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Anita Sarkeesian's astounding 'garbage human' moment

Feminist speaker hits back at trolls and haters

Anita Sarkeesian
| Steve Mack / Getty Images

A phone camera is trained on Anita Sarkeesian as she prepares to speak on a panel. In footage later posted online, the camera wobbles slightly. Its setting is on high zoom. It follows her every move.

After so many public appearances, Sarkeesian has grown accustomed to speaking in front of a few hundred people. But today she feels a certain intimidation. A crowd of her most vociferous critics, including YouTubers, sit together in the front rows, their phones pointed at her.

The camera carefully follows her as she acknowledges her co-panelists, as she checks her surroundings. Then she looks directly into the camera, she looks at the man holding the camera, sitting in the front row.

Carl Benjamin is a British YouTube personality in his late 30s. He has spoken vituperatively, many times over many years, about Sarkeesian and her work. Some of his videos are thumbnailed with ludicrously Photoshopped imagery of Sarkeesian. At the time of writing, his Twitter page is bannered with a picture of Sarkeesian.

Benjamin has made his name dismissing her feminist documentary work such as Tropes vs Women in Video Games, which details the cultural biases of video games. He is a hero for many in the hate group GamerGate, a rough assemblage of misogynists, racists, conspiracy theorists and right-wing ideologues who have spent years harassing Sarkeesian and anyone who publicly supports her work.

Most of his YouTube videos follow standard reactionary protocols, excoriating the supposed evils of political correctness, shady liberal elites and the media. His most frothy content is reserved for feminism, a hot topic for men who feel afraid and threatened by progressives, who they dismiss as “the regressive left.” He has more than 600,000 subscribers on YouTube. He makes more than $5,000 a month from Patreon.

Today, he is surrounded by a group of his supporters, who have planned to come in force and take the front seats of this VidCon panel, which is focused on the lives of women online.

The panel's first question drops. It’s about why feminism — online and in games — is an issue worthy of discussion.

Sarkeesian notes Benjamin's presence and begins speaking.

"If you Google my name on YouTube you get shitheads like this dude who are making these dumb-assed videos," she says. "They just say the same shit over and over again. I hate to give you attention because you're a garbage human. These dudes just making endless videos that go after every feminist over and over again is a part of the issue of why we have to have these conversations."

The crowd gives her a positive response, with some whoops and cheers.

On the front rows, Benjamin and his retinue rock back and forth, as if they are watching a comedy show. He yells back that he be allowed to debate with her.

But she won't debate him. She understands that he's not in the least bit interested in what she has to say.

Dark Motives

After his humiliation, Benjamin posted a video complaining about Sarkeesian's comments and pointing out that they contravene VidCon policy. He also repeated his lamentation that she is avoiding debating him and said that Sarkeesian was guilty of "smearing male gamers." Still, there is a silver lining for him. At the time of writing, the video has been viewed more than 400,000 times.

Benjamin often points out that he asks his followers not to harass the subjects of his videos. But that doesn't stop them assaulting Sarkeesian with vile insults. In the last few days, the usual litany of misspelled, crude and violent insults have spiked.

She's had to live with this stuff for years, ever since she launched Feminist Frequency, which produced a series of YouTube documentaries investigating video gaming's history of propagating misogynistic tropes and advancing a broadly patriarchal view of society. Her work has brought serious feminist ideas to a broad audience of gamers, including people working in the game industry, many of whom were previously ignorant of such notions.

The series was initially crowdfunded through Kickstarter with a target of $8,000. It raised more than $150,000, increasing the scope of the project, which ran for two seasons.

Since she began her work, video games have seen a rise in the number of positive women and minority protagonists and a decrease in the tropes she discusses, such as weak, sexually attractive "damsels in distress." Feminist Frequency has demonstrably made a difference.

Her scholarly take on video games enrages large numbers of men, many of them young. She has received death threats. Her social media streams have received countless slurs, rape threats and insults. Benjamin and his supporters claim they just want to engage with her, but in a video released by a fellow right-wing YouTuber, it becomes clear that there are other motives at play.

Some victim bullshit

Dave Cullen lounges on what appears to be a bed in a hotel room, pointing a camera at himself. He looks tired and slightly pleased with himself. He is an ally of Benjamin's, a fellow YouTuber who makes a full-time living feeding the internet’s appetite for masculine fear and hurt. His Patreon makes around $3,000 a month. His YouTube page has more than 240,000 subscribers.

