Convergence 2013, part 4: Civility in Fandom

Squeevolution!The third panel I was on; not RPG-specific, but important enough to discuss here.

This one got into a lot of topics that are really important to me. We discussed our experiences with the Geek Hierarchy, and how it really shouldn’t exist; reasons fans disagree so passionately and often; and a lot of other really deep and important issues in fandom.

This panel gave me a chance to bring up my theory of disagreements on the Net. Combine the following elements…

  • There are a million ways to disagree (“you got this fact wrong”, “your interpretation is wrong”, “your tastes are different from mine”, etc.), but far fewer ways to agree.
  • There is, in the US at least, a cultural imperative to always be original.
  • There is also a mandate to be ‘cool’, which seems to necessarily include a large element of disdain or disapproval.
  • So many of us geeks get our self-esteem from being the biggest experts on a given subject, the biggest fish in a pond; but the Net is a very big ocean, and there’s always a bigger fish.
  • Many people find themselves unable to get responses on the Net, so they try for the next ‘best’ thing, which is getting reactions.
  • Listicles and other forms of easy journalism feed on the above factors, so they exist in great numbers.
  • As with so many groups, we geeks often feel the need to elevate ourselves by deprecating others.

…and you get a perfect recipe for raging geeky arguments and flamewars all over the Net. But what to do about it?

One remedy we discussed in the panel is working hard to find ways to agree. It takes work, especially because it sometimes requires a) digging deep to find what all involved are really saying, b) possibly suspending the cultural need to appear original, and c) suspending the sense of self-esteem we get from appearing more knowledgeable, cooler or in whatever other way superior to our fellow geeks. But it can be really worthwhile, as we said in the panel, because we end up learning a lot more about the world, and because we can then revel in the enjoyment that others get from their geeky hobbies (even when that enjoyment itself isn’t something we’re into).

Another remedy is just asking questions. Rather than saying why someone is wrong, or even trying to find ways to agree, we can try to find out more about why they like something, what it means to them, how they got into liking that thing, and generally opening ourselves up to aspects of an interest that we might not even know we don’t know. As the panel brought up, we as geeks are very likely fans of fractally deep levels of detail and interest, so why not open ourselves up to these vistas of new understanding? When we don’t know something and we get a chance to learn about it, we’re one of the Lucky Ten Thousand.

One thing I was lucky enough to learn from one of my fellow panelists (Lynne M. Thomas, who among other things is the inventor of the phrase “don’t harsh the squee”) is the concept of compersion. It’s basically the opposite of schadenfreude; in other words, it’s taking joy in other people’s joy. I like this word! I’ll have to use it more.

We also discussed the importance of distinguishing between geeky disagreements, and places where it’s actually quite important to disagree. If someone is doing racist things, for example, or harassing people, that’s not a situation where civility is called for. Combine these situations with Minnesota Nice, the geek social fallacies or the missing stair problem, and we sometimes end up with situations where there’s entirely too much civility.

It would be nice if we could’ve discussed more how to know if a given situation is ‘just’ a geeky disagreement, or is one of those situations where we need to call something out. I think another reason for fannish disagreement is that we, as geeks, often attribute large meanings to small disagreements: “You like story games better than traditional RPGs? That means you endorse genocide!” or whatever. This is, I think, because we see large meaning in our very narrow areas of interest and expertise. And this can interact in difficult ways with the problem of what legitimately needs to be called out: if someone has a preference for roll-high systems, does that mean they’re buying into American cultural imperialism (“bigger is always better”), or does that just mean they like roll-high systems? Or something in between?

Still, this was a really good panel. My only real regret for is that there were only a handful of people in the audience. But our panel seems to be part of a greater movement, I think, where fandom is starting to swing away from snark and over to squee. That’s a very good thing in my book! We ended with calls to stop dissing other fans’ fannishness, and to not reinforce the geek hierarchy, and generally to be more compersive.

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