How GamerGate has weaponized Social Justice rhetoric to advance its own agenda
The muddle of politics and outrage we now know as “Gamergate” was birthed over two months ago when Eron Gjoni first published “the Zoepost,” his deeply controversial enumeration of Zoe Quinn’s supposed misdeeds. At the very top of the post, under the heading “Why Does This Exist?”, Gjoni attempts to justify his actions by linking to a video series made by Philip Wythe, a self-identified social justice activist and abuse survivor who has been waging an aggressive campaign within various spheres to label Zoe Quinn an “abuser.” Wythe’s work has received surprisingly little examination. Part of that is probably due to the fact that each video is close to an hour long. Part of it is probably due to many people’s understandable hesitancy when it comes to questioning abuse allegations made by an abuse survivor. But given the visibility of Wythe’s work at the top of the Zoepost and how widely it has been used to disseminate and support Gjoni’s talking points, it’s important to examine the serious accusations that Wythe has spent the last two months levelling against Quinn, and the role Wythe has played in excusing and enabling Gjoni’s actions.
At the outset, it’s crucial to understand Gjoni’s intentions. The Zoepost wasn’t simply placed on his blog for the world to read. Gjoni has spoken at length about how he wanted to get his message out, what communities he wanted to target, precisely how memetic his “Five Guys” joke would be, and what he’d have to do to manage the response. His writing evolved through multiple drafts, edited for both readability and impact. The Zoepost was not a cri de coeur mistakenly posted in the wrong communities, it was a polished media release with a hand-picked target audience. Gjoni was aware of what could happen, of the harassment and anger and backlash that it could and would provoke. He enlisted his friends and, in his own words, “spen[t] weeks making flowcharts and discussing probabilities”. At the end of these weeks, Gjoni came to the conclusion that hurting others was considered totally acceptable in order to further his own image and goals. Or, to once again use Gjoni’s own words:
the probabilistic risk she posed to those around her was greater than the probabilistic risk posed by the situation turning toxic. The deontological problem of a false idol struck us as more grievous than the deontological problem of potential for a false idol to be harassed.
Moderators of the forums where Gjoni initially published the Zoepost quickly removed it. Conversation ended up migrating to 4chan which, for a time, was one of the only forums that would permit discussion of the material. Gjoni quickly showed up in the IRC channel related to the post (#burgersandfries) that had already become instrumental in fomenting and coordinating harassment campaigns against Quinn. He did a series of interviews across various parts of the internet (IRC, Reddit, and several more traditional media outlets). While it’s true that he has always spoken out against harassment, the anti-harassment statement on the Zoepost oddly claims that it’s “not in anybody’s best interest.” This statement is clarified on the post’s “About” page where he states that
Harassment increases her exposure every single time it happens. When she gets harassed (and she shouldn’t be getting harassed, stop doing that), the media covers it, and people hear about her. Her twitter follower counts go up (in the case of this particular harassment episode [I think this is her fourth?] they went from 18.8k to 23k) and patreon support flows in.
The bracketed statement, which is part of Gjoni’s original quote, shows that Gjoni was well aware that Quinn was already a target of harassment when he decided to make the Zoepost.
Moreover, Gjoni’s words betray a cold pragmatism. Nowhere is it suggested that harassment is wrong, only that it’s tactically unsound in the context of his mission. Indeed, Gjoni has repeatedly spoken of this entire affair in the context of a “war” and referencing his “goals.” He’s graded both sides on how well they’ve followed Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals and drawn up a chart. He claims that his “relationship with Zoe was such that large scale internet warfare was inevitable. I think, deep down, we both knew that.” And right now he is attempting to command his side in that war. Harassment and online bullying are far from the only ways to cause harm, and Gjoni’s tepid condemnation of those tactics does not absolve him of malicious intent. To this day, Gjoni is extremely prickly when confronted about the issue of the harassment he kicked off. In response to being asked if he had any regrets he blithely quips:
He actively downplays the scale of harassment, claiming “The scale is actually not that large. And gender doesn’t seem to be what sets off those harassment bouts, political ideology does.” Writers please take note: the best antagonists aren’t one-dimensional, mustache-twirling, evil-for-its-own-sake villains — they’re human beings who genuinely think they’re doing good and noble works and who see negative consequences as either unavoidable sacrifices or the fault of others misunderstanding them.
