How the feminist, SJW threat becomes real and turns into gamergate, other shitstorms

Most people have by now realised that so-called gamergate has little to do with Zoe Quinn or Anita Sarkeesian and is really about the actions of a minority of angry, confused people. I won’t go into what others have written about: Owen Grieve on Midnight Resistance has encapsulated it nicely here in a piece called The Plight Of The Grown-Ass Gamer and Leigh Alexander is one of the people crystallising the idea that ‘Gamers’ don’t have to be your audience. ‘Gamers’ are over, over on Gamasutra. Everyone has an opinion

I would like to add to the discussion something I haven’t seen discussed yet: that the problem may at least partly stem from closely-held political ideology that cannot engage with certain objectively real issues without collapsing in on itself. Here’s how the ‘feminist threat’ becomes real.

What are critics? Critics observe and describe issues in things from a range of perspectives. We’re all critics. If you think all criticism is bunk, try again: that opinion is itself a critical position on the issue of criticism. We’re all critics. The only difference is whether we share our criticism with anyone, whether we give or receive it.

Sharing criticism obviously creates conversations around a subject. These contributions altogether increase the body of work and knowledge on a subject, encouraging critical thinking, creating ideas, challenging ideas, fostering alternatives, and generally criticising. Quality and quantity within this varies. Schools of thought that share certain principles spring up and evolve and disappear. Sometimes people bring criticism that’s so interesting that people actually want to hear what they have to say. Add all that together and you’ve got yourself a big part of what “culture” is. This happens in an objectively real sense: the existence of criticism is not a matter for debate. The value of it on the other hand, is hotly debated.

Recently people have been going batshit crazy – even unto physical threats, threats to family, life-ruining harassment – because critical views have been expressed, that they don’t like, regarding video games. So why are some people so crazy over this? To be exact, what drives a person to proactively hate on, even threaten, someone like Anita Sarkeesian. What she did was to put forward a feminist critique of some games.

It has been asked: what do these people want? What is their desired outcome? They want to shout Sarkeesian (et al) down because… what? What do they think will happen as a result of her criticism? Something that they feel the need to prevent? Resisting some new rules that would somehow shut down some games? “Winning” an argument against the thrust of Sarkeesian’s critique? Do they fear, as Grieve has previously said, that their toys will be taken away in that her criticism would somehow lead to a scenario in which… what, certain games don’t exist? They talk about some kind of consipiracy… against something… but against what?

I think part of the answer is that they are fighting against the cognitive dissonance between reality and their political ideology. I think that the behaviour of some of these people can be seen to stem from the fact that their strongly-held political ideology is unable even to process some objectively real issues, without collapsing in on itself. And I think this causes them to fight against reality.

Here’s why I think this.

It is impossible to hold fast to a political ideology and not encounter major cognitive dissonance out in the real world. It should be obvious why: objective reality is not subject to political ideology. As such it can, and frequently does, diverge from what people “believe”: creating a dissonance between belief and the reality. This is cognitive dissonance. David Robert Grimes had a piece published in The Guardian yesterday that is a startlingly apposite analogy of this, very close to what I’ve been thinking about.

In this way ideology can require a person to respond to an issue according to the rules of the ideology, which may be against the objective reality. Irrational behaviour may result, due to cognitive dissonance. A quick and clear illustration of this lies within the Sarkeesian narrative and the way abusers select their pejorative language. The narrative:

  1. Woman shows how a significant number of video games represent women in a way that they do not men, what she thinks that means, and why she thinks it matters.
  2. As a result, abusers lay into her in a big way (including real-world threats to her and her family!).
  3. Abusers label her an SJW and feminist.
  4. Abusers then label people who support her against this abuse as White Knights.
  5. Abusers then collate lists of SJWs and White Knights to boycott etc.

And the literal language:

  • Social Justice Warrior. Which describes a person that actively fights to improve justice regarding the various relationships between people in a society.
  • White Knight: Which describes a more-powerful person (typically male) who will fight to protect the less-powerful (typically female) from danger.
  • Feminist: Which describes someone that believes women should be equal with men.

These labels are of course pejorative and I supply the urban dictionary links for real rather than the literal context I have chosen. But the concepts themselves are clearly not pejorative. How then do they come to be used pejoratively?

What if some people have a political ideology that believes everything is all about the individual; if for instance you are or think you are a purist libertarian (and haven’t understood the concept fully, perhaps, ho ho); what if in your political ideology, social issues don’t exist because they can’t possibly exist – because if they exist, the political ideology collapses like a house of cards?

I believe it is this cognitive dissonance that drives some of the core and most hateful reactionary anger to Sarkeesian. Because the issues she talks about can’t exist without destroying certain political ideology.

For example, to even engage with the idea that it could matter how a game developer chooses to represent women in a game is to accept that some things that some people do could affect some other people or, by extension, lots of other people, or even certain differentiated groups of lots of people, such as “women”. However upon accepting that basic premise, the vaccum that purist libertarian political ideology needs to exist in no longer exists; and the entire ideology collapses. This framework probably applies to any strongly individualistic ideology generally, although less catastrophically. It is the same issue that causes such violent negative reactions amongst some people when anything “social” – anything at all – is discussed.

I further suspect that for the same reasons, this dissonance also applies to certain internet ideologies too: that nothing matters or should, no-one cares or should, that there are no rules, that butthurt is win, etc. In other words, the rules of the internet that terminate in the wonderful, terrible chaos of the message boards from which the majority of the Sarkeesian abuse was co-ordinated.


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