Note: In 2017, I changed this story to “unlisted”. That means you can see it if you have the link, but it’s not going to be promoted anywhere on Medium or shown on my profile. There are a lot of problems with this piece, but I think it would be dishonest to just erase it and pretend I never wrote it — besides, there are some platform-specific issues raised here that might become interesting to look back on as the internet continues to change. If you’re looking for a good piece of writing about how we treat each other within online communities, here are some better places to go:
- Ngọc Loan Trần (2013) Calling in: A less disposable way of holding each other accountable, Black Girl Dangerous
- Jasmine Banks (2017) Harassment vs. critique: tips on how to determine the difference, JustJasmine
A conversation is emerging among people who write about games—concerning the way that we talk to each other online, and hopes for a kinder community in the coming year. Mattie Brice, Cara Ellison, Raph Koster and Tami Baribeau have all in the space of a couple of weeks raised issues with the current state of discourse. They’re not alone: lots of people have in the past year mentioned that they are increasingly scared about contributing to discussions that they care deeply about. People have said that they do not feel safe anymore.
Good work is being held back by our own peers. Silencing happens horizontally as well as vertically. At the end of 2012 we were celebrating the great work that had been done advancing the conversation about games. Now here we are a year later, and people are describing anxiety, exhaustion and a sense of frustration. I want to draw attention to some of the patterns that I can see being highlighted in these posts, so that we can make a more concerted effort to push back against peer bullying.
Identity politics and personal conflict
I remember getting into an argument with someone, who accused me of classism. A lot of wheels turned for me because of this confrontation. The main one was my gut reaction to bring up their whiteness, to up the game, because that’s the rhetorical structure of a lot of conversations. ‘You are doing this because you’re white,’ ‘we are women but I’m a poor woman.’ It’s a spiraling fractal that makes identities into badges.
This isn’t intersectionality. We don’t truly consider our unique individuality, and how that relates to the people around us. Arguments escalate to what identities do to each other instead of what you did to me...
I’ve seen personal arguments between individuals escalate in this way many times this year. Someone is called out for a misjudgment or a bad habit, and their privilege is brought to bear as an assumed cause of the problem. This then scales the issue up, from a personal disagreement to a battleground in the fight against patriarchy and capitalism. Once the common enemy of systemic oppression is invoked, it feels natural to gang up to fight against it. This can result in individuals being targeted at a scale that is out of proportion to their own capacity to harm others or protect themselves.
We should be aware of how powerful calling out can be when even just dozens of people feel enervated to join the fight. It is appropriate and inspiring to use this power against corporations and political entities, but no ordinary person can sustain an attack like that without serious emotional harm. Any one of us could be targeted for an attack like this at some point. The perpetual risk of such an attack makes our communities unsafe.
I wish we could talk about clean fights. We should certainly hold each other accountable for our actions. We can’t examine internalised oppressive ideas without criticism. Problems happen when we make public fights that could have been handled in private, and when we bring to the fight issues that the subject has no personal control over. Criticise that person’s flaws by all means, but when we try to hold ordinary individuals accountable for historical, systemic injustices, the fight very often becomes unmanageable.
I saw that when I made what I believed to be substantive points, they usually got ignored in favor of seizing on single words or phrases that could be selectively quoted. And of course, by not participating I was simply leaving that response as the final word. I would click on a link and (I am not exaggerating here) read it and then be able to measure a 20 point rise in blood pressure with the cuff I keep by my bed. That queasy sick feeling in the middle of the chest, and how the sweat breaks out on the forehead.
It happened to me this morning. I feel it right now.
Workplace stress is caused by a combination of 1) knowing that the consequences of your actions are very significant (responsibility) and 2) knowing that your ability to affect these consequences is limited (lack of control).
For many of us, the internet is our workplace. A Twitter hiatus would be career-ending. This is the air we breathe, and it is becoming ever more toxic.
One really good way of making sure that someone has no control over the reaction to their work is to do what Raph describes here: select one word or sentence from their article for derision, often employing a different reading than that implied by the text. You can then publicly recast the entire piece in light of that one word or phrase. Depending on your influence over others, this recasting can dramatically change the way that the piece is read, to the point that people can even believe that it says the opposite of what is actually written.
