How I Learned to Keep Worrying and Hate the Villain Discourse

I can’t mention Bertie Carvel without mentioning Star Wars: The Old Republic. Ah, SWTOR. A constant in my life for nearly five years. A reliable source of amusement, joy, pride, sadness, rage, pseudo-lust, fear, frustration, spicy frustration, and emotions that technically shouldn’t be placeable on the human spectrum because they ought to be exclusive to some deep-sea cephalopod who’s about to experience being eaten while eating.

I first heard the male Imperial Agent voice in late 2011…and I didn’t like it. The clip I heard happened to be one of the few flat lines. (It probably fit in context.) This turned out to be a really good thing, because that initial dismissal meant I only gave the male Agent voice a chance in mid-2014, right before Carvel began starring in major onscreen roles.

What’s that sound? Me, sobbing. (Source: SundanceTV’s profiles for the Babylon cast)

I don’t follow his work because I plan to develop automatic attachments to his characters. For example, passive empathy aside, I would eject Simon Foster into the sun. No, I follow Carvel’s work because I trust that he’ll choose interesting stories. Even Haze.

That said, I’m skeptical of larger fandoms for specific people. (Which isn’t the case for him, but it could very well be, someday.) Cognitive dissonance arises whenever a person is admired because of how they portray complex humanity, then admiration is expressed by describing them as transcendent. In the healthiest cases, people are idolised for their love of humanity. Like Jesus. We know that loving humanity is a desirable trait, yet deep compassion and empathy for humanity are subconsciously associated with being anything but a normal person.

I occasionally remember what he said in an article about Damned by Despair, circa 2012:

‘I get so carried away in interviews and deliver 1,500-word treatises, then find it’s been reduced to something pithier but also not quite accurate.’

So I decided to celebrate his birthday by using his words to loosely tie together a 5,000-word treatise that’s as little about him as possible. I‘m over a week late because writing turned out to be like ripping out my teeth, moulding them into chess pieces by hand, then playing chess against myself.


Nine out of ten times the same topic will come up in Carvel’s interviews, whether the interview promotes a magical alternate history or a political play or a domestic drama: Miss Trunchbull. Inevitably, marvelling at how he played a woman and/or how he played a villain. How he humanised a villain.

I think it’s easy to confuse cause and effect. He doesn’t miraculously insert humanising traits into villains; villains begin as people and he excavates them. He’s pointed out that if Miss Trunchbull hates children so much, why did she become a teacher? Common reactions would be calling it a plot hole, saying that’s overthinking a children’s book, or concluding she’s primarily motivated by evil that exists ‘just because’. But he can cite other threads of characterisation like her Olympian past and her manslaughter.

Matilda was one of my favourite books. However, I recognise what may be problematic elements; for one, the contrast between Miss Honey and Miss Trunchbull partially plays on conventional femininity. Trunchbull is an unattractive, unpleasant (to say the least) older woman. It’s been a while, but I seem to recall that in the book, she is a fairly flat character. The Matilda the Musical team probably put more thought into her characterisation than her own creator did. As a result, she went from being a subliminally misogynistic monster-turned-punchline to a person, albeit still an unambiguously bad one. Years after her onstage debut, the most virulent ‘villain discourse’ revolves around a specific type of villain: a passably attractive, remotely charming man.


What is this ‘villain discourse’, anyway?

How fandoms interpret villains has become a hot debate topic on social media. I’m most familiar with Tumblr’s version, but I’m sure there are site-specific variations. We use ‘discourse’ ironically. I think. I hope.

By the discourse stripes, we’re damned. I love how we didn’t consider that this could be why Tumblr changed the reblog style. They weren’t just mimicking forums; us fuckers broke the site with fights about the Once-ler’s dick size.

If you ask me, I’d say the main conflict originates from how most popular villains are white men who were likely written as straight — at a time when women, people of colour, and canonically gay characters are gaining ground as protagonists. However, that’s an oversimplification of a multifaceted issue. For starters, it’s worth noting that among the liveliest participants, there are few straight white men.

