Sorting through the claims and counterclaims of Gamergate — the fight between an amorphous collective of male video-game fans and the female developers and critics whom they've harassed — isn't easy. It all began when a young man named Eron Gjoni falsely accused his ex-girlfriend, the indie game developer Zoe Quinn, of sleeping with video-game critics in exchange for favorable coverage, and it picked up steam after video-game writer Anita Sarkeesian received death threats for her unrelated criticism of the ways women are portrayed in video games. (For a detailed overview, read this; plus, this analysis of why it's so hard to pin down Gamergate's goals is here). But the grievance that rallied gamers against Quinn, Sarkeesian, and anyone who defended them is familiar to those who've been closely following feminist debates in the past few years: free speech.
“GamerGate is a consumer revolt triggered by overt politicization, ethical misconduct and unprecedented amounts of censorship targeted at gamers,” according to one Gamergate FAQ.
“Never stop poking your free speech thumb in their eye,” said a site known for Gamergate news. “Don’t be intimidated by their fascist tactics, as that’s exactly what they’re looking for.”
“It is my good-faith belief that Zoe Quinn is using the court system to silence her biggest critic, Eron Gjoni,” added a prominent Gamergate tweeter. “I will not remain silent while someone is abusing the court system to silence legitimate free speech.”
Quinn was reportedly granted a temporary protective order against Gjoni, although he's hardly been silenced: Gjoni gave a long interview about Quinn to BuzzFeed last week, in which he said he’d do it all again if he could. In the meantime, aside from a few Twitter bans for violating its very liberal terms of service (which protects pretty much all speech, save specific, violent threats), the Thought Police have come for no gamer.
But the obsession with free speech is not new: Feminist criticism has been met with free-speech paranoia on numerous occasions in the past two years. When a female heckler criticized Daniel Tosh’s rape jokes on Tumblr, male comedians cried censorship. When women complained about street sexual harassment, men worried it might have a chilling effect on sexually liberated speech. When women complained about rape and death threats on Twitter, men worried about the future of the First Amendment. When women asked for a warning about classroom materials that deal with rape, the American Enterprise Institute “Factual Feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers (also a Gamergater) said free speech was under attack on campus. When famous women decried the distribution of their stolen photographs on Reddit, the Daily Caller mourned the “indecent death” of Reddit’s “bastion of free speech.”
Never mind that, in each of these cases, women were merely pointing to a threatening, gender-specific kind of speech, and asking for the tools to avoid it. There’s something obviously illogical about free-speech panic among white Americans in 2014. Thanks to online publishing and social media, the barrier to entry for free public speech is lower than ever. What I suspect truly bothers free-speech reactionaries is that the same, democratized new media that allows them to publish free-speech rants has opened public discourse up to a lot of people they’re not used to hearing from — women, people of color, and those Gamergate calls "social justice warriors," in particular. Some of the people who historically controlled the media uncontested might not like what these people have to say, but these newcomers are nonetheless very popular. And when a "social justice warrior" chooses to wield the "block" button against a troll, it’s not his freedom of speech that’s in danger, it’s his entitlement to be heard.
Take Ed Champion. Champion is a books blogger whose long-standing anger-management issues came to a head this summer when he tried to take down novelist Emily Gould in his own icky, overlong, ad hominem blog screed. As a result of the ensuing backlash, Champion hinted at suicide, and was largely given the benefit of the doubt that he was too mentally ill to be a credible threat to women. That is, until last month. Another female novelist, Porochista Khakpour, deleted a rude comment Champion left on her Facebook page; as retaliation, Champion threatened to publish compromising information about Khakpour on Twitter and was suspended from the network. In a second suicidal dispatch (this one published on Facebook), Champion lamented the publishing powers-that-be who “go well out of their way to stifle interesting thought.” But unless you consider blackmail to be “interesting thought,” no one was stopping Champion from maintaining his ugly little soapbox on his own social-media accounts and his blog. Khakpour simply declined to entertain a particular conversation in her virtual home, and showed Champion the door. Champion didn’t just want to be heard, he wanted to be heard over a woman. (Likewise, Gamergate resorted to threatening a mass shooting at a lecture given by Sarkeesian.)
I can only imagine the embarrassment it would cause lawyers for Edward Snowden, Pussy Riot, and Ai Weiwei to see the First Amendment taken up by rando amateurs rationalizing their misogyny. But suppressing free speech is also an ironic charge for feminists to encounter. For them, free speech isn’t a privilege to be defended to its pathetic death. It’s a risk they’re willing to take at the cost of critical invective (much of which they engage) and violent threats (which they shouldn’t have to engage). Feminists take the risk of speaking up in order to call attention to problems that would otherwise go unaddressed, like rape and sexual harassment and discrimination. These problems are so real, grave, and empirically widespread they force women to overcome their own long-standing self-censorship. “Maybe there’s nothing scarier to white dudes than censorship,” a friend recently mused, “because they face so few actual problems.”
Asking men to be quiet long enough to listen to women still feels like a tall order. Perhaps we could start by agreeing that it’s not censorship for women to say, “That blog post about your ex was vile.” Or, “Your video game sucks." And, especially, "I don’t want to talk to you.”