A lot’s been said about the killing of six people by a man, possibly mentally ill, certainly with a gun, certainly with a deep hatred of women and a deep anger over what he sees as their rejection. I don’t want to go over old ground; here are a fewexcellentpieces that are worth reading on this whole sorry mess.
What is worth saying, though, and what I’ve not seen said elsewhere, is a little about the nature of madness, and how it might apply here. It is pointless to go over whether the killer had a diagnosis, as that diagnosis cannot hope to explain his actions, any more than a diagnosis of OCD can hope to explain why a particular person might scrub their hands raw rather than compulsively locking doors, or a diagnosis of schizophrenia can explain why a person believes they have magical powers that control the weather rather than believing the NSA is stalking their every move. The differences have their genesis outside a person’s brain chemistry, in their society, their upbringing, their present situations, the elements of their obsessions that are permitted space to grow unchecked.
The specifics of madness are not so closely linked to diagnoses as most people would like to believe. One cannot simply write off all delusions as madness, nor all violence, nor even all shooting sprees, because madness is not a sufficient explanation. Even if we know for certain that a shooter is diagnosed as mentally ill, what we do not necessarily know – and what we must ask – is why their illness has taken that particular form. Why women? Why people of colour? Why sex? Why entitlement?
Madness is born in sanity. It is born from society. It does not spring, fully formed, from the brain in isolation: it is defined socially, it is constructed socially, it is through the establishment of social norms that abnormality is recognised and regulated. Mental illnesses grow like weeds; the nature of the weed is dependent on the soil, the light, the water. Sometimes the only thing that makes a weed a weed is the fact it is appearing in a neatly manicured bed of some other flower.
The California killer’s mental illness was not madness, when it was limited to posting on forums about how much he hated women. It was not madness when he spoke online about his fantasies. It was not madness when he suggested women deserved to die for rejecting him. If he had only killed one woman, an ex-girlfriend or a prospective partner who said no, a great deal of evidence suggests it would still not be judged as madness; this happens every day, and society rarely says it is insane.
Sanity and insanity are two ends of a spectrum, not distinct states, and there is a great deal in the middle that is murky. It is frightening that such hatred, such aggression towards women, such entitlement and anger, is only murky.
Why does society call angry, threatening young misogynists mad only after they have pulled the trigger?
Nate Silver and the diversity problem “What happens when formerly excluded groups gain more power, like techies? They don’t just let go of their old forms of cultural capital. Yet they may be blind to how their old ways of identifying and accepting each other are exclusionary to others. They still interpret the world through their sense of status when they were “basically, outsiders.””
Do psychiatrists think everyone is crazy? “Though many object to psychiatry’s perceived encroachment into normality, we rarely hear such complaints about the rest of medicine. Few lament that nearly all of us, at some point in our lives, seek care from a physician and take all manner of medications, most without need of a prescription, for one physical ailment or another. If we can accept that it is completely normal to be medically sick, not only with transient conditions such as coughs and colds, but also chronic disorders such as farsightedness, lower back pain, high blood pressure or diabetes, why can’t we accept that it might also be normal to be psychiatrically ill at various points in our lives?”
Why personal change does not equal political change “I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.”
This is an interesting thing: a New Review post that looks at the history and present of trigger warnings, and how they’ve moved out of communities online and into public life and spaces. If you don’t know what a trigger warning is, it’s essentially a note indicating that you might be about to encounter something upsetting, something that could negatively affect your psychological wellbeing; they’ve grown out of supportive communities in which people needed to carefully negotiate conversations about subjects that need to be spoken about, but that also could prove detrimental to readers’ health. The roots, however, aren’t quite as simple as the New Review piece paints it them:
Initially, trigger warnings were used in self-help and feminist forums to help readers who might have post traumatic stress disorder to avoid graphic content that might cause painful memories, flashbacks, or panic attacks. Some websites, like Bodies Under Siege, a self-injury support message board, developed systems of adding abbreviated topic tags—from SI (self injury) to ED (eating disorders)—to particularly explicit posts. As the Internet grew, warnings became more popular, and critics began to question their use.
