Lately, I’ve been seeing discussions of “anti-shipping” hit mainstream, for example in a Kotaku article trying to connect it to the latest video game controversies. I’m separated by two degrees from any anti-shipping arguments, but I’m aware it’s a clusterfuck, so I’m a bit apprehensive about this new attention. People who are involved in anti-shipping flame wars are notorious for pulling in complete strangers to the subject, and coercively classifying them on one side or the other. It’s a nasty flame war I prefer to keep at arms distance, although I find some of the underlying questions to be interesting.
Briefly, anti-shippers (or simply “antis” if you want to be enigmatic and ungoogleable) are people with moral objections to certain kinds of problematic ships. The precise content of anti-shipper or pro-shipper stances is slippery, but in my understanding anti-shippers commonly object to ships with characters that are canonically minors, and even label it pedophilia. If you’re familiar with the dominant culture in fanfic (AO3 in particular), and their habit of shipping basically every pair of characters, you can see how the disagreement is substantial and significant.
This raises several questions. What exactly counts as problematic or not? What does it mean to have a moral objection to problematic content, vs just not liking that content, or not wanting to be exposed to it? Once we’ve identified problematic content, what actions do we advocate taking in response? As a writer who has occasionally critiqued works of fiction from a social justice perspective, it is that last question that fascinates me.
When I write a critique of a work of fiction, what do I advocate doing about it? It’s not a question that I usually think about as I write critiques. I usually I don’t advocate anything in particular.
Something I encourage in readers, is to see essays as a form of art. An essay critiquing a video game is as much a work of art as the video game itself. I write critiques for the same reason that people write stories–because I have something to say. Many stories incorporate critique of society, but they don’t necessarily specify what the reader ought to do about it. Likewise, my essays are not usually a call to action. They are not a means to an end, they are their own end.
But if I don’t explicitly advocate any particular action, it’s natural for readers to fill that in for themselves. For example, if I criticize the White saviorism in Horizon Zero Dawn, that’s clearly not just an explanation of my personal preference, it’s a moral judgment. At minimum, it implies a demand: “less of this please”. But a reader is within their rights to take it farther, perhaps looking towards the actions we have taken towards other morally problematic content. For instance, boycotting the game, or complaining to the publishers, or god forbid, harassing people over Twitter.
An unsympathetic reader might fill in the gaps in an uncharitable way, assuming that I’m calling for censorship or other extreme actions. Or they might notice and challenge the gap, asking, “What are we supposed to do about it?” with the implication that there is nothing to be done, and so the complaint is best ignored.
In my view, there very well may be nothing to be done, except to engage with the critique. There are many stories containing social critique, and we often engage with these without demanding that the story present actionable solutions. I’d like us to be able to engage with nonfictional social critique the same way. I still remember when Anita Sarkeesian would repeat the mantra: “Remember that it’s both possible, and even necessary, to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of its problematic or pernicious aspects,” and that’s how I think about it.
The anti-shipping wars are a case where people have taken extreme actions in response to perceived problematic content. Namely, adopting “pro” and “anti” identity labels, and harassing each other over Tumblr and Twitter. One time I saw somebody persistently demanding that a (non-fandom) community ostracize a person because they were an “anti-anti”. I really don’t know the details, I’m not part of this flame war. Since I’m used to these more low-stakes critiques without any explicit call to action, I find it a bit shocking. Isn’t it all a bit disproportionate? …Perhaps I only think so, because I have substantial disagreements with anti-shippers about what constitutes pedophilia.
On the other hand I also disagree with a view commonly attributed to pro-shippers, that fiction should not be subject to moral judgment at all, because fiction is not reality. In support of this, it may be argued that there is little evidence for the real world harm of problematic fiction. An absence of evidence should give us pause before we take drastic actions in response to problematic fiction, but it does not mean that we should downplay our moral critique.
Moral critique is just a common form of engagement with fiction, and one that is personally beloved. There needs to be space for low-stakes moral critique, which isn’t about shouting accusations of depravity, but which is just part of the daily routine of the moral individual.