PAX and the sexism behind some anti-boycott rhetoric


Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 22 September 2013

Justice: Attribution: Carptrash at the English language WikipediaJustice: Attribution: Carptrash at the English language WikipediaI’ve been watching the debates about PAX quite intently, but the public articles like Polygon, Rock Paper Shotgun, and others, and those that are happening in the communities of people I know. One thing I’ve noticed through it all is that many of the conversations illuminate unquestioned assumptions along with latent sexism even among those who believe that they are all supporting the fight against sexism.

This isn’t surprising. Sexism is deeply engrained in our culture and everyone is going to be sexist sometimes. What bothers me is that often the people engaging in it don’t see it for themselves. I love Polygon's explanation of this situation from their article.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that this is all just the recurrence of a stubbornly persistent gender divide — of straight men refusing to meet anyone else halfway because, even two centuries after Mary Wollstonecraft, it is still pretty much a man's man's man's world. Maybe so, but it's still worth thinking about Tychos and Gabes for the way they reflect what's specific to our particular moment. It may be that an inability or unwillingness to see outside of the context of male social prerogatives is a consistent feature of our cultural history, but the version we're most likely to encounter these days was shaped by a generation of men who, like Tycho, Gabe and their creators, were born in the decade or so after 1975.

That was a critical period in the development of the video game industry, of course, but also for nerd culture in general. Mainstream attitudes toward all manner of geeky media were beginning to shift, paving the way for a 21st century in which comic book adaptations dominate the box office while the short lists for literary awards feature novels about the zombie apocalypse. What ties the men born of that era into one big Penny Arcade generation is the desire for a public venue to call their own. To that end, they've staked out some of the venues that mattered to them most as young men: movies, comic books, video games, the internet.

To a Tycho or a Gabe, part of what makes those venues specifically theirs is the freedom to deal flippantly and without apology with troubles that most of them will never have to face directly. They need not bat an eye at a casual reference to rape, in no small part because rape victims are about nine times less likely to be men than women. They could probably manage the empathetic leap needed in order to see outside their own context, but to do so would compromise their claim on the venue.

While in this post, I talk about this being the actions and reactions of men compared to the actions and reactions of women, I mean this 1) in the general and 2) more as one group being considered the in-group and the other the out-group, even when all members of the group by and large enjoy the same things that should signify group membership. I also want to point out that while gender is presented as a binary in this post, many including myself do not see it as such. Finally, I'm not saying that the arguments and responses I discuss here were intended to be sexist or to reinforce existing patterns, just that they have the effect of doing so, often unintentionally.

Championing Masculine Heroism

First, there are those who are championing masculine heroism. This by the way, is what is behind many of the calls to not boycott. I’ve seen multiple conversations accuse those who might boycott of doing the equivalent of “taking their ball and going home” because they weren’t getting their way. Consider that for a moment? The first time I remember hearing that was when I was a kid and it was often accompanied with language like “don’t be a girl” or “be a man.”

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t times to stand firm, but there are plenty of times when not participating is the answer. Regardless of the work we do at the con, presence there tells other people who look at the numbers that Mike and Jerry still have plenty of support and those gate numbers will continue to undercut the protest. Additionally, people have been conditioned to believe that if you subject yourself to a particular environment, then you are partially to blame for anything bad that happens in that environment, especially if you are female. Finally, the stress that comes from a person subjecting oneself to that environment is a negative and not everyone has to spoons to handle it. Calling them the polite equivalent of a coward or wuss is horrible, just as horrible, in my opinion, as the overt misogynists.

Who gets to be made uncomfortable

Another problem I see crop up in these discussions is who gets to be uncomfortable. Hint, rarely is it men. If a man puts out an opinion like the one above and gets called out on it in any sort of aggressive way, I’ve seen the other men in the conversation suddenly rally around him instead of objectively looking at the arguments being made and addressing both parties in a proportional fashion. “Hey, we’re all learning here, why can’t you be nicer?” is a common response, one that is well known to be a derailing tone argument. “How dare you tell someone that they should be quiet! You’re in the way of discussion” happens even though 1) no discussion has actually taken place because no one has called the original person on the harm of their argument and 2) the original comment was often framed in such a way to make it impossible to actually have a discussion. These and more get followed up with exaggerations of the tone of the responder, especially if the responder is a woman. Even toned responses are angry and emotion filled. Anything with emotions becomes outright hostility and vitriol. The response from the self-appointed peacekeepers is to comfort the man who was “unfairly attacked” and maybe, if we’re all lucky point out that maybe they can see, however, where their arguments went afield.

