“If there was a push to block trolls and their commentary, you would deny them their voice and reduce their opinions to irrelevance,” writes Angelus Morningstar.
So, a slight digression from my normal content, but #gamergate and the attack on Anita Sarkeesian is directly related to constructions of masculinity and how they intersect with gaming. A lot has already been said about this, including Todd’s Video Games, Misogyny, and Terrorism, Golding’s The End of Gamers, Dr Nerdlove’s The End of Gatekeeping.
However, in reading this, you should be aware that I’ve asked for special scrutiny on the comment of this article, and have explicitly requested that any comments that amount to either victim blaming Anita Sarkeesian, or are a misogynistic attack against her person will not be authorised for publication. Mostly, this article is about a growing rift around two camps that are either convinced that Sarkeesian is doing something revolutionary, or that Sarkeesian is something of a con artist, a professional victim, or extortionist.
Anita Sarkeesian discusses the overused “Damsels in Distress” trope.
Also, very specifically, I want to address the issue of victim blaming where individuals allege Sarkeesian of manufacturing her assaults and hostility. This is intolerable, because it is effectively an internet jury having taken it upon themselve to administer mob justice to someone. There is no accountability, no due process, and no procedural fairness in this (and other accusations). It is generally suspect, in a broad discussion about misogyny and the objectification of women, to borrow a tactic from rape culture that lays the blame on Sarkeesian. It is worse to pursue an assault on her out of some self-imposed vigilante agenda.
The problem is that regardless of whether Sarkeesian has manufactured these assaults or not (of which I’m not convinced she has), she deserves the benefit of the doubt in what is effectively an accusation of fraud (among others). Neither is it our position as consumers of online content to take it upon ourselves to attack her person in any regard. If her content has slandered a company’s game, then they have the prerogative to take that matter up.
It’s really hard to have a conversation about these topics because they are generally about identifying systemic sexism. That is, that racism, sexism, homophobia et al are not just single instances of overt abuse, but rather broad patterns of behaviour that are entrenched in normal culture, and, in the case of Sarkeesian, the representation, depiction, and rendering of women in multimedia. It brings to mind the the Bechdel test, which reveals the dominant tendency for movies to be written by men, about men, and for men; and for women to stand in as props and decoration to support those men.
There are people who just don’t buy into the idea that racism, sexism, and other forms of of discrimination and oppression can manifest institutionally, that a large assemblage of power filters throughout society and affects certain groups in constant and sometimes even petty ways. Ultimately I can accept that we see the world in fundamentally different ways. Presuming the discussion has been constructive, it is often best to just acknowledge the fundamental impasse.
One of the ways in which systemic discrimination and oppression have been identified is through the concept of the microaggression, which gives name to the variety of social exchanges (which can include interaction on the net) where a member who represents the dominant culture belittles, vilifies, or otherwise alienates a marginalised group; where the message denigrates them due to their membership in a marginalised group. They are all very brief exchanges, and so it is easy to write them off, but when they are part of a system that repeats at high frequency, it becomes death by a thousand cuts.
Then there are those people who don’t understand or cannot accept valid media critique. Again, for those that reject the interaction of media with society, there is no common ground upon which to have a conversation. Media critique is vital, particularly because we exist in a narrative culture. Stories are memetic, they are cultural attributes that are replicated between us, and we learn from them; (multi)media are the means to transmit stories.
More importantly, humanity is still struggling with an experience of anomie, being something of an existential crisis our culture is attempting to grapple with as a result of modernity and the industrial revolution. Stories, particularly ones that invoke familiar tropes and themes, become comforting points of reference and touchstones in a world that’s full of strangers. More importantly, beloved stories packed in with problematic ideas tend to accelerate this process, and so rightly deserve more scrutiny than not.
Media are important as the vectors for cultural memes, and those that are broadcast or mass produced have a significant impact on influencing our social reality. In a very real way, film, games, and other interactive or immersive media are pervasive and subtle forms of propaganda, intentionally or not. Media propagates ideas and depending on how they are framed, they are either framed as being normal, or critical.
Tropes are cultural shorthands that don’t need explanations, they are embedded concepts that are implicitly understood because their message is registered semiotically and subconsciously. Media critique gives us the opportunity to unpack those coded messages, and question whether those are concepts we want to be normal for our culture; albeit, how to affect those changes is a different, but subsequent conversation.
Media critique is not necessarily attempting to deny space for sexist, violent, or other games with problems, and Sarkeesian frequently acknowledges the possibility to simultaneously enjoy a game overall, but be put off by some of its problems. Rather, the concerns raised are over the effect of a homogenous cultural cache. The cheap and casual utility of much of this makes it comparable to fast food; it exists and provides cheap calories, but at the cost of huge health problems. We are and can be critical of fast food just as we can be critical of formulaically mass-produced culture.
Largely, Sarkeesian is attempting to deconstruct how the media of gaming (similar to the media of film) frames the objectification of women as a normal occurrence. Sarkeesian is attempting to highlight the presence of tropes in gamer media, and unless you have become versed in tropes you don’t see them. She is attempting to highlight the ubiquity of sexism in gaming media.
There is also a tendency to excuse a lot of this on the basis of status quo. Pointing to the male dominance of that industry or its demographic does not invalidate these critiques, it just explains them. Likewise, acknowledging a status quo does not prevent us from examining it and discussing the attendant profiteering and exploitation that results.
