Italicized quotes are from Stephen Fearing's song "The Bells of Morning", which he wrote in 1989 about the École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal.
It's All Connected
"Tonight I am speechless
My head is filled with pouring rain
As the darkness falls on Montreal
When violence is shrieking
The city streets will run with pain
Until the moon can shed no light at all"
Why this fear of women? The term "witch hunt" is overused, but Gamergate is one of the closest modern-day analogues to a witch hunt. Teenage boys, frustrated in a culture that doesn't have much use for teenagers at all, were so dedicated in their zeal to spread lies and hyperbole that a major corporation, Intel, acted on the fear they spread. (I use "teenage boys" here to refer to a state of mind.) Like a toddler who has figured out something that annoys their parents and keeps doing it, and like the teenage girls of New England in the 17th century who figured out that they could set a deadly chain of events into motion, these boys are drunk on the power they have stumbled into. Their goal? Stopping a woman they believe to have strange powers: the power to pass off what they see as a non-game as a game, through bewitchment of influential men ("bewitchment of" here means "sex with"). I am being literal here.
25 years ago, another man who was afraid of women, Marc Lépine, murdered fourteen women engineering students because that was, apparently, the only way he could convey the intensity of his anger at women in general and at feminists in particular. Before he took his own life, Lépine said that he was "fighting feminism" by shooting women -- specifically, women studying to become engineers, to take up space that he felt rightfully belonged to men like himself.
As awful as it was for those who died that day in 1989 and for those who loved them, Lépine's gambit didn't have the intended effect. Women were not scared off permanently from studying engineering. But that doesn't mean Lépine doesn't have his imitators today. Almost 25 years after the Montreal massacre, Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old men's rights activist (MRA) murdered two women and four men (three of the men were Asian-American, like Rodger's mother), just before taking his own life. One difference between 1989 and 2014 is that in this case, the perpetrator had access to the Internet and posted extensive writings that documented his own extreme misogyny as a motivation for his crimes. Rodger was angry at women, and by extension feminism, because he believed that they were withholding sex and affection from him -- goods to which he believed he was entitled.
Gamergate hasn't gotten anyone killed yet, but it's already driven two women, Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian, from their respective homes, because of the volume of death threats and rape threats they are both receiving. The harm that death threats do is, in part, making it harder to distinguish credible threats from noise. And women in tech do get credible threats -- simply for taking up space, for getting attention that men believe rightfully belongs to themselves. Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether a man believes that women are taking away the sex, affection, or the status that comes with getting sex and affection from women that he feels entitled to; the career opportunities he feels entitled to; or the boys-only clubhouse built around exclusion and around a rigid, narrowly defined interest that he feels entitled to. In all of these cases, entitled and insecure men will defend the resources they believe to be theirs with violence.
"And I believe that we have fallen
In the middle of an old highway
And the past is rolling over us
As men begin to understand
What women say
They see history reaching out to smother all of us"
I've been paying a fair amount of attention to Gamergate partially because for me, it's a stand-in for all the things I can't talk about so publicly. The Gamergate harassers have conducted their affairs mostly in the open: in threads on 4chan, on public pastebin sites like etherpad.mozilla.org that don't require authentication and have an unspoken policy of not removing off-topic content. So there's no harm that I can see in talking about it more openly. Some things have been going on that I can't talk about as openly.
With that said, I think that understanding Gamergate for what it is -- a desperate attempt on the part of territorial men and boys to purge the video game industry of women -- and placing it in the historical context of the École Polytechnique massacre and the Isla Vista killings is useful for understanding many of the other manifestations of animus against women in tech. These actions are reactionary: they are driven by belief that the presence of women in any profession or hobby will devalue it, will taint it. They are driven by the belief that the mere presence of women takes away something that men possess by divine right.