Any claim to good intentions Gjoni might have rests on the narrative championed by Wythe in their videos, namely that Quinn is an abuser who Gjoni is courageously calling out as a public service. Wythe claims to have done extensive “research” with Gjoni and others before posting the videos — which, it is worth noting, originated as Gjoni’s suggestion — but never claims to have reached out to Quinn for her comments on the subject. There are several important points to touch on in relation to these videos. First, there’s no pretense of impartiality. Taken together, the videos amount to nearly two hours of Wythe poring over chatlogs between Quinn and Gjoni and offering a single-minded attack on Quinn’s behavior with no caveats, counterarguments or auto-critique. Statements made by Quinn in the format “When you did X, I felt Y” are held up by Wythe as the blame-shifting of a predatory abuser (they found 47 instances of “blame-shifting” like this). A simple statement of “ugh I have a meeting in 30 minutes” is claimed to be Quinn manipulating and guilt-tripping Gjoni. Wythe repeatedly lists the precise number of instances of purported abuse in the logs in an attempt to Gish gallop their way to authority on the topic. This sort of paint-by-numbers, how-many-points-did-you-score-on-the-Facebook-quiz, “I can tell by the pixels” internet diagnosis trivializes abuse.
Second, the phrasing Wythe directs at Quinn is insensitive to say the least. Throughout the videos, Wythe repeatedly and aggressively accuses Quinn of being “too emotional” and needing to “take responsibility for and own her emotions”. Shaming women by painting them as overly emotional is one of the most common methods used to silence them. Singling out Quinn and spending almost two hours going through her communications in order to repeatedly berate her for being “emotionally out-of-control” comes off as bizarre and predatory. It definitely doesn’t resemble any kind of balanced discussion of emotional abuse.
Finally, while Wythe is quick to mention their own status as an abuse survivor, they completely gloss over Quinn’s history with abuse and mental illness, despite the fact that these issues are repeatedly discussed in the logs being analyzed. One might imagine that this would be important to discuss as a complicating factor, but it’s disregarded in favor of further direct attack on Quinn.
To be clear, these logs contain two people’s (formerly) private conversations from times of emotional distress. There’s guaranteed to be a lot of stuff in there from both sides that is caustic, contentious, and shitty. They do not depict either party’s finest moments and there are surely many valid criticisms that can be leveled against both of their behaviors. It is not my intention to claim the authority to judge the source material. However, the context and content of Wythe’s videos wrongly asserts that very authority by relentlessly attacking Quinn’s behavior and completely overlooking Gjoni’s own questionable actions. Bear in mind that these logs were hand-picked by Gjoni, and while there is no evidence that he altered them (save the clearly designated censored segments) they were still chosen by him to provide maximum support for his arguments. And even within these selective excerpts, there are plenty of examples of Gjoni speaking and behaving in ways that are quite alarming. Namely:
- Idealizing Quinn and fixating on her ideological purity — placing one’s partner on a pedestal
- Repeated stonewalling and emotional withdrawal, demanding that Quinn “prove herself”
- Direct verbal statements of “you’re lying” and demands that Quinn “tell the whole truth” when her responses were insufficient
- His ever-growing fixation with gaining access to and preventing any ‘censorship’ of Quinn’s personal communications — demanding passwords for Quinn’s email and social media accounts
Recently Wythe published an article entitled “Harassment, Abuse, and Apologism: Sanitizing Abuse in Social Justice Spheres.” The piece presents itself as a high-minded call to action, claiming that social justice communities have a problem with enabling abusers. But upon further inspection, it is a repackaging and continuation of the author’s relentless focus on Quinn. Wythe, on Gjoni’s behalf, has attempted to use a tone of concern for the SJ community in order to further advance their own narrative. For example, Wythe claims that Quinn “sidestepped the abuse allegations” and “falsely implie[d] that Gjoni was responsible for the sexual harassment that followed her public outing.” This is a bit of an odd and McCarthy-ian view of the situation. Quinn’s response post DID address the abuse allegations, just not in a way that Wythe finds satisfying:
The idea that I am required to debunk a manifesto of my sexual past written by an openly malicious ex-boyfriend in order to continue participating in this industry is horrifying, and I won’t do it. It’s a personal matter that never should have been made public, and I don’t want to delve into personal shit, mine or anyone else’s, while saying that people’s love and sex lives are no one’s business. I’m not going to talk about it. I will never talk about it. It is not your goddamned business.