Villain discourse intersects with other hot debate topics (censorship, abuse, casual racism, gender, sexuality, mental illness, etc.) to the point that it’s not so much about fictional characters anymore as it is a sort of hideous organic metaphor about self-absorption and dehumanisation that’s, ironically, slowly gaining sapience.

Irony abounds in spades: as with most well-written characters, it’s important to remember that almost everyone who participates in villain discourse sincerely wants to do the right thing; a slightly lower number of those people believe they’re doing the right thing; and a slightly higher number of those people won’t instinctively entertain the idea that they aren’t. You will find few amoral social Darwinists in this sort of argument. You will find people who care so much that they forget how to care.


Pretend this is a witty header about hyperreality

Interviews were once weirdly fixated on Carvel’s reluctance to talk about anything other than his projects. Then, around the time Coalition came out, something changed. He began regularly tweeting about politics. At Equity’s Annual Representative Conference he took to the podium at least ten times and recited poetry at everyone. He delivered a speech to Parliament about the English Baccalaureate. His attitude now is a big step forward, not necessarily because he overcame ‘shyness’, but because the desire to understand people from every angle suggests a wariness of being unfairly judged based on limited context.

He often has to explain his views on playing antagonistic characters. (So often. So very, very often.) On This Morning in 2015, he said that people tend to cast themselves as the ‘flawed hero’ of their own story.

I don’t know whether people in general have a greater fear of being negatively judged ‘wrongly’ or correctly. Belief that we’re doing the right thing is constantly counterbalanced by fear that we’re not; uncertainty and despair tend to be more relatable than confidence or tangible validation. ‘Be on your character’s side’ is a concept often mentioned by writers and actors. Many villains are compelling because they aren’t entirely on their own side.

Fiction is simultaneously a private coping mechanism and a vital tool for social justice (commonly as ‘representation’). Hell breaks loose when there’s conflict of interest. Honestly, I think everyone believes in both roles and probably don’t realise that their basis of argument shifts as circumstance demands.

Within villain discourse are two main spheres. One is a classic interpersonal tragedy of miscommunication caused by insensitivity, defensiveness, semantic differences, over-interpretation, and general error, among other things. The other is based on institutional issues — which isn’t a sign of modern political correctness gone mad, since historically, fiction has helped generate public outrage over real-world issues and provided the first spaces for minorities to express themselves. No, fiction isn’t inherently activism, but it’s not inherently neutral, either. These spheres intersect and react to explosive effect, very much unlike spheres in the deleted George Lucas sense.

This will be my immediate association with the word ‘sphere’ for the rest of my life, thanks. (Source: How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor)

Narrow perspective may be pinpointed as the universal root of the problem. After all, for an argument to revolve around identifying with fictional characters, surely perspective must be in short supply. Hmm. Perhaps my sample size is too small, but some of the active participants I’ve seen are around the same age, share similar political views, and come from relatively similar backgrounds — at least, more similar to each other’s than to mine. Familiarity breeds contempt in the unlikeliest of ways. We expect conflict with others who are radically different from us, but unless it’s ideological, distance can be bizarrely humanising. I think that’s part of fiction’s appeal.

Here’s the thing about empathy: without conscious, continuous effort, it’s easy for cognitive distortions to hijack. Others’ experiences exist just as much as it takes to validate ours. ‘Putting ourselves in their shoes’ misleads us into wondering why others don’t think the way we do more than wondering why they think the way they do. Trauma and mental illness hinder the process. How do we train empathy without potentially hurting someone?

If only we could practice with people who aren’t real.

Oh. Wait a minute.

Pretty much every side of villain discourse expresses concern over the ‘healthiness’ of the other sides’ attitude. Everyone argues for their views by saying that real people are more important than fiction. Obviously, the basic statement is true. However, besides condemning harassment, the line of reasoning stalls at the gate. Or dies in the garage. Whatever. I don’t understand horses or cars and I have a tenuous grasp on metaphors.

