The nasty underbelly of the hero quest

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(Thanks to @pericat for reviewing this and helping me clarify some ideas!)

As I mentioned in my last From the World Pool post, Natalie Luhrs has an excellent round-up of links relating to issues currently swirling around Shanley Kane, co-founder of Model View Culture, an online publication on technology, culture, and diversity media. I had already read the statements by Kane and Amelia Greenhall (see links below), which had triggered some Heavy Thinking on my part, following which I generated the first draft of this piece. After I had blocked it out I went back and read the commentary Natalie linked to. Those posts have a lot of excellent content and analysis, and some of it overlaps with what I have to say, but I decided to carry on with this post anyway, because the main point I want to make is a bit different.

I also want to note that the controversy around Shanley Kane is just one of many ongoing online blow-ups relating to women, tech, culture, and feminism. Each has their own specifics, but they share commonalities. I’m barely on the periphery of such discussions and the communities behind them, but I believe the issues raised are worth thinking about in a more general context, so I’m using it as a jumping off point for this post.

To be clear, this is my starting position: doxxing (publically releasing personal information like home addresses) and harassment do not constitute reasonable debate and are not justifiable defenses against attacks. They are abuse. Abuse of others is never justified, whether you are politically to the right, left or somewhere north of the Dark Horse Nebula. Never. The fact that someone is horrible and may have committed abuse is not a justification for abusing them. Being abused is not a justification for committing abuse in retaliation. Neither of these things is okay.

Shanley Kane, Amelia Greenhall, and Model View Culture

Shanley Kane is currently undergoing online horrendous abuse and harassment for calling out Linus Torvalds as a jerk. Her statement about what is going on is here.  She and her family and some of her supporters have been doxxed and attempts have been made to hack her accounts and system. She is being castigated for past relationships, sexist/racist/homophobic behavior, and a kinky sex life.

At the same time, Kane’s former business partner, Amelia Greenhall, has blogged about receiving verbal and emotional abuse from Shanley, and being erased from the history of the online publication they co-founded, Model View Culture.

Simplified to the extreme, reactions to this often seem to reflexively fall into one of two camps: (1) Shanley Kane is being abused—support her. (2) Shanley Kane has been abusive and is villainous in other ways as well—destroy her.

Other commenters have pointed out that this is a failure of binary thinking, and I agree with that. I also think our cultural mythologies interact with binary thinking in some really damaging ways.

Binary thinking and the Hero Quest

Binary thinking says that it’s one thing or the other. One/zero; good/bad; abusive/not abusive; respectable/not respectable. There are no grey areas, no contextual in-betweens; the switch is on or it is off. There is no room for two opposing things to be true at the same time.

But both things—being abused and abusing—can be true at the same time.

Being abused and being abusive are not mutually exclusive, for Shanley Kane or for anyone else; we can be both victims and abusers in different parts of our lives, and even at the same time.

The either/or binary choice is a false dichotomy. Indeed, Greenhall points this problem out in her post. “I decided to write this disclosing my own experiences with Shanley because the feminist conversation about tech right now feels like ‘You’re either with Shanley or you’re with weev.’ I think there should be room for a third option: You support diversity in tech and the work Model View Culture has done, but you are allowed to have doubts about Shanley’s sincerity or track record of abusive behavior.

Western culture trains us to see things in terms of binaries. This dualistic approach to things is strongly reinforced by mythology and its reflections in popular culture. Although some cultural works are nuanced enough to defy binary absolutes, many are not. The whole idea of the Hero Quest™ is built on simplistic tropes that exploit binaries for an active protagonist with agency: hero/villain, good/evil.

We do not exactly require that a hero be perfect—the anti-hero is an important part of our culture—but we do require that a hero meet certain criteria. They may behave badly in some ways, but they must be generally well meaning and strive for a good outcome. They must not attack the innocent. Definitions of behaving badly, good outcomes, and innocence are to some degree variable and relational to the individual defining them, of course, but they will share some commonalities.

If someone does not meet these criteria, they are not a hero, but a villain. It’s a binary choice. But a simplistic binary approach to hero and villain, and good and evil, limits our options drastically.(1)

Mythologically reinforced binary thinking is very, very seductive. We all want to be heroes; we are trained through popular culture to want to be heroes. A good deal of marketing and technological effort goes into convincing us (for example) that we are the heroes in a video game; even if we choose to play as an anti-hero we are generally fighting for a greater good. We get lots of feel-good reinforcement for being a hero, whether real or imaginary.

Furthermore, to be a hero is to be subject to a requirement to act; heroes are not passive (and neither are villains). Consequently it’s very difficult to believe that, when you support what you believe to be good, you can act in the ways that a villain will act. If Shanley Kane is a villain, then as a hero you must act against her. And your actions cannot be evil, because you are the hero. You are fighting the good fight and protecting the innocent. If Shanley Kane is a villain, she is evil, and attacking her is implicitly justified because the real heroes must take a stand.

There is a lot of evil done in the name of finding your inner hero and protecting the innocent. This is the nasty underbelly of the hero quest.

Outrage culture

Another thing that plays into this binary hero/villain dynamic is “outrage culture”—the default position of being outraged about Something Someone Did.

