I’ve been meaning to write this post for a good while, but I’ve had trouble articulating my thoughts properly. It’s not that it’s a complicated thing, really — it’s just that I want to be clear about it, if only because this is one of those topics where some people will be looking very, very hard for opportunities to misunderstand, which is the kind of nonsense I have no time or patience for.
So, in the interest of clarity, let’s start with this: I’m really talking to guys here. Hear me, fellow dudes. This concerns you, and by extension, many of the people I’m going to presume you love — but they aren’t the target audience here, boys. It’s you. It’s us guys.
Recently, De Scriptorice posted this important and hard-to-read article detailing her overwhelmingly shitty experiences in geek circles. She defines the abuse she’s had to deal with as terrorism (and with good reason; I think that’s valid), and it sparked a lot of discussion in the Finnish RPG Facebook group I’m a member of. With over 1,600 members, there were plenty of people who wanted to talk about the post, as well as other incidents similar to the post.
The whole thing went along the lines you’d expect: people were angry and shocked, there was a lot of sympathy and people came forward with stories of their own, which included a separate thread dedicated to women who wanted to share their experiences, which also was often hard to read, but incredibly useful. I’d link to some of the conversation, but it’s a closed group, so there’s not much point, and it’s in Finnish, so…
Anyway. Not surprisingly, there were also people — mostly men — who were very eager to say that they’d never seen anything like this, things like this are isolated events, there’s always two sides to every story, and geek circles are no worse than any other circles.
In general, they were pushing the idea that of course awful things are awful, but could we kind of not talk about them because it makes the scene look bad. What was left unstated, but which was pretty easy to read in the way they talked about it, was that the topic made them very uncomfortable and defensive. They didn’t want to hear about these women’s pain or humiliation or fear — they didn’t want to say that, because it’s such a shitty thing to say, but the dismissal, denial, and attempts to shift the focus of the discussion to something else (“a more interesting question than [what happened] is whether gamers are better or worse than people elsewhere”), were present. I’m sure anybody who’s ever taken part in these conversations in public knows exactly how that goes.
And you know what? I get that impulse. I do. Perhaps some of those people had engaged in the kind of reprehensible (and often criminal) behavior described in the De Scriptorice article, and in many of the stories shared by women in our group, but I’d bet most of them didn’t. I think most of them were appalled by the stories. And that’s where things get difficult, because then you have to reconcile that reaction with your own behavior. That can be a recipe for cognitive dissonance in ways that you may not even be fully aware of. I’ll get back to that in a bit.
Furthermore, if you’re a guy who thinks of himself as a good person, and doesn’t engage in the behavior that was inflicted on the women who shared their stories — if you don’t go around ignoring women’s contributions or voices, making them feel uncomfortable, or sexually harassing or outright sexually assaulting them, you can easily feel like you agree that this is all awful, but what’s that got to do with you? If you’ve never done any of that and you never would, you’re a good guy, why are you kind of being accused anyway?
I’ve got three things to say about that, and I think they’re pretty important things.
First thing. Yeah, it can feel bad, just like reading those stories feels bad.
But it would be healthy to bear in mind that no matter how awful it might make you feel, no matter how much impotent, aimless anger might churn inside you, combined with that vague sense of guilt you feel as a man, when you read about things men — not specific men, but men in general — do, that feeling’s not particularly relevant compared to what women in those actual circumstances feel.
I’m not saying what you feel doesn’t matter. It does. I’m saying you need to put your feelings in perspective. It’s not directed at you personally, whereas being the victim of sexual assault is a far more overwhelming experience — one you can’t just get away from by clicking on that X and refreshing Reddit or whatever.
Or, to be a little more blunt about it, this might not be about you and your feelings.
Second thing. It’s not unusual for good guys to do dumb things and remain unaware of what they’re doing. We do this because shitty behavior has been normalized by our culture. I have an example of this, and it’s one that is embarrassing for me to admit, but it’s true and it’s relevant, so I’m gonna say it.