Whatever the truth of this matter might be, Quinn has every right to defend her privacy and refuse to comment on personal matters in a public sphere. We do not live in some sort of dystopian panopticon where any personal accusation can be dragged into a public forum and compel the accused to bare their personal life and relationships for the mob to judge.
However, in this case, Wythe argues that it is justified because, as an abuse survivor, they “must know who Zoe is and whether her actions are abusive…[abuse survivors] have an obligation to know if a public figure in an extremely accessible industry…is abusive towards others.” They label Quinn as dangerous because “she is extremely approachable, down to her own internet accounts on places like twitter & OKCupid, and there is good reason to believe that she can be a hurtful person.” Wythe believes that it’s “important to realize that the Zoepost has content that is not just personal information, but information that represents a cycle of abuse that is continuously in motion” and that “by hiding this cycle from the public, it gives the abuser strength to lure vulnerable people and attack again. Which, based on Zoe’s history using OKCupid and other public avenues to meet others, is very concerning.” Aside from the tenuous assertion that using Twitter and OKCupid constitute some kind of threat to the public, Wythe attempts to use the idea that “people…have the right to know if [a] person has an abusive past” to justify what turns out to be a rather Orwellian doctrine. An accusation of abuse is all the justification necessary to compel the accused to reveal and justify their private lives. To Wythe, Quinn’s claims of privacy are an irrelevant obstruction to a justified crusade.
This position becomes a little easier to understand when one considers Wythe’s perspective regarding social justice spaces in general. In the article, Wythe bemoans the fact that “for a middle-class, able-bodied, and college-educated individual, the entry barrier for joining a social justice community is very low.” They continue onwards to breathlessly humblebrag about how positively their activities have allowed them to present themselves to their community, and express a distinct fear that others might just be….faking it. Wythe worries that “we often let the wrong people in,” that “our middle-class, able-bodied, college-educated entry level requirements are so basic to social justice’s privileged masses, to the point where introductory knowledge is seen as a sign of severe compassion” and that these spaces “often operate with massive power vacuums in the center that can be easily exploited by outsiders looking for control.” Wythe conceives of participants in social justice spaces as homogenized and divided into two roles: the truly compassionate who participate out of purity of heart (and therefore have nothing to hide), and the interlopers who are feigning positive beliefs in order to usurp and destroy the community (and therefore must be found out!).
Wythe attempts to use this simplistic image of the community to condemn Quinn, claiming that any shortcomings she might exhibit in her personal life indicate her impurity and justify (necessitate, even!) her eviction. But the idea that “the mere evidence of Quinn’s abusive relationship shatters her work completely” is naive and reductionist. It’s entirely possible for a person to perform good works and help others while still exhibiting problematic or destructive behaviors. Wythe’s inability or unwillingness to recognize this stands in stark contrast to the virtues of empathy and compassion they hold up as integral to activism.
One would think it would be difficult to find much fault with an article advocating that social justice spaces be responsible in policing themselves. But in the context of Wythe’s close association with Gjoni and GamerGate, their article becomes something of a self-indictment. Can Wythe in good faith accuse social justice spaces of “sanitizing” abuse performed by community figures in an article that devotes a good chunk of text to whitewashing the actions of Gjoni, a close personal associate? Is it appropriate to wave the banner of intersectionality over a narrative that reduces a complex interaction to the single axis of abuse while ignoring all of the other power dynamics in play? Wythe attempts to hit all the required talking points while presenting themselves as detached and above-the-fray, but their work is an insidious repackaging of a simple thesis: “Gjoni is an entirely blameless victim of abuse, and social justice communities that question this narrative are enabling abusers.” Are we really buying that?