Breaking the Vicious Cycle
Shanna Germain wrote a post recently about the many times she's been attacked, and - really - how to view your attackers as fellow human beings. It resonated with me on several levels, most of which correspond directly to the attacks I've endured over everything from my opinions on hiring for diversity to ConTessa's policies on what events are and are not appropriate for the convention.
What was most disturbing to me wasn't that I've been attacked - I've been attacked on the internet my whole life, pretty much - but who was attacking me. People who, on the outside, seemed to share many of the same beliefs that I do. It's been a pretty rude wake up call for Stacy, and I feel like I was a little (maybe a lot) naive in assuming that "my side" of the argument was more ethical, polite, considerate, or understanding than the other side.
I walked into several conversations started by prominent feminists in the RPG community believing that my good faith would be understood and respected. I was, after all, on the progressive side of the fence, right? Progressives believe in sharing and discussing each other's ideas without it devolving into bitter snark and angry attacks, right?
I had to get slapped many times, and made many jumps into discussions I probably shouldn't have before I learned my lesson. Most of the time, on the internet, there isn't a clear-cut villain that's always doing the trolling and attacking. Many people who do it even believe they're justified in their attacks, and I can understand why. The whole process is a vicious cycle.
- Person A joins a community, and doesn't know everything else that has gone on in that community up till that point.
- Person A makes a comment about an opinion they have often directed towards something else that's happening in the community.
- Person B decides they just have to respond with criticism, negativity, and even sometimes insults. Their responses are snarky, bitter, and often condescending. Even if they choose not to insult the person they're attacking, it's clear they have absolutely no respect for that person. Often, it's someone that Person A otherwise agrees with.
- Person A sits there with a distinct 'WTF' expression on their face while they try to process what just happened. When they respond, they flounder about for a good response, and eventually end up just as snarky, bitter, condescending, and rude as the person who started the whole thing.
Wash, rinse, repeat. When Person A comes into the conversation, they feel like they've been blindsided by Person B. After enough arguments with Person B, Person A starts becoming super defensive about everything, then just turns into Person B.
If you can figure out what the cycle is and pull yourself out of it, you've got a fighting chance to make it to the end without becoming a Bad Person on the Internet. The problem is that the cycle has it's own source of renewable energy that keeps it rolling forward.
Snark builds audiences.
It's a horrible thing. As a society, we've been raised on the constant idea that conflict is something you watch. It's Schadenfreude in action. People rubberneck at car wrecks, wincing at the damage. They put themselves in the shoes of the folks involved in the accident, and think, "Phew, glad I'm not THAT person". It's a horrible obsession that I think occurs because many of us have grown up in an era where every tragedy is covered with 24-hour news cycles that dig into every little part of the tragedy.
My generation (Gen X) came to age during an era when the 24 hour news cycle was just getting its feet wet. When the Challenger blew up, we sat glued to our televisions watching the footage over and over again, mourning the loss of the people inside, imagining their terror, the loss their families felt, the fact that those people would never be around again... and we were thankful it wasn't us.
By the time the first war in Iraq was beamed to our homes, the 24 hour news cycle was well in swing. Many of us were teenagers and young adults. We were glued to Wolf Blitzer's coverage and the grainy night-vision shots of tracer bullets firing into the air well into the night. We sat and watched in horror, waiting in anticipation for Wolf's team to be wiped out by a smartbomb.
When there wasn't direct action to report, the news channels went to a constant analysis of what was going on. This involved talking to experts about what smartbombs were, putting up diagrams, displays, maps, and a seemingly endless parade of pundits telling us what they think about every little aspect.
After that, every tragedy followed the same cycle. Riots, school shootings, hurricanes, floods, firestorms, more wars, and, of course, 9/11. After 9/11, there were actually psychologists pointing out right and left that Americans really needed to turn their fucking TVs off for their own mental health. Again and again and again, just like the Challenger explosion, we saw planes flying into buildings. The tragedy didn't happen once, it happened tens of thousands of times right before our eyes.
As bad as I think it was for us Gen Xers, it must be worse for Millennials. At least we had a time before the 24 hour news cycle to know that life wasn't always like that. These days, most Gen Xers I know only follow the news from social media, and even then we're still trying desperately to just take sips out of a fire hose threatening to take our whole heads off.
The Millennials got this from birth. To them, this is how it's always been, and this is how it'll always be. While we were thrilled as children to have more than three channels to choose from, and to watch the birth of MTV, Nickelodeon, and cable television as a whole, they grew up with all of it right in front of their faces, and grew up in an age where the internet was bringing us all new ways to traumatize ourselves.
Cable news, talk radio, and our culture of incessantly kicking dead, bloated, decaying horses proved to us that negativity sells. You get more viewers by calling people names and shitting on their ideals, projects, and programs than you do by pointing out the good things in the world. No fictional journalist in the history of ever has jumped up and said 'I want to do the reports on the cat fashion shows, and the best cookie in the city'!
Everybody knows. If it bleeds, it leads, and if it leads, it makes you famous.
If you're smart and perceptive, you can cut yourself out of the vicious cycle, but it's hard. Really hard. I realized I finally made it there when people around me at work were talking about the conflict, tragedy, or outrage du jour, and I had no clue what they were talking about.
