Down the Critical Path

Lately the private discussions of many people I respect have become public discourse, and I’m really relieved that this conversation is happening. Progressive and social justice communities, largely but not exclusively in the online sphere, have been plagued by misguided, maybe even exploited, hurt that has been whipped into unfocused rage. People who should be able to find common ground through common goals have been split up into tribes, fault-finding and “callout-culture” have superseded long-term community maintenance strategies, and free and open discussion of all participants has been undermined by the constant and immobilizing threat of recrimination or vilification for little or no fault.

I know these discussions used to be private rumblings because I’ve had many of them, in some cases with writers who’ve gone public with these concerns. I think it’s healthy that, finally, the other shoe dropped. I guess it had to, but I still feel ashamed. I could have been there and I wasn’t. I could have said something, and I didn’t. And now, my relief is tinged with jealousy. This is hard to write, but I was part of incidents and subsequent private rants that led to these critiques coming to the forefront. I also didn’t say anything much when I had the chance, because I was afraid. I’m still afraid to speak in specifics.

The jealousy, the fear, the anger are complex and I’m not proud of them. I just want to feel this cleansing satisfaction that finally people are talking about the silencing, bullying and threats that go on in what are supposed to be safe spaces, particularly for the marginalized. I look at why I didn’t articulate publicly what I said privately and I think about most of the implications I was convinced they would bring upon me. I thought I would be slandered, ostracized, made an enemy or an apologist. I thought I would have privileged aspects of my identity used against me to dismiss my hurt. I thought I would be tarred as a tone-policer, an attention-seeker and a bully. I thought that my online persona would get trounced and that my writing career would be seriously compromised. I look to that anxiety and I think of Katherine Cross’s piece, “Words, Words, Words: On Toxicity and Abuse in Online Activism,” where she writes,

“[…] In addition to the emphasis on individual catharsis, the culture of unchecked rage that sometimes wracks us is also an artefact of patriarchy itself and its lust for competitive, often violent contest. Much ink has been spilled on the masculinism that infects activist discourse, leading to delightfully snarky epithets like “Manarchism,” but we ignore the fact that white cis men are not the only people perpetuating this; it’s a culture, it does not dwell only in those with a perceived “essence.” We often unthinkingly accept and venerate the modalities and methods that patriarchy most favours; rage fuelled, unempathetic, us-versus-them politics is an ideal fit with the political hellscape of modern, neoliberal patriarchy. It is a world that prizes the atomised particular over the powerful but compromising collective.”

It’s no accident that there’s this pervasive, close-knit overlap between nerd circles and online social justice activism. I won’t go into the myriad sociological reasons why but suffice it to say that there are plenty of people I associate with whose interests include videogames and the politics of social justice. That means that inevitably, my peer group and political affiliations are interwoven with my work. Oftentimes, what I call my career is stewed together with my role as an activist and casual interactions with friends and acquaintances. The line between labour, leisure and activism isn’t very precise, if ever there was one.

So as I see these pieces decrying online aggression, misguided-anger-turned-bullying, nativism in what claim to be progressive communities, I also see how I’ve internalized Cross’s assertion that competitive, neoliberal thinking has commodified activism and turned what should be community building efforts into volatile pissing contests. I see how my own anxiety over saying anything directly was, in part, because I felt like the climate wouldn’t allow it. I felt that there were people with a certain cultural capital, a certain cachet, who could easily step on my fingers while I climb my way up a supposed ladder. Paradoxically, I loathed and envied those acting abusively in order to conserve that cachet. I thought I had to be them in order to pull my career into financial stability, and I resented that. At least, I resigned myself to not getting in their way. I had anger, and I spoke and behaved more and more cynically for a long time. I don’t think my anger was wrong, per se, but the way I handled it a lot of the time was feckless and alienating.

Let me be clear: I don’t blame anyone but myself for how I chose to act. I recognize that there is a system in place that makes marginalized groups compete with one another for attention. I recognize that though our anger is valid, how the culture has swayed in terms of expressing it has been a suffocating inversion of the same old survivalism we’re made to embrace in the job market. I recognize, as Cara Ellison phrased it, that “aggressive behaviour might sometimes be necessary in some circumstances (Mandela’s passing this year was a pertinent reminder of this) but being competitive is a side effect of capitalism, and really sort of denies the idea that difference and diversity might be valued, because it creates a monolithic virtue that we all compete for. And that’s bullshit. We’re all cool in different ways.”