Purportedly, Zoe Quinn is being targeted for making a game called "Depression Quest", which is -- like many of the very first computer games, from the 1970s -- a text-based interactive adventure. In a way, the anger at the mere existence of her game is like the audience riots at the debut of Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring", about which Kim Willsher wrote:
"Even now there is debate over whether the audience reaction was spontaneous or the work of outraged traditionalists armed with vegetables who had come looking for trouble."-- "Rite that caused riots: celebrating 100 years of The Rite of Spring"
With Gamergate, there's no debate. It's vegetables all the way, except the vegetables are misogynistic invective and threats, which are really a lot less funny. (Thanks to a Facebook friend-of-a-friend who I'll keep anonymous unless he wants to identify himself -- given that right now, everybody is afraid to have their name mentioned in the same sentence as Gamergate -- for the analogy with Stravinsky.)
"I met a man once
He held himself tighter than a fist
He was hard and fast in his inflexibility
He was threatened by the future
A product of the past
He was terrified by his own femininity"
Whatever disagreements Lépine and Rodger had with feminism, I think almost all of us can agree that murdering people was a disproportionate response to their frustrations. But disproportionate responses to feminism, by men feeling threatened, are not rare, and are usually not as extreme as a mass shooting. The groundwork for the rare, big events like these is laid by many small incidents in which men feel entitled to express anger in a tone that is disproportionate to any actual harm to themselves being suffered. Gamergate, in fact, is a big incident, but not one that has resulted in physical violence against women -- yet, anyway. Still, it is also an example of a disproportionate response: even if we take the complaints about Quinn violating genre boundaries at face value, it would be like setting the stage on fire at the Newport Folk Festival when Bob Dylan went electric.
Here's what else has been going on in the past month; consider this post a slice of geek-feminist life. I'm not the target of the awful stuff most of the time, anymore, because I have male privilege and conditional cis privilege. That doesn't mean it doesn't affect me. Secondary trauma is a thing, and some of the incidents I describe involve my friends being terrorized. As well, some of the perpetrators are people I know, or are friends of friends.
- Al Billings, a Mozilla security manager, harassed me and a colleague two years ago when we both worked for Mozilla, telling us "we don't want you around" -- simply because we were speaking our minds about how we thought our employer should treat LGBTQ people. In the past few weeks, he's been spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the Ada Initiative on public mailing lists, claiming that the organization doesn't sufficiently prioritize being "sex positive".
The origin of this FUD involves a local celebrity who sought to give a talk on the subject of having sex under the influence of drugs, at a computer security conference. If you're wondering why that makes sense at all, I am too. The conference organizer, a man, sought advice from the Ada Initiative and decided to drop the talk from the schedule in the interest of making the conference a safe environment for sexual assault survivors. There are so few negative things that can be said about TAI's work that anti-feminists have latched onto this incident and reacted to it in a way that is so far out of proportion with the actual harm done that -- as with Al, who clearly has a lot of rage to share about feminist and queer activists who don't fight for justice exactly the way he wants them to -- it has become a placeholder for everybody's anti-feminist gripes. And somehow, it is still acceptable in tech to vent your anti-feminist gripes, given even the slimmest pretext.
- On Twitter, and in private email, a man who is in my technical communities repeatedly threatened to commit suicide if a number of women (some of whom are women I know) didn't stop writing about feminism. Not only do women have to contend with men who openly wish them harm -- or at least wish they weren't around -- they also have to contend with self-identified allies who adopt emotionally abusive, boundary-disregarding tactics to try to manipulate women, demand free therapy from them, and seek out their attention.
- I was reminded that when women speak out about toxic behavior in their communities, they are uniformly treated badly. Say that your employer ought to have a code of conduct? Well, be prepared to get threats from your co-workers. Say that you're frustrated that a women's computer science conference is featuring a panel of men -- one of whom is CEO of a notoriously misogynistic company -- talking about how to be an "ally to women"? Be prepared to have a guy try to guilt-trip you into shutting up by telling you that your piece made him so sad he wants to kill himself. And as the anonymous author of "Leaving Toxic Open Source Communities" documented back in July, speaking out about something that's wrong makes you a target for abusive behavior from your supervisors at work. Only if you're a woman, of course -- if you're a man, that just makes you an engineer.
