There Are No Free Speech Absolutists

Or: How to Start Having a Better Debate About Speech

Raphael’s “The School of Athens,” a beautiful fresco taken entirely too seriously by people who forget it’s excellent fanart where the artist painted his friends as great philosophers.

Federal police roaming downtown Portland in unmarked vehicles to snatch protesters off the street are the most convincing argument that the “cancel culture” discourse is dangerously overblown. The now infamous open letter in Harper’s has aged so poorly that it’s merely bone dust now.

Yet there remains value in trying to understand the debate on speech, largely because we are in an epistemic break driven by new voices having their say. There is a more complex discussion to be had on the left about marginalisation, silencing, bullying, and so forth; about catharsis masquerading as activism, say, or about traumatised people hurting each other because their communities can’t or won’t support them. And yet, obviously, this is not what the Harper’s letter was about. Indeed, the letter and the high profile resignations of people like Bari Weiss and Andrew Sullivan seem suspect in their timing considering the fact that political science professor and pundit Yascha Mounk is starting a brand new platform called “Persuasion” whose About page reads like a first draft of The Letter, and whose initial contributor list is almost entirely made up of signatories.

We’re condemned to this discourse. But we cannot have a speech debate worth having until we accept a fundamental fact:

There are no free speech absolutists.

There are two broad issues that have to be reckoned with in any honest discussion about speech. First, most speech debates are not about the value of free speech itself, but about other values guiding our beliefs about the ideal conduct of speech; the second is the fact that if call-out culture or cancel culture is real, most of its actual victims are people we almost never hear about and whose concerns would never trouble most “free speech defenders.”

The lack of honesty about these issues bedevils the speech debate in the mainstream press, which continues to be prosecuted as a fight between those who are either for or against free speech. But every signatory on The Letter believes in curbing free speech; most are simply not candid about that.

The Values Question

In defending the open letter, some claim that the hypocrisy of some signatories (e.g. Bari Weiss agitating to get professors fired for their views) matters less than the nobility of the letter’s ideas. But the actions of the signatories offer the only real-world context for those ideas—one of whom cheered on a SLAPP lawsuit threat I received from a right-wing YouTuber. Indeed, she explicitly hoped for my impoverishment. Clearly she thought my speech was out of bounds, that I said things that Ought Not Be Said, and that I even deserved punishment for this.

That sort of thing is context. Indeed, it is some of the only context the Harper’s letter provides. It demonstrates the emptiness of its content and how thoroughly it sidesteps the very heart of the argument it claims to intervene in. How do we decide on which values guide speech?

Every signatory, and everyone who enthused about the letter, believes that some things simply shouldn’t be said—either from the privileged site of a platform, or at all. Such limits exist at every level of even the freest society, from a whole nation, to a subculture, to a given space, to a given affinity group. Debates about speech are about where and how to draw the boundaries and not truly about whether such boundaries should even exist. The boundaries in question are informal; they are neither drawn nor policed by titled state actors, but by the subtler forms of enjoinment that define any society. And, as with any informal system, it is wide open to abuse.

Yet this issue is not addressed in grandiose declarations like the open letter. They can’t be because they force the would-be free speech absolutist to accept the fact that they are not so absolute after all. It is easier and more satisfying to believe your opponents are “illiberal” vandals on the “reactionary left” who want to destroy the beautiful marble colonnades of “the free exchange of ideas” and “a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.”

By design, these are abstract “principles” with positive-sounding words that few could disagree with. Yet in reality, these would-be absolutists are no different from me.

What we actually disagree about is where lines should be drawn, not whether they should be drawn at all. In a rousing debate with Mounk, The New Republic’s Osita Nwanevu made this abundantly clear as he criticised the signatories for being mysteriously silent about Fox News firing Tucker Carlson’s racist writer, Blake Neff, for a slew of bigoted posts he made on a private forum:

“Now, the response to people who bring this up has generally been, well look you shouldn’t lump this in with other cases, because Blake Neff is a racist. And this is where it gets sticky. Once you say it’s OK for somebody to lose their job because they’re a racist, the question then becomes, OK what is racism? What is sexism; what is transphobia? It becomes not a question of speech and liberalism in the abstract, with one side supporting liberalism and free discourse and the other side not supporting liberalism and free discourse. It’s a question of where the lines are. And people are functionally going to disagree about that.”

Mounk’s response was to essentially dodge that point. Who could be surprised, however? It forces the pseudo-absolutist onto messier terrain, denying them the “I know it when I see it” consensus they share with their fellow travellers. To actually specify what limits should be imposed where would lead to a breakdown among their number, dissolving into a bitter debate that denial has rendered them ill-equipped to have.

***

There’s a recursive quality to the arguments about cancel culture that never gets addressed. Who is the biggest canceller? The canceller or the one who cancels them for cancelling? It’s not just that the term “cancel culture” is meaningless in much the same way that “political correctness” is; it’s that it’s meaningless for the same reason. It describes behaviours everyone participates in to one degree or another, setting informal boundaries for what can and ought not be said.

The Unheard

The Harper’s open letter was defended by many people who claimed that criticism of the signatories’ privilege—and the fact that several are fabulously wealthy, famous, and do not want for platforms—missed the point. The letter was written on behalf of the voiceless, you see. The main textual evidence for this was the following line: “The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.”

The more notable thing about that sentence, however, is that it disappears, well, the people being disappeared in Portland right now. It suggests a false equivalence between the machinery of an oppressive state and its monopoly on mortal violence with Twitter toxicity.

This is further belied by the letter’s own examples of cancel culture gone amok: “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces,” (i.e. Bennet) or “the heads of organizations” who are “ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.” Not exactly “those who lack power,” is it?

What of those who do genuinely lack power, though? Do they run afoul of “progressive orthodoxy”? That is an inapt framing because it locates the problem almost entirely in left-wing political identification, but the short answer is: yes. The problem for many of the signatories isthat these are the same people they want to exclude from discourse and decisionmaking, so it would be inconvenient to mention them.

Trans women of colour, for instance, especially those of us with working class backgrounds who were not raised by parents who hosted dinner parties have sometimes chafed against the in-group/out-group dynamics of some activist groups, especially those dominated by well-educated middle class white people; crucially, however, this often happens because of latent transmisogyny or misogynoir or classism.

Meanwhile, I’ve also seen cis Black women targeted by white women who weaponise “safe space” discourse against them, transmuting their fear of Blackness into rhetoric more palatable to social justice oriented spaces. “I feel threatened,” so easily recognised as racist when, say, a white police officer or Amy Cooper uttered it, is alchemised into victimhood intelligible to progressive rhetoric: “this is supposed to be a safe space.”

This is why I have, for years, cautioned against treating activist insights—for instance, the fact that “tone policing” is a thing—as inflexible rules. Particularly in the hands of young white activists who are coming into their own, it can be too easy to slot these “rules” into a system of informal power that they just so happen to already dominate. But again, such insights would not really interest most of the letter’s signatories unless they can be twisted to reinforce their own power. For instance, Times columnist Michelle Goldberg (who signed the open letter) took a shine to my 2014 essay on this topic and interviewed me for a piece in the Nation about call-out culture. What I didn’t realise was that she had cast writer and activist Mikki Kendall as the piece’s villain, for allegedly being rude to too many white women on Twitter.

Looking back on those pieces of mine from 2014, I realise that I was still rather naïve, myself. At the time I wrote things like “There are some people whose records are such that they could indeed be justly called ‘an unrepentant racist’ or ‘pathological transphobe,’ but there are many more whose mistakes deserve far, far less fire in response. Some may not have made prejudicial mistakes at all.”—such notions are not far afield of the Harper’s letter, especially in isolation. There is much I would write differently today, and I still tried to have it both ways about the Nation article, still trying to claim there was room for us somewhere in an enterprise that was specifically about erasing us. I regret that deeply.

Thus, I can empathise with people of colour who saw something like justice in the open letter’s Rorschach inkblot, like The Nation’s Jeet Heer who signed on behalf of silenced Palestinian activists, or Reed College professor Lucía Martínez Valdivia who was horrified to find the space she shared with transphobes (she has since had her name removed from the letter). But when vague statements of principle are put into the public sphere, the interpretation that favours those with the most power will win out.

Back in 2014, though, I at least made a point of highlighting the fact that when marginalised people talked about callout culture we were referring to how the experiences of Black and brown trans women were colonised into mute rules by white queer activists, or how multiply marginalised people in activist communities fear making a mistake, or how “calling in” might be a more productive way of hashing out pain and disagreement.

Notably, in all of that discourse (some of which is now a decade old), there was discussion of “disposability,” a term that almost never appears in mainstream free speech jeremiads against what is now called “cancel culture.” We fear our energy, power, vulnerability, and pain being bled from us to fuel the personal or political power of more privileged activists or scholars or journalists who would then simply get rid of us when we had nothing left to give. We also feared the horizontal hostility that comes from hurt people hurting people, which meant we often feared each other. Indeed, I was nearly driven away from speaking publicly about trans politics by another translatina back when I was a baby tran, for instance.

Over the years I’ve seen how brutal we as trans women can be to each other because so few of us achieve anything like mainstream visibility, each bearing the unenviable weight of a diverse community’s expectations. Either we somehow manage to be all things to all trans people or we implode. Invariably, we fail, or just distance ourselves from the community.

Yet whenever these stories are picked up by mainstream sources they are invariably positioned as cautionary tales about how “the left,” writ large, eats its own, as the cancel culture reaching its logical conclusion, rather than what it’s always been: marginalised people being held hostage in their own spaces to white supremacy and other forms of structural prejudice.

If you can find any of that complexity in the Harper’s letter, anywhere other than a gloss that massively over-interprets a single line, do let me know.

***

There are, of course, many texts in the open letter’s genre; several are already going up on Persuasion. But the letter remains a useful touchstone because it so perfectly distils everything wrong with that way of thinking. The free speech defender genre is, here, distilled down to its essence as a bundle of clichés in search of a principle. I am far from alone in criticising its lack of specificity. But I had hoped to add these two larger points: recognising that speech debates are about values rather than whether speech should be curbed, and recognising that the bitter debate about callout culture/cancel culture on the left has a much more complicated discourse among the very people the Harper’s letter claims to protect.

We’re not stupid. We know that when the “free speech defenders” criticise the hypocrisy of white social justice activists they are doing so to silence them, not elevate our voices, our expertise, our theory. That is both the truth about both our victimisation by callouts and why some of us are “toxic” as a matter of survival (I strongly recommend Sydette Harry’s thoughts on Crash Override here).

What I despair about is how little we have been able to advance this conversation, especially in public. It’s not a coincidence that whatever language we use to describe anti-social behaviour in activist circles is very quickly seized on by those with real power as a shield, but I wish I knew how to circumvent this.

Can we do better? Perhaps, but not by pretending that it is actually possible to be a free speech absolutist; aside from a few people who are perfectly consistent in opposing any state intervention upon speech, there are no true absolutists. What is at stake is what has always been at stake: our values. The debate about intra-left speech is often parallel to the wider debate about speech in our society as a whole, but these things are conflated to the detriment of the whole conversation.

“The School of Athens,” meanwhile, does not depict a real place, nor even an ideal that is frequently achieved by its loudest proponents. It does not depict the progress of democracy, nor how societies decide which debates have had their day. Dealing with speech and association as a society has never been particularly easy or fun, but we are doing it right now through speech. Perhaps it is worth listening to what the unheard have to say.

