Here we are on a blue rock likely to careen into the sun one day, the void surrounding us on one side and a bulging black hole taunting us at the center of our own galaxy. We would all be staring down loneliness and oblivion if we didn’t have each other. So maybe we should use our limited energy stores to make the burden of living a little less of one. Maybe.
I guess I’m stepping a little too far into writing a new age-y self-help piece about how we can all learn to love each other if we just learn to let go of the hate. But here’s the thing: I don’t care about your hurt if you use it to hurt others. I don’t care about what you think you’re owed if that entitlement involves taking safety or freedom away from others—or shrinking what little they already have. I’m talking about you, Twitter stalker. I’m talking about you, violent 4chan misogynist that thinks it’s okay to launch a vile harassment against women for daring—daring!—to participate in games “culture.”
I don’t care what hair-splitting rationalizations these frightened individuals make for attacking people, needling their way into their victims’ lives. I’m talking about everyone who believes that the expansion of privileges for themselves must include a narrowing of autonomy for others. I’m talking about those who believe it’s within their right to silence and control, who wave the flag of “free speech” to justify harassment, slander and intimidation. Maybe they have legitimate reasons for being angry, but nothing legitimizes this kind of behaviour. It’s wasting precious energy making the finite space we occupy a little more toxic, a little more uninhabitable.
So strong is the stranglehold that harassment has on what is regrettably referred to as “the game community” that I am terrified of actually naming some recent, high-profile incidents. I don’t want to bring more abuse down on its bearers in a naive attempt to help. So if I put myself and others at risk talking about something I also can’t ignore, what do I do? Where does the credibility of my argument go?
We get a lot of conflicting information about how to best deal with trolls and abusive elements in online spheres and beyond. Many still argue that “feeding” into these people’s desire for attention and reaction only intensifies their egos. It’s better to let them fade into obscurity. Others counter that this only nourishes an already-cancerous culture of silence that makes it extremely easy for abusers—not simply “trolls,” but the violent, the bigoted and the dangerously obsessive—to get away with their behaviour because everyone would rather pretend it isn’t there. Those who advise feigned ignorance usually come from a lived experience where they have been able to do so comfortably. Those who advise proaction or engagement tend to come from a context where putting the microaggressions out of mind isn’t so easy, especially when they happen to be the target-du-jour.
But their validity aside, the sheer scope of all these coping tactics demonstrate how confused we are when we talk about what harassment looks like and why it manifests. These are the things I’m most fascinated and bewildered by. The problem is so regular, so dyed in the wool of game culture and culture in general that I don’t think I need to break down the most topical incidents. But we should, if we are decent, be able to acknowledge them.
This confusion compels me to first ask, “What does a harasser look like?” Is it a misguided kid? An insecure and unhappy individual? A bandwagoner looking for community approval? A bigot trying to suppress change and enforce a dogma? Someone with an abusive past continuing the cycle, because that’s the only way they ever learned to express troubling emotions?
I think all of these are true, to some extent. And I think to some extent they may all intersect with one another. But I think the common denominator with these kinds of personalities is profound fear. A harasser is often afraid of a perceived loss or threat that something they believe is their domain (a discourse, a service, a culture, a body) is changing or going away. Someone who is not them demands access and a voice in their space and that means that the power fantasies skewed to cater to them must change. Or, they must step aside to include a different set of interests and voices. This is an intrusion. This pops the fantasy bubble where they are apolitical—what’s considered “normal”—and everyone else is political, weird, shrill, uppity and should just get back in the margins and be quiet.
That brings up another important question: why do people harass?
When Lindy West talked about investigating some of her own harassers’ post history, she found that many of them clung to anonymity because without it their carefully-crafted world would “crumble.” But one decided to break that mould and begin vlogging, putting his vulnerability on display, finally admitting to the misery and dissatisfaction and personal sense of disempowerment that led him to a life of resentment and anger. She says,
“I want to hurt these people so much. Like, these people have hurt me so much and then this whole… I had this moment where I was like, ‘No Youtube comment can ever hurt me as much as much as this guy’s life already hurts.’ Like, this is a profoundly sad person. And I think of myself as a good person. And when you’re a good person, you don’t attack the weak.”
