Furries vs. Evil: Habits in geek social spaces

by Patch O'Furr

This was written as introduction for a planned series. I edited it to stand alone in response to recent events of bad things being exposed. Expect to see it reposted in the future to fit a series. It’s kind of a thinkpiece to provoke open ended conversation. Let’s start with a weird question… (- Patch)

Q: How are furries like Catholic Nuns? 

Aside from silly headgear or being anthropomorphic penguins… this isn’t about being moralistic, but it involves contrasting black-and-white appearances.

Do nuns make you think nice thoughts about The Sound of Music or Mother Teresa, with harmless ladies playing guitar and taking care of orphans?

For a huge contrast, now think of scandals with abusive priests, where churches shift them from diocese to diocese to cover it up. It’s easy to assume nuns don’t do abuse like that. Until news comes out that they do, but the church hasn’t been accountable. This news may be loaded with a certain counterintuitiveness that increases the WTF factor. But in both cases, it’s dishonest to blame individuals for an institutional problem.

Furry fandom is made of loose federations of groups. Almost all of them are super positive and friendly and it would be gross exaggeration to suggest an institutional problem like above. It’s not a church with a pope. At worst, dramatic stories like a ring of abuse in Pennsylvania was limited to personal friendships that didn’t go as far as alleged. (Lupinefox, who was accused of hosting it at his house, was found not guilty on all charges in court.)

Like anywhere else, fandom has a section of wrongdoers. They may get away with it by moving from group to group with little documenting. Fandom has no single leaders, just volunteer organizers or mods who may passively tolerate bad members by saying: “it didn’t happen here, it’s not our problem…” 

If nobody claims responsibility, is everybody blameless? You can say of course “it’s not our problem” when it’s just individuals.

But then comes a group habit of flipping blame at those who speak out (which will be a followup topic to this article.) People dismiss serious and well-founded problems as drama. That’s where “not our problem” becomes a problem itself, especially if it’s a pre-programmed habit.

Habits aren’t just for nuns. (See also):

  • Geek Social Fallacies – individual principles don’t work the same on group level.
  • The Missing Stair – A group may excuse an untrustworthy member by working around them, rather than dealing with them.

Complicity is a good word for a group habit of harboring dysfunction and dismissing accountability. Let me emphasize that I don’t think it’s a fandom problem (fandom has the solution too). It’s a human problem that happens with sub-groups of this subculture.

A followup article will look deep into sub-groups that aren’t just passive, but exist to manipulate these group habits. They straddle a line of individual deniability for members. To cover up complicity, they claim “guilt by association” as a two-faced tactic. They even project on others, like throwing grease on the stairs and accusing people who point out broken stairs.

More and more, fandom is no longer buying excuses for complicity.

More about truth, denial, and complicity in geek spaces.

Recently I brought some friends to the movie Blackkklansman. It was worth comparing to Sorry To Bother You (a movie recommended to furry fans for certain reasons I won’t spoil). They told stories with comic-book-lurid content but socially aware smarts. They’re fun with a point.

After the movie, we took time to digest it. I mentioned how the director of Sorry To Bother You had feedback about Blackkklansman that could change the understanding of what we saw.  It’s based on some real happenings but the story uses a made-up conflict for dramatic effect. Basically it pits law and order against racists for a simple hero/villain Hollywood fairy tale. But in real life, the good guy of the movie wasn’t such a good guy. You have to read outside the movie to learn the story-behind-the-story.

Furry relevant but no spoilers!

Our conversation jumped to Spotlight, the movie about exposing the scandal of child abuse by the Catholic Church.  This powerful, conservative institution hid pedophile priests by shuffling them from diocese to diocese, concealing records and the trail of victims. Confronting the church with lawyers made victims play David vs. Goliath. The church’s defense strategy was mainly saying “it’s too old” and relying on statutory limits (because they concealed evidence beyond the limits). That isn’t a real defense, it’s a deflection – and they just couldn’t avoid stone-cold facts. Justice hadn’t happened, so whether the law accommodated it or not, the social confrontation brought out a story-behind-the-story.

My movie watching friends included someone of an older generation, who had studied to be a Catholic nun in the 1960’s in the Northeast US, the millieu of these happenings.  They commented “You never hear about nuns doing that, it tells you about who should be in charge”. Sure, nuns look like harmless old ladies, but harm is contextual. I answered “you don’t hear about it because people think they aren’t capable, and that’s how they get away with it.” (My reference included the “Magdelane laundries” of Ireland, and the residential school system of Canada where horrifying abuse was covered up.)

Like a voodoo prophecy come true, a week later, a journalistic expose was published about abuse in orphanages by Catholic nuns in the northeast US. It’s extensively documented by the article, but it was harder to expose than the Spotlight story – because they didn’t just shuffle abusers around to conceal evidence, they didn’t keep records at all. The reporting relies on testimony. The institutional response was to not just rely on statutory limits, but also portray victims as old and confused despite “a vast and horrifying matrix of corroboration”.  It took social confrontation to bring out a story-behind-the-story.

If you read it, you may notice this example of dishonest both-sidesing:

When the system enables this kind of institutional complicity, it changes from an equal both-sides disagreement to a David vs. Goliath battle.

Goliath straddles lines. In the first example (Blackkklansman) it looks like a good vs. evil story, but the lines become blurry when you look deeper. In the second example (Church abuse) it is a good vs. evil story, but the church wants to hide it by making blurry lines.

Sometimes truth benefits from a tug-of-war across blurry lines, but sometimes that’s dishonest. The issue is when to dismiss reactionary contrarianism and keep some basic things crystal-clear, black-and-white. It’s easy with institutional child abuse. Same for hate groups who have no legitimate reason to exist.

A productive discussion can benefit from a variety of perspectives. Not all are legitimate. They must reject bad faith and complicity with it. That’s why a supposed division about “both sides” about nazis or child abusers isn’t a legitimate disagreement, and isn’t about right vs. left. It’s about lying vs. truth.

For differing perspectives in good faith, from people who value individualism (perhaps conservative or libertarian), I’ve learned to appreciate that no individual is a statistic. That’s how you can look at nuns as responsible for abuse (no matter whether women or powerful men run the church.)  From the type of person concerned with “social justice”, the kind who doesn’t excuse institutional abuse, I’ve learned that you can only bend statistics and facts so far before they break from reality.

Having a certain narrative or side isn’t a problem as long as some things are commonly held to be non-negotiable, with no “centrist” compromise or “alternative facts”, they can’t be deflected and aren’t “fake news” or “not our problem”.

A fandom has a real community, but little top-down power. It makes a group dynamic where it’s hard to get accountability and easy to fall into denial and complicity. That can be both a strength and a weakness. Abusers don’t get protection of some pope somewhere. But there’s also few watchdogs with enough vision to easily catch them manipulating it.

There’s just everyone. Each member who claims any part in the group has the power to demand better from others. When everyone expects better, there’s nothing that abusers/trolls/enablers can do to call that a division, dismiss it as drama, demand centrist compromise with bullshit, or call bad faith a matter of individual freedom. That’s when you get a united community of individuals all wanting one thing – a good place to enjoy what brought them there.

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