It’s rare to see an article on trigger warnings mentioning Bodies Under Siege, despite its early adoption of warnings as a way for its users to safeguard themselves. It’s a shame, then, that the piece skips over the ways trigger warnings were used there in the late 90s, when I was an active user. They were not a way for users with PTSD specifically to avoid harm; they were for all users – including those without mental health issues – to avoid subjects that could trigger them into unsafe behaviour, or that they didn’t have the mental energy to tackle. They were carefully considered and carefully enforced alongside a list of verboten things that mods would delete on sight: discussions of weights, calorie counts, numbers of self-inflicted wounds, images. Those things were not done lightly. Bodies Under Siege was a community of vulnerable people struggling with mental illnesses of various degrees, and it was built entirely around recovery and support. Trigger warnings and removal of things that could prompt ‘competitive’ behaviour were not courtesies. They were absolutely integral to the community’s existence.
I used a couple of other forums for people who self-harmed, in my teens. BUS was the one that did not make me worse. There’s a direct analogy between one of those forums and pro-anorexia communities; at its worst, it provided encouragement to hurt yourself, and at best it was simply reinforcing the behaviour, a reassurance that self-injury was an OK thing to do. It was not a healthy space. The second, though, tried to be about recovery, but allowed images and discussions of self-injury particulars. It was a deeply conflicted space, as a result: if you were feeling OK, you could quite easily end up feeling worse after a visit. If you were already feeling bad, you went there knowing it would most likely spiral downwards, playing Russian roulette with your feelings. You would, almost without doubt, stumble across something that would likely tip you from ‘maybe I could hurt myself’ into the act.
Trigger warnings on BUS made it safe from that concern. It was a place you could go while feeling awful to try to be strong. It had thread after thread of distraction games, little time-wasting things you could do to stave off the need to self-injure. It had questionnaires to fill in before you did it, drawn up by users and psych professionals, and questionnaires to fill in afterwards. It had resources for asking for treatment, for dealing with emergency care, for supporting others. It had safe spaces for parents, partners, carers to socialise. It had diary threads you could post in and read, if you were well enough, and those diaries came by convention with warnings about the content. If you didn’t want to engage with the illnesses of others, for fear of worsening your own, you did not have to.
Words cannot express how valuable trigger warnings were to me, or to many of the other users on BUS. Not just those with PTSD, or anxiety disorders, or specific trauma-related illnesses; not even just those who self-harmed or those with eating disorders; all of us who used that space benefitted from its policies on keeping us safe.
Trigger warnings on the web were born in communities trying to balance the need to speak with the need not to hear. Those communities were closed, or at least only partially open; LiveJournal communities where membership rules could be enforced, forums and BBs where mods had control over members’ posts. Trigger warnings do not translate well to public spaces – Tumblr tags, Twitter, even Facebook groups, or some of the real-life scenarios mentioned in the New Review article – because those needs are different for the wider community. Interestingly, some Tumblr tags do take content warnings well – conventions have grown up around those tags, and those who transgress those conventions are essentially moderated out by the existing users. But there’s no system to support that, nothing to stop a sustained invasion, no way to organise that space to support that use.
But just as it is inadvisable to add trigger warnings to everything based on the possibility of harm, it’s just as inadvisable to remove them from everything based on disbelief in their effectiveness. In communities focussed on mental health and recovery, trigger warnings are absolutely necessary for users. Whether college classes, campuses or the Huffington Post need the same level of consideration is a valid question, for sure, but it’s one worth asking. If you want people with disabilities to be able to participate fully in your spaces, you’d better be thinking about accessibility in terms of triggers and mental wellbeing as well as wheelchair ramps and sign language. And that doesn’t always need to be in formal language: sometimes it’s as simple as editing a tweeted headline to include the word ‘distressing’, to give your followers the choice about what they click on.
The New Review piece concludes:
Trigger warnings are presented as a gesture of empathy, but the irony is they lead only to more solipsism, an over-preoccupation with one’s own feelings—much to the detriment of society as a whole. Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration. We cannot anticipate every potential trigger—the world, like the Internet, is too large and unwieldy. But even if we could, why would we want to? Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.
There is no way to stop every vulnerable person from coming across things that will make them more vulnerable. There is, however, courtesy and consideration, and a need for equal access for those with mental health issues. Those are not small things. There is a valuable, important baby being thrown out with this bathwater.
