John Green’s latest vlogbrothers video touches on something worth thinking about:
He’s talking about the low-calorie social media debates that drive what we call “engagement” – namely, more comments and likes or dislikes – which leads to increased view counts, and higher priority in algorithms (whether on Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, or elsewhere). I’m calling it low-calorie social media because these sorts of debates are easy to have an opinion on, but they’re not substantive (and I’d argue, often not nutritious either).
Actual engagement – something more lasting and impactful than just a like or a passing comment – is hard. It’s hard to build, it’s hard to sustain, it’s often messy. But it’s more fulfilling. Even when it leads to challenging questions or work to be done, you can at least feel like you’re making some sort of progress on something that is meaningful, whether that’s some form of volunteering, philanthropy, or do-gooding, or if it’s just deepening connections with either individuals or a community.
I think John is right that there is a place for those “instantly debatable” questions and topics. But I think it’s a lot like junk food: it’s fine as a snack, but if that’s all you’re eating, it’s just going to make you sick.
Not much to add that wasn’t covered in the video. The world (and life) is a complex mishmash of feelings and motivations and struggles, and to see it through just one lens does both ourselves and others a disservice. Yes, there are plenty of examples of overt harm and things driven by hate, or malice, or ignorance, or sociopathic disinterest and apathy. But it’s not all of what’s happening out there, nor even most of it. It’s worth stepping back occasionally, and appreciating what there is to appreciate, even if it’s not perfect.
I’ve talked about this with a number of people, about why I’m perfectly happy to live somewhere that is grey and rainy but almost never drops below 40 degrees (F), and a lot of the winter is spent right around 50. Hank is dropping some truth bombs here, on how to make the most of living in a cold climate.
He’s right though: try to enjoy it. Gotta find the good parts while you can.
I’m not sure the hows or whys that discussion about the literary theory of the “death of the author” cropped up recently, but it did. Lindsay Ellis has an excellent video essay about it (and really, go watch the rest of her stuff while you’re at it). It covers a lot of ground, and also some of the impact that our current culture’s shift towards personal brand (and subsequent association of any work done with that brand) has on how we think about creators and their creations. Go watch:
This prompted a follow-up response by John Scalzi, which I think is also worth reading. In process of discussing how the author is not the book and the book is not the author, he noted:
One side effect of this is that you should expect that at one point or another the authors whose work you admire will disappoint you, across a spectrum of behaviors or opinions. Because they’re human, you see. Think of all the humans you know, who have never disappointed you in one way or another. Having difficulty coming up with very many? Funny, that.
(Don’t worry, you’ve disappointed a whole bunch of people, too.)
I think that’s a pretty salient point to remember these days. That’s not to excuse people who do terrible things, nor to say there isn’t merit in boycotting the work of someone who did terrible things. But if you treat every gaff or slight as unconscionable, you’re setting yourself to be constantly outraged and constantly disappointed. Everyone’s line is going to be different, though, and it’s your call on whether any particular occasion crosses that line. Relatedly:
A shitty human can write great books (or make lovely paintings, or fantastic food, or amazing music, etc), and absolutely lovely humans can be aggressively mediocre to bad artists. There is very little correlation between decency and artistic talent. You don’t need to be a good human in order to understand human behavior well enough to write movingly about it; remember that con men are very good judges of character.
With that said, if you discover that the writer of one of your favorite novels (or whatever) doesn’t live up to your moral or ethical standards, you’re not obliged to give them any more of your time or attention, because life is too short to financially or intellectually support people you think are scumbags. Likewise, you and you alone get to decide where that line is, and how you apply it. Apply one standard for one author, and a different one for another? Okay! I’m sure you have your reasons, and your reasons can just be “because I feel like it.” Just like in real life, you might put up with more bullshit from one person than another, for reasons that are personal to you.
Just more things to chew on.
Addendum: Neil Gaiman also touched on some of this topic (more specifically, the commingling of author and work, and people making assumptions about the author based on characters in their book), and makes a point I wanted to note:
Well, unless you are going to only write stories in which nice things happen to nice people, you are going to write stories in which people who do not believe what you believe show up, just like they do in the world. And in which bad things happen, just as they do in the world. And that’s hard.
And if you are going to write awful people, you are going to have to put yourself into their shoes and into their head, just as you do when you write the ones who believe what you believe. Which is also hard.
How various social internet sites occupy our brains has been a recurring topic on here, and I think he summarizes it all pretty well. These sites are working as intended, but I don’t like that intention, and I don’t like how they work for me, personally.
My own experiences with taking time off have had limited success. I still find myself on Facebook or Tumblr or Instagram (or… or… or…) more than I would like, though I’m interacting with it less and have less expectation of interaction on them (which I think is still a net win, but not as much as I’d like). I’m not sure I’m at the point of going cold-turkey (and what shape that would take — where do I want to spend my time?) like John, but it definitely continues to be on my mind.
It’s true. It’s super easy to start overthinking everything. Being “woke” is a good thing, but like she says, it’s a slippery slope. (To be clear, intersectional awareness is valuable, as is being aware of the consequences of your actions. But you can take it too far, where you’re actually causing more harm than the thing you’re calling out. Don’t @-me.) It also reminds me of a CollegeHumor bit: