Ken White on GamerGate: a graze, maybe

Ken White has posted a pretty cogent series of ten rants about GamerGate over at Popehat, partly in response to excesses in the comments section of Clark’s epic GamerGate post a few days earlier. On the whole, it’s all right on point. Unfortunately, as per usual with Ken, it’s marred by a bit of underhandedness in its presentation.

Point (1) – 95% Of Label-Based Analysis Is Bullshit – is of course correct as stated, but unevenly applied. Throughout the post, Ken wants to hold #GamerGaters responsible for disassociating themselves with the #GamerGate label because some misogynists have tweeted under their name. It apparently never occurs to him that labeling all #GamerGaters misogynist because some of them are might be, you know, the kind of "bullshit label-based analysis" he’s otherwise complaining about.

Point (2) – Timing Matters. So Does Your Chosen Vehicle. – is the worst offender. The basic point:

At least some advocates of #GamerGate tell us that it’s about ethics in game journalism. I’m willing to accept that some people saying that are sincere, and don’t associate themselves with the hashtag because they like demeaning women. But here’s the thing: people will draw conclusions about your motives based on your timing and your chosen vehicle.

That’s certainly true – people will draw conclusions about your motives based on your timing and your chosen vehicle. But in polite society there are limits to the conclusions people are allowed to draw, and putting it just the way Ken puts it here skates awfully close to holding people responsible for the straw mans their opponents burn.

That there’s indeed an element of that in Ken’s argument it laid bare by his maddening choices of examples.

Moreover, if you chose the label #GamerGate as your vehicle, people are going to draw conclusions. If I put a Westboro Baptist Church bumper sticker on my car, people will draw conclusions no matter how carefully I explain that their children’s choir program is awesome. That’s because the Westboro Baptist Church label is very specific.

The Westboro Baptist Church? What are we, 12? Ken must surely realize how ridiculous this analogy is. The Westboro Baptist Church is an organization with a leader and a stated agenda. Unlike with #GamerGate, there actually is an official version of what it stands for, and an official membership roster, and an official way of getting kicked out if you don’t adequately conform to the message. More importantly, it’s universally demonized on an accurate reading of what that agenda is. #GamerGate, by contrast, doesn’t have a central agenda-setter, doesn’t and can’t police its membership, and is defended as much as it’s demonized. To the extent it’s demonized, there’s some confusion about whether the people doing the demonizing have the best motives themselves. The two couldn’t be more different. Just because you didn’t say the word "Hitler" doesn’t mean you’re not a datapoint in the evidence for Godwin’s Law.

When people complain that they are being associated with misogyny and threats for waving the #GamerGate banner, I feel (on a different scale) about the way I do when people complain that they are being misjudged for flying the Confederate battle flag. Sure, maybe it means Southern pride and heritage to some of them. But I’m not sympathetic when many see it another way based on its history.

Fair enough, but while we’re talking about the Confederate Battle Flag, it’s worth remembering that a lot of people put those stickers on their car as a way of explicitly rejecting the racist interpretations of it. The argument is that it’s only seen as racist on a faulty reading of history – one taught by the victors in that little conflict – in which the South is somehow uniquely racist in American history and the rest of the country is automatically morally and culturally superior. It’s a show of defiance. It doesn’t deny that slavery was a prime motivation for the Civil War, but it does reject the standard interpretation of history in which the North was fighting for black liberation – which, after all, they weren’t. In cases like this, it often doesn’t matter what the symbol is. If people hate the South because it’s a convenient whipping boy, it isn’t really going to matter if Southern Pride switches its symbol to the Confederate national flag or even to a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. If Ken wants to compare #GamerGate to the Confederate Battle Flag, he really needs to acknowledge that aspect of the analogy: a lot of people who associate with #GamerGate are doing so precisely because they think it’s been unfairly demonized. And in fact, that’s exactly the sentiment behind the #NotYourShield hashtag that Ken disparages later in the post on a selective reading of what it stands for.

