Monday, October 5, 2015

When Death Threats Are Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Make Death Threats

I haven't written about Gamergate here, because I didn't feel like sorting through the controversy and finding out what was really going on.  Plenty of other people who knew what they were talking about, and who love gaming, have written about Gamergate competently. I am not particularly interested in gaming myself, and I have nothing to add to their analyses.

What I am interested in are issues of civility (though maybe I should put that word in quotes), sexism, misogyny, anti-feminist backlash, homophobia, and freedom of speech.  So this post at Alas, a Blog about some reactions to journalist Anita Sarkeesian's testimony at the United Nations, gave me something to write about.  Here, courtesy of Ampersand, is the relevant portion:

Ampersand showed how certain of Sarkeesian's critics misrepresented her remarks (without actually quoting them explicitly, he says).  What interested me were the defenses of Gamergate by some commenters under that post, which eschewed the more typical frenzied misogynist rants in favor of mere condescension (referring to Sarkeesian as "Anita," for example) and superficially civil calls for freedom of speech and debate.

One commenter claimed that harassment must consist only of overtly hostile, threatening behavior.  But if someone were to call this guy up every night at 3 in the morning, say nothing for thirty seconds or so, and then hang up, I feel pretty sure he'd consider that harassment before the first week was over.  It wouldn't be necessary to tell him he was going to be raped anally with a fencepost or his nuts cut off and stuffed down his throat.  I think that if an anonymous caller merely said "Hi!" in a bright, friendly tone before hanging up over and over, he still would consider it harassment.

The most useful comment for my purposes was posted later in the thread, though.  It stated a notion that had been gestured toward by others, but stated it clearly and reasonably unambiguously.  Ampersand had linked to a sample of misogynist abuse of a feminist writer and asked if such stuff was "fair game."  The commenter replied:
None of those are in the vicinity of “you suck” or “you’re a liar” which is what she was complaining about, and which are valid responses to someone’s output.

We don’t think racist, sexist, homophobic, what-have-you insults are okay, even (especially?) when directed at public figures. But we do expect them to put up with generic insults, like “you suck”.
"You suck" is not a valid response to someone saying something one dislikes or disagrees with. If anything, it amounts to a confession that one has nothing valid to say in response to them. It doesn’t show rationality, finely-honed debating skills, superior knowledge about gaming or any other subject. Saying "you suck" shows that one is an inarticulate lump who has nothing of any interest or value to say about the subject about which one has gotten all hot and bothered.  This is not necessarily a bad thing -- some of my best friends are inarticulate lumps -- but it's not the same thing as being rational or articulate. The beauty of the internet, of course, as of free speech in general, is that no one has to be intelligent, or knowledgeable, or rational to share their opinions with the world. But no one is required to pretend that the equivalent of monkeys throwing feces is intelligent discourse. Yet I’ve noticed that these shit-throwing boys not only want to be taken for rational thinkers, but want respect and sympathy for themselves and their hurt feelings.  Much like bigots in general.

"You're a liar" has more promise, but only as a beginning.  It has to be followed, or accompanied, by some evidence for the claim it makes.  Not too surprisingly, that doesn't usually happen, and as in this case, when the attempt is made, the evidence is mostly or entirely false itself.

If you feel that you really and truly must say "You suck" to someone else, saying it once is enough.  You'll achieve nothing positive or constructive by saying it over and over, let alone escalating from there to dismemberment fantasies and threats.  (Bear in mind that the threats were not a response to escalating feminist criticism of gamer culture -- rather the opposite.  If their targets didn't respond in kind, they took that as license to come up with more baroque and vivid dismemberment and rape fantasies.)  And if you discover in yourself a certain ambition to be something more than an inarticulate lump, you can begin by seeing how many people have already told the offending person that he or she sucks.  You get zero points for originality after the first dozen or so.

The Gamergate notion that being a Gamer is an "identity" that must be defended at all costs was significant, I thought.  It ties into to the claim by another comment that Sarkeesian was not an innocent victim after all: she had criticized a subculture, and "many people from that subculture responded with attacks using a style of rhetoric common to that subculture."  This was intended to be a defense of the vitriolic attacks, by the way, though the commenter also claimed that they were the work of only "a few bad examples."  This kind of equivocation is common as a distractive tactic, I've noticed: first, the behavior was appropriate to the culture; second, it was not typical but the work of a few bad apples; third, criticizing those few bad apples strikes at the heart of the entire subculture.

