If you grew up in certain evangelical and fundamentalist Christian circles, then protesting and condemning things — usually movies and TV shows, but also albums and musicians, books, brands, and even a certain role-playing game — was not uncommon. You’d hear from a trusted source (e.g., Focus on the Family) that such and such was problematic, controversial, and wicked, and it’d be immediately blacklisted, no questions asked. And with the dawn of the internet, plenty of websites made it even easier for the faithful to know what to condemn, protest, and boycott.
Being wise as serpents and innocent as doves is a good thing. You should feel the freedom to avoid movies, books, etc., that might be problematic and otherwise contrary to your convictions and conscience. Furthermore — and this might be somewhat controversial — I don’t think you need to actually see the movie or read the book in question to know to avoid it, and even condemn it.
For example, I’ve never seen any of the Human Centipede movies. However, I’ve researched them enough — I’ve read reviews by people I know to be knowledgable about film (and particularly the horror genre), I’ve read interviews with the filmmakers, etc. — to feel pretty comfortable with dismissing them as trash that would contribute nothing positive or redemptive to my life.
But there’s the key word: “research.” It’s one thing to dismiss something out-of-hand, and quite another to do so after spending some time researching it. However, research takes time and effort, and despite having untold amounts of easily searchable information at our fingertips, that’s pretty much anathema in our current hot take-obsessed culture. Furthermore, research might force us to challenge preconceived notions and admit that we were wrong, and oftentimes, we’re too proud and stubborn to do that. (Concerning the aforementioned Human Centipede movies, I realize I could be wrong about their cinematic value. I don’t think I am, but I could be, and I’m willing to hear arguments to that end.)
Thus, people resort to knee-jerk reactions, condemnation, and outrage, especially as part of a larger group or circle (where it becomes akin to a performance that you know is expected of you). This is nothing new to me, given my church background. What’s so interesting, however, is that this behavior is no longer just the prerogative of religious circles. Consider the recent case of YA author Amélie Wen Zhao.
Earlier this year, Zhao was a rising star in the YA world. She had a lucrative publishing contract and her highly anticipated debut novel, Blood Heir — in which a young woman discovers that she possesses a dreadful power and must fight to overcome a corrupt empire — was set to be published in June of this year.
And then Zhao was turned into a pariah.
Months before anyone, beyond a handful of advance readers, had a chance to actually read Blood Heir for themselves, people on Twitter began picking it apart and accusing Zhao of racism and writing inappropriately about slavery.
[T]he most potent claims of anti-black racism stemmed from a rumor that swept through the community based on the advance copies of Blood Heir that had already been released. It was alleged that the novel contains scenes involving chattel slavery, or something like it, including one in which a black character named May sings to the protagonist Ana immediately before dying. The assumption that May is black fueled a lot of anger — the criticism seemed to be that Zhao was positioning a black character as disposable, as a plot device.
Others complained about the fact that the book seemed to be about chattel slavery, although, based on the published tweets, no one could explain exactly what it was about Zhao’s treatment of the subject that was offensive. “[I]t is also HIGHLY troubling that no one in the process of publishing or editing Blood Heir saw a story about slavery, trafficking, and race relations and thought to bring in a sensitivity reader, or even several,” noted one member of the community who didn’t level any specific critiques about the book’s handling of these subjects. “[T]o put something that resembles chattel slavery SO CLOSELY is distasteful,” opined another, the implication being this simply isn’t a subject to be written about. Among other critics, there seemed to be a lack of understanding that “slavery” doesn’t mean “American slavery” and that the concept has a broader context and history than that. “[R]acist ass writers, like Amélie Wen Zhao, who literally take Black narratives and force it into Russia when that shit NEVER happened in history — you’re going to be held accountable,” said one contributor to the pile-on. “Period.” (Parenthetical after the period: Russia has its own recent history of what is certainly one strain of slavery).
But according to Slate’s Aja Hoggatt — who actually did read Blood Heir — the accusations weren’t terribly convincing:
[Y]ou said people were also mad about racial insensitivity, right?
Right. The issue that has most inflamed YA Twitter is the alleged racial insensitivity toward the black community. Influencers are saying that the book shows a black girl being rescued from the slave trade and subsequently dying so that the white protagonist can live.
That sounds like a bummer.
Agreed. However, that interpretation may not be correct.
Well, for starters, we’re really not even really sure that the character in question, May, is black.
Yep. After reading a few descriptions of the character, it’s difficult to be 100 percent certain, but May is described several times as having “ocean-blue eyes” or “aqua marine eyes.” Her skin is initially described as “bronze” and then “tan” on second reference. Her “brown curls” are also not necessarily indicative of a particular race.
The fallout from this was pretty ugly all around. Zhao chose to withdraw her book from being published. Even as she explained that the slavery described in Blood Heir was not a reference to American slavery, but rather, “a specific critique of the epidemic of indentured labor and human trafficking prevalent in many industries across Asia, including in my own home country,” she made her apologies: “I recognize that I am not writing in merely my own cultural context. I am so sorry for the pain this has caused.” (Zhao’s agent, Peter Knapp, also posted an apology “for my role in letting down the community and the hurt it has caused.”)
Meanwhile, those who led the charge against Zhao, including writers L.L. McKinney and Ellen Oh, received waves of criticism and abuse that eventually forced them off Twitter (permanently, in Oh’s case).
The folks of “YA Twitter” no doubt consider themselves enlightened, informed, and “woke.” But the condemnation of Zhao — condemnation that Hoggatt described as “claims driven by passion rather than facts” — didn’t sound all that dissimilar to the vehement and oftentimes ignorant condemnation that I’ve seen and heard emerge from evangelical and fundamentalist circles.