***

Influences on this piece include Julia Serano’s “Excluded,” which is a thoughtful discussion of exclusionary dynamics in queer communities, and this excellent recent thread by writer Kai Cheng Thom.

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The Scientist as Hero: How HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ Fails Valery Legasov

CN: Discussion of suicide.

There’s a bleak irony to the fact that a miniseries meant to explore “the cost of lies” climaxes with one. HBO’s Chernobyl–a peerless dramatisation of the world’s worst nuclear disaster spread over five soul-wrenching hours–has to take a certain amount of dramatic licence in order to effectively tell its story, of course. Anything ‘based on a true story’ does. But the climax, which sees our hero Valery Legasov tell a Soviet show trial that “every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth,” hurts in its beauty because it is founded on a lie. Not only did Legasov not say that, he wasn’t even at that trial. But that’s a mere matter of almost minor historical detail–it does capture a truth about Legasov’s life and struggle to fix the flawed reactor design that ultimately led to the Chernobyl disaster. The real problem is that this invented speech, a dramatic courtroom eruption palatable for American audiences reared on grand speeches from the bar, is unearned and cuts to the heart of Chernobyl’s biggest flaw.

The show did not show us how Legasov became the kind of person who would confront the system he served for so long.

***

Valery Alexeyvich Legasov was the Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, one of the doyens of the Soviet nuclear industry and, at 47, a grandee of Soviet academe in a system of deified scientists. He was summoned to oversee the relief effort at Chernobyl, a monumental, unprecedented, and above all deadly undertaking which the HBO series dramatises in dozens of profoundly moving scenes.

HBO’s Chernobyl is necessarily a grim enterprise. This is not a happy garden of truths grown upon a tragedy but something buried, with a man almost forgotten, beneath a sarcophagus and dozens of unmarked graves for irradiated animals, vehicles, and bits of life obliterated. The show pays a reverential respect to that truth, commendably so. Every actor on screen with longer than a sentence of dialogue brings pathos and gravity to an event Legasov described as occurring on “a planetary scale.”

But television must be about people; Chernobyl brilliantly uses the tropes of disaster films and the horror genre to tell its truths, but it is still ultimately constrained by those very tropes. And thus Legasov is presented to us as The Hero Scientist from the outset. We see him in a ratty Moscow apartment, immediately expressing concern about the Chernobyl disaster when it’s described to him over the phone by Minister Boris Scherbina, and he bravely stands up to the entire complacent Soviet government to tell them he sincerely believes that something terrible has happened at the Chernobyl power station. It’s gripping stuff, and one can easily be carried along by the strong currents of Jared Harris’ star-turn performance as Legasov and Craig Mazin’s occasionally brilliant turns of phrase.

But it sets a tone that the show can never escape: Legasov was a good man from the start, waiting for his moment to be the reluctant hero.

None of this is true.

***

I should start by saying that I admire Legasov, with some reservations. He’s a problematic fave. Whenever I teach ethics in technology, I end the term with a long but brilliant quote from him about how “technology must be protected from man,” which he gave in a taped interview with a Ukrainian journalist. But my admiration stems precisely from the fact that he did good at the end of his life despite being a profoundly flawed human being, something she show acknowledges but spends little time on.

The show does reveal to the audience that Legasov knew about the fatal flaw in all RBMK reactors, that their control rods were tipped with graphite (see an explanation for why that’s extremely bad here). It also reveals, at the very end, a litany of sins in his family history and carried out to curry favour with party officials as Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute. But these are only brief nods to an ugly reality that would impede the show’s scientist-as-hero structure.

In the third episode of the HBO series, Harris’ Legasov explodes in frustration about the ideological manner in which the relief effort is being handled. “Maybe I’ve just spent too much time in my lab, or maybe I’m just stupid. Is this really the way it all works?” he asks sarcastically, cursing the “Party men” and “apparatchiks” with their arbitrary decision-making. The thing is, he was a Party man and apparatchik, for all of his life up to that point, right through much of the relief effort. He did not begin his time in Chernobyl as a heroic scientist, but as a committed adjunct to the Soviet state, continuing to participate in its cover-ups and its ideological statecraft. As journalist Masha Gessen–who grew up in the Soviet Union–notes in her recent critique for the New Yorker, “Yes, of course this is the way it works, and, no, he hasn’t been in his lab so long that he didn’t realize that this is how it works. The fact of the matter is, if he didn’t know how it worked, he would never have had a lab.”

The real Valery Legasov (Igor Kostin – Sputnik)

The miniseries does us a disservice by denying us Legasov’s very real arc of transformation, from Party Man to nuclear dissident, from apparatchik to hero. The show captures a certain truth in this; the courtroom scene, which Mazin acknowledges on the Chernobyl podcast to be a narrative contrivance, is a compression of Legasov’s final year into one poignant moment. There is artistic value in this–the scene itself is stunning, beautifully acted, accurate in many historical details, and well written. But the thrust of Legasov’s speech, as written by Mazin, is that the truth will have its due and that fabulation can have a deadly cost.

All I could think about was the fact that Mazin himself had repeatedly said our current political moment was a propitious time to retell this story. In an age of brazen, authoritarian lying from Donald Trump, of disinformation campaigns and irony choking the internet, of fake news spreading before the truth has a foot in the stirrup, Mazin wanted this story about the “cost of lies” to act as a fable for our times. It succeeds in this, but only to a point. What we really need is not only a moral exemplar, but moral guidance. How do we become a man like Legasov, willing to take on such an empire of lies? Instead, he’s presented to us as fully-formed, just waiting for his moment–if a bit nebbishly.

Gessen condemns this more broadly, arguing persuasively that despite the plot and dialogue, the show’s characterisation and symbolism indict and extol individuals rather than systems:

“It was the system, made up primarily of pliant men and women, that cut its own corners, ignored its own precautions, and ultimately blew up its own nuclear reactor for no good reason except that this was how things were done. The viewer is invited to fantasize that, if not for [series villain and deputy chief engineer Anatoly] Dyatlov, the better men would have done the right thing and the fatal flaw in the reactor, and the system itself, might have remained latent. This is a lie.”

From left to right, seated: Viktor Bryukhanov, Anatoly Dyatlov, and Nikolai Fomin at their 1987 trial.

Just as Legasov is a one dimensional hero, so too do the three men who ended up in the dock at the show-trial end up cast as almost absurd villains. The stellar acting in the series does so much to direct our gaze away from the hackneyed archetypes being played. Dyatlov was indeed a bully, but his proportions were exaggerated significantly. He had also lost his son to a nuclear disaster that occurred much earlier in his life, something he always blamed himself for. Plant director Viktor Bryukhanov was, by all accounts, a fundamentally decent man who simply became complacent–a picture beautifully sketched in journalist Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight at Chernobyl. Chief engineer Nikolai Fomin was indeed a Party nepotism hire who only learned about nuclear reactors through a correspondence course but he was also profoundly struck by the tragedy. He attempted suicide in prison by breaking his glasses.

Deleted scenes from the HBO series would’ve acknowledged much more of this, but Mazin shied away from making the men too sympathetic. He was also ruthless about eschewing any portrayal of family connections, believing this would somehow distract the audience or seem too manipulative. Thus these three men get to be cast as unalloyed villains.

The problem with them is the inverse of Legasov’s. We’re led to believe that Bad Men do worse things. Instead, the story of Dyatlov, Bryukhanov, and Fomin is a story of how flawed men can become so wrapped up in a system that they don’t even notice the harm they’re doing, less because of selfishness than inertia and myopia. Chernobyl the TV-show captured some of this sleepwalking, this sense that this happened because people were content to do things the way they’d always been done, but again the demands of narrative had to bend these unpliable men into characters.

The manner in which this was done leaves us all the poorer, and it is here we must return to Legasov.

***

Chernobyl Episode 2: Stellan Skarsgård as Boris Scherbina, Jared Harris as Valery Legasov. (Liam Daniel/HBO)

The miniseries doubles down on Legasov as a hero by embellishing his modesty. But in reality, he didn’t live in a creaky apartment as the show suggests. When he committed suicide he hung himself from a stairwell in a lavish house situated in the Soviet Muscovite equivalent of Georgetown or Riverdale. He was portrayed as someone who only discovered politics after he’d been to Chernobyl, when in fact he actually received the momentous phone call summoning him to the investigative commission while he was enthusiastically helping to run a local Communist Party meeting. He routinely hosted soirees at his lovely home, with his wife and children (who are never seen in the miniseries), and a who’s who of the Soviet nomenklatura and scientific elite. His rise through the scientific ranks was meteoric by any standard, earning him the best life possible in the USSR.

In the final episode, the show gestures briefly at all of this–the KGB secretary (also a fictional, composite character played to chilling perfection by Alan Williams) dangles the directorship of the Kurchatov Institute in front of Legasov in exchange for his silence, which really was an honour he was due to receive–but it was never the heart of Legasov’s journey.

In truth, his agony at Chernobyl was in part caused by the inexorably slow way in which it ate away at all his certainties about the system he’d benefitted from all his life. It unravelled from the radiation as surely as his DNA. He had every incentive to shut up and keep his head down, and he did for a while, even after he came home from Chernobyl. But we don’t get a clear sense of this from HBO’s Chernobyl, as is evidenced from the fictive humility Legasov is imbued with.

It is clear the show tried to portray this sparingly, but it was, in the end, too enamoured of the narrative role The Hero could play for its harrowing story. Perhaps we did need one likeable, noble character to keep us coming back hour after painful hour.

But we also needed to see a dramatisation of how someone goes from being a bigoted apparatchik who willingly advanced unjust systems for his own gain, to someone who would give his life to save millions of people, who ultimately sacrificed everything to do what was right and stand against the awesome power of an unjust regime. What was that journey actually like? How did he come to risk everything the Soviet system had privileged him with in order to do what was right? We don’t know, at least not from this rendition.

Artistically, the miniseries works brilliantly. It’s worth watching; it is, in its dark sweep, an act of reverence, fittingly ending with a choral benediction. No one can watch this show and come away without a marrow-deep respect for the monumental sacrifice made by hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens in the Exclusion Zone, nor doubt Craig Mazin and his crew’s commitment to memorialising that suffering. But to meet the challenge of our age, as Mazin wished, the miniseries needed to do something just a little bit more.

We needed an arc for Legasov, something to indicate his very real growth, something to serve as a true model in these truthless times. As it is, this fictionalised image of him is worth aspiring to but there is no guide on how to get there, and in that sense it does a disservice to the real Valery Legasov even as it gives him the tribute he deserved and the life he was denied. He was complicit for so long. How he atoned for that is the heart of his heroism, and Chernobyl gives us only a glimpse of that. Similarly, there is no sense of how the men in charge of the Chernobyl power station slipped into an inertia that made disaster inevitable. Bad Men do bad things; Good Men fix them.

I fear the debt incurred by the fiction of the HBO miniseries is that people will go on waiting for the Hero of our age without realising that they, with all our entanglements and flaws and incentives to keep calm and carry on, are the ones we’re waiting for. The only ones we can rely on.

Bad Romance: Dragon Age’s Celene and Briala

I’ve said it until I’m blue in the face, but writing women characters well in videogames does not mean making them pure paragons of perfect morality. Indeed, it often means the very opposite, as the case of Dragon Age’s Empress Celene Valmont and Ambassador Briala illustrates in deeply sanguine colours.

