Abusers and Apologies: A Rant in Lists

Today I have some shit that I need to say about abusers and apologies. I wrote out these lists intending them to be an outline for a post or series of posts, but expanding on these points would soften the language into language that makes it easy for people to ignore the point that I am driving towards, and I do not want my language to be comfortable or easy to live with.

So today you get a bunch of lists. Know as you read each item that each contains an entire diatribe. A rant with points both salient and emotional. With examples of suffering, tales of harm, and calls to action.

Today I am not doing the work of filling in the detail. Today you will have to do that work for yourself.

 

On Forgiveness:

Abusers who refuse to acknowledge that they have harmed people are not entitled to forgiveness.

Abusers who acknowledge they have harmed people but refuse to apologize are not entitled to forgiveness.

Abusers who apologize sincerely and have since learned to be better and stop abusing are STILL NOT entitled to forgiveness.

Feeling entitled to an abuse survivor’s feelings is itself abuse. Abusers are not entitled to forgiveness. Period.

 

On Apologies:

Not all apologies are created equal. The common wisdom is that we should forgive and forget, and that if someone apologizes, we should naturally forgive them. But that thinking only empowers abusers to use the common decency of those around them as a shield for their abuse.

Common abuser tactics involving apologies include:

  • Apologizing for the wrong thing
  • Apologizing for a small harm as a cover for the larger harm they have committed
  • Apologizing for one instance of harm while ignoring the larger pattern of identical harm they have committed
  • Apologizing for harm committed against a person of privilege while ignoring a pattern of harm committed against more marginalized people
  • Apologizing only after prevailing community sentiment has shifted against their harmful behavior
  • Apologizing for someone’s feelings or lived reality
  • Apologizing in a way that minimizes their agency in harming someone (IE “I was drunk”)
  • Making an apology blaming their behavior on mental illness or past trauma
  • Making an apology that adheres perfectly to the form of a good apology and then failing to take any action or make any change that would prevent a repetition of the harm they caused, trusting that only their words and adherence to proper form will be remembered
  • Making an apology that is overly emotional, self-flagellating, and full of shame, as a shield against further criticism for the harm they are apologizing. (IE “They already feel bad enough, shouldn’t we drop it?”)
  • Making an apology that centers their feelings and not the feelings of the person or people that they harmed
  • Making an apology that uses social justice jargon in order to establish credibility as someone willing to be “accountable”
  • Making an apology that promises unspecified future remedies without ever enacting said remedies
  • Making an apology that promises specific future action without ever taking that action
  • Making an apology that is accompanied by emotional or physical withdrawal

We need to stop assuming that all apologies are genuine, because apologies are one of the most crucial weapons in an abuser’s arsenal.

 

On Restorative Justice:

Restorative justice is not a panacea that can heal all wounds.

Restorative justice will not entitle an abuser to universal forgiveness.

Restorative justice will not prevent you from having to actually remove abusers from your communities.

Restorative justice will not rehabilitate abusers who do not want to be rehabilitated.

Abusers will invoke the desire for restorative justice as a cover against their abusive actions.

Abusers will get third parties the victim cares about to offer to facilitate discussions with the people they harmed as a way to wound their victims and make them feel further isolated from their community.

Restorative justice facilitated by people who stand to materially gain from the process is not justice.

Restorative justice that pressures victims to participate is not justice.

Approaching the same victim repeatedly with offers to facilitate restorative justice after they have declined is a form of abuse, which is not justice.

 

On Marginalized Abusers:

Marginalized people can be abusers.

Marginalized people can and do abuse people with more privilege.

Marginalized people can and do abuse people with more marginalizations.

Marginalized people can and do abuse people with different marginalizations.

Cishet white dudes can be abused by marginalized people.

Being marginalized does not render you incapable of abuse.

Being marginalized does not mean you automatically know how not to abuse people.

Being marginalized does not mean you automatically don’t abuse people.

 

On Defense

For those who lack the power – either socially, structurally, or organizationally – to take direct action to stop their abuser, the only defense against an abuser is not to engage with them.

 

On Relationships With Abusers:

Abusers invest heavily in relationships with key members of the community, people with either power, social capital, or other forms of influence, as a shield against inevitable complaints of abuse.

Just because an abuser has only ever treated you with kindness does not mean they are not an abuser.

If you have not seen someone being abusive, that does not mean they can’t be an abuser.

If someone has poured hours into thankless or tedious work on behalf of others, that does not mean they can’t be an abuser.

If someone fulfills an important role to the community that would be difficult to replace, that does not mean they can’t be an abuser.

If someone has supported you through something terrible with love, empathy, and compassion, that does not mean they can’t be an abuser.

Loving and caring about someone does not mean they can’t be an abuser. Your love does not make them not abusive.

On perfect communication and the tyranny of “platform responsibility”

While the incident I’m referencing here isn’t directly connected to games, it strongly echoes patterns I have seen play out in the game-o-sphere many times over the years. So I ask that people bear with me when I lead off by saying this post was inspired by a LeftTube dustup on Twitter: Natalie Wynn, a trans woman who creates social justice philosophy videos about masculinity, incels, and queer identities under the YouTube alias of ContraPoints, recently had the temerity to talk about her subjective experience on Twitter in a way that wasn’t 100% Perfectly Inclusive Of Every Oppressed Identity’s Feelings and Twitter predictably reacted by JUMPING DOWN HER GODDAMN THROAT.

