The Dangers of Righteousness: Thoughts on the Recent Steven Universe Tumblr Incident

Recently, there was an incident where a Steven Universe fanartist named Zamii was bullied online through Tumblr, actively harassed over what the aggressors stated to be the artist’s racist, sexist, and problematic fanart. More than simple and well-meaning criticism, it reached the point that the artist attempted suicide, and even the Executive Producer of Steven Universe had to step in and essentially defend fanart as a form of freedom of expression. It gets more complicated than that, but here’s a helpful article that summarizes the whole controversy.

I wanted to say something about this issue, but the problem was that there’s actually so much wrong with this situation that I was having trouble deciding where to begin. So, I think I’m going to start from the basics, the core ideas that I think need to be understood and appreciated so that people willingly reflect on their actions. If these are communicated successfully, then maybe I’ll branch out further in a future post.

We currently live in a time where people are increasingly aware of how perceptions of themselves and the world are shaped in part by the media around them. If you’re a girl and you grow up in a world that tells you women are sluts, that’s going to affect you on some level, even if you ultimately defy it. If you’re a minority and you’re told that you can only work certain jobs, or you’re fat and being told that you can never be beautiful, then it’s going to stay with you, needling at the back of your mind. This is what makes Steven Universe such an interesting series: its diversity of representation, and the strength and growth of its characters are not only well-written but can even be said to question race, gender, and sexuality norms in an uplifting manner. This is what attracts many fans to Steven Universe, and why diversity is at times at the forefront of discussion about the series.

Were the harassers right about Zamii’s art being problematic? I do not believe so personally, but on some level it doesn’t matter how justified their position was.  They could have been 100% right for all I care. The problem is—and I want not just people involved in this situation but everyone to read this—even if you are right, it does not give you the license to be an asshole.

Of course I know things aren’t so cut and dry. There are strong emotions at work, and unlike those who believe that emotions are inherently counter to logic, I think that they actually can help to reveal some of the issues with ourselves and our societies in ways that complement the use of reason. In fact, I believe that emotion is of utmost importance to those bold words above because it’s a matter of empathy, and empathy is a quality that is worth extending to everyone, even those with whom you vehemently disagree.

Ideas can be thought of as living entities, ever-changing as they interact with other ideas. What seems like a sound notion that benefits the greater good in one decade may be revealed to be harmful or dangerous in another. What makes thinking and learning so crucial to societies is that there is the possibility of growth, and that we as human beings are not beholden to the doctrines of yesterday. This is what has allowed race and gender equality to take hold and make progress, even if only a little bit. When you honestly believe in your righteousness to the extent that you feel it necessary to fulfill its demands no matter the consequences, then you are falling into the very trap that all of this progress was meant to avoid. A bully clad in the conviction of helping others is still a bully at the end of the day.

This is not to say that people should never stand up for what they believe in, or that no actions should be taken when someone or something is wrong. However, when you take such an extreme position, that you are right and the “enemy” is wrong and must be brought to justice, mob or otherwise, you paint yourself into a corner. If you harass them directly, create websites dedicated to discussing how terrible they are, or even go as far as to obtain their personal information for the purpose of tormenting them, then you are pretty much saying that the ends justify the means. If that’s the case, then here’s a simple question: how would you feel if it happened to you?

It’s possible that you believe that it would never happen to you, because you’re morally upstanding in every way. Your philosophy on a variety of topics is in favor of acceptance, tolerance, and diversity. Will that always be the case, though? Are you sure that everything you think and feel will always be considered correct and not harmful or problematic? Whatever the case may be, if you harass and bully others, you’re pretty much saying that others would be equally justified in attacking you should the occasion arise. And even if you are indeed morally pristine, that doesn’t prevent it from still potentially happening to you. All people need to do is 1) believe that you’re somehow wrong or evil 2) stand by the idea that the ends justify the means and 3) not understand that you’re a human being too.

Before I end off, there’s another side to all of this that I think has to be mentioned, which is the allure of being on the “winning side.” I understand that, on a very basic human level, people want to feel that they’re right. They want to stand with the majority because it doesn’t only make life easier, it just feels good. As much as I’ve talked about all of this being a problem, it’s not like I’m totally innocent of this. When I was picked on as a kid, I would sometimes fall to the temptation of picking on kids even dorkier than I was. I was wrong, of course. I shouldn’t have ever done that, and to remember that I was willing to join the horrible little assholes who would make my own life hell just for that brief respite from being the target still kind of makes me sick. Please understand that your actions are not in a vacuum, and that when you join in on attacking someone because you either want the thrill of being part of the in-crowd or enjoy seeing others suffer, even if it’s “for the right reasons,” you’re condoning an attitude and approach to solving problems that only begets more hatred and more “us vs. them” mentalities that work not to bridge gaps but to widen them.

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The Otaku Diaries and the Somewhat Forbidden Topic

This past Monday saw the Reverse Thieves post their latest statistics from their Otaku Diaries project. The topic: Bullying. The original question basically asked whether or not you were ever bullied or were a bully, and probably to no one’s surprise the vast majority of those surveyed mentioned that they were at one point or another the target of mental and/or physical abuse by their peers.

One thing that Hisui is quick to point out that I find quite interesting is the sheer level of discomfort that otaku seem to be at when discussing a topic such as bullying. They are eager to share a long, detailed list of fetishes, but won’t elaborate on when or how or why they were bullied. It kind of sends a message that otaku have little shame when given an anonymous survey but are still hesitant to open up old wounds. It’s not surprising of course, but it really gives a good view of how otaku view themselves, and it basically comes down to a shunning of that which has hurt us, and a celebration of that which brings us pleasure (and in this case, pleasure).

I too was a victim of bullying for a number of years, and for many years after that I harbored a deep, personality-affecting anger towards my tormentors. Did it contribute to the person I am today? I think so, but in a different sort of way. As time has passed, I still do not look upon those days fondly, but with enough emotional distance and perspective available to me now, I realize that as much as I hated my bullies then, we were all stupid kids. How much can I blame a bunch of kids for doing dumb things, when all they really wanted was to try and grow up as quickly as possible and act like adults? Should I be blaming the kids for having a warped perception of what it means to be mature, or should I be questioning their upbringing?

Being bullied made me realize just how wrong it is to diminish another person. That’s not to say you should never criticize someone, kick someone out, or even get into physical altercations, but there better be a damn good reason for it, and it better not just be to pad your own ego.

Actually, probably the thing that made me more forgiving of my old bullies was when I began to see geeks bullying other geeks. This initially disturbed me quite a bit, as I believed that all geeks and dorks were inherently nice people who were just the victims of others’ malice, but then I found out that given the opportunity, those same geeks were capable of turning around and becoming bullies themselves. I truly believe that bullying with your intelligence is a far greater crime than bullying with your fists, especially when it’s by those who should know better, but what can I do about it aside from speak about it here and warn my fellow otaku to not fall into the same trap?

Please get along, anime fans of the world. I would hate to see any of you make the mistakes of those before you.