Joel Watson is the original author of the webcomic question and answers I responded to in an aggressive way a few weeks ago. He writes and illustrates the webcomic “Hijinks Ensue” and lives in Dallas, Texas in the U.S. In his responses to other people’s defense of some of my points he has made it clear that, like a lot of white men, he is uncomfortable being referred to as a white man, so in this post I will refer to Joel Watson as a black woman. Pictured above is Spike Trotman of Iron Circus Comics. She and Ayo were both recently interviewed on Inkstuds by David Brothers.
Joel Watson, a black woman, understandably feels upset that I responded to her positively-intended webcomics advice with acerbic, condescending criticism.
In order to express my disagreement with Joel Watson, a black woman who I love and respect and who I believe has innate value as a person but who I think has not taken the time to think a lot of these things through, I want to reiterate what might be the “content” of my original “hateful parody” with less “snark” though I will still refer to Joel Watson as a black woman.
Does sexism happen? Yes. Does it happen to most women at some time during their lives? Of course. Does it happen to some women a lot of the time? Certainly. Does it happen to every woman every moment of her life? Is hyperbole the MOST AMAZING WONDERFUL FANTASTIC THING EVER?!?!?!?
We are sexists, our culture is sexist, and because of that, women (all women, 100% of women and 100% of all men, and everyone) are affected constantly by social structures and patterns of thinking and behavior that limit what we can conceive of for ourselves and each other, and this directly and negatively affects the nature of our reality for everyone everyday.
By not communicating anything about this reality to an adult watching over the development of a female person who will be directly affected by these social dynamics, I felt an opportunity had been lost. I felt this was emblematic of male-dominated creative cultures that want to believe we are past misogyny “except for in superhero comics” or whatever exaggerated misogyny we can tolerate nearby so we have something to point at and say we’re better than.
This has nothing to do with Joel Watson in particular, except in as much as it has everything to do with every particular person and how we choose to conceive of the world around us and how that affects all of us. Because Joel Watson is a black woman and one of the few black women making a living off her comics work online (I don’t know of one other than Spike Trotman, and I’m not sure if it would be worse if this is because of my ignorance or because there are no others), I was surprised she didn’t have a broader view of these things to begin with.
I think this next quote sums up where I part from the culture of webcomics forever. Thank you for reading so far.
Nearly 50% of the world’s population, over three billion people, live on less than $2.50 a day.
33.4 million people have AIDS and 2/3 of those people live in a 3rd world country.
870 million people are starving. 850 million of them live in a 3rd world country.
"There is no webcomics industry" doesn’t matter because nothing matters. The world is an industry of suffering. An industry of pain. We should all just give up now because the fact that we are able to sit at our computers, or on our phones and freely express opinions on the Internet while not starving to death or fighting for our lives day in and day out means we will never know the truest depths of human suffering. How can anything I say or do ever matter if there is even one person out there who has it harder than I do? Or, is that argument perhaps completely ridiculous?
No one has ever made this argument, but it is a good argument to pretend has been made if you’d like our current social order to continue unabated. No one told Joel Watson that her suffering didn’t “count” but she still felt it necessary to recount her personal hardships. As much as I love and respect Joel Watson, and we know that she is an intelligent and strong black woman, I think she has made some fundamental mistakes with respect to her conception of the world.
To look at our world as “an industry of suffering” and accept this as the current state of affairs is understandable. The world can seem like it is made primarily of suffering with occasional breaks for not-suffering, and if you find a little break for not-suffering why wouldn’t you try to stay there forever? Why not live safely, in the suburbs, forever? Only Joel can answer that question for herself, but I can tell you why I will not be spending my life this way.
Suffering is inevitable for all of us. It is unavoidable and the fear of suffering helps to magnify our pain exponentially. Without the fear of suffering, any possible behavior is open to us. Because I have memories of past suffering and present empathy for others, I have the desire to reduce the suffering around me.
