Months and months ago, I wrote a post about Tom Siddell - author of Gunnerkrigg Court - and his near-suicide. Among the responses to it was one calling me a shitty person and bad communicator.
“Shitty person” I can understand. I mean, it’s not something I agree with, but it is a vague title that will inevitably be given to pretty much anyone who holds an opinion. The one that drew my interest, however, was “bad communicator”. Communication is something I’m deeply interested in; the post itself was about communication. To be called a bad communicator is kind of like walking up to a mathematician working on a chalkboard, saying “wow, you’re bad at math!” and walking away. That is to say, it’s not necessarily offensive, but it certainly raises questions.
I privately asked him for further explanation, and for the most part his response was stuff I’m used to: saying that I’m too removed, that I lack empathy, and that I treat everything as a big tactical issue when most people are just doing what they feel like. However, along with that was the interesting statement that if I wanted people to listen to me, I shouldn’t have accused a large part of my audience of almost murdering someone.
At the time, the criticism more or less made sense. As I thought about it more, though, I began to question it. I mean, first of all, I wasn’t accusing them of almost murdering someone, I was accusing them of almost voluntary manslaughtering someone. And second of all: was such an accusation necessarily disputable?
Think about the situation Tom Siddell was involved in: he made a Tweet about Louis Lane that sounded transphobic when taken out of context. People attacked him for it, trying to persuade others to join in the attacks or boycott the comic Tom makes his living off of. It’s not really arguable that they were consciously trying to hurt him. Since he suffers from depression, the attacks were enough to make him seriously consider killing himself. Had he gone through with it, that would pretty much be the definition of voluntary manslaughter. Functionally, it’s no different than a restraining chokehold killing someone whose neck can’t take it.
When I make the statement that “Tumblr’s social justice community almost killed a guy”, it’s not an opinion; it’s an empirical truth. However, it’s important to recognize that it is not the only true statement I could have made.
Tom Siddell, despite knowing he was depressed, interacted with people in a public setting where his depression could easily be triggered.
This statement is also empirically true and cannot be disputed. However, this one manages to put the blame on Tom. He’s the one who endangered his life by insisting on working a stressful, public job that could potentially push him over the edge.
Tom suffered from depression, meaning the stress and drama of social interaction that would make most people sad could potentially drive him to suicide.
Here is another empirically true statement - a rather tactful one that puts all the blame on his mental illness. From this angle, neither him nor his detractors would be made out as responsible for his death.
Tom made a statement that upset a minority group and then went on to guilt them by saying their criticism almost pushed him to suicide.
Now this one is neat in that it creatively spins Tom as the attacker. Like the others it is still empirically true. It’s not a misleading lie; even if you know all the facts, this is still true. However, it’s miles away from my equally true statement of “Tumblr’s social justice community almost killed a guy”.
The reason I am bringing this up is because it’s important to this post to establish why I chose the particular phrasing that put blame on Tumblr. If you read my blog, or the posts I make on any forum I visit, they’re about how to do things. I talk about the techniques I use to make stuff, or the way your actions can affect other people. Even when my grandmother died, I exploited those emotions into a post about how you could write realistic death scenes. I want you to be able to do things.
When I talk about Tom Siddell’s near-suicide, I don't care that it wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t have depression. I don't care that he chose to say things that hurt other people. All I care about is what you and I can do; I care about the angle in which we are responsible for the events that transpire. I care about the angle that empowers us. The one we can use to make a difference.
And after a fourteen paragraph intro, that’s what I want to talk about: empowerment.
Empowerment (for real, now)
An important thing to realize is that any time something bad happens, we are all partially responsible. Like, imagine someone getting mugged in an alley. The mugger made a conscious choice to commit a crime against a victim. The victim, however, also made a conscious choice not to carry pepper spray or a gun, which might have prevented the robbery from succeeding. The person walking along the street makes a conscious choice not to investigate the sounds she hears in the alley, and even the guy sitting at home watching TV made a conscious choice to vote for the candidate who wanted to cut the police budget.
From a legal perspective, the mugger is accountable for anything bad that happens in this event - after all, he’s the one who broke the law and instigated the whole thing, and he is the only one who had a 100% chance of preventing it. However, any one of the people involved in this still could have prevented it. They all had the power - or at least potential - to do so.
If I was trying to prevent muggings from happening, my angle would vary depending who I am talking to. To an ex-convict, I would emphasize the control he has over the situation: ways he could make a living other than robbery. To a potential victim, I would emphasize self-defense and preventative measures. To a potential bystander I would emphasize the importance of never assuming someone else will call 911, and to a voter I would emphasize the importance of security cameras and patrolling officers. I want to prevent this thing from happening, so I am going to take the angle that empowers people to stop it.
