Content warning: we’re going to talk about harassment and self-harm.
Do you get a shiver down your spine and a catch in your heartbeat when you tell somebody they’ve done something hurtful? That’s really entirely okay. Physical responses to internal stress and the feedback of bravery aren’t rotten. It’s alright to enjoy the roller coaster of a sharp exchange, a risky communique, or a fight. It’s not awful to enjoy exchanging aggression.
It’s awful to suck the life out of someone, leaving no margin for survival. It’s bad, I am saying, to be a bully.
But how can you tell when you are?
A young person tried to commit suicide because they had been the focus of a hate campaign. The prism of input/output was Steven Universe fanworks; Steven Universe fan work posted, and responded to, on Tumblr.
There are two strains of social ill at work in this story and you can see both of them here. But they’re formless, presented documentary-style, so let me lay it out. On the one hand we have an artist who has drawn, not uniquely amongst fans, Steven Universe characters adhering more keenly to normative western beauty standards than their character models do. Steven Universe receives great acclaim from its audience for the inclusion and love it shows to fat people and people of colour; an artist who’s drawn these people thinner, with whiter features, will understandably meet dismay.
On the other, we have some individuals whose observation of these contextually regressive design choices was used as a catspaw for the satisfaction of their urges to attack. Their recognition of the artist (fan, person) drawing a nose more delicately, drawing what was natural black hair shiny and floppy, having drawn fat characters svelte, and of the cultural legacy that these changes tap into (that you can never be white or thin or pretty enough), and of the wicked harm that this legacy has wrought on people past, present, and future — this was what enabled them to kick for the ribs. It’s okay to be against a baddie, right?
There were almost certainly people involved who were simply out to victimise for jollies. There may have been personal grudges involved. There may have been fans of Steven Universe who were fat and/or large-nosed and/or wearing their hair natural, who had found that they could feel good, or better, because of the show and its choices, who saw somebody stealing that progress and recognition back from them, by “improving” the designs back to the idealised templates that have victimised them. Probably there were all of these people. Of course, some are more sympathetic than others. I have space in my heart for kids lashing out in the name of no take-backs! Not that compassion or understanding crosses out “kiddo, you did wrong.”
It’s one thing to see your personhood snatched by a popular fan artist and respond with hot blood. Anyone can see how that could happen and anyone can see that that person deserved better. We shouldn’t have to deal with beauty standards. We shouldn’t have to deal with people clinging to the old ways while the new ones fill us with light.
Don’t forget that we all get taught that white, thin, button-nosed with long floppy hair and obvious breasts is good. We shouldn’t forget that as much as we ourselves are reactive to repressive traditions and coded prejudice, so is everyone else who grew up with us. So you yourself have managed to grow past seeking approval through the old mechanisms — you’re lucky. You’re smart. You’re strong, and you’re a credit to yourself. Are your peers due for death row if they’ve not caught up? Maybe you’re right. Maybe they’re wrong. But they’re a fan artist! They are a response to the establishment, not yet a part of it. The work sends malevolent messages; the individual behind them has been alerted to this and will work through their issues, or get older and stop drawing, or get older and remain a response more than a power, or become a professional and experience professional criticism. They are an individual with a journey that can lead any number of ways, who bears responsibility for their choices and responses to input. And you are an individual, who bears responsibility for yours.
If you choose to tell an artist that their work is hurtful…
If you choose to tell an artist that they should die…
That’s what you are choosing to do. I’d call one brave and one cruel. If you choose to stalk a person, making innocuous comments or criticisms but making them at every turn and every day and on every piece of work somebody puts out into the world, hold up! You’re over invested, you’re not really 100% okay, and both bravery and justice have become irrelevant. It’s time to face your needs. I hope you, or your circumstances, get better.
If you are part of a group effort to produce this stalked experience — no way out, spiralling negative feedback, identity appropriation (saying “you are a bigot in this way and you can never move beyond that”, “you are a sex criminal by association and your prescribed deviant sexuality should be public record”) for a fellow human person, you are indulging in pack terrorism. You are gratifying yourself by means of the misery of another. Do you want to bear that knowledge? You’ll have to live past it for the rest of your life. It’s doable, but it’s not nice.
Unnecessary psychological destruction of both parties can be stopped, by individuals choosing not to act out their power fantasies.
I understand the impulses to register dismay and to retaliate. I understand the impulse to wound — I confess I have been mean, in my life (shock!). Impulses, though. Impulses are momentary! Typing takes time. Stalking eats hours, and you can’t fit a campaign of shaming inside a single second or on the head of a pin. Own what you’ve done, if you’ve done it. It’s hard. It’s complex. You have to think it through and doubt yourself.
I’ve told artists, professionals, to fuck off and stop creating — or at least I’ve published essays online which end with these sentiments, and I’ve ended conversations calling creators boneheads to their “faces” (twitter avatars). That is what I’ve chosen to do. I feel at peace with these decisions because I weighed my impact and relevance against theirs, and the weight of my words against the weight of their work, and considered what I could take from a stranger. I’d be insulted to be told to fuck off, but it’d not make me sad like being called a thundercunt did. I’d be very annoyed to be called a bonehead because nobody likes to have been a bonehead. But it wouldn’t denigrate me like being told I should kill myself would.
Recently a comment on this piece suggested that I was inhumane to say, about an image that appeared violently sexual,
My visual literacy delivers this message from the images’ creators, editors, publishers: You could power on up into there, if you wanted, reader. Look, she’s got high heels on; you could easily get her off balance.
Should I feel like a bully? I felt like the imagery was bullying me, and I responded. I chose to state the message I received; I chose to challenge the production team who performed the creation, validation and commercialisation of the image on their responsibility for its echoing power; I chose to imagine nothing in retaliation. It felt purer that way. Wishing death and misery on other people makes you wretched; understatement creates a blue-white flame.
Avoiding the question of how to deal with determinedly unpleasant people — how to respond to those members of the peanut gallery who threw stones at the figure on the scaffold and now find themselves wracked by guilt?
Like this, I think: feel this feeling. Learn. You fucked up, and so now you know better how to deal with other people when they do, again.
The rules, re-stated
- You don’t need to tell somebody that they ARE a bigot when you can tell them that they’re BEING a bigot. Identity is too big of a concept to fuck with, which you know if you’re bothered by identity politics, but behavioural descriptions can be peeled off as soon as better ways are internalized.
- Never, ever say “kill yourself,” because they might and then where will you be?
- Do not stalk people. Oh my goodness! Don’t do stalking. It’s not only a crime — it’s destructive. Thanks!