We can look at the radio broadcast of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds as a freak result of the ’38 zeitgeist, a mixture of overall gullibility and a low exposure to news sources that gave a
single radio broadcast the legitimacy to convince people that–even without seeing them–aliens were
conquering the earth in a rapid and devastating fashion. It’s easy, and comforting, to assume that such a
thing couldn’t occur in 2015. But that would be wrong, because we’re not so different than the gullible
masses of 1938. Regardless of its accuracy, a piece of information will always find an audience with those
most sensitive to it.
The Internet has given us an access to information lƒike never before in history, and
yet: How many people have you seen post a copypasta privacy disclaimer on their Facebook wall? We
live a time in which Alex Jones has been on the air for 20 years and is selling a liquid called “Fluoride Shield” on his online store. Trolls have convinced many people that Kanye West fans don’t know who Paul McCartney is, and a sizable portion of the population believes Michael Brown’s autopsy confirmed he was on drugs at his time of death. I’ve learned a lot of absolute nonsense from my Facebook wall, like the fact that Barack Obama was MIA after the
Yes, it would be a tough sell today to put the country on the brink of panic with a fictional alien attack, but the point is that we still tend to absorb things at face value—as long as they connect to us on a personal level—regardless as whether they’re true or not. The truth is becoming more and more irrelevant, while the emphasis is increasingly placed solely on a person’s reaction to a concept that might be true. It’s the reactions, and solely the reactions, that are coming to define our identities and our politics.
As a great majority of the country is online now, we no longer view an uproar online as the opinions of outliers living in their parents’ basement and drinking Mountain Dew. The opinion base on the Internet is now viewed as the majority opinion of everybody, and that makes it a very powerful force. Sometimes that’s a righteous force: When the Internet had Artie Lange dropped from an ESPN spot for making inappropriate tweets, they were right in doing so. (Full disclosure: I’m a fan of Artie Lange.) When the Internet forced mainstream media outlets to cover the rise in police-related fatalities, it was perhaps the greatest example yet of the Internet’s utility as a voice of reason and integrity. But that force, the one capable of justice, is also capable of making people stockpile for the impending alien invasion.
Last Sunday, a special entitled My Husband’s Not Gay aired on TLC, which is the channel that broadcasts such hard-nosed investigative journalism programs as Sister Wives and My 600-lb Life. It’s not a special that I’d have been aware of, but I’m subscribed to emails from Change.org (so that I can sign a petition whenever a pipeline is being built somewhere terrible, or a dog is in danger of being put down for killing somebody’s cat), and I received a notification from the website for a highly circulated petition regarding TLC’s special. Reading the petition, the issue was indeed very serious: TLC was going to air a one-hour program claiming that gay people could be re-programmed into being straight. “This is a catastrophe,” I thought. “We can’t afford this type of propaganda in 2015, not when so much progress is being made.”
It was a very moving petition drawn up by a Christian man that had suffered the mental abuses of “conversion therapy,” a ludicrous practice that treats homosexuality as a disorder than can be successfully treated with psychology. “It was made very clear to me by the conservative community I grew up in that being gay was considered ‘unnatural’ and ‘an abomination,'” the petition read. “In the end, the only thing that this so-called ‘therapy’ did was stoke a growing despair that maybe my life wasn’t worth living.” The story told in the petition is more important to signers than the reason it’s being told.
And the words resonated widely: The petition now sits at over 126k signatures, all in support of My Husband’s Not Gay! being cancelled by TLC for supporting a practice that’s nothing short of evil and stupid. And that’s all good, except for one small caveat: The special wasn’t actually supporting that practice. If anything, according to the trailer that sparked the petition, the trailer was actually making Mormons look stupid for thinking it worked:
The actual program was close in tone to the trailer: It followed a small sect of the male Mormon community that claimed to struggle with what they called SSA, or Same Sex Attraction. This is a term developed to side-step the label of “gay,” because these men also desired to marry women, raise families with them, and remain within the realm of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Their wives all knew they were attracted to men, and the couples were all comfortable with the fact that much effort was required for the husbands to learn to find their wives attractive. A Mormon church leader on the program doesn’t claim to understand SSA at all—same sex attraction is just an affront to God, he says, when he sits in on a prayer meeting with the group of SSA couples.
One of the program’s threads is that the guys are trying to get a fellow SSA buddy—a 34-year-old man who’s never kissed a man or a woman—ready for a blind date. They take him to a store to buy some new clothes, and there they run into a former SSA Mormon who happens to be working there. It’s the part of the show that stops to explicitly point out to viewers that everything mentioned in these paragraphs are inherently goofy.