It’s pretty telling that on the way to making his point about selective outrage Ken never finds the time to mention that there’s a fair amount of that going on on the other side as well. Feminists have been complaining about misogyny in gaming culture for a long time now, but this is the first time there have been massive shutdowns of comment threads for even mentioning the controversy, and it’s the first time there’s been a concerted campaign to declare "gaming" dead. If we’re going to ask what it was about Zoe Quinn that touched off so much #GamerGate outrage, we also need to ask what it is about outrage over Zoe Quinn that touched off such a … what’s the word? … defensive response from the social justice side of things. There are some pretty obvious candidate explanations. First and foremost, that Zoe Quinn is very definitely one of their own, and very likely a skeezy person. A lot of people have asked the legitimate question of why, if #GamerGate is supposedly about shoddy journalism ethics, GGers aren’t primarily focused on the journalists. It’s a good question – and it’s one that we pertinently might also ask of the SJW side of this. I mean, normally it’s a HUGE party foul in feminism to sleep with one of your employees. Sure, there’s no evidence Ms. Quinn exchanged sex for good reviews, but there’s plenty of evidence that she was worried that if anyone found out she was sleeping with her boss she would lose her job. Isn’t that the kind of thing that feminists typically get angry about? Moreover, no one seems to be expressing much sympathy for the idea that Eron Gjoni did what he did because he was a victim of emotional abuse. Hey, I’m not defending him – I think publishing private chat logs is horrible. If she’s cheating on you, just break up with her and move on already. It’s just that I’m having a helluva lot of trouble imagining that if a woman went public with this kind of stuff the social justice crowd would be OK with the "abuser" filing a restraining order to shut her up – which is what Zoe Quinn did to Eron Gjoni. It isn’t too much of a leap to imagine that the reason #GamerGate blew up isn’t so much because a bunch of dudebros saw a golden opportunity to be soooooopersexist online as because Zoe Quinn is an embarassing woman for the social justice scene to be associated with. Whether or not Eron Gjoni is telling the truth about their relationship, she definitely has a prior pattern of playing the feminist card for self-promotion and targeting people who did nothing to deserve it. That Gjoni’s story also shows that some cherished journalists at cherished media outlets engage in behavior (cheating on their wives with new employees, hiring their friends whom they later sleep with) that feminism is nominally very much against certainly didn’t help. If Ken thinks #GamerGate is unhealthily engaged in this case because they finally caught a GIRL doing unethical things, he’s deliberately avoiding the question of why feminists are giving her and her employers a pass for those same things. It’s not like he’s never heard the word "smokescreen" before. It’s likewise interesting that he thinks it’s hella important for #GamerGate to police their own but doesn’t see any problem with social justice people writing Zoe Quinn (and her journalist friends) off as an outlier. Some outliers lie further out than others, I guess.

Point (4) – Live by the Sword, Die by the Sword – is a refreshing thing to hear from someone like Ken White, who has frequently applauded exactly the sorts of disproportionate responses he’s now complaining about. For example, he was pretty stoked when Pax Dickinson got fired for reasons that had nothing to do with anything about his ability to do his job, just because some people didn’t like his opinions or manner of expression. Is he coming around? The comments section leads me to think "no," since when asked to post something about how typical and legally sound Ms. Quinn’s legal response to "the Zoe Post" was (she filed a particularly harsh restraining order, succeeding in getting Gjoni legally barred from talking about her in public):

There is a very specific reason I am not addressing those First Amendment issues. I’m sure they will be analyzed thoroughly by other lawbloggers, which is a good thing.

Riiiiiight. On this law blog that’s about legal issues related to … remind me again? … oh yeah, exactly this kind of shit. Ken’s all about the evils of Prior Restraint, until he’s not. Until it turns out he’s involved in her case as counsel, I’m gonna go with "still a recovering hypocrite."

