You’d think that most comics shops are opened for the purpose of selling comics. You would be wrong. Most comics shops are opened for this reason:
“Hey, you know what’d be cool? I could open a comics shop and hang out with all my friends! And we’d read comics all day, and make mad cash!”
This is also why most comics shops fail miserably. They’re not business enterprises, but rather a feeble attempt to start a cult of personality. Yet that attempt to create what is, essentially, a funded safe haven for one guy and his band of friends is an abject lesson in how to create an inbred, hostile, and yet somehow successful environment.
Because the truth about any of these comics stores is that while they’re radically dysfunctional to the outside world – take the offensively sexist and racist public discourse of Larry’s Comics – there’s a core of people at the inside who are continually insisting that people “just don’t get it.” What don’t you get? They’re good people at heart! If they say something that comes off as insulting, well, you’re either a humorless jerk or you just don’t get who they really are. They’re doing good things.
So how do we get to the point where you have a small group of people on the inside, insulated from a reality that should by all rights be banging on their doors loud enough to wake anybody up? It’s a process, and it can be applied to places far and wide beyond the mere comics shop.
(Which is not to say that the comics shop is automatically a bad place to shop – there are wondrous proofs that comics can be sold professionally and with great knowledge. I’ll vouch for Carol and John’s Comic Shop and Modern Myths as wonderful, inclusive comics shops anyone can shop at.)
The first step in creating an unfriendly haven is to create a safe space. Safe spaces are often good things – but they’re also a place where, devoid of any real dissenting opinion, you can all quietly come to a consensus on any damn fool opinion you want to. As such, find an area where you and your friends are enough of a critical mass that anyone who comes in from the outside will be sufficiently outnumbered that they cannot speak up comfortably.
That “comfortably” is the real trick. If you create a walled-off area where no new members join your little posse, it will become immediately evident that you’re isolated. No, you want a place where anyone can walk in, but if they disagree with you you can shout them down and win the argument by sheer exhaustion. This can be in a physical place, where merely having two people arguing with you gets quickly overwhelming to most people – or it can be an online forum, where the people who have the time to argue with you have a lot of spare time and a willingness to call all their friends in to say, “Hey! Look at this dork and his dumb opinions!”
What will happen is that you’ll have the illusion of a free space, where anyone can play – because, after all, anyone can walk in through that door! – but is effectively a gated community where any dissension from the core philosophy you’ve created leads to people feeling alienated, mocked, and dismissed.
(It also helps if you can come up with short-hand methods to dismiss people who disagree with you – it’s particularly good if you can come up with a nickname for each kind of unwanted behavior. People who express concern about the practically nude pictures of women hanging on your wall? Slot all of those concerns into a “tightass” name and shove them off to the side, no matter what the varied reasons for their concern are. Balling them into a group is a wonderful shorthand way of saying, “They’re beyond the reach of reason, so we’re not obligated to interact with them any more.” Bonus points if you can start reciting their own arguments to them before they even make them.)
The next step is to provide rewards for those who believe. In-jokes are the constant currency of unfriendly havens, serving two purposes: first off, they’re alienating to outsiders, allowing you to laugh (often at their expense) while leaving them in the dark. But more than that, in-jokes are a reward to those who have the stamina to stay with your group; they’re like little puzzles to be solved. When they can make the in-joke properly and get a response, that’s the day they know they’ve become a member. Better yet, creating in-jokes provides a bonding between members!
Like safe zones and comics shops in general, in-jokes are not automatically bad – but when you start using them in a way that makes people feel dumb for not getting them, then you’re successfully walling off the world.
The next step is rather blatant, and you’d think it would be hard to do – but humanity’s wired in a such a way that it’s the easiest trick in the world to pull off. The trick is this:
Now that you’ve marginalized anyone who disagrees with you, start convincing people that this is the way the world works.
What you are doing here is not simply a group of isolated folks who’ve created their own splinter culture, but the way everyone secretly acts in private. If they weren’t constrained by society – damn society! – this is what people would really feel, if they could only express such desires. At this point, you must all come to the tacit understanding that you have not created an artificial culture, but instead you have uncovered the true way that humanity acts. This is freeing. This is noble. This is honesty.