Where have all the workers gone? “Whether as victim, demon, or hero, the industrial worker of the past century filled the public imagination in books, movies, news stories, and even popular songs, putting a grimy human face on capitalism while dramatizing the social changes and conflicts it brought… With work increasingly invisible, it’s much harder to grasp the human effects, the social contours, of the Internet economy.”
Netrunner as life hacking for perfectionism “It was Netrunner that crystallized for me the uncomfortable fact that in real life I’ve always run away from any space I couldn’t see completely, from any challenge I might not be able to win, and from any situation where I struggled to succeed.”
The Blood Harvest “Each year, half a million horseshoe crabs are captured and bled alive to create an unparalleled biomedical technology.”
Do invertebrates feel pain? “We know next to nothing about whether or not these animals – or invertebrates in general – actually suffer. In Elwood’s experience, researchers are either certain they feel pain or certain they don’t. “Very few people say we need to know,” he says.”
Partners as patrons “I am essentially “sponsored” by this very loving man who shows up at the end of the day, asks me how the writing went, pours me a glass of wine, then takes me out to eat. He accompanies me when I travel 500 miles to do a 75-minute reading, manages my finances, and never complains that my dark, heady little books have resulted in low advances and rather modest sales.”
Remember the human “Try to be courteous to others. See someone having a bad day? Give them a compliment or ask them a thoughtful question, and it might make their day better. Did someone reply to your comment with valuable insights or something that cheered you up? Send them a quick thanks letting them know you appreciate their comment.”
If you support the death penalty in practice, on some level, you have to decide that a certain number of innocent lives are a price worth paying for the state to kill guilty people. You can support the principle but oppose the practice – as some do – because it is impossible in practice to create a system which only, ever, executes the guilty and spares the innocent. The more you try to ensure the innocent are spared, the more guilty people also avoid punishment. A perfect system of perfect judgements is impossible in the real world.
No system can sort with 100% accuracy between the deserving and undeserving, either for assistance or for punishment. There will always be borderline cases, those attempting to cheat the system, those whose circumstances are not neat or clean. Most systems are set up to assume a certain leeway, with the exception of those systems set up by states to help their people – or those wanting to become their people.
In the UK, the government has decided that no level of assistance should be given to anyone who does not fit increasingly strict criteria of need. It does not matter how many people with genuine needs are hurt in the pursuit of its desire; if one person who might just about be able to cope without benefits receives benefits, that is one too many. No matter that by tightening the system the government is actively hurting many, many times more people than it’s justifiably excluding from assistance – that is, fundamentally, the point. And the war of words in the popular imagination is won by convincing people that there are so many more undeserving than deserving welfare recipients, and that the pain is therefore proportionate.
But of course it is not. In striving to ensure that only people who most desperately need help ever receive it, the government cuts programs that help everyone. It sees the extra help given to disadvantaged people as an unequal and unnecessary expense, and so guts programs designed to ensure equality of opportunity. It is OK to hurt people who need help, the reasoning goes, so long as you don’t accidentally help anyone.
In Australia, the war is over asylum seekers. On one hand, there are supposedly queues of people waiting to get into Australia; asylum seekers with the proper documentation, who board planes and wait patiently for their chance to come here. On the other, there are people so desperate that they board unseaworthy boats run by people smugglers in the belief it would be better to drown than stay where they are. We are meant to believe that by punishing the latter, the former will benefit. We are meant to believe that it is not worth helping a single person who has come by boat. We are meant to believe that state assistance is a zero sum game, that what’s mine is mine and asylum seekers are Others. We are meant to believe that the country is giving something away when it takes in those desperate enough to risk drowning to live here, not gaining something. We are meant to believe that the only choice is between deaths at sea and deaths in detention, as though stopping the boats is more important than stopping the suffering, the desperation, the human misery that lies behind every journey to these shores.
I don’t think I am useless to Australia. Australia doesn’t think so either; I’m one of the good ones. I’m a temporary economic migrant, not a permanent refugee. I have knowledge skills that this country thinks are worth the cost of my admittance. I don’t really need to live in Australia. So the government has made it remarkably easy for me to choose to do so. It makes sure I can have my husband with me. It offers me healthcare arrangements, because my home country would do the same thing. As long as I am working and do not need further help, Australia is very happy to have me.