It’s hard to truly envision a stranger at the other end of the screen. Plus, fiction is chiefly abstract. Whipping out ‘reality’ in fiction discourse backfires because for people to be this emotionally invested in fiction they didn’t create, they’re not getting along with reality, no matter how much they want to. Fiction paradoxically serves as a tether to life. If that’s challenged by someone you’ll never meet in real life, whom you can’t see/hear/speak to, it’s understandable that prioritisation gets muddled.

Examining most arguments closely, they tacitly defend against being told that their passion doesn’t matter; against the dreaded ‘it’s all in your head.’ But aren’t many things, as chemicals or ideas? Aren’t they not unreal? Don’t they definitely remain important?

Once or twice, Bertie Carvel has quoted Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘Modern Fiction’:

“Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than what is commonly thought small.”
I had a different caption, but I accidentally wrote ‘Who Framed Virginia Woolf’ instead of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ so I have to tell you about that instead.

(We’ve unwittingly waded into hazardous territory, since I’m constantly two seconds away from claiming fandom-as-a-formal-concept is a late capitalist phenomenon. I’ll restrain myself! Barely.)

Beneath the discourse lurks a socially ingrained fear that emotional investment in fiction occurs at an opportunity cost of real-world activism. The idea of ‘real activism’ invoked in arguments is unconsciously classist, ableist, and somewhat Western-centric: it presupposes that everyone has the money, physical/mental capacity, and personal/political freedom to act ‘tangibly’. People who are able to act ‘tangibly’ despite limitations are happy exceptions. They aren’t the baseline expectation.

Inadequacies we perceive in ourselves tend to be the inadequacies we’re likely to perceive in others. Many people have limited avenues for emotional comfort or advocacy. A productivity-obsessed system shames us; some people shame others in a subconscious attempt to absolve themselves. It occurs in every side of the discourse. Fiction shouldn’t be considered a waste when it’s ‘normal’ entertainment, so I say that when fiction is utilised as an avenue for comfort or social justice, it isn’t a waste at all.

I don’t believe it’s a solution to ‘reverse’ prioritisation of fiction and reality, if that’s even possible to force in the first place; their relationship isn’t so straightforward, anyway. To mitigate potential self-loathing, we shouldn’t treat fiction like it’s significantly separate from reality or like we’re morally obligated to diminish its importance in our lives. Instead, we should try thinking of ourselves and others we dislike the way we think of characters we don’t hate, since we handle the latter with more respect and openness to understanding.

Is it dangerous to condone deep absorption in fiction? Anything is dangerous if you throw it hard enough! Think of it this way: the current President of the United States was never a politician; he was a reality TV star. The 24/7 news cycle and social media have made it easier for misinformation to spread and go uncorrected. Institutional oppression is based on lies that certain groups of people are inferior. The world certainly exists physically, but our default perception is so warped that reality itself isn’t terribly reliable.

Fiction doesn’t lie about being fake. It at least has unofficial rules about consistency and believability; that partly stems from its purpose as a constant in an unstable world. The (legitimate) danger of knowingly intensely ‘playing pretend’ for entertainment is a shadow of living in a society that’s constructed around being forced to pretend out of artificial necessity.

Would it be great if we could treat people like people because they’re people? Right! How’s that going for us?


These are a few of my least favourite things

I said that villain discourse is a multifaceted issue. Below is by no means a cohesive or comprehensive (or coherent) compilation. 4 is a weird number for lists and unlucky in Chinese numerology — it sounds like ‘death’ in Cantonese — so let’s go with it because that’s what almost happens to my faith in humanity every time I research:

1) Female and/or non-white characters still suffer from underdevelopment, particularly if the writers don’t share their areas of marginalisation.

They’re held to higher standards than white male protagonists, including by their own advocates. It’s a vicious cycle. It’s difficult to give them moral complexity without the audience disproportionately vilifying them for their flaws. Alternatively, complex characterisation may be undermined when flaws are ignored or interpreted as proof that the writer hates them. Meanwhile, writers generally don’t worry about a white male villain offending the audience. That’s often a goal. The freedom for them to be ‘bad’ means they’re afforded more space to be a ‘complete’ person, and therefore more relatable. If a large portion of the audience relates to them above all other characters, they become even easier to write.