Another thing about “subculture”: it’s one thing (though not above criticism and censure) for the members to engage in these antics among themselves, and quite another to direct them against those who didn’t ask, and don’t want to play. The funny thing is that the people who are here (and elsewhere) defending the monkeys are thereby inadvertently confirming everything derogatory anyone could say about boy-culture and gamer culture in particular.

The same commenter later accused me of misandry for comparing the more intemperate Gamergaters to feces-throwing simians.  I don't think so, though I'd pay attention to a rationally argued case for the accusation.  (Need I tell you that he didn't attempt one?)   But I think he missed something.  If I were to say that all human males are feces-throwing monkeys, and offered no compelling evidence to support the allegation, then yes, an accusation of misandry might well be called for.  But I didn't even compare all Gamergaters, or video-game players, to feces-throwing monkeys: I compared those whose total and mildest collective retort to criticism of the gamer subculture was "You suck" to feces-throwing monkeys.  I might have other characterizations of the scum who spammed their opponents with death threats.  Rabid feces-throwing monkeys, maybe.

There's an entertaining irony here that I've noticed before.  It's not I who am saying that the innate nature of human males is to screech "You suck" when someone criticizes (no matter how rationally) their little ways, it's the angry males who defend and justify their behavior by attributing it to male nature.   A friend told me that in a video of Jane Elliott's blue-eyes/brown eyes exercise, a white man expostulated that he didn't like being told he was ignorant because of the color of his eyes.  According to my friend, Elliott replied: "Oh no, sir -- your ignorance has nothing to do with the color of your eyes."  (There's a lot of feces-flinging in some responses to Elliott in this article from Smithsonian magazine.  From people of both sexes, by the way: it's not just a guy thing, only some guys claim that it is.) I myself have dealt with white people who claimed they were called racists simply because of the color of their skin; Christians who claimed they were called bigots merely because of their faith; heterosexuals who claimed they were called homophobes merely because of their sexual orientations; men who complained that they were called sexists just because they had a penis.  Oh no, sir -- your sexism has nothing to do with your penis.  At most it has to do with your conviction that having a penis (or a melanin deficiency, or an erotic fixation on the other sex, or you worship images of a crucified man) impels you to behave in certain ways, and should entitle you to certain privileges.

On the other hand, I doubt that the Gamergaters would have responded the same way to, Harvey Mansfield's association of violence with manliness, just as no conservatives accused Phyllis Schafly of hating men when she claimed that men wouldn't support their children unless the law made them do it.  As Callie Khouri, the writer of Thelma and Louise, pointed out, no one sees ultraviolent gangster or action or horror movies as defamatory of men.  What's unacceptable is to say that male violence is a bad thing, and even worse: merely to suggest that ultraviolence is not part of the essence of manhood, and that men don't have to be violent to be good men.  That's what sets off the flying feces.

Even when I speak of Boy Culture (I choose Boy to imply my belief that it's a construct of some immature males, not an expression of adult maleness), I cheerfully admit that not all males conform to it or support it -- indeed many are victimized by it -- and that many women also embrace and endorse it.  That's a big part of my point: that would-be alpha males are not only a small minority of men but that many or most men aren't interested in being at the top of a heap.  (As others have noticed, researchers have an unseemly tendency to focus on the cool kids and ignore the others who constitute the majority.)  The dominant (hegemonic, to use the jargon) model of manhood, like other dominant models, is often true of only a minority in a society, but it will be paid lip service as 'natural' or 'the way things are' by the majority.  That's a datum, but it doesn't make the dominant model true.

The most interesting response I got in the comments thread sought to catch me out in my own logic.
Would you ever apply this criticism to (using a group I identify with) gay activists who use intemperate, insulting language? Or do they get a pass because they never claimed superior rationality? I’m not actually a fan of people telling others “you suck” online, but I also don’t think it’s a particularly strong insult at all – consider the arguments about language changing above – and I think you’re articulating a double standard.
Hey, I identify with gay activists too!  I have been a gay activist myself, and may be one again (activist, that is; I’m still gay). And yes, I would criticize gay activists for using intemperate language, etc., though I'd have to see each case to evaluate. In fact I do criticize my fellow queers and our allies when they say “you suck” and “fuck you” and the like, because nothing says enlightenment and opposition to misogyny and homophobia like homophobic/misogynist language. Sometimes I tell people who say “fuck X person” that I’m glad they love Kim Davis (or Donald Trump, or whoever) and want to give her pleasure, but I don’t think that’s the message they are trying to convey. And yes, my people do like to present themselves as rational and enlightened compared to those stupid fundamentalist Bible thumpers who are fat and stupid. It’s painful to be reminded, constantly, that so many of my fellow gay people and liberals and leftists are stupid, bigoted swine. But I soldier on.

