I find myself not knowing quite where to begin, as I don’t imagine everything here will be taken super well. But that’s kind of the problem and the point of the post.
We’ll start with some backstory: Some five years ago, my dad turned me on to the existence of Skepchick, and Teen Skepchick in particular since TS was looking for new bloggers and he figured that might be my jam. I wrote my first ever semi-professional piece, it was published on Teen Skepchick as a guest post, and a couple weeks later I was on the writing team. So began my involvement in the atheist community.
Being a writer on a sister site to something as major as Skepchick was a fantastic opportunity, and it set me on a course to developing an incredibly supportive network of friends and acquaintances made up of my peers. I’m still friends with a handful of my fellow TS bloggers today–actually I do a podcast with one of them.
I met more people at conventions, started writing for Queereka and then FTB (Freethought Blogs), sat on panels and even gave a talk, accruing new friends all the while. Until I found myself in the middle of an amazing, interconnected group of skeptics, atheists, feminists, and progressive thinkers. I’ve known many of these people for years, and have always appreciated how fortunate I am to be among people who accept me (including many of my fellow bloggers here at The Orbit).
As it happens, I also joined the Skepchick network riiiiight around the time Rebecca Watson uttered the phrase, “Guys, don’t do that,” and what had initially appeared to be a unified movement started to thoroughly implode.
It started with online harassment, then people were ripping off Surly Amy’s style and wearing shirts about how they weren’t “skepchicks,” or that they felt safe at TAM (The Amazing Meeting)–an event which was reportedly unsafe for women who didn’t want to be sexually harassed. I didn’t understand the hate and stood fully by the women who were being hurt in our community.
The splinters kept happening and the rifts deepened. They keep happening still, if there’s even much to be said about a cohesive “atheist movement” at this point. Granted, due to this splintering and the fact that much of the toxicity was coming from within the skeptic community, I moved my focus away from that and onto things that seemed more important in the light of intersectionality. Greta’s words about the impossibility of being inclusive to everyone rang true for me.
I followed where the majority of my friends had gone, because it was the right place to be. I listened to the voices of people oppressed differently than me, and spoke out against injustices to my people. Sociology [and linguistics] fascinates me, so I’m more often interested than annoyed when some seemingly benign aspect of language is revealed to be a piece of the oppressive puzzle. I was properly ashamed of that time I had dreadlocks and that time I had a mohawk, or at least embarrassed in acknowledging what others called cultural appropriation.
And now.. the splinters keep happening. Except it’s not just splintering any more. It seems as though I lucked into this particular social group that, as new things are revealed to be toxic or new allegations pop up, is continuously and meticulously clipping any discoloration in the leaves of our tree. Not to mention the everyday interpersonal conflicts that sometimes force people to choose between friends.
I’m not going to fault people for curating their own social media to their preferences or keeping themselves safe by not affiliating with certain people. Absolutely, protect yourself and your space and your friends. And I also get that there’s burnout, especially for women who dealt with harassment throughout this years-long implosion and even before. This isn’t really about that; I mean, I guess unless the overwhelming majority of people I affiliate with are regularly in burnout or high-privacy-fence mode? Maybe?
There’s a part of me that’s grateful for my tendency to observe before I speak, and speak softly at that. Because lately I’m finding myself increasingly at odds with what the majority of my friends think, and I’m only just realizing what the possible consequences of that are if I’m vocal. Depending on the issue, of course.
Take, for example, election night, when DJT won the race for the office of the Presidency. It was the middle of the night, I was drunk and blubbering along with a friend of mine who is still very much at risk of being deported. In such a state, I posted on Facebook something about wondering what the statistical difference will be in the likelihood that I will be targeted for being an F-slur or a T-slur. I used the words (with a proper CN) because I wanted the raw fear to show through, and because I know those words don’t necessarily apply to me, but they will be the ones shouted at me if the worst should happen.
The next day, two people I don’t know (presumably trans women) informed me that it was improper for me to use the T-slur, seemingly regardless of the context. And they also disregarded that it’s something I actually have been called before, and that it is the slur people would default to if they were inflicting violence on me for being trans. Fun fact: their response to that last bit was that it was unlikely to happen to me, at which point I abandoned the conversation because invectives were flying off my tongue and it seemed like a bad idea to stay involved.
