I have a two-part post for you today. It’s about cute aliens and critical thinking.
(Note: I wrote this yesterday in the form of a Facebook post which has been shared a bunch, but Facebook’s sharing functions are super glitchy and keep sharing only the link to the first article I reference, without including my commentary. So I’m reposting here to provide a stable link to the writing. I’ve added an update at the end based on new information from today.)
Part 1. Cute aliens.
So you may have seen this article circulating about Nathan Pyle, the man behind those adorable alien cartoons everyone’s been sharing for the past few weeks.
The article claims that Pyle is anti-abortion and suggests we should be “more careful what we share” as a result. It’s been circulating in my networks almost as much as the cartoons themselves in the past day or so, along with calls to stop sharing Pyle’s work.
I love those funny little aliens! They’re so genderless, so human, so wholesome and amusing in their obtuseness and literalness! It would suck if the creator was evil! So of course I went and read the article attentively. Here’s a little analysis.
The article mentions one tweet from 2017 in which Pyle reposted his then-girlfriend’s writing about being glad she wasn’t aborted (to which he agreed), and the fact that his bio says “I follow Jesus.”
That’s it. That is the entire basis of the claim.
I am obviously deeply in disagreement with any kind of anti-abortion stance, and would never promote anyone’s work if it’s forwarding that agenda. But there’s not really anything of substance here to show that’s what’s happening. If they had to go back to 2017 to find even this mild and indirect indication of anti-abortion sentiment, that means it’s not part of what Pyle uses his current platform to do.
While he tweeted this in context of the March for Life in 2017, it is the only time he’s ever done so. He’s not using his platform to encourage people to attend, and certainly doesn’t say anything about him giving them financial support of any kind, which some folks have speculated. The 2018 March for Life has happened since then, and the 2019 one is coming a month from now, so it’s clearly not a big priority for him if he hasn’t said anything about either of these.
Beyond all this, I just searched both his and his wife’s Twitter accounts for words such as “life,” “god,” “abortion,” “march” and a few more, and came up with zero hits. And while I’m really leery of all organized religion myself, and tend to take a pretty heavily critical approach, I’m also not willing to take someone’s professed religion as an automatic indicator of their politics.
In standard journalistic approach, this article would have asked him for comment, but there’s no indication that’s been done. Which means it’s looking a lot more like clickbait than like responsible journalism. On Twitter, it looks like a number of people and at least one debunking website have approached him directly and asked what his stance on this issue is, but he has not yet responded. Meanwhile, Twitter is having a meltdown, claiming that Pyle is “rabidly” or “vehemently” anti-abortion, which just does not line up with the evidence (unless you define those words waaay differently than I do).
I’d actually really like to see him either confirm he’s anti-abortion or say “nah, I tweeted that to support my GF at the time but I realize now it sent the wrong message.” Or whatever. Without that info, I feel like at least for me there’s not enough here to come to any clear conclusions.
I am super okay with withdrawing my support, sharing, liking, etc. of folks who try to harm women’s rights and get in the way of reproductive justice, but for me it’s also super important to do the due diligence of critical engagement first and not just be part of a pile-on. I have no interest in knee-jerk reactions. I want information. And we don’t have it.
I’m still going to hold off on sharing his work until I know more. He doesn’t need my support to get recognition, and there are plenty of other great artists to retweet. But I maintain that we need to be careful about making really big inferences from really small amounts of information.
This is not about the cute aliens, friends. This is about how willing we are to let questionable media do our thinking for us. Check out this other headline from this week: “Canada’s national cybersecurity agency says it is ‘very likely’ Canadian voters will encounter foreign cyber influence before and during the fall federal election.”
How does this kind of manipulation happen? We’re watching it in real time. Clickbait that appeals to our simplest ragey politics. Headlines that play with our pain points and offer us easy solutions. Please. Let’s not let this happen. Let’s use the cute aliens, and similar stories, as practice runs. Let’s ask a lot more questions.
If the Nylon article got anything right, it’s the advice: be careful what you share.
Part 2. Critical thinking.
Once we do have enough information from which to make some kind of informed opinion, we need to think about what to do with it. I think we each have to come to our own lines in terms of how far we’re willing to separate our enjoyment of a thing from the actions of the person producing it. In part, that we can consider this at all is dependent on how much we know about them personally or how much we can reasonably expect to accurately know from the work itself. For me, I try to ask a certain range of questions. Here are some of them – perhaps you may find them useful, too.
- How egregious was their harm? Was it once, or ongoing? Is it possible for me to know this?
- How have this person’s position or actions evolved over time, if at all? Have they apologized, made reparations, changed their stance? Is whatever they’ve done sufficient in my mind? What about in the experience or views of whomever they may have harmed? What if that’s intangible because the harm was not done to a specific individual?
- What effect would/does their continuing popularity have on other people? Does it promote a harmful message, silence a survivor, normalize harm in some way? Does this person’s work or the power they hold effectively shut out other potentially genius creators from their corner of the industry?
