Extremism and Other Profanities

[Update: it seems I’ve somehow accidentally accessed the Zeitgeist. No more fashionable non-contemporaneity for me! For comparison, here are two good articles with a similar take.]

Recently, Twitter and the gaming press are awash with anger and contempt. Faced with a torrent of trolling, threats and abuse amidst a witch-hunt in the name of ‘journalistic integrity’, angry or exasperated commentators have responded to the sundry misogynists, trolls, and bright-eyed far-rightists responsible for ‘gamergate’ and similar assaults on humanity in general and women in games in particular with a familiar set of labels. I’m thinking here of the ‘nerds’, ‘neckbeards’, ‘basement dwellers’, ‘dudebros’, ‘fedoras’, ‘degenerates’, ‘clueless teenagers’, ‘insane’ and ‘extremists’. (I have decided not to provide links, partly because these terms are diffuse and pervasive and it would be unfair to call people out, and partly in order to spare those involved further unwanted attention)

Reaching for these terms is an old and common habit — I’m certainly not innocent — but it is a mistake, or at least a problem. The prevalence of these easy, mutually exclusive labels reveals a lack of analysis and a lack of agreement on what the problem actually is.

It is by definition impossible, unfortunately, to know anything about the demographic situation of anonymous internet trolls. Anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that the stereotypes of an angry teenager or basement-dwelling comic-book-guy are not sufficiently encompassing. The trolls may (or may not) wear fedoras and neckbeards, but there is plenty of reason to think that some of the most vocal critics of ‘political correctness’ in the games media are perfectly respectable middle class people. Not only do many of the anonymous abusers and bemoaners of ‘corruption’ claim to occupy important positions in AAA development studios, but evidence of sexism and sexual harassment within the industry has been piling up for years. There is no excuse at this point for blaming it all on a mythical race of basement dwellers.

Nor are the people responsible for ‘gamergate’ operating in a vacuum. When you have an influential person like Richard Dawkins repeatedly spouting sexist nonsense (among other things), it should come as no surprise when some cretinous ‘sceptics’ are drawn to attack women in games.

Put simply: we do not really know how marginal the trolls are, but it is clear that they draw on deeper social and ideological currents than a group of isolated and incompetent nerds.

Then there is the term ‘extremist’. This is a dangerous and misleading word and I will never use it in earnest. Here is one illustration of why: when Anders Breivik massacred a group of children in an explicitly politically motivated crime which he justified by drawing on the islamophobic and anti-multiculturalist ideologies of mainstream right-wing press, here is how Human Rights Watch responded:

The failure of leadership and negative rhetoric by European governments is connected to a third worrying trend: the rise of populist extremist parties.

The terrorist act in July 2011 by Anders Breivik that left 77 Norwegians dead was a stark reminder that extremism and political violence are not confined to those acting in the name of Islam. Breivik’s twisted manifesto cited with approval populist extremist parties across Europe, though the decision to engage in terrorism was his alone.

[…] There is always a risk in a democracy that without responsible leadership the majority will support measures that harm the interests of the minority. This dilemma helps explain why human rights protections, which are designed in part to protect against “tyranny of the majority,” are more essential than ever. It is particularly alarming then that Europe’s human rights tools and institutions are proving ineffective in tackling these negative trends.

How is it possible to be both populist and extremist? How, by definition, can ‘democracy’ lead to ‘extremism’? What was needed here was a theory of populism and a willingness to confront the ceaseless discharge of respectable centre-right intellectuals. Instead, HRW obfuscated the issue by replacing politics with technocratic ‘neutrality’, letting the establishment ideologues who inspired Breivik off the hook, and the term that performed the heavy lifting here was – extremism.

It is interesting to note that Breivik’s ideological commitments were intermeshed with a fantasy world centred around World of Warcraft and comics. In fact, his plan originally involved the physical manifestation of his fantasy persona, the ‘Justiciar Knight’, complete with a custom suit of kevlar armour and attached gadget weapons, the better to battle the forces of evil. In the event, Breivik’s ‘uniform’ included Black & Decker countersink bits attached to his boots as ‘combat spurs’. Games and everything else are shot through with one another.

[Aarge Borchgrevink, A Norwegian Tragedy: Anders Behring Breivik and the Massacre on Utøya (Polity/Malden, 2013), pp. 168-70. Borchgrevink, by the way, performs the same stunt as HRW, invoking Buruma and Margalit’s execrable Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies by way of associating all politics outside of the Western mainstream – left, right, or other – with ‘extremism’. B & M actually go further, treating all opposition of US imperialism as a dangerous irrational pathology.]