“Faggot” — or the Finnish equivalent of it, anyway — is a word that was in routine use when I was much younger. It didn’t mean anything, in some ways; somebody did something you didn’t like, you’d just throw out a “fucking faggot” as a joke or a rebuke. As a rule, it wasn’t about sexual preference; there was no actual intent that the other person is gay. It was just the default insult a lot of the time. It came out of my mouth a lot.
The thing is, I have never in my life believed that there’s anything wrong with being gay. My mom was good about that sort of thing; she always believed in equality, and she educated me and my siblings accordingly. What’s more, one of my closest and dearest friends is gay. We grew up together. He came out when I was… 19, I think? Didn’t make a difference to me. We were — and still are — very good friends. And yet “fucking faggot” was something I spat out on a regular basis.
It was incredibly hard for me to become aware, acknowledge, and accept that there was a great conflict between my strongly held, genuine beliefs and my actual behavior. It was even harder to accept that this behavior contributed to feelings of anxiety and negative atmosphere around me despite the fact that I thought of myself as a good guy. I felt that everybody knew that I wasn’t homophobic or bigoted (as I’m sure they did), and that knowledge would somehow neutralize the language I used. It was very, very difficult to come to terms with the fact that on a purely practical level, my behavior had a bigger impact than my ideology.
And this happened despite being very close with a gay man. We lived in the same apartment. We had a real, significant bond of friendship. I knew his family, he knew mine. There was trust, affection and the kind of bond that takes years to forge. And yet I kept saying it. It never seemed like a problem. Until eventually — several years after his coming out — I got called on my bullshit. I said the words, and he told me that actually, I should stop saying that, it’s not okay — that it makes him feel bad that somebody so close to him uses a word that describes what he is as an insult.
And I got mad. That was my reaction. I was angry and defensive — how dare he say that? I was on his side, I accepted him, and I’d never treat him badly, and besides, I was an exceptionally open-minded and accepting non-shitty person. A good guy. So what the fuck?
I was ashamed and angry. But I couldn’t admit to the shame and guilt over my behavior. In fact, I don’t think we ever talked about it again. But my behavior started to change, which wasn’t easy — at that point, it was deeply ingrained in me, a stock response to certain stimuli. That kind of thing runs deep. But it changed. I stopped saying it. Because I knew he was right.
This phenomenon is something a lot of us recognize, I’m sure. The pressure our culture exerts on us is massive and often insidious; it seeps in and creates easy, attractive paths that make us behave in certain ways, because they are safe and accepted, even rewarded, regardless of their actual impact on others. It takes conscious decisions and self-awareness to break free of those behaviors. And it’s very hard to look in the mirror and see your own deficiencies — admitting to them also means admitting to the effect you’ve had on other people. It’s so very easy to bask in the glory of your goodguyness and just not do anything about anything, and then get offended when somebody brings up the idea that maybe guys — not even you personally, just dudes in general — could do better.
And I think that, right there, is one of the big problem spots for geek circles, whether it’s in tabletop RPGs or video games or comics or whatever. We’re not good at seeing — we are, in fact, often entirely unwilling to see — that on a very practical, concrete level, we’re making a choice between our own egos and other people’s wellbeing. And I don’t mean this as some kind of an abstract concept — I mean that geeky good guys are really good at ignoring, excusing or quietly accepting shitty behavior at the expense of women’s right to not get sexually abused.
Which is fucked up.
Third thing. I’ve got some good news, though. There’s an easy solution to this. I think guys generally feel that they’re invested in their position, and they feel that if they suddenly reverse that position and just generally acknowledge that these problems are real and the situation is in dire need of improvement, they somehow become culpable for all the shitty things that have happened.
But that’s not how it works. What actually happens is that life becomes so much easier once you stop insisting the problems that affect people you care about aren’t really problems, or that they shouldn’t be talked about. That internal conflict between your behavior and your actual morals, which is a source of great guilt and anxiety — it just goes away. It doesn’t mean you have to wallow in guilt or make some kind of a public spectacle of yourself. All it means that you make a decision.
