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Misogynist Online Abuse Is Everyone's Problem — Men Included

Oct 16, 2014

I wasn't going to write about #Gamergate. Most of the video gaming world is outside my experience. I used to play more, when I had more time and hair, but now I only play a few tablet or iPhone games, and badly. (I get a 384 on Threes, it's basically a national holiday.) Not my issue, I figured.

Weeks went on, and I kept seeing references to a culture war between gamers and gaming journalists, especially feminist critics of the industry, that had devolved into vile sexist harassment and death and rape threats. So I started reading, and to an outsider anyway, Gamergate led to a vast tangle of ancient grievances and offenses that seemed about as easy to unravel as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (For those interested, Todd Van Der Werff's explainer at Vox is one of the better I've read.) That sounds awful, I thought. But again, not my area. Not my problem.

And then I read this terrific column by the Huffington Post's Maureen Ryan that made me realize that it is totally my problem, and everyone's. The abuse that female game critics and journalists and developers have been receiving has been extreme--specific threats to friends and family online, bomb threats, people hoping to drive women to suicide, the threat of a mass shooting at a talk video game critic Anita Sarkeesian was scheduled to give. But it's not unparalleled.

In TV criticism--in any cultural criticism now--the price of having a female byline and an opinion is getting subjected to torrents of gender-specific, grotesque, sometimes frightening and threatening abuse, which men like me, in general, do not deal with to nearly the same degree. I panned CBS's Stalker. Mo Ryan panned CBS's Stalker. But only she received the e-mail, quoted in her column, that told her to "shut the fuck up" because "MEN WE PREVAIL." (Disclosure, I guess: I'm friendly with Ryan, as I am with a lot of TV critics, and I will confess to being biased against someone calling a friend a "fucking misandry freak.")

And what's the offense here, in each case? What were the fighting words? Somebody made some videos criticizing gaming tropes as sexist. Someone said that a TV crime show was exploitative and abhorrent. Someone said, maybe don't harass women in the video game industry. This is the threat. This is the crisis.

It's the "War on Christmas," essentially. (There's an excellent piece in Deadspin drawing out the parallels between the political and the entertainment-industry culture wars.) It's the grievance of an identity group, already superserved by the larger culture, outraged that its service has become slightly less super. Their thing used to be the main thing, the default thing, the assumption. And now, if you point out that it is no longer the only thing--as is the case, both in American society and in entertainment--why, you're persecuting them.

I have to assume that the people making death and bomb threats are, as the saying goes, a "small but vocal minority." But this sense of disproportionate grievance is not so small. Put simply: someone saying mean things about a thing you like is not an assault on your liberties.

So someone made you feel bad for playing a video game that you like? I'm sorry. Maybe there are valid arguments against them. Maybe you could make those arguments! But nobody is about to haul you off to the Misandrist Re-Education Camps because they caught you playing Assassin's Creed.

Someone got all righteous about the TV shows you like? Maybe they asked why there aren't more well-rounded women in True Detective or why there are so many dramas about brooding male antiheroes and serial killers or they said something was a rape scene that you didn't think was a rape scene? That's unfortunate. But guess what? HBO's still making the second season of True Detective! Networks are still going to make all those antihero and serial killer shows! You're still going to be on the receiving end of a multi-billion-dollar pipeline full of product tailored to your specific tastes. I think you'll be OK!

But as a larger group, we have a problem--all of us. It's women, online and in real life, who have to deal with the fear and the abuse and the is-it-worth-it-to-say-this, in far greater numbers. People tweet horrible things at me sometimes, but I don't pretend writing a post like this is any kind of brave act on my part. I'll publish it and go on my merry way. I have the Guy Shield, or maybe the Dude Invisibility Cloak. (It's +3 against trolls!)

It's still my problem, though. There's a whole genre of men saying that they've become feminist because they have daughters. I don't; I have two sons. Which is exactly why this kind of toxic crap in the culture is my problem, because they play games and they live in the world, and I want them to grow up to be decent guys with healthy human relationships. I don't want them immersed in a mindset that says that throwing anonymous abuse at women is somehow retaliation in kind.

It's my problem because I may not be a big gamer, but no part of the culture is an island. The dudebro attitude is manifest in TV comments sections and movie discussions and literary arguments--the puffing out of chests, the casual gendered insults--and it's stifling, and it's depressing, and it makes too many people decide it's not worth engaging anymore.

It's my problem because I love ideas and innovative culture and smart conversation. And every time a woman decides she needs to cancel a speech, or decides it's not worth the risk to keep working in the creative field she loves, or decides, you know what, not today, it's just not worth it to publish this column on this subject--it costs me and everyone else (even if it costs the women affected much more). It's my problem if anyone's engaging in a concerted effort to shut someone up, because I'm a writer and I'm a person and I live in a society.

This toxicity that we're stewing in may not be All Men or All Gamers or All Anyone. That's obvious. And it's besides the point. What matters is that it's all our problem.

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