The tl;dr – she started a furor by saying she didn’t care for pronoun introduction circles at events since she has experienced them being weaponized by cis people who clock her as the only trans person in the room. Predictably, trans mascs and nonbinary folks who rely on such conventions in order to not be misgendered spoke about the necessity of such things for them to feel comfortable. But instead of having a nuanced conversation about the problem of cis people who weaponize the tools of inclusiveness to against queer people and the ways in which heterosexist culture pits marginalized queer groups against each other, everyone FREAKED THE FUCK OUT and now ContraPoints has deleted her Twitter, so good fucking job everyone. We’ve successfully kept another trans person from talking about her subjective experience on Twitter. Way to improve the #discourse.

I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of BUT CONTRAPOINTS SAID, because honestly the amount of non-binary splash damage happening as part of that conversation is triggering as fuck now that everyone is circling the wagons and some binary queers are talking about how UNSAFE they feel around us nonbinaries. (Because somehow it always comes back to us being The Real Problem With Queer Spaces.)

Instead, we’re going to talk about one of my least favorite justifications for why notable marginalized people get crucified for not being 100% Perfect Online:

The “responsibility” of having a public platform

Whenever this type of shit blows up online (and believe me, it happens in gaming too), one of the most common justifications for being abusive to someone over something they said is the argument that “they have a public platform” and therefor they have the “responsibility” of not just saying “whatever they like” without considering other people. Which is a great idea in theory, but what it means in practice is that if you’re a marginalized person with a “public platform”, I get to abuse you for saying stuff I don’t like and it’s YOUR FAULT.

And let me tell you, as someone who has been canceled for having messy feelings about my queer oppression online, it really doesn’t take much for people to classify you as having a “public platform” in order to justify being abusive toward you. Natalie Wynn has more than 9500 patrons on Patreon, which is orders of magnitude larger than my audience ever was – even at the peak of my microfame. And yet, I understand what she’s going through all too well, because then as now I was told that it was correct for people to be abusive in canceling me because I had a “public platform” and had committed the sin of being clumsy in talking about my subjective experience of oppression.

And sure, it is good to hold people accountable for saying wrong-headed or hurtful things. But we need to remember that oppression is messy, peoples’ feelings about oppression aren’t always going to be neat and tidy, and sometimes in Having Feelings About Oppression we might inadvertently step on some toes. And we need to fucking allow space for that – because sometimes you need to say something and be heard about a shitty oppressive experience and the only words you have to describe that experience are maybe not your Very Best Words. Very often, when I am upset and triggered about an oppressive experience, I simply don’t have the capacity to be 100% careful in making inclusive word choices – and that’s normal!

Further, IT IS A BIG DAMN PROBLEM that we demand nothing less than ABSOLUTE PERFECT COMMUNICATION AT ALL TIMES from marginalized people while letting white dudes get away with ACTUALLY HARMING PEOPLE, only to be forgiven as soon as they post even a half-assed “sorry you were offended” nonpology. Seriously, have you seen the shit white dudes get away with without being canceled? It’s unreal – and we all just let it slide, but we’ll happily FUCKING DESTROY a marginalized person for not being perfect in the name of SOCIAL JUSTICE.

Marginalized folks, we get upset with clueless people with privilege for not having empathy for us and our feelings. Not-cismen, how many times have we rolled our eyes about cisdudes demonizing us because we weren’t “nice” enough about describing our experiences of oppression? Lots, right? So why is it that we (rightly) feel entitled to understanding and empathy from others in recognition of the effects of oppression, but we don’t extend that understanding and empathy by default to other marginalized people?

BUT WHAT ABOUT ACCOUNTABILITY, you might ask? And to that I say:

Accountability goes both ways

One of the hardest things I’ve had to learn is that having PTSD does NOT give me an excuse to react however I want when I am triggered – even when my reasons for being triggered are 100% valid. (Sometimes they’re not, because pattern-recognition monkey is an asshole.) If someone says something that seems like a microaggression, that doesn’t give me the right to tear their goddamn face off – because using your trauma as carte blanche to abuse people is exactly how the cycle of trauma and abuse perpetuates itself. If we want to break the intergenerational cycle of trauma, which is something EVERYONE SHOULD WANT, then we need to learn productive ways of expressing our feelings when trauma is in play that still recognize the humanity of the person we’re talking to. (Caveat: Does not apply to Nazis.)

It should seem obvious, but abusing someone is not a good way to help them be accountable for stepping on toes – if anything it prevents them from doing that, even if they might really want to! Lord knows I’ve said stupid things that hurt people because I was struggling to describe my subjective experiences of oppression, but the abuse that I got as a result keeps me from being fully accountable; I still talk around those incidents because I’m not eager to repeat the experience of spending a week crying in public washrooms while I read floods of messages about what a terrible human being I am.

Accountability can’t be a one-way demand imposed on a person with status by the community at large. It has to be a two-way conversation that acknowledges the harm that we cause in return, because these online dogpiles from social justice types are traumatizing. We have to learn how to ACCEPT NUANCE and HAVE EMPATHY for others when they talk about their subjective experience, or we’re just going to keep breaking ourselves down into factions and hurting the people we should be standing in solidarity with.

