The nature of madness

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 few excellent pieces 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?

Why I’m not participating in today’s #twittersilence

First, let me be absolutely clear. I support the stated aims of those people participating in the Twitter boycott today, and I do not think my own speech contradicts them in any way. More than one person participating has said, in as many words, that this is about people reacting in a way that works for them. The only implication that those speaking today are somehow crossing a picket line has so far come from broader critics of the boycott, and not from those taking part. It’s a straw man, as is anything that points to this post as saying that the boycott is pointless or purposeless or useless. Again, to be clear: I do not believe that.

The Twitter silence has the potential to be an excellent embodiment of the freedom-of-speech dichotomy that turns up in a lot of arguments about hate speech. When you fail to enforce punishments for those who abuse, threaten and harass others, you aren’t protecting free speech – you’re permitting their victims to be silenced. Those people going quiet on Twitter for a single day are drawing attention to that fact – and that’s worth doing. I hope that, as Helen Lewis says, this moment of silence leads to a larger conversation.

But silence isn’t my choice. I’ve not been silent for any cause; I’ve always believed my voice has far more power than the lack of it, even for a day. I’m viscerally aware, too, of the power dynamics in this form of protest: you can only effectively participate in a silent boycott if you have a platform large enough that people will notice your absence.

It may be true that widely-followed, well-known people get the most abuse; it is in my experience also true that this problem has a very, very long tail, of people with a few dozen followers getting a little abuse, one troll, perhaps a violent-sounding stalker or two. It’s also true that trans people, people of colour, and disabled people – among other groups – tend to get an astonishing level of abuse as well; I have not been silent in support of those people either, in part because the people I’ve seen react against this type of hate speech have not been in a position where silence was a sensible protest.

Those people who don’t have a megaphone to put down can’t effectively use silence as a weapon, and it’s unlikely that this will be an effective path for them to get the recourse available to Hadley Freeman or Caroline Criado-Perez. Twitter and – in the case of actionable posts – the police are far too slow to respond to those people famous enough or articulate enough to demand it. But to those people who are not, they fail to respond at all. I don’t see how my silence today would change that – though I can understand why those participating hope that their critical mass will help to change policies and approaches both at Twitter and within law enforcement. What I can do is use this opportunity to highlight it in my own way, and to call for better approaches from Twitter and for the police to enforce laws that already exist.

Silence from me on a Sunday doesn’t mean much in any case – normally, these days, it means I’m off in Marrickville with a bunch of my friends playing tabletop games, forgetting that the internet exists and escaping for a while. It is pointless to protest by refusing to participate in something you don’t normally participate in anyway. And I have had an uneasy relationship with silence since I started writing under my own name online – a consistent awareness of the potential consequences of speaking, which ends up becoming a sort of self-censorship, a partial silence. Something I wrote two years ago, in reaction to Helen Lewis’s reporting on abuse, remains true (though I would use the word ‘people’ now, because it’s not just women dealing with this shit):

I’ve seen people argue that women should be stronger, should just suck it up and deal with it, as though silence about abuse is not a form of partial silence. I’ve seen people say women aren’t being silenced, because of all these women who are not silent, as though all women speak about the same things and measure risk and reward the same way, and as though there’s no gradient between silent and outspoken. I’ve seen suggestions that women should only write on moderated sites – presumably sites they don’t moderate themselves – as though restricting the venues of our speech doesn’t amount to silencing. And I’ve seen people say pseudonymous environments are bad for women because of harassment, when some of us find them the only places we can speak without worry.

All of those arguments are bollocks.

Now, as then, the best thing I feel I personally can do is to speak out – to put myself, directly or otherwise, in the firing line. To do so knowing that not being silent is still one of the most daring, distressing, dangerous things some people can do online, and that people with far fewer resources and more to lose than I are speaking up, every day, and refusing to let credible threats and floods of violent abuse prevent them.

