So here’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. It’s both personal and universal. Following Aristotle’s lead, let’s start with what we (eg I) know best.
If nothing performs the function of knowledge, nothing provides the function of virtue, either. I am deeply, deeply suspicious of the idea that being a feminist makes you a better person. It doesn’t.*
The moment you think that being feminist means being good, or start conflating your feminism with your goodness, you add more and more light to the room — I am feminist / brave / strong / loving / compassionate / smart / fair / progressive / superior — and you start casting a bigger and bigger shadow. You stop being able to see where you’re scared / vulnerable / hateful / cold / ignorant / unfair / regressive / flawed. And you need to keep an eye on that. You just do.
— Sady Tigerbeatdown Doyle
Here’s a brief break from #dasracistday — or is it? — where I talk about this essay Sady wrote. (Sady, whom I casually refer to as “my amazing and lovely girlfriend”: full disclosure.)
I know the jumping off points for this essay, I think. This part I quoted is just a very tiny sliver of it (it’s a few thousand words), so let me also give a bit of context. A few weeks ago Sady wrote a lengthy and critical essay about Game of Thrones. Actually, well it was lengthy, but it was more a scorecard with commentary than an essay. Well, but it was very thoughtful commentary, and funny. It was an enumeration of the violence from Martin’s books, which enumeration she wrote after reading all the books in like two days because she reads really quickly. And she was, I think, pretty overwhelmed by how shitty the books treated women (and everyone, but when a site’s description is “Ladybusiness”, you should know there’s going to be a cultural lens, as it were). After reading all the books, she wrote this really long essay/scorecard about it. No one really denied anything that she wrote about, but it seemed (to me) that a lot of people sort of took issue with her tone, because she tried to preclude the sort of straight-up disagreement that we all know (or don’t, I don’t know) all know occurs when something that’s engendered a what you’d call “large fandom”. The sort of disagreement that’s only charitably called “disagreement”, and more often called “partisanship” or “rabidness”, as in “rabid fan of”. Which, not sure why that’s generally seen as positive.
So, at the beginning of this essay, Sady wrote, “And at the end of the day, here is what the people in the ‘fandom’ are going to take away: You don’t like my toys? I hate you!”, which is exactly what happened. A lot. Now, I know that just predicting what will happen doesn’t mean you’re not culpable in its happening, but it was a fairly swift and brutal response to a thing that, to me, seemed fairly black and white: George R R Martin’s books are a symphony of rape, violence, child abuse, murder, etc. You know, fantastic fiction in the most literal sense. Which seems indisputable. The meaning of it all, of course, is what’s interesting and apparently at play.
To be honest, I didn’t follow the way this shook out as closely as I should have. Because I’m also busy and whatnot, and also because Sady always seems like an eminently capable person. You know, right? Except that she’s not. I’m not saying she’s not “eminently capable”, but rather that she’s not undeserving of someone — especially her boyfriend, for instance — stepping up when it seems like hundreds of people are piling on. Just some casual googling around this morning leads me to one Alyssa Rosenberg. Like, you know, I’m inherently uninterested in catching up with vast mythologies that are boring to me. I’ll read the Lost-o-pedia all day, but I have a hard time paying attention to a lot of Game of Thrones stuff. So when I see this post, that seems ostensibly to defend Game of Thrones, I sort of feel like I’m being lied to. I get that Rosenberg is looking at the “fantasy genre in general”, but it seems pretty disingenuous to respond to an intrinsically Game of Thrones-related line of discourse using… all women fantasy writers. All empowering women fantasy writers. Writers who seem like they would not be interested in depicting a world that’s a grabbag of rape and murder. Rosenberg’s more specific defense of Game of Thrones seems, not to be a partisan here, equally specious. Flawed is Rosenberg’s third point, that the criteria for the good depiction of rape is unclear, so where do you draw the line? With this scene? Or that scene? Or that other scene? How about not making your entire, thousands of pages of novels center on a rape-based economy of interaction???? If there were a “rape scene in that one George Martin book”, then I don’t think it would be an issue. I think the point is that it’s not “one rape scene”, but rather an overwhelming preponderance of rape. Like a creepy fascination with depicting rape, a la American Psycho or 20-year-old rap(e)-fabulist Tyler, the creator. Yes, if you want to watch the TV mini-series equivalent of an Odd Future song, go ahead, but then you’re decidedly not going to be insulated from the epi-phenomena: You really love this thing that fanatically depicts rape, torture, and murder. FULL STOP. What those things are employed for may be up for debate, but IT IS NOT UP FOR DEBATE THAT YOU HAVE SPENT HOURS ENJOYING READING ABOUT TENS OR HUNDREDS OF RAPES. FULL STOP. Rosenberg’s second and first points are flawed, too, I think, for various reasons. But this post here has sort of gone off the rails. I just am catching up here, and it’s making me kind of angry.
