Monday, September 8, 2014

The Importance of Speaking Up

A lot of, for the lack of a better term, shit has been going on in the Twitterverse and Blogoshpere the past week, namely yet more death threats and the like being slung at prominent females in our gaming community--though, interestingly enough, none of my friends in real life or on Facebook even noticed this was going on, which really just enforces the idea of the Internet being a number of smaller echo chambers.

As a game developer, as a gamer, as person who has empathy for my fellow humans, I certainly cannot condone such behavior, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with someone's actions. If someone is wrong, you can disagree with them civilly. If someone isn't living up to your moral standards, you can tut-tut them without threatening their person. And if someone is being a jack-ass, you can call them out on it.

Once you've resorted to insults, death threats, or anything of the like, you've signaled that you have nothing more to add to your argument. An old lawyer adage goes:
"If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. If you have the law on your side, pound the law. If you have neither on your side, pound the table."
What you're doing when you resort to insults is pounding the table. Making lots of noise in the hopes that the loudest argument wins. You're effectively conceding the argument.

Social Contracts

Recently on my Facebook feed there was a discussion about people being jerks. My comment touched upon the idea that ideally someone would be socially castrated in the case where they were acting poorly, and I was called out for it: that we shouldn't be focused on the negative aspects. That social justice shouldn't be used as an attack.

And to an extent, I agree. I dislike the use of "privilege" as a way to shut down conversation, largely because it dilutes the actual meaning of the term and weakens the argument as a whole. The term has a very specific meaning, and is useful in conversation as a way to encapsulate a concept such that you don't need to spew a whole allegory about bicyclists in a car-based society every time you want to talk about it.

But that's not what I meant when I said "socially castrated". Society as an aggregate has a set of social mores (pronounced mawr-eyz) and norms. As something becomes more or less acceptable to society as a whole, members of that society enforce those mores and norms by punishing deviants within said society.

For example, currently, for better or ill, the idea of nudity in media is far worse to those in North American society than violence in media. When television shows breach that social contract, people decry the show and people involved, and in some cases they're even fined (based on the laws created by that society). Whether you agree with it or not personally is largely irrelevant, as it's about the populace in aggregate.

However, individuals in a populace can come together to create movements to change what the social contracts are. And that's where "social justice" comes into play. As more and more people speak up, the needle of culture shifts what is acceptable and what is taboo. Once that shift has gone far enough, society does the rest by tut-tutting those who break that social contract and laws are enacted (or repealed) to solidify said contract.

That's why it's important for as many people to speak up and speak against things like misogyny, bigotry, homophobia, and general jack-ass behavior. The more people speak up, the less acceptable it will become to espouse those ideals.

In before someone complains about censorship, you can still espouse those views, but it doesn't mean you're free from other people judging those views. No law is preventing grandpa today from saying something derogatory about black people, but you would still react and say, "Grandpa, you can't just say that!"

The Silent Majority

On the other hand, not all people will or can speak up. Many don't even know the conversation is occurring (like my Facebook feed), some don't have particularly strong opinions one way or the other, or someone can feel threatened, concerned that if they speak up they will be attacked in some manner: social castration in action.

Story time: when I first moved to the US from Canada, just over seven years ago, I was both really excited and very worried. I was going to the land of opportunity to make pretty much double to triple of what I could ever earn in Canada, but I was also going from a country that had anti-discrimination laws for sexuality and gay marriage to a country that was in the throes of banning gay marriage entirely and had anti-sodomy laws until 2003. Being a second-class citizen because of who I am was a pretty scary idea (as opposed to being a second-class citizen due to immigration laws, but that's something everyone moving to another country generally experiences due to protectionism).

The first few weeks of my job went by, and I started to get into the groove of being in a new country with new coworkers. Then, during an event I said something, probably with a lilt to it, and one of my coworkers responded with, "Could you be a little more straight?"

I was floored. A causally homophobic comment slung in my direction that made me feel unwanted, like complete, utter shit because the implication was that being gay was bad. I didn't have any clue what to do. I didn't understand at the time how the HR policies worked, or even if I did, I didn't know how strictly they'd be enforced. I had just pulled up everything that I owned and knew and wasn't sure if I reported this if I would get fired or embroiled in a conflict that would end with my dismissal, and my dismissal would end up with me being deported back to Canada.

So I stayed silent. I withdrew. I certainly stopped dealing with this person, and to this day anytime I see them it completely ruins my day. Note that I don't work for that employer anymore, but later during said employment I learned that HR totally would've backed me up on it. But I didn't know at the time.

The silent majority isn't tacit approval of one thing or another. The silent majority is just that: silent. Sitting on the wayside and not actively participating in the cultural war for what could be any number of good, bad, or neutral reasons.

On the other hand, the silent majority is perpetuating the status quo. Change doesn't occur in a vacuum. It requires an impetus; if you're not making waves, you're not causing change. So anytime you don't speak up against opinions that are damaging, you're allowing that, whether you like it or not. So by not speaking up against that coworker, either in person or via HR, I was allowing myself to be dehumanized, and other coworkers, too.