I hope this little excursus has made it clear that the word ‘extremism’ is a double-edged sword. People who think of themselves as ‘progressives’, of whatever stripe, might be well-advised to avoid complicity in any process of policing the boundaries of what includes ‘normal’ political discourse. This does not mean tolerating trolls and bigots – it does mean acknowledging they exist and are part of larger, productive social processes which, if they have been consigned to the dustbin of history, refuse to go down quietly – this is part of what I was trying to get at with my previous post on this topic.

There is also a sense in which the welter of contrasting epithets, ‘extremism’ most especially, reveals conflicts within feminism. What, ultimately, it the cause of women’s oppression – populist irrationality, or structural conditions? Is the goal of attacking (with justice) the rampant sexism and misogyny of the games industry and ‘geek culture’ a technocratic attempt to expunge the trade of embarrassing impurities, or is the ultimate goal to change the system itself? Is feminism even compatible with capitalism? To what extend can equality be achieved without rocking the boat in ways that incite exclusion and backlash? The various positions implied by these rhetorical questions are not (always) contradictory, but the potential for conflict is real.

This leads to broader issues. Is the problem only that gamers are defective, in the way that Torontonians (in, suitably, unforgivably parochial terms of reference) are defective for having elected the slovenly right-wing populist Rob Ford when they should have elected the quartz-eyed right-wing technocrat Smitherman? When we say ‘diversity’, do we mean inclusion, or merely the inhuman, sanitised glasscapes of gentrified urban districts? To the extent that enlightened writers and designers in the games industry can describe those who attack them as degenerate social inferiors, the industry’s feminism remains comfortably bourgeois.

Forgive the excessive rhetorical interrogation and allow me to illustrate my point with a hypothetical example. Let’s imagine a player of games. She plays them, thinks about them, talks about them, reads about them. Also, she has a mental illness. She is eccentric. She finds it difficult to get or hold down a job. To hide her illness poses problems, and to admit it poses more: for personal relationships; for prospective employers; for dealings with unaccountable disciplinary authorities like police, doctors and bureaucrats. Her existence is hemmed by constraints that the aseptic term ‘stigma’ doesn’t begin to encompass, except to the extent that her class can insulate her. To paraphrase Foucault: she is excluded not because of what she has done, but because of who she is. Her inability to conform is an inescapable liability that follows her everywhere, including the games industry. I am not this person; but if I were this person, I could not be her.

I’m aware that attempting to ‘trump’ one kind of oppression with another is a common way of derailing or dismissing important discussions. I hope the reader will accept my good faith — nothing could be further from my mind than a desire to dismiss the efforts of those who seek to make the games industry a safe place for women. Nonetheless. How (and this time the question is not purely rhetorical) does the game industry include or exclude our hypothetical mentally ill person? What (and here I shed all innocence) does it mean that the immediate response of so many developers and journalists to this situation has been to lade their attackers with the attributes of the poor, the insane, the silent and the inadequate — that is, to speak the language of class and conformism? Whom, in the final instance, do we wish to protect and include?


4 thoughts on “Extremism and Other Profanities”

  1. “Not only do many of the anonymous abusers and bemoaners of ‘corruption’ claim to occupy important positions in AAA development studios, but evidence of sexism and sexual harassment within the industry has been piling up for years. There is no excuse at this point for blaming it all on a mythical race of basement dwellers.”

    Doesn’t stop you from making the insidious jump to ‘critics of political correctness’ being the root of sexual harassment: the more harassment in an industry, the more anti-progressives there must be.

    What about the cases for sexual harassment or defense of rape culture within progressive and feminist political parties?
    As well as the many cases in Occupy:

    I don’t think you sincerely believe sexism is primarily a result of political tactic, and not power structures and hegemonic ideology. It’s just dirty smearing, at the same time you try to place yourself above your peers for disavowing just that. Just because someone pens a critique of a certain feminism doesn’t mean they’re rapists; it’s as intellectually pathetic as a defense of faith resorting to accusing atheists of having inherently no morals or values – skepticism of one system does mean you must adopt its antithesis.
    It can’t be hard to imagine two people who disagree with the ways in which sexism is reinforced in society or the ways in which it can be identified while still agreeing on its total undesirability. Perhaps the continued prevalence of sexism in the industry is a result of defective methodology and not a conspiratorial vanguard?* In that case, you’d do well to genuinely consider the criticism for the outsider insight it might provide.

