I Remember Controversy (and all the stages of emotional flail that accompany it)
I've been active in LJ Buffy fandom for nearly three years now, and I've been lucky enough to become friends with so many of you. Admittedly, my corner of fandom is very Spuffy-centric, but nonetheless welcoming of people who are also Spuffy-friendly even if they don't necessarily identify as shippers.
My entrance into the scene on LJ came in the spirit of battle. I've had an account since 2004 when I first learned about the fanfiction held here and I wanted to keep track of certain fic authors journals (and btw, those authors primarily wrote Bangel fic, like librarian2003 whose short fic "Bones" still haunts me to this day; just thinking about it wrenches my heart). But the day I became a true part of LJ, I came to fight. A friendly fight, sure, I didn't want to offend anyone, but I wanted to win, to defend my opinions and persuade all-comers to acknowledge the validity of my interpretations, if not outright agree with me.
This old discussion was hosted on sueworld2003's journal as she'd interacted with me on Buffy Forums and I'd contended that I had trouble believing that fanfiction existed that was better than Season 8. Keep in mind, this was back in 2009, long before the more outrageous elements of Season 8 were introduced. (I'd still argue against the point that some fanfiction is better than the comics to this day, but that's another post in itself.) I entered the LJ community defending my love of the Season 8 comics. I remember feeling chained to my keyboard, replying to every comment in Sue's journal. I was in a fervor and thankfully Sue allowed me to invade her journal with my Season 8 positivity. It made for lively discussion, even though Sue and I disagreed and still do often disagree about the value of the comics (well, about Season 8, at least... :P). And looking back on it now, I think Sue's hospitality was part of the reason I settled in on LJ (that and moscow_watcher's endless encouragement and warm welcome).
In a way, my history with Sue serves as a demonstration of how two people with very different stances in fandom can co-exist. I think Sue'd be the first to admit she loves to take the piss out of the Buffy comics, just as I love to treat them seriously and, well, just flat-out love them (even when they enrage me, I will defend the good in them). She and I could have easily fallen into an "us vs. them" mentality, and sometimes I do feel like I'm standing opposed to her. Sometimes it's hard to withstand the opposition's arguments, sometimes I just want to be positive and I just want to squee. But getting to know Sue as a person, understanding her voice, her tone, ultimately understanding her, it helped me to appreciate where she's coming from. She once did a voicepost where she complained about the comics and maybe I should blame her British accent for seducing me, but her snarking about the comics is the most glorious comics commentary I've ever heard (as glorious as ladyofthelog's voicepost reaction to #34 :D).
Sue really loves to hate the comics. I can hear it in her voice, I literally heard it, and in hearing that it was like a light clicked on and I was able to move past the idea that she hates something I love, that her hate might hurt my love. I moved past my own perspective, abandoned it for a moment and really listened to her, and I finally began to understand her and I realized that she's having fun. And what's more, that I had fun listening to her and that her hating the comics (with love! oh, she hates with passion!) and gaining so much pleasure from it didn't have to impact my love for the comics. That there was a separate place inside me where my love was still true because I was still me and she was still her, and all the things that shaped our different perspectives were still in place. We existed apart as individuals, influencing each other but not ruling or cancelling out each other, and even though we might not share the same beliefs when it comes to the comics, we can still recognize our respective joy. We can recognize and appreciate that. We can appreciate each other. We co-exist and we're both happier for it.
This sense of peace was hard-won and my experiences with Sue are reflected on a larger scale in my experiences with LJ Buffy fandom. Being a fan of the comics on LJ is hard. It's been hard for years since there's an overwhelmingly negative reaction to the comics, and I have fallen prey to the "us vs. them" mentality from the sense of feeling incredibly outnumbered. My reaction to the numbers of people saying nay was for me to say YAY! as loud as I possibly could. I began to set myself against the crowd and it became harder and harder to fight for every inch. When Spike finally re-entered the comics over a year ago, the divide became even greater as it split my Spuffy-centric corner of LJ. I got swept up in my defense of a positive reading for Spuffy in the comics. It was one thing for me to argue on the comics' behalf in terms of its general worth, but when my shipping got involved, it became an even more controversial situation. Words were said, I said words, other people said words, I said more extreme words, others said more extreme words, and the divide became a chasm born of miscommunication and defensiveness. In short, it got personal.
When fandom discourse gets heated, it's all too easy to take it personally. If someone hates what I love, does that mean I'm stupid for loving it? Am I wrong for loving it? Am I blind for loving it? What does this person's thoughts and feelings say about me? And that's just when the discourse is focused on one person's reaction to the text in opposition to yours. When people start speculating on why other people feel the way they feel about the text: the personal gets ugly. See, you get tired of reflecting that judgment on yourself, so you turn it around and begin to ask: what do these persons' thoughts and feelings say about them?
