The Whole World Isn’t Watching

Game of Thrones, Season 8.

In the weeks leading up to the premiere of Game of Thrones’ eighth and final season, it seemed everybody was talking about the massively popular HBO series. Or, at least, that’s how it seemed to people like me who are deeply invested in the fictional invented by George R.R. Martin. For people who don’t follow the show, however, the media frenzy surrounding it was an irritation at best. Either they were tuning out the print and television ads, the cover stories and podcasts, the memes and skits or they were talking about how little interest they had in talking about.

Game of Thrones is, therefore, the perfect cultural example of a phenomenon that many have been lamenting in the political sphere. In a world where the amount of media available continues to grow at an astonishing pace and where computer technology keeps making it easier to target consumers with material fine-tuned for their particular interests and inclinations, stepping outside of one’s “bubble” can be a startling experience.

Recognition of how thoroughly this newfound segregation impacts every aspect of everyday life is surely a major reason why some people find it necessary to make statements on social media like, “I have never watched one minute of Game of Thrones and I’m certainly not going to start now.” Yet the bravado of this type of declaration masks an increasingly common concern for those who find themselves outside of a particular bubble.

Yesterday, one of my acquaintances on social media posted about the new Marvel Avengers film, which is possibly destined to break the record for opening weekend box office in the United States: “I told someone today that I was gonna watch Avengers: Endgame on Friday. He replied, ‘What’s that?’” The first comment was “Defriend. . .”, to which he replied, “think I’m gonna have to haha.” To be sure, this exchange was intended to be funny, as millions and millions of similar ones are. But it doesn’t take in-depth training in psychoanalysis to recognize how this humour communicates an anxiety that isn’t funny at all.

While people hope that being excluded from certain conversations, whether because of a lack of interest or knowledge, does not have a major impact in the rest of their lives, it is increasingly common for cultural and political preferences to be confused. Lighthearted expressions of incredulity like the one mentioned above can serve as a “gateway drug” for serious decisions about whom to shun in every aspect of one’s existence.

From this perspective, it hardly seems like an accident that one of the most popular ways to express disapproval these days is to declare that something is “cancelled”, a term that invokes both the history of network television and the oversaturated media landscape of today, in which even missteps that would once have seemed inconsequential can doom a show.

If you go on platforms like Tumblr or the sections of Reddit where progressive politics hold sway, it rapidly becomes clear that the language of the entertainment business has colonized the political arena. In the United States, the vast number of people currently running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination is subject to wave after wave of such “cancelling” right now, with people loudly writing off one candidate after another for perceived transgressions and slights.

Today my social media feed was full of people posting variants on “Joe Biden unsubscribe” as a way to indicate that there are not happy about the former Vice-President’s decision to run for the White House one more time. But, like the joke I mentioned above, it also sends the message that lines of communication, even between people who outwardly seem to have much in common, are at risk of experiencing irreparable damage.

This helps explain why so many people are commenting on the increasingly extreme divide between those who occupy a position within a particular fandom and those who find themselves on the outside looking in. Frequently, the latter experience sheds light on the former and not necessarily in ways that feel good to confront. “I wish I could mute all posts related to Game of Thrones,” writes one acquaintance, then asks “Is it going to be all over my feed every episode of the last season? I hated the first book and detested the first few episodes of the show. I don’t care to hear about it.” But this declaration leads to a moment of troubling introspection. Is this how non-geeks feel about Star Trek, Star Wars, Marvel, DC, Harry Potter and the like? Man, that must suck.”

I don’t mean to poke fun here. We have all experienced the tedium of people going on and on about topics that don’t interest us in the slightest. People who don’t follow sports or music closely frequently feel that way about people who do. There is nothing new about the basic phenomenon. What seems to have changed, however, is the degree to which it inspires distress.

As any decent literary scholar will tell you, there was never a Golden Age in which we all shared a common culture devoid of conflict over taste preferences. Even when the reading public was very small, because literacy was rare and books were rarer, writers still made fun of their contemporaries, trying to angle for greater influence among the limited number of people who had access to their work. And while oral cultures would seem to have avoided that kind of rivalry, since there were no authors in the modern sense, it seems improbable that there was ever a time when poets did not try to differentiate themselves from others who shared the same basic narratives.

What culture people did seem to have in common usually ended up seeming that way through a series of happy accidents. The more the audience for books, records, movies, televisions, and videogames grows, the harder it is to overlook the arbitrariness of this outcome. To be sure, sometimes that arbitrariness reflects the will of powerful and influential individuals – kings, patrons, critics – and other times it instead testifies to the impact of social and economic structures that give some creative works advantages over others. Either way, though, the belief that long-term success is a product of natural superiority has become harder and harder to sustain.

If we are serious about the principles of democracy, we should not rue this trend. No matter how bad the results of actually existing populism may be, they still represent a kind of progress. That’s why the attack on leaders for being vulgar and ignorant have to be examined with care. Just because someone like Donald Trump offends our sensibilities, that doesn’t mean that his mandate is necessarily less legitimate than that of someone who pleases us aesthetically.

What the fandom of a show like Game of Thrones in its final season demonstrates is that we have reached a point in the symbiotic evolution of media and society when we all have the capacity to play the role of the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, pointing out hard truths that the people who are invested in a particular fantasy are either unable or unwilling to acknowledge. To that person on the outside looking in, the passion of true believers can look absurd or downright alarming.

But the full significance of that perception can only be registered if we look in the mirror ourselves. Because let’s face it: every cultural and political fandom has the potential to look absurd or alarming to those feel excluded from it. Whether you’re someone who fervently believed in the need for Brexit, a diehard Bernie Sanders supporter, or someone who loves Christian rock, there will be no shortage of people willing to inform you that you are living in a fantasy world. The question is whether they can perform this demystifying function without simultaneously averting their eyes from the truth of their own cultural and political investments.

What I’m suggesting here is that we use the divisiveness of contemporary culture as a means to become savvier about the concomitant divisiveness of contemporary politics. It’s unlikely that people who can’t stand to keep reading about Game of Thrones in their social media feed and decide to avoid that content are going to translate that distaste into actions with long-term political consequences. But if that impulse to “mute” the voices of those who do not share their cultural interests spills over into the way they think about society as a whole, the impact could be massive.

Although the pursuit of tolerance for its own sake may seem deeply unsatisfying to those of us who want to move beyond the limitations of liberalism, it still beats inadvertently contributing to a dynamic in which people are encouraged to pursue intolerance.

We need a way to be respectful of the right to indulge in fantasy, in every sense of the term, while putting ourselves in position to articulate the reasons why some fantasies are more likely to contribute to disturbing outcomes than others are. And we also need to perform that same task within the fandoms we inhabit, whether they be cultural or political, trying to persuade our fellow fans that the investment we have in common can be reinvested in a variety of ways, some of which are more desirable than others.

That is one area in which Game of Thrones, with its depiction of a constant struggle between different leadership styles and ethical frameworks, has excelled from the beginning. As a fan of the show, I recommend it to people for this reason. Although its high-fantasy dimension is haphazardly handled and often falls short, it does a remarkable job with low fantasy. Indeed, few narratives have done a better job of getting people to devote themselves to a world in which the black-and-white conflict between good and evil, that staple of so much fantasy literature, is undermined by innumerable shades of grey. Given the trend towards political polarization throughout the developed world, any encouragement to turn down the contrast is welcome.

Screenshot courtesy of HBO. All rights reserved.