I remain one of the lucky ones, because I only have to deal with pictures of dismembered fetuses and outright threats of rape every few months or so, rather than every day. Gender-based slurs and harassment should not be an occupational hazard for female journalists, any more than they should be a condition of open internet use for anyone who dares to differ from the English-speaking world’s white straight cis currently-not-disabled male default. Some people can use silence as a weapon against this state of affairs. I can use speech.

Is online abuse increasing, or are we just less tolerant of it?

A thought that follows on from yesterday’s post about Twitter and freedom of speech: it’s easy, I think, to see all the anger and distress caused by online abuse and come to the conclusion that it’s a growing problem. That social spaces online are increasingly hostile to women and other minorities, and that such incidents are increasing in both frequency and severity. In short, it’s easy to think that things are getting worse.

But I don’t believe that’s true. Social spaces online have historically always been fairly unpleasant places to be a visible minority, with notable exceptions. Usenet wasn’t a fun place to be openly female. Neither were early IRC channels (a/s/l and all). Parts of 4chan and Reddit still aren’t. But as online space has become easier to enter, easier to use, more important and less socially obscure, a broader section of society has colonised it. I learned when I was about 12 that you don’t admit your gender online, if you’re female; it’s less than three months since I first felt comfortable using a real picture of my face as my avatar, knowing what that can open you up to.

The evolution over the last couple of years has been that more women and other minorities feel safe enough online to be visible at all, rather than hiding behind the default masculine assumption that comes with anonymity and some pseudonymity. The target pool for abuse is larger, because more people are unafraid to simply be in public.

At the same time, the backlash to such behaviour is more visible and more outspoken. Abuse and threats are increasingly seen as unacceptable. That means more visibility for particularly reprehensible abuse, where a decade ago it would have been more hidden and harder to speak out against. The availability heuristic means people are more likely to overestimate the frequency of abuse now as opposed to abuse years ago, because they can think of more recent visible examples – not necessarily because it’s more frequent, but because it’s more frequently spoken of. It also means that social norms are changing for the better.

Maybe this is too optimistic a take. But I’d like to believe so.

The PAX problem

It’s PAX Australia this weekend. Some friends of ours over at Pop Up Playground recently decided to pull out and cancel their panel there, on live, pervasive and urban gaming, and today Ben McKenzie posted a long explanation of his decision, which includes Mike Krahulik’s public transphobia and the way that’s been handled, as well as the fallout over the Why So Serious? panel.

I don’t think the organisers have created an event which is non-inclusive; I’m not boycotting the event based just on the description of the panel or Krahulik’s comments. As the Pop Up Playground statement says, those things just revealed to us that the culture surrounding PAX Aus is not that different to the problematic culture associated with Penny Arcade in the past. We weren’t invited to speak – we submitted an idea for a panel and were accepted. Most of the panels are community suggested; the organisers and the high ups at Penny Arcade have pointed this out in the wake of criticism. They didn’t title them or write the descriptions. So the program of panels ought to give us an idea of what the community at PAX wants to talk about; the community that created them is the community that wants to engage with PAX Australia.

Given that, is it telling that something like only 15% of panellists overall are women? That a clear majority of panels have no women on them at all? (I’ve no idea what the ratios of non-straight, non-white participants are like.) Perhaps they weren’t invited; perhaps they were and didn’t feel comfortable participating, despite the clear harassment policy and lack of “booth babes”, both things I certainly applaud. When you look closer at the PAX Aus program, you find a lot of near misses; panels that almost, but don’t quite engage issues of social justice. There’s discussion of games being criticised for being sexist and racist (“Why So Serious?”), but not of the racism and sexism in games. We have two panels critical of how other forms of media portray geeks and gamers (“That’s What She Said”, ”Is There Such A Thing As A Fake Geek?”), but none about how our own medium portrays women and minorities. There’s advice on how women can navigate games as a man’s world (“Not Fair? Then Grow Some Ovaries and DO Something About it!”), but no challenge of the systemic sexism which makes the industry unwelcoming to women. There’s even one about the entitlement players feel and the impact this has on makers (“Gamer Rage – Entitlement Issues”), but nothing about the entitlement and privilege unconsciously possessed by white, straight and/or cis-male players.