Dragon Age: Inquisition’s aptly named main quest, “Wicked Eyes, Wicked Hearts,” sees your character visit the Orlesian Imperial Winter Palace in a bid to stop an assassination attempt on Empress Celene I, to thwart the plans of the game’s antagonist and prevent Thedas’ most powerful nation from sliding into chaos.

Here you dive into a well-designed thicket of political intrigue at a masquerade ball-cum-peace conference between Celene and her foe in the Orlesian Civil War, Grand Duke Gaspard, who seeks the throne for himself. A third party is also triangulating at the ball from the perch of a grand balcony, Ambassador Briala who speaks for the Elven rebels who had been harrying both sides in the civil war.

Yet so much more is going on behind all these wicked eyes, as you quickly learn that Briala and the Empress have no small amount of history.

***

Briala was once Empress Celene’s personal chambermaid, who acted as her eyes and ears–and even her blade– in the palace, in the slums of Val Royeaux, and further afield when it was required. As you collect rumours and gossip from the prattling guests at the Winter Palace, you also learn that she and Celene were once lovers. In your explorations of the off-limits parts of the palace you can find a storeroom where Celene has kept an Elven locket and use it to confront both Celene and Briala with the rumour, to which they both admit (why hide such a thing from someone called ‘the Inquisitor,’ after all?).

Orlesian custom is a spiderweb of decorum, metaphor, and implication, and I realised this when both women discussed how they “parted ways” in very gentle, almost unassuming terms. Celene says that Briala “wanted change [for the Elves], and thought I should be the one to deliver it.” Even though she expresses regret and says she should’ve “dared more,” she steels herself beneath her mask and insists the locket meant nothing to her. Briala, for her part, is shocked that Celene kept the token, which she had long ago gifted to Celene in honour of her coronation, but her thoughts immediately turned to how impolitic and un-strategic it was for her to keep it.

That Orlesian understatement, however, hints at something far greater and far darker.

Briala and Celene 7

***

Bioware writer Patrick Weekes tried his hand at writing a Dragon Age novel, the first penned by someone other than David Gaider, and acquitted himself mightily with “The Masked Empire,” the backstory behind everything that came to a head in “Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts.” In the process he provides a blueprint for writing queer women as believable, flawed, and troubled people.

This book is where it all began, over a year earlier: the civil war, the Elven rebellion, Gaspard’s ascendancy, and Celene and Briala’s breakup. Briala herself is brilliantly portrayed as a permanently compromised woman: an Elf with the ear of an Empress, using her not inconsiderable influence to steadily improve the lot of her people in a kingdom that despises and ghettoises them.

Every day she lives with the conflict of knowing she is an Elf, and at once more powerful than most of her people, yet still subject to the Empress’ whim. She knows the alienage of Val Royeaux well, yet stands as a woman apart from its residents, better dressed and infinitely more privileged from them, above their quotidian struggles. Neither is she of the purist, nationalist ideology that pervades the Dalish clans who roam the countryside, trying to live in accordance with an ancient culture that humans long ago destroyed.

Despite it all, and despite all the rumours and sniping from the shadows, she strives to use her position to improve the lives of Elves–getting them admitted to Thedas’ Oxford, the University of Orlais, for instance, or allowing Elven merchants to sell wares outside the slums and alienages to which Elves are normally confined. This life of compromise, of being the outsider insider who runs between worlds and belongs nowhere, is a brilliant picture of what it means to be a relatively privileged and fortunate member of an otherwise marginalised group–forever caught between the conservative tendencies of power, and the radical will of the oppressed who want (and need) change right now.

Briala and Celene 5

Celene, meanwhile, is the perfect portrait of the moderate liberal, whose desire for progressive change is sincere but mired under layers of old prejudices and imperial disdain for those she sees as beneath her; Briala knows that as much as they love each other, Celene still sometimes sees Briala as “one of the good ones,” a thought that guts her.

I won’t summarise all the events of the book, and instead rush to spoil the main bits. Due to political manoeuvring gone awry, Celene violently puts down an Elven rebellion in the city of Halamshiral murdering hundreds or even thousands of Elves, just as Briala was attempting a more subtle, targeted solution that might have calmed everyone down. Celene justified this as an unavoidable response to the Elven rebellion, and a necessary evil that would prove her tough enough to keep the throne and making small, incremental change. Despite herself, over the course of a long journey through the wilderness, Briala seems to forgive Celene and commits herself to getting her love back to Val Royeaux where she can reclaim her throne after an ambush by Gaspard drove her into temporary exile.

Later in the book, Celene’s champion, Michel, duels Gaspard honourably for the throne of Orlais; Gaspard loses and bares his neck to the blade of his opponent. In that precise moment, Briala calls in a favour that Michel owed her. The favour? Yield and allow Gaspard to live. For those who played Inquisition, the ramifications of that decision are clear.

Had Gaspard died, there would have been no civil war; a throne war requires a usurper, after all, and Gaspard’s cult of personality drove the revolt against Celene’s supposedly weak and effete rule. Instead, Briala took away the very thing that mattered most to Celene: the stability of her empire. She lit a fire before Celene and walked away from her, the palace staff, and her old life in Val Royeaux. Both women were heartbroken, but Briala did what she needed to, even after she and Celene had burnt down a Dalish village where they were being held prisoner. Briala did it both because she had lost faith in the Dalish, who she now saw as the enemies of her people in Thedas’ alienages for their aloof scorn of their ‘flat eared’ kin, and to help Celene. Celene did it for herself, to make her escape back to Orlais proper–only for Briala to stop it all and give her benediction to a civil war that took away nearly everything Celene wanted, including the love of her life.

The blood on both women’s hands is undeniable and without measure, each chasing after a distant moral goal and ruthlessly compromising whatever it took to reach it, convinced that they alone knew what was best for the millions who milled in the world beneath them.

Briala and Celene Inquisition_-_Quest_-_Wicked_Eyes_and_Wicked_Hearts_-_Court_Disapproval

Two of a Kind

“Sitting on my throne, I see every city in the empire. If I must burn one to save the rest, I will weep, but I will light the torch!”

~Empress Celene, The Masked Empire

Briala became a revolutionary for her people, but could never quite admit to herself that she saw “little people” in much the same way as Celene: chess pieces to be moved in a grand game with grander goals. Neither, of course, expected the chess pieces to understand their motivations. Briala and Celene both were convinced that their actions, however violent, were in the ultimate service of a better society–and indeed they were hemmed into that terrifying calculus by the very brutality of Thedas itself, a murderous world where one lives and dies by the sword, and where Elves are treated like game animals by humans; Briala knew some compromise was necessary.

Such compromise would cost her in the eyes of some of her own people, including those she sacrificed so much to help. In Inquisition, you can find an Elven servant who despises Briala. “Now she wants to play revolution. But I remember. She was sleeping with the empress who purged our alienage,” she seethes, scorning her as “Celene’s pet.”

Briala_tarot
Briala, in her more unassuming guise.

Briala and Celene, despite existing at opposite ends of a power spectrum, were more alike than either cared to admit. It is telling that Briala’s act of vengeance against Celene for Halamshiral was political rather than something purely personal. She met Celene’s burning slum and raised her a burning empire.

It was a terrifying, bloody dance that only these two women in love could perform. If you bring Sera along with you to the Winter Palace, upon meeting the bitter servant and hearing her confirm Briala and Celene were lovers, she remarks “Knew it! I did. And I bet the hate made it feel real good.” She’s perhaps more right than she knows.

Briala was resented as a ‘flat-eared’ Elf by some, seen as a ‘knife ear’ by humans, and too privileged to understand the alienages by others. She preached the gospel of compromise even as she struggled with terrible existential questions. How far do you “sell out” before the bad outweighs the good? What is worth sacrificing now for gains down the road? When do you fight prejudice and when do you grin and bear it?

Celene, meanwhile, compromised from the other direction: how radical could she be without ceding the very power she needed to enact change? How many nobles could she turn against her while still saving lives? One is left to wonder how much of this terrible conflict both women worked out upon each other.

The Perfect Videogame Protagonists

Briala’s mother framed the mother of another servant girl in the palace to position her daughter beside the young princess who would be queen. Her whole life was a series of dances in Orlais’ deadly Game, the often deadly political intrigues that serve as an unintentional metaphor for videogaming if ever there was one. Celene and Briala are both the stars of their own stories, with everyone else, even each other at times, a supporting character to be set alight if expediency to the win condition demands it. They’re the ultimate videogame protagonists in that way–your Inquisitor, who already cut a bloody swathe through Thedas by the time “Wicked Eyes, Wicked Hearts” begins, is no different. But Celene and Briala’s tortured love for one another provides an especially twisted reflection through which to understand this phenomenon.

Briala and Celene 5
Empress Celene

Where did the revenge end and the revolution begin, for Briala? After she let Gaspard live, after all, she took over a network of eluvians (ancient Elven mirrors that allow for instant travel over vast distances), inaugurating a spy network and rebellion that actively prolonged the bloody civil war Briala started. All this in the name of creating space to help the Elves of Orlais’ slums and alienages. It’s hard not to wonder if Celene wouldn’t have been proud behind her anguish. Both women, after all, saw the world from ten thousand feet; both were master strategists who were not above sacrificing what they saw as pawns on a grand board.

At the end of “Wicked Eyes” your Inquisitor can choose to reunite Briala and Celene, while Gaspard is finally put to the sword that Briala had mercifully spared him from a year earlier.

In that event, Celene keeps her throne, and Briala becomes the Marquise of the Dales, the first Elf to hold a noble title in Orlais. Fitting that it should occur in Halamshiral, where the two lovers set both their lives aflame not long ago; the only way they could truly reconcile was through a night of deadly political manoeuvres that saw everyone from nobles to Tevinter mages to servants die in the palace’s gilded halls, a bloody game that both women knew could end with one or both of them losing for the last time.

As they give their victory speech, the gathered nobility listen while Celene talks about the “cornerstone of change” being laid, and Briala speaks rousingly of how the night’s events are a “triumph for everyone,” in keeping with the way Elves and humans alike fought against the ancient Tevinter Imperium centuries ago. Pitch perfect politics, and Briala reveals herself as every inch the equal of Celene, even when delivering an historic speech for the benefit of the entire nation.

What the crowd did not see was the blood that trailed behind both women as they held hands in the dark.

Nuclear Unicorn: Now on Patreon!

Hey there Nuclear Unicorners,

As you’re probably all well aware, the vast bulk of my work has since moved to a variety of other websites and publications. But given that freelancing doesn’t always pay the bills, and the fact that I would like to put some of my essay work back here, I thought it was time for me to start my own Patreon (only, of course, after the bludgeoning love of many friends and colleagues who encouraged me to do so).

If you notice, the stretch goals involve funding more writing here and over the long term I would, like many of my colleagues in gaming criticism, like to have a healthy personal blogging presence as well as a presence in the wider gaming press. If you like what you’ve seen here and elsewhere, please feel free to donate, and thank you so much in advance. Click below to donate!

kaGh5_patreon_name_and_message

State of the ‘Corn: My 2014 in Review

A drawing of me by the wonderful AppleCiderMage of the Justice Points podcast (where I appeared this year for a chat). The background of my hometown was added by one of my partners, Rachel.