He tells them that he left the church because he wanted relationships with men. His co-worker, not Mormon and also attracted to men, is flabbergasted by the fact that these men would lie to themselves and start a family with a woman. The program goes out of its way to make a point: The lifestyles and philosophies of these SSA men are peculiar, and that’s why it’s good TV. As a TLC program, it’s blatantly offensive to documentarians—it feels at least 90 percent staged—but it takes surprising care to not offend anybody else. Like most programs that appear on The Learning Channel, it’s awful garbage, and at best a guilty pleasure, but that doesn’t make it any more deserving of cancellation than something like Sister Wives.
The Change.org petition called for the series to be cancelled. For starters, it’s not a series, but rather a single one-hour program (it’s unclear as why TLC would air a one-hour special, but my guess is that the topic proved too delicate and legitimately worth discussion to receive a full season’s worth of material on the channel). The petition claims that the show supports conversion therapy as a legitimate practice; it doesn’t, although it features people that do support the practice (although at least one man from the show has been explicit after the program’s airing that parents shouldn’t view the show as a guideline, and shouldn’t force conversion therapy on their children).
The petition caught the attention of a lot of people, especially after GLAAD caught wind of it and called the show “irresponsible” and “dangerous” programming. When efforts were made to extend the petition to media outlets, those outlets had three choices: Ignore the controversy and stay out of the loop, report on it objectively, or jump on the bandwagon to call for the cancellation of a program that they probably hadn’t really looked into, because support for the program would equal support for conversion therapy.
A couple of places looked at the trailer and pointed out that the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes. The Guardian published a story appropriately titled “My Husband’s Not Gay is Definitely Not Worth the Uproar.” The Young Turks broke down the trailer for what it was, and Tim Rymel—a former member of the ex-gay movement that had undergone conversion therapy himself—recognized that the show’s existence showed positive progress in LGBT interests in our society in an essay published by The Good Men Project:
“Our American society is divided by race, gender, politics and even sexuality. We’ve been conditioned to look for people ‘on our team,’ instead of learning to embrace and accept people as they are, wherever they are on our journeys…. “This show wouldn’t have aired ten years ago, or maybe even five years ago. It’s a baby step, but it’s still a step in the direction toward an honest conversation.”
There was an undercurrent running through the program’s trailer, and it was missed by the broad amount of its detractors: It was subversive. It played as if it were handling an absurd notion, with its beats similar to those of a Dumb and Dumber trailer, and that tone was carried through to the full program—with the inclusion of the confused church leader and the men working at the clothing store—who were clearly surrogates for both the general audience and members of the ex-gay movement. The show didn’t shy away from the fact that these Mormons’ struggles with SSA had become something that largely defined their marriages and had not, after conversion therapy, relented in any way whatsoever.
And Rymel made another good point about the program, and the controversy surrounding it, that’s perhaps even more important than the fact that the reaction here had once again become more important than accuracy:
The question to ask ourselves is, why do we feel the need to tell someone who is gay they must live the lives we think they need to live? Isn’t that what the conservative extremist religions do? How are we any different? How can we say the churches don’t have the answers but we do?
Indeed. After the show aired, it became clear that these men, for whatever reason, wanted to have wives and children and everything that many people, regardless of their sexuality, find to be absolutely terrifying. Sure, we should all recognize that conversion therapy is absurd and dangerous, but at what point do we stop condemning a practice that cruelly attacks individuals, and start attacking a different group of individuals for also wanting something that’s deemed unconventional?
The Internet can do great things, from forcing the mainstream media to cover important issues to toppling entire governments. It is the most powerful tool that human society has ever known. But that power comes with a responsibility, and the same mechanism that got Artie Lange booted from an ESPN spot was the same one used to dox and threaten feminists by a movement that had largely believed that they were fighting for ethics in videogame journalism. It’s an awesome thing that a petition against a program can get well over 126k (and growing) signatures based on the fact that it might be dangerous to the LGBT community, but we need to be careful when we release these hounds. With the Internet’s lack of accountability being the exact thing that allows any messages that are unsanctioned by the status quo to gain such momentum, the responsibility to vet these messages for accuracy is going to boil down to an individual level, handled with kid gloves.
Before you post that message to your Facebook wall that protects your privacy, take ten seconds to Google whether you’re posting nonsense or not. Before you tweet something that could cost somebody their job, take a moment to be sure that their offense is deserving of the consequence. And before you sign a petition to have a show taken off the air (let’s be honest and just use the “C-word”—censored), go ahead and watch the show’s trailer for yourself. Do your best to put all prior opinions out of your head, and ask yourself: Is this thing really attacking the LGBT community? Sure, it’s on TLC, so it’s a given that it’s going to be terrible and, at best, 75 percent staged, but… does that deserve the full ire of the Internet? Does it justify the hounds being released?
The answer, in this case, is no. Yes, the Internet is a powerful tool, but each time it propagates an idea that’s inaccurate, it becomes a little weaker. So let’s make sure we use it for the right things—there are so many injustices that legitimately deserve the full vengeance of the hounds—rather than waste this tool, and our time, by phoning up our neighbors and families to warn them about the aliens landing.
Screen via The Wrap/Youtube