Granted, that was two people I don’t know, who were called in like a cavalry by someone on my friends list who Liked every one of their comments and later unfriended me. If I only lost one acquaintance there, not a huge deal, and several friends backed up my position. But the glaring refusal to acknowledge context and the silencing I’ve experienced as a transmasculine person was a sharp reminder of how the people I’ve surrounded myself with behave on the internet.
Fast forward a few months to February. The internet is exploding over the YouTuber PewDiePie (Felix Kjellberg), whose existence I have always been more or less indifferent to. (It’s relevant, stay with me.) I was following the news mostly because it was everywhere and I want to keep updated on what’s happening in the broader YouTube community, especially if there’s overlap with the other issues I take seriously as an amateur sociologist. In this case, white supremacy and anti-Semitism.
To be clear before we go any further: I don’t stand by Felix; I’m pretty much the same degree of indifferent as I was before. My opinion regarding the videos that came into question is that some of it is blatantly bad, some of it is clearly just poor comedy skills, and some of it kinda does make sense in context. That’s basically all I have to say about it, because I don’t feel qualified and I don’t care about Felix or whether my friends think he’s a garbage person. I do, however, care about his friends.
During this media firestorm, something flitted across my news feed. It was a screencap of fellow YouTuber Markiplier (Mark Fischbach) tweeting a generic form of support to Felix, with a caption about how [half-Korean] Mark is a Nazi sympathizer or an enabler of white supremacy. Shared by someone outside my main network.
So, here’s where I lost my shit a little bit, and I do own up to that.
For a number of reasons, I object very strongly to putting Mark (and others who affiliate with Felix, namely Jacksepticeye [Seán McLoughlin]) in that pile of garbage people. At the time, I didn’t really have the language capacity to communicate effectively what I wanted to say, and yet I was having an emotional event and Facebook has always been a place where I can vent. Thus, I made a public Facebook post about what I’d just seen.
Like I said, it wasn’t well-worded. The beginning and the end addressed the thing I was concerned about: dragging Felix’s friends through the dirt. In the middle I made a remark to the effect of “I’m pretty sure 80% of people freaking out over this don’t even know the full story.” I’m really not sure how I thought that tied in, but again, mentally ill and not thinking straight. And again, this was a Public post, so it wasn’t directed at anyone specifically.
The reception was not what I expected. Not that I have expectations for responses to what I say, but I did not expect to be so thoroughly misunderstood or to have people fixate on the part in the middle rather than the main point I was trying to make, or side against me about Felix’s friends continuing to be his friends. It’s one thing to see callout culture from the outside and watch people getting blocked and quite another to realize you might end up that person who isn’t progressive enough to warrant keeping in the pack.
This was the first time it struck me that saying the wrong thing could literally sabotage not only individual friendships, but my whole support system and professional networking relationships.
It’s kind of poetical how this all ties together.
I feel strongly about not putting Felix’s friends in the way of crossfire. (And so does Felix, as he has withdrawn from any collaborative works.) To start, both Mark and Seán spoke to Felix privately before publicly showing their support, and they know him more personally than anyone speculating. They are both in a position in which they kind of have to respond publicly because of their fanbase. The three of them share a unique experience of being gaming YouTubers with incredibly large audiences. They are (more “were” now, I suppose) also in a position where sabotaging their friendship with Felix could have colossal professional fallout, as they were all under the same MCN (Multi-Channel Network) until Disney dropped the PewDiePie channel.
In addition, Seán had already recorded all his parts for season 2 of the now-cancelled YouTube Red show Scare PewDiePie. That’s missing time and money for all involved parties.
Here we come to the crux issue, what I feel is the most simple logical thought-train to explain why putting Mark or Seán on blast for continuing to be Felix’s friend is a horrible thing to do.
Mark and Seán are running a model in their heads of what a good person does–what a good friend does. Whether or not they agree with his actions (and Seán was actually rather scathing in a video explicitly saying he doesn’t condone Felix’s actions), they’re doing what a good friend does: stay by their friend when the whole internet AND mainstream media are attacking him personally. They may think his attempts at comedy are misguided–harmful even–but they display understanding, loyalty, and recognition that people can change their behavior when confronted with their shortcomings. Note that neither of the tweets included in this article are messages of support of Felix’s actions, but rather his character.
