You Must Be This Tall To Ride: Believing Harassment Victims Makes Geek Spaces More Welcoming, Not Less
I regularly see diversity advocates type some version of the phrase, “I’m not here to talk feminism/racism/ableism 101,” and that’s as it should be, I think. We shouldn’t have to keep having this discussion at the 101 level. The people I know who care about diversity in geek culture are all getting impatient to start applying what we know rather than wasting time arguing for our right to be here. So I’m just going to lay down some basic principles that I think are key to moving on with the topic at hand, and if you have an issue with them, then nuts to you. Grownups are talking.
The particular focus of my work, if you haven’t gathered from my previous article, is what to do in regards to harassment in geek spaces. To talk about it, we need to agree that
- Women and minorities belong in geek spaces as equal participants.
- Women and minorities are frequently harassed in geek spaces.
- It sucks to be harassed.
Accepting these three things has led me to a fourth: When a woman and/or minority reports being harassed in geek spaces, we need to believe them.
I’ve personally found this is a surprisingly difficult resolution to keep, even though I’ve dedicated a considerable amount of time and energy to studying both how this happens and why we’re so reluctant to believe victims when it does. But committing to this point is the best way I’ve found to avoid falling into traps that growing up in a patriarchal society has more or less hardwired into our brains. We have to believe victims in all sorts of conditions we’ve been taught should excuse us from giving a damn: what the victim was wearing, what they’d done with the harasser previously, whether we even like the victim personally, and, perhaps most importantly, who the harasser is.
We want an excuse not to believe because it would release us from the unpleasant matter of figuring out what to do next. This is an especially thorny problem because so far, at least online, we act as if we have two options, and two options only: join the angry mob with pitchforks, hounding the guilty party out of our spaces and off the web (or out of the industry) entirely, or… do nothing. For reasonable, empathetic people --- which I believe the majority of us are --- these are both intolerable options. It’s much easier, and more palatable, to convince ourselves that there’s no need for a response, because the victim is lying, or the harassment’s not that bad, or they earned it, or what have you. Sharpening pitchforks can get so exhausting, after all.
So let’s ask an important question: why do we think our only options are nuclear, or nothing? I’d argue that it’s because the way we’re connected right now offers tons of access, but very little in the way of defense. In an age where a lone individual blogging from their basement can become a celebrity in a matter of hours, there’s temptation to equate notoriety with power, which explains some of the virulence of the hatred that gets heaped on people thrust suddenly into the public eye.
There’s also the force of the cults of personality that many people purposefully build to promote themselves amidst a vast sea of opinions and entertainers. Being seen as accessible is often vital for anyone from critics to artists to game developers, and this serves as a double-edged sword, or perhaps more like a gun. Anyone who wants to be accessible has little in the way to defend themselves from attack except, perhaps, the threat of reprisal. We’re all cowboys in the Wild West, hands never straying far from the handles of our six-shooters. Add to this the natural tendency for arguments to devolve into, “You’re with us or against us,” and as soon as two parties disagree it becomes a free-for-all, with the loudest voices becoming increasingly radicalized as moderates on both sides drop out for fear of attracting the ire of both their opponents and their erstwhile allies.
This scenario is hardly unique to geek spaces, but it appears to be happening regularly in our communities as more women and minorities are asserting their desire to participate fully in geek culture. Let me be clear: diversity is not the problem. Change is not the problem. Radicalization of both the old and new guard is the problem, and I’m sick of principles 1 through 3 not being treated as givens, or principle number 4 being seen as a bridge too far. The noise-to-signal ratio is becoming intolerable, and I’m tired of apologizing for my desire to make some of those people go away. I’m sick of being menaced by the folks who failed Diversity 101, or who never took Basic Etiquette 102, or both. I want those to be the prerequisites for interacting with me, and I want the power to enforce that. Measures like autoblock lists or anti-harassment policies at conventions give us the breathing room to leave our peashooters at home, confident that anyone we encounter will respect our right to be there.
I know, it makes me leery, too, to talk about tolerance in one breath and then argue for the ability to eject people from the discussion with the next, but I’m going to risk throwing a third metaphor into this essay and invite you to think of it as sending someone to the little kid’s table, or putting up a height chart outside a roller coaster. You must be this tall to ride. You must agree that women and minorities get harassed in geek spaces, and that that’s not cool. And if you agree to entertain the notion that victims of harassment are telling the truth, then you’re more likely to stop accepting the excuses we make to look the other way.
We need to start engendering spaces where we can enter into arguments in good faith, where we can make mistakes and be extended the benefit of the doubt, because we’ve all agreed to abide by the rules. Our ability to engage in serious conversation should be a privilege that we each work to maintain through civil discourse, and which we each have the chance to lose. I’m sick of living in the Wild West.