The big problem I have with a lot of rhetoric and expectations - especially on Tumblr - is that they are predominantly geared toward empowering the opposition.
Like, what good would come from me saying “remember that time Tom Siddell’s depression almost killed him?”. You can't do anything about the fact that Tom is depressed; all you can change are your actions toward him. To do that, it is important to understand how your actions affect him. Here’s a hint: they almost killed him.
To make a difference, you need control. Part of that means recognizing what control you have. Rhetoric that emphasizes a group's lack of control accomplishes nothing more than alleviating guilt. Convincing yourself that you are powerless means you don’t have to feel guilty knowing you could have prevented something.
I've written about this phenomenon before, but it was in the context of one’s own perceptions - convincing ourselves we are guiltless for the bad things that transpire. However, it bothers me that disempowering rhetoric is something we very actively push onto others - often under the guise of social justice. In many cases, it’s something we’ve come to expect - when something bad happens, we want to read about it in a way where we're not responsible.
If you don’t get what I mean, look at this Tumblr post that was going around a few weeks ago, comparing Gone Home and The Stanley Parable:
Two games came out in 2013 based almost entirely on walking around a building and listening to voices. One of these was met with a barrage of accusations that it wasn’t really a game, and one was not. One of these was also about a young gay woman, and one was not.
Remember how I showed all the different ways you could describe the Tom Siddell situation to place the blame on different people, and how all of them were technically true? On the surface this post looks like social justice, calling attention to inequality in the games industry, but it’s literally the one angle you could take to blame all of Gone Home’s criticism on the fact it had a gay female character.
Like, how about we discuss the fact that Dear Esther, a game about a straight male character, received all the same “not really a game” criticisms that Gone Home did.
Let’s talk about the fact that The Stanley Parable was a story specifically targeted toward gamers, deconstructing the idea of following a set path. Why don’t we mention that it had a nonlinear plot, or the amazing audience connection it developed?
Let’s talk about how Gone Home was yet another Tragic Lesbian story about forbiddden romance, a cliche so overplayed it has a place on The Worst Muse.
Or how about we talk about Mighty Jill Off, a game about lesbians, made by a trans woman, and released to critical acclaim?
Of all the possible comparisons that could be drawn between Gone Home and The Stanley Parable, and all the explanations we could give for the latter receiving less criticism, what is gained by blaming it on the female main character? Who does that empower? What message does that send to a soulless market researcher who is scouring social media to discern what sort of game will sell well? What message does it send to a new indie developer who needs to make a successful game to survive? Hell, what message does it send to a young girl who wants to get into the games’ industry but doesn’t have the upper-middle-class luxury of pursuing an education that won’t necessarily pay off her tuition?
Fuck that noise, is what I’m saying! If you want to help a group, take the angle that will empower them, emphasizing their innate value and what they can achieve, not the angle that will make them feel even more disadvantaged and hopeless. These are the sort of tactics that are used in wartime to make enemies surrender or desert; we should not be using them on people we want to help. We shouldn’t be trusting people who use them.
And actually, a more important question: when people do this stuff, why don’t we view it as misogyny?
Like… blaming a sexist statement on an external factor doesn’t make it less sexist. A person who pushes the idea that a game with a female protagonist can’t become successful because the game industry is so male-dominated is still pushing the idea that a game with a female protagonist can’t become successful. Blaming it on an external factor doesn’t change that.
If anything, it’s reminiscent of biotruths - this idea that something’s not actually bigoted if it’s backed up with “fact”. Only, rather than justifying our statements with biology, we justify them with social observations. When we see a game like Portal get critical acclaim despite having a cast entirely consisting of nonsexualized female characters, we don’t take it as a refutation of the idea that the games industry is horribly biased against female characters. Instead, we try to explain it off as an anomaly - saying that its excellent design made up for its female protagonist, or that it would’ve been even more popular with a male one. We use the exact same rhetoric a flagrant misogynist would use to dismiss people like Marie Curie or Jane Goodall, claiming that their femaleness was a liability they managed to overcome.
And like… why is that okay? What is with this emphasis on femininity being a liability? Why don’t we talk about marketing benefits in making game characters that stand out from the norm? Why don’t we talk about the 47% of the human population so few developers are directly catering toward? I’ve seen tens of thousands of people reblogging posts griping about how female-centric games get less marketing attention, but I’ve personally never seen anyone talking about these tens of thousands of people here right now who would buy a high-budget game with a female or gay or trans protagonist.
