There’s an old saying that two things should never be discussed at the dinner table: religion and politics. I’d extend that to state that these two topics should, most all of the time, be kept off of the fannish table. There’s a reason many fandom messageboards and communities discourage these topics being discussed, unless in a specifically-designated off-topic or debate area. And with the political season heating up in the United States as the presidential election is almost upon us, politics and fandom is an issue in the forefront of my mind these days, and I’ve observed the conflicts heating up by the day.
On its surface, fandom (and let’s specify media/science fiction/arts-related fandom for the moment; sports and other areas of fandom may break down differently) may seem and may, to a large extent, be a home and rather a safe space for all, no matter what your political affiliation, personal beliefs, or moral convictions. Fandom has often been seen as embracing different lifestyles and activities to a much larger extent than the “mundane” world does; a certain element of counter-culture can long be linked to certain authors, artists and media and their associated fandoms and followers.
And yet, that environment of openness may not be as all-welcoming and all-encompassing as we might hope, and there’s something about the election season which seems to make this more evident than ever. In the past, when many fans only associated on messageboards, conventions, or other more restricted venues solely focused on specific fandoms, these differences in personal opinions and beliefs might not have been such an issue as they rarely were open subjects for discussion. But this is the era of blogging and livejournal, where the personal and the fannish have begun to blur to almost indistinguishable areas of one and the same. We may follow a fan-fiction author to her livejournal to read her latest stories, but in the meantime we discover entries where we find out about her daily activities, her personal life, and yes, her political convictions. And what we might find there might be surprising to us–sometimes even distasteful to us personally–if we assumed we knew where she would stand based on her involvement in fandom in general, or her writings and the characters she portrays.
Thus begins some of the problems that can occur when fandom and politics—or any other heated issue and fandom—mix. I observed it during the last major election season in 2004 and can see it happening again in 2008: arguments and disagreements between fannish friends over their politics and candidate support; namecalling and urges to “defriend” anyone who does not share a particular political belief. In 2004, the livejournal community wizardsforbush (wiki) caused quite a stir within Harry Potter fandom, with some big name fans calling for others to defriend anyone who associated themselves with the community, or with Republicans in general. Indeed, for those Americans in fandom who follow a different political leaning than liberal-democratic, fandom can become a rather unfriendly place for the months leading up to the actual election, as the common assumption seems to become “you’re either with us politically, or you’re not one of us at all.”
So what is the answer? Clearly, politics, like the genie, can’t be put back in the proverbial bottle. And that people are as passionate about elections as they are is a good thing and should be encouraged wholly, along with spending the time to truly read candidates’ platforms and proposals, read and follow the links shared within the blogosphere that might expose them to new opinions and different outlooks, and encourage everyone to think carefully about who they cast their vote for. But still, just like at the traditional dinner table, fans should perhaps realize that there’s a time and a place for all such discussions, and decide whether fannish friendships are worth losing over idealogical differences, especially when a particular venue (such as a journal, blog, or messageboard) has not been specifically set aside for political discussion. And if a friend in fandom has specifically made his or her beliefs clear, along with her desire not to engage in debate within the safe space of her journal, those wishes should be respected instead of challenged for no reason other than to try to push a particular political agenda when the end result may be the opposite of what you’d hoped for.