Homophobia in the Richard Armitage fandom, or: what I’d like to say on #SCD2016
Putting this on infinite loop while I write. I realize and accept that this is a highly controversial issue and that I will potentially take flak for saying this. Just think of it as my contribution to #SCD2016. Let’s just say — I’m not on board with the unreserved positivity message. Not before this, and especially not after this week. Positivity is used way too often to cover up real problems. So yeah, this is also a partial, tangential, response to Richard Armitage’s statement about empathy.
So, apparently Richard Armitage is sticking with CyberSmile and so we’ve gotten another message. There are many reasons I can’t get on board with this initiative, a lot of them having to do with free speech issues, and I won’t go through them again, but one that I haven’t discussed yet is my reaction, not to hypothetical bullying, but to actual speech within the fandom. I’ve been annoyed for a long time about the lack of a realistic definition of bullying / bully with this foundation (although they are trying to correct this), and frankly, most of the speech that induces bad feeling of whatever kind in the fandom does not — in my opinion — constitute bullying. Defining bullying is not my topic for today, though.
Rather, today I want to discuss the problem that most of the fandom (as I perceive it) seems much more worried about potential bullying of Richard Armitage than of our fellow fans. Time after time in the last two years, when Armitage tweets about this topic and others, fans comment to reassure him that he shouldn’t respond to harassment or bullying. People are still worried that he’ll leave Twitter (I think this is highly unlikely as long as he’s a CyberSmile Ambassador). Major worry arises whenever disagreement occurs, and the “good fan / bad fan” dichotomy raises its ugly head. People who say things that disturb the commentator aren’t real fans or are bad fans. I admit that this discourse irritates me, but in the end, it’s not illegal and it’s definitely not bullying to say these things in the way that they are usually said, even if some of the comments make me cringe. I figure that’s part of the social contract of fandom. You cringe at what I write; I cringe at what you write; we’re even.
Many of us were disturbed by Richard Armitage’s decision to delete his tweets about Orlando and not entirely convinced by his explanation of same. This was a minority position among active fans and superfans, but it wasn’t an isolated or anomalous one, either. And yet, there are always people who come in for special treatment, even within the minority. Yesterday, two people popped up — the tweep to whom Richard Armitage responded in his tweet stating that he felt his thoughts were futile, and another fan on tumblr who expressed very eloquently and reasonably her frustration with the deleted tweet.
Non-bullying responses to both these fans appeared, replies that disturbed me as a reader. The fans were charged with using his deletes as an excuse to attack him or “daring” inappropriately to question Armitage’s decisions or “dictating” them out of “egoism and snobbery.” Armitage, in contrast, was praised multiply for responding to an allegedly “rude” fan. I’m not going to link to these statements because I don’t care to contribute to a pile-on. I don’t want to imply or claim that these troubling responses characterize our fandom, but at the same time they were widely seen within it and fellow fans will remember them, especially those who were addressed and who care about the same issues. Neither am I saying that the responders lacked the right to say what they said, that they should have been silent because they couldn’t be positive (CyberSmile’s dominant message), or even that what they said constituted bullying. All of them would have been deleted from my blog if they had appeared here because they were ad hominem / personal attacks, but I don’t control the entire social media world, more’s the pity. I don’t like to throw around the word “homophobic,” because I don’t think it’s useful except in a particular set of circumstances. And I don’t think that the vast majority of the fandom is homophobic in the sense that we seek to restrict civil rights for LGBTTQQIAAP people. But if you’re wondering why people call our fandom homophobic? This type of thing is why.
Of course, the problem is not limited to that particular hot-button issue. As I said, these responses were not bullying, according to my definition of the term, which involves both actual threat and repeated harassment, although they might be thought of as such in some parts of the fandom. They are just further evidence that somehow in this fandom, it’s become perfectly okay to communicate cruelly with, say disparaging things about, or make personal attacks on our fellow fans, especially if it’s in defense of Richard Armitage. I don’t know what he thinks about that, and to be frank, it doesn’t matter to me that much. I know how I feel about it. In essence, people have in the past, and I suspect, will in the future, use the command to have empathy as a reason to empathize with Armitage and take up the verbal brickbat against other fans.
