I have not written about the internet troll debacle that has come to be known as "GamerGate". I have made that choice for a number of reasons: that a small subset of video game obsessives would fulfill every stereotype about those men who share that hobby is not at all surprising; there are other folks who written very sharp and smart things about GamerGate that are worth reading, and thus there was little for me to contribute to the conversation.
I will have to modify that earlier decision as GamerGate made an appearance in one of my classes earlier this week. The "real world" (at least for my students) chose to intervene, and in its own way Gamergate produced a "teachable moment".
I have been blessed with a good group of students who are bright, curious, hard working, and well mannered. For those of you who do not spend their days in a college classroom, such traits are very agreeable and increasingly uncommon.
As I encountered the seminar room my students were engaged in a conversation about GamerGate.
One of the young women asked me for my thoughts on the matter. I said, "bad behavior knows no boundaries, many trolls are sociopathic and have other mental health issues, and it is unfortunate that a small group of video game players decided to be human caricatures as they harassed someone who they disagreed with in some type of victimology circus".
The young women in class smiled and largely agreed with my observation.
A young man chimed in from the corner. He seemed perturbed and annoyed. He often has good things to say in class. He is not a "talker" per se, but rather someone who is very measured in his words. He spends them wisely.
"This is really unfair. Just because you say something sexist or racist online doesn't mean you are a sexist or racist in the the real world. This whole thing is just exaggerated", he explained.
I paused. I had a hiccup in my thinking as I processed what seemed to me to be an utter disconnect in logic and speech. I do not expect an underclassmen to have mastered Marcus Aurelius's meditations. But, some measure of consistency in thought should be expected from a college student.
I asked, "If a person does something that is racist or sexist are they then not in turn a racist or sexist person?"
He seemed confused.
I continued, "are we not the sum total of our deeds and words? Do we not acquire the attributes of the things that we do?"
The young man processed his thoughts and quickly replied, "people do things online that they wouldn't do in person...that isn't who they really are and people need to understand that."
I smiled. "I doubt that the people who are being harassed by racists, sexists, or homophobes online are making that distinction. It feels pretty damn real to the targets of that bad behavior."
He sulked down in his chair, a bit defeated, shoulders slouched. He was thinking but not sharing. Of what thoughts? I do not know.
I have no doubt that this young man is a decent person. He is likely pretty nice to his grandma, does not kick kittens, and wants to do right by the people in his life. Such traits are why modern racism, that which occurs in the "backstage" and online, is so dangerous. It is easy to drive the cartoon racists that are in the KKK or neo Nazi movement out of the public square: their offenses are obvious.
Challenging the quotidian white supremacy and sexism that works through expected and taken for granted systems of personal and institutional unearned advantage--which work by denying empathy for others (and silencing them when the in-group and powerful are made to feel uncomfortable)--is a much more difficult task.
There have been measurable and demonstrable improvements in the racial attitudes of white "Millennials", the Facebook generation, as well as the post civil rights generation, more generally.
However, while the public expression(s) of white racial animus has in many ways improved, these positive developments have been accompanied by how several generations of white people have learned to hide their true racial attitudes about non-whites, and to comport themselves in a manner that is appropriate for success in a multicultural neoliberal corporate democracy.
Here, the true measure of one's attitudes, ethics, and beliefs is not how one behaves when they are being watched by others. Rather, the reality of a person's ethics and values is revealed by how a person behaves when there is no one watching at all.
This is true for all age groups. Thus, is America a less racist society? Or have white racists (sexists; homophobes, etc.) simply learned how to better mask their behavior?
The casual defense of racism and sexism in this young man's discussion of GamerGate is a lesson in how systems of oppression are intertwined. Here, GamerGate is a nexus of both Whiteness and misogyny in the form of aggrieved White masculinity.
But, we should always ask a foundational question.
"What is this an example of more broadly? And what does this teachable moment signal about how young people are being trained and taught in America's schools?"
In the neoliberal age, the university and liberal arts are being transformed into institutions which produce workers, technicians, and drones. Courses that teach students how to think--and serve as responsible, reflective, and engaged citizens--are being removed from the curriculum.
Love of knowledge and critical thinking about one's morality and ethics are deemed by the corporateocracy to be skills that are of no value in the labor market.
The university now produces a class of indentured and indebted young people that possess technical skills but no vision or ability to reflect on citizenship and ethics. These are the perfect people for a life beset by the culture of cruelty, parasitic capitalism, and a world oriented around profits over people.
This is an arrangement that is disastrous for us all.
How would you have responded to my student? What would you have done with that "teachable moment"?