Looking at all that, it’s easy to be left with a clear impression that the PAX audience hasn’t thought about these issues yet – or doesn’t want to. In such a climate, it’s not hard to see how people wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing them up.

PUP aren’t the only people to have pulled out; Brendan Keogh has also decided not to take part, and there may be others I’m not aware of, who have decided not to participate at all or rescinded after seeing the events of recent months. Their decisions won’t have been easy ones. Ben’s been careful to articulate the tricky decision here: is it better to stay and attempt to change the culture from the inside, or back off and make your statement by disengaging? Either way, something is lost.

It’s a fair bet there will be a lot of eyes on that panel this weekend, and a lot of interest in precisely how equality issues are enacted this time round, at this particular event. Thanks to a panel description and some extremely unwise comments from a founder in a different country, PAX Australia has become a flash point for the broader issues at play here. Whatever happens, whether it passes without incident or implodes in a mess, it’ll be held up as emblematic.

But misogyny, transphobia, racism, homophobia in gamer cultures: they are not one incident, one big emblematic moment. They are a series of small decisions, individual moments that taken in isolation are small. It’s climate, not weather. It’s not one massive fish, but an ocean teeming with small ones. The problem with PAX is not just the problem with PAX: it’s also all the smaller problems it subsumes by being so visible. It’s not only the events themselves but also the standard set.

So here’s hoping for a positive PAX that solves some problems, turns some of those near misses into hits, and sets a higher standard. And much respect to Ben, for setting a very high bar.

The Hitman: Absolution trailer is a symptom of a huge problem with games

Late, but I wanted to get a couple of thoughts out on the Hitman trailer. A whole host of articulate people have already tackled it – Keza MacDonald, Helen Lewis, Sarah Ditum, Brendan Keogh and Grant Howitt being my picks for good reads on the topic. I don’t want to go over old ground, but I do have a couple of things to add.

Firstly: these are not “powerful women”, whatever IO says. These are women whose sole purpose for existing is to be titillating for the viewer, and then to be destroyed. If being entirely defined by your utility to men is how these people think female power works, then they are wrong and even dafter than I’d previously given them credit for.

Second, a lot of the problem here is ubiquity. If the trailer existed in isolation – if it was one egregious thing in a world where most things weren’t egregious – it would probably stand out more but it’d also be a less problematic incident. Stuff like this is not just normal – it’s actually hard to think of one game franchise that includes women that doesn’t pull sexist shit some of the time. Wouldn’t it be awesome to tell stories about strong female characters that didn’t assume a viewer wanted wank fodder? Why does almost every woman in mainstream games have to deal with sexualised violence? The Hitman trailer exists in a cultural context where – within the mainstream at least – the narratives are extremely limited. The writing is almost universally bad and almost universally discriminatory. If women are in a game, we’re on show, or we’re weak and pathetic and need rescuing. (The treatment of non-white people, disabled people, same-sex relationships and disability is a whole different rant, but has the same basic features.) The male gaze is ubiquitous in mainstream games. This is just the latest stupid example. A lot of people (myself included) aren’t just pissed off at IO, we’re pissed off at the routine disregard and objectification in games and games marketing.

Finally – look, gaming while feminist is basically an exercise in ignoring infuriating things all the time. In extremis – say while playing Heavy Rain, Arkham City, Bayonetta, DOA, and so on – it’s like trying to read while someone’s shouting SEX BOOBS LADYBITS SEXY SEXY BUM in your ear. You can SEX read the sentences GIRLS if you BOOBS try CROTCH SHOT but it’s much ASS harder than it SEXY should be. Most of the time the sex is completely irrelevant to the game. For the love of god, game designers and marketers, please just stop.