Take these recent statements by Rian Johnson, director of The Last Jedi. Mostly, I agree. But the article is questionably worded. Kylo is meant to be relatable through his negative emotions; though not identical, Finn struggles with similar emotions and they’ve arguably been explored further in the main story. Johnson talks about the perils of adolescence; both characters were in their twenties and Finn is six years younger than Kylo. Emotional maturity is a dubious difference, too, since Finn’s arc features anxiety and facing responsibility. The popularity disparity isn’t entirely influenced by racist socialisation: Kylo is more developed by default (as a relative of previous protagonists) and he appears in more supplementary material. His heightened self-destructiveness may be more relatable. Yet I firmly believe that if Finn was white, his story would be given greater depth and recognition without conscious effort, by the writers and fandom.

It’s another vicious cycle: audience reaction to a character dictates how they’ll be presented in the future; marketing; and where the story goes next. While it’s invasive to expect individuals to change their preferences, it’s perfectly reasonable for minorities to be hurt by an overall response.

I’m fairly certain that non-U.K. airings of Babylon adjusted their advertising tactics after Finn Kirkwood was well-received by the initial audience. He went from a short description on the Channel 4 website to greater prominence and actually having his full name listed on the American SundanceTV website to being the only character regularly featured alongside the actual protagonist in the Asian SundanceTV’s campaign. That’s one character on a miniseries with low ratings. Can you imagine what goes through the minds of Trump-supporting Disney executives who analyse the profitability of a massively popular franchise?

Yeah, I see you, you rat.

2) Identification is viewed as reclamation.

I’m cheating. This point is quick peek into a rabbit hole that really leads to a vast tunnel network where every tunnel also leads to a can of worms. Yes, cans in the dirt! Not happy worms in the actual dirt where worms belong!

For example, some white male villains are canonically (or close to canonically) mentally ill and/or disabled. Some villains are queer-coded, including some white male villains. There’s a double standard between the treatment of fans who identify with villains because they’re queer-coded and the treatment of fans who identify with white male villains because they’re disabled or mentally ill. It’s erroneous to assume that there’s little overlap between the two groups of fans or characters, yet they’re occasionally presented as pitted against each other.

Identification is partially derived from fanon filling in the gaps that canon leaves. I said there’s no dire opportunity cost to fandom versus material social justice. But ‘reclamation’ occurs at some expense of fanon focus on underdeveloped characters mentioned in the first point. It doesn’t actually need to; one can favour a white male villain while treating other characters well. Yet that isn’t put into practice across the board. Again, to put it mildly, on a broad scale it’s hurtful that it isn’t. In the worst cases it’s blatantly bigoted. For the former, it’s wrong to demand that individuals change their prioritisation —they don’t even have full control over it— but still, it isn’t ideal.

3) Arguments about abuse mushroom into misplaced social responsibility and (dis)respecting boundaries.

Of special note, pairing female unambiguous heroes with white male villains invites tricky non-rhetorical questions about misogyny and heteronormativity’s interplay with abuse culture. Is the hero reduced to a vehicle of shallow redemption for someone who may have badly hurt her? Since relationships aren’t inherently defined by gender, would the fandom view the dynamic as similarly if the gender configuration was different?

Depressingly, much of this specific area consists of abuse survivors who struggle to communicate with each other because they’re abuse survivors. In the absence of positive real-world models, people seek guidance through stories. However, as Johnson says, fiction is also a space to explore darker parts of the human psyche. Naturally, the two clash. Lacking positive real-world models, abusive tactics are unintentionally employed to promote fictional positive models or defend the pervasiveness of fictional negative models. (After definitively sorting all models into either category, a dubious act in itself.) It’s wrong to cite empathy as a reason for identifying with villains yet pressure others to feel the same way. It’s wrong to demand that people detail their past trauma to ‘justify’ their identification, or act as if you know what’s personally best for them.

