Thoughts on Online Harassment: Anita Sarkeesian

[This post and the next begins a bit of thoughts/exploration of an issue specific to the gaming world–the harassment of feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, who recently had to cancel a speaking event because of a mass murder threat. But I like to think it could be applied to most passionate controversial debates that bring out harassment.]

To a certain extent, I sort of understand how people who get upset over something turn to harassment. When I see the horrible things people have done to harass others online, threatening sexual violence against women, there is a small part of me that wants to turn around and do the same to them. How would they feel if we published their address online with vicious threats? But I would never do that, because it’s wrong and it’s sinking to their level and it’s only perpetuating violence as an answer to disagreements. I say all this only to indicate that when you feel angry about something, at someone, I can acknowledge that part of your brain wants to hurt that person.

But a decent human being doesn’t actually do it, doesn’t even send a threat. They realize that people have different opinions, that people do different things, and as long as they aren’t hurting anyone, they should be allowed to continue having these opinions and doing these things.

Where it gets complicated is when we reach the point of “hurting anyone.” For example, I view trolling as hurting people; I’m sure trolls would not. So I might be the type who would advocate taking action to stop trolling by an authoritative third party, such as the website or the law—and now the act of stopping the trolls from saying what they want is seen by them as “hurting someone.” So who is right?

See, I’ve been trying to puzzle out exactly what has Anita Sarkeesian’s critics so mad. I mean, sexism and misogyny, right, but most will be quick to dismiss that criticism as PC SJW bullshit (and call you a c*** while doing so, thus proving the point, but I digress). Let’s imagine the point of view of someone who criticizes Anita Sarkeesian but adamantly claims it’s not because she’s a woman. What are they feeling?

The way I figure it, they think that if the gaming industry and society as a whole believes Anita Sarkeesian’s “lies,” then they will stop making the games they love for the “wrong reasons.” I mean, just the act of lying in a YouTube video can’t be an offense worth dying over; if I make a video all about how cheese comes from the moon, I can’t imagine I would receive death threats because no one would take it seriously or do anything about it. So it has to be the fear (and anger) that these “lies” will produce an effect.

Now, the question is whether they would accept that effect if it were based on truth, or whether they will be angry about that effect no matter its source? The effect being games which no longer contain dead prostitutes, damsels in distress, naked women in the background, etc. Again, they would argue these things don’t exist, are just being realistic, are escapism (notice the hypocrisy there), are a joke, are just an option and not required (to see, interact with, etc.). But these arguments are there to try and keep these elements, right? Saying, “It’s just a game, it’s just for fun, it doesn’t matter,” isn’t an argument to remove elements that others find offensive—it’s an argument for dismissing that offense and keeping them.

Because if it really was just a game and who cares, then they wouldn’t care about seeing those elements disappear from mainstream games. They would just shrug and say, “I never played the prostitute level anyway, who cares, it’s just a game.” The level of anger and fear and lashing out can only come from the place of wanting to keep those elements—of fearing that they will be taken away.

And the anger at Anita Sarkeesian, and the journalists and Kickstarter supporters who “believe” her, is that these elements will be taken away based on a “lie.” But if they could step back and examine their motives, the question becomes: If someone could prove, beyond a shadow of doubt or conspiracy, that what Anita Sarkeesian says is the truth—would you accept the outcome then?

The answer would probably come in the form of: “But there is no truth there, at all, never.” To which I would press to imagine the hypothetical. If they are truly rational and just objecting based on the lying (being a “con artist”), then a hypothetical scenario in which it’s the truth should ease their ire.

But I would argue that what they’re really reacting to is not that it’s a lie—it’s that it’s the truth. Or at least, enough of a truth that other people will “believe” it, and act. What they’re objecting to at the core of it is the loss of these games, or these elements in games. The perception that they would lose these things because of lies, or political correctness, or being judged—the “why” doesn’t matter. At the core of it all, they’re angry about the loss.

So what I would ask these people is why losing these elements hurts them? Again, not the fact that they would be losing them over a lie or overreaction; that’s a separate discussion. Perhaps they would say: “Because I want to play them, and why should you be able to stop me?”

I think the first step towards having a real conversation is for people to admit: “I want to play games with these elements.” Because if you don’t, then it shouldn’t matter if the next Hitman game doesn’t include an optional little side scene of killing prostitutes that you get minimally penalized for. I mean, someone made that sequence, wrote it, programmed it, animated it—whether you play it or not, people made that sequence for a reason. If you truly don’t care, then it won’t matter if they don’t make it for the next game.

If you don’t care, then if games no longer featured prostitutes at all, it shouldn’t matter. If games more commonly featured missions to rescue friends or sons or comrades instead of wives and daughters, it shouldn’t matter. If it’s just a joke, well, maybe the games are a little less funny to you. If it’s for realism, maybe the games are a little less realistic.

But you ask: why should we lose these things? Because people are deeply upset about them—and you are upset about losing them. The first step is to admit that; don’t pretend it’s about lies or truth, jokes or realism, free speech or fun. You want these things in your game for whatever reason, other people want them gone for whatever reason—let’s start there. If you don’t really care, then let the people who care “win.” Even on a “lie.”

But of course there’s more to be explored… on Friday. 🙂

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About J. Sevick

Just write.
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