There are two things going on in the online world now that overlap in bizarre and, I think, spectacularly misunderstood ways. Kathleen Hale, an author, wrote an essay in which she describes stalking a reviewer, Blythe Harris, who gave her a bad review. Meanwhile users of the #GamerGate hashtag have bullied women who make and comment on video games. For instance, game designer and writer Brianna Wu was forced to flee from her home after her personal information, including her address, was released on Twitter and a commenter threatened to kill her. Rather than rehash the background of these events, which have been written about extensively elsewhere, here’s a few links to get you caught up if you aren’t familiar with the stories. Here’s a link to Katherine Hale’s Guardian article and an article by Dear Author that does some fact checking on Hale’s story. And here’s some background on Gamer Gate. Caught up? Grossed out? Sorry about that.
I was absolutely appalled by Hale’s story of stalking a reviewer. I’m an author and a reviewer and from both perspectives I was horrified by Hale’s behavior. I’m also horrified by Wu’s experiences with harassment, and would like to offer any support that I can. Hale claims to be a victim of bullying who wants to hold her bully accountable. Brianna Wu claims to be a victim of bullying who wants to hold her bully accountable. Why do I condemn Hale and support Wu, given that I have no tolerance for bullies whatsoever? Let’s compare.
Let me start by stating that I’m using Wu as an example of a woman targeted by #GamerGate. Sadly, her case is not an isolated one. Wu has written extensively about her experience online and remains active on Twitter. I’ll also state that with the exception of the fact-checking I linked to above, I’m basing my opinion of Hale’s actions strictly on her own account of what transpired. Even if Harris did bully Hale to a far greater extent than Hale reveals, Hale’s actions would be unconscionable and unwise. I hope this will be evident when I contrast Hale’s approach to dealing with a “bully” to Wu’s.
The most obvious difference between Hale and Wu is that Hale didn’t provide any actual evidence of being bullied in her article for the Guardian. She referred to “vitriol” and “ridicule” but she didn’t give any examples. The quotes she provided from Harris’ review are scathing, but not bullying. They refer to problems Harris had with the actual book as opposed to ad hominem attacks on the author. As an example of what I mean, here’s a quote Hale uses from the review:
“Fuck this,” it said. “I think this book is awfully written and offensive; its execution in regards to all aspects is horrible and honestly, nonexistent.”
That’s not bullying. That’s a scathing review. It’s very negative, yes, but it doesn’t attack Hale personally. It attacks the book. It’s framed as an opinion (“I think” and it’s specific in its criticism. As an author, I would be sad and disappointed to get this review, but I wouldn’t feel bullied. Here’s an example of bullying from my own twitter feed, from someone using the #GamerGate hashtag: “You’re dead. Go get murdered”.
The difference between “Fuck This. I think this book is awfully written and offensive” and “Go get murdered” isn’t about vitriol or danger. The difference is about target. Harris, by Hale’s own account, attacks the book. The person who sent me the above tweet attacked me, personally, with an attempt to personally demean me. The tweet didn’t address any particular issue or argument. It was just an attempt to make me feel bad and maybe to scare me, although I wouldn’t say it qualifies as a death threat. It’s more of a death suggestion.
The closest thing that Hale provided that would be evidence of bullying is that Hale claims that Harris criticized the book for making light of rape even though, according to Hale, there’s no rape in her book. This cast Harris as a person who lied just to make an author look bad. However, a quick fact check reveals that there is statutory rape in the book and that Harris specifically described the rape as statutory in her review. Hale also complained that Harris responded to her tweets with “ridicule”, but she didn’t provide any examples. I don’t know anything about Harris. For all I know, she could have sent unconscionable tweets. But based on Hale’s own account, I have no reason to think so, because Harris chose not to provide examples. In fact, since several things Hale said were inaccurate (her claim that the review constitutes trolling, her claim that her book did not include rape, and her use of the word “catfishing”) I have every reason to doubt her entire account.