You decide that it’s wrong — so, so obviously wrong — that so many women (and not just women — also gay people, trans people, people of color and many others) are being mistreated, and in the aftermath of that mistreatment, their pain is being ignored or explained away. So you decide that you’re going to treat victims with empathy, that you’re sorry that this heinous shit happens, and you’re going to speak up and take action if you see it happening from now on so offenders don’t get away with it — and then act accordingly.
That’s all it takes, I promise you. That will have a huge impact on geek culture. And culture is what this is really about — the current culture, which is to a regrettable extent a culture of mistreatment, harassment and outright hatred, is so widespread in great part because it can be. Dudes (and it’s not just dudes, sure, but let’s not pretend it isn’t mostly dudes) can behave in this fashion at geek events and online, because there’s no real consequence to it, legally or socially. Very often their friends won’t say anything. The roar of silent approval is deafening — and here’s the thing, many of those people don’t actually approve, but silent disapproval looks exactly like approval.
It’s vitally important that people (and when I say “people,” I mean “men”) speak up when they see mistreatment, instead of hushing it up, or making excuses for it, or picking apart the victim’s behavior by applying strict criteria of appearance or conduct the offenders are never subject to, or muddying the waters by “trying to see both sides” (because when somebody gets groped against their will repeatedly, it’s so hard to understand the dynamics of that situation, isn’t it?), or muttering something about how boys will be boys, heh heh, or bringing up how there’s worse situations elsewhere.
That choir of well-prepared apologists combined with the sentiment that things aren’t that bad here, it’s probably worse elsewhere is a crushing twofer, and while it’s what informs the behavior of a lot of dudes who think of themselves as good guys and makes it socially acceptable — even preferable — for them to look the other way and keep their mouths shut, there’s a darker aspect to it this. It’s also what primarily provides the cover a lot of the actual predatory shitbags — the people who’re genuinely out to take advantage of women, to assert control over women, to harass women, to rape women — operate under. Make no mistake, there are genuinely malicious people out there. But in many ways, they aren’t the core of the problem. It’s the people who enable them.
But their cover isn’t hard to take away. All you have to do is start saying “hey, that’s not cool,” when you see people misbehaving. And yeah, that may be awkward, but I promise you it’s way the fuck less awkward than being a lone woman sexually assaulted or molested in the middle of a group of guys, none of whom will see anything, or who will laugh and decide it’s just a joke, because when it’s a joke, there’s no problem, or who will explain why any outrage over it is misplaced or wrong.
So start saying it. Find the nerve and speak up. Don’t give bad behavior a pass. Don’t reward it. Once people start to feel like being shitty to women is a social blunder that will make even the best of your friends give you the side eye, when you suddenly have to explain yourself to somebody you actually respect (and it’s a sad state of affairs that for many guys, that is never a woman, but baby steps, I guess), behaviors will start to shift. It’s not complicated; it’s how people learn social situations.
These are all personal decisions, obviously. But just take a look at all the complaints, all the stories from women who’ve been harassed, abused, stalked, raped, or otherwise mistreated, and see how vastly out of proportion they are to similar stories by men. If you can do that and honestly say that there’s no urgent need for relief and major improvement, you’re either a sociopath, or armed with a deep-seated misogynist agenda. I think most of us, regardless of whether we speak up, know it’s not right. We know it, because we’re capable of empathy and we are not actually blind to pain, fear, or distress. We know. We just don’t act.
I know the geek scene will never be perfect. Societies are like that. There’s always going to be people who do evil. But we can easily improve geekdom’s current state just by making an effort to give a shit.
And yeah, not all men do this. That’s technically true. But way too many of us do — many enough that all men have a responsibility to their fellow human beings here, and right now, we’re failing that responsibility.
We can do better. We have to start doing better.
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