[From the archives] A short letter to men about female(ish) anger

[This was originally posted on G+ a couple of weeks into #metoo, but currently women in the indie video game scene are sharing some truly harrowing stories about “legends” of their industry – including Alec Holowka and Jeremy Soule – who have been credibly accused of sexual assault and rape. So it seemed timely to repost this. This post is addressed to men, from women and a woman-appearing person, but it’s important to note that any privilege axis could (and should) be substituted here: white people versus people of color, able people versus disabled people, etc.]

Men, I understand that you may find it difficult to deal with the level of anger coming out of #metoo, and that that anger may make it difficult for you to talk about difficult subjects relevant to this movement. But DO NOT turn around and blame WOMEN for being the problem in this conversation.

You’re right we’re fucking furious. And you’re right we’re difficult to talk to about this. But you know why we’re collectively losing our shit over this, and why we DO. NOT. HAVE. TIME. for inadequate male responses to this conversation?

It’s because every woman has a best friend or family member who has been raped. EVERY. WOMAN.

It’s because EVERY. WOMAN. has found herself in a situation where we have had to appease male anger for fear of physical harm.

It’s because EVERY. WOMAN. has had to deal with unwelcome comments about their appearance by men in positions of power over them.

It’s because EVERY. WOMAN. has spent YEARS learning how to look completely neutral when men in power are being stupid and/or offensive.

It’s because EVERY. WOMAN. has spent the last several months re-assessing things that happened to her and realizing that there are so many “jokes” or “funny stories” that are suddenly not so funny before. That there are entire relationships or eras of our lives that weren’t fucking okay and we didn’t let ourselves realize that at the time, because it was the only way we could get through.

And it’s because EVERY. WOMAN. has spent her whole fucking life knowing, KNOWING IN HER SOUL that there is always a price to speaking out. Always. And the fact that some specific shitty men are now starting to face consequences in some specific circumstances doesn’t change any of that.

So if you need to talk about how difficult it is for you to deal with this explosion of feminine anger? Great. But talk about it with other men, and DON’T. DARE. to say that the REAL problem is us angry women and our FEELINGS.

On forgiveness, and the messiness of who gets to access it

In my last post, I talked about the need to remove predators from communities, and how everyone benefits when predators are removed from community spaces. However, talking about removing people from communities ignores the important second half of the equation – how do people who have been removed from communities access forgiveness? What standards do we use for judging when forgiveness is warranted? And how do we reintegrate formerly harmful people?

But all of that is putting the cart before the horse. So before we get into any of that, let’s start with:

Abusers hurt people, so why should we forgive them?

When we talk about abusers, we commonly talk about them in black-and-white terms. We call them monsters, and use language that denies their personhood. And some of this, especially coming from victims of abuse is understandable! When people are hurt, the last thing they should be asked to do is center the feelings of the person who hurt them!

HOWEVER.

Speaking about abusers only as Monsters With No Humanity has two equally disastrous consequences:

First: The belief that only monsters can be abusers makes it far more difficult for people to believe survivors when they come forward with their stories, because people can’t reconcile the good they know of someone with the allegations of abuse. People are more inclined to believe their own personal experiences, so when presented with conflicting information, people often choose to believe that the person accused of abuse has done good things instead of believing that they abused someone. They end up saying things like, “well that person has done Thing X which has resulted in Benefit Y for [myself / a group of people / our community], so clearly they can’t be an abuser”. When the reality is that they both have done good things and have abused someone.

Second: The belief that only monsters can be abusers doesn’t acknowledge the messy reality of mental illness and trauma. Mental illness and/or trauma can cause people to become abusive – not because they want to hurt people, but because being abusive is the only way they can feel safe and in control of their environment. This creates situations that are messy when trying to assess culpability, because the reality is that things are almost never as straightforward as we would want them to be.

Our community traumatizes people. Full stop. It replicates patterns of abuse that follow the dominant white supremacist patriarchal narrative, and the people who are most often harmed are people from marginalized groups. As members of the community, we are at least partially culpable for the trauma that our community inflicts on others. And while it is never okay to behave abusively, how do we as a community sit in judgement of someone who is abusive because of harms that we have inflicted on them?

The messy reality of trauma is that people who are abused often react by being abusive in return. But should someone who is being abusive as a response to inciting incidents of abuse bear the full responsibility of the harm they are committing? And what do we do when there is a situation where two people with incompatible mental illness and trauma abuse each other? How, then, do we assign blame and decide who is culpable and who is not?

Before you answer that question, let me tell you a story.

I am not a monster, but I have abused people (and now don’t)

I sometimes joke about Pokemon-ing my way through the DSM, but the painful reality is that I have a lot of mental illness and trauma. My depression predates my involvement in games, but I developed anxiety and cPTSD as a response to the harassment and abuse I got for being a Woman-Appearing-Person With Opinions About Games On The Internet. And while I’d like to tell you that I dealt with the emergence of my anxiety and cPTSD in a healthy and responsible manner, that would be a lie.

I grew up in the Midwest, which means my family never talked about difficult emotions, no matter how bad things got. (And I had a pretty traumatic childhood, so things got really bad.) So when I first developed anxiety, I was completely emotionally illiterate. All I knew is that I was having too many feelings, but I couldn’t tell you what the feelings were or why I was having them. And cPTSD just made the whole thing worse, because it gave my anxiety the keys to the USE ONLY IN CASE OF BEARS panic button. I was miserable, not just emotionally but physically. I was trapped in an endless feedback loop that made me feel like I had the flu, only it never went away.

