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You may have heard something about “GamerGate” lately, even if you have little interest in video games. “GamerGate” is a confusing mess of a possibly-astroturfed movement making efforts to bring “accountability” to an enthusiast press on video games, which is, according to the most vocal critics, deeply corrupt and rife with women sleeping with journalists to curry favor and positive coverage for their games, not to mention a bunch of complicated conspiracies among journalists themselves.
Some have argued that GamerGate’s opponents are using misogyny as a smokescreen to avoid acknowledging their Perfectly Valid Complaints. But for that to work, the misogyny would have to not be real. While there’s certainly room to explore the ethics of the relationships between game journalists and the game developers they report on, what might have been a useful conversation about navigating the massive PR machine that drives most big-budget game coverage has been overwhelmed by waves upon waves of horrifying misogynist abuse against both female game developers and critics who speak out on the sexism and misogyny that is often rife within what passes for video game “culture.” (And to be frank, if your thoughtful and nonviolent efforts at demanding accountability are so easily co-opted by those with a misogynist axe to grind, that itself suggests there is a problem in your community bigger than whether a particular game developer had sex with a particular journalist.)
Anita Sarkeesian has been one of the central targets of misogynist attacks since she first launched her web video series, “Tropes Vs. Women,” which focuses on the portrayal of women in the games themselves. The evolution of “GamerGate” has hardly made her life any easier, as now many of her harassers have found a convenient flag to wrap themselves in. This week, however, things took an even more disturbing turn.
Sarkeesian was scheduled to speak at Utah State University on Wednesday, but she has canceled that appearance. The reason? Because an anonymous email was sent to the school threatening that a "Montreal massacre type attack" would be carried out if her appearance was allowed to take place. From the letter itself:
I have at my disposal a semi-automatic rifle, multiple pistols, and a collection of pipe bombs. 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. You might be foolish enough to beef up security at the event, but that won’t save you. Even if they’re able to stop me, there are plenty of feminists on campus who won’t be able to defend themselves. One way or another, I’m going to make sure they die.
[...] I am a student here. You will never find me, but you may all soon know my name. Feminists have ruined my life and I will have my revenge, for my sake and the sake of all the others they’ve wronged.
If you’re thinking, “Damn, shades of Elliot Rodger,” you might not be that far off the mark. Initially, Utah State University asserted that the talk would go on. But yesterday, Sarkeesian canceled the lecture herself.
The initial reaction on social media was disappointment, and the suggestion that by canceling, Sarkeesian was letting “the terrorists” and/or GamerGate win. There’s more to this story, however.
The reason for the cancellation was not the threat itself, which is hardly new territory for Sarkeesian, who is met with similar threats at virtually every single public appearance she makes. Back in March, when Sarkeesian was given the Ambassador Award at the Game Developers Choice Awards in San Franscisco, an anonymous email was sent to event organizers warning that a bomb would be detonated during the show unless the award was withdrawn. It was not, and there was no bomb. The FBI is investigating these threats. (Also, I was actually at this particular awards show, although I had no idea I was bravely facing down a bomb threat while knocking back a bunch of free wine, because I’d somehow managed to wind up in the VIP section.)
No, the Utah appearance was cancelled because of Utah’s mind-bogglingly open and lenient concealed-carry laws. Not only has the state issued more than half a million concealed carry permits, but those permits also extend to college campuses:
…[T]he school explained in its release on the event cancelation: “[In] accordance with the State of Utah law regarding the carrying of firearms,” it wrote, “if a person has a valid concealed firearm permit and is carrying a weapon, they are permitted to have it at the venue.”
In 2006… Utah became the first state to allow campus carry. Under the law, students may request not to share a dormitory room with someone carrying a firearm, but pretty much anywhere else on campus is fair game. There is a stipulation that some “secure areas” can bar guns, but the room where Sarkeesian’s event should have taken place apparently did not qualify.
Essentially, Utah State University refused to promise to prevent armed students from bringing their weapons into a lecture where a public threat against the life of the speaker and others in the audience has been made. This is astonishing enough. But the fact that they would have allowed the event to proceed anyway is even more appalling.
The complexity of this situation really goes to the heart of what is difficult about confronting sustained campaigns of misogynist harassment -- it is one thing to mildly condemn the actions of a deranged woman-hating few with little volume and little power, but it is another when the laws of the state are against a woman being adequately protected against death threats. By declining to take action in light of an even unlikely ultimatum, Utah State University -- indeed, the entire state of Utah -- has essentially sided with harassment and silencing tactics and is upholding a culture that keeps women in line with a generous helping of threats and fear.
Sarkeesian has been emphatic that her decision to cancel was not a result of the threat itself, but the inability of police to take even basic steps to enforce security at the event and possibly prevent a tragedy, however remote that possibility may be. She has also said that she plans to continue her work as always, and more power to her, given the pernicious forces she's up against.