Thursday, July 24, 2014

When Fandom Is Ugly

Let me first make this very clear: I love fandom. When you're Odd, going to a con is a relief. Finally, you can use the word "grok" in a sentence without people giving you the side-eye. Finally, you can wear a Bajoran earring without people questioning your fashion sense. In the ordinary work-a-day world, I don't have many folks with whom I can gab about this year's Hugo nominations (which I will be discussing next week before the ballot deadline); at a con, however, I can hang with My People and feel secure that my passion for, say, Babylon 5 or Larry Niven won't be seen as peculiar.

But fandom can be ugly -- and before people start accusing me of "body shaming," I'm not talking about aesthetics. I'm talking about certain prevailing attitudes that detract from my enjoyment of fandom, either because they personally make me feel disrespected and unwelcome or because they just make me feel skeevy even though I'm not actually the target.

First of all, we have the science worship and the consequent ridicule of religious belief. In the July 21st issue of National Review (which is unfortunately behind a pay wall, but if you like, you can follow this link and drop a quarter for the relevant article), Charles C. W. Cooke notes that many media personalities in our supposed elite class have glommed onto "Science!" as a way to differentiate themselves from the proles. Well, I have seen that very same trend seep into fannish spaces, where folks who have no formal scientific training whatsoever nevertheless latch onto pop science as an excuse to mock people they don't like. What follows, of course, are smug obeisances to the "Flying Spaghetti Monster" and "his noodle-y appendages" -- or a string of memes that endlessly flog the depravities of the Westboro Baptist Church. 

Granted, the WBC is an easy and deserving target; those protesters are so far off the Christian plantation that they wouldn't be able to see orthodoxy even if they used a high-powered telescope. And that's why using the WBC as the exemplar of Christendom is so insulting. Quick thought experiment: What do you think would happen in the fandom if someone started holding up Boko Haram as an exemplar of Islam? Are you kidding? We all know exactly what would transpire: The offending individual would be run out of town on a metaphorical rail, and the fannish blogosphere would subsequently spend weeks discussing the rich history of Islam and how equating Islam with the radicalism of Boko Haram made Muslims in the fandom feel "unsafe." 

Well, guess what? When the fandom starts talking about Christianity as if all it is is prudery and gay hatred, I, as a practicing Catholic Christian, feel "unsafe." Why don't my feelings matter? Why is fandom so scrupulously careful to differentiate between moderate Islam and its radical off-shoots -- and yet so eager to lump us Christians together under the same "fundamentalist" banner? Why is it beyond the pale to "hit" a Muslim fan -- and yet a-okay to "hit" me?  Because Christianity happens to be America's majority faith? Treating a group differently because they are a minority is wrong -- but treating a group differently because they are the majority is just as wrong. As I've argued in previous posts, genuine justice demands that all people be subject to the same code of conduct and accorded the same respect. I know that some folks in the Church have attacked fandom and fannish pursuits (like, for example, the Christians who insist that Harry Potter encourages interest in the occult), and this I deeply regret. The wrong-headedness of a few of my Christian brothers and sisters does not, however, justify your abusive (and ignorant) straw-man characterizations of my faith. Revenge may make you feel better, but to call it "social justice" is a blatant misuse of the English language.

The other thing that bothers me about the fandom is the ease with which fans point to their subjective tastes and educational backgrounds as signs of their overall superiority. Like most fans, I prefer Firefly to American Idol -- but that fact does not make me better than my mother, whose tastes run in the opposite direction. Like most fans, I would rather stay home and watch Star Trek than go to a football game -- but that fact does not make me better than the guy who paints his chest orange and roots for Clemson. It is true that, as a group, we fans are unusually well-credentialed (and I use that descriptor because a college degree and an education are not necessarily synonymous), but even that demographic reality does not magically impart upon us special wisdom, moral perfection, or the divine right to lord our supposed "smarts" over others. 