At the time, it felt like the right decision, the safe decision. If the same thing were to occur today, I'd denounce them in a heartbeat. It helps that I'm far more confident in who I am as a person, as well as my abilities. Being an awesome software developer with a lot of excellent experience under my belt has freed me to an extent to go against the grain of popular if insular opinion, because even if I were to get fired for it, finding another job in the industry wouldn't be terribly difficult for me. But not everyone has that luxury.

Changing Society

Make no mistake, culture is constantly changing, constantly in a war of differing opinions. From nudity, to violence, to television, to comic books, to video games, to women's suffrage, to African-American civil rights, to LGBT rights, to radio, to women showing some ankle, to eugenics, to language, to cars, to factories, to labour movements and unions, and so on. The list is endless.

And the list is different depending on geography. Australia has different notions of sensibility from the United States, Uganda has different ideals than Canada. Even within the European Union, many countries have extremely different notions. Rural cities versus urban population centers often show radical differences of opinion.

The Internet has had an interesting effect on culture; a globalization of opinion, a community or society separate from the real world that is often seen as a monolithic entity. While it reflects the real world to an extent, the melting pot of cultures that make up the online world means there's a lot of friction because geography has been removed. But at the same time, it's still our community, our world. And it's at the center of today's cultural revolution.

Waves are being made in all directions, and while I'm loathe to admit it, sometimes the loudest argument truly does win, at least for a little bit. Pounding the table does work on occasion. But the more people see that concepts of misogyny, homophobia, bigotry, and the like are unacceptable and dehumanizing, the more people will begin to denounce them publically.

There'll always be a contingent of sociopaths who, regardless of what side they sit on, you'll never convince one way or another, and they'll toss death threats and violence, verbal or physical, at people they disagree with. If possible, don't waste your energy on convincing them. Denounce them, show other people why what they're doing is damaging. But you'll never turn their opinion.

It's the silent majority that you need to get on your side. Convince them that being silent is the wrong thing to do. Appeal to their empathy to show them that we're all just people, and that everyone should be safe in their person. History shows, via Woman's Suffrage, the African-American Civil Rights movement, and LGBT rights in some countries (and ongoing today in the US), that this is how (relatively) peaceful cultural change occurs.

And if you're in the silent majority but don't condone this behavior? Please speak up, if you can! Every voice helps, no matter how small. As I mentioned above, not every can or is in a position to do so. But if you're able? Go for it! The more, the merrier.

It's an incredibly slow and frustrating process. I think we're going to see it get worse before it gets better. But history ultimately is on the side of empathy, not dehumanization, as long as people speak up and speak out.

#Diversity, #Sociology


  1. Just to point out that it's not a dichotomy between being -required- to speak up or speak out or "oh no, you're in the silent majority and thus condoning EVIL..."

    There's a whole spectrum of other possibilities, such as demonstrating through personal action or personal example, quiet or sneaky propaganda aka media exposure where the desired way of things are treated/viewed as normal, silent ostracism or removal of self from situations that one disapproves of, nonverbal communication such as frowns and so on.

    Sometimes, confrontationally speaking out may not change any minds either, while softer means may have a chance.

    As a random example, I'll pull up a more specific small scale sort of incident. In Guild Wars 2's WvW, everyone on the server is ostensibly on the same side. If a disagreement gets confrontational, it can threaten to rip apart a server, with sides being taken, lines being drawn, egos flying everywhere and so on.

    It benefits no one if everyone decides they want to "speak out" and lash out at each other - though some people do still wish to speak out and they do still get their say and day in the sun on message boards/forums, etc.

    Let's say there is a particular commander who is notorious for using terribly abusive language, leaning towards racism sometimes (though he can't be reported because he keeps it out of game and only on third party voicechat) and is very exclusive and fairly abrasive towards the general militia. All in all, it's behavior that isn't pleasant and is counter to the server's culture.

    Your post would encourage everyone to speak out against this commander, attacking him in the hopes of letting him know that his behavior is unacceptable and toxic. What do you think he would do?

    Let me assure you, it's highly unlikely he'll suddenly see the light and change his ways. In fact, he may even enjoy the attention and troll everybody further.

    It's simple. What happened is what generally happens. There were the verbal few who spoke out and made no compromise about their opinions regarding this commander, though some were polite enough to keep it general and not name names. They attracted another group who tried to keep them quiet in the name of peace and harmony, which ended up in a screaming fit because each side felt they were being shouted down and not being heard.

    Other people spoke quietly behind-the-scenes with the commander, though no one publically knows the results of that. The silent majority stayed silent, either shrugging and not being bothered either way or simply letting their feelings be known by choosing to follow or not follow said commander.

    Others tagged up and demonstrated by example more rational, reasonable, mature commanding.

