The fans defending “American Sniper” reveal more about our nation's problems than the movie itself.
“American Sniper” opened to almost immediate controversy as critics suggested that the film’s sniper was overly romanticized as a hero, that it lacked needed political context, and that it offered reductive views of both the conflict and the veteran experience. But the idea that there would be criticism of this film is not really news. The film was about a sniper from the Iraq War, and it was to be expected that the U.S. public would have a range of responses to it.
The real news, instead, is the forceful way that some supporters of the film rose to its defense. If you were worried that the film offered a depressingly simplified version of the Iraq War, and if you were concerned that it rewarded aggression over reason, then the extremist fan response to the film should worry you more.
We knew early on that critiquing the film was risky business since it would be followed with immediate and intense attacks. This was evident when Seth Rogen and Michael Moore experienced severe public backlash in response to less-than-favorable tweets about the movie. In a return of the “with us or against us” logic that framed the Bush administration’s response to 9/11, the film suddenly stood in for patriotism in general. If you critiqued the film, you hated the country, the military and your own freedom. And those that you had offended were going to make you pay for it.
It was just this sort of narrow thinking that I had in mind when I wrote a piece critical of the film for Salon. I suggested that the film suffered from two key flaws—delusion and aggression—and that both of those flaws had been present in public appearances by “American Sniper” director Clint Eastwood. Most important, I connected them to a hostile tendency common to a highly vocal sector of the GOP.
Little did I know that whatever my piece may have lacked in its assessment of the film, it would be the film’s defenders that would perfectly prove my point. Within minutes of the piece going live, my email inbox and Twitter feed began to light up with negative comments. Many of those early ones I deleted, but I soon realized that keeping them and analyzing them would be a useful exercise in understanding the hate speech that is threatening the health of our democracy. (You can access our full data analysis of the messages here.)
Taken together, analysis of these messages can teach us a lot about the outspoken faction defending this Oscar-nominated film. If you didn’t know better you’d think it was the Stars and Stripes I had gone after and not a Hollywood blockbuster.
According to Mediametric, my Salon piece on “American Sniper” was shared 29,000 times. Our analysis tracks just over 150 personal messages sent directly to my email or to me on Twitter. (We bracketed out the 1,342 comments on Salon since these often include attacks and dialogue from one commenter to another.) The point is that the group we analyzed is only a tiny fraction of those that read and shared it. The second point is that the group is tiny, but it is loud. And the loudness has an astonishing ability to frame public debate on issues. (It sounds a little like the Tea Party, doesn’t it?)
Now we also know that those who take time to send messages and tweet at writers tend to be negative. We have recently had a few pieces analyze the presence of trolls, shamers and other Internet attackers who have enough time to endlessly go after those who express ideas and opinions they find offensive. These people are negative and they are mean. They are cyberbullies and they are cowards who hide behind anonymity and the impersonal distance of a computer screen.
Seventy-three percent of the email messages and 92 percent of the tweets I received were negative. Sixteen percent of the emails and 2 percent of the tweets were positive; the rest we coded as neutral. The different media of email versus Twitter reveals the logic behind the fact that more of the tweets would be negative. But in my case the negative messages were also delusional and aggressive—in almost the exact same ways that I had described “American Sniper.” And that’s the part that is really fascinating.
Of the negative messages almost all included some sort of faulty reasoning—false binaries, false analogies, misattribution, illogical cause and effect, and more. And many of these also included aggressive tendencies—sexism, racism, insults, epithets, bullying and attacks on my training and profession.
There were two things about my piece that really seemed to piss people off. First, that I was a professor, and second, that I had said anything critical about Chris Kyle.
Let’s start with the professor part since it reveals a major feature of my message-writers’ delusion. Many of those who wrote to me seemed to confuse the difference between a classroom, academic writing and a blog for Salon. They seemed completely incapable of imagining that a professor might express a political view on Salon but not be biased in the classroom. And most of all, they seem to forget that professors are citizens too.
"do you even use your hard earned knowledge or do you just use hype and hormones to ascribe opinion?"
“condolences to your poor deluded students. They probably believe you're actually teaching them something of truth & value.”
“@mcclennen65 @Salon someone needs to write an article on why people like you are allowed to teach.”
“@mcclennen65 @Salon, yet again, more nonsensical drivel from the academic left. #ChrisKyleAmericanHero”
“@mcclennen65 Its a shame that a person as misguided,as you has tenure”
We don’t give up our right to free speech when we get our Ph.D.s and we don’t give up our right to be passionate about the politics of our nation just because we teach. Our work is governed by professional practices and we are held accountable to them. But holding high professional standards has nothing to do with whether we have the right to dislike a Clint Eastwood movie and write about it for an online publication. And, while it is true that professors can function as public intellectuals and engage in debates outside of the classroom, that does not mean that Salon is like a classroom for me, nor does it turn my readers into my students.
“I am appalled that a woman of your educational level could write such a delusional commentary.”
Lefty Dingbat Professor @mcclennen65
@Penn Your professor's short-sighted, misguided views based soley on their political ideology reflect poorly on you. @mcclennen65
Next up was the false analogy that a criticism of Kyle was a criticism of the military. There is no logic to that at all. And, for what it’s worth, my criticism was of the depiction of Kyle in the film. I said the movie portrayal was sugarcoated and suffered inaccuracies. Imagine if the film had portrayed Kyle as he portrayed himself in his memoir? Imagine if it had shown him to be a great sniper and a less than great guy? So those that attacked me on that point seemed to be confused over the difference between the film’s protagonist and the guy the film was based on. If there was ever justification of why we need to look carefully at the way the film presented Kyle and the war—these comments prove that some viewers couldn’t tell the difference. If you didn’t like Bradley Cooper’s version of Kyle, you were spitting on Kyle’s grave and insulting every member of the military in the whole nation for all time. It was all the same. But, even if I found the story of the real Chris Kyle disturbing, that does not mean I hate the military. One vet actually wrote me to say my piece had made him cry since it hurt him so much. I’m sorry for his pain, but even sorrier for his poor reasoning and paranoia.