Point (6) – The Enemy of your Enemy is not your Friend – is, like point (2), a point that could have been a lot better if Ken had been a bit more honest about it.

Yet before #GamerGate, Milo [Yiannopoulos – outspoken media #GamerGate ally] was happy to use gamers for another purpose — to advance the cultural conservative narrative "Gamers are freaky dorks!" He says he’s a non-gamer. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but weren’t people just criticizing Anita Sarkeesian for being a non-gamer?

Wow. So Ken’s just not going to even mention the critical difference that Anita Sarkeesian writes games cultural criticism. Just wow. The two aren’t remotely the same. We can agree that #GamerGate supporters who are suddenly enthusiastic about Milo are chumps – I certainly think so – but it’s really dishonest to just ignore the qualification asymmetry here. You don’t need to be a gamer to comment on the media depiction of gamers. You kinda do to do games cultural criticism. So sure, they’re chumps for letting Yiannopoulos use them for clickbait, but there’s no evidence they’re giving Yiannopoulos a pass on qualifications just because he’s taking their side. He has the qualifications to do what he’s doing.

Point (7) – The Media Is Usually Banal, Not Motivated Enough To Be Conspiratorial, And Not Your Life Coach. – is just dishonest. The media may usually just be banal and not motivated enough to be conspiratorial, but sometimes it actually is conspiratorial, and this is one of those times. JournoList was a real thing in the mainstream media, and GameJournoPros is a real thing in games journalism. It’s fine if Ken doesn’t think that #GamerGate’s complaints about collusion in games journalism hold all that much water – a lot of people think that – but at an absolute minimum he needs to acknowledge that there are honest reasons behind the complaints #GamerGaters make. Their conclusion may be wrong, but they’re not arguing in a vacuum.

Point (8) – Women, Minorities, and LGBT People Are Not Magic – is more of Ken deliberately missing the point. Yes, of course he’s right that just trotting out a woman or a gay guy who supports your cause doesn’t mean all those other supporters never said the actually misogynistic and homophobic things they really did say under your banner. But you know what a critical mass of gay and female and minority supporters does actually do? It does pretty much disprove claims that all, or most, or even a significant plurality of your supporters are misogynist, or that the underlying motive of your movement as a whole is misogynist. Which is the real purpose of #NotYourShield. It’s a response to a depressingly large number of claims that people from the SJW side actually did make here in real reality that #GamerGate is a front for misogyny. Jesus, Ken doesn’t even have to do any internet research to know that – some of those claims were made right here on Popehat in Clark’s thread. This isn’t like the token black Republican. If a large number of women, gays and minorities support #GamerGate, as seems to be the case, then it’s either true that #GamerGate isn’t in general misogynist/homophobic/racist – certainly not enough to make them feel excluded – or they are but the social justice types are so much worse that they just put up with it for the cause. Either way, it pretty effectively takes down a big pillar of the SJW crowd’s narrative.

Point (9) – Stop Trying To Be A Special Snowflake – is only there, as far as I can tell, to make sure there are 10 points. I don’t think anyone in #GamerGate is claiming that they’re uniquely victims of the media in ways no one ever has been before. Quite the contrary, I think their line is something more like "The kinds of attacks we’re receiving are depressingly common, we’ve watched other people roll over and play nice in response before and it didn’t work out for them, so it’s time someone drew the line."

Point (10) – On Threats. – is just obvious: threats are bad, mkay? Yes, we all agree with that. The trouble comes in the one-sidedness of his presentation. For example:

That’s why I think the claim "these people are making up the threats" is unconvincing — it’s happened before under even less controversial circumstances.

