Who Killed Civil Discourse? Evelyn Evelyn, Marginalization, and Internet Discussion
Hello. I am Annaham (yes, I have a name). I am the person who posted a critique of Evelyn Evelyn on this website, which kicked off something of an internet controversy. For those who’ve just joined us, I made a post about Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley’s side project Evelyn Evelyn, Lauredhel made another post soon after, and things got a little out-of-control, to say the least. Because my post was part of this whole storm of various substances — both gross and not — I feel some responsibility to share my reaction to what’s gone down thus far.
I’d like to take a moment to talk about some basic principles of anti-oppression activism and social justice work that intersect with the work we do here at FWD, as some very specific structural issues and contexts are absolutely relevant in this discussion. Often, marginalized people are encouraged and expected to be sensitive and accommodating to the attitudes and prejudices of the dominant culture and to those of less-marginalized (ie: more privileged) people. However, this sensitivity and accommodation usually does not run both ways. Marginalized people, if they criticize something that (for example) leaves them out or makes them feel awful, are often told that they are being overly sensitive or overemotional, that they just misunderstand intent, that they are exaggerating, or that their tone is not polite enough. They are then expected to modify their behavior — and their self-expression — to fit with the norms and values of those who are more privileged.
What the less-privileged have to say is usually not accorded much importance, critical thought, or respect, and yet they are supposed to prioritize, be patient with, and generally assign more importance to views, values and norms that are not their own. People in marginalized communities are often expected to educate the more privileged majority. They may be expected to patiently explain basic concepts, sometimes repeatedly. And if those with more privilege decide that they do not agree (with the less-privileged group’s tone, focus, or any number of other things other than the actual argument that is being made), those with less privilege are told, with varying degrees of subtlety, to shut the fuck up.
All the while, the perspectives, attitudes, norms and values of those with more privilege are made neutral. The power dynamics are rendered invisible, because that’s just the way things are, so there’s no point in trying to change any of it. Why are you so angry? You’re just looking for things to get mad about. You just like being offended. Why can’t you focus on other/more important things? It wasn’t meant that way. You need to hold your tongue until you’ve done x, y and z. Quit taking it personally. You’re ruining everyone’s good time. Stop trying to make everyone pay attention to your pet issue, because it doesn’t affect anyone other than you. Your demands are unreasonable. Stop complaining. Shut up.
And when things don’t go entirely smoothly (which happens often), those not in a position of privilege are often blamed for it: Well, what did you expect, using that tone? You’re the one who brought it up; you’re the one who rocked the boat.
Unfortunately, these tactics are extremely common when it comes folks’ objections against many sorts of media and pop culture critique and/or backlash against critical engagement with cultural works. In other words: These are not new patterns.
I am definitely not saying that everyone has to agree with the critiques that I and others have made regarding Evelyn Evelyn; I am not suggesting that ideological lockstep is a worthy end-goal. What I am saying is that the humanity of marginalized people — those who have traditionally been left out, and who are often on the receiving end of justifications for said exclusion(s) — is not up for debate. The humanity of the participants in this discussion — that of the creators/artists, fans, and those of us who have come forward with critiques — is similarly not up for debate. What I posted, and what I am posting here, was (and is) my take on the matter. I do not, nor do I want to, claim to speak for all PWDs, or all disabled feminists, or all fans of AfP and/or Jason Webley who are also disabled or feminists, or both. We all have our different takes on Evelyn Evelyn and how things have unfolded, and I think it is a good sign that so much discussion has come from this.
As I have stated here on FWD and elsewhere, I am a fan of AfP and have been for a number of years. Many of the people who have raised concerns about Evelyn Evelyn are fans, potential fans, or former fans (and there have been solid points raised by non-fans, too). Dreamwidth’s Anti-Oppression Linkspam community has, at present, four round–ups collecting posts on the matter from around the web. I suspect that many of us who have posted on the Evelyn Evelyn project with a critical eye are not raising these concerns simply to bug or irritate Amanda and Jason, or their fans. However, there are quite a few people who seem eager to dismiss those of us with legitimate concerns as “haters” who just don’t understand art. The hostile messages from “haters” that Amanda has received are not legitimate critiques. These are personal attacks, not arguments of substance.
I almost feel like it should go without saying that I do not support people making these attacks on Amanda, but just to make it very clear: I am very much against people using this controversy — and the complex issues raised — as a bandwagon upon which they can leap to make personal attacks and/or comments about Amanda’s personal life or who she is. Unfortunately for those of us who have been trying to bring attention to Evelyn Evelyn-related issues and seriously discuss them, the “haters” are distracting from these same issues (and are apparently effective at it). I have also heard that people are making threats of physical violence against Amanda. That is not okay. It is never, ever acceptable to make threats of violence against anyone, regardless of your disagreement. That is basic human decency. It is truly disheartening to me, and to the other FWD contributors, that some are using this very difficult situation as an excuse to make horrific threats. We fiercely condemn these attacks.