So my original point, here, is that this Game of Thrones essay was widely criticized (not in the clinical, Kantian sense, but in the vernacular). And Sady knew it would be because I think she knows she’s in a pretty awful business, this ladybusiness, but it’s the business she’s passionate about, and it’s also the business she knows in more than a physical way.
So this is what this post is about: does it not occur to people that when people spend a lot of time criticizing something, it’s because that’s what the critic finds in him or herself? When you see meanness and small-mindedness or cruelty in others, it’s because you have it in yourself even more, maybe? Or think you do?
The part after the part I quoted above says,
In Psychology and Religion, Jung talks about the shift from religious to secular thinking — what happened when we stopped projecting our own dark sides into the supernatural, stopped seeing it as a Devil or demons, tempting us into sin. Not believing in these demons didn’t make them go away, he says; instead, “you can find them spread out in the newspapers, in books, rumors, and ordinary social gossip.” When we took the demons out of Hell, we put them in Paris Hilton. Or Keith Olbermann. Or me, or your evil ex, or anyone else you’ve decided that you hate because they are just plain Bad.
“We are still so sure we know what other people think or what their true character is. We are convinced that certain people have all the bad qualities we do not know in ourselves, or that they practice all those vices which could, of course, never be our own,” he writes. And: “If you can imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw all these projections, then you get an individual who is conscious of a considerable shadow. Such a man has saddled himself with new problems and conflicts. He has become a serious problem to himself, as he is now unable to say that they do this or that, they are wrong, and they must be fought against… Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow, he has done something real for the world.”
The self-abnegating, I’ll-just-say-it gambit of pointing out the nerd’s tendency to say, “I’m going to take my toys and go!” is not discerned entirely from watching nerds. It’s familiar behavior of oneself, in just about everyone. I guess the presumption of psychology is that we’re all basically pretty similar, and I think that’s probably true for various reasons material and social. The things you have control over are where you put your body and what you do with it, but feelings (not preferences) about things, I think, tend to be similar across the board. So, to call back to Tigerbeatdown, you might not want to date a Magic player, and that says something about you, I guess. But it’s universal that there are reasons why people don’t want to date other people; the underlying structure of the sentiment is the homogenous, even if its etiology is heterogenous.
I think a lot of people presume a lot of things about a lot of people. I know, before I met Sady, I knew her from her blog, and I knew her to be this really strong, sort of firebrand person who made me laugh a lot. And the truth is similar to that the way a 30/60/90 triangle is similar to a larger 30/60/90 triangle. But what you see on the page is, now to get a little post-structuralist, just what’s not not on the page. There’s a whole lot of stuff that accretes in your mind, or that might cause you to say stuff, that’s not said at all. The light source to the projections, say. And the saying the projections are a way to help snuff them out, maybe. It’s at least a way to work them out.
So that’s one thing: that the criticisms you make (Kantian or vernacular) of others almost always come somehow from some place inside yourself. And that when people seem like a monolithic, easily-iterating criticism machine, they’re actually probably more like a sin-eater or something, and probably not super happy about it.
The other thing that shakes out of the quote above (above) is that it’s really interesting to me, how pervasive is the idea that having a particular philosophy — or even aesthetic — lends one a concomitant moral value. That’s an entirely flawed way to look at society and value, but it’s pretty common. I listened to Mike Birbiglia on Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist podcast the other day (catching up, sort of), and they conflated social-economic status, cultural values, and political values to make the point that Democrats (or liberals) cannot be racist, which is laughably untrue. I see this sort of thing come up with race a lot, and it’s clearly the most interesting part of why I’m interested in Das Racist and a lot of music / sports / culture in general. The different valences that our values seem to have, and the limitations that sort of thinking inculcates, are a real problem that a lot of people have no interest in clearing up. I try to do that, but I don’t do a great job at it.
I probably have inside myself a deep-seated ambivalence toward race. Scratch the “probably”. I do, which is why race is so interesting to me. It’s not the most fun thing in the world, to try to show all your white friends and colleagues this writing you’ve done that basically says they’re white devils, you know? And I know I don’t really present, online at least, as a person of color, so there’s some double ambivalence.
But inside yourself you have basically all the things you don’t like about everyone else, and the more able you are at saying, or the louder or bigger you seem to be at identifying those things, the more you might be wracked by them. Or certainly you’d be able to stop saying them, right? It’s not for fun or profit that you buck the system. You’re better off trying to develop a jump shot than an argument at why the kyriarchy is responsible for widespread misery.
So that’s just something I wanted to say. If you ever feel angry or uncomfortable about something someone (eg me) said that’s trying to undercut your assumptions about life, then think about how angry or uncomfortable you feel, and then imagine that that person feels like that but probably a lot worse, too, because they see it in the thing they’re criticizing and also in themselves, and probably also as just this sort of always-present feature of life that will probably never go away, no matter how well (or loudly) they talk about it, and then see which side you feel most comfortable joining in on, even if that means being discomfited by someone else instead of yourself, because I know you feel the same way about other things, too.