Many writers are motivated by a desire for enjoyable and enlightening exchange with others. It is meaningless to advise people to stop caring what other people think. What other people think is the entire point of public discourse. Not to mention the fact that knowing people are casting you as a villain is frightening. Getting hate mail is upsetting. The consequences of publishing writing online are very significant, and when your control over those consequences is limited, it is entirely understandable that serious anxiety will result.
We have a responsibility to each other to make our workplace more safe. Nobody is in a position to assume that they won’t one day be undermined in this way; none of us are capable of writing articles that are immune to uncharitable misrepresentations of this sort.
Diversity of tactics
I’m a firm believer that if we want everyone to be on our side, to support our efforts, we aren’t going to move as quickly if we make the loudest voices the ones who harbor so much intense negativity that they become toxic to interact with. I’m tired of being afraid to hit ‘publish’ on a blog post like Raph Koster is, tired of not even writing my thoughts down in fear of what the responses might be. I’m sick of holding my tweets back because I’m so scared of what people will think of me. I can be my own person, with my own positivity about feminism in games without freaking out that I might not be radical enough, or academic enough, or critical enough.
There is a broad cultural tendency to view things in a polarised manner. We have a long history of seeing politics as a question of left to right, liberal to conservative, radical to assimilationist. One person is more or less strident than the other, who by comparison appears compromising. Behind this oversimplification, the reality is multidimensional, with different ideals and needs being considered by each person all at the same time.
Nobody benefits from a situation in which everybody is judged based on their perceived position on a sliding scale. We are all making decisions and forming ideas based on numerous different factors; how much money we need to keep ourselves and our loved ones in good health, who supports us and what kind of support do they give, what do we want to achieve creatively and how far does that align with the goals of established institutions, and so on and so on.
The most radical position possible can seem to be the one that compromises the least, and therefore pushes the hardest for change, and therefore stands by the oppressed with the most fervour and dedication. But in a multidimensional reality, something is always being compromised. When one is more interested in demonstrating the failings of others than reflecting on one’s own actions, radicalism becomes a performance of group identity, lending itself to hypocrisy and hazing.
The problem is not simply that someone might say that I am not radical enough. It is that their saying so could ruin dozens or hundreds of potential friendships, sour my online conversations for months to come, and leave me excluded from movements that claim to represent my interests.
We need to welcome a diversity of tactics. Different people will approach the same goals in different ways. That’s a good thing, and necessary if we are all going to be capable of finding ways to survive. Public shaming is holding back important work that is already under-appreciated and poorly-supported. We can help each other to move forward, or we can tear each other down until everybody is exhausted.
Issues, not people
I think a woman knows when people expect her to be aggressive or competitive towards other women, and a woman should know that is what capitalism wants and then refuse to say yes to it. Instead, to point out issues to focus on, instead of people to focus on, is something that I personally could have spent more time on. 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.
What does someone really gain when taking down an individual from within a peer group? I don’t think it aids the fight against the issues at question at all. The take down is a power grab; one person gains status at another’s expense. The result of a take down is silencing, particularly of those difficult ideas that need to be expressed with nuance and read with an open heart. In a competitive environment, we cannot even hope to have serious discussions about privilege.
I often hear people saying with reference to cruel behaviour, ‘I don’t want to criticise someone else’s coping strategies’, and at least some of the time this is misguided. Abusive coping strategies are vampiric, not to mention ineffective; surely we all want to encourage our friends to practice better self-care?
Are you talking about me or to me?
I think that it is possible to call for improved discourse without tone policing, though I don’t think it is easy. I will say this: the question of tone is somewhat different today than it was when the term ‘tone policing’ was first coined. Our discussions are largely not happening in closed settings. They are publicly viewable by all. Even when people aren’t subtweeting you, arguments automatically feel uncomfortable because someone is talking about you and to you at the same time. This means that one person’s tone will influence the feelings of hundreds of other people.
The four posts above seem to highlight prevalent social media practices that basically amount to bullying: currying disfavour against people by misrepresenting their work; constructing an artificially-competitive atmosphere; and casting people as responsible for pains that are rooted in bigger systemic issues. I think that there are other ways that peer group bullying has been manifesting as well, and identifying them is important. I hope that by the end of 2014 we will have the tools we need to spot peer group bullying more easily, the language to describe it, and explain why a particular behaviour contributes to an unsafe space.