Fair enough, but then it’s not like people can’t point to cases of people on the social justice end making up threats under less controversial circumstances as well. People have been known to issue credible threats, and people have also been known to invent threats to gain sympathy. So we’re back at square one, and you’ll need to look at the actual circumstances of the specific threat to decide whether it’s credible. Which in the specific case of Anita Sarkeesian, to name the one that’s most under dispute, means deferring to the FBI’s assessment that the threat that caused her to cancel her lecture at Utah recently wasn’t credible. There’s a real case to be made that she was just grandstanding.

Whether or not more women are threatened than men, numerically or as a percentage, being a woman and articulating a viewpoint seems like a very reliable way to get threatened. You may not be happy that it is an element of gaming culture, but it is.

What a dumb thing to say. If men also get threatened a lot, then just being a person and articulating a viewpoint is a reliable way of getting threatened. Which would be banal as a point except that what’s at issue is precisely whether being a woman makes you significantly more likely to be threatened than being a man does. The jury is actually still out on that, however much Ken wishes it weren’t.

For all that, Ken makes several excellent points as well – especially the one in (3). I think the two most cogent criticisms of #GamerGate are the two that ask (1) Why all the focus on Zoe Quinn if your beef is really with the journalists? Shouldn’t you call out the journalists, or at least call them out more than you call out Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian – I mean, if this is really about journalism? – and (2) Why not just start your own video series in reply to Anita Sarkeesian’s if she annoys you so much? I don’t think #GamerGate has a good answer to either of those complaints, especially (2). The answer to (1) is to give up the goat and admit that this isn’t primarily about journalism. It’s really, as Clark says, about a larger culture war, and the focus on Zoe Quinn proves it: she’s the face of what they’re complaining about. The answer to (2) is to just do it already – just start a respectable YouTube channel responding to Sarkeesian, and be mature about it. I get why they don’t – they think responding to these kinds of criticisms lends them a credibility they don’t deserve. But you know what? It’s too late for that line: these kind of criticisms already have a lot of credibility without you acknowledging it, so you might as well go ahead and engage with them. Ken’s right about this – people are going to disagree with your opinions, whether you want them to or not, and how you respond says a lot about who you are. How #GamerGate is responding to Sarkeesian (and similar) is making them look really bad.

Another good point is (5) – Your Insult-Parsing is Bullshit – in which he notes that a lot of people use a lot of sophistry to explain why their insults are kosher and their opponents’ are vile. Actually, irrelevant ad hominems are just irrelevant ad hominems, so play the ball, not the man. Right on.

Taken as a whole, it’s a good list of observations about #GamerGate, but it falls apart a lot in the presentation. Yes, labels prop up bullshit arguments, but that’s as true of you when you’re calling #GamerGate misogynist as when you’re complaining that they paint SJWs with too broad a brush. Yes, timing and vehicle matter, but if you can’t see the important difference between #GamerGate and the Westboro Baptist Church, you’re biased. Yes, GG is dumb for trusting Milo Yiannolpoulos, but somehow Ken wants them to also be hypocritical for calling out Anita Sarkeesian, and the charge fails to stick. Yes, there doesn’t have to be a conspiracy for it to look like there were one, but by the same token when there’s evidence of one it behooves you to admit there might be one too, you know? Yes, minorities aren’t invisible force shields on an individual level, but once you have a whole hashtag organized around them you actually do have to step back and question how broad a brush you’re actually allowed to paint #GamerGate with on discrimination. Yes, threats are bad and should be responded to rather than ignored. Then again, since faked threats happen, neither can you dismiss out of hand charges that a particular threat is a false flag, or real but being exaggerated for political gain, either. You don’t have to read directly between the lines to come away with the impression that Ken’s sympathies are solidly anti-GG. Which is fine as far as it goes, it’s just that this post really seems like it could be condensed into "look, guys, I get that there are some good points all around, but there were THREATS made! Against WOMEN! Everyone out of the pool until that’s taken care of." It’s legitimate position, and a decent set of priorities – and it would be so much clearer and more honest just to say that’s where you’re coming from, if that’s in fact where you’re coming from.

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