Dear The Internet, This Is Why You Can't Have Anything Nice

Anita Sarkeesian's project to expose stereotypes in video games attracts a maelstrom of hate.

Something wonderful happened on the internet this week. And something horrible happened at the same time.

A Californian blogger, Anita Sarkeesian, launched a Kickstarter project to make a web video series about "tropes vs women in videogames". Following on from her similar series on films, it aimed to look at women as background decoration, Damsels in Distress, the Sexy Sidekick and so on. Her pitch is here:

 

 

Sarkeesian was after $6,000 to cover the cost of researching the topic, playing all kinds of awful games, and producing the videos. Seems reasonable, doesn't it? Even if you don't like the idea - or don't believe that women are poorly represented in games (in which case, you would be wrong) - then isn't it fine for other people to give money to something they believe in?

Except some kind of Bastard Klaxon went off somewhere in the dank, moist depths of the internet. An angry misogynist Bat Signal, if you will. (It looks like those charming chaps at 4Chan might have had something to do it.)

In Sarkeesian's own words:

The intimidation and harassment effort has included a torrent of misogyny and hate speech on my YouTube video, repeated vandalizing of the Wikipedia page about me, organized efforts to flag my YouTube videos as "terrorism", as well as many threatening messages sent through Twitter, Facebook, Kickstarter, email and my own website.  These messages and comments have included everything from the typical sandwich and kitchen "jokes" to threats of violence, death, sexual assault and rape.  All that plus an organized attempt to report this project to Kickstarter and get it banned or defunded.

Let's take a look at that Wikipedia page, shall we?

As the pixellated pinkness might suggest, that's what tabloids call a "sex act" happening in the top corner. There are also references to Sarkeesian being "of Jewish descent", an "entitled nigger" and having a "masters degree in Whining" (because why stick to one prejudice, when you can have them all?) More than a dozen IP addresses contributed to this vandalism before the page was locked.

Meanwhile, her YouTube video attracted more than 5,000 comments, the majority of them of a, shall we say, unsupportive nature. The c-word got a lot of exercise, as did comments about her personal appearance, and a liberal sprinkling of threats of violence. 

Sarkeesian archived a picture of the abuse, and you can find it here. I'm sorry to subject you to it, but I think it's important that you see the kind of stuff you can get called for the crime of Being A Woman On The Internet. Shall we play sexism bingo? Here goes:

Tits or GTFO

You're a bolshevik feminist Jewess

LESBIANS: THE GAME is all this bitch wants

Why do you put on make-up, if everything is sexism? ... You are a hypocrite fucking slut.

Would be better if she filmed this in the kitchen.

I'll donate $50 if you make me a sandwich

... and so it goes on. The only light relief is this one, because I don't think this is quite the threat this chap thinks it is:

Sarkeesian decided to leave the comments on her video, as proof that such sexism exists. I think it's important that she did, because too often the response to stories like this, "Come on, it can't be that bad". There are two reasons for this: first, that if you don't experience this kind of abuse, it's difficult to believe it exists (particularly if you're a man and this just isn't part of your daily experience). Secondly, because news reports don't print the bad words. We've got into a weird situation where you have to get a TV channel controller to sign off a comedian using the word "cunt" after 9pm, but on the internet, people spray it round like confetti. We read almost-daily reports of "trolls" being cautioned or even jailed, but often have no idea what they've said. 

This story should be shared for several reasons. The first is that a horrible thing happened to Anita Sarkeesian. She did nothing to deserve the torrent of abuse, and the concerted attempts to wreck her online presence. It's not the first time this happened: Bioware's Jennifer Hepler was similarly hounded out of town for expressing some fairly innocuous statements about videogames. Every time this happens, more women get the message: speak up, and we will come for you. We'll try to ruin your life, tear you apart, for having an opinion.

The second reason this story deserves wider attention is that in Britain, a law is being debated which will encourage service providers to identify internet trolls, without their victims having to resort to costly legal action. Until now, the perception has been that you can say anything you like on the internet, without any consequences. Recent cases, such as that of Liam Stacey (jailed for mocking footballer Fabrice Muamba) show that is getting less and less true.

A man who targeted Louise Mensch was yesterday given a suspended sentence, and banned from contacting a list of celebrities. Few papers reported Frank Zimmerman's full remarks, with the notable exception of The Guardian: they included a reference to the film Sophie's Choice, in which a mother is forced to choose which of her children dies, and the following: "We are Anonymous and we do not like rude cunts like you and your nouveau riche husband Peter Mensch...  So get off Twitter. We see you are still on Twitter. We have sent a camera crew to photograph you and your kids and we will post it over the net including Twitter, cuntface. You now have Sophie's Choice: which kid is to go. One will. Count on it cunt. Have a nice day."

We can argue all day about the sentence handed to Liam Stacey, but Frank Zimmerman made an unequivocal threat. He no more deserves anonymity than those who targeted Anita Sarkeesian with rape and death threats. But, of course, they will never be found out.

