For the past few days, I’ve watched with fascination the trashing of prominent leftist cultural critic, author, and youtuber Lindsay Ellis. Several weeks ago, she tweeted something about Avatar: The Last Airbender which apparently sparked a controversy. (I’ve never seen any of the pieces of media she was referring to, so I can’t offer comment on them.) The ensuing controversy, trashing, and demonizing led her to delete her twitter account, and I witnessed some anonymous twitter users dancing on her digital grave. The whole episode seemed, in typical twitter fashion, bewilderingly excessive.
She resurfaced this week with a feature length film responding to the whole ordeal. Yes, it’s long, but it’s worth watching.
I can’t express how cathartic it was to watch the video. She said so many things that resonated with my own experience, and it helped validate so much of my own suffering when it comes to being an online presence in leftist spaces. I want to take the time now to articulate a few observations I’ve had through this whole fiasco.
Two important caveats:
- these are my initial thoughts, which were jotted down at 1 AM on a work night. They aren’t fully formed, and I welcome response and criticism.
- I will not be citing any direct quotes or twitter accounts in this post, because I don’t want to incite dog piling or harassment. Please leave everyone involved in this debacle alone. While this does make everything that follows a bit vague and unverified, that’s the price to pay for not wanting to bring further chaos to a chaotic situation.
Some parts of the online left advocate for mental health but don’t seem to care about it
I live with mental illness, and one of the greatest triumphs of my life is managing to live a somewhat boring, happy, humdrum life. It’s my own personal journey with mental illness that makes some leftist spaces so aggravating for me.
Many of the leftist spaces that respond most excessively to the sins of prominent figures like Lindsay Ellis or ContraPoints also place a great deal of emphasis on mental health, which is why I find it blindingly, disgustingly hypocritical when these same communities engage in behaviors that exacerbate mental and emotional agony. I observe a severe disconnect in many online leftist spaces between their supposed advocacy for mental health and the direct consequences of their actions. I find it even more gut-turning when I see people wave away these concerns and insist that “public shaming isn’t that bad, actually.”
We are a fundamentally social species, wired for interconnected survival. When someone experiences an assault of bad-faith public shaming, mostly from strangers, the psychological damage is real. It doesn’t matter how much we rationalize trashing with phrases like, “I’m just offering criticism” or, “I’m just letting off steam” or, “this is just a joke — can’t you take a joke?” It doesn’t matter that the trashing comes from strangers. It doesn’t matter if the anguish seems absurd to us from the outside. The pain is real because it is fundamentally biological, seated in ancient, pre-internet structures of the human brain. We are conditioned to interpret social rejection as death, and our primitive brains respond with a level of agony similar to when we lay a hand on a hot stove.
My own run in with being trashed online collided with my mental health in a potentially deadly way. When I was trashed and attacked for a single sentence in an article I wrote years ago, I wanted to die. Truly. I knew, rationally, that the whole thing was stupid: I have great friends, a partner who loves me, a stable home and job. There was no reason to care about what strangers on the internet thought about me. And yet, the experience tortured me. I wanted to kill myself. I tried to engage, but every word from my accusers seemed maliciously calculated to hurt, and they gave no indication that they would grieve if I did take my life. I got through and eventually put the experience behind me, but it did leave a scar, and has left me terrified of experiencing something similar ever again.
I’m certainly damaged by my own experience, and maybe I’m not thinking as clearly or charitably as I should right now. But in this moment, I don’t know any other way to say it: a community that advocates for mental health while also trashing their own are simply cruel hypocrites.
Trashing hurts everyone
But I don’t think trashing is just damaging for the recipient — it’s damaging for everyone. As I scroll through the Lindsay Ellis tag on twitter, the most striking thing to me is that everyone discussing it seems to be in pain, including me. Those criticizing her are expressing hurt and frustration, those defending her are aggrieved and wounded. Lindsay Ellis isn’t the only victim here: online trashings in leftist spaces are like black holes that suck everyone into it’s hurtful void.