Joel Watson, a black woman with a voice in popular culture, has an important role to play in expressing her perspective and experience. Since I was born a white male, I think the most productive thing I can do in this culture might be for me to give up as much of my privilege as I can conceive of, and renounce systems that want me to experience “pleasure” or “safety” (as defined by our culture) at the direct cost of the suffering of others. I understand that other human beings come to different conclusions about living. This is where I’m headed.
The number of people suffering unnecessarily would be effectively reduced by humanity, I think, if we became less prone to accept the suffering of others as “inevitable” and the suffering of ourselves as “undesirable.”
And I say “men AND women” because the fear is rampant on both sides. Sexist men are afraid of women and people like you and John are encouraging women to be afraid of sexist men. You aren’t warning a female artist to be wary of sexism, you are ensuring that sexism will live inside her (as fear) and persist forever.
Sexists in comics and on the Internet are just extremely focused jerks. When you stop giving jerks power by fearing them, and just do whatever you want to do without asking them for permission or approval, they eventually get tired and go away.
I believe that discussing things like this does not give power to fear. I believe that discussion of negative aspects of reality, even those that some people don’t experience or feel responsible for or feel comfortable hearing about, is what will actually help take the fear out of our social spaces. I believe there are many negative aspects of our culture that will not be affected by ignoring individuals. I believe that the social structures and ways of thinking we have used to damage ourselves for generations will not get tired and go away. Deeply ingrained patterns of thinking and behavior do not need our attention; they survive more easily the less people enacting them are aware of what they are doing.
The point I am trying to make is that fear in general will harm you more than the person or thing you are afraid of. When giving a young artist advice, I tend to steer more towards encouragement than “here are some things to fear.” I certainly don’t have all the answers, and my examples above do not apply to sexism in all it’s forms. People can be really awful to each other. My only goal is to steer people towards being less awful to each other.
Better than educating each other about the structures of our world, better than changing our behavior, better than reevaluating our assumptions about ourselves and each other and the world around us, better than all those things is being nice. Let’s be polite about the continued destruction of the natural world.
Let’s be kind about the dissemination of sexism, racism and classism through systems of value that are flawed and broken, and whose proponents and participants have moved their self-preserving prejudices away from conscious exclusion of named communities to unconscious fear and lack of empathy for the other, which each individual participant in the system consciously believes that they do not have and that they are not responsible for this perspective’s negative effects on others.
Let’s allow the information that surrounds us to exclude low-income minority communities, most likely a short drive from wherever you are if you are in the U.S., who are being terrorized by economic violence, by prejudice, by law enforcement. If the system you live off of and uncritically participate in is an “industry of suffering,” then occasionally someone who has been ground into the dirt by that industry of suffering will wander into the gated community of your life and say something rude to you.
Just discussing these kinds of things from a different perspective is “rude” or “mean” or “condescending” to a lot of people, but uncritically supporting economic systems and patterns of behavior that hurt people every day is “inevitable” and “normal” and “fine.”
In order to turn masses of suffering people away from the safe spaces created by our affluence, we must tell ourselves stories to make ourselves feel powerless. This is “just the way it is” and there’s nothing we can do about it. There are too many suffering people for us to make a difference in their suffering. This story provides us with the attitude we need to shut out our natural empathy through years of its retelling. This preserves the current order and allows some people to believe they are avoiding suffering by maintaining their positions in hierarchies that can be made to appear stable.
I think the desire for everyone to be “nice” is an easy way to dismiss people who are strongly, negatively affected by cultural values you support. I think that the webcomics people I have spent my time around are too nice to seriously consider using their tremendous affluence to affect the system that gave them that affluence while preventing it from reaching others. I think rich people are afraid. I think if you are strongly, personally offended by someone pointing out you could’ve let a little girl’s mom know that life isn’t always easy for girls on the internet or in the world, I think that means you are afraid of your own responsibility, your culpability in this complex web of cultural and social interrelationships we inhabit. Maybe you’d like to do something about it instead of being afraid. If you don’t, I don’t want to know you.