Without additional resources, using fiction (or the analysis of fiction!) for recovery is like trying to wash water by pouring water on it.

4) The main medium is terrible.

Tumblr is the same website that removed its reply function for months and didn’t explain the situation until they received enough backlash (which was tricky, since we couldn’t reply to the staff’s posts). Unless it’s a small fandom, it’s ungainly to use a microblogging platform for lengthy, pseudo-academic arguments — it’s like fucking tweeting screenshots of someone else’s LiveJournal entry, where they in turn misquoted someone else’s JSTOR article written in 2005.

Reblogging is fun and handy for some types of content. For discourse, the human brain is already prone to hasty overgeneralisation; the unique reblog system reduces complex agreement to a number while making it seem deeper than ‘likes’ or simple sharing on other sites, reinforcing the subconscious fallacy that everyone belongs to a hive mind except you…and the people who agree, of course. It also makes linear discussions virtually impossible.


When you stare into the abyss, the abyss blocks you and vagues that you’re problematic

Villain discourse captivates because it’s a reflection of the very thing it concerns.

In Maskerade, Terry Pratchett wrote, “Hate is a form of attraction. Hate is just love with its back turned.” He was specifically referring to Granny Weatherwax attending theatrical productions so she could sit in the front row and stare disapprovingly, because theatre was her most hated form of fiction; she hated all fiction since people have enough problems in real life. She might’ve been onto something, though I wonder how she would’ve reacted to knowing that she’s a fictional character, or that she’s positively impacted lives by being one. Such is the self-conflicting nature of existence!

Speaking of big impacts, let’s return to Doctor Foster.

INTO THE SUN! INTO THE SUN!

Carvel’s analytical skills quietly extend to the audience. He’s baffled at how furiously people want Simon to be hanged, drawn and quartered, but he isn’t condescending towards them for it, either. (Lately, I’d say he sounds fascinated by the reactions.) In a Radio Times article, he pinpointed the root of the rage that they may not be aware of, themselves:

“ If [Simon] was simply a nasty piece of work, then viewers would just think, ‘Well, thank God Gemma’s out of that.’ What makes you angry and sad for her, is that somebody she loves, and who loves — or has loved — her, could betray her in this way.”

Many, many words ago, I said that the love of humanity is considered one of the best traits a person can have. Conflicts like villain discourse don’t spontaneously spring from human evil. They progress from a belief that people can be better — are naturally inclined to be better — but fail, according to personal standards. Society obsesses over punishing, fixing, or avoiding failure rather than examining its components or questioning its definition.

A large portion of any major discourse will agree that online social justice movements have bred a mob mentality motivated by vanity. Yet the problem persists. Why? People could be lying. Or, more likely, spreading the sentiment alone does squat because the sentiment is the end, not the means.

Self-righteousness can’t be overcome by telling people to be motivated by love instead of vanity. Firstly, we’re far from having total control over our own motivations; I consider it a successful day when I can identify mine at all. Secondly, almost every human being is motivated by vanity in addition to genuine good intentions. We’re hardwired to seek approval and we’re conditioned to compete. There’s no such thing as ideological purity, but there’s also no such thing as pure intent. The idea of near-pure intent becomes another unquantifiable, impossible standard to judge others by or hate ourselves for falling short of.

Though intended otherwise, discourse largely doesn’t function as a form of persuasion. It’s personal affirmation that absorbs friendly opinions. Sheer cynicism would lead me to conclude that it’s a faux-progressive means for people to firebomb straw men to fill an innate human drive for domination. Maybe that’s true, to an extent. Who knows.

But reframe it in terms of believable characterisation: people generally want to do the right thing and be understood; they’d prefer to be judged for who they believe they are instead of how the world perceives them. The same impulse drives people in superficially different ways. Unlike material-world issues like major ideological clashes, different sides in the discourse have a decent foundation to empathise with each other.

Multiple times, Bertie Carvel has quoted John Galsworthy’s ‘Some Platitudes Concerning Drama’. It’s a beautiful essay that contains this line:

“A human being is the best plot there is; it may be impossible to see why he is a good plot, because the idea within which he was brought forth cannot be fully grasped; but it is plain that he is a good plot. He is organic.