The people who disagree with you undertake a miraculous transformation: they’re no longer folks who have differing opinions on how to enact the same basic goodness that you believe in. They are now people who are trying to suppress a righteous lifestyle. They are trying to kill an open society because they are jealous of what you have.
Furthermore, because the people at the heart of this society are friendly, and infinitely caring to those in the circle, and are now (thanks to the reframing of this group’s efforts) trying to reclaim mankind from its flaws, they become Good People. Good People are continually misunderstood. If they offend someone, well, they didn’t mean to. If they make a statement that is at its core deeply troubling, well, you don’t get their sense of humor! They’re satirists!
And if the people on the outside refuse to believe that the people on the inside are good-hearted (or worse, say that their intentions don’t matter), well… the people on the outside are trying to tear down this whole society. And as we all know, humans always react rationally and responsibly when they think someone’s attacking the society they live in.
It sounds stupid to think that this kind of hubris could be applied to a bunch of sexist comics shop owners… But a lot of the people who show up to these shops have been marginalized by the outside world. They’ve been kicked about for so long that finding a place that welcomes them for who they are – or, at least, who they’re willing to be if they make a few changes – is an incredibly empowering experience. Going from “unwwashed nerd” to “vital member of this society” is something so strong that a lot of people will overlook all the other sins just to chase this flavor.
And because they came in from the outside world and were accepted after a little massaging of their opinions, they will insist to the heavens that this unfriendly haven is an open place where anyone can come in and sit down. God help me, they genuinely believe it’s inclusive. If you just have the right attitudes and a good sense of humor, of course.
This is how it happens. This is the structure.
I could probably get a lot of nice comments if I ended this right now. But here’s where I say something that’s uncomfortable:
You see this enclavish behavior in a hell of a lot of liberal circles as well.
A group of people get together who’ve felt marginalized by society, and they find an online forum, and they get together to form an inclusive, wonderful society where everyone can get along… Except that soon enough, they’ve got the numbers to effectively alienate anyone who doesn’t go along with the groupthink, and they utterly don’t see how insulting they often come off to outsiders, and they get so into believing in the equality and freedom and love that they have espoused here that they actually seem to forget that they have to make an argument to the outside world.
Within the group, [rights for group X] become such a given that anyone who asks why group X needs those rights is met with such a flurry of disdain and anger that they walk away, feeling insulted and chastised. Some significant percentage of folks with questions get labelled as “anti-X” when actually they’re just confused about the reason for a need, or insufficiently educated, or even on the fence about something, potentially able to be a convert – and now they feel dismissed and insulted on top of it.
Unlike the comics shop owners, they have good intentions. But they too get sucked into the vortex of making a place that feels good to them, at the expense of outsiders. (And, one suspects, a lot of them would argue – just as the bad comics shops would argue – that they don’t need the people outside, they’re irrational jerks who can’t be talked to.)
The point is that to those within the circle, the comics shop feels genuinely welcoming and inviting – and they genuinely cannot see how off-putting they are to others. And that’s not a comics shop urge – this is a human urge that even the best-intentioned fall into on a regular basis. But it saddens me when people with agendas I largely agree with become insular enclaves, because I genuinely think that part of any fight for the good fight has to involve outreach, not withdrawal.
How do you combat that? Genuine inclusivity. Having a couple of people who anger you on a regular basis to keep you honest – if all you hear are nice voices, angrily decrying stuff that other people on the outside are doing, you’re probably doing it wrong. And listening to what each individual has to say as an individual, not as some stamped group of tightasses or X-ists or whatever disdainful group you try to slot them into. And being willing, when called on the carpet by someone not inside the group, to take a look at what you’ve done and to see whether, in fact, your actions are really as meritous as you think.
Good comics shops run smoothly. But they’re also not nearly as comfortable to live in as the unfriendly haven – you have to listen to complaints with a straight face, smile sometimes when you feel like slapping people, and go out of your way to address concerns that you may sometimes find ridiculous. This isn’t to say that you take every complaint at the same value – but you listen to them and weigh them on an individual basis.
That’s how you keep the doors open, man.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.