You Don’t Get to Be the Hero, Or Are We the Baddies?

9 10 2014

There’s a great sketch from That Mitchell and Webb Look in which an SS unit is preparing for a Soviet attack during the German retreat. As Robert Webb’s straight man coolly anticipates the coming battle, David Mitchell’s funnyman asks about a new discovery he’s made. He’s just noticed that the badges on their uniform caps are skulls, and he can’t help but wonder if maybe that means they’re the bad guys. “Maybe they’re the skulls of our enemies,” Webb suggests. Mitchell counters with “Maybe, but is that how it comes across? It doesn’t say next to the skull, you know, ‘Yeah, we killed him, but trust us, this guy was horrid.'” He goes on to point out that the symbols of the Allied powers “are all quite nice – stars, stripes, lions, sickles […] I mean, I really can’t think of anything worse, as a symbol, than a skull.” Webb suggests “A rat’s… anus?” and pulls up a skull-shaped mug. The two look around and see the SS Death’s Head all around them, and promptly realize that yeah, they’re the baddies – at which point they run.

I thought of this sketch just now as I was reading Kris Ligman’s August 31st “This Week in Videogame Blogging” at Critical Distance – an excellent collection of commentary on the recent horrific spasm of harassment and abuse directed at feminists involved with games – most specifically aimed at Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn. The many pieces Ligman calls out (along with plenty of others) do a great job of explaining, lamenting, debunking and excoriating the breathtakingly wrongheaded fury, hatred, and threats being poured forth by “gamers,” so I won’t spend any time echoing what has been said so eloquently and effectively elsewhere. Instead, I want to focus on a thread that I’ve noticed a lot, in arenas as disparate as “Gamergate” and the 2008 presidential campaign.Zoe Quinn was recently given the opportunity to tell her story at in a piece called “5 Things I Learned as the Internet’s Most Hated Person.” It’s a great read, and I highly recommend it. It includes a screengrab of what looks like some sort of chat session in which people are discussing their willingness/desire to have sex with her, seemingly as an act of revenge for… whatever it is she did to them by existing. Echoing the notion that she used sex to get publicity and praise for her work (“Follow the shekels… to her vagina,” adding a nice frisson of anti-Semitism), it closes with one participant, “The_Remover,” saying “she gonna get raped.” The caption below this screengrab says “You can’t post this and get to be the ‘heroes.'” That’s the thread that I want to discuss – the seeming inability of certain people to take a step back from their stances and consider that maybe the way they’re saying something should tell them something about the substance of what they’re saying. They seem oblivious, incapable of asking Mitchell’s question, “Are We the Baddies?”

The thing that put me onto this idea, beyond the countless death- and rape-threats that make up so much of the “commentary” leveled at people like Quinn and Sarkeesian (and so many others before them), is another common sight in the reams of bile that have spewed forth in these absurd crusades against ever having a single critical thought about games – the term “Social Justice Warrior,” intended as an insult. I suppose it’s meant to connote someone who finds offense in anything and everything, a caricature of political correctness taken to completely absurd lengths – someone dedicated, body and soul, to sucking the joy and fun out of every moment of life in service to some utopian dreamworld in which no one is ever offended or bothered again. That may be its intent, but that’s not at all how it is used. Speak up in support of Quinn or Sarkeesian (or so many others before them) even once in any moderately popular forum and it’s a near guarantee that you’ll be labeled an SJW,  or the related term, a “White Knight” (though I believe a White Knight is someone who is rushing to the defense of a besieged woman in the hope of securing romantic favor from her).

Putting aside the White Knight thing (except to say that that conceptualization of the relationships and interactions between men and women is deeply informed by a lot of the tropes Sarkeesian calls out in her video series), I want to focus on the idea of the Social Justice Warrior – specifically the notion that that identity could ever be considered a bad thing. Sure, the hyper-PC killjoy that it’s meant to evoke would be pretty unpleasant to be around, but again, it’s not reserved for those who genuinely resemble that caricature. Instead, the label gets slapped on pretty much anyone who dares to disagree with the pitchfork-and-torch brigades that are out to crush some uppity woman. When we look at the words themselves in that context, it becomes bizarre – it seems to lay bare a core belief that anyone who believes that social justice is important and worth fighting for is worthy of derision. In a nation begun by a declaration that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with a set of immutable rights, it should be unthinkable to mock someone for standing up for precisely those ideas. Maybe they’re just over-literal about the “men” in “all men are created equal.”

According to a great essay by Katherine Cross at First Person Scholar, I’m off in my understanding of what “Social Justice Warrior” means:

The phrase ‘social justice warrior’ was originally coined on Tumblr to describe a dangerous tendency among some leftist activists to aggressively and angrily pursue political goals according to strict ideological codes, often to the detriment of others, with no clear collective gain, but significant personal aggrandizement.