- How much does their work reflect the harm they’ve done? And/or how much does their work promote or normalize harm?
- How reasonably can I expect to get information about any of this? Is it common knowledge, or would I only learn about it via select channels (am I a part of those?), or would I have to do a lot of my own research? How far am I willing to go in any specific instance to get info? Do I have the spoons to be proactive, or just reactive, or neither?
- In what way do I want to interact with a creator’s work? Am I lending them visibility, funneling money into their pockets, or otherwise contributing to the spread of a message or power structure I disagree with? (Are they alive to reap the effects of anything I do?)
- Would it affect other people’s livelihoods or reputations if I stopped interacting the way I have been? If so, is that a good thing (withdrawing support from troubling practices) or a bad thing (pulling income from innocent behind-the-scenes workers because a star did harm)? Have survivors or community members close to the person said what they hope to see happen?
- How important do I think it is for me to experience this person’s creation? For instance, is this a scholar producing work I need to understand in order to argue against, or a film I need to see in order to critically review? If so, how can I best access that thing without contributing to harm?
- Does it make me feel icky to engage with a given person’s work because I now have a different sense of its meaning? Does whatever they’ve done or espoused change the nature of the work itself to me?
I’m all for taking action that lines up with my politics and, in my own tiny way, contribute to shifting the culture to make it kinder, more fair, more supportive of survivors, less sheltering of people who harm, and less supportive of oppressive institutions and political movements. That doesn’t always mean disengaging completely from creative work we love or cancelling creators. It’s not always that black-and-white.
In the current political climate, we cannot afford to let ourselves be manipulated by the media – traditional or social – or to make a habit of jumping into simple, quick reactions. We must engage our minds.
And, as of just this afternoon, an update from Pyle on Twitter reads as follows: “My wife Taylor and I have private beliefs as they pertain to our Christian faith. We also believe separation of church and state is crucial to our nation flourishing. Our votes go toward the Democratic Party. Additionally we are troubled by what the Republican Party has become and do not want to be associated with it.”
He’s being very careful here. He won’t say he’s pro-choice because, I’m guessing, he’s not. (Now would pretty much be the most appropriate time to say so if he is.) He’s not making any kind of categorical statement about whether or not he supports the March for Life, which leaves the possibility open that he does – and by “support” I mean “donate to.” But he is making a clear statement about the general thrust of his politics, which at minimum indicates he’s no hard-right wingnut. This, to me, leaves him in a sort of muddled centrist place where I’m still left feeling like I don’t have enough information to really understand whether supporting his work via sharing in any way contributes to furthering an agenda I disagree with on a profound level.
But the message that does come through loud and clear is that he’s not really interested in telling us, probably because he’s smart enough to know that any kind of statement that’s more categorical than this one will lose him followers. Honestly I think this statement is going to lose him at least some followers too, but he’s obviously chosen the route he wants to take.
Myself, I’m going to stop sharing the cute aliens, since I don’t know what effect my signal-boosting might have on the issue of reproductive justice and I’m not willing to take any chances on that. It’s too fucking important to risk inadvertently helping channel money to a cause that directly interferes with our fundamental right to bodily autonomy. What Pyle thinks and believes, all private-like, isn’t going to be affected by his Patreon income, but what he donates sure could be; and when your platform drives your income, and your followers drive your platform, signal-boosting via sharing can make a difference in dollars. So unless and until Pyle explicitly says he’s not supporting any kind of organization or movement whose end goal is to restrict abortion access, I can’t in good conscience retweet the adorable aliens, no matter how progressive their creator might otherwise be.
But I’m not going to stop enjoying the aliens when they show up in my feed. Their surface-level messaging is pretty non-toxic, which I think is in part why they’ve become so popular in the first place.
At the moment, I’m comfortable with that middle ground. And as always, I reserve the right to change my mind should new information come to light.
No matter where you land on this yourself, I hope you always, uh… probe… before you decide.
UPDATE 19/04/24: On April 20, Nathan Pyle tweeted, in response to a request for clarification, “To further clarify, we do not in any way support (financially or ideologically) March for Life.”
It took him eleven days to respond to the person who asked, and that was long after many others had been tweeting about the same basic question. So I’m guessing there was some kind of story behind this oddly belated response. It’s also not as categorical as some people might like to see; for instance, he doesn’t say he doesn’t support other kinds of anti-abortion efforts, he doesn’t condemn the March explicitly, and so on. But it certainly relieves me of my concern that Pyle is using his platform-generated income to support the March. For me, this is another brick on the scales in his favour. I might change my mind depending on what else comes to light in the future, but for now I just can’t justify putting any more time toward worrying about Nathan Pyle’s politics while I’m enjoying his cartoons. And I’ll share them if I feel like it. Hope this added information helps you clarify your own position, too. 🙂