"This is our normal. How do we get better?"

Amidst certain troubling things I’ve lately read, I found welcome succor in Erin Kissane’s article “How to Kill a Troll”. It responds to the deeply disturbing harrassment of feminist game-and-culture critic Anita Sarkeesian, and more specifically to the confusion and anger that overwhelms those engaging online hate head-on, only to spill over and stick to bystanders like me just trying to make sense of it.

I am so far from having an answer, but I have a suspicion that counterattacks are not working. It’s worthwhile to cover horrible things like the attacks on Sarkeesian and Penny Red and so many others because doing so can help uncommitted or passive readers understand and defend against this behavior. But as cathartic and entertaining as it might be, skewering trolls and attacking jerks is never going to change their minds. Putting people on the defensive only hardens their positions.

When it comes to actually changing minds, I think we’re stuck with love.

Recognizing the humanity of people who do awful things is one of the core challenges of being human. (We have enough trouble recognizing it even in people who are like us.) But it’s the only way out. Even when the worst trolls are beyond visible redemption, the way we handle them is visible to so many others who are still capable of feeling empathy or recognizing pain or changing their minds.

These chilling events have shone a light on a pervasive sickness within the enormous and important online culture around videogames, and I have read no article that more eloquently diagnoses this illness and begins to prescribe a medicine more subtle than mere shoveback. Please go read the whole thing.

I believe that our civilization continuously lurches, in fits and starts and occasional backslides, in an overall correct direction. Before Sarkeesian launched her Kickstarter project, I would observe the swollen comments sections in sites like Hacker News on every article dealing with online sexism, and think: well, the lines have now advanced that far. History rolls on, and those caught on the wrong side of it do tend to get pretty loud. But they’ll eventually come to the light — or get pushed to the sad, dim fringe of insistent ignorance — and we will all move on, once again.

But the volume and intensity of hate directed at this one particular critic and creator surprised me. Even though I take care to not usually identify as a “gamer”, this violence felt very close to home. Between the countless threatening comments and that disgusting game made in response to her work, I felt as if a mob had smashed up a business in my neighborhood in broad daylight, and then brashly signed their names to it, smug in their sureness that society tacitly agreed with them. Like something from the troubled past, something perhaps captured in a black-and-white newsreel during less enlightened times. Retrograde. Its audacity stunned me, and led me to question my confidence.

As Kissane writes, most of us don’t choose to to wade in and engage directly with the faceless hordes of online ignorance, and that’s OK. But it still behooves all of us to have a sober understanding of the problem, and feel a little more prepared to do what we can to help nudge our culture forward.

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5 Responses to "This is our normal. How do we get better?"

  1. Thanks for feeling this way, and posting about it.

    I thought Kissane's article was well done, but I would change one word in what she wrote/what you quoted: "This is our normal. How do they get better?" because I don't think it's the women that need to be changing.

    • Jason McIntosh says:

      I read the "our" and "we" in the lines I quoted for my headline as referring to society as a whole and all those who comprise it, as opposed to the author referring first-person-plural only to women.

      Sexist attacks like these may be aimed specifically at women, but our whole society suffers for them. And I feel included in the call to learn more and start doing something about it.

  2. A couple of thoughts: the thing about the Smid story is that it required sustained attention in a way you're not likely to get online. Also, it's strictly one-on-one. If you are currently the target of multiple trolls, effectively engaging with all of them seems like a lost cause.

    In an online environment, the best response as far as I've seen is to call them out, then block or ignore them. There are clear benefits to saying "guys, don't do that." (as Rebecca Watson did a year or so ago) Observers are less likely to repeat behaviors if they see it get called called out, and there's a chance that an individual troll will change their behavior if called out enough. If that happens, though, it's on the troll's schedule, not yours, so turning it into a personal project isn't advisable.

    On the blocking front, I wish that every comments section on the Internet was much more heavily moderated. I'm of the opinion that if you get too many comments to effectively moderate, the responsible thing is to just shut comments off entirely. In the absence of adequate moderation, in forums where I as a user can block other users, I use that power aggressively and I'm much happier as a result.

    I do agree that getting angry or counter-trolling is a waste of time.

    Second thought: on the question of do we get better or do they get better, I prefer we. This time the issue is sexism (as it often is). But there are lots of isms to get wrong, and I don't want to run the risk myself of saying that since I've got sexism right, I don't have to worry about racism. Or, for that matter, assuming that I always get sexism right and blind myself to thoughtless sexist mistakes I'm making.

    Saying "we" serves as a reminder that I have an obligation to call out others who are getting it wrong, and also that I need to check myself to make sure I'm not thoughtlessly contributing to the negative environment I'm trying to oppose.

  3. In response to both Jmac and Matt:

    If you read Kissane's article again, you'll see that the "our" in "our normal" refers to the subject "female commentators" in the previous sentence. That's why I took issue with the "we get better".

    While I appreciate you both wanting to make an effort to improve the situation, it does feel a bit like you're appropriating the pronoun, especially Matt's "I prefer 'we'." I am withholding my knee-jerk responses about male appropriation on the assumption you're both allies and know better.

    Saying "we" might be helpful to you but it also obscures who is doing what or who isn't doing what.

    • Erin Kissane says:

      I was pointed here by a friend, and wish to clear up one point: both the "we" and the "our" in my post refer to humans as a group, not to women exclusively. The structure is unintentionally ambiguous, which is a fault in the prose, but I was referring to the wider community.


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