I said at the top of this blog post that something wonderful happened on the internet this week, at the same time as something awful. You'll be pleased to know that Anita Sarkeesian's Kickstarter project has gained 2,301 backers and a total of $55,671 at the time of writing. It's more than enough for her to make a whole series of shows about tropes and women in games, and luckily, she still plans to do so despite all the abuse

I am certainly not the first woman to suffer this kind of harassment and sadly, I won’t be the last. But I’d just like to reiterate that this is not a trivial issue. It can not and should not be brushed off by saying, “oh well that’s YouTube for you“, “trolls will be trolls” or “it’s to be expected on the internet”. These are serious threats of violence, harassment and slander across many online platforms meant to intimidate and silence. And its not okay. Again, don't worry, this harassment will never stop me from making my videos! Thank you for all your support!

Anita Sarkeesian in her Kickstarter video.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Let’s be alarmist: Brexit could take us back to the very worst of Europe’s intolerant past

Just how bad could it be? Let’s be alarmist: really bad. Twentieth-century European history bad. Recessions, pogroms, the lot.

Things must be atrocious when, as a Labour supporter, you end up yearning for the Michael Foot era. Yes, he was to the left of the public in an electorally untenable way. Yes, his presentation made him a sitting target to a hostile press. Yes, he led Labour to defeat. But he wasn’t Corbyn. He understood that the Labour Party exists to win power and put itself in the service of the country. He was principled – something that means a bit more than “committed to endlessly calling Tony Blair a war criminal”. He respected Parliament as an institution, too, and when he finally lost his MPs’ confidence after the 1983 election, he went.

He was a great speaker, writer and intellectual too. My favourite of his lectures is published in a 1983 pamphlet called Byron and the Bomb. In it, he makes the seemingly unlikely claim that poetry should be one of our first resources in opposing nuclear weapons: we must “grasp and imagine what a nuclear holocaust might mean . . . we must use our imagination in a way that has not been attempted before”, he writes.

If politics is to be more than glorified management, it demands people who can imagine better possible worlds and work out how to get us there. It demands people who can see absolute hell coming as well, and help us to avert it.

I didn’t see it coming last Friday. Of course, I knew it was possible that Remain could lose – the polls were extremely tight – and thought that Leave had run a vastly superior (and immensely dishonest) campaign. But on balance, I thought the result would be a narrow victory for staying in the EU. And one of the reasons I thought that was because the negative economic consequences of leaving had been so clearly laid out. When it came to the polling booth, why would a majority of Britons vote for that?

Well they did, because they didn’t actually believe it would be that bad. In the defence of Leave voters, nor did I. Because if I’d actually foreseen everything Brexit has caused over the last week, I would have been doing much more than cheerfully sharing articles on social media and looking forward to the least thrilling campaign in British political history being over so we could all go back to normal. I’d have been leafleting furiously. I’d have been prophesying at bus stops. I’d have been marching down the high street with a placard saying: “I have had visions of the Brexpocalypse and Project Fear isn’t the half of it.”

It was a total failure of political imagination on my part. Of course, I knew that a Leave vote would probably send the pound crashing; I knew that the constituent parts of the Union might want to fly in different directions if the individual countries had very different results; I knew that the Leave campaign had mercilessly exploited latent (and not so latent) British racism, and the consequences of that could be savage, whatever the result. But all those horrors came after the incomprehensible if of the result, contingencies hanging on contingency.

In my own defence, neither the architects of the Leave campaign nor the Prime Minister who called the referendum put any more serious thought into life after Leave than I did. But now the bomb has gone off, we have to apply our imaginations to it. We have to understand the full possible proportions of the disaster, if there’s any hope of avoiding the worst destruction.

The mixture is stunningly toxic. Our economy will shrink. There has already been a 50 per cent increase in hate crimes: in a breath, the word “leave” has been turned around against anyone perceived as an immigrant. The politicians claimed this was about getting Britain out of Europe, but a lot of people who voted for it would equally like to get anything they perceive as “non-British” out of Britain. And if the Union fractures, identity becomes even more fraught. A state that loses its boundaries rarely becomes more relaxed about the purity of its own population.

A populist-nationalist party like Ukip lives on the impossible ideal of excluding sinister “outside influences”, but it’s not alone in our politics. Centrist, inclusive Theresa May’s bid to lead the Tories included a promise to control migration; meanwhile, Labour’s (still) leader Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t launch a report into the antisemitism in the party without Jewish MP Ruth Smeeth receiving abuse from one of Corbyns supporters, who accused her of colluding with the media. 

A tanking economy, an absent government, a collapsed opposition with a leader who is no longer even trying to work with Parliament but instead appealing directly to his mass support – and a public increasingly willing to put its resentments and anxieties into racial terms, and to put those terms into violent practice.

A week before the referendum, the compassionate internationalist MP Jo Cox was killed by a man who gave his name in court as death to traitors, freedom for Britain. A week after the referendum, accusations of treachery and frantic grabs for “freedom” are everywhere.

Just how bad could it be? Let’s be alarmist: really bad. Twentieth-century European history bad. Recessions, pogroms, the lot. It feels impossible, but then the last fortnight has felt impossible too. Lots of people would like to take lessons for Labour from Michael Foot, but the one that matters to all of us in our current political nightmare is this: we can only build better, safer futures if we’re brave enough to imagine – and ingenious enough to escape – the very, very worst.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.