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Critical fandom and problematic fans: what responsibilities do we have?

A photograph showing the glass doors at one of the entrances of the Amsterdam Johan Cruijff Arena, with the glass shattered. In the foreground, a man can be seen sweeping up the glass.
Source: https://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/football/news/gallery/ajax-feyenoord-riots-police-eredivisie-31017200

In September 2023, a match between the Dutch football teams Ajax and Feyenoord was abandoned after Ajax supporters threw flares and fireworks on the field. Following the cancellation, fans clashed with riot police and vandalized the stadium. The police had to resort to using tear gas to disperse the crowds.

If certain corners of the internet are to be believed, Games Workshop – the multiple-multi-million company behind the Warhammer miniature wargames – is about to go bankrupt. This is because the recently published rulebook for the Adeptus Custodes, one of the factions in its primary product, Warhammer 40,000, mentioned a female member of the elite Custodes army. A bunch of people have taken this as a sign that Games Workshop has gone “woke” (the Custodes were previously suggested to be all men) and is therefore sure to go broke any time soon.

I’d consider myself a fan of Warhammer 40,000, and a casual supporter of Ajax. These episodes – and they’re by no means the most serious incidents in recent years [CN: graphic images of facial injuries] – raise interesting questions for people like me. Specifically, what are the moral implications of sharing a fandom with people who are sexist, violent, or just generally extremely problematic?

To be sure, it’s not just sports fans and nerds who have to think about these questions: Back in January, the grave of the rapper Megan Thee Stallion’s mother was reported to have received additional security after online threats were made by fans of the rapper Nicki Minaj, who she had been feuding with. Minaj had nothing to do with this: it was her fans who had taken it upon themselves to “defend” her. And last summer, Taylor Swift had to ask her fans to stop cyberbullying her ex-boyfriends. The terms “stan” and “stan culture” – taken from the classic Eminem song about an obsessive fan – are now pretty widely understood.

A great deal has now been written about the ethics of responding to problematic artists and their works. But in the examples I’m talking about, the artist, team or company that is the object of the fandom is benign. In their own ways, Ajax and Games Workshop take (reasonably) meaningful steps to distance themselves from problematic fans. It is, in other words, very much the fans that are the problem here.

Should we worry about bad fans?

In their excellent recent book, Why It’s OK to Be a Sports Fan, Alfred Archer and Jake Wojtowicz dedicate one chapter to ethical problems raised by the behaviour of fellow fans. As they note, when faced with problematic behaviour by fellow fans, it’s always tempting to deny that those who behave problematically are “real fans”. For example, in the recent Warhammer storm-in-a-teacup, those who object to the addition of female custodes sometimes like to claim that Games Workshop is bending to woke “tourists” who don’t care about the game like they do. At the same time, those who appreciate the change can be seen to accuse the former of being tourists in turn, “visiting” from other corners of the culture war.

However, Archer and Wojtowicz point out, this often won’t do. For one, many of these people are “real” fans – it’s hard to deny that the F-side hooligans are real Ajax supporters, for one – and the question therefore remains what this means for other fans.

Another response may be to deny that it matters. After all, what does it mean for me that some Ajax fans are violent thugs? Again, though, this won’t do. Archer and Wojtowicz give two reasons: first, the people you associate with have a tendency to affect the way you see the world. If you hang out a lot with people who are violent, sexist or have fascist sympathies, this may end up influencing the way you see the world. In the extreme, this can be seen in the way in which certain types of toxic fandom can be a gateway for more serious forms of conspiracy thinking and extremism – from Gamergate to slightly less harmful (but still presumably upsetting to people affected) conspiracy theories like the one that Taylor Swift is secretly gay.

Second, problematic fans reflect on the whole fan community, innocent fans included. This doesn’t mean that we can be blamed for the behaviour of other fans, but it does mean, Archer and Wojtowicz argue, that we can feel ashamed of our fellow fans. Just as we can feel ashamed of the behaviour of our friends, family members, or the actions of our country, so can (and arguably should) we feel ashamed of the actions of members of other communities we identify with, including fandoms.

Critical fandom

This doesn’t mean that you should start avoiding things you like, nor that there’s anything inherently wrong with liking things which also happened to be enjoyed by bad people. Being part of a fandom is valuable for a number of reasons: it provides us with a community, a sense of purpose, and friends, among other things. This is why Archer and Wojtowicz conclude their discussion by arguing for the importance of critical fandom. To be a critical fan requires being able to recognize that your fellow fans can sometimes be morally bad – and to reflect on the way in which you respond to this. They suggest two ways in which critical fans can respond to the presence of bad fans: to withdraw from the fandom, or to attempt to change the fandom. As they note, withdrawal can be effective when the problem is with the club, artist, or property (for example, the withdrawal of support by Raith Rovers fans led to the club reversing their decision to sign a man who had been found to have raped a woman). It’s less effective when the problem is fellow fans.

The other option available to critical fans is to take a kind of limited forward-looking responsibility and to try to change the fandom.  Archer and Wojtowicz cite several examples of fans taking positive action to offer a counterweight against bad aspects of sports fandom. However, there are problems associated with this kind of practice as well – at least if the aim is to affect some change in the wider fandom. Sports fans may be able to interact with each other in stadiums and hold each other to account there. These days, a lot of fandom exists mostly in less visible and more fluid, online, spaces – on social media, semi-public discord servers, subreddits and in TikTok tags.  Here it’s easy to create new, positive spaces which can offer valuable reprieve from bad fans, but at the same time this comes with the risk of creating fandom bubbles. The bad fans may never even know the good fans exist.

In these kinds of situations, critical fandom may require more – calling out bad fans, for example, or denouncing their behaviour (here the fact that fandom exists online may be a benefit: it’s less dangerous to call out violent fans online, than in person). Yet this also comes with problems. As Archer and Wojtowicz recognize, “calling out” can quickly turn into moralistic scolding. This is even further amplified by the nature of online discourse.

What is the right course of action? It’ll likely depend on who you are: the cost involved in sticking your neck out will be different for different people, but at the same time, the potential to affect change will be different for different people. In a sense, the problematic fans put the good fans in this position, but that’s not an excuse to ignore the problem or to reject the responsibility to act on this realization – by creating your own positive spaces, by withdrawing, or even by engaging in critical reflection and encouraging other fans to do the same.

(Unfortunately, I’m not sure relentlessly mocking the weird fans on Twitter really counts.)

Sara Van Goozen

I am a lecturer in political philosophy at the University of York. My research interests are in global ethics, just war theory and global justice. My book “Distributing the Harm of Just Wars” is out now with Routledge. I am the editor of Justice Everywhere’s series on pedagogy and the practice of teaching philosophy, Teaching Philosophy in the 21st Century.



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