"For if we can't face ourselves
We will never understand
We can learn to make a cradle
With these stubborn hands
And we will hear the echo
From this shattered land
When we ring the bells of morning"
You might pause at this point and object: you might say that Lépine and Rodger, and those men who fantasize about becoming martyrs to the MRAs' cause in a similar way, are crazy. Well, I'm crazy (and have the medical records to prove it), and I have never executed a dozen strangers because their existence troubled my ideology. I think that "crazy" people -- that is, people who are less inhibited than most, whether due to a diagnosable mental illness or something else -- do a lot of valuable work for "sane" people. Crazy people do the things that everybody else wants to do, but is afraid (for good reason) to do. The fact that there is a pattern in North American culture of "crazy" white men, specifically, getting a gun and shooting a bunch of women means something, because "crazy" people in other cultures don't all do that. It's easy to blame problems on individual "crazy" people acting unpredictably and alone -- harder to look at how structural violence shapes all of our behavior, albeit in different ways depending how "crazy" we are designated as being. In any case, here are some more examples that do not simply involve somebody being crazy; that involve respectable people or institutions:
- I learned in the past month that Yishan Wong -- who I'd previously known as "that guy who used to spend a lot of time bullying me and any other genderqueer-identified and/or fat people he could find, on LiveJournal between 2002-2006" -- is now CEO of Reddit. For a long time I've understood Reddit as a site that primarily benefits from allowing its users to share whatever porn depicting non-consenting participants they can find, and learning that someone who had been directly targeting me for abuse -- less than a decade ago -- was now in charge was, I suppose, validating of my opinion of Reddit. At the same time, Reddit is an enormously influential web site and knowing that someone so toxic is running it is disheartening. (It's not just disheartening, but the effects of that can be clearly seen in how Wong has responded to criticism of the site.)
- Intel, a major corporation, made the choice to side with the bullies in Gamergate (by pulling advertising from a game industry trade journal when the bullies were displeased with the content of an article that journal published).
- There are multiple pending SLAPP lawsuits against feminist women. One is being filed by Michael Schwern, a self-styled feminist ally who is suing his ex-partner because his arrest for domestic violence was publicized by other people on the Internet (including some of her friends). Another is being filed against two librarians, nina de jesus and Lisa Rabey, by serial harasser Joe Murphy for exposing his serial harassment of women at library conferences.
The abuse of the legal systems of the United Stated and Canada -- among the most respected institutions we have -- shows that "crazy" people are not the problem. If they were, the courts would throw out these cases immediately, the way courts do when people who are completely disconnected from consensus reality try to file lawsuits.
"I met a woman once
She told me we might never see the day
When the violence was overcome
She said silence is the fuel
Fear and ignorance the roaring flames
That burn the freedom out of everyone"
But now I want to talk about the really serious stuff.
Death threats are serious stuff. Credible death threats are serious stuff. I learned that a friend of mine has received some credible threats because of her work that challenges male domination in tech, from a person who is hiding behind a putative right to "free speech" (even though the First Amendment doesn't grant the right to threaten someone's life.)
"Free speech" is, nonetheless, a defense mechanism -- even when it's legally unsound (as when clung to by people outside the US who aren't protected by the First Amendment), invoking free speech still has a powerful effect on one's audience.
"Just trolling" is a defense mechanism, too. Andrew "Weev" Auernheimer became a hero of hacker-activists when he was jailed for exposing an AT&T security flaw. It was an open secret that Auernheimer had engaged in misogynist trolling that was severe enough to drive at least one well-known tech woman off the Internet for several years (hey, you'd quit the Internet too if someone had posted your home address and threats against your children). That woman, Kathy Sierra, has much to say about how male entitlement in tech engenders violence against women:
I now believe the most dangerous time for a woman with online visibility is the point at which others are seen to be listening, “following”, “liking”, “favoriting”, retweeting. In other words, the point at which her readers have (in the troll’s mind) “drunk the Koolaid”. Apparently, that just can’t be allowed.
