One day in the year 691, in Tang dynasty China, two men sat down to lunch. These two were Lai Junchen and Zhou Xing, the chiefs of Empress Wu Zetian’s widespread network of secret police and informants. Lai and Zhou were infamous and widely hated for heading up an officially sanctioned reign of terror against the empire’s bureaucratic and military elites, even having produced a book on “advanced interrogation techniques” that’s survived to the present day.
Over lunch, Lai asked Zhou his opinion on the most effective way to get a suspect to confess to a crime. Zhou replied that he would place his suspect in a large pot of water with a fire lit under it. At that point, he said, the man would spill everything.
Lai agreed with his colleague. Then he called for his servants, who brought out a massive pot full of water that they began heating up. Lai explained that Zhou had been placed under suspicion of plotting against Empress Wu and invited him into the pot. No need: Zhou immediately confessed to his plotting, knowing what was in store for him otherwise. This story is the origin of a Mandarin phrase that translates as “to invite the gentleman into the urn” — to trap someone using their own cruel method. Maybe a stronger version of our own English saying, to give someone a taste of their own medicine.
Why am I telling you this? It is one of my favorite historical anecdotes — whether it all happened in exactly that way or not, it makes for a good story — but there’s another reason I’m bringing it up that relates directly to writing, social media, and accountability. Writers have various tools we can use, some sharper than others. For as much as I harp here on the importance of preserving and respecting freedom of speech, it’s also important to recognize this simple fact: we have the power through our words to influence society for the better or the worse.1 Even if the effect of one person’s words is microscopic (like most of ours, including mine — I’m not going to pretend my basic as hell plan WordPress blog has that much impact on the world) I believe every writer has their part to play in this.
Which brings me to this dumbass tweet I saw a while back:
Now sure, some people might think: “Ah, AK is mad because he likes video game soundtracks.” But that’s not exactly the case here. I don’t even see the above tweet as a slap against me, since I listen to a lot of types of music, of which game soundtracks are just one. But calling a game soundtrack a “type of music” is inaccurate in itself, considering the amazing diversity of musical styles you can find in games. I can’t read this person’s mind, naturally, so I don’t know whether they have misconceptions about what “game music” consists of, whether they think it’s all either beeps and bloops or Sonic Adventure butt rock.
But even if that were the case, it doesn’t matter to me. The reason I’m highlighting this tweet is not what it might imply about the quality of video game music, but its nature as a personal attack over a matter of taste. Sure, maybe it was meant as a joke. But even then, looking at this statement in the most favorable light possible, it was a mean-spirited one, and not nearly a clever enough joke to come close to justifying such a tone.2
Anyone who’s spent a few minutes on Twitter will know that this tweet isn’t out of the ordinary. The platform hosts a constant flood of insults of this sort. To be clear, I don’t have a problem with all personal insults, though I think they should be avoided as much as possible — only that when I see insults lobbed at people who are actively and intentionally hurting others or making the world a measurably worse place (like say certain politicians and executives) I can’t blame those lobbing the insults, and sometimes I’m happy to see them posted.
Insults over disagreements in taste are another matter entirely. Even I, as bitter as I am, don’t have the energy for that level of constant negativity.
Naturally, social media is set up to encourage this kind of inflammatory talk since it thrives on engagement, both positive and negative. This connection has been so well understood for so long that I don’t even need to bring it up, but it’s always worth talking about considering how much social media has been woven into all our lives. Even if we don’t think about it much ourselves — my own engagement with it is pretty minimal; I only use Twitter and then under my pseudonymous initials, nothing using my real name, yet I have almost 3,000 tweets a little over three years into my presence there, which is probably far too many.
And on occasion I do read some boneheaded shit someone wrote in retweets or replies to tweets from people I don’t know, and though I don’t do it, I might at least have the urge to get into it with them. Over those three years I’ve even joined in a couple of those common ratio pile-ons as I noted back in this self-flagellation post, though in these cases I make sure to address the contents of whatever was posted and not to attack the person making them, a distinction not everyone makes. But I’m still not happy about it afterwards.
Looking back on my now 25 years online, starting when we got our first dial-up connection at home, I’ve probably done about as much of this dumb shit as the average user has. I’ve always been not much more than a bystander in these situations, even when I frequented 4chan way back in the day (and really 95% or more of that site’s users are bystanders too, despite whatever nonsense the news back at the time would have had you believe about an elite team of megahackers — though good on those actual rogue expert types for taking on Mr. Putin’s criminal regime right now.)
So maybe I’m not the best person to address this matter, but even as a bystander, I’ve seen enough bad consequences happen to other people that I have at least a basic understanding of how things work. Which as I see it goes like this: if you make a habit of insulting people and gain a following for that, be prepared to take serious hits at some point yourself. At the very least, insult people who really do deserve it, like those aforementioned asshole politicians and executives. Otherwise, it takes a very special sort to insulate yourself from blowback: even a few famously untouchable internet personalities who got into drama talk ended up pulled off their pedestals. So sure, none of this bullshit comes anywhere close to the horrific antics of Lai and Zhou above, but it’s still worth remembering that story if only for instructive purposes.
And in our own game/anime/etc. circles here and on YouTube, it’s vital to keep in mind that you can express dislike and even hatred for certain works and types of works without insulting those who enjoy them. I don’t think I ever do that, and I also don’t follow anyone here on WordPress who does — there’s no quicker way to get me to hit “unfollow” than to jump into the mud like that.
My intention here isn’t to shake my finger at anyone. I don’t think any of the excellent people reading this site need this lesson from me anyway. Even if that weren’t the case, I don’t care to tell people what to do, but merely to give a warning, and partly to myself. Plenty of us can dish it out, but how many of us can take it in return? Best to worry about yourself and leave others to their own business. God knows I have enough to worry about.
Anyway, I didn’t expect to write another one of these posts so soon, but that’s how it is sometimes: I’ll read something that sets me off (this time the anime Twitter scuffle) and I can’t rest until I’ve addressed it. As usual, I’m interested in hearing about how other writers and readers think of these situations. Next up will be the regular end-of-month post, I promise.
1 There’s an important distinction here between what I see as the social responsibility of the writer who takes on real-life issues and addresses real-life people, on one hand, and the contrasting lack of responsibility of a writer or any kind of artist who deals purely in fiction and fantasy on the other. I have far more respect for a writer who produces vile stories but acts respectfully and honorably towards others than for one who claims to be upstanding but uses their pen to recklessly destroy others’ lives and livelihoods, or even just to generally make the world a more miserable place to live. Life doesn’t need any help being miserable, does it? On the other hand, a vile story can just be critically torn up and ignored without further harm. At least that’s how I feel — again, I know a lot of people disagree with me on this point.
2 And following up on the above point, I don’t think it’s even justified to attack people based on objectionable contents of the artistic works they enjoy. What counts as “objectionable” is usually pretty subjective, but even setting that argument aside, even objectionable fiction is still just fiction. To use a fairly common example I’ve seen from anime, Monogatari is a divisive series, and while I completely understand why someone would have serious problems with it based on what I’ve watched so far (though I still think the first scene of Bakemonogatari should filter a lot of them out) I draw the line at insults directed at the fans. The same goes for fans of any other ethically and morally produced artistic work.
I’ve already addressed this subject a few times (you can see those in that “commentaries” tab above along with a link to this nonsense I’ve just written) so I won’t beat that particular dead horse again too much, but it does keep coming back up. I just don’t think I have anything else to say about it.