And yet, on a particular Dragon Con social media page I occasionally visit, it is apparently considered axiomatic that the college football fans who share our convention hotels over the Labor Day weekend are all stupid brutes who would like nothing more than to grope the pretty con attendees who visit the lobby bars wearing barely legal fairy costumes. To be sure, inappropriate contact probably has happened at said bars; what else would you expect in an environment in which people are consuming literal buckets of liquor?  But the assumption that drunk sports fans are somehow more prone to harass girls than are drunk science fiction fans has no actual basis in reality. What it is, instead, is an expression of lingering adolescent resentments. Because quite a few of us were bullied by popular jocks in high school, we have constructed this defensive view of the world in which we fans are wonderful and blameless and mundanes are very much the opposite. But things are not that simple. Indeed - and people are probably going to jump on me for saying this - there are times when sci-fi fans invite their harassment either by ignoring basic standards of personal hygiene (people have started dressing as "Febreze fairies" at Dragon Con for a reason) or, more importantly, by treating non-fans with open contempt. If you don't want your head to be dunked in a toilet - either literally or metaphorically - it might be a good idea not to talk to that Clemson football enthusiast like he's an idiot. Which is not to say that toilet-dunking is somehow justified by the victim's being an asshole -- but all the same, even people with, perhaps, a lower IQ than yours can detect condescension, and even though the bullying itself isn't valid, the feeling of degradation behind it is.

In sum, while I am happy to be a part of fandom, it may be time for some of us to use our powers of critical thought to challenge our own conduct and root out unbecoming behavioral tics that make us look like arrogant bastards. Such self-examination can only make fandom a more pleasant and inviting place.


  1. You're a narrow-minded person, just like I am. [Joking Grin]

  2. I'd say that SOMEBODY needs to check their Fannish Privilege. (evil grin)

    But, alas, nobody's made a "Snobby Fannish SJW Privilege" kit yet, and I don't expect any, anytime soon. . . . so they're just going to have to deal with it. . . ;)

  3. I saw quite of bit of anti-Christian fan snobbery in some of the panels the last time I went to DragonCon, to be honest it put a major check in the box against my desire to go back. I'm sick of having people who don't follow my faith and have not read up on it, even a little bit, past social media postings lecture me on the topic. Oh, and the FSM is soooooooo 2003. As far as the fan snobbery, I'm not sure if it's worse or not than music fandom - I ought to write up the story of a concert I went to in DC back in 2010, not too long before Jaime and moved to Florida.....

  4. I've long felt than in fandom, there is a subconscious "bullied kid grew up to become a bully" phenomenon. If you doubt that churches have a history of putting social pressure on fan society, ask anyone who lived through the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, when many churches attacked everything from Heavy Metal music and Stephen King novels to fantasy in general and role-playing games (especially Dungeons & Dragons) in particular. These attacks have softened over time, but there's still a lot of criticism by churches out there today against things like Harry Potter, video games, and even the new Cosmos miniseries. Furthermore, it really shouldn't be surprising that people in the *science*-fiction fan community tend to take the side of science over religion in things like the evolution debate. And, of course, there are a lot of people drawn to fandom who follow Wicca or other pagan beliefs, which many churches at best condemn as heathenism and at worst confuse with Satanism. My point is, there is a good reason why some in the fannish community are hostile toward organized religion - lots of churches have given them good reasons to be!
    That said, it does seem to be only a small minority of fundamentalists who hold these extreme positions. Unfortunately, they're a very vocal minority that generates a lot of attention. If you don't approve of, for example, the people who consider Harry Potter to be Satanic, SAY SO! Distance yourself from them. Say that you consider yourself a Christian, but that you feel the Westboro Baptists have the right stick by the wrong end. My experience (as a Catholic fan) is that once you establish yourself as a mainstream Christian and not an extremist, most fans are surprisingly tolerant of that – sort of a "if you don't judge me, then I won't judge you" mentality. Finally, of course, the best way to change their attitudes towards Christians is to lead by example. If you can break down the black/white, religion/science, mundane/fans dichotomy into more nuanced blends of the two, people will notice and might reexamine their assumptions.

    Give it a try. Good luck!