Update 9 December 2016: This text has been edited by the author to improve readability and quality (mostly by fixing typos). It is largely unchanged from the original version published the 17 February 2016.
This is a text that's taken me an unusually long time to write. It's spent a long time unpublished, sitting in my drafts folder. I wanted to write about accountability, about how we codify and legitimize problematic behaviour, and about abuse. I hope in reading this that you are able to take it for what it is: a process. This text is by no means definitive. Some of these issues have been ringing in my head now for years and this is just one try at elaborating these thoughts on paper. I worry a little—a lot—about putting this work-in-process here. I am scared my work here will be used to hurt people. I am scared it will be used to hurt me. I am trying to put those fears aside, to focus on this question: are we taking care of each other?
I'm just one person. Here are one person's thoughts.
Are we all in this together
In the last few years, I believe that there’s been a renaissance of a sort of camaraderie between a lot of folks on the outskirts of industry, tech, society—and elsewhere—a spirit of “we’re all in this together” that’s floated up to the surface. This intangible expression of something permeates not just young, start-up, “bootstrapper” circles but also gets passed around within spaces that are less easily justifiable by the broader mechanisms of the economy and capitalism. Early expressions on the web of this feeling saw the beginning of crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Its most recent evolution as a web service is Patreon. Patreon tells us that we don’t need governmental, institutional, or corporate backing anymore: we can support each other financially and legitimize our participation and productions of sub/cultures outside of the mainstream.1
It also gets expressed locally in social groups that sometimes become government-endorsed nonprofits or charities. Locally on the ground here in Montréal I am (more or less indirectly, perhaps) involved with the group Pixelles and MRGS. Both have had similar trajectories starting as a grassroots movement which aims to create connections between otherwise isolated people who spend a lot of their time focusing on the computer screen in front of them. By creating a specific kind of community, as is the explicit case with Pixelles, there can also be a sharing of information, wisdom, and mentorship that otherwise women do not access easily or at all in the wider industry and community. The isolation that can exist between us (woman or not) is very real, and we invest significant portions of our lives in an economic sphere that doesn’t really know what to do with us (precarious "outsiders") other than, usually, some measure of exploitation, or co-opting if some person or a team becomes profitable enough.
It’s frustrating to learn that an industry at large considers the majority of it’s tech startups and alternative (once called indie2) videogames largely irrelevant to the profitable mainstream of software giants and AA/AAA games, but that’s actually not an economic design flaw3—it's a feature. The "lean in"4 world of crowdfunded or bootstrapped businesses is suffering from long-term toxic shock as the offspring of a rotting capitalism that, for some reason, our governments keep bailing out. But, for all that forces like capitalism have a vested interest in keeping us alienated from our work and from each other, it's been intriguing to see social media sometimes rise as a tool to subvert that, at least at first glance. But while I do feel the need to (briefly) address this, I'm not interested in diving in too deeply to the issues with industry, of getting bogged down forging here a polemic or screed which others can do much better than I.
I’m more interested in the organizations and community based networks which come to influence the way social groups connect to each other, online and in person (there’s not a huge amount of difference anymore between those two things, perhaps most especially for younger generations). In particular, I’m worried about the way we treat each other. I'm worried about this mainly for selfish reason: because I exist in a lot of these spaces. Spaces that are trying to be alternatives. Spaces influenced by academic thought. Spaces built with activist history and knowledge. Spaces which try to uphold safer space policies or codes of conduct. Spaces which have been created by marginalized people. I have to navigate these spaces and I worry a lot about questions of safety, and care, and justice. And I care about these questions especially because I'm exhausted. Because I have felt burned out since well before 2015, in all its craptastic glory, began.
Safer spaces don't make me feel like I'm being taken care of
Several years ago now, when I was still rather new to things like a social life, I was participating in my university's queer community for the first time. I went to my first "Trans 101" workshop put on by the university's queer collective. During the obligatory "safe space" announcement at the beginning of the workshop, I recall my friend whispering to me, as we stood further in the back from the rest of the group: "the only safe space a trans person has is their home, or maybe even just their bedroom".
Though that statement about safer spaces and trans people remains all too true today, certain practices have changed since then. There's been a widespread change in language in local Montréal queer communities since the mid-to-late 2000s—safe spaces are now designated as safer spaces, for instance. The reasons for this are important. We don't have the tools to make spaces that are actually safe, or, there is no such thing as an actual safe space. Promising the ideal is dangerously misleading in practice.