Unfortunately, getting treatment for severe mental illness is not fast. It took several attempts to find a medication that worked for me (one of the first ones I tried actually GAVE me panic attacks, which… you know… not helpful). It also took time to find a therapist who could help me and not tell me inane shit like ‘stay off the internet’ or ‘be tolerant of misogynists’. It took most of a year to get medication that worked and get enough therapy in me that I wasn’t actively in severe distress every single day.

And during that time, I abused people.

I won’t share details, not because I’m keeping secrets but because these are stories that ultimately aren’t mine to share. But the truth of the matter is that when I was rock-bottom and effectively untreated, I became emotionally abusive, because the things that my anxiety demanded that I do in order to feel even somewhat safe and secure were toxic. And sometimes I was able to fight down those impulses, but sometimes I wasn’t – because when you live with that kind of misery, misery that permeates ever cell of your being both emotionally and physically, you reach a point where you are willing to do whatever your anxiety demands in order to alleviate the pain, if only for a little while.

Importantly, I’m not that person anymore. I have medication that works. I’ve done, if not quite All The Therapy, then certainly a large portion of it. I’ve done EMDR to reduce my panic attacks. And I practice self-awareness with the zeal of a recovering addict, because I know that my mental illness makes me want to abuse people when I am unwell, and that impulse will never go away. However, while I accept responsibility for the harm that I caused, I also acknowledge that I was not fully culpable, because my abuse stemmed from my illness, which I have worked incredibly hard to address.

So. That’s my story. If you’ve gotten this far and believe that my past abuse means that I am not entitled to further empathy, then. Well. Here’s where we part ways.

However, if you would agree that I don’t deserve to be permanently exiled from the community for the sake of harm that I caused when I was ill and untreated, then let’s move on to:

The problem of forgiveness is that only people with the most privilege and status get to access it

To continue with the personal example, my abusive behavior wasn’t just in person. There was stuff I said online that I’m not proud of, things I would dearly love to address and make right – except I can’t. Because I’ve learned from painful experience that trying to talk about what happened only earns me more abuse. So I have to live with the fact that there is a not-insignificant chunk of our community that sees me as a Toxic Person. Hell, there’s a major TTRPG publisher that to this day names me on their company website as a Major Problem in our community because of the things that I said. (Again, things that I said because I was ill. Because I was not dealing well with being abused. And, non-trivially, because I was wrestling with internalized homophobia and accepting myself as queer and non-binary.)

I’m not the same person I was then! And yet, this very visible indictment from a major player in our community is going to hang over my head forever.

Contrast this with the experience of industry luminaries, usually white dudes, who do harmful things. All they have to do is issue an apology that sounds even halfway sincere and they are lionized for how brave and wonderful they are for being accountable. When you have power, privilege, and status, forgiveness is always accessible, even without a formal apology – because if enough time passes, a luminary’s fans will always be keen to tell you that you shouldn’t hold mistakes over someone’s head forever.

And yet, that is exactly what happens with marginalized people.

So what happens is the only people who can access forgiveness and restorative justice are the people who don’t need it. Which means that marginalized and other lower-status members of the community are one mistake away from being exiled forever.

And if that sounds like hyperbole, trust me. It’s not. I’ve seen people go out of their way to make it clear to a Formerly Harmful Person that they are not welcome and never will be welcome in the very same space where they themselves are ignoring someone known to be harmful, but who has too much social currency or status for them to do anything about. Because it’s an easy win. Because it makes them feel better about ignoring the person they know is harmful. And, going back to the points at the beginning, because when someone becomes An Abuser, they are A Monster Forever and are No Longer Worthy of Empathy Or Inclusion No Matter How Much Work They’ve Done Or What They’ve Done To Be Accountable.

So. Obviously, that’s really shitty right? Shitting on people who have Done The Goddamn Work to make space for People With Status Who Continue To Be Harmful is obviously bad and wrong, and we shouldn’t do it, RIGHT? So. You know. What do we do about it?

Let people who were harmful reintegrate with the community when they can demonstrate that they’ve done the work

Forget status. Forget privilege. Forget power. There are people with all of those things who have been given community forgiveness who frankly don’t deserve it, and many others who do deserve it but can’t get it because they lack status, privilege, and power.

Instead, look at the person’s record, what they did in the past and what they have done since then to become someone who isn’t harmful. Have they acknowledged that they harmed people? Have they apologized? Have they done anything to address the harm they created? Have they gotten treatment or support in addressing the cause of their harmful behavior? Most importantly: what have they done to ensure that they will no longer be harmful in that way again?

Sometimes, the remediating action is immediate and profound, and the Formerly Harmful Person can be reintegrated right away. Frex, the dude who sexually assaulted me at GenCon in 2011 – his apology was immediate and sincere. He changed the circumstances that reinforced attitudes that caused the abuse, changed how he participates in games events, and immediately went into therapy. I’ve never named him because I am satisfied with his response and don’t feel that it would be just to punish him further.

Sometimes the desire for remediation is sincere, but the capacity to Not Be Harmful is something that needs to be worked toward. This is frequently the case with people who become harmful because of mental illness and trauma. In this instance, we need to have empathy for the person and make clear that space will be held for them when they can rejoin in a healthy way, but we also need to give that person support in getting to that place. It’s not enough to say ‘come back when you’re healthy’ without providing support in becoming healthy, because otherwise you’re just kicking people out for being mentally ill.