Given all that, it seems to follow pretty simply that if criticism and ire is going to be directed at Mark and Seán for remaining friends with Felix, and particularly for publicly supporting him as a friend, we are advocating for Felix’s good friends and business partners to dump him when he most needs support and people who will tell him he did wrong in a way he can be receptive to. (Which is exactly what happened in private, before public statements were made.) Human psychology dictates that he’s more likely to double-down under the media criticism, but having a friend explain things without vilifying him might actually reach him.
Let me repeat: If we criticize people for standing by their friends, we are advocating that they dump them. And maybe a lot of people I know do think Felix is an irredeemable fuckwad, and that it is appropriate action to cut off ties of years of friendship and professional ventures and collaborative charity work.
I’m not making excuses for unapologetic bigotry or saying it shouldn’t be called out, but merely pointing out that we have all been raised in systems that enforce all kinds of prejudices, and a certain amount of understanding ought to be given to people making honest mistakes, rather than assuming they intended harm. (Just as intent doesn’t erase damage done, neither does damage done imply intent.) Maybe his mistakes are too many and too severe for anyone in my circles to think anything less than punishment by isolation (on top of media-fueled harassment) is appropriate.
Are you seeing how this is coming together?
I wrote a post about not shitting on Mark or Seán for doing what they think is right as Felix’s friends. I worded it poorly and my true message was lost. And then I realized that if Mark is supposedly a white-supremacy-enabler by association, then my continued support of his work could be perceived as tacit approval of Nazi sympathizers.
Which is when it hit me that my place in my social network is extremely tenuous. If I keep talking about Markiplier, will my friends slowly resent my willingness to affiliate myself with him? Will they see me as deviating too far from our social conventions and thus name me unsafe? I wonder how many people have noticed that I’ve withdrawn the majority of my public (including to a friends-only audience) discussions of my personal issues since then.
And think not that this is just a problem I’m having. I can think of at least two people who are well-liked and well-respected in my community (and are big fucking SJWs like me) who have publicly expressed concern over having to be extremely careful with what they say for fear of the consequences from fellow feminists. One of them has, like me, the very real possibility of losing valuable professional relationships as well as friends. For the record, neither of them are men.
Which, while we’re on the topic, none of this has addressed the increased level of hostility I’ve received from fellow feminists since changing my name and having a relatively obscure, difficult to gender profile picture. Meaning, the more often people perceive me as male, the shittier they are to me even though my positions have stayed roughly the same and I’m talking to essentially the same people. I’ve never been so preemptively apologetic every time I participate in a comment thread or post on my own page; I’m walking on eggshells carefully scattered over shards of broken glass.
Ultimately, my point is that we’ve defaulted to a culture of zero-tolerance of dissent, which is counterintuitive for a group of people that purports to be doing activism to change the world we live in. Even in our own community, some issues get a pass when others don’t (such as ableist remarks, which we are doubling-down on but only quite recently). People must be allowed to make mistakes, given time to learn and grow once they’ve been told they’re behaving improperly. Remember that it took months of strife between the community and Ophelia Benson, with her obstinate and continued refusal to acknowledge the potential harm she was doing, before people who were closest friends with her were forced to burn that bridge. Some people still have her on their friends list to keep tabs on her despite her behavior, while others blocked her for their safety or the safety of their loved ones. No one seems to be demonizing those who remain friends with her [or other alleged douchebags] to keep track of her movements, just as I refuse to demonize people who block her for their safety.
It simply isn’t feasible to cut people off for infractions they might not even be aware they committed, and we should well know that as a community where burning bridges can result in loss of professional contacts and the support network that keeps people fed, their medications paid for, and protects them from homelessness.
I’ve been carried by the tide of good fortune from Teen Skepchick all the way to The Orbit, with good friends all around. And I’ve had to watch as we slowly become exactly what people deride us for: Radical leftists who are hostile to people with differing opinions (even if nuanced; I’m not talking about actual bigotry here), who have created an echo chamber by being click-happy about blocking people for slight deviations, and who are hostile and dismissive toward people perceived as male.
We have created an environment where even those of us who are respected and reputable fear losing, quite literally in my case, the entire support network, give or take a handful of people. I’m putting my reputation and many of my friendships on the line by writing this. Which is why I’ve almost entirely withdrawn. I’ve been jarred hard enough to see what I couldn’t see before, and I no longer trust the majority of those who would name themselves “friend.”
“Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind–even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants.” —Maggie Kuhn