For regular readers of this blog it has doubtlessly not escaped your notice that I’ve been a rather infrequent presence here this past year. Much of my writing lives elsewhere these days; I’ve been a frequent contributor to RH Reality Check, I have a regular column at Feministing, and I have contributed features to Bitch Magazine. 2014 has been one hell of year and, especially in light of the hells and furies wrought by its final quarter, it’s quite fashionable now to, Festivus-style, air one’s grievances in any attempt to look back on the year.

Having stood in the midst of GamerGate I certainly have plenty of cause to want to turn the book on this year and be done with it. But the year does not belong to them, and if I were to look back on 2014 I would say that on the whole, what will endure for me is the fact that this year has been tremendously good for my growth as a writer and scholar, and that it was the first year that I have truly been able to live the professional life I want to.

While it is popular these days to, for one reason or another, lament the state of the video gaming world, I remain very optimistic. Although a number of challenges remain, the recent backlash has a lot more to do with the fact that the changes made in the world of gaming are here to stay, as are the people who are the faces of that change.

The wider world of politics is something I’m a good deal more concerned about for reasons that should be obvious to anyone following the news. I’ve written extensively this year about different manifestations of racism and police brutality.

Without further ado, however, here are some of my favourite pieces of my own writing from this past year:

Video/Gaming

Perhaps the most cited piece of writing I’ve done this year about games has been “We Will Force Gaming to be Free,” a lengthy and unexpectedly popular essay I wrote for First Person Scholar about how GamerGate quickly came to resemble classic examples of out-of-control revolutionary movements and had fully given itself to violent, “ends justify the means” thinking.

I’ve written a lot for Bitch Magazine this year, but the most fun I had writing for them was this feature on erotic roleplaying subcultures in the world of gaming, both video and pen-and-paper. The artwork they commissioned is also my favourite.

Amy Martin's incredible depiction of ERP is both artful *and* accurate.
Amy Martin’s incredible depiction of ERP is both artful *and* accurate.

Another widely read piece was this (now tragically prescient) editorial I wrote for Polygon about how a “terror dream,” spawned by past censorship battles, wracks the gaming community, making it vulnerable to perceiving any criticism as an attempt to “take our games away.” Also in Polygon, I wrote about the tragedy of how violence is the “idiom of progress” in too many games and that developing gaming as a medium requires coming up with new ways to win (and with thinking beyond the idea of “winning” in the first place).

I wrote extensively about GamerGate as many know. I was one of the first to cover it for a non-gaming news outlet, writing an editorial essay for RH Reality Check about what it revealed about the silencing of critical women (many commenters rushed to buttress my point). My writing on the matter mostly lived on Feministing: I took on the (thankfully rescinded) decision by Intel to pull advertising from Gamasutra, how GamerGate polices the meaning of “gamer” in a deeply exclusionary way, and interviewed Revolution 60 game developer Brianna Wu.

But thankfully I got to write a bit about games themselves as well. Here, for Polygon, I compare Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri to Civilisation: Beyond Earth and find the latter wanting due to its inability to tie its mechanics into a wider narrative. Meanwhile, in one of my very few blog posts here this year, I wrote an essay about Hate Plus’ stealth villain, Oh Eun-a, and what she reveals about the impossibilities of womanhood amidst the stalled gender revolution of the modern world. I also wrote for Feministing about how fantasy RPG religions make for interesting moral exploratory tools and how newer games like Pathfinder are taking this to the next level.

Also, the delightful Jonathan Mann of Song-a-Day fame actually wrote a song inspired by my Polygon “terror dream” essay that distilled its message into a catchy diddy:

Everything Else Political

Since so much of my writing is about day-to-day gender politics, I’ll be a little bit more parsimonious with which essays I put here. I’ll be celebrating my first anniversary as a Feministing columnist very soon, so you can simply see my year in letters at my page on the site, as well as everything I wrote at RH Reality Check this year.

Online Toxicity

If you heard of me prior to GamerGate it was as the author of Words, Words, Words: On Toxicity and Abuse in Online Activism, the unfortunately named essay that helped frame a larger discussion among feminists about whether we were being too extreme, aggressive, and, yes, toxic in our interactions with one another. I added a postscript to address common criticisms of the argument I advanced.

In the wake of this, Nation writer Michelle Goldberg wrote a feature in that magazine about toxicity in online activism that featured quotes from me and my essay. Regrettably, however, she used the feature to frame the discussion almost entirely in terms that scapegoated black women for said toxicity and racialised the issue in a way that dramatically oversimplified (and dare I say, toxified) the points I and others were making. My response to that, and to the ensuing activist furore (which did little to help matters), can be found here in another unfortunately titled piece (I like to think I’ve gotten better with those!)

On Violence, Racism, and Masculinity

This has been a terrifying year in a number of ways. I wrote here about the oft overlooked misogyny of the far right, including neo-Nazis and white nationalists. Here, at RH Reality Check, I responded to the horrifying misogynist mass shooting committed by Eliot Rodger. I also wrote extensively about how police violence against black communities is a reproductive justice issue, and how the violence of our society grows out of an alarming veneration of violence as the solution to all our problems, which I argued leads to the “militarised mind.” I wrote several articles about the tragic case of Jane Doe, an incarcerated trans girl who was failed by child protective services, in Connecticut, but one of the better essays I wrote on the subject can be found here.

Transfeminism

The Jane Doe essays could easily fit here as well. But I will just highlight the writing I did about the Grantland feature early this year that exploited the death of Dr. V, a trans woman who committed suicide as a result of the author proposing to out her in the piece. I also replied to the apology by Grantland’s EIC Bill Simmons.

On a happier note, I wrote a feature for this season’s Bitch Magazine that took a broad survey of the recent efflorescence of trans women’s literature in recent years. This has been an unparalleled time of growth for independent writing by, for, and about trans women that transcends traditional narratives.

Hope

It’s been an indisputably hard year, so much so that there are Fuck 2014 shirts that one can buy to express their middle-fingered displeasure with it. There’s good reason to be outraged at this year’s events– another futuristic sounding year chock full of terrifyingly retrograde happenings. But there is always reason to be optimistic about what lies beyond tomorrow’s veil, and I think that one of the best things I wrote this year was a gentle reminder to others, especially my fellow feminists, that all is not lost. Cynicism remains our worst enemy, and we cannot let the perfect haunt the good we do at every step.

And I think that’s a good way to wind up this increasingly prodigious overview. In conclusion, I wrote far too much. Happy 2015 to all!

The Philosopher Queen of the Night: On “Hate Plus'” Oh Eun-a

(Note: This essay contains spoilers for both Analogue: A Hate Story and its sequel Hate Plus; in addition it assumes knowledge of the game and its story.)

"She seems ...well... like one of the most amazing villainesses I've ever encountered."
“She seems …well… like one of the most amazing villainesses I’ve ever encountered.” (Pictured, Oh Eun-a. The one with the cursor on her face is *Hyun-ae).

“I just can’t believe a woman is responsible for all of this!” exclaims *Hyun-ae as you finish reading the most revelatory letter in all of Hate Plus’ archives. Her fury boils over—the regressed patriarchal nightmare that had taken hold on her colony ship, the Mugunghwa, the ninth circle of hell she had awoken into when her stasis pod was shattered by a feckless noble in want of a marriageable daughter, the same man who would steal her voice with steel—all of this was sired by a woman who made of her ideology a terrifying suture to bind the wounds of womanhood.

Oh Eun-a, no less an emancipated woman than the President of Mugunghwa University herself. She was the architect of the neo-Confucian patriarchy that the Mugunghwa degenerated into.

If pressed to name my favourite character in the series, I would—to no one’s greater shock than my own—have to name Oh Eun-a, however. In a game series that is an epistolary tableau of complex and intriguing characters, she manages quite the feat by standing out the most. Oh Eun-a is perhaps most easily described—and effaced—as a mad social scientist. But she is so much more than this sideways twist on a hoary old cliché; indeed, she reveals both the impossibility of womanhood under patriarchy and the terrible burdens of idealistic scholarship. Continue reading

But For the Grace of Tuche: Why Writers Should Avoid the Temptations of Caricature

An earth like planet set against the deep of space with two yellow suns glowing in the backdrop.
Alpha Centauri’s title screen.

It is an indispensible commonplace of feminist criticism to say that prejudicial archetypes are not only socially harmful but make for bad storytelling. We are not just saying that to be diplomatic, however. It reflects a truism of narrative art and characterisation themselves: the easy catharsis of cardboard-cutouts is alluring but a dead end in terms of artistic staying power. Making a character a lazy stereotype may plug a gap in your story, but ultimately leaves it hollow and unaffecting. To use such stereotypes ensures art that merely goes through the motions without actually taking us anywhere.

Original characterisation, and its delightful conveyance of the player to another world, have never been a monopoly of so-called “high art.” After all, the best popular art can manifest that quality as well: to be memorable precisely through avoiding the paint-by-numbers of stereotypical characters. The Mass Effect series does this spectacularly well. But I think a good example that has precious little to do with the so called “identity politics” issues that get peoples’ backs up would suffice for an exploration of what I mean here.

**

Any account of my often lonely childhood would be incomplete without the chillingly ethereal soundtrack of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri backing it. As a classic 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) game in the tradition of Civilisation it hardly seems like a goldmine of characterisation. But, freed as it was from the constraints of a game with actual historical figures, Alpha Centauri’s speculative sensibility allowed for “faction leaders” for each nation you could play that had their own fully developed philosophies, ideas, personalities, and histories. What resulted was a diverse pantheon of leaders who taught me more than a little about the political tapestry of our world.

And the developers did so while avoiding easy, popular caricaturing. The game was suffused with quotes—every time you built an improvement to one of your cities, or researched a new technology, or built a new secret project, you were treated to an extended, illustrative monologue of some sort, richly voice acted. Sometimes they were quotes from historical works of literature or philosophy, but other times they were the geniusical science fiction writing that gave life to the fictitious world leaders of an alien planet.

A screenshot from Alpha Centauri showing a panel superimposed on the game screen with portraits of the seven leaders, each with a glowing "Yay" "Nay" or "Eliminated" beneath their names; this is the game's diplomacy screen.
All seven of the playable factional/ideological leaders from the original game.

The genius lay in their seduction—every philosophy, be it radical environmentalism, uncompromising scientism, religious fundamentalism, or collectivist authoritarianism, was given a worthy exponent who argued for her or his cause with unparalleled skill. They were credible as world leaders and philosopher monarchs ruling kingdoms that orbited distant suns. They made you believe in their causes—or seriously consider it.

What’s more: they stayed with me. One character in particular would slip under my radar and influence my thinking years after I upgraded my computer beyond any operating system that could run the game without some serious fixing.

Sister Miriam Godwinson, the leader of the Lord’s Believers faction, would be easy to caricature as a malevolent, mad religious zealot who is laughably irrational and mindless. Instead, the writers gave us a character with discomfiting subtlety who forces those of us inclined to the realm of reason to confront what it is about faith that draws so many.

The narrative filaments of the game are thin; you’re building a civilisation, not playing an RPG. But there is a story of technological development that laces through your march down the game’s research tree. As this is a game set in the 22nd century, it’s only a matter of time before you discover AI and nanotechnology, and only a matter of time before these things facilitate rather ugly forms of social control.

It is Miriam Godwinson who pens a work of philosophy entitled “We Must Dissent.” Attending one secret project video, which shows graffiti-painting dissidents being slaughtered by an AI security system, is Godwinson’s stern voice intoning “will we next create false gods to rule over us? How proud we have become, and how blind.” The “zealot” becomes the curious voice of reason in this new age of progress, challenging us technophilic players to wonder at the moral and ethical implications of that inexorable march.