One of the comments I received was from someone who, as far as I can tell, thought that my post seemed “insincere,” with a bonus implication that I was and am making other PWDs look bad “in the eyes of the abled.” Comments of this sort are often aimed at members of marginalized groups who are expected speak for everyone in their group when confronted; it basically boils down to “You are making other [disabled people] look bad.” I have to wonder why this same thing was not said to the AfP fans who found it necessary to show up here to derail, break out tone arguments, tell me and my fellow contributors that we are crazy and/or should shut up, and who dismissed us on Twitter as just bitching about the project. It’s interesting, and rather telling, that some fans have used these tactics against me, my fellow FWD contributors, and other people who have critiqued the project, but could not (or did not want to) step back and consider their own behavior.
We were, in various other places around the web, called “retarded,” “angry bloggers,” had the legitimacy of our contributors’ disabilities questioned, and (trigger warning) threatened with rape (link goes to a screencap of a comment left on Amanda’s blog) — among many, many other things. In the comments thread to my original post, I was told that I need to focus on more important issues, that I was blowing things out of proportion, that I was censoring people and/or trampling on their free speech rights by laying out guidelines that specifically told potential commenters to not leave derailing comments, and that intent should excuse offensiveness. Eventually, I lost my patience.
There were also quite a few personal-attack comments left in the moderation queue; for obvious reasons, these were not published. These attacking comments were a significant part of why I closed comments on the post, though I did not explain that in my final comment. My decision was not about “censoring” what anyone had to say, or infringing upon “free speech” rights (this is a private website — one that has contributors, commenters and readers who are not only from the U.S.), or only about the fact that I lost my patience after having explained certain concepts over and over again; I and my fellow contributors simply could not deal with the personal attacks, threats, and violent language being left in the mod queue anymore.
Here is just a sampling of some of these unpublished comments from the mod queue (possible trigger warning):
“What’s the matter with you?”
“cant handle it? then just fucking die!”
“fuck u die slow nigga!”
“ONOEZ SOMEONE WANTED TO SMACK SOMEONE SUCH VIOLENCE!!! Typical retarded comment on an idiotic, stupid, moronic, weak, and lame blog. Fucking oversensitive twits.”
I think there is something analogous here to some of the more hateful comments that Amanda received on Twitter and elsewhere, but that is a bit of a tangent.
Going through the mod queue for that post was not an experience that I would want anyone to have. I could talk about the fact that it got to the point where it exhausted me to look at the comments; about the extreme anxiety and emotional hurt I felt while reading some of the comments that attacked me as an individual and/or questioned my mental health status; about how it feels to notice that your physical pain level — already there as a result of a chronic pain condition — goes up a few notches as you read criticism(s) directed not at your argument, but at you. I have a feeling that were I to discuss this in depth, some would likely construe it as “ANGRY BLOGGER BLAMES AMANDA PALMER FANS FOR HER OWN PAIN” or accuse me of using my disability as an excuse for being “too sensitive.” I get more than enough of that outside of the blogosphere.
I need a break from having attempted to be civil and polite and explain very basic concepts to a select few people who have no interest in substantially engaging with me or with others who have raised concerns about Evelyn Evelyn. Simply put, I need some time to recharge my politeness batteries, as well as my hope that some people — and I include many of Amanda’s fans in this category — do want to listen, learn and discuss without derailing or attacking. I wish I could address every critique that’s come our way, but I am pretty worn out (and I suspect that many of you — disabled and not — know the feeling).
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Jason and I have been communicating via e-mail — he emailed me shortly after my other post went live — and discussing many of these issues in more detail; for that, and for his willingness to engage, listen, and consider the critiques that have come up, I thank him.
I wish Amanda and Jason success with their endeavors; I do not wish to shut either of them up or, worse, endorse that Evelyn Evelyn not go forward at all. There is, as I have said, quite a bit of difference between critiquing a portion of someone’s work and wanting to shut them up or silence them; I have aimed for the former. I ask, however, that they engage critically with and take seriously the numerous points that have been brought up, both about (trigger warnings apply to the first two links) specific aspects of the project and the response to critiques so far. Taking on such huge issues will doubtlessly be a difficult and ongoing process. Of course, Amanda and Jason will probably interpret all of this in different ways. What happens next does not have to be “perfect” — nor 100% Annaham-approved (because that would be unrealistic and silly), but it would be fantastic for these two very talented musicians and performers to bridge the gaps between their good intentions and what actually shows up onstage and on the album.
What are the ultimate lessons here? What can people on all sides of this discussion take away? Right now, I don’t know, and for the moment, that is okay with me. I still believe that better things are possible. I refuse to give up that hope.
[Special thanks to meloukhia for ou’s help in putting together links and other material for this post.]
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By Annaham 22 February, 2010. activism, bodies, creative work, feminism, i'm right here, identity, intersectionality, invisibility, justice, marketing, media and pop culture, meta, normality, othering, representations, social attitudes, Uncategorized communication, evelyn evelyn, feminism, intersectionality, media and pop culture, pop culture, privilege, problematic attitudes, social inclusion, social treatment, things people say