    *Classic self-circuited justification of pacifism: if there’s still war, it must mean we have more work to do (and not that our conceptual bases might be faulty). This same inability to evaluate the effectivity of policy is the reason behind the endless extension of spy agencies.

    On the topic of genuine consideration, it’s unfortunate to see your insightful discussion of the smear use of ‘extremism’ end only on stereotyping/name-calling (which frankly shouldn’t need an argument, when is name-calling productive?)

    What about the more densely packed use of the term ‘troll’? Is this not most commonly used as a justified catch-all for intellectual disengagement?
    It’s flatly an accusation that the accused critic is occult, dangerous and obscurantist, less interested in rational debate than psychological attack: thereby devaluing all his points into clandestine weapons that need to be defended against through ignorance and marginalization.

    It is purely a tool of marginalization of voice; as it’s almost impossible to verify the content of the accusation but immediately engulfs the debate in occult suspicions; for example, simply accusing me of being a troll would now make my criticism of the term part of some long-shot plan to heighten the vulnerability of potential future victims.

    It is purely an accusation of conspiracy, with all of the high power of suggestion that entails; which is just as much hypocritical to values defended by the most common accuser as is the stereo-typing you’ve identified.

    But most dangerous is that the only consistent criteria in plausibly identifying a troll is their distance. Either rhetorical (ie use of irony & parody) or intellectual (distance on a spectrum).
    Fine, we can scrub all irony from the discourse (maybe for the better, re signal:noise) but to marginalize a voice purely because it’s grounded in an alien canon, jargon, world? That’s dangerous. It’s a term that shouldn’t be thrown around lightly. It’s less intellectually dishonest to name the ‘enemy party’ neckbeards, misogynists, whatever dehumanized monster Other, who at the very least remain a thorn in the side requiring some attention, than the common tactic of (very often preemptively) accusing them of trolling and thereby robbing them of any voice just for trying to express a marginal one.

    1. Sorry your comment was held in moderation — my WP gets suspicious if there are too many links.

      As for your comment: there is a lot to respond to, and I’m insufficiently caffeinated at present, so I’ll be brief.

      “I don’t think you sincerely believe sexism is primarily a result of political tactic, and not power structures and hegemonic ideology.”

      What’s the difference? Structures do not exist — they must be articulated and reproduced. It’s disturbing to me that you’ve appropriated the language of the (Post-)Structuralist and Western Marxist left without appreciating the implications. Do you think the skeeviness of places like E3 (booth babes, scantily clad avatars, macho power fantasies alongside unwanted propositions and leering) has any impact on how safe women feel there?

      “Just because someone pens a critique of a certain feminism doesn’t mean they’re rapists; it’s as intellectually pathetic as a defense of faith resorting to accusing atheists of having inherently no morals or values – skepticism of one system does mean you must adopt its antithesis.”

      I don’t think this, and I haven’t argued it. I know for a fact, however, that the people sending rape and death threats to the Anita Sarkeesians of the world articulate their anger in explicitly sexist ideological terms. This needs to be addressed.

      I’m also well aware that left-wing politics are not immune to the influence of sexism and rape culture. What I seldom find, however, is people on the left publicly dismissing the gravity of rape culture or sexual abuse in the way that people like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker have.

      As for methedology — gaming has been a boys’ club for a long time now. The industry, and the scene, is growing and mutating in surprising ways right now. Even in the last five years, the sensitivity of people who make and write about games to the industry’s habitual sexism has grown enourmously. The recent wave of threats and tantrums are very clearly (explicity, according to their proponents) a reaction to this shift in sexual politics, while their targets are predominantly women. This is not an ideological assumption on my part: it is simply the situation in which I wrote the piece.

      What I will concede is that the term ‘troll’ was poorly chosen. It was simply the word I grasped in the absence of anything acceptable. It is at least more concise than ‘politicised internet hatemonger’.