How these reinforce the status quo

The problem is, underlying all of this, is a reinforcement of male privilege in society. The harmful and hurtful opinions of men can only be challenged as long as the challengers remember their place. In this case, their place is not to be anywhere near as aggressive as the original commenter. So even when the original commenter basically calls anyone who won’t directly confront the issues a coward, the responders can’t directly confront the commenter and must remain more docile and polite compared to the original commenter and often compared to the expected behaviors of their gender group.

This is hugely problematic. First, many times the reason people put forth these theories is because they don’t live in an environment that is often to constantly hostile towards them. They have the ability to “take a break” and, in fact, their participation in an event like PAX may be one of the few times each year that they put themelves in a potentially hostile situation. Also, even when they are at PAX, they often have the choice to not engage. They don’t have to reveal that they are a feminist if they don’t want to, whereas many women constantly have to consider that in terms of what they say and how they say it.

Secondly, I personally feel if you are going to put forth an argument that people have to actively put themselves in a hostile environment in order to enact change or otherwise they are part of the problem, you have to be willing to live it. If you can’t deal with a counter argument that is aggressive but doesn’t actually call you names or use profanity and your immediate reaction is to call to the sympathies of the other men in the conversation, then you should stop making that argument. You have just shown, that when push comes to shove, you are unwilling to take your own advice.

What bothers me is that the other people in the conversation often don’t see this. There are a variety of reasons for this. One of them is the belief that it could have been them who made the misstep and how dare that person not take his feelings into account. But here’s the problem, it’s clear that the original commenter didn’t take the feelings of others into account either. While two wrongs don’t make a right, sometimes being in the other person’s shoes for a bit is actually a good thing, especially in a country like the US where men’s needs and feelings are often catered to far more often than women’s.

At the end of the day, many of these arguments are about the rights and feelings of mainly men in the community. The sympathetic men who attend PAX don’t want to be grouped in with the outright misogynists and will attack anyone who talks about how PAX as a whole makes them feel uncomfortable. The so-called freedom of speech advocates want to say whatever they want without any societal consequences, whether out of fear of misspeaking or a belief that they shouldn’t have to care about anyone but themselves. They will wrap this up in a “America and apple pie” emotional appeal that isn’t based on actual freedom of expression. The misogynists want what they always want, the ability to prey on and terrorize women. They’ll use well-instilled misogynistic beliefs in our society to convince the other two groups to turn on those who might boycott or otherwise standup for themselves to take the pressure off of themselves.

And this needs to stop. I realize it’s difficult when so many of the women have opted-out of these conversations to remember that their voices aren’t being heard and that the arguments being repeated don’t have fair and equal input from all parties, but continuing these arguments in these ways is only going to continue that situation. I realize that many men are worried about being judged for having sexist and misogynistic beliefs, but realize that the way you are treating women is no better. If you don’t want to be expected to be perfect, don’t expect perfection from others. Learn about the biases well-known in our society regarding interpretation of women’s tone and aggressiveness. Learn about systemic and latent sexism.

What to do instead

Seriously, I suggest that whenever someone says that there is only one way to solve this (and pretty much any problem), someone needs to step in and say that’s simply not true and by saying it, the original commenter has framed the discussion in such a way to not only force an antagonistic/confrontational response, but that it really stops discussion.

We also need to start looking past tone to content. Too often we are lulled into a false sense of security when people use polite and distanced language to describe something, especially when that something is how other people should act or feel.

Sometimes telling someone to not be part of a discussion at this moment in time is a good thing. I get that some people feel like this is the ultimate worst thing that could possiblly happen, but that’s simply not true, especially when the person feels like nothing they say in that situation will be taken in a positive manner or in the way they intend it. This should be a huge flag to anyone that shutting up is a good course of action. Shutting up gives them time to think and reflect.

It might also be a big flag if everyone in the conversation is attacking the woman for being aggressive and most are not looking over the triggering comments and pointing out where they were problematic. I hope that people can see where this would further lead people to be concerned about attending a convention when the people who are claiming, “Don’t worry, we’ll make it a safe space for you,” can’t do that outside of the convention in an overall safer environment.

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