So, we commit to that extra "r", to that idea that we're striving for something safer than the average, mainstream public (and even most private) spaces. It's a commitment, at least on paper, to do better, with all the caveats that it's a learning process for all in the community.
In the years since that fateful introduction to (a certain kind of) queer community here in Montréal, I became a kind of advocate for safer spaces in other, sometimes less heterogenous, groups I found myself participating in. This seemed like an obvious progression: I had learned about techniques and ideals to make a space seemingly more inclusive and accessible—it made complete sense that I help build those kinds of knowledge and practices elsewhere. I ended up working on projects which aimed to protect (and as a result increase) diversity in workplaces and organizations. I gave my own workshops on safer spaces for artists, especially artists who wanted to include consent-based practices into their work with an audience.
At least in the short term, it's been pretty easy to look back on a lot of this work and be disheartened by the ever-increasing amount of failures. It's definitely exacerbated my own feelings of mistrust and disappointment: in a paradoxical turn of events, I've come to be immediately suspicious of the usage of the term "safer space". At first, I was mostly able to notice and pinpoint my unease when the safer space was being enforced or "policed" by white cis men. But now I realize I don't feel safe in most organized spaces in general, no matter who the creators of the space are.
I thought it was just me being me, but it's happened again, and again, that when I explain why I feel awkward and excluded in a space, I am told that my worries aren't real, or if they are acknowledged as real I am sometimes assured that my worries don't seem sufficiently alienating. Or that there are people in a space who need me to be there, so perhaps that should trump my fears and feelings of alienation? In any case, this quickly teaches me to stop complaining about how I feel. In the end, I just leave the space.
I think that in some spaces there is an unchallenged assumption of social cohesion, or an assumption that everyone in the space are friends or colleagues who are comfortable around each other. These assumptions can work against the goals of safer spaces, where people become too concerned about "ruining the mood with their feelings" and stop speaking up about what makes them uncomfortable. Many of those people just quietly leave.
No group can really be for everyone. No space can really be for everyone. But I think, unfortunately, that in some spaces "safer spaces" have come to exacerbate tendencies in which we all want to treat each other like close friends and perform intimacy and vulnerability, but without the burden of what it actually means to befriend someone and learn to navigate social relationships with that specific person. It also sometimes means that in some "safer spaces", there's an expectation that we all treat each other like friends without ever actually addressing hierarchies of privilege and power which permeate not only the space but societies at large. Some of this is more overtly oppressive, such as when men want to make distasteful jokes to reassert their patriarchal privilege over women. Some of this is much more oblique and difficult to pinpoint: such as when members of a group all rely heavily on jargon and terminology from the higher echelons of academia, expecting everybody in the group to be working with the same background, access, and history of education as they are, without realising that several people in the group have precarious or unstable access to academic spaces. This may seem much less obviously exclusionary, but it creates an exhaustion on the part of the participants who feel like the space isn't really helping them or made for them, but that they should nonetheless be grateful and gracious for having access to a space that is requiring their participation and contributions, often for the benefit of others.
I've noticed some other really worrisome trends, usually but absolutely not limited to spaces that are organized under the umbrella of larger, capitalist institutions. People are expecting that just saying the words is sufficient to signal that everyone's best behaviour is required. "Best behaviour" (also, "professionalism") comes to mean something specific (which varies by race, gender, ability, and sexuality)—and usually exclusionary. This has been especially obvious in predominantly white technology- and academic-adjacent spaces. The ideal of a space that is safer and accessible by marginalized people is muted, and instead the "safer space policy" becomes a kind of catch all anti-discrimination policy that is ill-defined and confusing, and which may not actually be enforceable. People are using the term "safer space" instead of actually taking care of people at their events and in their spaces.
I use the terms "taking care" specifically, even though that may strike some readers of this post as too soft, emotional or irrational. We've been trained to regard community events (online and offline, or both) as valuable professional networking opportunities (as explicitly described by FOMO, the fear of missing out). Even social groups like MRGS here in Montréal have undeniable networking implications if one is interested in building social and professional capital in Montréal. For newcomers to Montréal and/or the videogames industry here, the first piece of advice given is to check out MRGS's local and latest events, considered crucial for finding friends or colleagues that share a love for making videogames. Groups such as MRGS are about connecting us to each other and cutting through the isolation brought by capitalism and other forces: isn't that a form of taking care of each other?