  2. You misunderstand my first point. I’m discussing your assumption that the rate of criticism of political correctness is directly correlated to the rate of sexual abuse.
    It’s an unreasonable jump to make; they’re not consciously abusing people as a justification of their political inclination, as a “political tactic”. You can argue that skepticism of, say, a “theory” of rape culture would make it easier for people to justify its perpetration, and thereby justify rape, leading to a higher rate in the industry, but then how do you explain its prevalence even in groups that actively support that “theory”? It’s not primarily result of agreement or disagreement with the concept of rape culture, but something else… perhaps, as I suggested, the underlying existence of rape culture and patriarchal assumptions. Which would find its arguably equivalent prevalence in groups devoted to excising it, groups critical of those efforts, and even groups devoted to its perpetration. Rape culture is not a result of political position regarding rape culture, it’s a result of an underlying hegemonic worldview that advocates it.

    The other problem is that perhaps the critics also consider the diminishment of sexual harassment as a primary motivation, but disagree on the way to achieve it (ie some other sociological theory than rape culture being considered the root of its prevalence). Let it be clear that this hypothetical position is not a denial of its prevalence or importance, but a disagreement on its identifiable roots – a recognition of the gravity of sexual abuse but not rape culture. There would be no clear reason, then, to consider these critics the perpetrators of abuse. Even when their criticism takes the form of crude and angry tweets and blog comments (which, again, the left is also not innocent of).

    “politicised internet hatemonger”
    I don’t believe this is accurate. A troll is allowed to be ignored precisely because she’s seen as a-political: she doesn’t /really/ care about anything she’s arguing, just saying whatever she thinks will get a rise out of you.
    A troll doesn’t represent whatever fringe ideology like a internet neo-nazi or conspiracy theorist, he’s only pretending to in order to get people upset; in the same way that he’ll pretend to be “SJW” when trolling whatever neo-nazi blog.
    So trolls are apolitical hatemongers; it’s the accusation of trolling that is politicised: “You don’t really believe any of this, so what you say is worthless.”

    What if you’re wrong? What if the ‘troll’ sincerely believe these things, but her beliefs have now been branded trolling? She’s had her voice taken from her. It’s one thing to accuse her views of being irrational, inaccurate or unsubstantiated like we can see fringe ideologies are. But that demands even a cursory engagement with the position which the identity of troll is entirely refused.

    See how easy it is to apply it to any critical position from a position of power – Imagine if the mass media used the label on modern identity politics? Or the early civil right’s movement? Suddenly, there is no obligation whatsoever to address the very real concerns or for the public to treat them with any interest – all the emotion and outcry is born out of some sociopathic impulse to troll. “To give them any attention at all is for them to win.”

    It’s a tool much of net feminist bloggers have been using often and without concern (it’s not such a ‘simple’ term to grasp). While I’m sure there were some trolls involved, most of the Gamergate outcry weren’t trolls. Yes, they were confused, misguided, rude, their ‘criticism’ rooted in delusional misogyny and conspiracy, but they weren’t trolling. They were trying to raise genuine concerns and to decide that it’s too inconvenient or uncomfortable to address them (much the same impedance that feminist progress experiences) by branding them a voice-less conspiracy is even more problematic than branding them with offensive stereotypes (ie the sexism and fatism behind the ‘fat virgin’) intended to marginalize.

    1. ‘You misunderstand my first point. I’m discussing your assumption that the rate of criticism of political correctness is directly correlated to the rate of sexual abuse.’

      This is not a fair representation of my statement. I wrote that the people sending threats of physical harm to feminists (this is indeed a form of abuse, by the way) correlate to a particular sort of gender politics, and further, that what you call an ‘underlying hegemonic worldview’ is too vague. To me, it smacks of idealism. How does this view become hegemonic, and how does it incite action? Where does it inhere?

      As for trolls, I’m not sure where you’re going with this. I’ve said that the term was poorly chosen — and I think it should be clea that dismissing these people’s sincerity is the very last thing I’ve tried to do in my writing on the subject. I will absolutely stick with ‘politicised internet hatemonger’, though: the oubursts of the GGers and fellow travelers are both vitriolic and ripe with ideology. The fact that I dismiss their arguments as the wooly-minded scatalogical nonsense they assuredly are does not mean I am silencing anyone — just that I find nothing worth engaging with.

      Finally, I find it odd that you would raise the spectre of identity politics at this late hour. I have repeatedly made hints in the direction of the material bases for oppression by way of explaining my political commitments. By comparison, your repeated attempts to paint the GGers as an oppressed minority by virtue of their rough treatment by a handful of bloggers and journalists is a form of identity politics nec plus ultra. Perhaps next you will be telling me that the rich are oppressed because no-one likes them?

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