While MidAmeriCon II, this year’s World Con, is under way in Kansas City, we’ve put together COUCH CON, for those of us left behind. Please feel free to engage with these posts in the comments section (but do play nice, we are watching and won’t hesitate to delete offensive/abusive comments).
Our first post is by Susan Jane Bigelow and it tackles fandom, politics and Donald Trump.
A very smart friend of mine once said that politics was like a fandom. I laughed, because it was kind of true! Everyone had their faves, we all lined up behind one side or another, we talked and gossiped incessantly about people and events, and we obsessed over every little bit of trivia coming out of government and campaigns. We also got together in big conventions and had a blast by being with other people who were just as obsessive as we were.
This was in 2006. I was running a state-level political blog at the time, and now I write columns about state politics for the news organization CTNewsJunkie.com. So I’ve had a lot of time to observe both politics and fandom, and a lot of time to think about the connection between the two.
Politics seemed to borrow more and more from fandoms, especially as activism started really expanding into online spaces. And, because this sort of thing never goes in one direction only, fandom started borrowing more and more from politics.
Then again, maybe that was always there in fandom. Being online made fandom more accessible, and made its bizarre politics and power struggles a lot more obvious. But they were, perhaps, always there.
I spent a time during the very early 1990s as a Klingon on Prodigy, which was one of the first online services that had widespread appeal. It was dial-up and slow and clunky, but it opened up a whole new world to little teenage me. Being who I was, of course, I immediately ran to the Star Trek boards and started posting. I joined up with an outfit called the Imperial Klingon Empire, and we did fun things like start flame wars with the Romulans and role play.
And then it got serious. The Thought Admiral and I got into a massive fight over who should be leader, and how the leader should be chosen. I wanted it to be a democracy. The Thought Admiral wanted iron control, as a true Klingon would.
This lasted for months. People left. Fun vanished. I did everything I could to win. Nothing was off-limits. I won, in the end, but our membership had gone from dozens down to just three. We never recovered.
Something about that brutal fight over absolutely nothing changed me. I remember how I felt after, like I’d got my way but that I’d wrecked everything I cared about. I’d been willing to burn it all down for my ideals, and I had succeeded.
The Thought Admiral and I made up, eventually. He sent me a cool paper airplane later, in an envelope postmarked Washington State. He wrote on a lined sheet of notebook paper, and his handwriting was clear and bold, slanted to the left.
My mortal enemy, who I had made into a monster online, was human.
Fandoms and fan groups can turn toxic. They can be poisoned by all kinds of things, from dueling ideas to abusive people to leadership struggles. Lines are drawn, friendships are shattered, and fans turn their backs, disgusted. Real world politics become inseparably intertwined with fandom politics.
And along the way, fans on opposite sides turn one another into monsters.
Do you like this thing? You are awful. Do you support this person? Terrible. Are you one of them? One of us? Choose! Choose!
When we fight monsters, there are no restrictions. There are no norms. Everything is permissible. The only thing that matters is winning.
One side can, for instance, rig the Hugo Awards, something that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. That side burned down something a lot of people in SFF cared about to make their point, to win. Along the way they’ve harassed and bullied and called people on the other side unspeakable things.
Or one side can take an argument about video games and turn it into a years-long harassment and abuse campaign, mostly directed against women in the tech industry. The original argument doesn’t even matter anymore—what matters for the diehards is winning against the people they’ve turned into monsters in their minds. What matters is making the enemy suffer.
Fandom culture is one of the dominant strains of the culture of the internet as a whole, and it both reflects and creates our offline political culture. Politics has been increasingly about turning the other side into scary, evil monsters in order to win elections. Liberals are evil baby killing socialist monsters. Conservatives are evil racist fascists who hate the poor.
Online, this toxicity is magnified. Look at any comments section of any newspaper if you don’t believe me.
And yes, both sides do it—but only up to a certain point. Both sides have their extremists who make things worse. But in my experience, one side, the side that feels the most threatened and fearful, is much, much worse. In U.S. culture and politics right now—and indeed, in many places around the world—that’s the conservative, nationalist right wing.
Into this online atmosphere of toxicity, then, walked Donald Trump—a man who has mastered the art of being a divisive loudmouth online.
The norms are all out the window. All the conventions from before, gone. All that matters is defeating the enemy or at least making the enemy suffer.
Online culture fueled Trump’s rise, and fandoms are integral to that culture. Is it such a surprise that so many of the people who ruined the Hugos and harassed women over video games are Trump fans? Is it such a surprise that online fandom extremists are political extremists, as well?
I look now at those online fandom wars I’ve been involved with, and I wonder whether in my small way I had something to do with the rise of someone like Trump. Maybe. But maybe these are forces that are so much bigger than one person that I might as well try to blame the wind.
We must fight extremism and nationalism and all the awful things that come with them. These forces that have been unleashed are too dangerous to let go uncontained. Fandoms and friend groups have sometimes managed to heal and moved on, scarred but stronger for what they’ve been through. Maybe that will happen in politics. Maybe we’ll be lucky enough that, after the crisis, the world can heal.
Susan Jane Bigelow is a fiction writer, political columnist, and librarian. She mainly writes science fiction and fantasy novels. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine’s “Queers Destroy Science Fiction” issue, and the Lamba Award-winning “The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard,” among others. She lives with her wife in northern Connecticut, and is probably currently at the bottom of a pile of cats. She is the author of Book Smugglers Publishing’s Extrahuman Union series.