I did this. I am guilty of this. I can't rightly say who first started saying what and when, but this isn't kindergarten so I'm not going to play the blame game. The point is that the discourse shifted from being about different interpretations to being about why the other person's interpretation is wrong and how that wrongness reflects upon that person's character (hint: it reflects badly).
This, my dear friends, is ad hominem. And I believe it's the reason good people in fandom find themselves caught up in fights with other good people. It escalates from "I disagree," to "I believe you are wrong," to "You are wrong!" to "You are a terrible person (because you are wrong)!" As Willow once said, "Giles, no one is using the 'I' statements."
I lost friends during this time, friends I deeply valued. I've learned from my mistakes since then and I've worked to repair my relationships and one day I hope to be close to certain people again. I still make mistakes, I still feel myself falling into that damned "us vs. them" mentality. Because I want to be good, I want to be right, but also I want to be better, I want to be more right. And it's that endless impulse to compare myself with respect to others that feeds the monster of insecurity living inside me. To fight it off, to beat it back, I breathe deeply to calm myself, to center myself, and I find peace with my own point of view. I realize that my thoughts are valid, that my subjective opinions about fiction are valid as long as I'm not hurting anyone, as long as I'm not engaging in personal judgment and denigration, but keeping my opinions to the text and remembering to give others the benefit of the doubt -- then my thoughts are valid. Yes good. And if I cannot keep to my opinions without harming someone else, then I need to re-examine my opinions (however, if someone thinks racism is totes awesome, obviously I'm not going to worry that I'm in the wrong).
The key word is subjectivity. We're talking about literature and there is no right answer. There's a great answer, there's a well-argued answer, there's an answer that's incongruous with large swaths of the text, but there is no RIGHT. There's no way to truly win, unless you define winning as getting the most people to agree with you. And that's not about a universal truth, that's about jockeying for social position, that's a popularity contest of intellectual superiority. And my oh my, that feels great, having the most people agree with you. But that still doesn't mean you're right. Sometimes an incredibly persuasive person with charisma and a gift for language can argue a point so impressively that everyone agrees -- until they walk away, start to think it through and realize that the argument is utter nonsense. That's an extreme example, but it's important to recognize that the power of persuasion is not merely about being the most logical, it's also about the potent influence of the person's reputation and the rhetorical style in which they present their argument. It might be the most glorious presentation of an argument you've ever encountered, but that doesn't make it right.
In studying literature, we're taught that the best arguments are the ones that provide an interpretation that makes sense of as much of the text as possible. But within these parameters, there's dozens of different schools of thought on how to engage in literary criticism. What about authorial intent? What about social context? What about the formal elements of construction? How do we weight these? Do we incorporate them or do we dismiss them? The value placed on each is ever-shifting depending upon the person doing the interpretation.
There is no right answer. And so navigating this world of diverse opinions can feel a bit like being dropped into Wonderland. You want to engage with others, to gain insight, but you run the risk of your own point of view kaleidoscoping out of control. Is it better to stand alone where your mind is set but stagnant or to throw yourself out into the world and run the risk of losing yourself in the thoughts of others? Finding the balance between the two is a constant struggle to be and to become all at once. How to stay apart as me but be together with them? The struggle between autonomy and solidarity is a constant question, but the answer must not be "us vs. them" or "me vs. the Other" because that inevitably leads to dehumanizing one's opposition.
And so I attempt to commit to this challenge every day in fandom: to know what I believe and to respect the beliefs of people (within reason). It's a constant challenge and I know I fail. A lot. A year ago, a week ago, probably today: there's failing and falling short, I know it. I'm human and I can be petty, arrogant, insensitive, egocentric, [insert more human flaws here]. But my promise to fandom, one I learned through making painful mistakes, is that I will engage in discussing this 'verse we all love without personally attacking anyone. You may love something that I dislike and we can still be friends because I promise to not let my feelings about literature affect how I treat you, and if we are indeed friends, I know you'll do the same for me.
And if I fail, if I fall prey to my weaknesses and insecurities and I resort to ad hominem and personal attacks in order to justify my opinions -- then as my friends I hope you'll feel comfortable enough to come to me and set me straight, call me out, because I'm not willing to forsake and abuse the well-being of others in order to assure my own security. I deserve security, but I don't believe it must be at the expense of others, especially if it means hurting my friends.
If safe space means it's only safe for me, then I might as well be posting for my eyes only. When I post publicly to my journal, I know I'm not standing alone. My public journal does not stand alone on the internet. I am part of a community, part of the virtual web that connects us all, and I have a responsibility to treat others with respect. I want my journal to be a safe space for everyone.
Comments are welcome if you feel like commenting, of course. And thanks for reading this great Wall O' Text. :)
*Also thanks to Sue and all my friends for their support.