It's hardly an original thought to point out that 30 Rock's Liz Lemon, when you take an objective look, is a monster. If you can get past Tina Fey's natural charisma and the goodwill she's built up with the audience, Liz is just a terribly cruel person, one who subjects everyone around her to ceaseless abuse. She is basically never not mistreating someone. Her quixotic quest for happiness takes on a new spin when you realize that she might not actually even deserve it.
The show is not unaware of this dynamic and exaggerates it as the series goes on. And eventually they reveal reason why she treats everyone around her like trash: her self-identification as a victim. Liz obsesses about high school over the course of the show, and it's clear that she simply cannot get past the fact that she was an unpopular loser back then. (The show even twists the knife here, as it's revealed that she was the bully in high school, not the bullied, but Liz is clearly still defined by her own persecution complex.) She can't conceive of herself as someone who could hurt others because she identifies so strongly with her past status as someone who was hurt. In her mind her past excuses her current bad behavior. Or perhaps excuses is the wrong word; it's more that her prior feelings of weakness prevent her from understanding that she has more than enough strength to cause harm to others. And so you get a protagonist who says deeply cruel things a dozen times an episode.
To a degree this is forgivable because our reactions to trauma aren't rational and, in particular, are very difficult for us to perceive. Certainly Liz Lemon doesn't see herself as a cruel person, and for this reason it's important to have sympathy for her. But ultimately adults have to get past this shit. It's the only way to avoid being a terribly selfish person. And maybe it takes therapy or maybe it only takes age and self-knowledge but it's important that we get there - and let me hasten to say that I'm not all the way there myself. What's poignant about 30 Rock is that it's ambiguous as to whether Liz can ever evolve in this way. At the end of the series she seems more set up for happiness than ever before but the show takes care to undermine and complicate even this conditional happiness, and who knows if she'll ever become the kind person she already conceives of herself as.
This more or less fits my conception of "fandom," people who like Star Wars and Marvel and Harry Potter but also Steven Universe and Sherlock etc etc. The mythology of fandom - and I stress the myth part - is that the people who like these incredibly popular, immensely profitable, generally well-reviewed properties are the beleaguered of the earth, God's forgotten children. Hey, did you know that it used to be uncool to like Star Wars? You know, that franchise that was the biggest and most popular in the history of film from the day the first movie opened? Well, that's why I sent death threats to Kelly Marie Tran. Somebody once made fun of my Yoda lunchbox so I'm entitled.
There are tons of people who love sci fi and fantasy and so on and are absolutely lovely, balanced, kind people. (I'm sure that it's a majority, although I'm also sure that the common claims that fandom's problem is a few bad apples is misleading and wrong.) Some of them are my close friends and some are in my family. The problem is that the culture that surrounds these things are stuffed to the gills with persecution complexes that produce absurdity (it is not hard to find nerds online claiming that their oppression is similar to that of black people) and horrid behavior (forums of people going through Rotten Tomatoes pages for Marvel movies and marking every critic who wrote a negative review for harassment). The basic psychology seems to be identical: once you make weakness and vulnerability part of your basic self-conception, you can't perceive the ways in which you damage other people.
I think there is a growing perception that the world of fandom is just deeply, deeply dysfunctional. It's not hard to see why. Almost any forum dedicated to these properties eventually devolves into the most abusive and horrid kind of online space. Tumblr, stereotypically if not in terms of numbers, is the bridge of the USS Fandom, and Tumblr is a cesspool. As I said in a recent post, over-identification with pop culture ephemera is deeply disordered and produces all kinds of bad dynamics. And the fandom world has merged completely with the "social justice" world, which means that people now argue from places of total righteousness about issues which have no moral valence at all. Hey, did you know that the "Reylo" fandom doesn't just have bad taste, but is racist and homophobic as well? That's remarkably convenient for all the people who already didn't like the pairing and suddenly discovered this handy way to dismiss them! And of course social justice politics do not permit self-doubt about one's politicized claims, so no introspection will be forthcoming.
I don't think there's much hope for fandom. It seems like a terminal patient. Perhaps we can at least create a culture where people are free to say "liking Iron Man does not make you a victim."
Take it in a more serious and explicitly political dimension.
Online there are these communities made up of Asian American men, dedicated to their grievances with the world. Here is one and here is one and here is one, and there are others. These are, it should go without saying, self-selected communities that represent a tiny fraction of Asian American men. But that tiny fraction is very angry. These communities are, to my mind, quite tragic in that they start from very correct observations about our culture, speak truth about very real forms of racism they endure, and then go flying right off the rails.