From the hater’s POV, you (the Koolaid server) do not “deserve” that attention. You are “stealing” an audience. From their angry, frustrated point of view, the idea that others listen to you is insanity. From their emotion-fueled view you don’t have readers you have cult followers. That just can’t be allowed.
In a certain cadre of mostly-white, mostly-affluent Internet users who are primarily concerned with their own rights to access drugs and porn without surveillance, Auernheimer was a hero; the Electronic Frontier Foundation went to bat for him. Now that it is well-known that Auernheimer is a neo-Nazi, he is still a hero in many of those circles, presumably because they prioritize Internet freedom ahead of the right to be alive if you're Black or Jewish.
It doesn't really matter whether Auernheimer did any or all of these things "just to troll". Doing things to get people's reactions even when those things hurt other people has a name. His intent is totally irrelevant. Auernheimer was also never a marginal character -- I knew who he was a decade ago because he was friends with my friends on LiveJournal, and at least at the time, they bonded over a "do it for the lulz" attitude that was used to justify all kinds of inanity. So knowing that he was a closet neo-Nazi all along is just another reminder of how deeply woven the threads of racism and sexism are into tech culture; they're not incidental or blame-able on a few fringe characters.
But what are "just trolling" and "free speech" defense mechanisms against? I think they defend against the fear of being wrong. Nerdy men are hotbeds of gender and sexuality insecurity (at least, the heterosexual and cissexual ones are), and for them, these insecurities are inextricably entwined with their fear of being wrong.
Many boys learn three things about gender: first, that being male is their single most valuable asset; provided that they eventually prove themselves to be Real Men (which can involve anything from buying certain consumer products, to foreswearing sex with other men, to killing women). Second, that the definition of being male is to not be female. And third, that Real Men are irresistibly sexually attracted to women. As a queer guy, I can only imagine the cognitive dissonance of feeling the need to simultaneously hate and desire women -- that second lesson makes many boys and men desperate to constantly prove that everything they do is unlike the things women do, which makes it hard to have much respect for women (I surmise).
Nerdy men have an extra challenge if they fail to challenge these three lessons: distinguishing themselves from women when their primary interests and talents have little to do with those skills that are usually coded as masculine (the ones involving physical skill and physical strength). So nerdy men who are insecure about their masculinity -- and who consequently fear women -- have to labor desperately to re-code intellectual pursuits (math, science, writing computer programs) as masculine, as currency for purchasing the status of "Real Man". The simplest and easiest way to accomplish that is to try to destroy any women who try to do math, learn science, or develop video games.
"She said ring the bells of morning
And let none of us pretend
For if you walk the path of silence
You might never reach the end
And those of us who know what went before can come again
Must ring the bells, the bells of morning"
So what gets me out of bed in the morning, anyway, if I have to wake up to all this every day? I don't work in the game industry, but as I've tried to show by brief reference to other examples, toxic masculinity is difficult to escape in tech. But, for the most part, none of it keeps me from doing my job day-to-day. I've experienced some microaggressions here and there at every job I've worked at (the only differentiating factor being how HR responded to them), and experience them when I go to conferences. But I'm not getting death threats. I'm not getting rape threats. Could I just keep my head down, do my job from 9 to 5, and then spend the rest of my time playing with my cats?
I am not totally unfeeling, and being aware of what's going on around me is inevitable -- I talk to women, and believe what they say about their experiences. What's more, I know that in a slightly different world, this could be me. I had the luck to be born male and the good fortune to be able to, some years later, make my body reflect who I am. But every offense against a woman in tech is an offense against the person who I would be if, by some twist of fate, I hadn't had access to the means for modifying my body to suit me better, or the means for cognitive liberation to realize I wasn't a woman. It's also wrong because women are people and hurting people is wrong. For me, there's just this extra personal angle on it that cis men don't have.