“Tears roll down my face as I type this because I cannot believe that there are Americans who feel this way towards our soldiers. … But just know that you hurt a man who defended this country, his wife who did the same, and their two young children who asked why Daddy was crying. Congratulations.”
“@mcclennen65 Does it feel good to smear dead US soldier Chris Kyle who can't defend himself against your accusations?U are a fucking coward”
“@mcclennen65 is the ultimate example of misguided, tunnel vision as she lashes out at the service men/women/families #misguided #Uneducated”
My critics could not seem to possibly comprehend that one might dislike the way the film portrayed Kyle and still value the military. And they really couldn’t comprehend that it may, in fact, be my defense of the military and my value of military lives that influenced my idea that we should not be sending troops to unjust wars where they are put unnecessarily at risk. For what it’s worth, some of my positive comments came from vets who agreed with me on this point.
"I'm a veteran that served honorably in the U.S. military, not during wartime so I don't know for sure but I found it somewhat incredible that someone would be making a satellite call to one's spouse while on a patrol to confront hostile forces." “Thank you for writing 'American Sniper’s' biggest lie.”
And, if you needed further proof that the critical thinking in our nation is under serious threat, watch this faulty logic: Many accused me of supporting terrorists since I critiqued the Iraq War. Many experts believe that our presence there did nothing but increase terrorism. Questioning the war does not equal supporting terrorism. And being critical of the war does not mean I hate my country. It might even mean I care more about my country than those who think the Iraq War was a good idea.
This country is a secular democracy; it is not a religious state. Strong democracies don’t feed off of faith; they feed off of reason. Somewhere some of my critics seem to have confused the nature of our government. When I ask questions of it, I make it stronger. The weird part is that they alone seem to know when and how to be critical of our government. If I criticize the Bush administration, I hate my country. Too bad that logic never translated to the way they themselves treat Obama.
“Just like your chief Racist and proven liar, Obama, you are a Racist and Liar. The sad thing is you teach your version not the truth.”
“@mcclennen65 I'm happy that Chris Kyle is till killing you liberal bastards even after his death, just shut up you POS”
“Maybe it would be a good idea for you to negotiate with the terrorists? I think you could make a positive change by just driving your Subaru with you 08 Obama sticker over to Yemen and see how long you last.”
“Just another Libtard who can’t get a job in the real world. Why don’t you just leave this country if you hate it so much?”
It really ticked people off that I suggested that the film showed the attacks of 9/11, Kyle enlisting, and then shipping off to Iraq with absolutely no nuance and no background. Even Eastwood and Cooper explain that they had no intention of getting into the “politics” of the war. Cooper explained to the Daily Beast, "This movie was always a character study about what the plight is for a soldier.... It's not a political discussion about war." According to Cooper and Eastwood, they just wanted to do a “character study.” My point then, and now, is that a character study that gives no context for the war depicted in the film is dangerous and deceptive. And my other point was that the film did nothing to counter myths about the justification of the Iraq War, myths that are continuing to have a dangerous impact on public opinion.
“Can't understand how someone could be a teacher and have the facts completely wrong. You kept saying Iraq had nothing to do with 911. Wrong, it had everything to do with 911. After 911 we quickly went to war with the Taliban.”
“The war in Iraq had to do with 9/11 the fact that Saddam Hussein, who had ruled Iraq with Hitleresque brutality for thirty years, refused to comply with UN weapon inspection mandates.”
So let’s say you disagree with me on that. Let’s say you think a movie about a sniper in Iraq does not have to give us the big picture. Or let’s say that you think it does give the big picture, perfectly. Or let’s say you were just dying to see a movie celebrate the military in this nation and you don’t want to deal with the messy conversation of whether the war was justified or even remotely productive. Then we disagree. You don’t have to write me a hysterical email. You don’t have to spend your whole night tweeting swear words at me. You don’t have to, but you just might, mightn’t you?
“@mcclennen65 @Salon Sleep on this image Sophia. You're simply a terrible human being. God Bless..#SupportOurTroops”
“Time for the butthurt.”
"FACT IS THAT I AM MUCH MORE OPEN MINDED THAN YOU AND RESIST MY FIRST IMPULSE TO CALL YOU A DUMB OBAMA ASS-LICKING CUNT. "
But in the midst of these attacks there were, luckily, moments of real comic relief. Not funny because the person meant to be, funny because they are so outrageously goofy.
“@mcclennen65 @Salon If it was not for Kyle more of our American solders would have died over there? Its called WAR and Mr Obama sent us!”
“@mcclennen65 @Salon Did not read article on Sniper but noticed in your Academic Bio, you sure use “I” a lot. And your a writer/professor?”
These “American Sniper” fans aren’t just worshiping at the shrine of the movie, they are also on the hunt for anyone who doesn’t agree with them. Their twisted logic and vicious anger threatens to destroy the very fabric of our democracy. How did differences of opinion devolve into these waves of insult and rage? Certainly the fear-mongering of Fox News hasn’t helped. The enemy rhetoric of the Tea Party hasn’t helped either.
Somehow disagreeing over “American Sniper” has caused a full-on war where a vocal and extremist faction of our country tries to define who counts as a patriot. They seem to forget that we are talking about a movie. And they seem to also forget that not liking a movie does not mean you hate your country. As the Academy Awards loom near we can only hope that whatever the outcome—it does not serve to further fuel the aggressive, exclusionary, deluded patriotism that has surrounded this film.