At the most basic level they are obviously correct: Asian Americans are a class of people who face various forms of structural oppression, and progressive people should work to tear down those oppressions, but too often discrimination of Asian Americans is minimized or ignored. This is very true, and a cause for genuine and righteous anger. And their more specific complaint, that Asian American men are devalued and emasculated in American culture, is also undoubtedly true, with physical attributes like average height and weight, cultural assumptions about virility and assertiveness, and stereotypes about penis size contributing to a common, deeply unfair public image. I would like to believe that this image is not commonly held, but they would know much better than I do, and they seem to find it omnipresent in their lives. Obviously, that sucks.
But things go awfully wrong.
As usually happens, a complex issue gets reduced to its most caricatured elements. The single most common complaint on these forums is that Asian women date white men, and that this deprives Asian men of potential partners. (Full disclosure: I am a white man who has been in relationships with Asian and Asian American women.) And as I said, there's something to this. Feelings of attraction are influenced by cultural perceptions of the relative value of different groups. No doubt Asian American men face dating hurdles thanks to the bullshit assumptions they have to live through. It's complex.
Unfortunately this understandable frustration constantly boils over (again, for these particular guys) into anger at Asian American women that just looks like misogyny - calling them sluts and whores and sellouts and "bananas." And this generalized anger spills out into discussions that have nothing to do with outmarriage and just reference Asian American women generally. They constantly refer to Asian American women as "Lus," something akin to an Uncle Tom in this vernacular, if they don't agree with them politically. The resentment swamps whatever valid point might have been made.
For me it's just hard to get exercised about Asian American women partnering with non-Asian American men. The battle to legalize interracial relationships and marriages was long and hard; people literally died for it. It's one of the most durable victories we've ever had. And we can't allow the normalization of interracial relationships to be eroded. Besides, the basic claim of offense just doesn't add up to me. Yes, many Asian American women are out-partnering; but why would this prevent Asian American men from getting girlfriends? White men partnering with Asian women means fewer white men to partner white women, black women, Hispanic women, Native American women.... And if the response is that the Asian American men who are complaining don't want to date outside of their race, well, I don't have any sympathy. That's gross and small-minded. Finally, what are Asian American women supposed to do? Date someone out of a sense of cultural or political obligation? Sounds like a recipe for unhappiness for both partners.
There are also some ugly sentiments related to affirmative action. Generally I find these forums are pretty good about racial issues overall - many of their members will discuss the plight of Black Americans eloquently. But sometimes the affirmative action discussion will devolve into claims that Asians are the really oppressed ones, that people who receive affirmative action are coddled, and so on. Again: the treatment of Asian applicants under affirmative action is quite complex and I don't doubt that there's abundant problems there. But that's just more reason to speak carefully and avoid falling into unfocused complaints.
Anyway, if the point isn't clear: a sense of grievance can go badly wrong even when it is stemming from legitimate grievances. Sometimes hurt can be ennobling and prompt us to be wiser and stronger people. Usually hurt makes us worse. We withdraw into our pain. We lose the capacity to see our own capacity to do harm. We see a world of threats and seek to destroy them before they can hurt us. Understandable. But when these dynamics become essential parts of political culture, the dangers are vast.
"Those who have been harmed can harm as well" is not an original sentiment. And were this all confined to a few weird internet communities I wouldn't write so many words. The problem is that in contemporary progressive politics grievance is everything. I know that this sounds like a common conservative talking point, but I can't look at the landscape without observing that the basic political statement today, the one that precedes all others, is "this is how I've been harmed." Conservatives go wrong in seeing all of these claims as illegitimate; those claims are inconvenient to their basic project, empowering the powerful and enriching the rich. But liberals and leftists today go wrong in thinking that all claims to grievance have equal legitimacy, or maybe more accurately, that they have to take all claims of grievance seriously or risk being cancelled. And that's destructive. Because expressing hurt does not prevent you from being a monster, and it really doesn't mean that what you're doing is politically constructive.
I could see a world where people (the kind of people who constantly say that the personal is political) make the connection between their legitimate feelings of grievance, the way those claims so often result in socially destructive behavior, and the casual toxicity of woke politics. Of course, merely to use the word grievance in connection with social justice politics is a "dog whistle" and anyone talking about this would be thrown out of a window. So I'm not optimistic.