"Don't feed the trolls is a cop-out.

From an article today in The Guardian:

The feminist pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian has been forced to cancel a talk at Utah State University, after a threat of a “Montreal Massacre-style attack”.

Sarkeesian, who is best known for her YouTube series “Tropes v Women in Video Games”, assessing various anti-feminist trends in gaming, was scheduled to talk at the university on Wednesday, when the unsigned email was sent.

The author of the email threatened that if the talk was not cancelled, they would carry out an attack in the style of the 1989 Montreal massacre, when Marc Lépine murdered 14 women, claiming he was “fighting feminism”.

“I have at my disposal a semi-automatic rifle, multiple pistols, and a collection of pipe bombs,” the letter said. “This will be the deadliest school shooting in American history and I’m giving you a chance to stop it.”

“You have 24 hours to cancel Sarkeesian’s talk … Anita Sarkeesian is everything wrong with the feminist woman, and she is going to die screaming like the craven little whore that she is if you let her come to USU. I will write my manifesto in her spilled blood, and you will all bear witness to what feminist lies and poison have done to the men of America.”

While I have never been a gamer, I have been following this story on and off. It is alternatingly horrifying and mind-boggling.

Over the years, I have largely been of the mind of "Don't feed the trolls" when it comes to people behaving badly online. I have reached the point where I don’t think that kind of advice cuts it.

The simplistic view is that online expression, be it on Twitter, blog posts, comment threads, Reddit, Hacker News, or anywhere else is free speech, and free speech is protected in the US by the Constitution. I have made this very argument in the past, but there are a couple of problems with it.

First, I am not a lawyer, and neither are most of the people blithely dropping references to constitutional protections of speech in these sorts of arguments. Personally, I have enough lawyerly friends and acquaintances at this point to know that 1) what constitutes free speech and the Constitutional protections thereof is a much more nuanced issue than most pop-culture discussions acknowledge, and 2) I have only the vaguest of ideas of what I’m talking about when it comes to the technical details of Constitutional law. That makes a pretty dodgy basis from which to make broad claims regarding the supremacy of freedom of speech.

Second, and more importantly, we are not talking about a few bad apples here, spouting off in random Usenet threads with Hitler analogies. This is an organized campaign of intimidation and violence, specifically directed at women in the technology industry. It is part of a broader strategy implicit in the traditional power structures of our society to aggressively hit back against any suggestion that those structures need to change.

Anita Sarkeesian having to cancel a talk due to bomb threats, or this past weekend’s threats that drove game developer Brianna Wu and her family from their home… how do you look at stuff like that and think, “It’s a shame, but that’s just Internet commenters–ignore them”? Those are two very public (and I wonder how public they actually are, outside of the gaming community and tech news) of the threats and violence that our culture doles out to pretty much anyone who isn’t a white, heterosexual male.

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