There are many reasons to stand appalled at the headlines that have recently rocked the video game world, which has seen feminist cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian cancel a speaking event at a Utah university due to a threat made on her life. From the exposure of a long-festering misogynistic undercurrent in gamer culture to further proof (if any was needed) of the way online anonymity tends to divorce people from any semblance of basic decency, the issues revealed by this and other recent video game controversies have been ugly, to say the least.
Less discussed, though just as interesting, is what this incident tells us about the meaning of “terrorism” in the post-9/11 world, and the hierarchy of violence that Western society has created in the wake of those attacks.
But first, a primer on the controversy: Anita Sarkeesian is the founder of Feminist Frequency, a Web series dedicated to examining the treatment of women in popular culture. She generated a lot of buzz in particular for her videos deconstructing the latently (and blatantly) sexist portrayals of female characters in video games. The videos are an insightful and thorough examination of the objectification of women that pervades most top-tier video games, the kind of examination that is a regularly accepted feature of criticism for more established art forms like film, but has been long overdue in gaming.
Unfortunately, the videos received an angry pushback from some outraged fans. Sarkeesian received a deluge of misogynistic and racist comments and emails, and in March, an anonymous individual threatened to bomb the Game Developers Choice Awards if an award Sarkeesian was due to receive was not rescinded. Later on, in late August, another anonymous individual sent Sarkeesian a series of graphic death threats that listed her and her parents’ home addresses, forcing her to leave her home. All of this led up to the incident at Utah State University on Oct. 15.
The day before Sarkeesian’s scheduled talk, an anonymous emailer claiming to be a student at the university emailed Utah State staff, threatening “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if Sarkeesian’s talk was allowed to go forward. He would attack the talk’s attendees, he threatened, as well as any staff and students in the university’s Women’s Centre. He listed the weapons at his disposal: pistols, a semi-automatic rifle and “a collection of pipe bombs.” “Anita Sarkeesian is everything wrong with the feminist woman, and she is going to die screaming like the craven little whore that she is,” he concluded.
Although Utah State stepped up its security in response, the school denied Sarkeesian’s request to implement metal detectors and mandatory pat-downs for everyone attending, forcing her to cancel her appearance for the sake of both her and her attendees’ safety. Under a 2004 Utah law, anyone who holds the relevant permit can carry a concealed weapon onto a university campus. Sarkeesian would live to critique another day, it seemed, while her antagonist presumably got to bask in the satisfaction of having temporarily shut up one of the “misandrist harpies” who “have ruined [his] life.”
Gamergate, which purports to be a movement of gamers concerned about ethics in gaming journalism, has mainly revolved around the online harassment of female game developer Zoe Quinn, and was formulated chiefly by users of the online imageboard 4chan. Since its emergence, numerous outspoken women in the gaming world have received threats, including game developer Brianna Wu. Wu left her home this month upon, like Sarkeesian, being flooded with death threats, after her personal details were posted on 8chan, a messageboard spinoff of 4chan.
The threat against Sarkeesian is thus the latest and perhaps most alarming case of online misogyny breaking through the computer screen and spilling over into the real world.
There are several interesting things to note in the wake of this ugly event, the most notable being what it says about our reaction to terrorism – or, at least, certain kinds of terrorism. And make no mistake – the threat against Anita Sarkeesian is most assuredly a case of terrorism.
The definition of the word is notoriously slippery to pin down, but the USU threat certainly counts as one if looking at the definition provided by various government agencies. According to the FBI, terrorism includes any activity aiming “to intimidate or coerce a civilian population.” For the CIA, it means “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups.” Under the British Terrorism Act of 2000, meanwhile, it’s classed as “the use or threat of action designed to influence government or to intimidate the public, or a section of the public, and is made for the purposes of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.”
Under any of these definitions, the threat against Anita Sarkeesian easily qualifies as a terrorist act. It’s premeditated, as evidenced by the very existence of a threatening email; it’s certainly politically driven, with the author singling out “feminists on campus” as his desired victims, and citing the charge that “[f]eminism has taken over every facet of our society” as the reason he’s “chosen to target her”; and lastly, it’s most definitely intended to coerce and intimidate civilians, in this case feminist activists, in the hope that they will stay silent.
Yet in much of the media reaction to the story all over the world, major news agencies have shied away from attaching the T-word to the story. Publications like the L.A. Times, the Washington Post, the Daily Mail, Time and Forbes all spoke about general “death,” “massacre” or “school shooting” threats. If the word did crop up in more high-profile articles, it was only due to a reference to feminist blogger Melissa McEwan’s term “terrorist misogyny," or by quoting Sarkeesian herself; in other words, it was portrayed as an interpretation by interested parties of what the incident could be, rather than an objective truth. Smaller, less vaunted publications and websites, by contrast – such as the Salt Lake Tribune, Kotaku or Ogden, Utah’s StandardExaminer – have been far less reserved about labelling the incident an act of terror.
In many ways, it follows the pattern of white terrorists receiving different treatment by authorities and the media. Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik’s motivations received far more probing and publicity than that of an Islamic terrorist, while commentators fell over themselves to stress he wasn’t a "true" Christian. Glenn Beck-inspired right-wing terrorist Byron Williams was convicted for attempted murder, not terrorism, after he tried to “start a revolution” by planning an attack on left-wing targets. The burning down of a mosque in Joplin, Missouri, and a shooting spree in a Wisconsin Sikh temple received barely any news coverage.