It’s that bit about “false gods” that chimes with an especial resonance, because this game furnishes us with some rather compelling thoughts about faith and divinity.

A video still showing a concrete wall, at night, with "We Must Dissent" spraypainted on it blue paint, the spray can sitting on its side in the foreground.“God” as a metaphor has always fascinated me, and AC plays with this idea with astonishing facility. The planet this game is set on (creatively called “Planet”) is described as an “awakening alien God” because of its psychic native life that act like antibodies to human colonisation, Sister Miriam talks of how “God” was quite a bit more clever than scientists thought, or averring that humanity is trampling in the garden of an angry God.

Miriam speaks literally, of course. As a Christian, she quite literally believes in God. But if you see God as a metaphor her words ring truer than they might otherwise, and suddenly all this talk of God sending Man [sic] forth from the garden of Eden (the quote from Genesis that acts as an epigraph to the game) begins to make a bit more sense.

If one sneaks past Miriam’s literalism to get at the germ of the insights she drops throughout the game, you are treated to a perspectival shift about just what this thing called “society” is and what our universe is relative to the humble efforts of sapient beings. It goes back to an idea I never tire of citing from Martha Nussbaum’s magnum opus, The Fragility of Goodness; the ancient Greek notion of “tuche.”

Tuche, a very distant ancestor of the word “luck”, is a much broader concept than that in the cosmology of Greek antiquity: it essentially means all the grandiose, macro-level forces that bear down on human life but are woefully out of anyone’s control. It is luck, yes, also Fate, but also nature, society, the wrath of the gods, or the crushing weight of historical events in motion. Although techne–as opposed to tuche is used to describe the artefacts of civilsation made by humans, I’ll argue here that society itself is bigger than our technological achievements and acts as a force of nature unto itself.

If we think of Miriam’s “god” as tuche, suddenly her insights can teach you something more interesting than “religious zealots are backward, irrational Luddites.” That stereotype would no doubt be satisfying, but it is nowhere near as memorable (or didactic) as what Miriam ultimately became.

“Men in their arrogance claim to understand the nature of creation, and devise elaborate theories to describe its behavior. But always they discover in the end that God was quite a bit more clever than they thought.”
— Sister Miriam Godwinson“We Must Dissent” 

It’s easy to read this as a neo-creatonist screed; but as a sociologist I found something in this that was all too familiar. Take “creation” as the metaphor it’s often used as (“I looked for her all over creation”), and then consider the long and troubled history that we in both the social and natural sciences have endured as we try to explain what we as human beings have wrought. In sociology alone, the unyielding march of theory after theory to try and grasp the totality of civilisation, explain it, and render it predictable, has always been stymied by the way that tuche surprises us, revealing yet one more variable in an already impossibly lugubrious equation. Marxism, functionalism, constructivism, neo-institutionalism, conflict theory, sociobiology, neurosociology, middle-range theory, psychoanalytic theory, structuralism, post-structuralism, and now (Goddess save us all) postmodernism; we try and try so very hard to get it all into one theoretical framework that reveals the mechanics of our world, but our god (society, history, culture, civilisation) is always quite a bit more clever than we had hoped.

Even postmodernism—that cynical reaction to past-failures, an abjuration of our ability to explain matters empirically—is thwarted by society’s continued, insistent existence and its halting explicability. There’s always enough we can explain through a gesture to “social structure,” enough to make a mockery of mircological cynicism—but never enough to satisfy the grand theoretical projects that are every social scientist’s wet dream.

All of these thoughts, and quite a few more than I have space to explore here, were sired by a few lines from a game I played when I was fifteen years old. Such thoughts come about because each voiced character was given a personality that not only transcended stereotypes but also challenged them; it forced little-me to confront the fact that I could learn something from people I disagreed with—things that neither they nor I would have expected.

In this way of looking at things “Miriam’s god,” referenced in her various quotes, is a heady combination of everything that humans, in our herculean individualist mode, cannot control: the undulating tides of society, the totality of nature, the screaming silence of the universe (“is nothingness any less a miracle than substance?”). And from that perspective comes a kind of reverence that anyone, from atheists to the devout, could appreciate.

**

From the delicate strands,
between minds we weave our mesh:
a blanket to warm the soul.

–Lady Deidre Skye, “The Collected Poems”

Four organic towers, each with synthetic discs jutting out up and down the length of the natural skyscrapers in a step-like pattern, set against a glowing orange sky and sunset.
Artwork of a Gaian City, from the game.

I never played the Believers, I either played as the Peacekeepers (liberal democrats), or the Gaians (ecological democrats); the latter being led by Deidre Skye. As I grew older, her thoughts on society were of more than a little interest as well. Her poem, cited here, is about a telepathic matrix—technology that allows for direct communication between human minds. But once again, metaphor serves us well; the poem can be read as a description of community at its best. The game taught me to go beyond the literal and identify the thoughts (”our mesh,” perhaps) that underlay a variety of different ideas, and how to find precious perspicacity amidst the small world of my adolescence, all in what looked to my parents like some silly video game with unusually good voice acting.

You can do a lot with a world that avoids easy stereotypes or cardboard cutouts. You can grace the nimbus of art’s highest purposes, no matter its genre or medium, and realise you are flying.

Eternity lies ahead of us, and behind. Have you drunk your fill?

— Lady Deirdre Skye, “Conversations With Planet”, Epilogue

The Chapel Perilous: On the Quiet Narratives in the Shadows

A silhouette of a woman in profile, hands clasped together in prayer against a white background.

Michelle Goldberg’s feature in The Nation magazine about “Feminism’s toxic Twitter wars” landed in the social justice community like an incendiary cluster bomb and its merciless conflagration is still raging online. The article, framed around discourse about race among feminists and implicit villainisation of Mikki Kendall (of #solidarityisforwhitewomen fame), enraged many who saw its misrepresentation of complex discussions skew towards condemning forthright voices of colour and protesting the innocence of the most privileged, white feminist leaders.

As someone who was interviewed in the piece, I feel a certain sense of responsibility for this and an obligation to speak out about the impact of something I had contributed to. If I had known that this was the article Ms. Goldberg would write, I would have advised her to write or frame it differently at the very least, or even hand it off to a writer from the communities she was describing who could better handle the fjord-like shoals of nuance that such critiques require. Whatever her intentions or beliefs, which I will not speculate about here, she wrote something that—as I have reflected these many long days—has left many feeling unheard, misunderstood, and villainised.

This, of course, does not even begin to describe how many trans people, myself included, felt mocked by Goldberg’s Spartan and unsympathetic description of the latest debate around the use of the word “vagina” as synecdoche for “women.”

But in the process of expressing that outrage something was lost, ultimately to the point of being effaced entirely: the fact that the article in question extensively quoted myself—a trans Latina—and other women of colour who spoke specifically to the ways that the aforementioned “toxic” culture in feminism had been harmful to us and our communities in particular.

In short, we spoke to the tragic irony of a purportedly intersectional feminism, operating in our names, which then erased us for our own putative good.

In the wake of another round of community-driven call-out articles on this topic, I felt compelled to do something I never thought I’d find myself doing—mostly out of my curious combination of shyness and wordiness—and that was to rant on Twitter.

Well, here’s the more “seemly space” I described, and come what may, here is the fuller version of what I had to say:

The Whitewashing of Activist Discourse

In the wake of Goldberg’s article, the right and proper impulse to defend Kendall and the other feminists of colour who had been antagonised by the piece became the dominant theme of much of the media criticism; it was beautiful in its way, it showed an unbowed community unwilling to be locked out of discourse about their lives and the meaning of their existence. They would not be dictated to about what their activism meant, nor would we stand for undue criticism of a tool that we use to talk back to the powerful.

A prime example of the latter is Janet Mock’s uncompromising response to Piers Morgan and his sensationalising interview that fixated unnecessarily on her embodiment rather than her activism. As she said, speaking to Buzzfeed about the incident, “That’s the special thing about social media now is that we can talk back. Piers doesn’t have the final say…Our media is just as valid.”

But the aforementioned Nation cluster bomb effect ensured that the community became more polarised than ever on the discussion of internal toxicity, and in the process the online debate became entirely about upper class white cis women and how the media was defending their hurt feelings against our online horde.

Some prominent activists even said that the article only defended white women and was only about their interests and interpretations—a fact that was patently untrue by dint of my own participation, as well as that of Samhita Mukhopadhyay, Brittney Cooper, Anna Holmes, Kimberlé Crenshaw and Jamia Wilson.

Indeed, the erasure of what we said in the activist responses to the article, and in the name of the new dominant narrative about it, which asserts that the Nation piece only privileged white women’s perspectives and interests, many social justice activists have repeated the manoeuvre that Jamia Wilson recounted from her own experience with the #FemFuture debacle:

“One self-described white feminist tweeted at her to explain that no women of color had been at the Barnard meeting “and that I needed to be educated about that,” Wilson recalls. Somehow, activists who prided themselves on their racial enlightenment “were whitesplaining me about racism,” she adds, laughing.”

I will also go on the record here and say that for all the unforced errors in the Nation feature’s framing, Goldberg’s use of my interview quotes and snippets of my writing did not in any sense “take them out of context,” as some have alleged. I cannot speak for any of the others, and Mikki Kendall herself has stated publicly that Goldberg misrepresented and misused her words (to be clear, soliciting Kendall’s memories about 5 year old events, and then calling her “obsessive” because she happened to remember, is downright low and patently unfair).

But for my part, my words were contextualised appropriately, and I will not claim to have been used by Ms. Goldberg, nor will I lend credence to the racist suggestion of others that saw me and the other women of colour dismissed as “tokens.”

As I tweeted, our part in the article was either ignored, or we were dismissed as tokens and then ignored. This is not a matter of personal pride and petulance; believe me when I say that there is a big part of me that wishes to squirrel up in a cave and never talk about this again. I did not get into activism to pen extensive pieces about rage culture, nor dwell on these topics with all the potential criticism it could entail or hurt it could cause, on top of the social justice work and academic work I’m already doing.

This is not “look at me”—this is “look at us.”

Feminist Madonnahood Redux

The discussion that Goldberg dove into was one that had been started chiefly by marginalised people. My part in it grew out of a discourse among transgender gaming critics (two of whom, including myself, were women of colour). We continued a larger, longer tradition of internal discourse about activist culture. For many of us, this was a culture we neither created nor asked for, dominated by norms, argot, mores, and rage sired by a predominantly white, cis middle-class core that had always presumed itself implicitly more knowledgeable about “what the real issues are.”

Activist perfection and ideological purity were always luxuries of the privileged. The perfect activist life is bought; it is a commodity; it could never be something organically attainable in our present relations of capital and ruling, least of all by those of us for whom “compromise” is the air we breathe.

And this inspired discussion aplenty, mostly from the most marginalised or maligned voices in feminism, about a particular form of toxicity that threatened to rob of us of the only community we had. It was a discussion about how we, as people on the margins, hurt each other using activist logics we either did not create, or created under unacknowledged and compromised positions. It is unsurprising that women of colour and trans people have had the most to say about this; we are the ones who most exceed the comfortable boundaries of activist perfection and for whom the compromises so anathema to purism are a necessary way of life.