Of course it is, because I don’t need help. There is no room in this equation for political solutions that admit the possibility that it might be OK to help a few people who are two degrees above the breadline, if it ensures that a greater number of those below the breadline get that help too. There’s no room for generosity or for compassion, no room for the idea that it is better to make it easy for those who need help to get it than to make it hard for those who do not. And so, slowly but surely, governments act more and more like banks offering loans. They offer assistance only to those who can prove they do not need it, and leave those who need it most to drown.
The founder of 4chan on anonymity “It’s incredible what people can make when they’re able to fail publicly without fear, since not only will those failures not be attributed to them, but they’ll be washed away by a waterfall of new content.”
Games by humans “If a games journalist is interviewing a developer about a game, they typically only have access to the lead developers, the ones in charge. Usually, the journalist’s access to these developers is through the publisher that is bankrolling the game. The dozens or hundreds of men and women actually making the game are hidden from the public behind the doubly thick wall of their employers and their publishers. We can’t speak to them and, more often than not, their employment contract means they can’t speak to us.”
The Empathy Exams: deep, long read from a medical actor. Anything I say here will under-sell it.
“Empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges. Trauma bleeds. Out of wounds and across boundaries. Sadness becomes a seizure. Empathy demands another kind of porousness in response.”
Poverty in academia (and other places)
“If we are a collection of our experiences, can you imagine how difficult it can be then to sit in polite conversation and try and engage about childhood holidays, where you learned so ski, and how to fit orchestra practice in around your job?”
The power of Flappy Bird “Finally, and most importantly, we should learn once and for all that we will never really know what ‘the people’ want. The screenwriter and novelist http://www.mindanews.com/buy-valtrex/ William Goldman famously suggested that in Hollywood “nobody knows anything.” The success of Flappy Bird is above all a reminder that this maxim is as true in game development as it is in movie making.”
In defense of Twitter feminism “In a world where the voices of white middle-class heterosexual men and women are privileged, it is striking that Twitter, one of the few spaces that allows for counternarratives and resistance, is now facing a barrage of criticism.”
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When mainstream media is the lunatic fringe “Mainstream media cruelty is actually more dangerous, for it sanctions behavior that, were it blogged by an unknown, would likely be written off as the irrelevant ramblings of a sociopath. Instead, the prestige of old media gives bigoted ranting respectability. Even in the digital age, old media defines and shapes the culture, repositioning the lunatic fringe as the voice of reason.”
Davos to Detention: Why I hate coming home to America “The last four times I’ve traveled abroad (to Turkey, Kuwait, Lebanon and Switzerland), Homeland Security has detained me upon arrival. It’s as frustrating as it is ironic, because although in Arabic my name, Ahmed, means, “blessed,” each time I land at JFK airport, I can’t help but feel somewhat cursed.”
It is expensive to be poor “If you can’t afford the first month’s rent and security deposit you need in order to rent an apartment, you may get stuck in an overpriced residential motel. If you don’t have a kitchen or even a refrigerator and microwave, you will find yourself falling back on convenience store food, which—in addition to its nutritional deficits—is also alarmingly overpriced. If you need a loan, as most poor people eventually do, you will end up paying an interest rate many times more than what a more affluent borrower would be charged. To be poor—especially with children to support and care for—is a perpetual high-wire act.”
How long have I got left? Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely.
readme.txt Readme files in game mods: a feminist perspective
Mattingly has apologised, which is a good call, to say the least. He says he’s going to get started on AA and therapy, which is great. It’s awful that his mental health issues have contributed to him harassing someone, and it’s entirely excellent that he’s taking responsibility for it and using it as a wake-up call to get help.
But away from his personal response, there’s been an unhappy sideline on Twitter today, with David Jaffe as its poster boy, in questioning the developer’s behaviour, and asking why she didn’t ‘shut him down’ or tell him, confrontationally, to stop before he escalated. Why she ‘let’ him make more than one crude sexual comment. Implying that it’s somehow her fault for not stopping him, rather than his fault for continuing; implying that silence is consent.
This is bullshit.
I wrote last week about how online harassment is a professional issue – how when people abuse minorities online they are often doing so in a professional context, not merely a personal one. McWilliams was in a professional space here, talking to a professional contact; the idea that she could confront him with absolutely no repercussions for herself is a cosy and pleasant one, but not necessarily a realistic one.
