What is it about vulnerability that is so frightening to our society, that we fear the sharing of, the revelation of our vulnerability? What is it that has our hearing, our speaking, our listening slide over vulnerability as though some social faux pas has been committed? What is it about vulnerability that renders it invisible except in some circumstances where sharing and expressing vulnerability is signalled as okay?
To give examples, Robin William’s suicide is an excellent example of socially sanctioned visibility of vulnerability. The outpouring of grief around William’s death was massive, worldwide people expressing their shock and anguish at his loss. The collective shared outpouring in news and across social media is partly how this expression of vulnerability is approved. However, there are other situations where expressing vulnerability is definitely not socially sanctioned. The expression of vulnerability around the experiences of women online in relation abuse and harassment is considered to be complaining or ‘playing the gender card’. For example, the entire #gamergate fiasco continues to operate as an online cesspool of harassment and abuse toward women in gaming, whether they are gamers, developers, journalists, or critics. The reaction of women who have experienced this abuse, particularly if they express their fear and distress at the threats they’ve received has been very clearly signalled as not okay.
The difference between socially sanctioned and condemned vulnerability is obvious. Women who in any way spoke out about, commented on, questioned or condemned #gamergate received massive and severe backlash – there were death and rape threats, personal data was revealed in conjunction with threats. This is dramatically different to the way in which people responded to Robin Williams, where they talked about mental illness, about the blackness and despair of chronic depression, of hiding it and about the struggle to ask for help, to find help that was useful or rebuild lives after tragedy. It was all very moving and for several days, even a couple of weeks, there was an outpouring of sensitivity and awareness on issues related to William’s death usually reserved for specific awareness days.
It occurred to me that there was something worth writing about when I was engaging in some discussion on Facebook about feminism and about #gamergate in particular. I would comment on a post – or I would post on my timeline and there’d be discussion. Each time I remember that feeling where I hit ‘submit’ and the pit of my stomach would just drop and I’d experience a sharp spike of pure fear. And then I posted about it – about having the fear and knowing that it would probably be fine, but being afraid anyway. I talked about being afraid even though the discussions were happening largely in spaces where I can reasonably expect people to treat me well.
And an interesting thing happened in response to my emotive posts, my expressing the vulnerability around engaging in feminist discussion – particularly around #gamergate and in light of everything that had happened with it. The people around me, particularly those who are also outspoken feminists understood what I posted and responded with empathy and care. Some commenters provided advice on how I should handle things or not take things personally and I made a point to explain what I was doing and why. Some people suggested I shouldn’t really engage in the conversations if they were upsetting.
Meanwhile in the discussions I was having, things were progressing well (for me, I remember a friend was simultaneously having the worst of experiences of this kind) and there was minimal condescension or over-explaining. There was a lot of misunderstanding about the subject and how it relates to all of us who are invested in this discussion about #gamergate, feminism and women in these arenas. The common ones you may already be familiar with – that it really is or could be about ethics in journalism, or, that it’s just a small group of people making a bad name for everyone else and it’s not that big a problem, and my favourite, that it’s political and groups, websites, events etc need to stay out of political debate. Mostly the non-feminist gamers on my friends list didn’t really consider #gamergate to be a problem, it wasn’t personal to them and they didn’t see how it could be personal for anyone else around them. And they didn’t think it was a problem for people like Brianna Wu, Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn, because they’re ‘famous’ and that kind of just goes with the territory, right? I disagree – I don’t think we’re all that far apart, regardless of their notoriety and my lack thereof. There isn’t a single woman I know personally, with varying degrees of notoriety online and off that has spoken out about this issue and not been afraid of the repercussions of doing so. It is a problem, and I will keep identifying it as such and trying to make it visible.
Which in the end, is the point of my making those posts sharing the fear I experienced at engaging in public feminist conversation, even talking about this stuff in a relatively closed space as my Facebook page/friends list was to make the vulnerability visible and also the reaction to it. One of the points I wanted to make to those around me was the fact that there is no great distance between myself, the other outspoken non-cis male feminists and the likes of Brianna, Anita and Zoe. Their fears are more realised and they’ve been in significant personal danger as a result of speaking out against harassment and misogyny toward women in gaming. There are plenty more examples where notable feminists on the internet have been threatened, harassed and stalked as a result of daring to speak up and call upon society to change, for the status quo to shift, for equality to be actively worked toward.
I’m not actually notable, but I still have a similar fear because I know all it takes is for one blog post to hit reddit and go viral in some way and then I too could join the ranks of the threatened. I know I’m not the only one amongst my feminist friends, particularly those of us who are women or not cis-male, who has this fear and thinks twice about speaking out publicly. At the moment it seems that speaking out goes against one’s better judgement for safety – and yet how can things change with silence?
So here I am, sharing my vulnerability. It may not be socially sanctioned – and I’m aware of that based on how many people missed the point of me sharing my fear at posting about #gamergate and the misogyny directed toward women in gaming, even once I explained it. I have to hope that by talking highlighting vulnerability in relation to the issues specifically, I am making a difference and contributing to change. I am hoping that by being very clear that every time I speak up about feminism or any kind of inequality, I am afraid of the potential negative consequences that people realise that this isn’t ‘just an internet drama’, it’s real and personal.
It is worth noting that this is a conversation that is happening in public, at all and that is both awesome and necessary. The exposure of the depth of harassment and abuse experienced by women in gaming in relation to #gamergate is truly distressing, because there is so much of it and it is unrelentingly physically and sexually violent. Distressing or not, the exposure has merit, because eventually it has to reach a point where it is more unacceptable for this behaviour to continue, more unacceptable to sanction it, than it is to vilify women for daring to express their vulnerability and speak out against the abuse.
If I’m lucky, I’ll stay un-notable, I’ll continue to fly under the radar and fail to say something truly outstanding that would see my words go viral. If I’m unlucky then the things I’m afraid of could come to pass. I have to wonder how much it would actually take to stop me speaking.