Many of our discussions about activist rage sought to acknowledge both our own complicity in it, why it happened, what external forces often compelled it (the Nation article is a good example of this, to which I’ll return), and yet also name who too often held the real power in activist movements and what the consequences of that were.

One of the cardinal sins of the Nation piece was that it did the very thing I strenuously avoided in my own writing about the subject: it re-litigated past events and named and shamed individuals, condensing all possible discussion into a singularity from which no light could escape.

Now all debate would be about whether the disagreement around #FemFuture was represented appropriately and how Mikki Kendall as an individual was characterised. It is a ditch into which discussions about activist toxicity are easily driven because of our nigh-on cognitive bias towards discussing individuals rather than social structures—no doubt it was what made Goldberg herself more interested in writing the article the way she did in the first place (or what steered her editors to encourage her to writing the article that way).

Note that I am not saying we ought not discuss these things; Mikki Kendall’s portrayal in the article is, after all, an excellent case study of the subtle ways media bias can operate and why our relationship with the press as women of colour is always a fraught one. But it is instructive to consider how the “rich white women vs. the rest of us” dynamic is all the discussion is about now.

A complex, 2D maze in blue lines set against a white backdrop.
A visual metaphor for how easy all of this is.

On Misappropriation and its Consequences

The comments beneath the Nation piece itself are, by and large, like the screaming death of reason itself. Everything I ever feared from speaking out on this topic has manifested there.

Men smugly proclaiming this is the end of feminism or proof of its obsolescence, MRAs wailing that men as a whole were victims of “feminist toxicity” and that women should be punished, atheist MRAs proclaiming Richard Dawkins the most prominent victim of “toxicity” from feminists, and still others accusing Amanda Marcotte, Rebecca Watson, Sady Doyle, and other women of being purveyors of “feminist toxicity” (against men, of course).

Meanwhile those on the Left accused Goldberg of supporting apartheid in Israel (because she’d critiqued a tactic of the boycott movement) and Justine Sacco (because she, like others, myself included, had been downright horrified by the way the response to her on social media had spiralled violently out of control—it’s one thing to call out racism, it’s another to have people waiting at an airport to harass the offender, sending rape and death threats, et cetera.).

The polarisation of the discussion evinces many of the issues with online toxicity as a whole, but also the big problem with discussing these issues in front of such a wide audience. Latoya Peterson wrote about this on Twitter recently better than I ever could:

“Real talk: The crew at [Racialicious] expected random shit to happen in feminism. We didn’t expect our peeps to try to eat us too. But you have to look at cycles/systems. If I call out xxx feminist of color for being fucked up, it gives ammo to those trying to discredit. So then, I can’t even critique someone on our beef without thinking about how that plays into power structures. Because I knew if I went hard on xxx feminist of color for xyz problem, people would piggy back on my critique in ways I didn’t want.”

The wide public exposure of what began as a family discussion makes misappropriation inevitable; it attracts swarms of people clamouring to deny responsibility, hide behind it, and tell the whole world about that one time a woman of colour was mean to them.

Which, indeed, was the other dreadful thing about the Nation comments: it seemed to spawn a whole minor subgenre within itself about white cis feminists complaining about a specific incident with a specific woman of colour from a specific number of years ago. It merely added to the drear beneath the article and, in and of itself, acts as a specific form of silencing. For one thing, it disincentivises any feminist from talking about internal community problems and poisonous dynamics, but it makes it triply hard for trans people and/or women of colour to lead those discussions because of the specific ways our words can be and often are misused.

It also makes polarisation easy; it makes sweeping declarations of “internet gentrification” easy and attractive. We can defend the most vulnerable from the most privileged, and at a stroke change or challenge the narratives directed against us.

A classic, surrealist painting of a castle in a spiral configuration converging on the centre, its channels in between populated by figures.
Remedios Varo, Spiral Transit (1962). Virtual streets– the streets we build online– are quite a bit different from the physical sort.

Whose e-Streets? Our e-Streets

But the problem with this, and the wider idea of internet gentrification and the assumptions such an argument relies on, is that it pretends there is no such thing as internal toxicity that disempowers and silences other marginalised people. It makes no provision for the way we do violence to each other.

I myself nearly got bullied out of activism by two other trans women, one of whom was a trans woman of colour, who mocked and derided me for an innocent mistake and then wished death to a friend I had been defending. In the light of hindsight, I understand why my views at the time were somewhat misguided and that this needed to be addressed, but I was so thoroughly vituperated that I nearly gave up online writing altogether.

I have helplessly watched trans loved ones be attacked by other trans people, shamed publicly as self-hating trans people, because of literally a single misunderstood word. I have borne witness to death threats, to people telling others to commit suicide (or even taking bets on whether the latter would occur), picking apart a woman of colour’s history to meet some arbitrary test of authenticity (one that was, lest we forget, structured by white supremacy), slandering someone into the ground for something they actually did not say, erasing each other’s words when it was expedient in the short term, engaging in inappropriate sexual commentary (be it about genitals, attractiveness, secondary sex characteristics, etc.), yelling at a trans woman who called 911 as a trans woman of colour was on the verge of suicide per her livetweets thereof, and so on.

These are all things we have done to each other. And sorting this out is a discussion worth having. It is still a discussion worth having, and discussing this is not “gentrification.” It is not about making the internet safe for the privileged or denuding us of our ability to respond with forthrightness and courage to those in power who antagonise us.

I have tremendous respect for those like Suey Park—the foremost articulator of the “internet gentrification” concept—who have taken the lead in responding to the prejudicial aspects of The Nation article and what it represents; the work they do for us on the outside of, or the margins, of the mainstream press and funded feminism is remarkable, challenging, and discomfiting in the best ways possible.

In that same spirit, however, we as women of colour must also not allow half of our voice to be silenced in the name of a misbegotten idea of solidarity, and I am willing to say loudly and proudly that we have the ability to have multiple difficult discussions at once, to speak truth to power and be accountable to ourselves.

There is no party line, there is only us.

The True Wages of Privilege in Activism

What I had strained to get at in my writing, as well as in my recent tweets, is the fact that so many norms in activist culture, as well as what gets considered pure and just, is often not decided by us but by better-off white radicals who have luxuries of choice and sacrifice we couldn’t dream of. Indeed, one of the leading headwinds against much of my own work comes from the trends sired by white queer masculine folks with access to class privilege, and whose definition of what constitutes queer culture, radicalism, and solidarity have a good deal more weight than those that originate from trans feminine folks and trans communities of colour.

Such white radicals are the first to wonder why no trans women of colour would show up to an event labelled “Tranny Pride” and then turn around and politely degrade us for being “conservative” or “reinforcing of the binary” in our desire for surgery, feminine affectation, or any number of other perceived sins. Those activist norms are also toxic.

It is worth noting that those same people would likely clamour to show public solidarity with an idea like “internet gentrification” (even as they gentrify neighbourhoods in the physical world), because the “enemy” it focuses on lives somewhere in a Valhalla occupied by Rachel Maddow and Gloria Steinem, and not in the world of activism where these particular white queer radicals I’ve described actually live.

The recent arguments put forth by many social justice advocates posit a Manichean cleavage between two camps of feminism. In so doing, they both erase the complicated critiques of certain (cis and trans) women of colour, and gives wide berth for culpable white radicals to hide and pretend solidarity– with no discussion about how what “radical” even means is something they have far too much control over– while also shutting down discussion over how we can hold each other accountable.

By making this discussion entirely about the already-privileged, we repeat a mistake that I criticised in a recent paper, which described the ways that popular discourse around anonymity focuses only on what (presumptively young, white, cis) men are doing with it. By fixating on men’s purported abuses of anonymity and seeing it only as an accelerant to their virtual harassment of women, I argued, we ignored the ways that online anonymity was of tremendous positive value to women, people of colour, LGBT people, and others (including domestic violence or abuse victims of all backgrounds). We blunted our own understanding of this vital modern phenomenon because of a popular fixation on the way privileged people exercised it.

The same thing is happening here in the wake of the Nation piece.

By allowing ourselves to think of the term “toxicity” only as a dog whistle against women of colour, we neglect the extensive, recent history of feminist insurgency against online harassment, which often critiqued social media, but never used it as coded synonym for women of colour’s voices or criticisms. The best way to overcome the mistakes of The Nation article is not to declare all discussion of online toxicity verboten, but to bring the discussion back to the complicated place we’ve been taking it for years—both in terms of describing internal and external dynamics. As a trans woman of colour it has been the pride of my life to write about both at length; discourse on toxicity, inside and outside feminism, has not only taken place between the privileged.

To give but one of many examples of discussions we could be having louder and more often: how much the linguistic focus of call-out culture (i.e. using the wrong terms, words, et cetera) is possessed of a significant class/formal-education-access bias. We talk about class all the time and piously observe that formal, credentialed education is a privilege, but if someone like my mother, who never went to high school and knows about all this social justice work only through me, were to stumble and say “transgendered” instead of “trans person,” what would we say? And why? If we can be honest with ourselves about that, we have already created a foundation for an important discussion.

Conclusion

That is what has been lost in the wake of the Nation article.

There is no doubt that our arguments have already been “piggy backed” on by many who are operating in bad faith, but if we allow that to silence and erase trans/women of colour with something complicated to say, those of us who embody intersectionality in its truest sense (with specific identities that also inform larger wholes) are at risk of losing the movement that supposedly speaks for us.

We cannot continue to locate the problem of prejudices exclusively in the stratum of elite media feminists or commentators—responsible as they are—we must also look inward at what we allow to transpire in the name of solidarity and what its costs are.

There is no party line, there is only us. And movement or no, everything we are, and everything we embody and represent, will remain on this earth; what we say can either further the cause of justice, or it can be lost in the name of bathing the already-privileged in yet more undeserved limelight.

Beyond Niceness: Further Thoughts on Rage

An androgynous woman striding confidently down a green hallway wearing a shirt that says "Hack the Galaxy", the air around her alive with holographic screens, a guard behind her laying incapacitated from ongoing laser fire, approaching a door where screens warn her she is unauthorised.
Thank Goddess for Eclipse Phase’s magnificent Creative Commons licence. Artwork by Mike Molnar, published in a game you should be playing.

The response to my previous article has been overwhelming and humbling; indeed, the various social media responses left me with vertigo as I looked down mile-long threads. To everyone who shared the piece, who added their experiences to its abstractions, who disagreed thoughtfully and respectfully, who vowed to speak up more often, I thank you.

There’s always more to be said, of course, and I wanted to take this opportunity to clarify my views and what I am advocating. A noteworthy critique marshalled against my article and the others like it was that we are advocating “niceness” in lieu of robust advocacy. I cannot speak for my friends and colleagues, naturally, but in speaking for my own intentions, nothing could be further from the truth.

There can be no doubt that our political discourse– at all levels– suffers from a rapidly oxidising corrosion; in response many “civility” initiatives have appeared, constellating around what one might fairly call “a cult of nice.” In their way, like the extremists they oppose, they toss the baby out with the bathwater. They abjure nastiness, but also the forcefulness that must define advocacy, which must attend any effort to challenge or change an ossified status quo. They eschew vile and childish rhetoric, but also drown in false-equivalences; as a result they are utterly allergic to the exercise of their own judgement and discernment. Most mainstream pleas for civility are little more than a supine relativism, utterly unequal to the tasks of politics.

But for my own part, I have no interest in allowing facile false equivalences and relativistic handwringing to stop us from doing our work. I sincerely believe that we can be more than either rage-fuelled or down on bended knee.