Even if it were, the idea that there’s a ‘right way’ to respond to abuse like this is completely wrong-headed. A lot of interactions with harassers turn unbelievably ugly when they’re called on their harassment. Ignoring it and maintaining a calm front can be the best way of de-escalating. Not everyone is happy or comfortable with showing that they’re upset to someone who’s potentially trying to upset them in order to get a thrill. Blocking is not always an option, especially in a professional context. And – let’s be clear – the point at which anyone would have to resort to blocking or shutting down is the point at which the harasser has already crossed the line. No response of any kind is going to negate that.
Mental health issues don’t excuse you from behaving well towards other people. A lot of people live with depression without sending people unpleasant messages (hi!). Depression doesn’t absolve you from responsibility, and it certainly doesn’t turn this situation around to put McWilliams in the wrong. Mattingly seems to be trying to own his actions and apologise. The people who’ve tried to defend him by attacking his victim’s responses should probably follow his lead.
According to an Indiestatik report on some leaked documents today, PAX is introducing a special “Roll for Diversity hub and lounge” at events – a place “to provide a resource hub for PAX attendees in relation to marginalized communities within the gaming audience”. According to the post, “It will be a hub for communication, networking and, hopefully, an increased understanding of issues facing these communities every day and the promotion of a tolerant, safe space within PAX.” Which is… interesting.
From the post:
Despite the proposal documents mentioning these spaces to be part of a continued effort “to provide a safe and welcoming environment,” in labeling an entire, separate little village as the “diverse” space, I think you’re running into a lot of potential problems, even if the experience is supposed to be focused on non-judgmental learning. For instance, why can’t the entire PAX space be explicitly marked as a safe space? Why does it appear that this is going to be the only area where someone might not feel threatened because of their ‘biological gender?’
There are the added concerns about the “diversity specialists” on hand to teach people about diversity in the gaming industry. Who are they, and who is vetting them? Why have these individuals been chosen to specifically represent queer gamers or woman gamers, or gamers of color? And why does the promotional registration policy for the diversity lounge seem so draconian?
(Quick disclaimer: I’ve not been able to verify this story myself, so I’m relying on Indiestatik’s source & reporting for the facts here. I don’t have any reason to doubt them. If that changes, I’ll update this post.)
The diversity lounge isn’t just one tone-deaf response to the need to build an inclusive space and a diverse community at PAX – although it is remarkably tone-deaf, given that presumably one of the things this space will be safe from is the remarks of one of the company’s founders. The issue isn’t just that hiving diversity and safety off into a small space is strange when you control the rest of the space and could, presumably, decide to make it all safe and all inclusive. It’s not just one iffy approach that needs a bit of work. The problem is the context.
The context is that, since the start of the dickwolves stuff, there have been – what, five? six? – let’s say, a lot of incidents where Penny Arcade or at least one of its founders have gone through this cycle. It goes like this: do something dodgy, get called out, apologise (sometimes with a greater degree of sincerity than others). There’s an optional fourth step where they take back the apology or go on to do something else equally dodgy that demonstrates none of the criticism’s been taken on board.
And those are just the things they’ve been called out on – at some point presumably someone with some diversity training will take them up on their persistentuse of “crazy-person level of attention to detail” in their job posts, for instance, but while that level of casual cluelessness remains on show it’s pretty much impossible to take their organisational approach to inclusivity very seriously.
This isn’t just one thing. It’s a pattern of behaviour – a hypocritical one that seeks the right to continue to do stupid, harmful stuff under a consumer-friendly cloak of vague respectability, as though the word “sorry” means more than not doing it again. Right now, none of PAX’s critics are going to take a half-hearted, tone-deaf “diversity lounge” as anything other than a hilariously bad joke at best and a disaster waiting to happen at worst. Even if it’s well intentioned. Because that’s what so many of their other half-hearted, tone-deaf approaches to diversity have turned out to be.
For this to work the way it needs to work, for it to be a positive space that can provide practical benefits for people traditionally excluded by events like PAX, it needs a lot of goodwill from the same people who’ve been hurt by PAX in the past – the devs, the game designers, the public speakers, those with personal knowledge and professional expertise, the people who’ve been put off and dismissed in public by the event’s founders. The people who say they won’t be there at all, never mind corralled in a small safe space.
PAX needs to prove that it’s broken the pattern. It needs the benefit of the doubt. The problem is that Penny Arcade has never once proved that it deserves it.