At its worst, some communities which advertise that they are a "safer space" for marginalized people simply cannot be telling the truth. Undoubtedly for some of these communities, it's not just a marketing ploy, there is often some political willpower that wants to embrace safer space values, while also desperately trying to attract more varied demographics. But, when push comes to shove, these communities are actually powerless to enforce any sort of accountability process against those who behave in oppressive and violent ways. At its very worst, I witnessed communities in which the people responsible for acting on problems that triggered the safer space policy were also some of the people doing harm against marginalized members of the community. This results in marginalized people leaving the space (invisibly) at steady, and most of all unchanging rates, year after year.
The fallout of alienation
What ends up happening when I'm exhausted? I leave. I stop going to events. I stop hanging out. I stop reaching out. I feel gross. I feel discouraged.
In particular, I start becoming suspicious of people talking inclusion, talking about building community, talking about creating better alternatives. I start selecting, carefully, what events I will actually participate in. The "Fear Of Missing Out" takes on a whole new meaning when you start feeling like you can't participate in important community events because it would be too costly to your mental health and wellbeing. I start having to leave spaces early because the hurt piles on until I can't dissociate past harms with the space, and I have to remove myself from opportunities and events.
These are just things that I've noticed, and needed to collect here more or less coherently. I don't want to name names, I don't want to point at any one institution or person in particular (except, maybe, the colonial heteronational capitalist enterprise that is Canadian society?) I would ask that people not ask me to divulge particulars or ask me to "prove" what I've written here. I would also ask for readers of this text not to use my text as an indictment or condemnation of safer spaces, or relatedly, anti-oppression work. There's a very real feeling of despair amongst equity and diversity advocates in tech and in games at the reality that anti-oppression work might actually doing more harm than good to the communities they are trying to uplift.5
Look harder at why spaces which loudly proclaim safer space values still fail people. These spaces have not failed me because they have safer space policies. But those safer space policies convinced me to stay, to keep trying, to keep telling myself that the reason I felt uncomfortable, unsafe, and angry is because I am me, and that's who I am.
So to the question, Are we taking care of each other?
I answer: not really.
I always feel like I write with way too many parentheses, so I am experimenting with footnotes in this post.
Note the latest iteration of Patreon’s tagline on their “about” page: "We want to help every creator in the world achieve sustainable income." The use of "sustainable* in that sentence is especially interesting since when I first discovered the website in 2013, there was stronger emphasis on the creation of a "creative middle class". ↩
In this text I am treating videogame studios, while not being traditional tech companies, as a subset of tech companies with comparable ills and pitfalls. Check out this tweet for a whimsical expression of this idea:
~did u know~— ɴιᴄK•ɴιCĸ•ɴIᴄĸ•Nιᴄĸ¶ (@newton64) February 8, 2016
the term 'AAA' derives from the sound of a thousand forsaken souls forever chained to gargantuan value extractor-drones.
Several people reading the draft of this post have asked for more background information on "lean in", the topic popularized by Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg in a bestselling book. In my text, I am borrowing the "lean in" from Sheryl Sandberg's "feminist advice" and applying it to a related, but different, context of labour. For more information and background I recommend this article by bell hooks, Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In which addresses the "lean in" phenomenon and public response to Sheryl Sandberg in a really thorough manner: "Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system. From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged. And she makes it seem that privileged white men will eagerly choose to extend the benefits of corporate capitalism to white women who have the courage to ‘lean in.’ It almost seems as if Sandberg sees women’s lack of perseverance as more the problem than systemic inequality. Sandberg effectively uses her race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns." ↩
Harvard Business Review, Diversity Policies Rarely Make Companies Fairer, and They Feel Threatening to White Men: "Are all of these efforts working? In terms of increasing demographic diversity, the answer appears to be not really. The most commonly used diversity programs do little to increase representation of minorities and women. A longitudinal study of over 700 U.S. companies found that implementing diversity training programs has little positive effect and may even decrease representation of black women. Most people assume that diversity policies make companies fairer for women and minorities, though the data suggest otherwise. Even when there is clear evidence of discrimination at a company, the presence of a diversity policy leads people to discount claims of unfair treatment. In previous research, we’ve found that this is especially true for members of dominant groups and those who tend to believe that the system is generally fair." ↩