Sometimes a Harmful Person will say that they are sincere about wanting remediation and reform, but use their status as a Person In Recovery as a shield to further harm people. These people are Real Actual Predators and actually do need to be exiled forever. Patterns of behavior speak louder than words, and forgiveness and reintegration should never be done on the backs of victims.

(And sometimes a person who has harmed others isn’t sorry and are definitely going to do it again. Fuck those people. Those aren’t the people we’re talking about here, and they can get into the goddamn sea.)

Of course, what that remediation and reintegration will look like is a huge fucking question that, frankly, I’m not qualified to address. But, as someone who has done Not All But Certainly A Lot Of The Therapy, something I am qualified to address is black-and-white thinking that causes harmful outcomes. So! Let’s end with a bit of homework.

Homework: Reflections on black-and-white thinking about forgiveness

If you’ve gotten this far, I’d like it if you spent some time reflecting on these questions:

  1. In what ways have I demonstrated forgiveness to people with status who have harmed others and who have not demonstrated sincere contrition or shown that they are working to prevent further similar harm?
  2. In what ways have I shamed lower-status community members who have harmed others without acknowledging their humanity or considering how their circumstances may have changed?
  3. Have I done anything to support people who harm others because of mental illness and trauma through the process of recovery and reintegration? If yes, could I have done more? If no, why not?

If these reflections prompt answers that you are unhappy with, remember to acknowledge that we are all works in progress, and holding ourselves to unattainable standards is actively detrimental to the process of becoming better people. Instead, have compassion for yourself while also acknowledging where there is room for improvement and what you can do to address that going forward. The path to forgiving others starts with forgiving ourselves.

GenCon 2019, learned community helplessness, and the benefits of actually banning predators

Important Preamble

Despite the fact that I have been attending GenCon every year for around fourteen years, I hadn’t planned on attending GenCon this year, and was sort of shocked when things ended up such that I was able to go. See, about four or five years ago was when Z, my long-time harasser and a huge part of why I shut this blog down in 2016, began attending GenCon. And despite being a known serial harasser who oozed toxicity and had been responsible for harassing dozens of people out of the games industry and community, for more than a decade people just sort of shrugged their shoulders and enabled his abuse by saying things like “you have to separate art from artist” or “removing Z would be censorship”.

That is, if they didn’t outright deny the reality of those who spoke publicly about Z’s abuse – a feat which required no small amount of mental gymnastics, given that even the people I met who described Z as a friend would always begin their descriptions of him as “sure, he’s an asshole, but…”

Anyway. So Z started going to GenCon, and worse than that, he started winning LOTS of Ennies for his games. (Ennies are like the oscars of TTRPGs, with everything that implies about awards handed out by a community of mostly old white dudes.) I started having panic attacks in the lead up to GenCon, panic attacks that got worse every year. In 2018 Z was nominated for (and won) four Ennies, and I had two weeks of devastating panic attacks leading up to the convention that only partially abated when I promised myself that 2018 would be my last year. I love GenCon more than I can possibly articulate, but the thing that I loved was harming me, and I needed to not repeat the mistakes I made in 2016 by continuing on a course of action that was harming me because of a misguided need to “win”.

So 2018 was the year I said goodbye GenCon.

From 2018: Goodbye you weird fucking UFO-thing. I don’t know why I love you, but I do.

Because it was going to be my last year, I made lunch and dinner appointments with various movers and shakers in the TTRPG industry outside of my usual circles and I told them my story. I told them about how I was being forced out of a community space that I loved because of someone who everyone knew was toxic and bad for the community. And universally, the reaction from the influencers I talked with was sympathetic but bewildered refusal to actually do anything or take a stand.

You see, my story was so sad, so sad. And obviously I didn’t deserve any of what happened to me, and clearly I shouldn’t be punished for my abuser’s actions. It’s just too bad that absolutely. Nothing. Could. Be. Done. Because what could possibly be done about someone like Z? What action could possibly be taken to protect the people he victimized in order to make them feel safe in existing in this community space? What a mystery. What a complete and total mystery. Truly a mystery for the ages that may never be solved.

…if I sound salty about it, it’s because I am.

But then February happened – and four brave women who should not have had to retraumatize themselves in public for us to do something bravely spoke out with credible accusations of domestic abuse, sexual assault, and rape. And finally. FINALLY. Z was canceled.

So, GenCon 2019 was back in the cards.

At the convention

Coming back after I thought I had said goodbye to GenCon forever was a wild ride. It was a bit embarrassing running into people that I had told about my situation last year, assuming that I wasn’t ever going to meet them again – especially those who weren’t familiar with everything that had happened with Z in February. I was a goddamn mess in 2018, and I even complained to (a really super nice and super decent) publisher from Korea who I met for all of five minutes last year – which made it all the more mortifying when he saw me this year and remembered who I was and was really very nice.

Social awkwardness aside, however, this year was an overwhelmingly positive and recharging experience, untainted by fear, anxiety, trauma, or panic attacks. Not having to worry about Z completely transformed how I experienced GenCon!