On silence

This week, Helen Lewis-Hasteley posted at the New Statesman the words of seven women speaking about the abuse they’ve received online. That’s spawned a huge conversation, a #feministwishlist hashtag and a lot of other posts, much of which Helen’s rounded up here.

I think I was 12 years old the first time someone on IRC told me explicitly what they’d like to do to me, sexually, then swore at me when I told them I wasn’t interested. I learned, fast, that if I wanted to be taken seriously or heard at all – if I wanted to ensure that random, entirely unsolicited, often threatening sexual advances wouldn’t happen – I’d best pick a male name, online. Or at least be gender neutral. Being female meant I was fair game. It sometimes seems that in 15 years not all that much has changed.

I have maybe half a dozen online pseudonyms I’ve used at various times. There’s one in particular I’ve been writing, commenting, talking under since I was 12. Nowadays I don’t use it much, now I speak under my own name here and on Twitter, but when I’m not pseudonymous I speak about different things. I’m mindful of what I’m saying, not just for what it is but also for the reaction it might provoke. If someone wanted to track me down, it would no longer be particularly hard, with this open identity.

I am lucky, and often thankful, that the pseudonyms I use have never – as far as I know – been linked to me. I won’t repeat the abuse I’ve gotten under those other names, because I barely had the spoons to deal with it the first time round and I’m damned if it matters what the exact words were, anyway, and because it could open floodgates or let people link those identities to this one.

And in deciding that, I know in my bones that I’m setting myself up to be dismissed, to have my experiences belittled because I choose not to share them explicitly, to be called a liar or worse; that’s the kicker, you see, that eventually you know in your bones what could be coming, so you self-censor.

Some women speak and continue speaking, whether they are abused for it or not. For some women, who speak and are abused, the price for speaking is too high and silence is the only choice that lets them protect and care for themselves. For others, the existence and the experiences of those women is enough for them to decide, consciously or otherwise, that the risks of speaking will always outweigh the rewards.

And for some, like me, a partial silence descends.

I weigh words. What’s safe, given how easy I would be to find in real life, and given what I can cope with on a given day. How much of myself to reveal while pseudonymous, which details to fake and which to hide. It is laughable to suggest that identity online is uncomplicated in such circumstances. Either I can be myself, or I can speak without fear. I am uncomfortably constrained in both skins.

This is how bullying works. It’s how hate speech works. The abuse doesn’t even have to be directed at you personally – just so long as people are being torn apart for having a characteristic that you share, you may welll be worried about being torn apart for the same reason. Not just women, either – the mental health blogging community is 99.9% pseudonymous, for instance, with very good reason.

I’ve seen people argue that women should be stronger, should just suck it up and deal with it, as though silence about abuse is not a form of partial silence. I’ve seen people say women aren’t being silenced, because of all these women who are not silent, as though all women speak about the same things and measure risk and reward the same way, and as though there’s no gradient between silent and outspoken. I’ve seen suggestions that women should only write on moderated sites – presumably sites they don’t moderate themselves – as though restricting the venues of our speech doesn’t amount to silencing. And I’ve seen people say pseudonymous environments are bad for women because of harassment, when some of us find them the only places we can speak without worry.

All these arguments are bollocks. And I’m bored of hearing them. And maybe saying so will put me in danger, maybe it’ll mean a threat or a few abusive tweets or maybe just an argument I’d rather not have to have. But I’m fed up of being told how we ought to moderate our behaviour. All these options just end up with us being a different sort of silent. I’d like us to be free to speak.

Maybe it’s just me. But somehow, after this week, I doubt it.

#playful11: you don’t need a flying car

Last Friday was Playful 2011, an awesome conference about games and toys and, well, being playful. It was at Conway Hall. It was lovely in that way that you don’t always agree with, but that makes you think and gives you a different slant on the world. I enjoyed it immensely.

