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.

Twitter’s freedom of speech

Caroline Criado-Perez, the journalist who successfully campaigned for Jane Austen to appear on British banknotes, has been subjected to a horrendous barrage of threats and abuse on Twitter, and has called for Twitter to improve the way it deals with abuse. Her supporters kicked off a petition asking Twitter for a better system, and they’ve had some success. The whole saga as it unfolded has been Storified by @kegill.

Twitter’s now said it will step up work on a ‘report abuse’ button for individual tweets. That’s a good step, but a button without something connected to it is just a placebo, and in this situation it won’t work unless it links to an action. Xbox Live’s community is enough to prove that abuse reports without enforcement are pointless, and that placebo buttons aren’t enough to deter campaigns of abuse or unpleasant individuals. And Facebook’s trigger-happy abuse policies are enough to prove that automated responses based on volumes of reports aren’t nuanced enough to be appropriate here either.

The problem is a human one, and it may be impossible to automate. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried, nor that the work is unimportant. Watching an abuse queue might not be the best way to solve the problem, nor a sustainable or scalable one. But I would love to see Twitter innovate around this issue. Moderation tools that understand the patterns of abuse on Twitter don’t yet exist, as far as I’m aware – and if they do exist, they clearly don’t work. I wonder what would happen if the same effort went in to understanding and predicting organised campaigns of abuse as spam campaigns.

I do not believe a solution is impossible. I do doubt whether Twitter thinks it’s important enough to devote significant resources to, for now, and I suspect it will continue to use freedom of speech as a convenient baffle.

If freedom of speech on Twitter means freedom to abuse, freedom to harass and to threaten, then speech on Twitter is not free. Freedom of speech for abusers means curtailed speech for victims. What critics of moderation tend not to understand is that both options force people to be silent. What supporters tend to believe is that it is better for the community as a whole to silence abusers than to allow victims to be silenced.

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.

UK welfare: what the hell is going on?

Today’s the first time I’ve seriously tried to get my head around the developments in the UK on benefits and welfare since I left, prompted by Sarah Ditum’s blog post on the attempt by Tories in marginal seats to persuade Cameron to toughen benefit rules for teenage single mothers. Using the Guardian’s society coverage purely for ease of use, this is an incomplete list of what’s happened since I left to come to Australia on May 18, less than three months ago. This is neither an exhaustive list nor a cherry-picked one, and it’s biased to a single source.

I am struggling to understand what is happening at home as anything other than a war waged by some of the richest people in the country against some of the poorest.

David Laws and benefit fraud

A little over two years ago, Treasury Minister David Laws was discovered to have claimed more than £40,000 in parliamentary expenses and paid it to his long-term partner, against parliamentary rules. He resigned and was later ruled to be guilty of breaking six rules. Today he became a junior minister in the Department for Education.

In 2010, a man from Coventry was given six months in prison after being convicted of a £41,000 benefit fraud. A couple of months earlier, a woman in Stoke-on-Trent was jailed for 16 weeks for a similar offence, after she failed to disclose she was living with her partner. Another woman was spared jail but received a suspended sentence of 18 weeks for failing to disclose she was living with her partner “as man and wife”. A pensioner with learning difficulties was given a seven month suspended sentence and 100 hours unpaid work for claiming £40,000 in benefits while he had £90,000 in savings, much of it in cash.

Last month, a man who fraudulently claimed £40,000 in benefits to fund his mortgage was given a month to repay the money or face jail. The month before, a woman who claimed more than £40,000 in council tax and housing benefits over 14 years was given a six month suspended sentence and electronically tagged to enforce a curfew. The same month, a freelance TV presenter who helped to unmask unscrupulous businesses was jailed for 12 weeks for fraudulent benefits claims totalling £24,000.