This is the anger: “Who is this woman who is fat and opinionated and outspoken and happily in love and content in her life and unafraid of making a connection? It’s an injustice that I’m miserable and she’s not.” This is the anxiety: “I need to pick on her perceived weaknesses as a surrogate for coping with my own.”
Likewise, when MRAs flooded an Occidental College online rape report form with false reports, associate professor and sociologist Lisa Wade hit the nail on the head articulating the fear behind the act:
“The men targeting Occidental’s anonymous report form are mad that women are being listened to, that men’s voices are no longer given so much power that they can effectively drown out the voices of women. They’re mad because they’re not the only ones that matter anymore. I get it. To them, it really does feel unfair. Something really is changing. They ARE being demoted—from a superior to an equal—and it feels wrong to them because they’re so used to being privileged … [The backlash is] a good thing. It means we’re winning the fight. They’re gonna have to get used to it.”
That campaign wasn’t about making a point about false reports, especially not when you consider that the perpetrators clogged up a service meant to help any victim of assault regardless of gender. It was about silence, intimidation and control.
Control is a keyword here. Harassment is about controlling the dialogue by being the loudest, meanest person in the room. It’s about might making right. It’s about making an example of someone so the others will fall in line. It’s about refusing to share discursive, social and creative space with people who are different—especially if they’re considered inferior—out of insecurity of what might happen if they’re allowed to participate in the culture rather than be dictated by it.
Harassment is about refusing to confront your own insecurity by projecting it onto others, by making them the object of derision and hatred, justifying the abuse with a skewed sense of justice or deflective humour. I feel bad, and I don’t want to feel bad, and that’s your fault. It’s about externalizing misery or discomfort or insecurity rather than facing it down, rather than owning up to it, rather than being vulnerable and honest and intimate.
We’re all fragile and scared on some level. We all want control over our surroundings, on some level. But acting on that desire for control and false entitlement through force, intimidation and manipulation just gives away not just the morbid fear that exists within us all, but a cowardly unwillingness to contend with it.
The last question, and probably the most complicated one is, “What do we do about it?”
Well, I wish I knew. There are people so full of love and patience and kindness that they’re willing to take the time to talk individuals through their insecurity or hatred or cynicism. I greatly admire these people and wish I were one of them. It breaks my heart when these people get burnt out or turn into misanthropes themselves, but it also makes me fear the effectiveness of this strategy versus the emotional toll it takes. I’m anticipating the “What the fuck is this shit?” responses right now and weighing the benefits of writing this piece.
I think, on a macro level, much of it comes down to dismantling the systems of power and privilege that enable the precarious social stratifications through which people assign value to themselves and others. Harassment is an extreme arm of those systems and a manifestation of the kneejerk anxiety of the status quo disintegrating.
It’s no accident that those who most often and most vigorously apply themselves to pre-meditated harassment tend to justify it in the name of preserving a “natural order” or an assumed birthright. We need to collectively understand how our lives are framed by systems of power in our communities and the world, and that defending those systems or denying they exist is part of what keeps the culture of harassment alive. In other words, harassment is everyone’s problem.
We need to be willing to break silence, but be careful about not bringing wrath down on people in the process. We absolutely need more access and visibility for marginalized people, but not in a way that shines a harsh limelight on them in an otherwise hostile and toxic space. We need to understand and respect people’s identities, but we also can’t start generalizing people into monoliths and erasing their uniqueness. We need to stand up for people without also speaking for them. We need to acknowledge that systems of power exist, that there is an extant cultural power imbalance, and that none of our lives are apolitical. We need to reexamine our language, our worldviews, our assumptions, our fears, our insecurities and how they shape our behaviour. We need to take responsibility for ourselves and establish an equitable social contract. We need to hold people who violate that social contract accountable, be they in an online space or a tangible one. We need to practice steadfastness and fortitude but also love and forgiveness. We have to, because we’re all on borrowed time and limited energy and we have shit else but each other.