In previous years, I spent lots of time and energy making plans for how to avoid the places Z would be, and emergency plans for what to do if I ran into him. I made sure I had refills of my emergency meds for panic attacks. I made lists of names of friends, phone numbers, and where they could be found at the convention if something happened and I needed to be around someone safe. I made maps of the dealer’s room with the booth Z was working at so that I knew which section of the dealer’s room to avoid. All of this was important to help me deal with the anxiety and panic attacks that the idea of being in the same spaces as Z caused, and I got used to anxiety and panic attacks being part of my GenCon prep.

This year, the convention snuck up on me! I’d gotten so used to panic attacks being my “it’s time to think about GenCon GM prep” alarm that I didn’t do any of my prep until about two days before I left for the convention. Neither did I have a single panic attack, although I still had the usual anxiety dreams about forgetting to run my games and getting kicked out of the convention. (Anxiety is a cruel mistress.) And at the con the vibe was so relentlessly, uniformly excited and positive, without the usual undercurrent of simmering resentment about our community’s enabling of known abusers.

…seriously, the number of years I’ve gone to the Diana Jones Awards only to have 50% or greater of my conversations there be about how bullshit it was that Z had been nominated for so many Ennies… The dude occupied a lot of mental real estate!

But none of that was clear until Sunday of the convention, and a pithy observation made by a dear friend who happens to be a cishet white guy over lunch. He quipped that it was great that ‘the toxic cloud had lifted’, and that everyone he talked to had been having an equally positive experience of the convention. The metaphor was so striking, because it precisely described my experience. It highlighted the emotional reality of something that I had always known intellectually: when you remove predators from your community, the entire community benefits.

So why? WHY did it take so long for the community to act when the benefits were so clear and so widespread?

The learned helplessness inherent in “there’s nothing to be done”

There has been a lot of ink spilled about the problem of Geek Social Fallacies in geekdom, the first of which is that “ostracizers are evil”. And of course, the Geek Social Fallacies are still very endemic in gaming spaces. It creates a reluctance to remove people from communities, even for the best of reasons – because excluding people makes you a bad person. So the focus shifts from removing bad actors to reducing conflict, with the rationalization that conflict is the real problem.

However, this is the logic that inevitably sees abusers enabled, if not rewarded with status and position, while their victims – usually marginalized people – are run out of the community. This happens either tacitly, when marginalized victims “pro-actively” opt not to participate in communities that include their abusers. However, it also happens more actively – when victims of prominent abusers speak their truth and are actively run out of a community for creating conflict. When you make excluding people an unforgiveable sin, the only way to keep a community energized and active is to persecute people who question the unjust structures that protect abusers.

And of course, the people who are most vigorous in persecuting marginalized people who question the unjust status quo are those with the most privilege, who naturally don’t see anything hypocritical about holding the belief that “ostracizers are evil” while actively ostracizing marginalized victims of abuse. Because these “defenders of the community” are inevitably cishet white dudes with an extraordinary amount of unexamined privilege who have convinced themselves that the childhood bullying they experienced for their geeky interests is exactly the same as the experiences of marginalization faced by queer people, women, people of color, and people from other marginalized groups.

These assumptions calcify into immutable laws that create patterns of behavior, patterns that long-term members of the community have seen repeat endlessly, with little to no variation in the ultimate results. And this endless cycle creates learned helplessness even in those who are aware enough to realize the injustice being perpetrated, because it all feels too big to be changed. What could possibly be done that hasn’t been tried before? What could be done to make this time, this instance not another repetition in the endless cycle? People, especially people with privilege, become so mired in that sense of futility that they lose sight of the incredibly obvious answer, the answer that victims of abuse have been shrieking all along:

REMOVE. PREDATORS. FROM. YOUR. COMMUNITIES.

The inability of communities to see this solution is willful blindness. Because when someone is a known abuser, there are always people agitating for that person’s removal.

In the case of Z, we knew what he was. Dozens of people spoke about his abuse for more than a decade. We begged for the community to take us seriously and to stop empowering his abuse. But we were the ones who were prosecuted. We were told we were lying. We were demonized for not being “nice” about our abuse. We were told we were the real problem, because we were the ones creating conflict.

But when push came to shove, when the community finally, FINALLY came together and removed Z, EVERYONE BENEFITED. Not just his victims, not just marginalized people, but everyone. Even my friend, the cishet white guy who was never directly targeted by Z, could notice and enthuse on the new positive dynamic created by Z’s removal! Because removing predators from communities creates a space where people feel safe and included, and safe, inclusive communities attract enthusiastic participation. And when that happens, the community as a whole benefits. How could it not?

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In defense of anger

[Fair warning, given the incredibly personal nature of this post, I will be modding comments with an iron fist. Anything that even faintly whiffs of violating the comment policy or duplicating material covered in the FAQ will be removed. Period. My house, my rules.]

I am 10. For an entire school year, all of the boys (and several older boys as well) have been bullying me. The typical small-minded ten year old bullshit, but the isolation takes its toll. I try to report it to teachers (all women) on several occasions. They make comments and give me useless advice that makes it clear that being bullied is my problem.

“Boys will be boys”, “they’re teasing you because they like you”, that sort of thing. They say the same thing even after one of the boys in my class follows me to my babysitter’s and spits on me in the process. Boys will be boys, and girls should be quiet.

I learn to stop asking adults for help. Instead I bottle in the anger, try to hold it in, safely contained, since I know that any expression of anger will not be condoned by those in authority. Two weeks from the end of the school year I snap. I write the worst word I know at the time (“butthole”) on a piece of paper and leave it in the desk of the ringleader of the bullies – the one who instigates the majority of the abuse. Of course I get caught, because 10 year olds aren’t exactly crafty masterminds. And I’m the one who gets suspended.