I’m now being choked by a lot of confusing and competing feelings about what I should have done. Part of my regret definitely, but shamefully, stems from this jealousy that I didn’t get there first. That I knew what was going on and I could have broken the proverbial ice, but didn’t. Now I’m a follower rather than a leader. I know that this bile will destroy me inside and out, and is totally a product of this poisonous inclination towards needless competition, but it’s there. All the same, I wish I hadn’t hesitated because I was tired of seeing my friends get hurt. Good people, time and time again and completely despite themselves, running into thorn bushes for taking the wrong “side” when all that should have mattered was justice, fairness and accountability.

I still worry about whether I’m considered radical enough, readable enough, aggressive enough, accessible enough, political enough, compromising enough. I still compare myself to my peers because the apparatus we all work in treats us like tokens, and we’re all expected to trounce over each other to make it into the “[insert minority] writer job” quota. We’re meant to stab each other in the back, or in the face, to get on that vaunted Mount Rushmore of games criticism. This isn’t a kink in the machinery; this is how it’s set up to work and it zombifies our relationships into rivalries. I guess it’s fortuitous that just before writing this, someone anonymously asked Mattie Brice on what she thought of Cara Ellison’s success with Patreon, comparing Ellison to “big-name Peter Molyneux.” Brice answered,

“This is a good lesson in seeing how different the industry can treat people. I don’t blame Cara at all for getting money, because she deserves it 100%. What this does show is how much exposure on larger sites does help critics, and that barring critics from publications really hurts their livelihood.”

I want to believe in online patronage as the path to professional sustainability for writers. Right now, I need to, because traditional outlets have so cavalierly failed to provide a fair, living wage for my labour. But it’s untested, and one of the burgeoning issues with the Patreon model, which aims to (mostly) cut out the middleman and allow fans to directly support their creators, is that it translates social capital and popularity into financial capital. Games writers already have a limited resource pool to draw from, and the less popular one happens to be—the less known or the more barred from popular writing establishments—the smaller that pool gets. Creators run the risk of holding the value of their voices to the community hostage against how much the community pays them. This model risks transplanting institutional gatekeepers, not dismantling what they represent. Talented, esteemable writers think less of themselves because their dollar value is laid bare in sans-serif font, and the audience will carry on the mantle of pitting them against each other based on how much they make.

In Brice’s piece, On Anger, she delves further into the very real phenomenon whereby game critics, particularly those belonging to minority groups, are often passed over by established publications within games media. She talks about how this indifference to change and risk-averse hiring habits foment a culture of duplicity, mistrust and avarice that help lead to a shaking and self-destructive anger. We should be angry, I really believe it, but we use that anger to cannibalize ourselves or vainly attack “enemy” archetypes rather than use it as fuel to dismantle the system enabling it in the first place.

That anger can burn adjacent to a jealousy, a “got mine” mentality that makes me covet the accomplishments of people I should be supporting. I find myself secretly sniping people I respect because they have a little more than me—even if it’s totally deserved and hard-won—and I fight myself everyday to overcome this tendency. That anger can turn to self-hate and anxiety, a sense of inadequacy that I haven’t done enough and that I simply am not enough. This isn’t self-improvement or community improvement. It’s cutting your toes off to jam your foot into a glass slipper that doesn’t fit. That anger can become self-pity and navel-gazing that turns into bitter, envious resentment. It can become me taking out my frustrations indirectly rather than working through those feelings to help create a better environment for everyone. As Aevee Bee wrote, “anger is not abuse, and abuse is not anger.”

I don’t think I can let go of all my anger. I don’t think anyone necessarily should and I do think that “anger can be power.” I don’t think every interaction needs to be peaceful and I think that at times, it’s valid and even necessary to fight. The trick is knowing when, and how. There is such thing as “clean fighting,” of arguing in good faith, in the hopes of coming to, if not a conclusion, then at least a mutual understanding. There is value in disengaging with people who disrespect their interlocutors, but of still questioning the system that enables this kind of behaviour. We can never forget that we’re products of an ideology that surfaces in ways that we don’t fully acknowledge and that are contradictory to our principles and goals. I see this ideal beginning to manifest in the new year and I want it to continue, I want to help it grow. But I need to learn how to deal with my insecurity, my guilt, my resentment and my fear. I need to adjust my view so that I’m not looking at my peers vertically, as on a ladder, but horizontally, as shoulder to shoulder.