This is nothing new when it comes to the discourse around terrorism. As writers like Glenn Greenwald have argued again and again, in the public imagination, terrorism has largely lost any meaning, defined for all intents and purposes as simply an act of violence committed by a Muslim. One need only look at the 2009 Fort Hood shooting by Maj. Nidal Hasan, which sparked a debate about whether his murder of 13 soldiers was an act of terror or not. Much of the coverage of that tragedy, initially, was focused on Hasan’s Muslim background, including that he had worn traditional Muslim garb and had yelled “Allahu Akhbar” as he fired, in the process ignoring the fact that he had targeted military personnel instead of civilians.
The Fort Hood shooting is hardly the only example where even the hint of Islamic belief has automatically designated an act of violence terrorism. Late last month, some debate raged over whether the case of Alton Nolen, who decapitated one co-worker and tried to behead another, was workplace aggression or terrorism. Even though the evidence pointed to a spontaneous act based on workplace animosity and racial tension, the fact that Nolen had recently converted to Islam led some to question if his act constituted terrorism. Similarly, after a 2007 mall shooting that left five people dead, right wing-commentator Debbie Schlussel trumpeted: “Surprise! Terrorist in Utah Mall Shootings is a MUSLIM.”
In addition to this, and in contrast to the media’s treatment of Sarkeesian’s situation, British newspapers never hesitated to declare the two men who murdered soldier Lee Rigby terrorists. Likewise when it came to the media’s treatment of the Melbourne teenager who stabbed two police offers in September. The point here isn’t whether these acts were legitimate acts of terror or not. Indeed, in the case of the Rigby murder, it’s uncontroversial to say the murder was terrorism. It’s that, in each of these cases, the media displayed little similar hesitancy in labeling or associating the criminals involved – all of whom were Muslim and none of whom were white – with terrorists.
It’s also instructive to think about the reaction of Utah State and the Utah government to this particular terror threat. The university wouldn’t prohibit the firearms in the auditorium where Sarkeesian was speaking because doing so would violate their carriers’ legal and constitutional rights. Similarly, a spokesperson for the Utah Attorney General’s Office affirmed that universities don’t have the authority to simply bypass this legal protection of gun rights. Fair enough.
Imagine for a second, though, if the speaker had been a visiting scholar who was a prominent defender of Israel. Before their scheduled talk, an anonymous email is sent by someone identifying themselves as a Muslim threatening to indiscriminately kill all Jews and supporters of Israel at the event with a cache of guns and pipe bombs in the name of Jihad. Would the school and the Utah state government be as insistent on citizens’ inalienable gun rights in this situation? Perhaps. But given the fact that the U.S. has already launched numerous constitutionally dubious programs as a response to Islamic terrorism – along with regularly curtailing the right of free speech at national political conventions out of a concern for security – there’s serious reason to doubt this.
It would also likely be overly optimistic to hope incidents such as these would divert the at-times almost single-minded focus on Islam as the midwife of violence and illiberal values. Extremists’ and fundamentalist Muslims’ awful treatment of, and attitude toward, women are often cited as a justification not only for wars against Muslim nations, but also for the suspect nature of Islam as a whole. It is on this basis – the idea that an innocent person simply sharing a religion with individuals who commit heinous acts makes them indistinguishable from such individuals – that the NYPD embarked on indiscriminate surveillance of Muslim communities and the NSA spied on Muslim supporters of the Bush administration.
This mind-set isn’t limited to those in power. Just last week, in fact, Bill Maher started a controversy within left-wing circles when he essentially accused liberals of being soft on Islam by not acknowledging that even its more moderate elements were poisonous to civil society. Maher was supported by neuroscientist Sam Harris, who chided liberals for being eager to “criticize white theocracy” while "failing" to similarly criticize the Muslim world. Even Muslims who aren’t jihadists and Islamists, he explained, “hold views about human rights, and about women, and about homosexuals, that are deeply troubling … they keep women and homosexuals immiserated in these cultures.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find commentators like Maher and Harris similarly vilifying the gaming community on the basis of its own vocal, violently misogynistic minority, however; this despite the fact that, putting statements from your garden-variety Islamic extremist side by side with the kinds of threats Sarkeesian and others have received, it’s clear these two groups share some similar attitudes toward women.
Neither will you see a system put in place to survey and profile young, male Internet users in the West – the chief demographic of 4chan according to its own advertising page, and the majority (if only just) of gamers, in America, at least. In the West, such a demographic tends to be viewed as the victims, not the perpetrators, of terrorism.
Does implementing such a system of mass profiling and surveillance of white, male gamers make sense? Is it fair or just, despite the threats that a number of women have received on their lives? It is assuredly none of those things, an answer it's likely nobody has to think very hard about to offer.
Not only is it grossly unfair to label a whole, diverse community of individuals based on the example of a small, violent and extreme element. We would also likely agree that such targeting would be an ineffective overreaction to the problem at hand, which can only be solved through dialogue and the changing of individuals’ minds. Yet how many of us would say the same things when it comes to terrorism committed by those of a darker skin tone or different religion?
When the current furor around feminist criticism of games dies down, as it hopefully will, and critics such as Anita Sarkeesian are able to speak at whatever venue they like without having to worry whether someone will blow them up or gun down their listeners, we might be tempted to see it as a victory – as well we should. But we should also think about the double standard we hold toward terrorism when it comes from a certain source, and how we can start winning a victory over that, too.