Britain: this is for everyone

Last night’s Olympic opening ceremony was stunning. A glorious jumble of references and spectacles, mixing globally-popular elements with winking in-jokes for the British viewers. It spoke in enormous mile-high symbols of our history and life – not just in the bombast and belligerence of Bond and the Queen arriving by parachute, but also in the careful choice of the Brookside lesbian kiss and the Tardis noise materialising during Bohemian Rhapsody. These are huge chunks of culture, full of their own meaning and carrying their own symbolism; forging them into an event that had its own identity and was not overwhelmed by its parts is an incredible achievement. Danny Boyle should be proud.

Some critics have complained that last night’s ceremony was too political, too much like propaganda – missing the fact that by its nature every Olympic opening ceremony is political, is propaganda. The real complaint is that it was not propaganda they agreed with – and that is fine. An event as enormous as this, as powerfully charged with anticipation and with significance, couldn’t ever hope to please everyone.

But the symbols chosen for celebration were for everyone. The NHS is for everyone. The Queen, James Bond, Mr Bean, the internet, technology, suffrage, kissing, Mary Poppins, Kes, Dizzee Rascal. The opening, pastoral and construction scenes showed clear class delineations; the joyous riot of music and popular culture that grew from it showed disparate, distinct but equal individuals. There’s a vision of utopia there, and it is neither homogenous nor segregated.

It’s easy to throw around words like “vibrant” and “young” and waffle about the British sense of humour and post-Empire faded greatness. That doesn’t come close to the heart of what happened last night. It ought to be impossible to articulate a national identity so full of contradictions. But in four words, there’s a valiant attempt: this is for everyone. Inclusive, open, supportive but not prescriptive, with humility and quiet confidence, and without the belief that everyone’s necessarily going to want it. Everyone gets a turn. Oh, and with permission to be as eccentric, cynical and sarcastic as you like so long as you’re not being mean.

In the end, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony did what politicians and sponsors couldn’t do (not even with Mitt Romney’s help). It united much of the country, even those bits of it that couldn’t care less about the sport and remain deeply cynical about the money, the sponsorship and the eventual outcome. It made people proud. It gave the Olympics a different meaning. This is why culture matters, and why storytelling is important: it makes meaning. Without it, we’re just a collection of people. With it, we get to be British.

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.

Pasties, horses and duck houses: the power of symbolic objects

The world famous GreggsWhen is a pasty not just a pasty? When it’s a metaphor for class divide, of course.

In literature, symbolic objects transcend their physical limits to embody themes or carry metaphors. Pandora’s Box, to take a very obvious one, is not only a functional, fundamental element of the story but also a powerful metaphor for the confusion and chaos released by curiosity. It’s an integral element of the myth but it also carries meaning beyond its origin story.

As news stories run and run, twisting and turning often in far more fanciful ways than any fiction, sometimes these sorts of symbolic objects turn up. My favourite for a long time now has been the duck house, made famous during the MPs’ expenses scandal. More so than any of the other ludicrous things paid for by MPS out of their expenses, the duck house came to symbolise the lavishness, the detachment from reality and the sheer unadulterated silliness of the whole affair. It’s hard to sum up all of that with a news story, or even with a pithy quote, but a symbolic object can do the heavy lifting that no amount of text can quite manage. The duck house even manages to subtly imply a bunch of waddling, quacking MPs into the bargain. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Then a couple of weeks ago we had the horse. Phone hacking as a news story has gotten so convoluted and complex that it’s impossible for anyone but the most dedicated news junkie to follow in full. There’s a (necessarily) slow-moving inquiry that hasn’t yet brought politicians into the picture, and there’s an ongoing feeling that the cosy relationships between principle actors in the drama are not going to be publicly revealed.

Hence, the horse: a wonderful symbolic proxy for power, passed back and forth between the police, the Brooks family and Cameron himself. Horsegate played out in microcosm the larger drama, with denials, memory lapses and an eventual, half-hearted confession after which precisely nothing changed. It was a gift for cartoonists, too, especially in its connotations of servility – and a physical reminder of the closeness of Cameron in class and in pastimes to the Chipping Norton set, and the vast chasm between that and most of the rest of the country.