If there’s any point to my rambling, I’d like to see a shift towards, if not love, the refined sense of hatred that complexity deserves.

Almost everyone recognises that empathy isn’t automatically acceptance. They disagree about what empathy and acceptance look like. To ‘question’ has become conflated with negative challenge. We may ask ourselves genuine questions about others, but the immediate answers we give tend to be biased towards ourselves.

Concept: your fave isn’t problematic. They’re a straight-up classical Problem.

Last month, the Babylon fandom saw its first-ever Tumblr™ discourse about Finn Kirkwood. It was disappointing. It was boring; I felt like I was arguing with myself on my ‘opponent’’s behalf.

I realised how frustrating it is that “I don’t understand” has become an expression of moral judgment or pity instead of curiosity or an invitation for discussion. Tools for trying to understand were right there: they could’ve gone through the meticulously tagged blogs for analyses. They could’ve asked. Instead they weakly answered their own question and made no attempt to engage. I can’t presume to know much about them as a person, but a pitfall of the information era is the expectation that all understanding is instantaneous, total, and a solitary act.

Shallow empathy blips on the radar as “I understand, but…” Seethe in empathy. Or, rather, steep as it. Pretend you’re a teabag of empathy in the piping hot water of a cruel universe and stay there for the advised 3–5 minutes. This isn’t a moral imperative so much as pragmatism.

When I was in kindergarten, I had a ‘game’ where I’d receive an answer then keep asking ‘Why?’, creating a series of increasingly ridiculous explanations until my parents got annoyed. Funnily enough, now I think the best question really is Why?, repeatedly; overall, without disbelief or accusation. Disbelief and accusation aren’t wrong or useless, yet catharsis alone doesn’t solve the wider issues we implicitly attack whenever we criticise how they manifest in fiction.

Remember, no real person is as flat as the characters they like. The simplest actions can be rooted in a complex background. Sometimes they aren’t really. However, in fandom in particular, the intensity of emotional investment hints that most behaviour is hypothetically traceable to personal meaning, good and bad and otherwise.


Maybe the biggest BioWare choice was the discourse all along?

If one can deeply empathise with villains without condoning their actions, in theory one can empathise with real people who hate villains for valid reasons, even if they’re unpleasant and their methods are bad. (‘Valid’ as in abuse or genocide, not belonging to a marginalised group.) Meanwhile, if one hates pro-villain culture, it’s counter-productive to refer to its members like they’re monsters, idiots, or oblivious victims. A ‘bad’ character is crafted intentionally or poorly written. A seemingly ‘bad’ person is the product of invisible forces; nobody is entitled to know what they are. Persuading others is the goal, right? A relational approach is more persuasive than direct condemnation.

Several times, I’ve seen convincing defences for identifying with villains, only for the writers to undermine themselves while exploring the ‘characters’ of their opponents. Villains are treated as more layered and thrillingly ambiguous than real people are. It isn’t malicious — I think it’s empathy misfiring in a self-serving way. Analyses usually boil down to ‘people who hate villains like feeling morally superior because they don’t want to confront their own glaring faults’. It’s a logical attempt, but it reduces real people to the simple cause-and-effect and one-track motives that complex characterisation is supposed to disprove.

Here are other questions to ask:

  1. Why do they hate [insert specific villain here]? Why do they hate them enough to fight about it? Among fans, there’s a subconscious misconception that a villain is hated because they’re a villain; in other words, because of their meta role in the story. But audience sympathy isn’t like obeying a ‘LAUGH’ sign flashing on a sitcom set — bear in mind that people are more likely to hate villains for the reasons why they’re villains rather than an equation like villain=evil=hate magnet.
  2. What makes a person assume they have the right to dictate others’ thoughts? What makes them assume that’s possible? Their past? Their culture or environment? Why would someone want to be in control without actually wanting a formal position of power?
  3. What characters do they openly empathise with? Why? How? Once you have a reason in mind, ask why again. What’s effective about how they analyse these characters? What’s ineffective?

