Recently, online, I picked a battle that isn’t mine to pick. Relief finally came in the form of an email. “My wife and I are Quaker,” the letter-writer explained; I was immediately overwhelmed.
My mother never identified Quaker as such, but when she was new to Christianity she was mentored by a Quaker, by a man called John Steiner. She spoke of this person a lot. She took certain ideals to heart and, although she would certainly tell you that her message, as transmitted to me, got all mixed up, some ideals really did glom onto me. I am anti-war; I am terribly conflict-averse; I believe in compassion and inclusion. I still identify as Christian—and make no mistake, I have several crises of faith in a single day—but none of those crises has anything to do with whether God, as I interpret Him, composed human beings lovingly in His own image. (Mostly my crises are about me being a shitty person. I am trying to learn to become more patient with myself.)
Principally, though, I am terrified of my own anger. Very few people have witnessed it, but they can tell you it’s an ugly, remarkable thing, a thing that gets away from me before I can grab back onto it and rein it to shore again. Like most people, I figure, my anger usually has something to do with an issue of “justice.” When I have been at my very angriest, my mother used to sigh—oh, my mother!—and warn me, “Jenny, don’t talk to people that way.” Now, here in her shadow, I am beginning to think she is right.
I understand the argument against “tone arguments.” I also hate tone arguments. It’s usually an unfair thing, this gambit is, demanding the other person sacrifice all emotion—indeed, all humanity—for the sake of being “calm,” “reasonable,” “rational.” These are loaded terms, denying a speaker all the emotion—which is, absolutely, another type of data, what we call “experiential data”—he or she is feeling. Women especially are socialized to couch their assertions of opinion with words like “I am beginning to think” or “sometimes I get the feeling,” which are all ways of preemptively apologizing for holding any opinion or valueset at all. Even now I’m using a type of passive speech, as a defense mechanism, certainly, so you will not feel like hitting me.
As we slowly open up and allow ourselves to discuss a hostile tech culture—or any hostile culture—it’s easy to use hostile language ourselves. This, I think, may be a mistake. If we are to make ourselves understood, I do think there is great value in “tone” as mediator. It would be peculiar if we ran around shouting, for instance, at little children, at hotel receptionists.
I don’t mean to diminish the concept of “righteous indignation,” either—righteous, because we are in the Right, and indignation because we recognize we or someone else is being disabused of human dignity. But bad behavior is not always the same thing as bad people, and “righteous indignation” is not the same as blind fury. We speak to one another with respect because we want to preserve dignity for all.
“We have many new tools to communicate,” Professor Michael Abbott writes, “but our powerful tools have outpaced our abilities to harness them responsibly. It’s just so easy to be mean.”
I would take it a step further: when a writer or speaker becomes mean, is the motive to inspire change in the person she or he is addressing? Or is the intent only to make an example of the person? I’ve been guilty of the latter (even very recently!). But to dress down individuals, make it personal—even if the person is not necessarily someone we’d enjoy lunch with—seems vindictive and cruel. Because it’s almost never the person; it’s the pattern of behavior that is the real problem. To that end, we are all, indeed, victims of our own culture.
This is all hypocritical of me to say: of course I have been uncompromising at times, and so I have been brash. I owe some apologies. But when I first decided to identify as “feminist,” I had to ask myself if I were also comfortable with friends and colleagues holding me up as an example of What Not to Say—could I be comfortable with being made an-example-of myself? I’ve continued to mull over it, and I guess I am.
I think I believe the human heart, like video games themselves, has the capacity to change other hearts and minds. The heart is made up of a lot of things—anger, fear, experience—but it is also an aggressive agent of love. Maybe I am saying this way works better for me: that anger can work but, for me, it almost never has.
For my own part, though, I believe the heart and mind should be used holistically. I believe video games are the most compassionate integration of the two because they extend to your listener, as a sort of olive branch, the opportunity to walk in other shoes for minutes or hours at a time.
[Image source: Brain Pickings – Helen Keller on Optimism]
- Postscript (added): I feel like changes happen in two ways. They happen either in subcultures or in the mainstream, which are two potentially wildly-differing tacks. The first issue of Memory Insufficient, edited by Zoya Street, brings together some of the smartest writers working in games to talk about gender and queerness. Meanwhile, to mainstream outlets, doctoral candidate Samantha Allen presents this worthwhile challenge.
On a micro and macro level, both defy the “norm.” Street brings a higher caliber of writing to groups under- or mis-represented, while Allen asks the mainstream to enforce a civility of discourse.
For my own part, I guess I’m still not clear on which group I’m in—subculture or mainstream—and in any given moment I struggle to understand whom my message is directed toward. Probably the answer is, not “up the middle,” but just kind of both. It’s hard for me. I’m still negotiating it. But that does not, will not, change my message, which is one of advocacy and faith in change.