It's no wonder so many people I know say the same thing when they start to get the picture... that was another lesson part of many of our childhoods.
Stepping away from the cycle is painful, I can tell you from experience. I have a few, basic rules that I've made for myself and do my best to follow religiously. There are times when I snap and I break, but by and large they work.
It means I build my audience slower. It means that I don't rely on shock and awe to get people to pay attention to me, but it also means that the people who do pay attention to me are higher quality, smarter people who I enjoy talking to. Many of them have become close friends.
Stacy's rules are as such:
- No matter how mean someone is to you, no matter how much they talk down to you, no matter how much they threaten you, don't engage. Walk away.
- When someone purposefully pushes your buttons, trolls, or otherwise attacks you in comments, do one of two things: 1) Delete the comment, or 2) Walk away.
- When a thread you're a part of becomes so toxic you can feel your blood pressure rising just reading it, mute the thread and walk away.
- When someone posts nothing but negativity, snark, and criticism (or mostly), politely put them in a muted circle so they can still read your posts, but you don't have to see theirs.
- I no longer go searching through blog referrers and comments to see what people are saying about me. It's not good for my health, and those comments don't even really matter.
It works. My mental health and confidence are much better than they were when I was Persons A or B. What's more, I've taken the time that I otherwise would have put into defending myself or fighting with other people and put it to good use. I've now got several projects on my desk - including ConTessa - that are more successful than I ever dreamed. I now have the time to - literally - put my money where my mouth is.
ConTessa is entirely a labor of love. I don't earn even a little profit from it, and I put my money into it frequently to make sure it works. Further, the three RPG projects I'm working on this year will be entirely, or at least mostly, designed by women, AND the profits from those projects will go right into other projects and into some great ConTessa programs that we want to run. I can actually see the difference this makes in our community. The number of women I openly talk with, work on projects with, hire, play with, run for, and interact with on a daily basis has jumped dramatically.
What's more, the feelings of alienation and Otherness I got from women who attacked me, put me down, and ultimately lied about my intentions and my convention have nearly all together evaporated. There are times, like recently when the question of 'Why don't more women GM at cons?' was asked, when the thread and the answers send me tumbling down a well of depression, but the depression no longer lasts very long, and it's far easier to not let it color everything else that comes from me.
Even with that, there's still a heavy toll. Me and my staff spend far too much time righting misperceptions that we didn't generate. Fending off rumors that were created behind our backs by women who didn't take the time to get to know us, didn't ask me when they clearly had questions about the intents of the convention, then went on to make public, negative, and broadly critical statements about who we are and what we do.
There was even a point when it was insinuated on Twitter that ConTessa was run by men because it was so well-polished. Think about what that says for a moment. Even the women who claim to be feminists don't actually believe in the capability of women to put out clean, polished products. That hurts. A lot. It's a betrayal.
I can't help but to be depressed when I stop and think about all of that. The problems that women face are so ingrained that they take over even the women who are trying to get it right. More women have attacked me than men. I've gotten more support from the parts of the community that people claim aren't inclusive than those that claim they are.
In fact, the sectors of RPGs that are attacked the most give me the most respect, the most freedom, and the most faith that I know what I'm doing, and I'm learning how to do it better along the way. They don't try to tell me what to do or how to do it. If they like what I do, they support it. If they don't, they don't.
On the other hand, people who I once thought were on my side spend a lot of time mansplaining. I've lost count of how many men and women alike have attempted to sit down and tell me why I'm doing everything wrong, and why their approach to activism is the right one, and if I don't get on board the train, they're going to take their ball and go home, and tell all their friends to take their balls and go home.
It's rough out there. I'm frequently judged on rumors that aren't true rather than my actual actions, and few people have actually come to me and asked for clarification when they've had questions. But, I've learned to deal - mostly - by walking away.
Since the beginning of ConTessa, I've welcomed women I agree with and women I've disagreed with. With open arms, and no worries whatsoever. I've only once expressed questioning to that, and that was during a contentious conversation with one member of 'the other side' who spent a while threatening me with women not supporting my project or getting on board if I didn't basically change everything. Even then, I backed away from that.
The rule has always been the same. Everyone is welcome until they do something that makes them not welcome. That's just the way it goes. Even the people who developed the perception that I - or we - would do anything but. That doesn't forgive them, though, it doesn't undo the amount of time we've had to spend fixing perception issues we didn't cause in the first place and correcting lies that were spread.
But, it's the right thing to do. It's the compassionate thing to do. It's the inclusive thing to do. That's who I am, and that's who I'll continue to be. Sometimes, it works.
If there's one thing I want you to take away from this post, it's this...
There are no sides when it comes to internet conflicts. There's only Person A and Person B. The only way to get away from this is to stop being those people. Stop playing the game. Do what you believe is the right thing to do, and you'll change the world. Ignore the haters, and they'll fade into the background. Spend more time talking about the things you love than the things you hate, and adopt a strict policy of non-engagement.
I promise, it'll do wonders for your general outlook on life and how you feel about people. Even the people who hate you.
I love my friends, they're great people. They're people who accept apologies, people who give second, third, fourth, and fifth chances, but at the same time they're people that aren't doormats.
That's amazing. It's been a painful ride, and a tough one to endure, but looking around I've gotta admit... the people I surround myself with now are really amazing people, and the few people I know who I would call are good through and through.