Indeed, as Samuel James points out, a similar fundamentalistic moral impulse underlies the reactions of both religious and progressive crowds:
The contemporary social-justice movement among younger Millennials and Gen Z also embraces an avoidance ethic. Not long ago I read an article about how younger audiences had reevaluated the ’90s sitcom Friends. I’ve been told that Friends is one of the best and most beloved TV shows of all time. I wouldn’t know; I’ve never seen an episode, owing to my family’s near-total avoidance of it and countless other sitcoms. (Other shows I’ve never seen: Roseanne, The Simpsons, Scrubs.) We declined most of these programs on the basis of their suggestive sexual content, glorification of family dysfunction, and contempt for religious truth and mores. Of the complaints I’ve read about Friends from socially conscious, politically progressive writers, not one includes mention of any of the problems that I see with it. Rather, they zero in on impious depictions of racial minorities or on cavalier attitudes toward sexual harassment and misogyny.
What fascinates me about these critiques is not their content but how they are made. Reading them almost transports me back home, handing in the video game or movie that my Evangelical parents have deemed inappropriate to my spiritual formation. These socially conscious Millennials are going through, at 22, something I experienced at five: the realization that not everything that’s fun is good for you.
The idea that we ought to make the culture we consume conform to a moral standard seems a novel one to the social-justice generation. It was a given in my childhood. My fundamentalist upbringing gave me (though of course imperfectly) a grasp of non-neutrality, the inevitable moral character of the things we say, watch, and experience.
But James highlights one difference between the reactions of religious crowds and those of progressive ones: the latter lacks the the former’s theological narrative. More specifically, he writes, the latter represents “a religion without grace.”
The crucial difference, of course, is that Christians and many other religious conservatives have a coherent theological narrative. Because we retain the language of sin and guilt, we have the categories necessary to confront cultural decadence with more than outrage. The militant, shame-them-out-of-existence character of much social-justice activism is a frustrated attempt to articulate truths that students indoctrinated in secularism feel intuitively but deny intellectually.
I agree with the spirit of what James wrote, but I disagree somewhat with his wording. In my experience growing up in religious circles, there was very little grace extended. Indeed, there was often just as much shaming, albeit shaming that was masked by a veneer of righteousness and holiness. Rather, I’d say that instead of a religion without grace, much of what emerges from progressive circles like “YA Twitter” is tantamount to a religion without any possibility of redemption.
What ultimately saved me from the rarefied outrage of fundamentalism were the works of people like Jerram Barrs, Dennis Haack, Madeleine L’Engle, Anne Lamott, Jeffrey Overstreet, and Philip Yancey. They helped me to see that cultural artifacts are as complex as the people who create them, to exercise discernment and grace in my readings, and to be just as quick to look for, highlight, and praise that which is good and noble as I am to critique and condemn that which is bad and shameful.
In particular, Jerram Barrs’ lecture on common grace at the 2006 L’Abri conference forever upended my approach to cultural engagement and analysis with one simple suggestion: that perhaps our first course of action when engaging with something is not to ask what’s wrong with it, but rather, to ask what’s right, good, and true about it.
This doesn’t preclude moving on to critique and even condemnation: Barrs wasn’t advocating for an either/or approach. There are surely many movies, books, etc., that have as many negative and problematic qualities as they do laudatory ones, and the honest critic, reviewer, or consumer would do well to consider both. But it does suggest that our best first response is not one where we go in with shields up, looking for offense. Instead, it’s one where we’re cognizant of both the good and the bad, and then consider and weigh them afterwards.
As a white, cisgender, heterosexual, middle-class, American male, I realize I’m writing this from a position of advantage that many others — particularly marginalized groups like women and people of color — don’t have and must often fight to attain. So while many conservative and religious folks deride progressives for wanting “safe spaces,” that’s an impulse with which I’m very familiar. After all, what else were the conservative evangelical circles of my youth but safe spaces? When you feel like your group is under assault by the broader culture, it’s only natural to want to put up defenses. Why expose yourself to more of the trauma that you’ve already experienced?
And yet, I humbly submit that this approach — though natural and understandable — can have incredibly negative and damaging side-effects. I saw it in the circles of my youth, in the self-righteousness and smugness that emerged, along with a nigh-subconscious sense of being better than the broader culture by virtue of our willingness to condemn. We saw ourselves as being pure, not because we were aware of our own faults, but because we were so very sure of everyone else’s.
Something similar happens in the sort of online shame campaigns that have hounded Amélie Wen Zhao and other YA authors. They leave little-to-no room for compassion, understanding, or tolerance. There’s no room for any sort of redemptive arc, no concern at all for shared human-ness. This can also lead to bitter in-fighting, as those within a particular group turn on each other for perceived failures to live up to some previously agreed-upon moral code. (For example, Kosoko Jackson was another critic of Zhao who withdrew his debut novel after it’d also been deemed problematic by those with whom he’d sided against Zhao.) Offenders aren’t chastised and then given opportunity for forgiveness and redemption; they’re shamed, silenced, and “canceled” with barely any attempt made to consider their perspective until after they’ve performed the necessary penance (if even then).
The short-term effect of this may, indeed, be the appearance of agreement on a shared moral code that bolsters one’s sense of identity and purpose, and thereby offers safety and community. But it can just as easily be a toxicity that devours communities from within. This is only exacerbated by the fact that most of these discussions occur on social media, which is not exactly conducive to reasoned, nuanced discussions of tricky and sensitive issues but does make for a nice echo chamber.
For Zhao, at least, things have turned around. Blood Heir was published last month and has received solid reviews to date. Her lucrative publishing contract is still in effect, as far as I know, and she may have a long, successful career ahead of her. And that may be that, at least as far as Amélie Wen Zhao is concerned. But the underlying issues — the underlying fundamentalism — are undoubtedly still out there, just waiting to condemn the next sinner.