At the meeting with the teachers, my father is there, and the teachers – again, all women – tell me things like “when I get angry I should concentrate on making fists until I don’t feel angry anymore” or “when I get angry I should take deep breaths and count to ten”. After the meeting is one of the very few times in my life when my father, a product of Midwestern stoicism – a man who never admitted to having negative feelings of any sort – told me that they were full of shit and that I was absolutely allowed to be angry about what had happened, because it was outright sexism.

This coming from the guy who refused to discuss his funeral arrangements, period, and who died (after being terminally ill for five years) without once ever having a serious conversation with his family about his death and what he wanted. He taught me that my anger was real, and valid, and important.


Twenty years have passed, and I’m working for a company that I hate in a job that I loathe.

After being pestered by one of the sales bros for the entire morning about finding a document of trivial importance for the third or fourth time, a task he is fully capable of doing himself as he possesses thumbs and knows how to operate a filing cabinet, while I am busy with critical month-end tasks, I taste bile when he turns up at my desk and all but demands that I find the document for him that instant.

I swallow my anger, forcing myself to maintain a level, neutral, professional tone. I don’t trust myself not to look angry, so I don’t make eye contact, engaging in something that gives me an excuse not to look at him. Filing. Straightening things on my desk. Ostensibly looking for something. “I have told you that I have critical tasks to complete before noon today, and that they are not done. Once my month-end tasks are complete, then I can assist you with locating the document. If you require it more urgently than that, it may already be in the filing cabinet.”

I am firm without being either apologetic or angry. Cool. Detached. But even as I do my best impersonation of an Office Vulcan, my stomach lurches. I concentrate on my breathing to keep it slow and even, will my face not to flush. I am concentrating on the performance of not being angry, because the sales bro is the one with all of the power in this situation.  The sales bro grumbles a response that I don’t entirely catch because I’m too busy concentrating on maintaining my composure.

Resolutely, I ignore him and restart the task that he interrupted. It’s hard, because my focus is shot and it requires a lot of attention to detail, but I do my best. That is until I realize that two minutes have gone by and the sales bro is still standing at my desk, and it doesn’t appear that he intends to leave until I give him the document in question. The document that he is perfectly capable of finding himself.

I steel my nerves, take a deep breath, don’t speak until I know I can keep the tears of anger that I can feel welling up out of my voice. “[Sales bro]. I have explained to you my work priorities and the timeline in which your request will be dealt with. There is no need to stand at my desk and watch me work while you wait.”

“Well there’s no reason to get hysterical,” the sales bro says, huffily, his greying mustache making him look like a grumpy, petulant walrus. But thankfully, finally, he accedes and shuffles off, grumbling.

I turn my chair away from the rest of the office and place my head in my hands, which are shaking. I take care to make it look like I am nursing a headache, since I am prone to those and that is behavior that my coworkers are used to. I feel hot all over, my skin feels too tight, I can feel my heart pounding in my chest. I want to scream, throw things. I want to show him what hysterical actually looks like.

I think about all of the small indignities. Creepy Sales Bro who talks about strippers at work and asks the younger Sales Bros about their romantic conquests. Awful Sales Bro who makes a point of saying sexist things within earshot of my desk because he finds my discomfort amusing. And Manbaby Sales Bro who is incapable of doing even the simplest tasks on his own. I think about going to my boss and telling him about the interaction I just had, that Manbaby Sales Bro called me hysterical. But I know that I’ll just end up explaining to my boss why calling a woman trying to enforce a boundary “hysterical” is grossly misogynist, and the chances are high that he won’t really understand. My boss likes me, but his response to such things is always “try not to let it bother you”.

I feel weak and small and powerless. I try to make my anger as small as I feel. I fail.


I don’t know what possessed me to follow the link from my blog’s traffic stats back to a forum that I know is full of people who personally wish me ill. But there is a lot of traffic from that source, and I follow it, and what I find isn’t surprising in the slightest. It’s a thread where men are complaining about a project that I was proud to be a part of (that I am still proud to have been a part of), complaining that all of this emphasis on diversity in games is ruining gaming.

The thread doesn’t go on for long before my primary harasser hijacks the thread and makes it about what a terrible person I am. Me. Specifically. Personally. I’m hateful. I’m an abuser. I’m a liar. I harass people. I’m anti-LGBT. I’m crazy, and should be involuntarily committed to a mental health facility for my own good and the good of my family. All of his claims laughably transparent and easily debunkable with a few minutes of Googling, though I know that no one there is going to make that effort.

I don’t know why I keep reading, but I do as the thread unfurls over the course of a few days. I feel hot and angry and sick. I feel shaky and tired. I write multiple closed-circle G+ posts about how furious I feel, and how helpless I feel to respond, because I know that any response will be playing into the narrative that my harasser is trying to create. I cry.

I let my anger cause me to be overly harsh in a tabletop game that is being played as a campaign with people that I’ve been playing with for a few months, and I hurt one of the players at the table. Play stops, and I apologize, feeling all the anger again but also helplessness and shame. “I’m in a really dark place right now. I should have told you about it instead of taking it out on you.” To my horror, I start crying. Giving it voice breaks the control that I’d kept over it, and I start talking about the abuse. About the things being said about me. About how trapped and furious I feel and how I have nothing to do with those feelings.

