Social Justice Inferno: Watch Movies Before You Judge Them

Uninformed outrage isn't helping anybody.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a brief news piece about the marketing campaign behind Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno. It spoke of the opportunistic hucksterism Roth and his team had employed in both interviews and marketing copy that bizarrely seemed to align the movie with reactionaries and racists. That story got a lot of comments, as expected, but as far as we could see, the outrage at Roth pretty much died down after that, as these things always do.

But then this morning, I received an email from an advocacy group looking for help. This group wished to publicly slate The Green Inferno as racist in order to improve the representation of indigenous Amazon peoples, but had not seen the film (as thus far it’s only played festivals). They wanted me to give them help piecing together an incomplete plot synopsis they’d built up, in the same way geek sites do Star Wars movies, so they could properly eviscerate it. I declined: it seemed unfair and dishonest to help a group - even one with unimpeachably noble goals - create the illusion they’d seen a film in order to tear it apart.

Outrage culture is a funny thing. Over the past year, I’ve been deeply involved with it - I was amongst the first people not directly involved in the #GamerGate saga to actually write about it, which ultimately, eventually, got me directly involved in it. The stomping-down of #GamerGate - which must be celebrating a truly pathetic one-year anniversary right now - is a prime example of outrage culture doing good. Its target was a worthy one; it generated discussion about issues like gender representation and equality in communities that otherwise wouldn’t have talked about that stuff. And it’s not the only example - the #BlackLivesMatter movement gained significant extra momentum through online signal boosting and discussion.

But there’s a kneejerk element to this culture that, even as a mildly experienced pop-culture critic, rubs me the wrong way. Amongst certain strands of Twitter, and several of my friends even, there’s a desire - a hunger, even - to be the first to criticise something, to maintain the highest standard of ideological purity. Motivation like that inevitably results in art getting slammed before it’s even seen, or sometimes even before it’s created. Often, that pre-judgement turns out to be correct, but the issue is that pre-judgement hinges entirely on the “turns out to be”.

In The Green Inferno’s case, I happen to think the pre-judgement is at least approximately on the money. But that’s not true of everything. For every Last Airbender, there’s a Cloud Atlas; for every Sucker Punch, a Fury Road. It’s easy to hear “apparently they whitewashed half the Korean roles in Cloud Atlas” and get angry about it. It’s much harder to engage and see context and realise that the multicultural cast plays roles of all kinds, and that the multi-casting makes a specific thematic point about the constants throughout humanity.

This kind of approach to activism isn’t just blind; it’s actively destructive to the causes its proponents are trying to further. There’s nothing wrong with calling people out about things they’ve done wrong; it’s the tone that matters. I’ve seen full-blown GamerGaters turned around through calm, reasoned discourse; I’ve never seen anyone’s opinion changed by being shouted at. And knee-jerk reactions always, always tend towards the histrionic. Worse, it often ends up alienating allies who make a mistake (and who would likely respond well to actual discussion, given their common beliefs), and fracturing forward progressive momentum. That’s likely part of how the English-speaking world has come to be dominated by conservative governments.

More specific to the internet, jumping the gun with condemnation makes the whole of Social Justice culture look bad - especially when the condemnation in question turns out to be unfounded. As well-intentioned as it is, it plays directly into the “anti-SJW” narrative spouted by reactionaries, giving them more fodder for their abuse cannons. Again, I’ve been guilty of it myself at times, but I’m trying to become more self-aware about it. It’s one of the many lessons I’ve learned in my plunge through #GamerGate hell - most of which have been about gender, race, and representation, but some of which have been about internet culture and the viral mentality.

Far from reasonable criticism, hair-trigger outrage is a conscious refusal to even investigate the material in question. Is The Green Inferno racist? Probably. Is it distasteful in both its production process and end result? Totally. Should it be boycotted or banned? Hell no, especially not sight unseen. Eli Roth, douchebaggy though he may be, has every right to make his stupid movie, just as Destructive Creations have every right to make Hatred, and Fox News has every right to broadcast Republican spin 24/7. It’s our individual duty to decide whether or not to consume that content, and to view it with a critical eye when doing so.

Watch movies before you judge them. And read this article before you comment.

Oops. Too late.