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Does Art Persuade?

I spent a lot of summer depressed. This is pretty normal for me. But I want to talk about a particular set of triggers that had me in a really serious existential crisis.

How was your summer?
Source: Tenor Gif

I’ve been playing Persona 5, and I’ve been enjoying the fantasy of it quite a lot. The various representations of how victims of powerful people’s abuse process their trauma is really interesting to me (perhaps a post for another day?).

I’ve also been really troubled by misogyny and neo-nazism and racism and all that grossness running around in public discourse.

So, one day, I was scrolling through Twitter and I saw a woman making some critical remarks about gamerdude culture (as she should). Those of us who have been around for the past five years probably flinch immediately at seeing these, but I wanted to see what the discussion was. Among the replies, I saw someone basically telling her to shut up–using a .gif of Joker from Persona 5 threatening the viewer with a gun, as he does to shadows and cognitive beings in the game.

My immediate response: Did we play the same game?

The loading animation from Persona 5. Don’t forget this image.
Source: Tenor Gif

The game is all about giving voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless. It’s about empowering victims and bringing low abusers. The first plot arc has to do with misogyny and sexual abuse by a coach.

But here was someone using allusions to the game specifically to perpetuate exactly that kind of abuse.

So ugly.
source: Tenor Gif

Then, the next day, I wanted to comment on a friend’s post on Facebook with a joke about Persona 5. So I looked through some .gifs on the automatic .gif tools available there. And my heart stopped when I saw this one: Pepe the Frog as Joker. Apart from the fact that Pepe the Frog is kind of objectively disgusting without all the cultural baggage, he’s also the alt-right poster boy. Again: Did they play the same game!?

But this got me to thinking: How on earth do we live in a world with things like Captain America, The Sound of Music, and the Wolfenstein series, but also a world with neo-Nazis? It’s not like they somehow could have missed all of our stories about how Nazis are the bad guys, could they have? Given what I was seeing from how the alt-right was taking up Persona 5, they obviously hadn’t just somehow not consumed all of those stories.

So what we have is, somehow, people who consumed all these stories and looked at the villains and thought, without a shadow of self-awareness, “Yeah–that’s what I want to be.”

I mean, honestly, I’m not sure my depression is a cognitive distortion at that point. At that point it feels like a perfectly rational response to human nature.

Somehow it seemed that the only people who were capable of perceiving the themes and meanings in fiction were the people who had already learned that lesson.

I put out a call on Twitter, asking if anyone had personally witnessed (in themselves or others) someone having a change of heart (if you’ll excuse the phrase) as a result of a piece of art, any medium or genre. The best answers I got were that it was a gradual thing (somewhat hopeful!) or that it was helpful only once someone’s perception on an issue was destabilized and they needed a new narrative.

Not exactly the answer my soul needed, but it was something.

But then, a couple weeks later from that tweet, something else happened. My mother called me to tell me about an article by Brianna Wu she had read in the Washington Post about Wu’s experiences as a target during GamerGate 5 years ago. My mother is not very technologically savvy, although she does take an interest in the games we kids play. But it’s been hard to talk to her about issues like misogyny in gamer culture. Until then.

Suddenly, she had all the words she needed to have that conversation. Something had shifted when she read that article. She knew what 8chan was. She knew what people were suffering because they happened to be female in a “nerd” space.

I won’t say it was the answer I wanted. But I will say that it was an answer. Someone’s creative work (albeit nonfiction) had persuaded someone. So, I guess, keep writing, y’all. It’s a slow grind, but we might just level up.

So, have you ever been persuaded by art? Have you ever seen someone persuaded by art?

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