Or at least that’s what I think I say. The memories aren’t too clear.

I didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want to display this pain, because I’ve been hurt too many times. But my friends listen, and hug me, and don’t judge me for crying. Afterward, I feel lighter, at least a bit. I feel terrible about hurting the other player, but it feels good having my anger validated. It feels good being told that my feelings are real, and that I’m not a terrible person for having them.


It’s not any secret that sexism and misogyny in gaming makes me angry. While I’m perfectly capable of writing Vulcan-level objective analyses of sexism in games, daring to be a woman who publicly expresses opinions about games and who owns her anger attached to those opinions is an inherently radical act. So yeah, I’ll write the data-driven objective-ish pieces, but I also swear and use hyperbole and employ angrily sarcastic memes a lot. Because coming into this space, my personal blog, and telling me that I should only ever talk about sexism in soothing dulcet tones, while I hold the hands of the perpetrators and gently stroke their hair to reassure them that of course they aren’t terrible people… that is the height of bullshit entitlement.

That’s not to say that any expression of anger is automatically okay if it comes from oppression! I’ve written pretty extensively about that too. About how there are acceptable and unacceptable ways to express anger over oppression, and the line always has to be drawn at “will this do further harm?”. I’ve written about the mechanics of anger and how anger is used to create hate movements against individuals or groups. And I’ve written about my own personal experiences of anger, and the necessity of balancing my desire to express that anger with the need to behave professionally and not destroy publishing relationships or friendships out of anger.

So as much as I joke about being an angry bra-burner, or a Social Justice Barbarian, my relationship with anger is pretty nuanced.

Some people who will tell you that anger is never okay. That in order for progress to be achieved, that you must be calm. Objective. Professional. Rational. “You catch more flies with honey,” and the like. I have never found it surprising that the vast majority of people expressing that sentiment to me have been men.

There are many times in my life where I have to swallow my anger. To make my demeanor calm and soothing when I want to rage. To cry and scream and vent my frustration. So here? In my place? And in the places that I have created for myself, the spaces I curate for having the conversation I want to have with the people I want to talk with? I own my anger. I acknowledge that it exists, and I express it – always remembering that even righteous anger can wound. Even righteous anger can harm. But those open, honest expressions of righteous anger… they make me “controversial”. “Extreme”.

Because I am not willing to hold hands and moderate my tone while I talk about how my experiences of oppression affect me, there are those who say that I am toxic. Who say that I should be avoided, that I represent everything that is wrong with gaming. Because I am angry about abuse that I have suffered, I am divisive. I create strife and disunity. In short, my anger makes me “unacceptable”.

And to all of that I say simply, no. I am not extreme. I am not divisive. I am not toxic or unacceptable. I am human. And I am allowed to be angry when I am treated in ways that deny my humanity. And so long as my expressions of anger are centered on self-expression and not on harming others, I am allowed to express that anger. And so are you. And so is everyone.

Where you can, be kind. But when you need to be fierce, be fierce. You do you and fuck the haters.

Monday freebie: Shit you need to read about harassment

Hey, folks

Last week saw a ton of amazing pieces about gendered harassment online. At the time, I didn’t have bandwidth to do more than hit reshare, but looking back at the wealth of well-researched and written articles that shed light on a phenomenon many people would prefer not to think about, I’m retroactively declaring this required reading. These are long pieces, so save them for when you have some bandwidth to process – don’t just skim them, because these pieces all deserve more than just a perfunctory read.

First, this actually dates back a couple of weeks, but if you haven’t seen this piece by Tumblr user latining about the white male terrorism problem in tabletop gaming, then go read it right now. Don’t let the strong headline put you off, because the experiences that she recounts in stark detail are not all ones that I’ve had personally, but many of them are. And the ones that I haven’t experienced directly, I’ve seen them happen to other women, or talked to other women who have had those experiences after the fact.

Second, The Guardian did a week of pieces about gendered harassment last week, and each one of them hit it out of the park. The first entry in the series was this post where they talked about the trolling that happens in their own comment section, their moderation policies and process, and how it can be difficult to apply in real life. But more importantly, they also have a lot of great interactive graphs which show the data of which writers for which sections face the most harassment, so you should make sure to read on desktop rather than mobile.

The next piece in The Guardian’s series is this look at how, in the face of indifference and lack of action on the part of major social network companies like Facebook and Twitter, women are starting to build their own tools for fighting back against online abuse.

Following that was this piece by Jessica Valenti, who has the unfortunate distinction of being the most-harassed writer for The Guardian, about why writers shouldn’t be expected to put up with insults and rape threats as “part of the job”. (It sounds like stating the obvious, but I promise it’s an excellent read.)

Last in the series was this piece that takes a look at the current state of laws and company policies that are supposed to deal with cyber-harassment, and the gaping holes in those policies that prevent them from being anything resembling useful.

Third, this long read by The Atlantic looks at how concerns over “free speech” have been used to turn social media into a space where harassing speech by users becomes the default, and is seen as worth protecting – moreso than the feelings of safety of those whom the harassing speech is directed at.

Last, make sure to read this piece on Broadly about why nerds are so sexist, especially as it features male tears about how Star Wars is being taken over by women.

Go! Read! There may be a quiz later.