The Shape of Rage

This brings me to a second major criticism, which is that articles like mine are long on abstraction and short on specifics. There is some truth to this. By necessity, one has to avoid the appearance of airing out personal grievances in order to keep the focus on the big picture, rather than individual episodes of bad behaviour. If this sounds familiar it is because it is the mirror of my point about how activists ought to approach politics generally– keep focus on structure rather than individual “bad people.” Through these articles, I do not wish to punish people in this community that I believe wronged me or my loved ones.

This being said, I could certainly clarify what I meant to criticise in general terms, and that will also hopefully allow me to distinguish my proposals from mere “niceness.” That word is often used by my fellow activists to demean pleas for civility, for they perceive “niceness” as weakness and as the death of empowerment. They aren’t wrong–many mainstream “civility” initiatives threaten to do just that– but some activists often miss the mark with what they tar with the “nice” brush. Being nice is, let me be clear, a good thing to which we ought to aspire, but politics is not always nice. Telling someone they are wrong, or calling power-holders to account rarely entails niceties.

On the same token, however, it can be done without wishing suicide or violent death upon one’s opponents, without aimless and expletive laden ad hominem irrelevant to the issues at hand. Many feminists and anti-racist activists have been at pains to tell people they have accused of prejudice that they are attacking actions or words, not people. “I’m not saying you’re a bad person,” goes the old refrain, “just that you said something bad.” For many activists, that is indeed what we are doing. We are not saying that individuals are rotten to the core, irredeemable, evil, or inhuman; we are questioning and challenging specific acts.

Regrettably, however, we too often forget our own hard-won wisdom and allow a slippage between attacking behaviours and attacking people, allowing “you are an inherently bad person” to be said too often. I hoped to challenge the logic amongst activists that allows this to happen, and the indulgent us-versus-them thinking that seduces us into making caricatures of opponents, entirely in line with a well worn patriarchal and neoliberal playbook. I am not challenging criticism, I am challenging an invidious manifestation of it. When we begin attacking people rather than ideas, that is when we begin to lose ourselves.

There have been a number of episodes where forthrightness laced with a healthy dose of anger have helped to make change this past year. But there is a difference between an unapologetic and uncompromisingly firm piece of writing, and one that subsists on wanton cruelty. When I wrote a rebuttal to the flagrant transmisogyny evinced by Julie Burchill in her now-infamous Observer editorial, I was careful to keep the focus on what she said while also ensuring that her fundamental humanity remained in the frame of my criticism. I spared her no critique, but I targeted what was fair game: the written record of her words and ideas, the very things she had submitted to a public forum. To tell her to kill herself or worse, as some did, was unaccountably out of bounds.

What I am calling for is a nuanced ethic of action that is responsive to individual circumstances. To treat things on a case-by-case basis, and to be forthright without being “nice.” Empowered and merciful. We need that nuance to judge the infinite variety of quotidian issues we are confronted with– from microaggressions to international law. Yet we too often have a hammer and nail problem; each case is treated with the same blanket ruleset and the same system of call-outs. The lack of a “middle gear” is a major problem here. There are some people whose records are such that they could indeed be justly called “an unrepentant racist” or “pathological transphobe,” but there are many more whose mistakes deserve far, far less fire in response. Some may not have made prejudicial mistakes at all. So what is going wrong here?

Punishment and Justice

As I wrote in my recent article criticising internet mob justice of a more general variety, the impulse to act as judge, jury, and executioner all at once is a dangerous one. In the hands of, say, 4chan or angry Redditors, that impulse is obviously dangerous, even frightening. But we must cease pretending that social justice activists are somehow above the temptations to misuse that power. We, too, yearn to punish. That is an impulse that must be resisted with every fibre of our beings. It is a dangerous, bloodied path to dehumanisation.

In the spirit of the nerdiness I share with many of my fellow commentators on this issue I thought concluding with a Lord of the Rings quote might be apt. I always loved this bit from Gandalf in Fellowship:

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

I suspect, especially in these hyper-connected days where many of us participate in the internet’s mass anarchy, that every single one of us– regardless of our views– could learn from this. I myself am still struggling to take it to heart. We must, by all means, judge and use that judgement to decide what needs to be changed and how; we must, then, put our shoulders behind it, stand tall and speak truth to power. But few of us are equipped to punish justly, and too many of us are all too eager to try. That is what we have to think on: this is not about “niceness,” it’s about humanity and what we are prepared to lose en route to a better future.

I vote that we lose nothing of that humanity.

Words, Words, Words: On Toxicity and Abuse in Online Activism

A landscape image of Shodan, a feminine face made up of green digital characters against a black background.
Digital Shodan by Chris R (http://twitter.com/offby1)

To all new readers: I’ve written a follow up to this article.

Not long ago my partner and I were seated in her car discussing the arbitrary nature of certain holidays and I opined, perhaps halfheartedly, that New Year’s was a worthwhile holiday simply for it being a useful vantage point for reflection, however arbitrary. It provides an overlook whence one can see a year of one’s life and world. A recent tranche of writing by several prominent members of the trans and queer feminist gaming community has renewed my faith in that idea– with the overleaf of the year we suddenly find a great deal of penetrating insight into activist discourse and the risks incurred by our silence about certain excesses that have come to define us too often.

The wages of rage in our communities, and the often aimless, unchecked anger striking both within and without have created a climate of toxicity and fear that not only undermine our highest ideals, but also corrode the comforts of community for the very people who most need it. One of the most leaden wages of that culture of rage is, indeed, fear. I have been praised for my voice by many in this community and called “brave” by more people than I can name, count, or thank; and yet sitting in my My Documents folder is a number of articles, some finished, others not, that are “on ice.”

When I mention the icebox of unpublished posts and articles to friends and colleagues, I do so with a forced smile, pretending that it’s a heady combination of academic perfectionism and fear of being attacked by bigots that leads me to suppress them. There is more than a grain of truth to this. As many of my friends, loved ones, and sisters in struggle have demonstrated and written about, there is a lot to fear from the 4chan-esque world of angry young men with ample resentment towards those of us they perceive to be purloining some birthright of theirs. My academic work is devoted, in no small measure to explaining their behaviour (more on this in a bit).

But I am lying when I say they are the sole source of my hesitation.

The rest, often as not even the lion’s share, comes from fear of something with the power to cut even deeper– my own community. I fear being cast suddenly as one of the “bad guys” for being insufficiently radical, too nuanced or too forgiving, or for simply writing something whose offensive dimensions would be unknown to me at the time of publication. In other words, for making an innocently ignorant mistake.

An image of a dark haired and light skinned woman, eyes closed with two fingers pressed to her temple as she is surrounded by a number of holographic images.
Woman’s place is on the internet– and it’s our responsibility to make it safe for each other. (Artwork from Eclipse Phase by Tariq Hassan used under Creative Commons).

The Tumblr-isation of Activism

I have feared stumbling over the Tumblr trip wire and falling into the abyss of “call-out culture” to be discredited with every slur and slander in the book by the people who I ought to be able to trust the most. This stays my author’s hand as much as anxiety about being attacked by, say, the same crowd that bedevils Anita Sarkeesian. I fear the moment I get tarred as a “collaborator,” “apologist” for privilege, or a “sell out” (to women, to Latin@s, to working class people, to trans folk). Equally troubling is the fear of my loved ones being caught in the mammoth whirlpool of Twitter/Tumblr Justice and tarred for their association with me.

Fear of this sends me, yearning, into the oblivious embrace of silence.

I have written about this in the past, obliquely, and spoken in either couched or very specific terms about my feelings on this matter, which have haunted my thoughts for some time. So much online social justice activism has become hyper-vigilant against sin, great or small, past or present. That sense, that even the smallest, meanest revelation of past transgressions would come back to haunt me, inspired this paragraph in an old article I wrote about the painful contradictions of feminist activism:

“The pressure for me has always been to aspire to that feminist Madonnahood, and the perfection this demands is rigorous indeed. There is a strangely Catholic quality to the demand I often hear to show my scars, to prove I am a woman by showing how I have been hurt, to prove that patriarchy can wound me by showing how it has.

For there is something very odd about what the perfection my activism and my internalised sense of morality has demanded of me. It is not only that I show my scars but that I, paradoxically, testify to my permanent perfection from birth. In this world where patriarchy has scratched, burned, and tortured me- and where proving this martyrdom is a requirement of feminist perfection- I must also somehow be unblemished by patriarchy.”

I stand by this, but I deliberately left enough spaces for readers to assume that I was speaking about white cis middle class feminism, the dreaded “mainstream” variety that it was more acceptable to criticise. I was, but I was also speaking about the wider activist enterprise upon which many of us are embarked. This includes the world of online social justice activism, trans politics–indeed, the radical left as a whole. We must paradoxically be “oppressed” and yet bear none of the markings of that oppression upon our consciousness; we can never bear baggage or scars; as people of colour we can never show our veil of double consciousness, per W.E.B DuBois. It feels, sometimes, as if we must arrive fully formed to the world of activism, the perfect agents of change, somehow entirely cognisant of the ever shifting morass of rules and prescribed or proscribed words, phrases, argot, and thought.

But this also presumes that there is some kind of Platonic perfection to which we must unproblematically aspire. There is the lingering but important question of disagreement; identity does not fully contain humanity, and there are many of us who are women, and/or trans, and/or people of colour who have good faith arguments against dominant strategic paradigms, or dominant cultures, norms, and rules. Time and again, I speak to people of my background in the whisper filled shadows of corners and corridors, quietly fretting about “getting it wrong” or being accused of collaboration or being a sell-out for voicing such criticisms. Even when such whispers have the audacity to become a loud conversation (behind locked doors) they rarely grow into public debates– too many of us fear we’re alone.

Identity and Politics

In a characteristically elegant act of rhetorical artistry, scholar Edward Said used his article on William Butler Yeats and colonialism to find insights about the entire colonial/anti-colonial enterprise. Said took the cultural ferment that he argued gave rise to much of Yeats’ oeuvre and used it to elaborate on both the triumphs and follies of decolonisation– to brilliant effect

Yeats, in being a tribune for Irish liberation (albeit a rather problematic one, as Said explains elsewhere), wrote poetry that was not only about Ireland and Irishness but also poems that held,

“…a good deal of promise in getting beyond them, not remaining trapped in the emotional self-indulgence of celebrating one’s own identity. There is first of all the possibility of discovering a world not constructed out of warring essences. Second, there is the possibility of a universalism that is not limited or coercive, which beliving that all people have only one single identity is… Third, and most important, moving beyond nativism does not mean abandoning nationality, but it does mean thinking of local identity as not exhaustive, and therefore not being anxious to confine one’s self to one’s own sphere, with its ceremonies of belonging, its built in chauvinism, and its limiting sense of security.”

“Nativism” is Said’s word for nationalisms that trumpet a reversal of colonialist hierarchies, exalting rather than denigrating the purported essence of the colonised. This, Said argues, leads to a “metaphysics of essences” that then begets an “unthinking acceptance of stereotypes, myths, animosities, and traditions encouraged by imperialism.”

So, what does this have to do with us and online activism? Said was speaking to vexations that have bedevilled every liberation movement, and used art to elucidate what is a fairly common struggle: how do we continue on the path to the promised land without taking perpetual detours in hells of our own making? How do we avoid the pitfalls created by the very fires we use to emancipate ourselves? And most pertinent for me: how do we do activism without taking too much of patriarchy for granted?

