The following article deals with issues of emotional abuse, online harassment, and abuse apologism, and may be upsetting or triggering
Illustration by Milo
In social justice spheres, I’m often quiet about my dissenting views, and for good reason: I’m a very small fish in a large pond. I have very little clout within Internet social justice spheres, let alone my local activist community. But I’m starting to veer towards dangerous waters now, and I think it’s time I speak out about something that’s concerned me for several years.
First off, you might recognize me if you followed the “trigger warning” debate that cropped up earlier this year. I’m the Rutgers University student who wanted to put TW’s on the Great Gatsby and King Lear. I was later sourced by the New York Times for my work, as well as interviewed by Huff Post LIVE and BBC World Service for my activist beliefs.
But, my personal experiences aren’t important right now. What’s important is who I represent in a much larger context: I’m one of those transgender, non-binary, mentally ill, intersectional feminist activists who want to make the world a better and safer place for marginalized identities. I’m a social justice activist, first and foremost.
I first became an intersectional feminist activist after spending time on the feminist internet sphere. I fell in love with social justice, and felt like intersectional feminism confronted many of the questions that my high school education fell short of answering. However, over time, I began to realize that social justice has major problems simmering under the surface. Especially within online activism, social justice often struggles with identifying abuse and harassment directed at others: both outside of the community, and among our own.
Last month, Boston computer scientist Eron Gjoni posted a call out about his former girlfriend, Zoё Quinn, a video game developer and a former inspiration of mine. I read through his call out, and I was taken aback by his ex-girlfriend’s behavior. The more time I read his receipts, the more I realized that Zoё Quinn shows the classic signs of an emotional abuser. Throughout the handful of chat logs Gjoni posted in August, Quinn utilizes lying, half-truths, blame shifting, guilt tripping, isolation from others, withholding of past abusive behaviors, gaslighting, and suicidal threats in order to control Gjoni.
A month later, I began studying Gjoni’s call out for a video series exploring emotional abuse. I began by focusing on two prevalent patterns of abusive behavior found in many emotionally abusive relationships: shifting blame and responsibility for feelings, and withholding information from an abused partner. I was astonished to find nearly 100 examples of Quinn utilizing these two behaviors alone, within a mere snapshot of their entire relationship. Indeed, Quinn’s behavior in Gjoni’s receipts are damning to any abuse survivor.
When Gjoni first came out about his experiences, many people were skeptical of his claims. In fact, misinformation quickly spread about Gjoni. This was further compounded by Zoё Quinn’s post on “terrorism,” which not just sidesteps the abuse allegations completely, but falsely implies that Gjoni was responsible for the sexual harassment that followed her public outing.
This led to many writers smearing Gjoni’s name, calling him “spiteful,” “jilted,” and other various baseless insults. Not just did these claims completely ignore the allegations of emotional abuse found in Gjoni’s post, but they often recklessly painted Gjoni himself as an abuser: shaming him for publicly outing his abusive ex-girlfriend.
Now, why is this relevant to the larger social justice community? We’ve talked about Zoё Quinn to death, right? Shouldn’t Quinn’s abusive behavior remain confined strictly within her relationship with Gjoni? Well, no.
Zoё Quinn’s private behavior distorts her public actions. You see, Quinn framed her life, work, and public image around a dedication to social justice activism. At the very core of Quinn’s career was a desire for inclusivity and visibility for marginalized identities. However, the mere evidence of Quinn’s abusive relationship shatters her work completely. The sheer cruelty of her behavior questions the very activist work that her professional career stood up for. And, in the eyes of an abuse survivor, Quinn’s reputation as a highly accessible public figure makes her abusive behavior extremely dangerous.
In other words, those of us who are survivors must be aware of Zoё Quinn. We must know who Zoё is, and whether her actions are abusive. And if so, we must distance ourselves from Zoё. Survivors are traditionally the very same vulnerable people that an abuser preys on, and our history with abuse leaves us likely to be targeted and abused again. Therefore, we have an obligation to know if a public figure in an extremely accessible industry, the indie video gaming industry, is abusive towards others. Doubly so when abuse survivors are approaching an outed abuser for her twitter, tumblr, advice, private correspondence, recommendations, autograph, and professional funding.