As for being against pro-villain culture in any capacity: I think invasiveness isn’t intentional ‘thought-policing’ so much as a (weak) attempt to find reasons for others’ behaviour. If one must tolerate something they dislike, an explanation eases the process. Again, it’s empathy misfiring in a self-serving way. I don’t think anyone enjoys looking down on others; it just makes them feel better. It’s like taking medicine. But regardless of one’s views on objective morality, treating people like they’re evil or broken will only push them further into identifying with villains. The understanding that villains lack or receive within the story is what the bulk of their fans desire — that’s the key to communication.

  1. You’ve heard of ‘think of a monster, what makes it a monster’, blah blah blah. Think of a villain and what makes them a villain. Now think of a real person who loves them. What makes it love? Villain fans mention moral complexity, so love is unlikely to manifest as conscious denial of a villain’s wrongdoing. Why would someone love that way? Hypothetically, what could make them stop?
  2. Why would someone identify with certain fictional characters deeper than they empathise with real people? It’s probably not by choice. To what extent do you think they’re aware of it? How does that affect the way they empathise?
  3. What are the similarities and differences between how they empathise with a non-villainous character and a villain? How often are the former relevant in their arguments?

And for everyone:

  1. Besides anger, what emotions do you think they experience when explaining their views? What about being criticised? Which do you think are the strongest? How do you think they deal with discourse-induced emotions in ‘real life’?
  2. How might they have developed their concept of empathy? Where? What definitions of words like ‘empathy’ and ‘sympathy’ would they give off the top of their head?
  3. How do they present their arguments (e.g., format, vocabulary, visibility)? Why do they use whatever style they favour? To what extent is it a formal attempt to persuade others? To what extent is it a personal way of understanding themselves? Is one a bigger goal than the other, and why?

It’s impossible to fully control motivation, but I try to be mindful of questioning with the primary intention of ‘fixing’. Fandom revolves around ‘answering’ what canon doesn’t through analyses or storytelling. It chips away at uncertainty—at some point, we stop asking ‘Why?’ People don’t have conclusions. On the everyday level of half-interpersonal conflict, they don’t have solutions.

It’s taxing, withstanding a self-inflicted onslaught of questions in order to train empathy. I’m not suggesting that anyone is obligated to ask these questions. They’re uncomfortably open-ended and potentially overwhelming and very possibly unrewarding in the short term.

However, this kind of conflict is impossible to soothe by exclusively defending oneself as if the other side will suddenly see ‘reason’ and change. The options are either total condemnation or trying to bridge a gap at personal emotional expense; most people dislike the first option while the second is exhausting and not guaranteed to work. I don’t think there’s a morally superior choice between prioritising your well-being or empathising with others who may not ‘deserve’ it, but there’s a choice more likely to make a dent in the broader conflict. What matters is whether you’re in a position to handle its toll.


Anyway. Fuck. Wasn’t there a birthday?

Blatant judgment is one of the most basic forms of power, so much that the collective unconscious presents it as the grand finale of human existence or the shackle we need to break. We exercise this power over each other all the time. Often, it’s preemptive or reactionary.

It’s admirable for a cautious person to deliberately surrender their sense of judgment and surrender themselves to judgment in the pursuit of ‘truth’. And that’s exactly what Bertie Carvel does every time he’s steadfast in his not-quite-defense for his antagonistic characters. He does so with remarkable clarity and good humour. For that, I’m extremely grateful. As well as perpetually amazed that besides the performances and insight, every few months, I get to hear his voice at the latest jarring stop in an inglorious train wreck of a story that’s recently taken its status literally.

I would pay actual money to know what he thinks.

By the time this is published, the second series of Doctor Foster will have begun airing. If the Internet was a singularity that could be directly addressed, I’d suggest swapping pitchforks for shovels. When you see shit, go deeper. Worst comes to worst, a shovel is still a worthy makeshift weapon — and much better for digging a grave.

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