Roll Up For The First Annual Objectify A Man in Tech Day

What if men writing tech journalism had to field compliments about their looks or sexual attractiveness any time they wanted to talk about issues of concern to their space? I’d love to find out.

UPDATE 28 January: Objectify A Man in Tech Day has now been called off - you can read Leigh's post about why she's cancelling it here

From booth babes to harassment, snide comments to double standards, women have often had a hard time feeling comfortable around the tech industry. 

But the fightback has begun: here at the New Statesman, Alex Hern covered the #1ReasonWhy campaign which allowed Twitter users to share the experiences they believe are putting off women from working in games. Prolific coverage of #1ReasonWhy resulted in stressful - but crucial - further conversations, in forums and comment sections, of the sort you might expect when a historically cloistered and self-protective group is prompted to consider opening up its insular club to the real adult world.

Emily Gera made an interactive text piece titled CONGRATULATIONS, YOU ARE NOW A KOTAKU COMMENTER to satirise the misguided, wildly terrified and thoughtlessly hostile responses to #1ReasonWhy that emerged in the popular gaming blog’s comments sections. It's full of lines such as "Often you think to yourself, 'what ever happened to all the men?' Once prized for everything from inventing snooker to the Yorkie bar, the population of men on the Internet is now under attack by the pastel-draped world of women whose shirts don’t even have 50 percent opacity." It’s barely satire, sadly.

In this crucible of negativity and conflict, the kind of harmless compliments that female tech journalists routinely get about their appearance when writing or speaking in public hardly seem worth getting heated up about. Yet sometimes it’s the more insidious elements of sexism that deserve the closest analysis, conversation and discussion. Everyone knows that discrimination is wrong. It’s just that sometimes people need a little help to recognise when discrimination is happening.

I speak in public often, but I’m loath to share and promote any video of my appearances – in part due to normal self-consciousness, and in part due to an aversion to response. A woman who shows her face in a male-dominated space generally can’t win. If her audience does not find her attractive, she will have to hear a lot of specific criticisms of her features (searching for me on Google Images yields a picture of my face alongside Jay Leno’s, a referendum on my chin).

It’s worse on her if her audience does like her looks: In that case they’ll say she obviously used her beauty to boost her career and is seeking attention and praise for displaying even a biographical headshot. Or she’ll be the recipient of vulgar comments and image manipulations.

Difficult stuff, yes – but also problematic, and much more widespread, is an insidious breed of sycophantism. This makes it more likely for a woman in geek culture to have to hear about how gorgeous and radiant she is whenever she wants to join important discussions, make statements on issues or use her expertise.

I use Twitter as a primary avenue to promote my work, and it’s common to see readers and self-described “fans” share links to my articles accompanied by superficial compliments that, while polite, have little to do with my writing, which generally focuses on game design analysis, social commentary and entertainment culture.  In an article compiling opinions from industry voices on the current game violence dialogue, it was pointed out to me that I am prettier than my male colleagues. In a video of a panel I recently participated in to give advice to game developers as a member of the press, I heard a lot about how great my hair is.

Now wait a minute, you might say – what’s so awful about a well-intentioned compliment? Isn’t it better than a vulgar one? People love compliments! (And the ‘winking’ emoticon. Always that damn smarmy winking emoticon!!)

Here’s the thing. Yes, the intention is usually harmless, even well-meaning. But superficial compliments have nothing to do with my writing, and coming from strangers, sometimes heaps of them at once, the net effect is creepy. This is the reality that many, even most women working and writing and speaking in tech fields face on a regular basis, and the reaction when we protest – please let’s focus on my work, not my face/body/hair – is telling.

People get angry. Rejecting physical compliments is considered snobby, unkind, uptight. You don’t like when men are abusive to you but you don’t like when they’re nice to you, either? Commenters sneer.  I’d love to have people complimenting me and coming on to me, shrug men. I call my friends “hot” all the time, protest people with whom you are not friends. Can’t you take a compliment is a sort of menacing thing to say, like attention from men is something we’re socially obligated to receive even in our workplace, which for writers is “the internet”.  

Still, we know we have to pick our battles in this landscape. So over the years, through a litany of being told I’m lovely – or the diminutive “adorable” – by people who are ultimately just trying to support and share my work, I’ve smiled tautly or ignored them.

Doing that, though, is as complicated a proposition as dealing with catcalls late at night. Shouting back is risky, potentially angering dangerous people or inviting accusations of being overly defensive toward people who were “just trying to be nice” by whistling to you from an alleyway as if you were a lost dog. But go too long ignoring it with a gritted smile and you start to break inside. Person after person is reducing you to an object, and you are tacitly accepting it.

So I got an idea, after seeing someone call me “lovely” for posting a design-oriented article on violence in games. Even though I know nobody intended anything other than respect for me, I had to act.

So I proposed the first annual “Objectify A Male Tech Writer Day”. On February 1, whenever you tweet an article, quote, comment or video from a man, add a comment about their appearance or attractiveness – “Great article on Final Fantasy XII-2 from the always-gorgeous Kirk Hamilton,” for example.

The purpose of the exercise isn’t to “get revenge” or to make anyone uncomfortable: simply to help highlight by example what a gendered compliment looks like, and to get people talking in a funny and lighthearted way about how these kinds of comments distract from meaningful dialogues and make writers online feel like their point of view is only as relevant as how attractive they are.

My friend Ben Abraham, a PhD candidate at the University of Western Sydney and a longtime blogger on games, helped me launch a formal campaign on Facebook. Left to my own, I’m a little embarrassed to admit I might have done nothing – the whole “pick your battles” thing has trained me to fear and avoid starting certain conversations online, and I’m afraid of backlash: You’re overreacting. You’re impossible to please. You probably don’t get that many compliments, you’re not that hot.

But Ben’s event page attracted retweets, comments both funny and serious, and over 100 attendees in its first hour. It wasn’t long before “men’s rights activists” arrived, offended at the “misandry” they saw in the act of asking people to try a playful shift in perspective or to have a conversation. The comments discussion is already fascinating, and Ben’s enlisted feminist student moderators to help engage and educate the curious. Interestingly, all the social media around the event so far has praised only Ben for his idea, even though we’re both co-hosts on the event.

We hope to see the idea shared broadly and the discussion continue on Facebook and through other social media outlets. If we all share the goal of making tech and gaming spaces for fair dialogue and respectful treatment of everyone, we should examine the way we talk to and treat one another – even when we’re “just trying to be nice.”

 

Leigh Alexander, gaming and social media culture journalist, is Gamasutra editor-at-large, columnist at Edge, Kotaku and Vice Creators Project, and contributor to Boing Boing,Thought Catalog and numerous others. She blogs intermittently at Sexy Videogameland

Gawker's Adrian Chen in a tutu, with "shoe on the head", here represents adorable male tech writers. Photo: Gawker
Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.