In contrast, when Brianna Wu fled her home, she provided a screenshot of the tweets that caused her to call the police. I have decided not to embed the tweets in this article because frankly they make me physically ill. But if you’d like to see them, you can find them, as well as some background about the case, at kotaku.com. I don’t have to wonder how mean people are to Brianna – I know. She didn’t make vague allegations. She provided specific examples. So have many other women who have been targeted by #GamerGate. So have journalists who have covered the issue. While some people argue that #GamerGate stands for something other than misogyny, the fact that some people use #GamerGate to bully is an established fact, not a hypothetical possibility.
Another difference between Brianna Wu and Hale is that Hale not only failed to use legal means to protect herself from her perceived bully, but she actually sought out her bully directly. By her own admission, she pursued contact with Blythe long after Blythe blocked her. She was desperate to have a conversation, but she didn’t seem to understand that she’s not entitled to one. She wanted to hold her “bully” accountable – how? By exposing Blythe’s identity? By terrifying her by calling her at home and at work? Hale stalked Blythe online, at her residence, and at her workplace. This is terrifying behavior. It doesn’t expose Blythe as a bully. It exposes Hale as a predator.
Hale claims that Harris was catfishing her. Catfishing is the creation of an online identity with the intent to lure someone into a relationship (usually, but not always, a romantic one). Harris never did that, at least, not according to Hale’s account. Catfishing isn’t just the use of a pseudonym or the creation of an online persona. It’s creation of this persona with predatory intent. Harris blocked Hale from her Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. According to Hale, she responded to Hale’s tweets to and about her up to a point, but she certainly did not pursue any kind of relationship with Hale based on the events as Hale describes them.
Hale tried to hold her bully accountable by exposing her identity to the world and by harassing her at work and at home. Wu has also sought accountability against people who responded to her presence as a game designer and her criticism of sexism in gaming with ad hominem attacks and threats of violence. Wu brings the actions of her attackers to light in the media by citing specifics as opposed to making vague allegations. She does this in a context of highlighting a broader culture of misogyny. She also is working with the police and the FBI to get protection. She is encouraging her local politicians to make and enforce laws that protect people from online bullying, so that victims will have legal recourse. She doesn’t go to the homes of people who bully her to counter-harass them.
The Guardian has also published articles about #GamerGate that are sympathetic to #GamerGate’s victims. Among other things, they published an interview with Brianna Wu. I don’t know why they posted Hale’s article, especially since it’s presented so uncritically. I speculate that the Guardian saw both Wu and Hale as victims of bullying. Based on Hale’s account, the bully in her story isn’t the person who gave her a bad review and responded negatively to her tweets. The victim is Harris, who, like Wu, was harassed on and offline by someone who didn’t like her opinion.
I oppose bullying in any context. But based on Hale’s words, I’m left unconvinced that she was ever the victim of bullying, although I’ve no doubt that Hale’s feelings of entitlement and victimization are very real to her. I think that Harris equates herself with Wu – she sees herself as a victim. However, quantitatively speaking, the person who was victimized in Hale’s story was Harris. Hale’s actions are terrifying, just as the actions of the bullies using the #GamerGate hashtag are terrifying, and they stem from a similar sense of entitlement and fury in the face of criticism. To see Hale as a victim is not only to confuse the issue but also to demean the efforts of people like Wu to achieve safety on and offline.
There are many pressing issues in the world that require our attention. Why care so much about these two stories? These two stories are important because they speak to a greater issue. Women are being chased offline, made afraid to speak, told that we cannot have negative opinions about something. This is unacceptable. I write reviews under my real name (you can find it at Geek Girl in Love if you look under “Books By Me”). People like Hale and the worst users of #GamerGate make me wonder if I’m naïve and reckless. Maybe I should shut up. Maybe I should hide. Luckily, there are people like Wu who inspire me to stay present and outspoken. We won’t be leaving.