Frank Oz and the Death of Civility Online
Back in the early days of the A.V Club, when the world seemed kinder and more just, we noticed an interesting phenomenon. Readers would send apoplectic emails angrily insisting that a review was biased and inaccurate, the work of a demented hack motivated by ugly personal grudges and seething jealousy over people who created art instead of critiquing it.
If the email was nothing but anger and vitriol we generally wouldn’t respond. There would be no point. But if there was even a kernel of constructive criticism or if a legitimate concern was being raised, then we would often respond with emails articulating, as nicely and dispassionately as possible, where we were coming from in the review and why the emailers’ fierce insistence of corruption and incompetence on our part was, perhaps, a little misguided.
Nine times out of ten the angry, indignant emailer immediately changed their tune. The tone of enraged aggression, that sneer of “How DARE you?” was quickly replaced by fumbling apologies for the harsh tone of previous emails. The suddenly ashamed reader would often profess to be a big fan and reader of the site who made the mistake of taking things too personally and letting their anger get the best of them.
These enraged readers would email us looking for a fight. They wanted someone to unload their anger on. When we replied with reason and civility, compromise and understanding often broke out unexpectedly. It was a beautiful thing, really.
Needless to say, that was a LONG time ago. A very, very long time ago although I fuzzily remember a similar dynamic playing out on the site’s message boards. Commenters would come in hot, overflowing with rage about something that ultimately does not matter, and if a writer argued in good faith and took their concerns and criticism seriously, then civility and agreement would break out in place of rancor and discord.
The dynamic that I am describing has happened less and less over the years. The internet became the home of the troll, and a core component of the troll mentality is to never give in, to never compromise, to never be human and yielding and vulnerable when you can be angry and uncompromising and, more than anything, RIGHT.
The world, particularly the online world, has become a much angrier and more rigid place since then. It used to be that people on the left and right had different ideas on how society should be run but shared the same goals and much else. Now it feels like the left and the right see each other not just as different but as wrong and evil and insane.
We have become the internet of Donald Trump, where compromise and understanding and appreciating other points of view are seen as unforgivable signs of weakness, not admirable strengths.
The idea is no longer to find common ground but to win, to destroy the enemy, Ben Shapiro-style, to score a Mortal Kombat-level Fatality against the rhetoric and ideologues of the other side.
When people angrily wrote into the A.V Club full of rage, then turned into pussycats once we took their complaints seriously they were responding, on some level, to a writer for a national publication taking the time to write to them personally. That meant something to them. The human touch, the human element was important.
That does not seem to be the case anymore. Frank Oz was one of the toughest interviews I’ve ever done but I admire the hell out of Oz as a puppeteer and a director. And I am very impressed that when people on Twitter angrily confront him about something he will take the time to respond personally.
For example, when Oz made a light-hearted tweet about the fundamental nature of a legendary creature he voiced and did the puppetry for, Yoda, angry Star Wars fans angrily insisted that since Oz did not write the Star Wars movies, then he obviously didn’t know Yoda or the films as well as they did. In another, more polite era, fanboys would be overjoyed at the opportunity to interact, even in an indirect, social media way, with Yoda himself. Now it seems like they’re just happy to have a forum to angrily confront the people who make the art and entertainment they love.
To cite another similar example, a comic book fan online had the hilariously misplaced audacity to try to mansplain Deadpool to Gail Simone even though the acerbic writer actually fucking writes Deadpool comic books. The enraged tweeter eventually relented and apologized for being so egregiously, hopelessly, unforgivably wrong but it took some doing.
I’d like to think that when Trump is out of office the world will become a less strident, less partisan, less rigid place because I desperately need to believe that things will get better because, if I might wax a little Pollyannish here, when it comes to online discourse, things seemingly can’t get any worse.
I make my living largely through crowd-funding! Support independent media, get access to patron-only content and be an All Star over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace
and/or please do be a mensch and kick into my Weird Accordion to Al book Kickstarter over at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/weirdaccordiontoal/make-the-weird-accordion-to-al-book-a-ridiculous-r?ref=user_menu