Applying my own rule about dealing with potential trolls to this situation, I’d suggest first trying to learn something about the speaker whose speech is bothering me and to think — not feel, think — about how they might response to the context of what was said.
Context: We were in a situation where 50 people were killed and numerous others injured severely when a terrorist attacked a well-known gay night club in Orlando, Florida. Armitage tweeted twice, then deleted both tweets.
What can be known about them? The tweep has a Russian name on her account (“dalekiy sputnik,” cute name, I think), and makes many tweets in Russian. This suggests that she is potentially not a native speaker. This situation always complicates speech (on top of the 140 character limit in Twitter). I remember the eyebrows raised when ex-SO, a German, visited my parents for the first time and said to my mother at some point, “Please, where is the toilet?” That is borderline rude here, albeit harmless, but many non-native speakers lack the entire palette of possibilities when asking questions. The tweep lives in Russia, which recently instituted a series of truly draconian laws affecting the civil rights of LGBT people to be publicly “out” there, something that disturbs a lot of Russians, both gay and straight.
Finally, the gender clues on the person’s page are confusing — the avatar is an individual with a pronounced Adam’s apple, the description says “woman.” Maybe the picture is not the picture of the woman (more culturally aware people than me probably know), and I myself am a woman who has a picture of man as her Twitter avatar, but I admit that this raises gender questions in my mind. [ETA: the picture is of “Amazing Phil.” Thanks to chrissyinwm for clarification.] The tumblr fan is a “bisexual, married old lady.”
See, this is what I don’t get. Maybe someone can explain it to me. In a situation where LGBT people and their allies all over the world were reeling about an attack on a gay night club — the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history is now also a homophobic hate crime — wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that LGBT people and their allies would be upset? (This is a rhetorical question.) Armitage tweets and then deletes on the topic — both fairly mainstream opinions, if one was potentially less innocuous than the other in certain circles. He’s a celebrity who is, no matter what fans unsympathetic to this position think about his own sexual orientation or other fans’ views, the object of widespread gay and gay-themed fantasy. I personally don’t have an issue with this — I was happy to lust after him right along with the male baristas at my favorite Sbux — although I know others do (and that yet others have a problem with straight women lusting after men who may not be straight). He is also the spokesperson for an anti-bullying charity (such as it is). I can’t say this enough — just thinking about this for ten seconds and reading the obvious identity clues on these accounts would make it seem reasonable for those people, given his statements in the past, who he is, and what he says he stands for, to ask him why he deleted those tweets or express disappointment about or displeasure with his decision.
But, and here I’m sorry, Mr. Armitage — I don’t think navigating this situation ethically requires fans to develop any empathy at all — which is a frighteningly high burden to place on any human and not, in my opinion, warranted in every circumstance. There are people I am not going to empathize with and I don’t think it’s a worthy goal to try to empathize with everyone. One really can’t tell people with whom they need to empathize and the last forty years of politics in the United States underline this point — they have to come to it on their own. But in this case, I don’t have to. I also don’t have to intend to be good or kind or anything like that. I just have to stop and think for a bit.
I don’t have to be LGBT (I’m not), I don’t have to be a shipper (according to some people I am, according to others, I’m not, and my middle of the road position on this has occasionally bought me grief), I don’t have to be in sympathy with the LGBT political rights movement (I am), I don’t even need to think that the event in question is horrible (although I do). I don’t have to agree with these fans’ questions, or like them, nor do I need to see the world from the perspective of these fans at all, actually. All I have to do to understand and accept these statements for what they were — and short-circuit myself from engaging in personal attack — is to recognize that in that situation it is perfectly reasonable for those fans to be asking the questions they were asking in the way they were asked. Then I can just say, well, I don’t agree, but it’s a reasonable question for that person to ask.
And — and this is the hard part for me and every other fan, but I honestly think it’s the key problem for us — I have to stop prioritizing empathy with you, Mr. Armitage (which I would argue is a self-deception anyway) in favor of not attacking fellow fans. Just taking this step — all of us reducing the kneejerk statements about “haters” and “trolls” and “bullies” in the fandom — would go a long way toward solving our issues with “positivity.”
Because no one has to have empathy with anyone in order to treat others fairly.