[Originally published June 11, 2016]
I had a conversation today with a person who expressed the following sentiment:
“I don’t understand why people still bother getting outraged about Donald Trump. People say bigoted things all the time, and it seems like a waste of time and energy to get mad every single time they tout these beliefs.”
Now, this related to politics and not game culture, but I’ve seen this argument applied to games many a time. Just humor me and switch out ‘Donald Trump’ with ‘harassers,’ ‘internet randos,’ or ‘bigoted horse-garbage nightmare lurkers.’ Whichever you prefer. This statement interprets the issue of harassment as one of numbers and proportions, when – really – it’s not.
‘I hate you for who you were born as’ is a personal attack that comes in many different, vitriolic forms. It offends certain people, but not others. This is where the fallacy of ‘numbers and proportions’ comes into play. ‘Certain segments of the population have thick skin, and I am one of those people. I obtained my thick skin by persevering through harassment, and am better for it. If everyone had thick skin, no one would feel hurt, so I should encourage people to have thick skin.’ Okay. I understand the intention behind this argument, even though I think it is – ultimately – flawed.
Yes, some folks have thick skin. This is fine. Good, even. There is nothing wrong with being able to shrug off harassment; however, not everyone possesses the ability to obtain thick skin. Think of it like gender. Someone’s understanding of their gender may change and evolve as they grow, whereas others will retain an unchanged perception of their gender as they grow. Both outcomes are fine – some people learn to identify in different ways, and others don’t. This is part of being a bona-fide human-being. I would argue that the same goes for being sensitive to personal attacks. Some people are unable to grow the thick skin this argument demands of them. Simply incapable. Not because they are broken, or flawed, or lesser, but because they were just born that way. It’s unreasonable to demand that everyone identify as a woman or a man, just as it’s unreasonable to expect everyone to develop a thicker skin.
Another (briefer) analogy, if I may. Some people are immune to diseases. Others are not. There are those who lack immunity that can build one up via exposure to the afflicting ailment; however, there are still others who will never achieve immunity, no matter the dosage or frequency of exposure. In the same way, there are those who will always experience discomfort upon receiving a death threat in their @ mentions. This does not make them weak – it just makes them different.
Additionally, the response to different types of harassment may vary. There’s a distinctly punk-rock piece of my soul that relishes in the idea that my innocuous opinion made somebody angry enough to send me a death threat. But when I’ve received a rape threat, or a threat against my family, I’ll lose a little sleep thinking about the people that sent them. It’s disquieting that I can’t block out the graphic visuals these particular types of threats instill.
This is why enduring harassment is not an issue of numbers. Each threat cannot – and should not – be weighted equally. Nor should we expect each and every person to weigh them equally. I more than understand the desire to encourage thick skin within our community, but I can’t support that initiative as the only route for us to take – nor do I ascribe to the notion that it should be expect that members of our community will ‘just be like that.’
Many years ago, I worked at a sleep away camp ran by a husband-wife pair. He was a profoundly religious man, a reformed addict, and one of the most frightening men I’ve ever met in my life. More than once, I saw him berate and belittle her in front of campers and staff, literally screaming at her during staff meetings. Some counselors that feared for her safety asked her if she was all right, to which she replied “he’s just like that.”
These analogies do not perfectly align with the topics I’ve discussed – as no analogy can ever be perfect – but hopefully you see what I’m getting at. It is unreasonable to expect everyone to share the same traits as the unphased among us, just as a status quo is not an excuse for abusive behaviors. The effects of harassment on members of our community – and any community, really – is not an issue of numbers. It’s easy to think of it that way – in terms of populations and buildups of immunity – but I would encourage us all not to. I think this is why the opening quote began with “I don’t understand…” The rest of the argument approached people’s reactions from the perspective of proportions, of numbers, of math. It attempted to quantify the reactions of individuals in an unquantifiable context. This issue isn’t about numbers. Our rhetoric shouldn’t be either.