By that definition, Social Justice Warriors are definitely a real problem, though that definition doesn’t fit the usage against anyone defending Quinn or Sarkeesian. As Cross’s essay goes on to point out, it’s actually a fairly apt description of the behavior of the #GamerGaters, pursuing their demand for game journalism free of “agendas” with such vigor that they see any insult, any vulgarity, and any real-world, tangible threat as a valid way of championing their cause. And in the end, they still seem to believe that someone campaigning for social justice is inherently bad and a threat to them.

I mentioned the 2008 presidential campaign before because something similar went on back then. In her speech accepting the nomination as the Republican candidate for Vice President and during the campaign, Sarah Palin repeatedly used “community organizer” as a laugh line and insult. She described her time as the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska as “sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities.” She was referring to the time Barack Obama spent between college and law school working to help underprivileged and underrepresented people in New York and Chicago. That’s worthy of derision? Someone working for a faith-based organization (as Obama did in Chicago’s Developing Communities Project) to help the less fortunate is somehow laughable? In Palin, we had a Christian mocking another Christian for devoting himself to serving the less fortunate, and her base ate it up. If she and her fans were to look closely at what they mocked, shouldn’t they see that they’re mocking the core command given by the man they proclaim as their Lord and Savior? And isn’t that kind of a problem? Even if you’re no fan of Obama, isn’t one of the tenets of compassionate conservatism that churches and other private entities are better providers of services and aid for the less fortunate than the government can be? How does it make any sense to turn around and mock someone who dedicated himself to providing those very services?

If you really look at it, might that mean you’re the baddies? Might you be proudly marching under the banner of the Rat’s Anus?

Other essays, like Cross’s “The nightmare is over: They’re not coming for your games” at Polygon and Liz Ryerson’s “On ‘Gamers’ And Identity” provide a solid theory of why any suggestion of introspection or change is taken by gamers as a declaration of total war and must be met with overwhelming, scorched-and-salted-earth force. Many gamers (I’m using their self-applied term) have lived marginalized lives, with games providing an outlet for their frustrations and giving them satisfying fantasies of power and control while also giving them an identity and a point of commonality with others in the same boat. That identity is shot through with notions of outsider status, with parents and politicians and the media and bullies constantly casting games in a negative light and threatening to take them away or censor them. It’s understandable that members of that community would react defensively to perceived threats. It doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it can help explain their motivations. Michael Handler’s “The Paranoid Style in Gaming Misogyny” at Medium provides a good rundown of the parallel ideas in political culture.

Understanding the motivation is fine. Hell, I can even sympathize – aside from growing up in a suburb instead of a rural area, my experience is pretty similar to Ryerson’s. It’s okay to fear losing your outlet. It’s even okay to campaign against inclusion, if you really and truly believe it’s a bad thing. As you do so, though, you must be conscious of how you’re doing it. You may believe you’re on the side of the angels, but when a big part of your tactics seems to consist of threats of rape and violence against someone for nothing more than disagreeing with you, or mocking people for trying to make the world a better place, look up – the banner you’re proudly flying, your battle colors – it’s nothing but a Rat’s Anus.

EDIT 10/17/2014: It has been brought to my attention that threats have been directed at #GamerGaters as well as anti-#GamerGaters, including a syringe of something being mailed to Milo Yiannopoulos (though Yiannopoulos has pissed off a lot of people on a lot of fronts, with heroin-related digs at Scotland recently, so his attribution of the syringe to anti-#GamerGaters is thin). Let me make this clear – the banner of the Rat’s Anus is big enough to fly over both sides of this fight. When you resort to threats of violence, you lose any standing. Full stop. I still believe that on balance, the #GG side has been far worse in this respect, and that they represent a nasty tendency in the game-playing community to lash out nonsensically, with examples extending much farther back than the existence of #GamerGate and new incidents appearing almost daily (the addition of Brianna Wu and her family to the list of women threatened with horrific sexual violence and murder, with her home address added for effect; Anita Sarkeesian’s entirely reasonable decision to cancel a lecture at Utah State University after specific threats by someone who said that he would commit the worst school shooting in US history if she were allowed to speak). Still, the cause is not helped by threats of violence.



2 responses

9 10 2014
J Belmont
9 10 2014
Groove Haircut

That’s an interesting read, but I’m not sure I understand why it was shared. If it’s in agreement that abuse and violence are unacceptable even in the service of noble goals, I agree. If it’s to paint Zoe Quinn in a bad light, it’s entirely beside the point. She may be an abuser. She may be an awful person all around. That doesn’t begin to justify what she’s been put through, and it doesn’t touch at all on what Anita Sarkeesian has suffered.

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