Toxic Fandom?

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What an interesting time it is. Friday night I was driving home from Kingston unaware of the severity of the damage here in Ottawa and when I arrived it certainly upset the apple cart of my immediate plans. I’m grateful I only had one night without power and suffered no damages–others have certainly suffered more than I.

I couldn’t help but remember similar situations. I vividly recall the 1998 ice storm (watching transformers explode from my apartment balcony, never losing power in my building), and the 2003 blackout, which happened just as I was leaving work–I remember walking through a sea of people as the entire downtown core was emptying (then enjoying some barbecue with my roommates when I got home). On a personal level this blackout has had the most direct impact on me, minimal as it was. I never lost power during the ice storm and during the blackout it was only down overnight. Relatives of mine, living in the country, faced actual hardships during both events and my sympathies go out to everyone facing loss or simply being without power (I can’t help but recall James Burke’s 1978 series Connections “The Trigger Effect” where he talks about how dependent society is on technology). But I digress.

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I first encountered the term ‘toxic fanbase’ when it was applied to video game players, but over the last couple of years it has been used for franchise fandoms like Star Wars. I was quite surprised when WTYKY’s Varada used the term for hockey fans, especially without any context. I think it’s well worth delving into what the term means because wherever it is used it becomes a destructive, polarizing part of the rhetoric and I don’t want to see it infect Sens discourse.

Part of the problem with the term is it has no set definition (the one in Urban Dictionary is less than a year old and even it’s definition of toxic has only been around for two years; Wikipedia has no entry related to it at all, reflecting that the culture hasn’t decided what exactly it means, although clearly the word ‘toxic’ is borrowed from toxic masculinity and I suspect it’s something ultimately lifted out of the GamerGate fiasco from 2014–if you aren’t a fan of Milo Yiannopoulos you can thank the Streisand Effect from that for him). Applying the term to a group just adds to that confusion because what, exactly, makes someone toxic in reference to a hobby they enjoy?

When I think of current parlance the most common place I hear it is debate about entertainment franchises, beginning with the hubbub over the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot. It then jumped to 2017’s Star Trek: Discovery and from there over to Star Wars for The Last Jedi and beyond–becoming an ingrained piece of rhetoric within that fanbase (I remain mystified about how liking or disliking a piece of entertainment has any value-added judgement to it–the fact I don’t like The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t mean I think less of someone who does–we just enjoy different things about that kind of film).

I’m very cynical about the term because I think it both lacks substance and it fails to advance or enrich whatever is being debated. There’s no case where someone calling a group ‘toxic’ has lead to a fandom changing to lose that label–if it has any impact at all it simply polarizes debate. Fans have happily bickered over the things they love from time immemorial, but you can trace modern discourse back to the letter columns of pulp magazines at the turn of the century–H. P. Lovecraft owes his literary career, in part, to this specific element of fandom. Let’s be clear that the term ‘toxic fandom’ can’t simply be applied to fans disagreeing–you might believe the Sens (or BSens) need an enforcer and I do not, but our opinions aren’t toxic, we simply have a different view of what matters in the game–arguing vigorously is part of the fun so long as we remain respectful of one another.

The term didn’t arrive organically from the fans themselves. Corporate people–those involved in franchises being criticised–and people in the media push it (directly and indirectly they both profit from it–hey, my movie failed but it’s because of toxic fans, or hey editor, look at all the clicks I’m getting–intentionally or unintentionally the debate helps those who propagate it). The suits only use the term when their product (or employee) is facing criticism, which should ring alarm bells. To me it comes across as Orwellian doublespeak, or more specifically Newspeak, because it’s meant to prevent someone from having an opinion (ie don’t listen to X because they are toxic). We can argue about whether this is the intent or not (I think it is inarguably about limiting opinions, but there are media and creative people who truly believe it represents something beyond how I see it), but I’m very suspicious of things like this whose outcomes are about selling product. You don’t see the term used by successful franchises (the MCU is the easiest example, as its corporate speakers never attack the fanbase which absolutely gets into silly debates).

Bringing this back to the Senators I haven’t heard the term used by them in their battle against criticism–I doubt they are aware of it and generally they borrow rhetoric from the right not the left–but it’s something I’ll keep an eye on going forward. Criticism of the org or the rebuild is perfectly valid so long as there is evidence or reasonable arguments behind it–I feel the same way about those who defend both. Emotional expressions of support and criticism are also perfectly valid if, again, it’s done respectfully of other fans. I don’t want discussion to become polarized like it has in the aforementioned franchises or like we see in politics–nothing good comes from it. The whole point of vigorous debate is learning and avoiding being trapped in your own bubble. I have been and will continue to be wrong about things (Alexander Nikulin and Tobias Lindberg as prospects are the two clearest examples when it comes to hockey–in both cases, if memory serves, Jeff Ulmer’s opinion was on-target), and I’m never going to learn from my mistakes if I simply reject opposing opinions as ‘toxic.’

This was an unplanned article and we can thank Varada’s Twitter feed for it (or, more precisely for me, Ary who re-Tweeted it). I still have a much delayed post about the Sens ECHL affiliate in Brampton to finish as well as a substantial news digest/opinion piece in the hopper. We’ve had one surprising cut in Ottawa’s NHL camp thus far which I think is related to an injury to Jim O’Brien and I’ll get into that next time.

Best wishes to everyone in Ottawa-Gatineau during this difficult time.

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)


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