There is also a tendency to argue that gamer culture can have its own special subculture of games for women, which is not only patronising but is effectively an “equal but separate” argument. Video games are a cultural experience, and women should be entitled to partake of this experience alongside and with men (and others). Feminism is fantastic for this in helping women (and others like myself) address a central cultural phenomenon such that we can seek to shape it in a way that is conducive to as many people as possible, rather than one dominant demographic.
There is also a similar tendency to write these things off economically, suggesting that the industry is only catering to an existing market, or that market forces will force the industry to change. Most people make this kind of commentary without much actual grounding in economic theory, so unless I’m given permission to indulge in a discussion of consumerism, corporate culture, the bounded rationality of the markets, and the long return to equilibrium, I don’t even bother.
Just because something is socially acceptable or normal does not prevent it from being critiqued, and it does not excuse it from maintaining systems of oppression and discrimination. In fact, it can be argued that the more ubiquitous, the more invisible, the more unconscious a social behaviour becomes, the more deserving it is of scrutiny (see religion, markets, authority, masculinity, feudalism, slavery, marriage, inter alia).
Despite all this, Sarkeesian has provoked incredible hostility, to the point where it’s becoming harder and harder to level legitimate critiques at her. We are witnessing the collapse of legitimate critique into outright misogyny. This means it is incredibly difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff, and more importantly, since they are inflected with layers of misogyny it becomes an exercise in futility as you are then engaging with a slew of microaggressions. Attempting to get a point across to someone who is being microaggressive in this manner is incredibly mentally taxing.
The first problem to address is the idea that people are entitled to their opinion. No they are not; at least not in any serious forum for discussion. If you’re going to tread these waters, there is something of a discipline necessary in acknowledging an opposing viewpoint, being able to reasonably justify your own, but most importantly being able to concede significant points and moderate your position. We unfortunately tend to learn our style of argument from politicians more than academics, and so we are informed by a style of argument that is based on scoring points more than exchanging ideas. The most egregious form of of this problem is the increasing tendency for people to glom onto identifying fallacies, as a means to score points rather than to help an opponent realise a weakness of their argument.
Anatol Rapoport once formulated a system for providing successful critical commentary on an opponent’s work. The idea is to firstly re-express the opponent’s position clearly and fairly, followed by a list of any points of agreement, and what has been learned from the opposing opinion. After this acknowledgement, you have created a constructive space by which to formulate a rebuttal or criticism.
Secondly, there is this prevailing assumption that by putting something out into the public, that it warrants whatever negative backlash it receives. This usually follows some kind of dog-whistle to a parody of ‘free speech’ as justification to be able to say anything online; it’s a huge problem that doesn’t understand the structure of protected speech.
Substantively, free speech is an intricately constructed and nuanced legal idea. Attitudes to what constitutes free speech range from an absolute right, claiming that all forms of speech and the expression of any idea in public is the whole of the privilege, to notions of freedom of political expression, being only the prevention of censorship by the state on public opinion.
Admittedly, the USA is permeated culturally by an ideal of absolute free speech, yet even there freedom of speech is not absolute, just deeply entrenched politically and legally. The USA formulates a distinction between between regulating the content of speech and regulating the deleterious effects of speech with harmful effects (defamation, intentional infliction of emotional duress, and incitement to violence/riot). The US has allowed limited restraints on the latter.
Other English speaking countries mostly favour the freedom of public opinion, where distinction are made between regulating the content of speech (prohibited) and regulating the deleterious effects of speech with harmful effects (defamation, intentional infliction of emotional duress, and incitement to violence/riot).
More generally, free speech can be more defined as the freedom of expression, including any public speech-act that presents a political statement (silent vigils, black armbands, or rainbow pins). In this context, freedom of speech is not merely a negative right (a right to prevent limitations on free speech), but the active protection of free speech by countering those social elements that seek to stifle expression. Accordingly, it is a weak argument to invoke freedom of speech as some kind of universal rule that makes everything permissible.
Generally, I would encourage open dialogue, particularly as people’s social circles online tends to inhabit a sort of a think bubble or an echo chamber; there is also evidence to show the way that conversations on the internet work towards marginalising disagreement. However, in this instance, I think the horrifying and edifying commentary is infused with personal attacks. Simply put, you are not entitled to your opinion, you are not entitled to be heard, and this conversation is already so decrepitly burdened with flame wars, abuse, and violent threats that comment must be moderated. If you cannot understand the difference between criticism and an attack, then you are not part of this conversation.
Given this, I am now loathe to legitimate any and all commentary on the internet under some false mantra of free speech and open criticism. From a feminist point of view, the public discourse is already dominated by men’s opinions littered with microaggressions, and downright misogyny, which is all just so much background radiation in this conversation. The signal-to-noise ratio is deafening madness, and to misappropriate Yeats:
“The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
To this end, I encourage people to take control of the virtual spaces in which they converse. Outright block and silence those who cannot treat this topic with the respect it deserves. By all means, permit comments from those who would challenge your opinion with a good argument, but take no hesitation in moderating those who cannot help but infuse their criticism with anti-feminist (and other) diatribe.
I am encouraging people to act upon a broad form of moderation, one of the few types of clicktivism that I think might have weight and bearing. If there was a push to block trolls and their commentary, you are denying them their voice. By not engaging, you reduce their opinions to irrelevance. Think of it as an act of reclamation if you will.