A friend on twitter pointed out to me that, while the scale of the harassment against Lindsay Ellis is absurd, she also misgendered a non-binary critic of hers in the video. I don’t know Lindsay and can’t say why she did this, but I suspect it was a mistake. The damage, however, was done. The result was a wave of attacks from the Pro Lindsay faction, and I’m certain that her critic is suffering immensely right now as a result.
I think the structure of platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are largely to blame for this. I’ve already written about what Jaron Lanier calls “Arc Burn:” the process by which large social media companies isolate, manipulate, and prod individuals in such a way that undermines social progress. I see Arc Burn on full display on all sides of the Lindsay Ellis Affair. I see hundreds of people hurt, enraged, and spiraling because a prominent leftist youtuber made a tweet about Avatar: The Last Airbender.
I can’t help but feel that this whole stupid episode isn’t about Lindsay Ellis; it’s about us. It’s about communities mired in hurt, and manipulated by invisible digital forces for the sole purpose of profit.
Denying the excesses of online leftist spaces is a form of gaslighting
Whenever I raise concerns about public shaming in lefitst spaces, I’m met with several frustrating responses:
- “But there are so many bigger problems than “cancel culture.” Why are you fixated on this?”
- “this isn’t a real problem. There’s nothing to see here.”
- “This is a fake narrative spun by the right to discredit the left.”
I don’t buy any of these responses, and I think they generally operate as a smoke screen. “There are so many other, larger problems” strikes me as a dodge: there are always bigger problems, but those don’t warrant dismissing the smaller problems. Instead, I hear this question as, “I don’t want to deal with this.” The final two questions are addressed perfectly by Lindsay Ellis herself:
A friend of mine named it “the beast.” The name for this fear that we all live under but don’t acknowledge. And over the last few years I’ve had so many of my colleagues, all of them women, people of color, trans people, queer people, or some combination of the above, voice to me the constant anxiety that they live with about maybe saying something wrong, that will get them on the bad side of their own communities. Every thought is a hostage situation: is this the tweet that is going to sink me?
So what do we call it? What is the name for this unspoken, unacknowledged culture of fear where we all know that one misstep can ruin our lives? This social media culture where we participate in the public shaming one day, and become chained to the pillory the next? We can’t even talk about it because the beast doesn’t have a name. If we admit that this is a problem, the right will just take it and run with it and use it to increase their own power, same as they did with “canceled,” same as they did with “woke,” same as they did with “fake news.” If it has a name, then it has power, so it is a discussion that cannot be had. And so we do not have it. We say, “cancel culture does not exist,” and we ignore this disease, pretend it isn’t doing real harm, not just to the individuals who are targeted, but to the state of discourse in general, especially to individuals in marginalized groups, because they are always held to the highest standard of purity, and they always have the most to lose.
Ultimately, no matter how understandable it is to deny a problem, it turns into a form of gaslighting. It is painfully obvious that something has gone very wrong in leftist spaces, and the denial of this reality enrages people. I’ve watched it happen. I am firmly convinced that the denial from the left acts as a catalyst for radicalization, and pushes people into the embrace of the right.
All of us are broken and no one gets out of this alive
My final, lingering thought is this: no one gets out of this alive.
Every human mind is tragically broken and grotesque, and every single person has done, said, or believed something worthy of being abused for on twitter. This is the ultimate insult of lefitst online drama: it’s boring. It assumes ideological purity is possible when the ugly truth is that every person harbors monsters. I’m frankly surprised when someone tells me they were never a racist or a dedicated homophobe. I look at things I used to believe and wince at how misguided they were. I’m certain I’m still harboring bigoted, hurtful beliefs. I rely on other people to point them out to me, because we can only attain truth when we connect with other broken human beings in good faith. Trashing derails this process, making a mountain out of the banal mole hill of human fallibility.
This is why I can shamelessly quote controversial figures like Sam Harris just as much as I criticize them, and interview heterodox public figures like Benjamin Boyce, Vaush, and Katie Herzog: I assume everyone is broken. Purity is a delusion, and as a result I take truth and goodness where I can find it. When we demand purity, nobody wins.
But that’s just me. What do you think? Please leave a comment below or write me an email. I love hearing back from my audience.
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