Hate Speech and Free Speech (Online)

6 Jul

Clearly, this issue of online abuse and hate speech is neither as marginal as we had hoped nor is it going to go away quietly on its own. What it will take to make it go away is another question entirely, but drawing attention to the fact that it exists at all is a start.

This afternoon, a friend re-tweeted a link to this article by Helen Lewis on New Statesman, which not only makes an argument about the limiting problems of hate speech, but also recaps what has been going on with Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency Kickstarter and the horrific responses to it. And yes, for those of you following along, it does get worse.

To recap. Sarkeesian put up a Kickstarter to make videos on women in videogames. It did well. It also garnered a whole mess of inappropriate and sexist comments. And then images (several of which are reproduced in the article by Lewis). We’ve also seen the fiasco involving Ryan Perez, Felicia Day, and Will Wheaton on twitter, and the response of the Tomb Raider team to rape culture. All of these things, Lewis notes, are hate speech.

Hate speech, she argues, quoting Ally Fogg, places a limitation on other people’s ability to speak:

What you fail to understand is that the use of hate speech, threats and bullying to terrify and intimidate people into silence or away from certain topics is a far bigger threat to free speech than any legal sanction.

Imagine this is not the internet but a public square. One woman stands on a soapbox and expresses an idea. She is instantly surrounded by an army of 5,000 angry people yelling the worst kind of abuse at her in an attempt to shut her up. Yes, there’s a free speech issue there. But not the one you think.

And Fogg’s point applies to anyone, in any circumstances, being silenced by hate speech, bullying, and abuse. It’s also one of the biggest problems in trying to address this form of abuse (especially online) – if the victim tries to defend him or herself, she or he is immediately inundated by comments, images, and other responses that both overwhelm whatever is being said and encourage others to not speak out in defense of their beliefs in order to avoid similar treatment. This is a huge problem. Fogg implies that the solution is legislation, but I’m not so sure. I’m also not sure that legislation isn’t the solution… this comes back to one of the biggest issues I’ve been having – what can you do about it all?

But this is not just about what we’ve already seen. What we also have now – Lewis notes – is a game that encourages players to “beat up” Sarkeesian. No, I’m not kidding. I wish I were.

A small (very very small) part of me wants to address this to that troll who suggested that games were not used for social or political commentary, as very clearly this game is being used to comment on the creator’s opinion of Sarkeesian’s project. However, the rest of me is absolutely horrified by its creation, and is further horrified by the fact that I’m sure it’s getting a lot of positive attention from people who agree with that message.

Now this is not going to be a post about violence in videogames, nor is it going to be a demonstration of hypocrisy when I say that this violence is unacceptable while other types of in-game violence are acceptable. The difference – of course – is that your average in-game violence is not directed at a specific individual. The violence in this game is entirely directed at a specific individual. Yes, there are types of in-game violence that I find problematic (beating up prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto, for instance, or violence that is directed entirely and only at a specific ethnic group). But in most other games, the violence is a vehicle, not the core point of the game (even in combat games, like Mortal Kombat, the point is not wanton violence, but the skill of combat – a competition, rather than a merciless and non-reciprocated beating).

This has moved beyond hate speech and free speech and is the digital equivalent of offering to hold someone down so that other people can – digitally and emotionally – abuse them. It has pushed past simple catharsis (which I’m guessing is how the creator would defend it) and has become an incitement to actual violence, emotional and physical, against a real human being. The complaint against in-game violence is that it can lead to actual violence, and most of the time I would argue that is preposterous. But characters are not real people: they are fictional constructs in a fictional world with a fictional narrative. Sarkeesian is not fictional, and this is not (unfortunately) a fictional narrative. She is a real person with real emotions and a real human body (and whose address has been publicized by those harassing her).

Artistic license ends where incitement to real violence begins, and as far as I’m concerned, the person who came up with the game should not only be forced to remove it and apologize to Sarkeesian, but should also be fined. While he may not have ever intended real physical harm to come to her, he is encouraging and facilitating it. Certainly not everyone who visits and plays his game would actually consider implementing violence against Sarkeesian in person, and I’m not saying that this game will make them want to, but it offers a possibility that is both real and dangerous.

And not only (although primarily) to Sarkeesian. It allows consideration of domestic, sexist abuse as “fun” in a way that I have never seen in another videogame. It glorifies the role of the abuser as righteously justified and engages in legitimizing the act of victimization as deserved. This isn’t just about free speech. It’s about taking half of the human race and authorizing them as nothing more than objects for physical, emotional, and psychological abuse.

I have no solution to this that I or anyone I know is capable of implementing. I can only hope that if enough people bring attention to it, it will be taken down and destroyed, and that it doesn’t lead to any lasting, real-world repercussions.