women?! Are you joking? That’s what you care about? Christ, you SJWs. Get some fucking perspective. Argue about some real problems, don’t waste your energy on this.

The thing is, this argument is bullshit.

The fallacy of relative privation, or the ‘some have it worse’ fallacy argues that because some people (in this case, child abuse victims) have it worse than others (in this case, people who want better representation in gaming), the people who don’t have it so bad should shut up. That, in fact, they should be ashamed for wasting their time when there’s more important work to be done.

It’s a derailing strategy, and it’s horseshit, because

If you can’t complain about X just because there exists another problem, Y, that’s worse than X, then the only person who has any right to complain at all is the person who objectively has it worst in every way possible. The other 7 billion people’s problems are meaningless by this reasoning.” In other words: nothing matters if it’s not literally the worst thing happening.

This fallacy assumes that we can/should only focus on one problem at a time. That we can/should only care about the biggest problem.

If you’ve been gutshot, you don’t worry about a paper cut.

Yeah, that’s true.

The thing is, if you’re creating metaphors, maybe don’t compare a society of millions to one person. There’s lots of us here, we’ve got enough of us to deal with every problem, and you know what?

We can fucking multitask.

To quote Heinlein, “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

To my mind, the Weinstein scandal and arguments about SJWs in gaming, whether played on a computer or a board, they all come from the same place: unchecked male power being challenged. And while one is obviously of far more seriousness and importance than the other, we as a people, are capable of discussing both.

The interesting thing to me is that, in the same way that good people waste time defending criminals because of the way the criminals’ films made them feel, a certain group of gaming fans will defend a grossly unfair community paradigm because, like films, those games made them feel something just as powerfully. In the same way that Polanski’s useful idiots defend the man because they love his films, this vocal group of gamers rip and tear at those of us who’d dare critique the games they love, because to attack the games is to attack them. Just as Nicholas Brendon’s failings hurt me like a personal betrayal, any criticism of a gamer’s chosen game can and will hit them on the same level. Like a reflex, they almost immediately jump to defend the seemingly indefensible because their emotions are hurt; they’ll come up with the rationalisations once they’ve had time to think about them. Right now, they’re experiencing terrible cognitive dissonance; lost in their own feelings, all they want is for that feeling to go away.

For you to go away.

What makes things worse is that often, these people are very clever. There’s an underlying assumption that intelligence somehow overrules emotion, that intelligence equates with rationality, but of course that isn’t so. Unless directed to do so, an intelligent person will not always – or even often – use that intelligence to challenge emotional assumptions that feel true. Instead, they will deploy that cleverness to come up with ever-more elaborate rationales, justifications and defences, attacking a true idea which challenges and deconstructs the underpinnings of their own thinking.

Hence, men – otherwise good men – who would in any other circumstances would argue that women and men are equal, will passionately argue that something as ultimately harmless as, say, female space marines are the worst thing that could ever happen. The arguments are always trash, quoting nonsense science, appeals to tradition, claims that background lore which has already been revised and amended can never be revised or amended. The inferior quality of their arguments are irrelevant, because they’re not interested in actually arguing; they’re interested in making the thing that upsets them go away.

The thing is, morality is not an absolute. It can feel like it is, but in the words of Albert Pierrepoint, England’s last executioner, “The trouble with the death penalty has always been that nobody wanted it for everybody, but everybody differed about who should get off”. The simple nature of utilitarianism demonstrates this; for example, you could persuade the most caring and compassionate person in the world to murder a baby, if fatally harvesting that child’s organs was the only way to cure a planetwide pandemic say. Oxymoronic as it might seem, there will always be justifications for injustice.

But if, as I do, you believe that child abuse is wrong, you cannot support the work of child abusers, or be a fan of it. Likewise, while games haven’t done anything as monstrous, the moral argument is just as clear. If you genuinely believe in equality between the genders in the real world, you cannot simply sit back and argue that there should be no  <INSERT WOMEN’S DEMAND HERE>.

Gaming may not have the institutionalised horror of the Hollywood system, but it’s still a culture mired in injustice. It is our job as hopefully moral fans to take stand against those things we love which nonetheless violate our moral codes. Your fave might be problematic, but it can improve.

The bottom line, is that I’m a fan of films and games. I love them, and I’m able to call it out, and there’s no contradiction there. I’ve had to give up on Buffy. With the spread of things like the #MeToo movement, I’m hoping that in the future, I won’t have to give up on any other art I love.

 

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