Sunday, July 8, 2012

On "Welcome to the Internet"

I interrupt the regularly scheduled (linguistics/data/stats) programming to bring you a special message about a topic which has been really bothering me. This blog is my primary venue for writing publicaly about anything, so even though Anita Sarkeesian's project on Tropes vs. Women in Video Games doesn't fit into any of my usual topics, I'm going to write about it here.

I think most people will have heard about what's going on here. Anita Sarkeesian puts together an excellent video series called Feminist Frequency which offers accesible feminist critiques of movies, TV shows, etc. She set up a Kickstarter project to help fund research and production of a new video series called Tropes vs. Women in Video Grames. The project was a great success, raising over 26x the original goal, but the backlash from people on the internet has been really vile. You can look over a summary of links about the issue here.

I'm not writing about how vile I think the backlash is. Instead I'm writing about how much some people's reactions to the backlash have bothered me. I've read some of these online, and had them come up in conversation. They fall into a few categories.

"We can disagree without being disagreeable"

I have not heard one person in a respectable forum defend the backlash against Sarkeesian. However, I have heard a lot of "you might disagree with what she says, but you can do so in a civil manner." But at this moment, nobody can disagree with what Sarkeesian says, because she has not, in fact, said it yet. The whole backlash is not against what she said about misogyny in video games, but rather against her stated intention to say anything about misogyny in video games. What we are looking at is simply unvarnished hatred, and its exponents cannot make pretentions to having intellectual differences of opinions. That would require careful consideration of Sarkeesian's points, which again, is impossible, because she hasn't even had the opportunity to put them forward yet.

"Welcome to the internet"

I've heard more than one person say "welcome to the internet" about the harassment Sarkeesian is experiencing. As if what is happening to her just happens to everybody. A porn bot following you on twitter is a "welcome to the internet" moment. A spam comment on your blog including links to purportedly cheap viagra is a "welcome to the internet" moment. What we're observing with this backlash is not a "welcome to the internet" moment.

Even if we limit the discussion to the trolling comments on her blog and YouTube pages, the magnitude and intensity of the comments are already far beyond the average person's experience. And as Jay Smooth pointed out, it's also the case that members of marginalized groups tend to have a much worse experience with trolling like this. So this isn't just your plain vanilla internet, it's one that is especially bad for for people who are already marginalized IRL.

But we can't really limit the discussion to high volume trollish comments. We have to also bring in the vandalism of her Wikipedia page, which included adding a lot of porn. We also have to bring in the meme-ification of her image with the goal of specifically attacking her in specifically sexual ways. We need to bring in the fact that people are sending her explicit threats of rape and violence. And we also need to bring in the creation of a flash game that invited the player to beat Sarkeesian's face in. This last one is especially disturbing to me, because I've been reading a lot of guys talking about how much they want to hit her. To quote YouTuber MundaneMatt (linked here just to provide substantiating evidence, I wouldn't advise visiting it):
She's got those eyes that make you just want to punch her in the face.
And to quote a user's review on Destructoid of the flash game (I'm not even linking to it this time):
The voice acting isn’t the best at riling up the player, especially as her videos do this quickly anyway.
We are far far outside the realm of "welcome to the internet" and deep into the very dark, very real topic of silencing women with rape and violence.

And of course, there's the internet vigilantism. Her site has been DDoS-ed, there have been attempted hacks of her e-mail and various social networks, and she's been dox-ed (her personal address and telephone number posted online). This is the kind of treatment reserved for people dubbed villains by the internet. It is more than atypical, it is specifically reserved for the worst of the worst. By no means is it "welcome to the internet." And what did she do worthy of being treated like such a villain?

I think it is justified, given the evidence, to say that what is happening to Anita Sarkeesian is uniquely bad, and it is happening to her because she is a woman.

The Mos Eisley Gambit

Closely related to "welcome to the internet" is the Mos Eisley Gambit, which is simply stating that on the internet at large (and in YouTube comments specifically) "you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy." This more and more easily believable the more you read about the Sarkeesian backlash.

But, I'm sorry, don't a lot of the same people who deploy the Mos Eisley Gambit also have a lot to say about how the internet is the future of free and open discourse? Wasn't there a whole collective kumbaya moment just a few months ago where "the internet defeated SOPA"? Wasn't the whole SOPA thing a backlash against the possibility government censorship? Isn't the goal of the backlash against Sarkeesian to censor her? You can't have it both ways. You can't go around hailing the internet as a revolutionary space for free communication (a human right even) that must be protected at all costs, and be so flip about what's happening to Sarkeesian.

And what's more, the residents of this hive of scum and villainy don't actually live in the internet. The trolls, vandals and harrasers are not internet pixies, they are real actual people. The images of Sarkeesian's likeness being raped by video game characters didn't just pop into existence of their own accord. A person, someone's next door neighbor, son, brother, sat down and spent time drawing the damn thing, and e-mailed it to her. The hive of scum and villainy is actually the real world we're all living in, and it's just reflected in the internet. Trolls are people too, and that's exactly the problem. You don't get away from the racist YouTube commenters by going outside, you ride the bus with them. Which is why, I think, hateful trolling is a worthwhile thing to worry about. It's not just about silly things that happen on the internet. It's about the attitudes and actions of real people who we all interact with every day.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I agree with just about everything you said. I don't understand how anyone can defend or even excuse the backlash. Even if you somehow believe there is no misogyny in video games, or that it isn't a problem, the threats of violence should still be disturbing.


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