This isn’t even limited to sexism. Even when we’re not in a group, we talk about all the things racial minorities can’t do because of white people, or all the things sexual minorities can’t do because of straight people, and rather than talking about the things they can do and how it can be used to their advantage, we just leave it at this message of hopelessness. We go to extensive lengths to empower these group’s enemies, but do almost nothing for the people we purportedly care about.
And tying this back to the earlier parts, is it really just an avoidance of guilt? Do we just want to avoid the knowledge that we could have made things better if we had acted more strategically? Or is there something more malicious? Are there people out there, right now, suppressing groups by empowering their enemies, defending their bigotry as being veritable “sociotruths”?
This isn’t a conspiracy theory. This is a thing people do. It’s a thing people do in wars. It’s a thing people do in business. It’s even a thing people do when playing games - bombarding their enemies with a feeling of hopelessness until they weaken and give up. We all understand the excitement of making everyone at the table fold when you secretly have a shitty hand. When you leave a game and enter the real world, your enemies don’t suddenly get dumber.
The people who oppose you want you to feel disempowered. They want you to feel hopeless, and outclassed, and like no matter what you do, it won’t matter. They want you to spread a message of disempowerment, and to take offense at the idea that you have strength that you are not using. Most of all, they want you to get fucked over, and you need to know this so you don’t play into their plans.
The world is not kind, but it’s okay because you’re awesome. You need to understand that.
If you feel like you are disadvantaged in an endeavor, you can overcome it. It might not be easy, and you might have to get a little strategic about it, but that’s okay, because there are a lot of resources on doing shit like that. Some people start in the hardest starting position, and that's not fair, but it means that you need to do everything you can to stack the odds in your favor. You need to look past the people who tell you things are hopeless, or encourage you to spread that message of hopelessness, because chances are they have an agenda. Play better than your enemies. Have an underhanded agenda of your own.
I’m a writer. I write comics about a sad cat. I describe my thoughts and methods in excruciating longwinded detail so you can learn from it. If I do something that works well, you can copy me; if I do something that backfires horribly, you can avoid repeating my mistakes. I will get criticism for being heartless and manipulative and cold and tactical, but I’m okay with that because I don’t want to leave you with a piece of vague advice like “write from your heart and things will work out”. I know that, unless you are a wealthy white cisgendered male with perfect industry connections, that isn’t going to be enough.
It means you will have to take take blame for your missteps. Understanding the power your actions have means understanding that bad things are partially due to your own actions - or lack thereof - and are not solely a factor of external circumstances. When you get mugged, you’ll think “I could’ve stopped this if I brought my pepper spray”. When your project fails, you’ll think “it would’ve worked if I did things differently”. Sometimes, you’ll accidentally almost kill Tom Siddell. This is normal. Recognize it, because that’s the only way you’ll keep it from happening again.
You are almost never truly helpless, and by proxy you are almost never truly blameless. It’s a worldview not everyone is comfortable with, but one I stand by nonetheless.
Once when I was younger, I was at a little clinic to get a flu shot. A teenage boy and his father were sitting next to me in the waiting room. The teenage boy was writhing in pain.
We were in that waiting room a very long time before he was called in. A while after he was called in, an ambulance arrived, taking him away on a stretcher to the nearest hospital equipped to perform surgeries. A nurse I asked later said it was a very inflamed appendix. His father was following the stretcher, and looked me in the eyes on the way out.
I don’t know if the boy was okay, but I still think about it sometimes. I knew the signs of appendicitis. I knew how to differentiate it from a stomach ache or regular nausea. I sat in that waiting room for minutes and minutes watching him writhe, his father putting a gentle hand on his back for comfort the boy could barely acknowledge. I never thought to look at the signs, or that it might have been something serious and that I should’ve stood up immediately and gone over to them and said that, yes, this boy needed to get to a proper hospital as soon as possible. I just sat there, watching, and I still remember the look his father gave me as they left.
I feel responsible for whatever happened to him. It’s not a wholly bad feeling though, because it carries with it a certain level of empowerment. I know that if I’m ever in that position again, I’ll know what to do. I’ll know there’s something I can do, and that I’ll be prepared to act. Next time, I won’t miss it.
And if you are ever there, clutching yourself in agony, you had best hope that there will be someone like me the room. If it’s just a bunch of people who think the problem is out of their control, you’re going to end up in the ground.