Eyes To The Horizon

In a class on African-American images in TV and film at UMKC I learned what I’ll call a three-party model of social change.

Last week on Twitter a few people aimed harsh words, including bodily threats and insults, at Joss Whedon for what they felt were the inadequacies of Avengers: Age of Ultron.  Implicitly, they were using what I’ll call a two-party model of change.  Writing as someone who supports gender equality – the change in question here – I hope to convince you that the three-party model is the most effective path toward realizing the change we agree we want.

The two-party model is all about us vs. them.  It’s a black-or-white mental framework. We – whoever we are – are the good ones: the feminists, the advocates, the truth-tellers, the heroes.  Many of the tweets communicate that, to the Twitter-user (Tweeter?), Joss is not one of us.  He’s called misogynist (not a feminist), pig (same), racist (not a supporter of equality), ugly/can’t write/asshole/disgusting (general other-ing of Joss).

This is a comfortable frame, allowing the speaker a sweet, addictive hit of self-righteous indignation. Unfortunately, within this frame, not much happens with respect to actual social change; lots of shouting, very little changing-of-minds. Worse, while the defenders of traditional authority find it easy to ignore this type of criticism, and maintain a unified message when they must respond, we pro-change critics often fracture into pissing matches over who is most right.  We argue over who is really “us,” and who is secretly “them.”  As pro-equality forces we divide ourselves and are more easily conquered than we could be, even though in the big picture we’re on the same side.

In a three-party model we have the same traditional, anti-change authorities (in this case big business, Hollywood, maybe Marvel Studios), but on the pro-change side we have two camps: I’ll call us activists (Tweeters) and pragmatists (Joss).  These two camps play complimentary, reinforcing roles in making social change happen.

Activists push the horizons of social opinion, in a good way.  They explore the frontiers of personhood, relationships, and empathy, living in new ways, writing and creating art that reflects their experiences, and (yes!) critiquing society’s traditional authorities.

Pragmatists stand in the middle of the activists’ ideals and the traditional authorities’ power, supporting the ideals while compromising with the powers that be.  If activists are pushing on the forward horizon of social opinion, pragmatists are pulling on middle and rear of society and helping move the average opinion in the direction the activists want!  It’s easy to label pragmatists “sellouts,” or worse, usually from a safe distance.  In reality they are pioneers of their own stripe, normalizing and mainstreaming previously radical social ideas.

(Get familiar with the Overton window, if you’re not!)

Joss has written multiple three-dimensional female heroes into the Marvel cinematic universe.  Is it enough, or do we want gender equality to stop there?  Of course not!  Has he done more than 99% of other directors whom Marvel reasonably could have hired would have done?  Yes!  Do we want a Black Widow movie (or movies!), preferably written and directed by a woman, and is Marvel incredibly lame for not doing this yet?  Yes, and yes.

Long story short, Tweeters; Joss is sympathetic, and he is helping bring about the thing you say you want!

By all means, offer constructive criticism, but don’t needlessly divide our pro-equality forces!  (See pieces here, here, here, and here for fine examples of good criticism of Joss and Age of Ultron.  You have something to say, and we want to hear it, so write and post it without descending to threats.)  An us-vs.-them attitude rapidly descends into a power struggle, and that is a playing field on which we are at a disadvantage relative to the traditional authorities of our time.  Push as hard as you can on the leading edge of our social horizon, be, create, and report back, but stop short of catching your allies in your fire!

That is, if you’re serious about change.

If it’s a hit of self-righteousness you’re after, well, you’ve got that on lockdown.  Your choice.