However, Zoё Quinn truly strikes a nerve, because she is not an outlier. Zoё Quinn represents a much larger issue currently going on in social justice: the sanitization of abusive behavior by social justice activists. And that’s what I want to strike at now, after dozens of publications have openly painted her survivor as an abuser. Ultimately, our community’s response to Zoё Quinn has led me to explore how social justice communities operate, and how we often let the wrong people into them.
For a middle-class, able-bodied, and college-educated individual, the entry barrier for joining a social justice community is very low. The requirements are often rather minimal: you must be able to understand systems of oppression. You have to do your homework on identity and identity politics. You need to understand what the patriarchy is, and how it affects people on both an interpersonal scale, as well as a sociocultural scale. You have to understand the ways in which the LGBTQ+ letters are not created equally, and some letters are more likely to receive institutional support (for better or for worse) than others. You have to engage with intersectionality, and understand the ways in which privilege and oppression can exist on different spheres within the same individual. You have to know your 101, and you MUST be able to engage with current events that pertain to social justice.
Understanding oppression is key to becoming a social justice activist. And not just do we pride ourselves on understanding social justice, but the more of an ability to identify and engage with social justice, the more empathetic and compassionate we appear to our fellow activists. If I take my analysis on patriarchy, and I try to bring it into my literature publication, I appear to be a strong ally for equality. If I take my views on trigger warnings, and attempt to inject them into academia, I appear to be someone who cares deeply about the direction that undergraduate academia is heading. If I publicly engage with social justice activism on social media, and proceed to base my entire career on inclusivity for marginalized identities, I appear to be an extraordinary activist. We connect behavior with motive, and we assume that anyone who acts against the reigning sociocultural hegemony must be a fine-hearted and decent person. Because, after all, why would anyone want to feign interest in social justice?
But here’s the problem: understanding and regurgitating social justice rhetoric is very easy for any relatively experienced community member. Our middle-class, able-bodied, college-educated entry level requirements are so basic to social justice’s privileged masses, to the point where introductory knowledge is seen as a sign of severe compassion. Indeed, simply do a little research, and sprinkle in some basic empathy and compassion. Personal growth be damned! Your application of several buzzwords means you must be a bleeding heart intersectional activist.
You see, because our community’s basic standards function on a mixture of middle-class privilege and basic overviews of oppression, social justice rhetoric can be easily exploited by individuals who secretly have ulterior motives for entering activist spheres. You can be an abuser, manipulator, and exploiter behind closed doors: but if you regurgitate the right words, we will think you’re a good person by default. If you work Really Hard(tm) to bring activism into your life, we will immediately give you the benefit of the doubt. And we accept this as an unquestioning, uncritical fact. Because, after all, why would anyone who seems so compassionate want to hurt people?
The truth is, opportunists have a lot to gain within leftist social justice. Progressive spheres often operate with massive power vacuums in the center that can be easily exploited by outsiders looking for control. In fact, this isn’t a particularly recent problem: online abuse in social justice spheres is, in certain ways, a microcosm for the same systems of abuse that have led to academic imperialism among radicals in the States. Allies and activists often find themselves actively engaging in classically engrained Old Boy clubs, which have been purposefully structured for strong, centralized control. And these power dynamics create a fruit ripe for the picking for massive activist support… if you have the right connections, that is.
In and of itself, radicalizing institutions from the inside isn’t a bad thing – no, in fact, this is a very successful tactic. However, many activists become lost on the way. They abandon their radical positions for the power dynamics that these institutions inherently exist on. They bite into the fruit that they originally aimed to destroy. Instead of demolishing the institutions, why not just join them and try to benefit from them? Why not forward your own liberation, while remaining radio silent on the plight of others? We don’t simply bite into that fruit: we devour it. And we grow fat on the gains. And so the abusive power dynamic of institutional nepotism continues, on and on…
So why do I bring this up? We have a problem with exploitation and manipulation in social justice. We have a problem with people who say good things, but don’t really mean it. They act in bad faith, and put their desire for personal gain – whether professional or not – above others. In other words, we have a problem with abusers gaining the power to abuse by enabling the very institutions they were attempting to dismantle.
