/ Laurie Penny / 9 am Sat, Oct 4 2014
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  • Social Justice Warriors and the New Culture War

    Social Justice Warriors and the New Culture War

    Laurie Penny, author of Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution explains "Social Justice Warriors" and why they're winning.

    There's a culture war happening right now. It's happening in games, in film, in journalism, in television, in fiction, in fandom. It's happening online, everywhere. And everywhere, sexists, recreational misogynists and bigots are losing.

    They are losing, and they don't know why.

    I've been thinking a lot, this week and last week, about what it is that's changing in culture, about what women are doing, and what is being done to us in revenge. I've been thinking about what happened to Jennifer Lawrence; about what happened to Zoe Quinn; about what happened to Anita Sarkeesian; about what's been happening to every games and culture writer with the gall to be female or to defend feminism; and I've been thinking, unavoidably, about what's happened to me, over the course of three years of harassment and abuse.

    This a song we know by now. It starts and ends, almost always, with attacks on our sexuality, on our bodies as meat and function: our sexual and relationship history is broadcast everywhere, which is what happened to games developer Quinn, after an ex-boyfriend posted a disturbed, disturbing novella-length attack on everything she is and everything she stands for. The gamersphere then collectively wet its knickers over not being allowed to mercilessly slut-shame their chosen target without being called out, because freedom of speech.

    The routine, the arguments, have become far too familiar. A woman or a handful of women are selected for destruction; our 'credibility' and 'professionalism' are attacked in the same breath as we are called ugly, slut-shamed for dismissed either as stupid little girls or bitter old women or, in some cases, both. The medium is modern, but the logic is Victorian, and make no mistake, the problem is not what we do and say and build and create.

    The problem is that women are doing it. That's why the naked selfies, the slut-shaming, is not just incidental to the argument—it is the argument. Underneath it all, you're just a woman, just a body. You can be reduced to flesh. You are less. You are an object. You are other. LOL, boobs.

    The problem is that women are creating culture, changing culture, redefining culture, and those cunts, those poisonous cunts, those disgusting, uppity cunts must be stopped.

    If I sound angry here, it's because I am. I'm angy because I've had to listen to these things being said to and about me and many other women creators I admire for too many years now to be polite about it. My anger, however, is different from the incoherent rage sloshing around 4chan, Reddit, MRA forums and other nests of recreational misogyny right now, because the people perpetrating these attacks on women, the people who are so unspeakably angry that women dare, they dare with their stupid ladyheads and evil ladyparts, they dare to come into their special boy spaces and actually demand a voice, they don't understand why not everyone can see how right they are, how noble, how absolutely justified they are in their cause. They believe that they are justified because freedom of speech—except not freedom of speech for women and queers and people of colour, because those people don't really speak, they just whine, shriek, scream, like animals, because really that's all they are, animals.

    They think it's a game.

    I'm talking about the whole thing—not just hounding individual women, hacking individual celebrities' nude pics, trying to trash the reputations of women in the public eye according to outdated double-standards with less and less relevance to our real lives. I'm talking about gender itself, sex and sexuality itself, as a game you can play and win by 'beating' the other 'side' into submission. A game where the other 'side' isn't really human at all. Shoot to kill. Destroy the brain. Move on.

    Games and pickup artistry gave a formal structure to that mindset for this generation, but it's older than that. The gamification of misogyny predates the internet, but right now, in this world full of angry, broken, lost young men convinced that women have robbed them of some fundamental win in life, it's rampant.

    The trouble is that treating other human beings like faceless opponents doesn't work in the real world.

    Gender isn't a game you can play and win by brutalising and harassing and shaming and hurting the other 'side.' Ultimately, there is no other side. Gender oppression is structural. Everybody loses, in the long term, because everybody has to live in a culture where it's normal to hound women out of their homes for daring to demand fairer treatment, normal to shame girls and queer people into silence for suggesting that there might be other interesting stories to tell. There is no way to win this game, except by not playing at all.

    So they can't understand why they're losing.

    They can't understand why their arguments aren't working. They can't understand why game designers, industry leaders, writers, public figures are lining up to disown their ideas and pledge to do better by women and girls in the future. They can't understand why, just for example, when my friend, the games critic and consultant Leigh Alexander, was abused and 'called out' as an unprofessional slut, a lying cunt, morally and personally corrupt, just for speaking truthfully and beautifully about all of this, it was Alexander who was invited to write her first piece for Time magazine, Alexander who got to define the agenda for the mainstream, who received praise and recognition, whilst her abusers' words will be lost in a howling vortex of comment threads and subreddits and, eventually, forgotten.

    Their rage is the rage of bewilderment.

    They can't understand why the new reaction to nude selfie leaks isn't 'you asked for it, you whore', but 'everyone does it, stop slut shaming.' They can't understand the logic of a world where 'Social Justice Warrior' just doesn't work as an insult, because a great many people care quite a lot about social justice and are proud to fight for it.