    Eventually, support eroded away from the abusive commander till he was pretty much only running with his guild and a few militia that could tolerate him, and he ended up leaving for greener pastures elsewhere.

    Moral of the story: People will be people.

    1. I agree that there are definitely other tracks you can take to reach the same position, but they cannot be the only thing that occurs. Someone needs to speak up and say, "Hey, that's not cool." But that's not to stop the people slinging racist or homophobic statements. It's to help the victims of those statements--because as my blog post states, you'll likely never convince folks who are actively perpetuating the problems that they're wrong.

      A prime example of this is gay youth suicides ( Many studies have shown that bullying of LGBT youth has lead to a higher rate of suicide amongst that population comparatively. Further research has shown that family acceptance brings down that suicide rate, and that passing laws that discriminate against the LGBT population significantly increases the rate of drug use and depression.

      So we have a situation where a population is being oppressed, and speaking up (acceptance, challenging bullies, etc.) would have a measurable positive effect on said population. I don't think it's a large jump to say the same would likely be the case for racism/sexism as it is for homophobia.

      As I said:
      "There'll always be a contingent of sociopaths who, regardless of what side they sit on, you'll never convince one way or another, and they'll toss death threats and violence, verbal or physical, at people they disagree with. If possible, don't waste your energy on convincing them. Denounce them, show other people why what they're doing is damaging. But you'll never turn their opinion.

      It's the silent majority that you need to get on your side. Convince them that being silent is the wrong thing to do. Appeal to their empathy to show them that we're all just people, and that everyone should be safe in their person. History shows, via Woman's Suffrage, the African-American Civil Rights movement, and LGBT rights in some countries (and ongoing today in the US), that this is how (relatively) peaceful cultural change occurs."

    2. To be fair, quiet consternation IS better than doing nothing.

      But at the same time, if your higher order priority is keeping the peace, you're allowing the trolls to control the conversation. It means all they need to do is raise a stink to shut things down, which is precisely what they're attempting to do with Anita Sarkeesian and the death threats/insults.

    3. I think you're both on the same track here. Talarian is absolutely right that being "silent" is the wrong thing to do. But Jeromai is absolutely right in that you don't always (or even often) have to actually be vocal about it - actions count as much as words. In the commander example, asking if anyone else wanted to take up the commander tag would work, or just announcing that you're leaving because this commander makes you uncomfortable or unwelcome. Or being one of those who deserted that commander for another one without saying anything, I think that is doing something, making a statement. Ideally you'd do more, but not everyone can muster that kind of courage every time.

    4. I empathize with your experience, Tal. I think a lot of Americans find themselves in a similar position for the same reasons. We dont want to lose our jobs/titles/money and authorities are more likely to call whistle blowers a problem than anything else.

      I also think theres a real danger in believing that speaking softly is more effective/efficient than speaking loudly. I haven't found this to be true anywhere. The idea is to respect everyone, but being loud isn't a show of disrespect. In most cases, it's pain that causes the volume. Real pain.

      To give a familiar example that I like, it's like having someone stand on your foot and when you shout in pain, they tell you you're rude for shouting. There's this really ugly idea out there that people who are hurting others, knowingly or not, deserve some deference that they aren't showing to those others. The arguments usually contain keywords like "civil" and "mature" and "cool headed", but tend to lay responsibility on the speaker in getting the audience to listen. People should speak in whatever way they know how (softly, loudly, etc). We should also learn to respect when someone tells us we're harming them.

      I agree with Talarian here that the target audience is really the people you support, not the bigots who are causing the problem. The idea is that breaking your silence gives courage to others who wouldn't otherwise do anything. It's not to convince the bigot that they're a bigot. 9 times out of 10, they already know that. They've just decided they have a right to be that way.

  2. I empathize with your experiences so much - I never directly had to deal with homophobia (as in not as the target) but there are so many instances in my life when looking back, I wish I had acted differently. I wish I had had a voice.

    But then, that's how we grow, right? :) Most of these experiences will not repeat themselves. I'm more of what I can do for myself and others, especially in my immediate environment. And it works, in small steps and slowly, but it does. I'm lucky to live in a place that has established more social peace than many bigger countries in the world, but we're still far from done.

    I can't help but seeing the positive aspects of all that's happened lately. More people than ever discuss social topics in gaming. More men and women can see for themselves first-hand that the harassment isn't being made up. I've observed guys taking interest in this topic lately that otherwise never would. So in a crooked way, the haters are digging their own grave. The intensity of the hate shows it's hitting close to home now and while it might look like things get worse, they are actually getting better.

    1. Thanks Syl. It's funny--not haha funny, but a little strange--that I picked the example that I did from my own life. I've been physically assaulted, threatened, told by the cops to leave because my very presence was apparently the issue rather than the person threatening me. So to those who don't have a voice because they literally cannot, I understand and I do not, and can not, judge.

      I do agree that things are getting better overall. The last hurrah of the hatemongers, perhaps. One can hope. But slowly and surely, as more people stand up, things have improved and will continue to do so.