And because so many people equate actions with personal compassion, we begin to sanitize our community’s wrongdoings. We assume that anyone fighting the good fight can be given a little leeway for unhealthy actions. Who cares if a white male equates video gamers with “ISIS with Steam accounts?” Who cares if you call someone a “scummy neckbeard with Cheetos,” because the concerns behind those insults are all in good faith, huh? Who cares if a critically acclaimed writer tells a fan “I hope you die,” because, hey, they’re fighting the good fight – right? And if a powerful forum owner and feminist ally decides to enter the discussion, does it really matter if he openly mocks a non-feminist woman’s genitals? He simply meant to fight misogyny with misogyny, right?
No. This is wrong. This is inherently wrong, because we end up minimizing the collateral damage that we ultimately do. We encourage hurtful behavior that perpetuates online harassment and makes public discourse feel unsafe. And we ignore the intersectional ramifications of our actions in the process. Death is an intersectional issue. ISIS is an intersectional issue. Using misogyny to sexually harass non-feminist women still perpetuates violence against women. Many of these insults further oppressive structures through weaponization. Jokes about “neckbeards” and “fat gamers,” for instance, promote body-negativity and shame individuals for their physical appearance. Comparing gamers to ISIS massively trivializes the terrorist organization, and minimizes the violent abuse perpetuated at their hands. And openly mocking a woman’s genitalia inherently furthers sexual harassment, regardless of the views or beliefs behind the male ally’s actions. We end up encouraging the abuse and oppression around us by engaging in this sort of commentary, and we end up using these attacks as an ad hominem against good faith discussions.
Why has it come to this? Where is our desire for intersectionality and compassion? Why do we refuse to check ourselves when our fellow activists actively defend abusive behavior? Too many social activists are more than happy to talk the talk, but refuse to walk it when called to act. What kind of activism does that leave us with? As the saying goes, our feminism must be intersectional, or it will be bullshit; abuse and harassment is, inherently, no exception.
This is not fighting the good fight. This is not positive. This is not liberation. This is oppressive. It promotes oppressive hegemonies that exist regardless of intent. It promotes online harassment, which is a form of abuse regardless of its motivation. Hateful vitriol can be weaponized against regressives in ways that are still hurtful. Abuse is abuse, regardless of whether loaded sociocultural dynamics further compound the abuse. You can defend intersectional feminism, and still do so in an inflammatory and inappropriate way. You do not get a free pass just because feminist liberation is a vital part of 21st century activism. Weaponizing oppression through harassment sets a hurtful precedent for our future activist spheres, because it actively sanitizes abuse in the eyes of the larger community. We must learn instead to view abuse and harassment as a serious concern in and of itself, which has no room in any social justice activist sphere.
This month has been a nightmare for anyone who is concerned about harassment in social justice spheres. Doubly so for any feminist activists engaged in the intersectional ramifications of emotional abuse. There are massive, frightening issues with how video game industry workers are enabling an emotional abuser in video gaming. There are enormous red flags for abuse survivors, in which “intersectional” communities actively downplay abuse, and see certain forms of abuse and harassment as justified when required. The ends justify the means for some. And we forget that the means must always justify the ends in social justice, lest we create the very same power dynamics we aimed to demolish.
We are reaching a critical breaking point for many social justice activists. We are constantly fracturing from one another, across various lines. These are discussions that we must have in our safe spaces, because we are deeply hurting ourselves when our interactions are based on fear, anxiety, and abuse.
We must begin to have these discussions, and we must have them in good faith – lest we threaten the very concept of solidarity that our intersectional feminist communities strive for in their creation.