I have long argued (privately) that our current phase of online activism is very much hobbled by the logic of neoliberalism and its emphasis on the individual, in ways that many of us are completely unaware of. Much online activism exalts the particular at the expense of the collective, rewarding individual episodes of catharsis and valuing them with considerably higher esteem than the more hard-nosed and less histrionic work that sustains a community. This is the dark side of the anxiety over the “tone argument.”

The Uses of Anger to Late Capitalism

Odds are if you belong to marginalised group, you are saddled with a stigma against being angry. Women, people of colour, people with disabilities, trans people, the poor and labouring classes, all face various and specific stigmas for being “too loud” or “too angry.” There are paradigmatic stereotypes in the particular, as well, “Angry Black Wo/Man,” “Angry Tranny,” “Feisty Latina,” “Dragon Lady,” “class warrior,” and so on, with which we are all painfully familiar in one way or another. It was with noble intentions that many of us rallied around the idea that “tone policing” was an oppressive construct meant to deny us the eminent humanity and cleansing fire of anger. We had a right to be angry, as surely as anyone else; moreso, even. Oppression ought to make one angry.

But in the process, “the tone argument” came to be understood less as a complex piece of social machinery than an easily identifiable trope; it then became a badge that could be waved at will in any discussion to absolve one of responsibility for their words. Even though we as leftists quite literally wrote the book(s) on why and how language matters, we suspend that understanding when it comes to our own community members because we have come to value the sanctity of their anger over the integrity of the wider group. Some of us excuse this on the grounds that we provide the only safe place for certain people to express anger without being shamed for it, and that living with oppression leaves us with pent up rage that demands expression.

The individual catharsis, then, comes to matter more than the collective, and responsibility to a wider community is blurred, if not quite lost.

It’s why it was difficult for many in the trans community to challenge the #DieCisScum hashtag, for example, because any who questioned it would be charged with “tone policing” and denying the community’s right to be angry. But the problem always was that this pseudo-therapeutic exercise in catharsis only made a few people feel better while starting a violently unnecessary and unhelpful discussion with hordes of cis people who laid their own hurt and anger at every trans person’s door. It took a tarring brush to the entire community for next to no meaningful gain, other than sticking it to “our oppressors” for the benefit of a handful.

This is where we return to Said and his argument that nativism operated under colonialist logic; in addition to the emphasis on individual catharsis, the culture of unchecked rage that sometimes wracks us is also an artefact of patriarchy itself and its lust for competitive, often violent contest. Much ink has been spilled on the masculinism that infects activist discourse, leading to delightfully snarky epithets like “Manarchism,” but we ignore the fact that white cis men are not the only people perpetuating this; it’s a culture, it does not dwell only in those with a perceived “essence.” We often unthinkingly accept and venerate the modalities and methods that patriarchy most favours; rage fuelled, unempathetic, us-versus-them politics is an ideal fit with the political hellscape of modern, neo-liberal patriarchy. It is a world that prizes the atomised particular over the powerful but compromising collective.

Your rage fuels the profits of every major website on the internet; be it Facebook, Twitter, Fox Nation, the New York Times’ comment sections, blog comments, Reddit, Tumblr, or Slashdot, your rage gets others angry, committing them to call-and-response threads hundreds of comments deep, which keeps them coming back to threads obsessively, which generates pageviews, ad impressions, and more revenue for the interested parties.

Activist rage is linkbait.

The isomorphism between the particularly fiery posture of some activism and the weeknight lineup of American cable news ought not be lost on us. If we can recognise the latter as a cynical sop to capital that is degrading our discourse, then it might be time to acknowledge that, at least sometimes, we are pressed into a similar role by the cultural logic of our society. Rage seduces us all, no matter what our background, and its sirensong will always be in the language that most appeals to us as individuals, regardless of our politics.

An image showing two wire mesh human faces staring at each other in an amber/orange field of numbers.
I imagine queer cyborgs might look like this, only cooler.

Ethics for Queer Cyborgs

This past year I began to outline a theory of online behaviour, entitled Ethics For Cyborgs, that explained why we ought to go beyond blaming anonymity for the rash outbreaks of prejudice and mass cruelty that predominate online– what is sometimes erroneously called “trolling,” and what too often becomes a very material threat to one’s life and livelihood. I argued, in brief, that although anonymity was a part of the problem, it has been vastly overemphasised in popular and academic discussions alike, and that taking it away would not bring us to a significantly better place online, free from prejudice and the oppression of privilege’s collective soft power. Instead, I said it must be defended as a common human right for us all online, and that we must look instead to the fact that the internet is presented to us as a mobius strip of reality and unreality– real when it’s convenient, unreal when it is not, and that the cultural conceits educating us into thinking of cyberspace as less real than “meatspace” make inhumane behaviour inevitable. This is a new medium for human interaction, and one where our socialisation for it has been decidedly faulty, laden with the false conventional wisdom that our eyes deceive us.

This argument was presented as one that chiefly explained the well-known behaviour of prejudiced people who would form hate mobs directed at outspoken women and queer people. The hate mail, the organised campaigns, the rape and death threats, the pornography, the organised and well-marshalled targeting of people’s homes, families, and loved ones, would be, I argued, more intelligible within this framework.

What I did not foreground, however, was the fact that this theory– that we are socialised to believe the internet is less than real, and that this makes belligerent behaviour more likely and more defensible– also explained the less violent, but still worrying behaviour of some social justice activists who delight in vitriolic attacks against their own when they are perceived to have erred. The fusillade of expletive laden insults and cruelly-cast public aspersions by our own are equally explicable by that theory. We ourselves fail to keep sight of the fact that the people we attack are human beings, and that our words have power.

My friend, activist Kat Hache, spoke about this phenomenon in her own article on activist rage:

Anita Sarkeesian’s TED talk touched on this sort of performative cruelty, where targeting other individuals online has gained somewhat of a competitive aspect, similar to that of a video game, with a rewards system that reinforces toxic behavior.  I have to say, as much as I’ve seen directed at me that mirrors exactly what she describes in the threads about me on 4chan, I’ve seen a disturbing amount within the social justice circle.”

I find myself reminded of the time when I was a tadpole trans woman and mere neophyte blogger, when I was raked over the coals by a woman who damned me for defending a cis friend who had made a mistake on trans issues; not only was I torn into, but another woman even wished death to that same friend when I (ill-advisedly) brought up her terminal illness. My interlocutor hoped my friend would die sooner, she said.

It is an extreme example but one that is nevertheless entirely too common, and one that I came perilously close to taking as a model. There was a time in my life where I took pride in being a “social justice warrior” on Reddit, ticking the boxes of others’ mistakes, missteps, and misspoken words, cruelly scolding people, looking for those who were “doing it wrong” as a means of validating my own sense of integrity as an activist, as if each person I roasted would be a talisman against the same thing happening to me ever again. It was only when I discovered that I had made someone cry for hours that I took a long step back and asked myself if I was really making the world a better place by doing this.

I had at last allowed myself to acknowledge that this was not what I wanted to do as an activist.

A poorly drawn castle on a floating island in the middle of a starry sky with a poorly drawn crescent moon above it.
My old “castle in the air” drawing– it was one of the first things I drew for blogging that symbolised my aspirations

From Here to Eternity: Concluding Thoughts

At its best, activism is not merely opposition to what is, it is also constructive of what will be. Ours is not a utopia of negatives– a world without this, without that, and so forth– but also a world of affirmatives and possibilities. This swirling gyre of rage and ressentiment is a terrible artefact of oppression, and one we ought not consign ourselves to. It is not a wormhole to liberation, however much we may wish it to be.

What aroused my concern was the fact that there are too many people, in the trans community alone, who feel like they are unable to call it their community and find shelter there because the tenor of discourse is so corrosive as to be just as stressful and antagonistic as the outside world. I hear this from a number of people who are close to me and have contributed mightily to activist communities with labour, art, and struggle– and I hear it from neophytes and outsiders who wish to join but find themselves put off by the rancour they hear from within. One example of the latter was a trans woman named Deb who commented on an article I wrote criticising the culture that led to the vicious online firestorm surrounding Carolyn Petit and her review of GTA V. Deb worried that that same “poisonous attitude” was creeping into “otherwise nice places,” going on to cite examples of speech in queer communities that troubled her. My reply was at pains to draw a clear distinction between oppressive speech and counter-oppressive speech, and to assert that the difference in power between the two was not trivial. Nevertheless, her core points could not be denied and so I addressed those at greater length. What I said there is, I think, a good way to close:

“It is not reasonable to compare the angry speech of a powerless minority to the “hate speech” (in the legal and sociological sense of that term) of a privileged group, but there is an ethical argument to be made. We may not materially disadvantage cis people when we speak in such overtly aggressive ways, but we do something equally bad– and you exemplify this– we isolate our community members and corrode the very community that is meant to be a shelter for us against an often uncaring world. I do not wish to be in a community where spite and anger are the prevailing emotions, however justified they may be in some cosmic sense. More than cis people, we owe it to each other to make our community more productive. The simple and ineluctable truth about our corrosive call-out culture is that it’s part of this larger problem I addressed, where we use the unique nature of the internet to do harm. People saying that others should commit suicide, die in a fire, or making death threats are not acceptable– whoever says them. And as feminists and social justice activists, we must make that clearer without indulging in the overused and disingenuous argument that oppression makes that sort of expression valid.”

We must remember that considering the impact of our words and the register in which they are spoken is not genuflection to the oppressor, but love and respect for our peers.

I would now take this one step further to say that while sheltering our community members must always take priority, we must also challenge ourselves to be merciful to those who make themselves our enemies, and keep their humanity in sight even as they denude themselves of it with petty hatred. We can do more than simply meet their cruelty with ineffectual rage, and we can do more than simply shelter in place from their privilege. It is time that we took our convictions to their logical conclusion and set our sights higher than the call outs of particular points of failure evinced by some hapless individual; it is time we took the next step so many in our communities are already taking, to a social justice activism recommitted to changing social structures and not just creating echo chambers to declaim against what we have. In Mattie Brice’s words we “need to keep in mind that we’re fighting the system that uses people to marginalise others, not the people themselves.”

Throughout this piece I have, likely to the consternation of some, been less careful with my uses of the terms “anger” and “rage” than some of the other critics and activists I have cited. I did this in part because I think it can be healthy to be critical about what we admit as “anger” and thus acceptable under the dominant paradigms of activist discourse. One can take the excellent tack that Aevee Bee took in her article and say that “anger isn’t abuse and abuse isn’t anger,” recognising that abuse is not something we should excuse with the ennoblement of anger that we indulge, but we can also think about the efficacy of even “acceptable” forms of anger. Why? Because I believe that lack of circumspection is at the heart of the problem. We allow important activist insights to metamorphose into inflexible rules, rather than useful information to help us make sense of an ever-undulating landscape. Yes, anger is useful and sometimes vitally necessary. But we can hold onto that while judging activist tactics on a case by case basis. Rather than applying blanket rules (“all questioning of anger is tone policing”) we can be nimbly thoughtful in our assessments and recognise that not every problem we face is the nail to anger’s hammer.

Justice does not take the shape of punishment eagerly dispensed. Let us recommit to the just creed that has summoned us to this work: a clarion call that resonates with our shared humanity and compels us towards a more compassionate and merciful understanding of justice– surely we owe it to ourselves.