I confess: I still don't get it.
We write about things that make people angry: sometimes on purpose (u mad bro?), sometimes because the topic interests us. But few topics are as consistent in their ability to draw anger and trolling and bizarre visitors as the issue of sexual harassment and responses to it.
If I talk about my experiences training clients' employees in how to avoid sexual harassment, I draw nutters. If I talk about sites that discuss bad behavior towards women in gaming culture — great sites like Fat, Ugly, or Slutty — people get angry. Discussions of outing and vigorous more-speech remedies seem to be more controversial when the target is chosen for being a creeper rather than, say, a racist. Even the abstract subject of this post — the meta-examination of why the subject of harassment is so incendiary to some — generates some of the most vituperative comments we ever see here.
This phenomenon — disproportionate anger at discussions of the topic of harassment — seems particularly pronounced when people discuss bad behavior within the wide spectrum of what I'll call "geek culture" — science fiction, computer gaming, pen-and-paper gaming. For some time I've talked about the thoroughly creepy undercurrents in that culture. I've observed them for decades. I remember going to gaming conventions as a teen in the early 1980s and seeing how some men, seemingly freed from manners by the context, openly leered and touched made comments that should have gotten them kicked in the nuts. I vividly remember a tournament pen-and-paper game (maybe Paranoia?) in which players' comments to the one woman got increasingly ugly until she pushed her chair away and left, leaving the remaining men to complain bitterly that she was a bitch with no sense of humor.1 When people discuss this sort of behavior on forums and blogs dedicated to the culture, the responses are salted with vicious and seemingly unbalanced anger, anger that I don't see in other contexts.
Like I said, I don't get it.
I was thinking about this over the weekend because an author talked about the process of reporting harassment at a convention, and out tumbled two things: anger, and stories of women putting up all the time in this subculture with creepers. The experiences are not new; perhaps the willingness to talk about it is only emerging, as is a willingness to speak up when women are classed as chainmail-bikini-chicks and "lady writers."
I'm not saying that every accusation of sexual harassment is truthful; no class of accusations should be treated as presumptively true. I'm not saying that every perception of sexism is fair-minded or rational; no class of human grievance is uniformly trustworthy. I'm not saying that people should shut up about emerging norms about public behavior towards women if they disagree with those norms; I'm a free speech advocate, and I think people should participate in the marketplace of ideas if they are willing to pay the toll of being disagreed with. I'm not calling for adherence to dogma; we should call out dogma when it conflicts with real values like due process. What I'm doing is questioning the disproportionate and, to be blunt, disturbed anger that arises over this particular subject. I'm questioning how easily the "criticism of my good-natured kidding is tyrannical censorship" trope is brought to bear when the issue is sexism or sexual harassment. I'm questioning why the — pardon me — hysterical terms like "lynch mob" are so quickly brought to bear when this is the subject. I'm questioning why on some issues — say, race — incoherent basement-stinking fury is relegated to places like Stormfront, but when it comes to sex it's alarmingly close to the mainstream. I'm asking why is it that if I write about racism, truly nutty and racist response are fairly rare, but if I talk about sexual harassment or sexism, I can count on being classified as a "white knight" or "mangina" or "pink shirt" or homosexual or something.
I'd like to know not just because I love and respect my wife and daughters and female colleagues and friends and relatives — though they are part of my motivation. I'd like to know not just because women are half the human race, yet discussion of how they are treated is regarded in some quarters as oddly parochial and extremist. I'd like to know because I plan to keep writing about this stuff, and I'm wondering: are these freaks going to keep jumping up and down on my lawn?
- I didn't do or say anything. In my defense I was 15 and unimaginably socially awkward. But that's not really a defense, is it? I regret it. ▲