Earlier this week, the sprawling conglomeration of music, film, tech, and interactive media festivals known as South By Southwest made the despicable and shockingly naïve move to cancel a panel on harassment in gaming, as well as a panel on “journalistic ethics” in gaming, after receiving threats from the online misogynist troll movement known as Gamergate. The panels were "#SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community” and "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games." These can be summarized in two categories: pro and anti-Gamergate, respectively.
SXSW’s decision has been rightly met with backlash and fury. Cindy Gallop has made headlines calling for an advertising boycott of SXSW. Vox Media and Buzzfeed have threatened to pull their attendance if the panels are not reinstated and the issue of harassment taken seriously:
“We will feel compelled to withdraw them if the conference can’t find a way to do what those other targets of harassment do every day — to carry on important conversations in the face of harassment. We hope you can support the principle of free speech and engage a vital issue facing us and other constituents on the event.”
The response by SXSW and by pro-Gamergate advocates has been that these are two sides of an issue that both deserve equal mic time. In a statement explaining the decision to cancel the panels, SXSW interactive director Hugh Forrest propagated this false notion of equality:
“We had hoped that hosting these two discussions in March 2016 in Austin would lead to a valuable exchange of ideas on this very important topic.
However, preserving the sanctity of the big tent at SXSW Interactive necessitates that we keep the dialogue civil and respectful. If people cannot agree, disagree and embrace new ways of thinking in a safe and secure place that is free of online and offline harassment, then this marketplace of ideas is inevitably compromised.”
This would be fine logic if the topic were almost anything but harassment in video games. What, precisely, is the side of the debate that isn’t “harassment is real and not okay”? Furthermore, what could possibly be the excuse of bowing to the violent threats of harassers by agreeing to not talk about harassment?
Meanwhile, Perry Jones, organizer of the pro-Gamergate panel “#SavePoint,” described the panel as a discussion of “the social and political factors affecting the gaming community and the journalistic ethics of video game criticism.” “Ethics of video game criticism” is precisely the sham issue misogynists of Gamergate hide behind. Their argument is that gaming culture isn’t sexist; feminists are trying to smear male gamers by accusing them of misogyny. Well this is the old “you’re a bigot for calling me a bigot” argument and it’s bullshit.
In his statement responding to the cancellation of “#SavePoint,” Jones defended SXSW. He said the festival directors feel they are “under siege from all sides and from all parties.” He sympathized with them because “they want to encourage open discussions, but they don’t want to fuel a vicious online war between two sides who are extremely opposed to one another.” He patronizingly assured both sides of the “debate” than “we’re all very passionate about this medium and sometimes we let that passion get the best of us – and that’s on both sides of the table.”
No. There are not two equal and opposing sides. One side is addressing systemic violent harassment against female gamers and their supporters, the other side is either about propagating harassment or about pretending it doesn’t exist. This is particularly salient because, according to Arthur Chu, a writer of geek culture for The Daily Beast, Jones and the other “#SavePoint” panelists are known Gamergate supporters. It’s as fair and balanced as Fox News.
According to Re/code, SXSW is considering reinstating “Level Up,” though the panelists have not yet confirmed if they will still take part. Unsurprising, considering the pathetically minimal response SXSW had to the panelists’ very real safety concerns; SXSW was remarkably and condescendingly blasé in response to the concerns of one of the “Level Up” panelists, according to Vice:
Hi [name redacted],
We appreciate your thoughts and always welcome feedback from our community. That said, SXSW is a big tent and we strongly believe in showcasing a very diverse range of ideas and opinions, even if we as a staff don’t always agree with them. If everyone shared the same viewpoint, that would make for a pretty boring event.
In response, the panelist asked “what is a debate? It’s good to include all voices, but what if one of the voices is extremely antagonistic? Then it becomes, this is not an open debate, you aren’t creating an inclusive space.”
Threats are nothing new to anti-Gamergate speakers and journalists who dare suggest video game culture might not be a bastion of inclusivity. Caroline Sinders, an interactive designer, said her mother was targeted, several panelists and anti-Gamergate advocates have been doxed, and media critic and gamer Anita Sarkeesian had to cancel a talk at Utah State last year after the school received an email that threatened "the deadliest school shooting in American history" if the talk went ahead as planned. Anyone who thinks this history would be enough to make SXSW take safety concerns seriously, you’d be wrong. SXSW decision to cancel the panels was not out of real concern for the panelists’ safety, because they proved they don’t actually take it seriously. It was the easier and lazier decision and the media is right to hold them accountable.
Images via Twitter and The Open Gaming Society
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Taia is a fabulous human who is working and writing in New York City. She writes about politics, reproductive rights, and pop culture. When not writing she likes to sleep, read Carl Sagan, and do as many squats as her legs can handle. Follow her on Twitter @taiahandlin and Facebook as Taia Handlin.