Part Two: Silenced

12 Jul

Continuing my discussion of the Dr. Nerdlove (DN) article recent harassment of Sarkeesian which I posted on yesterday, but taking a different point…

One of the points that I think has been lost in a lot of the furor is one that DN points out fairly early… and one that I think is really quite important in this discussion as a product of misogyny (and which relates to my post on online hate speech). In essence, DN says, “This wasn’t about trying to have a reasoned, even passionate debate about her views on games, this was about telling a woman that she was not allowed to have an opinion on the matter. The mere idea that she might express an opinion about the way that women are portrayed in games is apparently so abhorrent to some people that they felt that the only appropriate way to respond was to take away her voice” (emphasis original).

If we think about it, the desire to silence Sarkeesian for something she hasn’t said yet and might not say at all (and she did note in her original Kickstarter video that she was going to talk about both the good and the bad) is worse, I think, than condemning something that she has actually said. Certainly, one can probably extrapolate what she might say from what she’s said in other “Tropes vs. Women” videos, but she hasn’t actually said anything yet.

The greatest danger of hate speech is that it produces fear – and while Sarkeesian isn’t letting it stop her from speaking out, traditions and patterns of hate-speech and bigotry in a culture do produce a culture of what amounts to silence. And silence can be a form of victimization – those who are silenced and rendered incapable of self-defense are victimized by that enforced silence. We’ve seen this in bigger, more obviously condemnable terms in gender-based crimes in other places (rape being used as a shame tactic to silence women, for example), and I would agree that addressing culturally-sanctioned violence is more important than addressing trolls on the internet. However, the types of trolls that we’re seeing in this particular incident are guilty of a degree of the same practice of cultural silencing.

Silencing someone is a way to make sure that what they have to say is unaddressed. It’s a way of devaluing their opinion and their overall worth. It’s a way to remove the issue from the spotlight and make sure that others not only do not seek to change the status quo, but that they do not realize there is even a status quo that needs changing. If we do not talk about the misogyny inherent in geek culture (to say nothing of culture in general), then it does not exist. It’s a childish response (hide under the covers and the monster can’t see me because I can’t see it) being enacted by adults whose ability to render harm is made greater by their apparent (although clearly not actual) maturity.

DN makes a distinction between “trolls” (as people who just want to be rude and shocking, to “get a rise” out of others) and “haters” (whose personal vendetta against someone or something – here, Sarkeesian – is specific and more potentially harmful). I would argue that, based on these definitions, both trolls and haters are a problem, but of a different kind. Trolls are problematic because their noise and flung-feces obscure the issue by drowning it out (a form of silencing). Haters are problematic because their vitriol is much more specifically harmful and deliberate. Haters want to silence this person on this subject, and are generally going to be the more misogynist of the two. Trolls will say misogynist things, but they may or may not really mean them.

Both perpetuate a culture of misogyny within geekdom, gaming, and the internet generally, but one (as I discussed earlier) is a part of a generalized culture that intends on real harm, despite the fact that it contributes to a general sense of acceptance for such an attitude. The other is directly abusive, emotionally and psychologically, and is a deliberate assault on an individual or group. Trolls create unintentional victims; haters deliberately victimize.

As I said yesterday, I’m not sure whether self-policing or organizational regulation is the right answer… what I’d really like to see is the development of a culture in which both hating and trolling is unacceptable, and not because someone will turn off your XBL account because you’ve done it.