A Measured Look at the Lindsay Ellis Controversy

There's plenty to suggest it was an honest mistake rather than premeditated malice.

Because social media’s topmost concern is engagement—however positive or negative it may be—expressing oneself unfiltered is a surefire way to break from tentative peace into all-out conflict for what rarely seems in hindsight like very much. It’s what happened to YouTuber Lindsay Ellis last night after she suggested that a great amount of Asian-inspired YA fiction bore great resemblance to ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’—the actual statement being actually a lot less clear-cut than you’d otherwise be led to believe—but even after an apology, one admittedly delivered in a less-than-perfect way, the YouTuber decided to cut her losses short and decommissioned her Twitter account for the time being—if precedent is any indication, Lindsay will be back after the kindling beneath her ass ceases to burn, but what led to her departure warrants close examination still.

The underlying critique of many who took issue with Lindsay’s comment was the insinuation that cultural produce coming from Southeast Asian influences—especially what’s targeted at Western audiences outside of traditional anime—is formulaic, often ascribing to the tropes codified in the unlikely success story that was The Last Airbender. This is of course a simple case of dubbing a symptom the root cause, when Western cultural hegemony is much to blame for why foreign import has to firstmost appease American audiences. Many however threw themselves into a frenzy of attributing to Ellis a racist character even when it was uncouth cultural commentary coming out of her at best.

There’s a good bit of context to keep in mind of here—the spectre of her solidarity with ContraPoints when she was canceled for similar misguided earnestness on Twitter still looms large over the conversation. As one would correctly assume, many haven’t gotten over it yet, and it seems that the animosity Lindsay was faced with was partially motivated by feelings of leftover contempt from the times before where she expressed little interest in cowering to the demands of the anti-Contra mob.

Secondarily, there’s the anxiety surrounding rampant discrimination against the AAPI community, which some might have subconsciously taken to when reading Lindsay’s comments. It’s important to separate the two emotions though because bigotry—in its ugliest manifestation—is one that beds clear intention and rarely comes from those who’ve shown themselves to be reliable allies in the past. You’d be compelled to call Lindsay’s comments anti-Asian—and there’s definitely merit to that—but to extrapolate from it that she herself is of that mold implies that a few tweets are an accurate summation of one’s character, and there couldn’t be a more ridiculous assertion than that.

Auxiliary to this—but perhaps most-crucial—is BreadTube’s tendency to self-implode every few months, which is just untenable for content creators themselves and their audiences alike. The upshot of pestering Lindsay for a proper apology would’ve been what? To retract an ultimately-inconsequential statement on the state of Asian-inspired YA fiction because….? To say that she should’ve treated the backlash with more care and less apathy is true, but making sweeping judgements about one’s character are rarely a harbinger of great results—if anything, it’ll push Lindsay away from recognizing her errors sooner just like ContraPoints before did, and it would have been unproductive to the very end result many of her detractors are seeking.

This of course bears out if demands are taken at their earnest, but the furor recently-unleashed on Lindsay isn’t one without precedent—it comes from a community that is typically-excitable whenever anyone of their self-appointed ideological vanguards makes a misstep, and instead of interpreting whatever’s being said with charity, it is assumed that all manifestation of ill thought is indication that more-honest versions merely await swifter reveal. They’re more-commonly referred to as ‘Tumblrinas’ or in even more-niche Twitch lingo as ‘wokescolds’—essentially, they prioritize the aesthetics of progressive social thought that sidestep its means of attainment and sustenance. To them, appearing in defiance of someone publicly decried as racist trumps the work of dismantling racism, and cultural grievances are taken to be more consequential to the well-being of marginalized communities than their material conditions.

This might already make me a class reductionist to some, but consider the following—Lindsay had already compromised a fair bit of her professional reach by taking a principled stance against JK Rowling last summer, so it’s not like we know her staking any ground in an ‘anti-SJW’ veneer is characteristic of her behavior or otherwise consistent with any past patterns. Yes she tended to think out-loud many a times—much to her own peril—but it doesn’t take a lot to conclude that it was merely a gaffe and nothing to get particularly aggressive about.

A feature of the discourse that saps it all nuance is the foregone requirement of extending generosity to each other, interpreting often any deviation from the expected norm as a sin most-cardinal—it’s been oft-expressed in the past by others—myself included—but it’s downright puzzling why the political contingent that claims itself to be vehemently against punitive justice and would go as far as to rehabilitate murderers can’t cope with a simple slip of the mind. If a simple Twitter post is sure to set them off, then God help the current prison population if their passif ever becomes a piece of readily-accessible public information.

Using the moniker of ‘cancel culture’ to describe the events is inaccurate at best, but there’s still the unaddressed notion of how accountability is repeatedly dished out to those least-deserving of it. There’s anger and frustration at what Lindsay said, and I understand it—speaking from experience as someone whose religion and ethnicity often pose issue—but we’d all do better to recognize that at the heart of anti-Lindsay backlash is whiplash from recent traumatic events. With this knowledge, I don’t intend to police how people react to feelings of perceived bigotry—I merely hope that they at least know where they come from, so they don’t put their recipient on the backfoot of animosity they did not elicit.