Running through the day were several threads that I want to come back to at some point – most notably for me the blurrings of boundaries between art and technology, between physical and digital things, and between creation and consumption. But the dominating theme was nostalgia – nostalgia for a vision of the future that was born in the 1970s with big-budget sci-fi epics, and that simply doesn’t exist now.

To put it another way: where’s my fucking jetpack?

It’ll come as no surprise, if you saw me live tweeting, that this future-past nostalgia doesn’t resonate with me. I think there are a couple of reasons for this, one personal and one much more general and more interesting.

First up: the personal. The touchstones of the nostalgic middle-aged man don’t reflect me. This isn’t just an age thing – I watched Logan’s Run and Star Wars, albeit a few years late – it’s a gender and a sexuality thing too. My present, as a not-entirely-straight woman, is a hell of a lot more interesting and self-controlled and autonomous than any 1970s sci-fi vision of that life (Alien dutifully excepted). I could be an astronaut, or a prime minister. I can control my fertility (isn’t it weird how few people who talk about humans as cyborgs ever mention that?) and I don’t have to sleep with everyone I meet as a result. I am the star of my own movie, not a sidekick. It’s not perfect, and others have it worse – this future like all others is unevenly distributed – but it’s getting better.

So I like this future, where I don’t have a jetpack but also I don’t have to wear a silver breastplate or high-legged leotard or gold bikini. Nostalgia for those images makes no sense to me.

The other thing – and this is the less personal one – is that trends in technology aren’t actually about the tech. Trends in anything aren’t about what’s technically possible so much as they’re about what matters to people. Trends are about us, about humans and what we want and need from our world. This is true for toys and games and news and jetpacks and flying cars. So one big reason we don’t have flying cars is that the desire for flying cars was never actually a need for flying cars. It was a problem (get places fast, avoiding congestion) that could be solved by flying cars, but also in other ways. Like telecommuting.

It’s the internet’s fault that you don’t have a flying car.

We don’t always think of the web as bridging physical space problems, but it does – so smoothly that we don’t notice. I have my work colleagues in my pocket and a window to my work space in my bag. Now, why do I need a flying car?

(Yes, there are also technological and logistical reasons why flying cars are difficult. The internet isn’t a perfect solution to the problem. But it’s not bad, for an unevenly distributed future. And if it didn’t solve the problem pretty well, I reckon we’d find a way to make flying cars work. We’re clever little monkeys, and we’re good at solving problems.)

What else is in my pocket? I have the biggest encyclopaedia there has ever been, and a satellite view of the entire globe, and a personally curated collection of interesting writing by clever people that expands every day beyond my ability to read and absorb it. I have a direct, fast, simple line out to millions of people, and tools I can use to collaborate with them on any number of exciting projects or toys or games. Oh, and the news, too. All of it.

Something else that ran through many of the Playful talks was a focus on play as an event that happens between an individual and a machine. It struck a peculiar note for me, operating in a space with Zombie where all play is collaborative between humans, and a space at the Guardian where news gathering and consumption are going the same way.

The risk here is that by focusing on the toy at the expense of the needs of the player – the shiny tech, the jetpack, the iPad (it’s the future of news, you know) – we lose sight of what’s actually happening. New toys are solving old problems. We are collaborating more and more, in incredible ways. We are capable of incredible endeavours, playful and serious, because we are connected. The key vision of the next generation isn’t a baby playing with a magazine as though it’s an iPad. It’s social networking on Moshi Monsters and multi-player collaborative world-building in Minecraft.

Sci-fi has always been good at identifying problems and imagining solutions – but usually it’s much better at predicting the needs than the resolutions. Jetpacks, incidentally, have been around since about the 1940s. They didn’t really solve much.

Nostalgia for the promise of a different future doesn’t make sense to me in a world where I can already see the solutions to those problems in the flesh. Why get misty-eyed over the promise of a flying car or newspapers with moving pictures, when we can see the whole world from the sky on Google Earth and join in with news happening at the tips of our fingers on Twitter and live blogs and YouTube?

I would rather get on with playing.