Say It Ain’t So, SXSW 2016 (Updated)

Update (10/30/15): In response to overwhelming feedback, SXSW apologized for canceling the panels and has added a day-long summit on the topic of online harassment to its 2016 programming. The summit will include original panelists from both cancelled sessions, plus a number of additional speakers, including ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Lee Rowland.

#GamerGate is the controversy — and the hashtag — that won’t die. Ask four people what #GamerGate is about, and you’ll get four different answers: A movement to challenge lack of ethics in video game journalism. A campaign to harass women in the video game industry. An example of how social media can be a catalyst for misogyny. And biggest of all, a debate about how women — how all of us — grapple with and respond to hateful online speech.

One thing is indisputable: Women who speak online are too often threatened and harassed by trolls desperate to veto a meaningful discussion about any of these topics.

Sadly, the trolls scored another victory this week.

Two panel events at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive festival would have provided a forum for people of all opinions to debate the topics of online harassment and gaming culture. No longer. In response to threats of violence, targeted presumably at feminist panel members, the festival organizers announced Monday that they will cancel forums titled “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Industry” and “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games.” They explained that this was necessary to preserve “the sanctity of the big tent at SXSW Interactive” and “keep the dialogue civil and respectful.”

In reality, this move silences all voices in the debate except for the most extreme. In fact, it puts a definitive end to all discourse — including that which is “civil and respectful” — while granting the wishes of those who seek to curtail the debate with misogyny and threats. That result is what we call a classic “heckler’s veto.”

Harassment of women in the video game industry is not a recent phenomenon. But attention on this issue intensified in August 2014 after Eron Gjoni published an online rant about independent video game developer Zoë Quinn, alleging, among other things, that she had a relationship with a video game journalist. The essay  fueled a Twitter debate, coalescing around the #GamerGate hashtag, about misogyny in the video game industry, political correctness, and media ethics. It also provoked a campaign of harassment and violence against women in the industry, including many of the panelists who would have spoken at SXSW.

Threats of violence, and their devastating effects, are not to be taken lightly, and they’re just as criminal online as off. Women in the video game industry who have spoken out in defense of Quinn or criticized the portrayal of women in video games have received rape threats and death threats, had their personal information published online for all to see, and even been forced to flee their homes. No one should have to tolerate this behavior.

And yet, as others have pointed out, those who have been subjected to this heinous treatment have continued to do the important — and heroic — work of leading public conversations about gender, gaming, and online harassment. (Indeed, SXSW panelists have reported that they were aware of the risks involved in speaking and had been collaborating with SXSW staff on safety.)

We’re encouraged to hear that the SXSW is considering solutions in response to the criticism arising from their decision. The conference’s move may have been well-intentioned. But rather than protecting “civil and respectful” dialogue, the decision silences all voices in the debate around #GamerGate except those who seek to control the debate with threats of violence. In organizing the forums, SXSW created a soapbox for all. In cancelling them, it has given a bullhorn to those who threaten violence against women.

Far from controlling its hecklers, SXSW has succumbed to the heckler’s veto. 

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Anonymous

"Women in the video game industry who have spoken out in defense of Quinn or criticized the portrayal of women in video games have received rape threats and death threats, had their personal information published online for all to see, and even been forced to flee their homes."

Men and Women who criticize Quinn, Sarkeesian and others (on ethical, evidence based grounds) also face this treatment from supporters of these women. A balanced analysis clearly shows that there is are elements who don't want the Sargons and Thunderf00ts debating the Quinns and Sarkeesians even though a civil discussion of the facts would resolve any and all controversies in short order.

Otto Olivera

As an Austinite, I'm ashamed of SXSW for this cowardly move!

Dragoneyes001

I have to love all these "I'm Ashamed" posts about a conference holder choosing public safety over the alternative. The very same people without any exceptions after very real tragedies like mass shootings have complained that the public safety of people if any warnings were available should have come first and how at fault anyone who knew there were threats should have acted in the public's safety first and foremost.

You call it cowardly. what will you call it if in fact a bomb did go off at the conference? stop grand standing and think of just how stupid you'd look if people did get killed by some nutjob and you facilitated it by giving them the very target they desire.

Mario Kukucov

You are sliding into irrelevance ACLU. Cut the gender politics, you have no idea what GG is and what GG is about.
kukucov@gmail.com

Anonymous

Why does everyone ignore that men are targeted by more online harassment than women are? Yes, women are targeted more by sexual harassment, but that isn't the be all end all. How about we not only focus on one type especially when one is much more severe in size than the other.

Anonymous

If men are harassed more online than women it is because most of the women have been chased away already. The focus is on women being harassed because the harassment of women is much more severe and much more real (as in doxxing, rape and death threats, etc) when men are being forced to cancel their speaking events and leave their homes because of video game harassment, get back to me.

Anonymous

All those things happen to both sexes. And if you actually read the studies, they happen more to men. How did you miss the obvious fact that people are generally nicer to ladies than to guys? Ever heard of Chivalry?

Anonymous

To the anon reply, no female claiming gamergate attacks has fled her home. Quinn had already planned a vacation and Wu was on an interview from her home during the time she claimed to have fled. Wu later admitted to lying about fleeing. Good job not knowing anything.

Anonymous

Responding to
"If men are harassed more online than women it is because most of the women have been chased away already. The focus is on women being harassed because the harassment of women is much more severe and much more real (as in doxxing, rape and death threats, etc) when men are being forced to cancel their speaking events and leave their homes because of video game harassment, get back to me."
How about providing some statistics instead of hyperbole. Many celebs both male and female receive threats and one of the things they don't do is publicize them. Those that do are professional victims that broadcast them for patreon bucks and other donations. Two things have to be mentioned: The one "forced" to cancel their speaking event was never in any danger as noted by the campus security and police department of that area. The one that left their home never left it in the first place. http://i.imgur.com/OgPnsyz.jpg

Anonymous

There have been at least three evacuations of pro-GamerGate due to bomb threats. Along with death threats, doxxings, and general harassment of supporters, both male and female, from the beginning.

Is the ACLU too committed to the approved narrative to care, or are you tacitly endorsing this conduct as long as it's done in the name of social justice?

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