SXSW's Gamergate fiasco: Canceling a panel on fighting abuse is cowardice — and it doesn't solve anything

The conference claims threats of violence led to a tough choice — but where's the apology?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 27, 2015 3:35PM (EDT)

  (AP/Jack Plunkett)
(AP/Jack Plunkett)

You got it wrong right from the first three words, South by Southwest. On Monday, the 18 year-old annual Austin music, film and interactive media conference and festival issued a statement regarding why it decided to cancel two planned panels for its 2016 event. Director Hugh Forrest called the announcement "Strong community management." Yeah, let me stop you right there.

Monday evening, activist and scheduled panel speaker Randi Harper posted on Twitter to say, "This is the email we were sent by @sxsw. Reminder: our panel was not GamerGate-related." In it, SXSW said that it had decided to cancel "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games." The email states, "Preserving the sanctity of that big tent at SXSW Interactive necessitates that we keep the dialogue civil and respectful — so that people can agree, disagree, and embrace new ways of thinking in a safe and secure place. We have already received numerous threats of violence regarding this panel, so a civil and respectful environment seems unlikely in March in Austin. For this reason, we have also canceled other sessions at the 2016 event that focused on the GamerGate controversy. We are strong believers in community at SXSW — and a healthy community sometimes requires strong management. Preserving the sanctity of the big tent is more important than preserving any particular session."

SXSW also deep sixed another session entitled "SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community." In its public statement, SXSW reiterated its stance, saying, "If people can not agree, disagree and embrace new ways of thinking in a safe and secure place that is free of online and offline harassment, then this marketplace of ideas is inevitably compromised." It did not elaborate on exactly the nature or source of the threats of violence or harassment.

But can we venture a guess here? The "Level Up" panel had promised to feature "experts on online harassment in gaming and geek culture, how to combat it, how to design against it, and how to create online communities that are moving away from harassment." SXSW has acknowledged the "numerous threats of violence regarding this panel." As for the other one, as Motherboard's Kari Paul explained last week, "Although the event SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community is not described on the schedule as explicitly GamerGate-affiliated, several of its panelists have been involved in the hashtag movement." And she noted that "One prospective speaker on a separate panel who has been harassed and stalked by GamerGate notified SXSW organizers that she feels unsafe in light of the panel’s approval," and received a response that "We strongly believe in showcasing a very diverse range of ideas and opinions, even if we as a staff don't always agree with them." The woman told Motherboard, "It’s good to include all voices, but what if one of the voices is extremely antagonistic?" 

Let's look at this "diverse range of ideas and opinions" SXSW claims to support. On one side, I see a panel that said it wanted to address combating harassment. On the other, I see one whose description included the GamerGate dog whistle phrase "the current social/political landscape in the gaming community, the journalistic integrity of gaming’s journalists." Earlier this year, Democratic Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark asked the Department of Justice to "prioritize investigations and prosecutions of cyber abuse crimes targeting women," saying, "The women targeted by 'GamerGate activists' have been repeatedly subjected to explicit threats of rape and murder, their personal information has been disclosed, and several have been forced to flee their homes and cancel public events."

A year ago, Feminist Frequency's Anita Sarkeesian canceled an event at Utah State University "after receiving death threats because police wouldn’t take steps to prevent concealed firearms at the event." Soon after, Joss Whedon observed, "Many good people think #GamerGate is about journalism & artistic freedom. That’s like working at #KlanDayKare. The name means hate, guys."

And actress and geek icon Felicia Day wrote about why "I have not said many public things about Gamer Gate," saying, "I have tried to retweet a few of the articles I’ve seen dissecting the issue in support, but personally I am terrified to be doxxed for even typing the words 'GamerGate.'"

To be fair, other threats have been more ambiguous. In August, a Society of Professional Journalist’s #GamerGate “#SPJ AirPlay” event in Miami was shut down after an anonymous bomb threat. Forbes' Erik Kain wrote at the time that "It could have come from anyone on either side of the debate, or simply from a troll looking to stoke flames." But let's not call what's going on here a "debate" involving "diverse opinions." Let's not insult the people who are being harassed and threatened on the regular with some trite crap about Hey, I guess we just couldn't agree to disagree, sorry! Seriously. Do the people behind this decision have any idea at all how hard many people work, every day, on trying to maintain a "civil and respectful" discourse while they're getting messages from strangers who say they deserve to be raped and killed? That their children do? Because I do. This is personal to me. I live with this garbage constantly and I am not even a gaming journalist. I get nowhere near the level of abuse that the people — mostly women — whose work it is to speak up about these issues endure all the time.

I have great respect for the challenging and difficult work of community management. It's where I launched my career twenty years ago. I also take very seriously the toxic and terrifying — and mostly male — rage that is part of the darkest corner of online community. I understand SXSW's obligation to protect its guests and panelists — especially in a state with an increasingly relaxed policy regarding firearms. 

What I have a pretty serious problem with, however, is this ludicrous charade of acting as if there are two sides to every story. Actually, if one of them is wrong, no, there are not. You don't get to "debate" climate change or evolution. And you shouldn't get to cancel a panel on "how to create online communities that are moving away from harassment" because of threats of violence and not issue a goddamn apology. You shouldn't get to ignore that it is unacceptable that the bullies and the trolls and deeply scary, messed up voices are the loudest. You shouldn't bloviate about a "big tent" when too many women are genuinely afraid, and too many more have come to a grudging acceptance that the price of being female and having opinions is daily degrading commentary. And SXSW's response is so cowardly and so transparently butt covering that I can be nothing but disgusted.

Author & Gamer Compares Coverage Of #GamerGate & #BlackLivesMatter

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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