I can't work in the field that I do and avoid toxic masculinity. My employer has a great culture, but we don't exist in a vacuum. My job consists of making Web applications work right, so divorcing myself from the Internet is not an option for me. As Andrea Garcia-Vargas wrote about, for a person who has depression and a history of trauma -- like her and like me -- the Internet has a dual role: as a source of social support, but also as a constant incoming stream of traumatic events. (Occasionally, I am aware of those traumatic events because I am being targeted, as was true when I worked at Mozilla. More often, they're targeting my friends or just people who I empathize with.)
Why do I put up with it? Well, it pays the bills. Also, programming is what I'm good at, and I won't be driven out by manbabies who thirst to purge not only women, but men like me who they judge as doing masculinity wrong, from the field of software. Not if I have anythng to say about it, anyway. What's more, I have specialized skills that come with a certain amount of leverage, which I might lose if I moved to another field. Because there is so much to do when it comes to making tech better for women, I feel like I can make more of a difference than I might be able to if I worked in a less volatile profession.
I put up with it because sometimes, we can laugh.
And most of all, I put up with it for the camaraderie, which is a fancy way to say love and friendship; bonding in the face of shared adversity. Women and gender-non-conformists who do choose to stay and fight in tech -- to fight for their careers, but also to reject at least some of the male domination that is pushed upon them and to fight for (I'm not exaggerating) women's right to have a career at all -- are the few and the proud. I'm extremely lucky to call some of them my friends. Men who try to be in solidarity with gender-marginalized folks are even fewer in number in tech, but as one of them, I'm also extremely lucky to know some of the others.
That doesn't mean it's easy. I think about alternate careers all the time. Bicycle messenger. Goat farmer. Teaching math in a prison. Becoming a primary care doctor who helps trans people get access to transition-related care. But you know, even if I do switch to doing one of those things someday, I'll keep talking to my friends, and so the violations of their boundaries and dignity that they have to endure as part of a day's work will still matter to me. I also know, like Fearing knows, that "what went before can come again". If I left tech, it wouldn't change the number of angry, entitled men who consider tech a source of treasures for them to unearth and any women trying to work alongside them as obstacles in the treasure hunt, to be pushed out of the way using any available tools. So for now, I choose to stay and fight.
"We must ring the bells of morning
We have everything to gain
And may those of us who comprehend
Commit our lives to change
And though you swear
You can't let yourself be vulnerable again
Ring the bells
The bells of morning"
If it matters to you whether women in tech choose to stay and fight -- and if you think they shouldn't have to fight just for their right to exist -- you have an opportunity. The Ada Initiative mitigates harasssment in tech through their wildly successful campaign to help conferences adopt anti-harassment policies; helps women develop strategies for coping and resistance through their impostor syndrome workshops as well as AdaCamp; and helps teach men who want to be allies (like me) to do a better job of putting our good intentions into action with their Ally Skills workshops.
I wrote before about how the Ada Initiative makes the technical communities I've been in better and safer places, when I issued a challenge to the functional programming community to contribute. That challenge was successful beyond my wildest dreams, raising over three times our initial goal. So now I'm challenging all of you to help TAI meet their overall goal of $200,000 this fall. If they do meet this goal, they have promised to produce awesome feminist T-shirts!
My friend Whump emceeaich is matching all donations to TAI made through this link, up to $512.emceeaich's campaign goes over $512, the money will still count towards TAI's overall stretch goal of $200,000.
Many of you have already donated to the Ada Initiative during their fall fund drive, and if you are one of the over a thousand people who already have, I thank you. If you've already donated, could you do me a favor and send a link to this post (or any of the Ada Initiative's blog posts) to one friend?
"So ring the bells of morning
For sorrow and for shame
And let the deep well inside each of us
Swell with outrage
And those of us who know
What went before can come again
Must ring the bells
We must ring the bells of morning."