    They can't understand why they look ridiculous.

    This is a culture war. The right side is winning, at great cost. At great personal costs to people like Anita Sarkeesian, Leigh Alexander, Zoe Quinn and even Jennifer Lawrence, and countless others who are on the frontlines of creating new worlds for women, for girls, for everyone who believes that stories matter and there are too many still untold. We are winning. We are winning because we are more resourceful, more compassionate, more culturally aware. We're winning because we know what it's like to fight through adversity, through shame and pain and constant reminders of our own worthlessness, and come up punching. We know we're winning because the terrified rage of a million mouthbreathing manchild misogynists is thick as nerve gas in the air right now.

    Us Social Justice Warriors—this is me, stealing that word in order to use it against my enemies- are winning the culture war by tearing up the rulebook, and there's nothing the sad, mad little boys who hate women and queers and people of colour can do about it. Nothing, at least, that doesn't sabotage their strategy, because they can win their game from day to day, but they're losing the war. They can punish me for writing this, and I'm sure they will, but that will only prove my point. I'm not afraid anymore.

    Every time they make an example of one of us, ten more stand up in outrage to hold her up or take her place.

    We are stronger, smarter and more numerous than anyone imagined, and we are not to be fucked with.

    -Laurie Penny

    (This article was previously published on Laurie-Penny.com—Comments are open and heavily moderated by the Don't-Push-Your-Luckdragon. Deal.)


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    Notable Replies

    1. Falcor says:

    2. No, what I mean to imply is that the social justice warrior phenomenon is largely symptomatic of how media and technology are successfully pacifying and distracting the middle-class from actually challenging the real injustices and inequalities that our society is riven with - a society in which a certain percentage of the population are starving or below the breadline, a certain percentage are denied basic educational opportunities, and a small (increasingly precarious) middle-class are privileged enough to devote a considerable amount of their time and energy towards video games, becoming outraged by comic book covers, spending a hour or two online discussing whether Laurie Penny's use of war rhetoric is appropriate, or whether the term "mouth breather" constitutes "ablest" rhetoric. To actually fight for social justice in a meaningful way would involve great sacrifice, putting oneself on the line, whereas it is far easier simply to do what most of us (and most so-called Social justice warriors) do: passively acquiesce to a society of massive inequality and injustice, continue to enjoy the perks of that unequal society (video games, fandom, technology), and yet persuade ourselves that we are after all very good and moral people, because we fight the good fight online as regards scrubbing video games of dumb representations of women, so we can enjoy those video games even more.

    3. bersl2 says:

      Just as the poor white Christian Right has been the unwitting pawns of the elite for quite some time, trapped into serfdom by those whose power they protect, so too are the Internet's "beta-males" protecting a patriarchal system which keeps them in social shackles. And this attitude of yours and other belligerent seekers of justice isn't helpful. There is every right to be angry at the millennia of misogyny weighing down Humanity, but I believe that meeting anger with anger simply fuels the current system.

      If you really want to disarm "this kind of adolescent trash", you will respond to their pathetic trolling attempts with superhuman kindness. The rancorous shitposting of the misogynists is part of a positive feedback loop of hate. You break the loop by feeding it inverted signals at the critical points.

      At the core of the misogyny are two kinds of people:

      1. Spoiled brats who can't take "no" for an answer;
      2. Frustrated adolescents who have only known "no" for an answer.

      4chan users largely fall into the second category. For the most part, they ultimately want someone to help them, though the patriarchy has conditioned them, and those who might help them socialize, to stay put. By being kind even in the face of the vilest of invective, you can show them that the world is not filled with gorgons and cockatrices.

      But, well, you know, that's just, like, my opinion, man.

    4. PAPPP says:

      Tell us all about how the "Mouth-breathing, basement-dwelling nekckbeards" (AKA people who don't agree with you) are treating other groups as subhuman.

      The SJW kids are playing a game just as much as the angry young men, they're just better at it because they're more used to playing social power games, their feminist predecessors built most of the tools for doing so. I'm pretty sure Meredith Patterson has this right (in both Okay, Feminism, It’s Time We Had a Talk About Empathy and When Nerds Collide: My intersectionality will have weirdoes or it will be bullshit), what we're hearing is mostly the sound of subcultures with different value systems trying to impose their values on each other. No one has a right to be comfortable in all contexts, because the context people are comfortable in vary; that's why we have subcultures.

    5. One thing that we can do to help is fight the notion that socially awkward males are objects of contempt and that male virginity is a laughably pathetic state. Gender essentialism is overall hardest on women, but it's bad for everybody. Teenage boys and men are under tremendous social pressure to get laid at any cost, and it should come as no surprise that their values and priorities sometimes deform under that pressure.

      (I realize I run the risk of getting painted as an MRA here, but I hope my posting history speaks for itself.)

    Continue the discussion bbs.boingboing.net

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