“This media is problematic”.
I’ve heard dozens of variations on this refrain, hundreds of times. I’ve seen people respond to it with hostility - “what’s your problem?” - or confusion - “what’s the problem?”. I’ve heard people say that such critics are unpleasable. “They’ll never be happy”, they grumble.
What can we take away from this kind of situation?
“Progressive for its day”
I read this tweet and thought about “progressive for its day”, and I was reminded of a film series I’ve watched: the Charlie Chan films.
The main character of the Chan films is an older Chinese detective working in Honolulu. He has a dozen or so thoroughly Americanized kids, but he’s depicted as a traditional Chinese gentleman. He was inspired by a real guy, Chang Apana, whose life is well worth reading about.
Chan was played in films in the 1930s and 1940s by a succession of white guys in yellowface. The Wikipedia article is a good starting point for reading about the reactions to this - both positive and negative. A Chinese protagonist, depicted as a brilliant and resourceful detective, could be called “progressive for its day”.
Progressive is good, right?
Does that invalidate the criticism?
Hell no. It puts a burden on the rest of us, a question we have to answer: “what do we do with this criticism?”
Red Rock Mountain
Awhile back, I wrote a game - as yet unpublished - called “Red Rock Mountain”. The story of the game was that a small group of people were looking for a promised paradise, the eponymous mountain, where they could live their way. The game itself was simply a series of questions - would you stop at certain tempting places along the way? If you did, you might find it difficult or impossible to get back on the road. As to the end of the road, well, nobody really makes it to Red Rock Mountain in the game. But they can make the road that much longer for the next traveler, help them get that much closer.
The story of Red Rock Mountain is that the ideal goal for many activists is, essentially, unattainable in their lifetime. There are compromises and alternative destinations on the journey, but it’s risky to think of them as rest stops instead of traps.
While I might have strong political opinions on different topics, and I might act in various ways on those opinions, it’s also true that for the majority of people who are struggling, I’m not on that road with them. I’m one of the side stops.
If someone comes to me with critique of some media, why do they owe me any kind of positive counterbalance? They don’t. Nobody is required to say “well it’s okay for the most part, just this one bit” or “well yeah it has good qualities”. And this is fine with me, because I feel the same way about a lot of stuff myself! There’s stuff I’ll never see because it bothers me personally. I don’t owe fans of that stuff a positive review.
But what are we asking the activist, or the influencer, or the individual, who calls out troublesome content within a work? “Why don’t you like this thing? Can’t you say one good thing about it?”
I feel that sometimes, we’re asking for validation. “I like this thing, but you don’t, and I respect you - or want to be seen as respecting you - so what’s wrong with me?”
Other times - hopefully - we’re asking a more positive question. “How can I avoid hurting you with respect to this media?” Often the answer is just “don’t engage with it”, but don’t take my word for that - take their word, whatever it is.
People who say these things aren’t here to serve the rest of us. They’re on the road to Red Rock Mountain, and they aren’t making the journey for anyone but themselves.
“It’s not my job to educate you”
It’s not the critic’s job to educate, and sometimes it’s not even their job to be a critic. Expressing an opinion on the Internet does not entail a duty to explain, provide examples, or debate the position. It’s just speech, and people are as free to choose what not to say as to choose what they do say.
It’s not your job to accept every criticism you hear either. If someone says “well this game is problematic because of all the god damn Pride flags I have to look at”, I’m very happy to tune that guy out for the rest of my life.
That said, on almost every controversial topic worth thinking about, there are educators who have documented the situation, or activists who have shared their experiences. They aren’t hard to find, although sometimes they can be difficult to sort out from the fakers and opportunists. That, too, is part of the long journey on the stones of red rock - learning who to trust, and who to listen to.
When you ask a question to a seemingly unpleasable progressive, like “what’s wrong with this series”, remember that they’ve been on the road. The question may be new to you, but they may have answered it hundreds of times, and now grow weary of repeating themselves. We’re all trying to get to the destination - a place where people don’t have to hurt any more - and we shouldn’t try to exhaust each other along the way.
Points in time
The Chan films, like almost all other media, exist as points in time. They won’t change, but people do. That change comes at a cost. It’s not easy to keep walking - and learning - but the alternative of just stopping is worse.
Remember also that whatever you like now, whatever you think is problem-free, may be seen as “progressive for its day” in the future.
When that future arrives, what will you do? How will you feel?
If you think about this, hopefully you’ll see where I come from, when I say that the goal isn’t to just enjoy totally problem-free media.
Such a thing doesn’t exist.
The goal is to minimize the hurt we do to other people.