So today, to the pasty. It’s not a sausage roll tax or a hot food tax; it’s a pasty tax. A regional delicacy beloved of workers and students, both of whom have been walloped pretty hard since the coalition came to power. It’s a working lunch, a travelling lunch, a cheap, hot lunch eaten on the go by busy, normal people. It’s sustenance for hard days. In its Cornish origins it has subtle echoes of resistance, of regional pride; it’s determinedly non-London, as is Greggs, which has its origins in Newcastle. Greggs is on every high street; it’s well loved for what it does; and it’s almost impossible to imagine Cameron or Osborne there.

It is no coincidence that these symbolic objects are all about class. British national discourse is fairly bad at talking about class, thinking about class, examining unspoken opinions or getting a good sense of the realities of social stratification. The definition of “middle” class has vastly expanded and encompasses everyone not wearing a tiara or a hoody. But the duck house is so far out of everyday experience that it can’t be packaged as anything other than a symbol of wealth. Horse riding is a pricy pastime that carries Victorian, upper-class connotations. And the humble pasty is something an awful lot of people have eaten in the last few years – the sort of people who’ve been hit badly by the economics of austerity. The sort of people who aren’t Cameron.

These things surface an undercurrent, a class divide that doesn’t often get publicly debated outside of riots-based moralising. That we latch onto these symbols shows how hard it is to talk about class, equality and social mobility in the UK without resorting to stereotype or self-delusion, especially at present, when the optimistic view is that we are all headed for difficulty. Almost everyone is braced for the worst, counting pennies, fearing redundancy or more price rises. We are all so terribly nervous about what happens next. We have to have a pasty to focus on instead.

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.

Zombie rights

On Friday, shortly after the royal wedding, five people dressed as zombies went for a coffee together in Starbucks. They’d intended to go to a flash mob in Soho Square, but left after only a few people turned up. They were asked to leave Starbucks by police, searched under section 60 powers, and then arrested for potential breach of the peace. My friend Hannah Eiseman-Renyard has written a thorough account of what happened.

A few thoughts for the Metropolitan Police:

Firstly, people dressed up as zombies do not normally pose a threat to the general public. They are not, in fact, the living dead. Although they may shuffle past you moaning about brains, and may even fake eating each other for a bit of a giggle, the chances of them causing harm to real people are not above average. They are more likely to break into Thriller-style dances than they are to break out into a riot.

Secondly, fancy dress parties in general are, surprisingly, not illegal – even when they happen in public spaces. I know it must be tempting sometimes, especially when you see a really bad Harry Potter costume or a genuinely horrid PVC nurse outfit, but you are not supposed to act as the fashion police. Dressing up is not a crime.

Thirdly, zombies may not be fast, but they can generally shuffle under their own power. Police vans are admittedly much quicker, but arrests are not meant to be used as a way of moving peaceful people out of areas where you don’t want them to be. They’re also not meant to be used to keep London pretty and acceptable while the world’s TV cameras are pointed in our direction. Edit: Nor on people filming arrests and then talking to journalists.

Fourthly, while I understand you can keep better tabs on the living dead when you have them under lock and key, zombies have the same rights as your standard flag-waving patriot. No matter what day it is. We did not turn the law off on Friday. We did not become a dictatorship for 24 hours for the sake of a wedding. Arresting people for acting in ways that are not sanctioned by the establishment is generally not considered to be one of the hallmarks of democracy.

Fifthly, although none of the zombies were charged with any offence, the effect of arrests is to stifle dissent and to scare people into behaving themselves – much like the earlier arrests the night before. There was no violence on Friday and no aggression by this group of zombies towards either the police or the public. No potential weapons or intoxicating substances were found in their bags or on their persons. At best their arrests were disproportionate. At worst they were deliberate intimidation as a consequence of doing something that wasn’t on the official script for the day.

Finally, if sitting in a coffee shop while dressed as a zombie is an offence, I am guilty many times over. And I’ll do it again in future. I will fight for our right to look like idiots while drinking caffeinated beverages, because some things are important.