I think it’s important to say that outrage is absolutely warranted under some circumstances. This was recently put very well by @evilrooster: “[T]here’s some pretty outrageous shit going on right now in many people’s lives. Policing whether or not those people, or people sympathetic to them, get to complain about it, is basically siding with abusers.” (This relates to tone policing, which is requiring that people moderate the expression of their outrage in order to be heard—an important and tricky subject but one that I’m not going to get into in this post.)

Warranted outrage can easily get lost or discounted in the barrage of faux outrage that infiltrates every aspect of our lives: “outrage culture” weaponizes outrage and makes it a default in every situation. This not only desensitizes us to situations where outrage is genuinely called for, but also plays into the whole villain/hero dynamic: the justification for outrage is that someone is behaving villainously, and your outrage defines you as a hero who defends the innocent. (Which has the added benefit of masking the fact that a lot of outrage is actually generated by a sense of thwarted entitlement.) As such, outrage can be used as a defining cultural marker of positioning in the hero/villain dichotomy.

Limiting possibilities

As part of marking her as a villain, Kane has been accused of having a racist past, and in fact has freely confirmed that she said sexist, racist and homophobic things. Her explanation: she was basically clueless, saw what she said as an edgy, satirical kind of performance, and didn’t at the time understand how this was problematic. At the time she didn’t know, didn’t care:

As to the overall tone of the allegations, basically that I used to be an oppressive asshole who held much different values than I do now… well I don’t feel a need to ‘defend’ or ‘deny’ that because the truth is, I had for years and years of my past been whole-heartedly complicit in the systems of inequality and discrimination that plague our field. … I didn’t recognize my role in the tech industry as a privileged white woman, and didn’t do much of the internal and external work required to divest from those systems. As I started my political awakening, I was primarily concerned with the advancement of white women like myself and didn’t give much thought to broader systemic issues, or how I was complicit in the oppression of other groups. My attitudes, beliefs and behavior were 100% born of my alignment with white capitalist patriarchy, and I benefitted enormously (And still do) from it even as it has abused me.

In making this statement Kane holds herself accountable. Is she being honest? It can be difficult to evaluate whether an individual’s change of heart is genuine or not. Each case requires individual evaluation, and you and I might come to different conclusions based on our previous experience and the information we acquire. I’m willing to tentatively withhold final judgement until I see how Kane responds to current criticisms and Greenhall’s erasure.

Because here’s the thing: I said and did things in my past that appall me now. I see things very differently than I did, oh, forty years ago, or twenty, or ten, or even five. I would be devastated to think that I was being defined only by the things I said and did years ago. People can and do change, though our starting points are informed by our experience, and can require a lot of hard work to relinquish.(2) But that very process of change produces grey areas, the in-betweens where we can be both hero and villain, those areas that binary thinking cannot accept.

We must absolutely recognize genuinely abusive actions by Shanley Kane and hold her accountable for them. We must hold everyone, including ourselves, accountable for abusive actions. But by “hold accountable” I do not mean “apply punishment,” which can easily slide into abuse. I mean that problematic actions must be questioned and critiqued.

However, using a hero/villain binary to trap someone in a category permanently is not a productive solution—requiring accountability must not also be a requirement that people, once defined, are defined forever. If we can’t allow alternatives to absolutist binary thinking—if we can’t recognize the reality of grey areas or messy areas or people changing over time—what hope is there for any of us?

So…

I think that a full accounting of any individual will show a mix of good and bad and a whole lot of grey. If we insist on stuffing people into a binary format, into being either hero or villain, we do them no favours and we do ourselves no favours.

Yes, people should be held to account for the things they say and do. But there’s a line beyond which holding people accountable changes to abusing them. Binaries encourage us to cross that line.

Heroism requires action, and so it’s easy to see it as requiring us to punish an offender, but that is not a solution. I think the binaries of good and evil, reinforced by outrage and the mythology of heroism, are a terrible and destructive thing; they purport to provide a simple, easy recipe for justice. But in truth there is no such thing. We must find a third option.

“The solution is not to absolutely blame behavior only, regardless of the issue at hand, because sometimes the issue is also toxic. The solution is to judge every situation on its merits, with empathy and as much wisdom as you can bring to bear… and leave room in your discourse and your thinking for the idea that you may not have the entire truth. Ever.” (@evilrooster)

This makes a lot of sense to me.

_________________

FOOTNOTES:

(1) Annalee Flower Horne, in The Trouble With Heroes, has a good discussion of the problems with defining people as heroes and villains, and as a solution, points out the necessity of examining people’s work rather than falling back on easy categorization: “When we acknowledge people for doing good work rather than for being a hero, it eliminates some of the cognitive dissonance that will lead us to ignore or silence evidence that they may not be everything we want them to be. It can serve as a safeguard against perpetuating the common pattern of ignoring victims.”

(2) Betsy Haibel: An Apology and Eight Other Things. “One tragedy of surviving abuse is that the potential to commit it will forever lurk in your hindbrain. One tragedy of activism is that most marginalized people have been abused. Empathy for survivors requires an acceptance of the pain and rage and shitty thought-patterns that accompany trauma. Activist movements must allow space for the ugly parts of the healing process and also keep others safe from them. It’s a narrow path between Scylla and Charybdis and mostly we fall into the whirlpool.”

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