I’m not so much concerned with “insult” or how “strong” the insult is, in this case — I think he missed the point about that. I said that saying simply “You suck” to someone you disagree with is not a valid reponse to them. Yes, language changes, but “you suck” and “fuck you” still seem to me to convey the sense that being penetrated is debasing, and therefore throwing those words at another person effectively means to feminize and debase them. I’ve noticed some straight guys trying to argue that “faggot” isn’t really antigay, it’s a putdown of those who “bend the knee,” which is of course nonsense. And I must point out that the same excuse about changing language gets made for the kind of raving abuse that women like Sarkeesian are targeted with. They’re accused of being too sensitive, etc. One commenter on an article on Gamergate actually claimed that if he’s not allowed to make death threats online, all “our” freedom will have been stripped away by the feminazis.   (No permalink that I could find: see Atavax, 10/20/2014 9:00 PM EST.)

But leave that aside. It doesn’t really matter whether I’m right about the misogynist/homophobic punch of “You suck.” The important thing is that someone who says it is declaring his or her refusal to debate rationally. He or she is expressing his or her feelings, I suppose; but they’re not interested in anyone else’s. Over the years I’ve run into numerous homophobes online who’ve tried to discredit what I say by insinuating that I must be a homosexual, or by trying to “out” me. You can’t “out” someone who’s already out, and it drives them up the wall when homophobic shaming doesn’t work on me. If someone says “You suck” to me in such a situation, I’m likely to say, “Why yes, I do. What is your point?” I’m not interested in censoring them, but I am interested in censuring them, mocking them, deriding them, and withholding respect from them. That’s not a double standard; the double standard is held by people who want to hurl abuse at other people, threaten them online, etc., but panic and whine that they’re being persecuted when someone throws the abuse back at them. If they want me to tiptoe around their tender little feelings, they need to show the same consideration to others. And as I’m afraid even this relatively reasonable thread shows, there are many men who can’t see any discussion of sexism as anything but a call to castrate them, as shown by the misreadings of Sarkeesian that Ampersand has to keep correcting. Just as there are many whites who can’t see any discussion of racism as anything but a call to drive The White Race into the sea. And many heterosexuals who see the legalization of same-sex civil marriage as opposed and hostile to heterosexual marriage. I can sympathize with their irrationality and the pain that drives it, but I see no reason to call it “valid.” It’s not.

So no, I don't think I was articulating a double standard.  My interlocutor couldn't have known my history of criticizing my own side, of course, but it's significant that he chose to suppose that I don't do it.  I think he revealed a double standard of his own, however: that for ostensibly straight boys to attack their critics in these terms is at least understandable, but for gay activists to behave in the same way is not.

A curious thing, though, about that other commenter's claim that the frenzied response to Sarkeesian and other feminist critics of gamer culture was that the gamers used "a style of rhetoric common to that subculture."  It follows that Sarkeesian and her colleagues would have done better to use the same style of rhetoric in reply.  I doubt it would have worked.  I've occasionally experimented by responding to right-wing bigots with their own style of discourse.  They always attack me for incivility, irrationality, and dishonesty -- for sinking to their own level, in effect, though they're careful not to recognize their manner in the mirror.  The gamers conform to this pattern, though since their targets mostly do not respond in kind, they have to invent horrific feminist calls for the subjugation, castration, or elimination of all men.  Are they happy that women are learning to use the style of rhetoric common to the gaming subculture?  They are not; they are distraught that man-hating feminists are brutal misandrists.  Even the comparatively mild humorous trope about "male tears" is cast (see the comments) as a foreshadowing of the Androcide to come if feminists have their way, because of course women fear male violence, and males fear female laughter.  But isn't it misandrist to accuse feminists of sinking to men's level?