The Normalization of Rape Threats and Death Threats

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The only guide to Gamergate you will ever need to read (Washington Post)
Why #Gamergate won’t die (CNN.com)

There’s nothing like stating opinions online to show you the problems of socializing on the Internet. A little over two decades ago, shortly after I first got regular Internet access when I went to college for the first time, I got involved in professional wrestling discussions online because I’d never had a real-life group of friends to talk about wrestling with. One thing led to another, and I ended up launching a series of different wrestling-themed websites, and even wrote about wrestling for CBS SportsLine for a while. I never liked professional wrestling that much, though — not for the absurd amount of time I was devoting to it, at the expense of other things that I actually wanted to do — and it’s now been close to fourteen years since I left that scene for good. (Whatever appreciation I had left for professional wrestling evaporated to almost nothing in a short amount of time, and the Chris Benoit tragedy nailed that coffin shut forever.)

A good part of the reason I left when I did was because of the insane amount of harassment I was receiving. To be fair, I said and did a number of intensely stupid things back then that I deserved to be called out on, but a lot of this harassment wasn’t based on the dumb stuff I did, but simply because I dared to have a different opinion than others about what professional wrestlers or promotions were good. In some cases this harassment extended to phone calls and threats to come over to my house. Nearly fourteen years after making a permanent exit from online discussions of professional wrestling I am still getting troll emails, some from people who’ve been regularly or semi-regularly harassing me all this time, others from new people who just decided to give me a hard time even though they never read what I wrote back in the day, presumably because they have nothing better to do with their lives.

I don’t think I can truly sympathize with Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, and the countless other women who have been harassed recently over their involvement with video games, simply because the harassment I’ve received over the years has never been so systematized and virulent as what has happened to women in video games lately. What I can say, though, based on not just personal experience but also what I’ve seen others go through, is that no one deserves rape threats or death threats for daring to voice an opinion, no matter how incorrect or ludicrous anyone considers that opinion to be. There is a lot to be said about the gendered aspects of video games and gaming culture, and the controversies of the past year have opened up a number of necessary dialogues relevant to those issues. What isn’t being discussed nearly as much as it should be is how the use of rape threats and death threats towards women in video games/gaming (or those who defend them) has become systematized, widespread and, in the absence of substantial mainstream media scrutiny, effectively condoned by society.

To be clear, the problem of unbalanced people making rape and death threats is hardly a new one (I received my first death threat before I even hit puberty), and it’s hardly confined to just the Gamergate crowd and their intellectual ilk. All kinds of people make death threats, and all kinds of people should receive them, and they should never be tolerated regardless of who makes or receives them. Although it’s true that the current wave of violent harassment towards women must be contextualized in our cultural history and the still-present aspects of our culture that devalue women’s experiences, a lot of the same principles would be at work here if it were conservatives being harassed for criticizing liberal philosophy, or Christians being harassed for criticizing rap music, or African-Americans being harassed for criticizing the taste of yerba mate, or left-handed people criticizing the furniture offerings at their local office supply store. Under no circumstances should rape and death threats be permissible, and I encourage all those who have received them for merely expressing an opinion to speak out against this kind of treatment, because no one deserves it.

That being said, it’s hard to divorce the current epidemic of rape and death threats to women from its similarities to a lot of the rhetoric used by some conservatives today. The devaluing of women’s experiences — simply stating that women’s opinions and feelings don’t count because they’re women (or at least women who deviate from the conservative patriarchal norms for how women should think and act) — has gone on for ages, and the sad fact is that Gamergate-like intimidation campaigns to silence women through rape and death threats are nothing new; it’s only Gamergate’s size, visibility and brazenness that makes it so noteworthy right now. The false equivalency of the “threats” posed by Sarkeesian and Quinn and Wu for expressing their opinions or developing games that depart from the norms of video gaming offerings — by overinflating the possibility that their work will somehow result in an end to “man-friendly” games or even people coming into their homes and taking away games that they already own (and absurdly asserting that this is something Sarkeesian et al. are trying to do with their work) — with rape and death threats is an echo of how right-wing media has resounded with doomsday proclamations for every single policy President Obama has put forth in the past six years. (The correlation between “They’re coming to take our games!” and “They’re coming to take our guns!” would be funny if it weren’t so sad.)

Just like the heart of conservatives’ fever dream about the Benghazi attacks has been debunked for a long time, the key “fact” behind Gamergate — that Zoe Quinn allegedly slept with a video game reporter to get a favourable review for her game Depression Quest — was put to bed, definitively, weeks ago. Gamergaters still hold that Quinn must have slept with men to get any attention (because, according to them — and this is one of the kindest ways of putting it — all women are sluts), though, and so even provably false claims are still put forward as gospel truth, and words like Gamergate, and related words and terms like Quinn’s and Sarkeesian’s and Wu’s names, and the name of Quinn’s game, and the descriptor “social justice warrior,” are repeated ad nauseum to get Gamergaters fired up. It’s practically identical to the way right-wing media works the word “Benghazi” into every possible discussion, because they’ve trained their listeners and viewers to respond to the word with hatred bordering on bloodlust of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for allegedly laughing and celebrating while innocent Americans were murdered.

There is a lot to say for the actual substance of the arguments within Gamergate, and it’s been a good topic for discussion with my composition students this year, especially a new class I’m helping pilot that focuses on topics of gender and sexuality. More is being written and spoken about this topic as the weeks go on, and I may yet have more to say about the issue on this blog. Looking at the issue as a teacher of composition and rhetoric, though, I can’t help but be afraid about what this kind of mass intimidation campaign in a field that many young adults pay close attention to augurs not just for teaching rhetoric, but for the classroom environment (and broader social environments) that people live and work in. Teaching rhetoric is already made incredibly difficult when students come to college without previous training in formulating and expressing opinions (and from school environments that actively discourage student expression), and the American political “debate” they may have been exposed to on television is often little more than a glorified contest of who can come up with the most audacious ad hominem attack, but to ask students to formulate and express opinions, when doing so has made so many the targets of sustained campaigns of rape and death threats, may well be an impossible task.

Of all the shocking things that have been said to and about Sarkeesian and Quinn and Wu, what shocks me even more is that there has yet to be a single publicized arrest over the rape and death threats. Perhaps there have been arrests and they haven’t been made public for fear of inspiring copycat attacks, but the ideology behind that line of reasoning is undermined when the attacks are already so well-publicized (and outright celebrated). As long as the people making these rape and death threats continue to receive no significant form of sanction for their actions (even though mainstream coverage of this issue has picked up in recent days, the reports tend to understate the extent and fierceness of the intimidation campaigns), more people are going to join in harassing women in video games because no one has faced any real consequences for doing so. These kind of open harassment campaigns are likely to spread to other topics as well, until and unless the government and law enforcement act; if law enforcement lacks the resources to enforce the laws against menacing already on the books, then they need to get those resources as quickly as possible.

Right-wingers have already succeeded over the past few decades in redefining the cultural concept of “debate” in ways that have grievously harmed our country, perhaps irreparably so. If we are going to allow, through our lack of action,  rape and death threats to become a de facto acceptable way of silencing those we disagree with, then we may be a very short ways away from descending back to our simian ancestors and settling our arguments by flinging poop at one another. Come to think of it, that may actually be an improvement over the current state of affairs.

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