He was there, he says, at the VidCon Sarkeesian session. As he speaks, he claims that the first three rows were taken up by allies. (These allies have co-opted an internet term of derision to describe themselves: shitlords. They are generally identified by their hostility to progressives and to "social justice warriors.")

He goes on to talk about how these allies coordinated among themselves at the event. "We carefully organized this so that on one side of the audience we would all make up the top three rows,” he says. “We would all be sitting there filming it," he adds, before naming several allies. "Anita spoke. And they were asking about why is it important to still have women talking about sexism or some victim bullshit in video games." He recounts Sarkeesian's comments.

He repeatedly claims the group is there to "engage" with Sarkeesian, but later, he says something very different.

"We had a blast with this. It was such an adrenaline high to be there in the situation, to shit-post, in this trolling kind of way." He goes on to claim there was "no malice" in their actions and that it was “playful.”

Polygon sent his comment to Sarkeesian, asking for a response. She responded via email:

"Hearing the honesty in that comment is weirdly almost kind of validating, because of course we know it’s true, we’ve always known it’s true, that for them this is a kind of game, but they constantly deny it.

"They’re playing for fun. For them it’s a thrill to use the power they have under patriarchy to try to keep women in their place, to try to intimidate or silence women who dare to speak out and assert their humanity and their right to exist as full human beings in these spaces.

"They don’t give a damn about the actual impact they’re having on people’s lives. It’s a sport, an adrenaline rush. But for me and for other women who are targeted by cyber-mobs, who endure ongoing campaigns of harassment, it’s not fun. It’s scary. It’s traumatic.

"You have to be so far removed from the reality of what you’re doing to engage in this behavior and call it ‘playful trolling.’ This is harassment, pure and simple, with the goal of trying to scare and silence women who speak out against sexism in our culture."

Cullen’s video includes footage of a group of supporters in an animated mood after the event, celebrating while at the same time expressing outrage that Benjamin had been called out. One of them jokes that he watches LGBT videos online. He likes the lesbian ones best. He laughs at his own joke.

A pile of shitlords

VidCon has a code of conduct listed on its website which requests that speakers are treated with respect. It asks that attendees refrain from activity that “causes excessive discomfort to our attendees or guests.” It adds: “Pranks often make for some great videos, but it makes us really sad when they are emotionally or physically hurtful, so don’t do that. If we hear about anyone pranking in ways that are disruptive to the well-being of our guests or attendees, there’s a pretty strong chance it will get the prankster kicked out.”

So far as we know, none of those who trolled Sarkeesian were kicked out. Polygon contacted VidCon seeking further clarification. We received an auto-reply that the team is currently on vacation. Later, a statement was released, which included the following.

“It is difficult to imagine that this group of people (who are aware that their channels have been base-camps for years of harassment of some of our panelists) did not realize that their arriving early to fill up the three front rows of a panel was going to be intimidating. In any case, it looked like intentional intimidation to most people in attendance, and the panelists were understandably on edge throughout the discussion.”

The statement went on to acknowledge that although Sarkeesian’s insult did contravene policy, there was a wider issue at play. It added that a VidCon official apologized to Sarkeesian for “not having been more aware of and active in understanding the situation before the event, which resulted in her being subjected to a hostile environment that she had not signed up for.”

Sarkeesian says that VidCon's security was increased for panels she attended later in the event. They offered her the chance to step down from those sessions, but she declined, arguing that she did not want the trolls to feel like they had scored some kind of victory.

"I had to go out on another panel knowing that my harassers were in the audience, filming me for nefarious reasons, and there was nothing I could do about it," she said.

She hopes that VidCon and other events will become more aware of organized trolling. "When push comes to shove, conventions like VidCon should stand up and support women and other marginalized folks who are harassed. Why should I have to go out there in this toxic environment? Why aren’t these men punished for creating that environment? After all, this is a conference about online video culture attended primarily by YouTubers, and it’s no secret that YouTube has an incredibly toxic culture.

"It’s critical that events like VidCon recognize that and implement policies that prevent that toxicity from bleeding over into the event. No YouTube creator who makes videos that serve to target and harass individuals should be allowed to attend, and anyone who uses material filmed at a convention to harass individuals should be blacklisted from future events.”

Bad Faith

Polygon asked Sarkeesian for her response to Benjamin's oft-repeated claim — echoed by many controversial YouTubers — that he is anti-harassment. She replied with a well-known GIF showing cartoon characterizations of Batman, Robin and Green Arrow sharing a mirthful moment.

