A lot of angry voices took to Twitter last week when Johnathan “Gabe” Gabriel (a.k.a. Mike Krahulik) of Penny Arcade dropped this tweet.

“heads up if you use the word ‘cis’ save yourself some time and don’t bother tweeting at me.”

”Cis”, if you’re not familiar, is short for “cisgender.” It describes an individual whose gender identity (I see myself as a man) matches their biological sex (I have a penis). It’s the complement to transgender, in which a person identifies as a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth.

Gabe’s negativity toward the term “cis” and the people that use it may not look particularly aggressive, but a community’s vocabulary is an important thing. In this case, “cis” and “trans” are words that trans individuals and their allies use to discuss their very identities.

It should come as no surprise that people didn’t take kindly to Gabe’s words. He follows up with:

“love the death threats. I think women have vaginas I think you call a person with a vagina a woman. more death threats please.”

Gabe had been bombarded with tweets that expressed anger, insult, disappointment, and yes, the assertion that “he should die”. Much of the meta-conversation revolved around these insults and their validity, but the entire event was example of something much larger: Twitter had helped a vocal minority become very loud. More importantly, as the tweets flooded in, that minority appeared very large.

“Mass Minority” and the erasure of marginalization

Community reactions on the internet have introduced a phenomenon which we, as a society, haven’t had to consider until now. Particularly on Twitter, where half a billion users are all highly connected on a communication platform, small groups can look large.

For the first time, we are seeing reactions and collective outcry from a mass minority: large in number, but still a fraction of the general population. By appearing so large on Twitter and other forms of social media, the marginalized nature of a community gets scrubbed away. Our perception of conversations like the one Gabe kicked off becomes grossly altered: the minority group doesn’t look like a minority at all, but a community on equal footing with the majority.

When David and Goliath switch places

The responses to Gabe’s original tweet were almost universally negative. The general public is unfamiliar with the term “cis”, and when it was used in an insult it served as a call to action for those that did recognize it. Specifically, the trans community. As the number of angry responses grew, it didn’t look like trans people and their allies were of equal size to the “dominant majority” — they looked bigger.

Situations like these are dangerous for discourse. It appears the power balance has shifted — thousands of angry voices against the voice of one individual. However those thousands of voices are part of a minority that still represents a sliver of our population. The power dynamics haven’t shifted, but it looks like they have.

When this happens it becomes exceptionally easy for the dominant majority to argue they are being persecuted. First, because dominant systems are not prone to introspection, and thus rarely aware of their own size and power. Second, because Twitter, as a platform designed to propagate information through networks of individuals, can mobilize very large numbers of people in a community even if that community is still exceptionally small within the general population.

In the process, the majority’s perception of the conversation shifts through three phases:

  1. Before any discussion of the conversation starts, we can describe the event as it is: someone of the dominant majority said something hurtful to a marginalized group
  2. As the outcry of the “mass minority” grows, it starts being viewed as: someone of one community said something hurtful to another community of similar size and power
  3. Finally, as voices in the mass minority exceed those from the dominant majority, the most dramatic reinterpretation occurs: someone of a minority group said something hurtful to a vocal majority

That’s when you get defensive comments like these, which appeared in my own social networks:

“Social justice and the extreme elements are why I left Tumblr despite having just shy of 200 very ardent and active followers . . . any time I tried to be rational and discuss these matters to perhaps learn and grow, I was myself insulted and degraded.”
“First off, attempting to educate and then telling someone “no fuck off” when they ask questions to catch up is fucking stupid.”
“the more I see this stuff the less convinced I am that the solution to social justice problems is ‘yell and call people shitstains.’“

Something important has happened: in the last phase the power dynamics of the two groups have completely swapped. The aggressor takes on the role of a victim. By claiming victimization, the dominant group is able to abdicate their responsibility to engage in the discourse, silencing the minority’s protest in the process.

Dominant majorities and the dangers of amplification

Visitors to Reddit’s “/r/mensrights” community are likely familiar with the victimization complex adopted by many members of the dominant male majority. A dominant group unaware of their own power and privilege is dangerous, but a dominant group who believe themselves to be oppressed is even more so.

A dominant group unaware of their own power and privilege is dangerous, but a dominant group who believe themselves to be oppressed is even more so.

Power dynamics and their effect on society is not a new area of discussion, but the amplification effect Twitter (and the internet at large) creates is. While such amplification can help a marginalized group be heard, it comes with a price. It becomes easy for members of the dominant majority to strike out against marginalized groups, believing themselves to be members of a minority. They find themselves part of a collective fight-the-power fantasy in which Goliath thinks he is David.

Taking the time to listen

Not every person on the internet struck out in anger that day. Gabe’s friend Sophie wrote him a letter. She didn’t say she wanted him to die, she didn’t tell him his opinion was wrong, but she did tell Gabe that she was really, really hurt and wanted him to know why.

It is absolutely vital that we recognize the courage Sophie’s act represents. Responding to pain with anger isn’t a trait that belongs to a minority group, it’s a natural response that belongs to humanity. To swallow that anger, and take the time to educate the person that has hurt us takes more than courage; it takes strength.

And Gabe deserves credit for listening. He didn’t dig in and continue the fight. He stopped, he considered Sophie’s words, and he responded.

I’m very good at being a jerk. It’s sort if [sic] my superpower. When it comes to Penny Arcade it has served me well but it’s not okay when I make a bunch of people who are already marginalized feel like shit.

I’m not here to tell you that Gabe was able to do a 180° and become a champion of social justice, but Gabe did gain awareness of a group that first had been invisible to him. Crucially, he abandoned his victim status and recognized that his tweet had been a hurtful act against a marginalized group.

Together, Gabe and Sophie were able to back out of the successive layers of misinterpretation the conflict had gone through. They were able to return to how this all started: Gabe said something that hurt a group of people that face marginalization every day, and they responded with anger.

The Responsibilities of a Dominant System

…the dominant group is rarely challenged to even think about its dominance, because that’s one of the key characteristics of power and privilege, the ability to go unexamined, lack in introspection, in fact being rendered invisible in large measure in the discourse about issues that are primarily about us. — Jackson Katz

Gabe, and myself, represent the most dominant group of all: white, straight men. We don’t have to deal with discrimination, people questioning our gender (if we’re “cis”), or violence committed against us on a day-to-day basis. Minority communities do.

And as members of the dominant group, we rarely self-examine. Our society views us as the norm from which minority communities “deviate”. Nothing compels us to compare ourselves to others, or even become aware of them. Nothing, that is, until conflict occurs.

If Gabe had made his comment walking down the street, the odds that he would have hurt someone’s feelings are low, and the odds that they would have responded are even lower.

But he wasn’t walking down the street, he was on a Twitter account followed by 100,000 people. When you account for the re-tweets of his followers, and their followers, the exponential reach of his insult is enormous. As a result, a community he’d given very little thought to suddenly appeared and started reacting via Twitter, blogs and email.

It is this precise moment that members of any dominant group need to pause and take a breath. We’ve caused offense, and the streams of tweets might make us feel small in the face of so much anger, but measuring the size and power of a community in tweets ignores reality.

We need to consider our position in relation to the offended party not on the internet, but in the world. We need to acknowledge the pressures they’re under, the challenges they face, and the privileges we are afforded. In the process we may discover we are the Goliath after all, and that it’s time for us to stop talking and listen.