At the end of the conference, a question and answer session prompted some audience members to line up. In a blog entry posted after the event, Sarkeesian wrote that she is generally wary of such sessions, because they tend to attract bad faith questions. Unfortunately, VidCon was no exception.

One man stood up and asked Sarkeesian if she "truly believes" in the work she does. The question was declined. Sarkeesian is often portrayed by reactionary critics as a cynical manipulator of public opinion for financial gain.

Another man stood up to ask: "Why do you guys act like only women face harassment online?" The claim that women are the only victims of harassment, so far as we can tell, has never been made by Sarkeesian. When he was booed by the audience and asked to sit down, the man claimed that he was being harassed.

In later sessions, VidCon decided to moderate all questions in Sarkesian's panels. On the question of debating her critics, Sarkeesian offers this explanation.

"My position is rooted in an understanding of what bell hooks has succinctly referred to as imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy. It sometimes requires a lot of unpacking to come to a basic understanding of this.

"You may need to take classes or read books that illuminate how systems of power have functioned throughout the history of our culture before you come to understand and accept that these systems actually do exist and impact people’s daily lives, but they do.

"Institutionalized sexism and racism are real, and their effect on our lives is tremendous. Meanwhile, their position that these things don’t really exist is the dominant position in this culture. It doesn’t require all this scaffolding to establish.

"They can skip right to bashing my ideas, and their followers will eat it up no matter what I say. It’s a losing game. I’m not going to change anyone’s minds debating with any of them. More importantly, I shouldn’t have to debate the fact that I am a human being who deserves basic respect, and in fact that is in itself a core issue with all of this: how degrading and exhausting it is just to have to keep arguing for and fighting for and begging for our own humanity."

Polygon attempted to contact Benjamin via his Twitter page and an email address, but have yet to receive a reply.

One of the Kinder Things

In the aftermath of the VidCon confrontation, GamerGate-centric corners of the internet swelled with outrage at Sarkeesian's comments.

In his video, Cullen complained: "What has he [Benjamin] done to deserve this? He's just sitting there. She's the one talking. She started attacking him in this context. Fucking unbelievable. This abuse is acceptable? So these guest speakers are able to insult a paid audience member?"

Sarkeesian says it's clear that Benjamin and his entourage were there to intimidate her. "He had come with several others and together they took up roughly the first two rows. Of course he wanted to be seen, and I knew, because he was filming the panel, that he would use it to harass me and potentially drive harassment to my co-panelists, so I used the first question as an opportunity to let them and the audience know what was happening.

"I certainly have no regrets. And I definitely did not 'flip out' as some folks are trying to falsely describe it. This is a man who has spent years driving harassment toward me and other women online. Under the circumstances, considering his pattern of behavior and everything he’s put me and others through, I’d say 'garbage human' was one of the kinder things I could have called him.

"In the midst of the predictable flood of hate that has come my way from Carl’s supporters, there have been a number of really wonderful messages of gratitude and support.

"So many of us have spent so long internalizing this expectation that we don’t confront this kind of abuse directly, we don’t openly acknowledge it, we suffer it in silence, and these men just go on spewing their bullshit without any consequences.

"As women, we're always told not to engage, not to 'stoke the fire,' and that forces us into silence, it forces us to be quiet in the face of harassment. That silence helps perpetuate a culture in which harassment is permissible or even accepted as 'normal.' And so I think that for some women who understand what I’ve been through or who have been through it themselves, it was cathartic to see me not stay silent, to see me call him out directly like that, to acknowledge in front of all those people what he’s done."

Sarkeesian's brief and public ownership of Benjamin is unlikely to alter the toxic dynamic of gaming's reactionary fringe. Too many people are enraptured in their own blind rage. They carry with them a curiously self-defeating notion that fairness and common decency spell their own disenfranchisement and marginalization. Their rage is considered by some to be self-validating. Others see it as entertainment. To a small cadre of YouTube blowhards, it is also extremely lucrative.

When confronted with the consequences of appalling behavior, those organizations that host abusive activities — including VidCon, YouTube, Twitch and Twitter — offer little more than pleasantries and useless palliatives. They are ignoring their own urgent duty to show some courage, to fully confront these awful displays of bullying.

If individuals like Anita Sarkeesian can stand up to such aggression, why can’t these huge and powerful organizations?

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