The Trouble With Heroes

[Content warning: violent misogyny, organized hate campaigns, abuse, harassment, stalking]

Folks who are familiar with the tech and gaming communities probably already know that there's an ongoing campaign of terror being used to stalk, harass, threaten, assault, and abuse women out of the tech and gaming communities. It's actually a loosely-interwoven set of campaigns of terror stretching back years, but it's getting more central and more organized, and it's picked up steam in the wake of conservative actor Adam Baldwin endorsing it and giving it a ridiculous name.

The latest target is Shanley Kane, tech culture critic and co-founder of Model View Media. She [Content warning] posted a statement about the abuse she's endured and how it's affecting her. Her account is harrowing. What she's going through is awful.

Yesterday, Kane's former business partner Amelia Greenhall wrote about why their partnership dissolved [TW: emotional and verbal abuse, erasure]:

I now feel that people should know that my business partnership with Shanley herself was emotionally and verbally abusive, and be able to take that into their mental model of how things work. I felt abused to the point where I left a company that I loved and had been my dream. Then she erased me from Model View Culture’s history, another classic abuser tactic. These were things that I experienced.
— Amelia Greenhall, "What It Was Like to Found Model View Culture With Shanley Kane."

I believe Greenhall.

Some folks are going to use Greenhall's account of abuse and erasure as a justification for the campaign of terror being leveled against Kane. Greenhall has plainly stated she does not want this. When you see people doing it anyway, be clear that they're using her and her story in a manner explicitly contrary to her wishes. They are not allies, and they have absolutely no interest in protecting women from harassment and abuse. They are perpetuating both.

Stated plainly: none of this justifies the campaign of terror aimed at Kane. Nothing makes it okay to publish her family's addresses, to threaten her with rape and death, to violate her privacy, to butt into her sex life, or to otherwise participate in the organized campaign of abuse being leveled against her.

None of it.

If you only support abuse victims if they meet your standard of 'deserving,' then you don't support abuse victims at all. You're using abuse and your ability to withhold support as a means of manipulating and controlling vulnerable populations.That's an abuser tactic, and if you're going to try it, kindly do so very far away from me. 92,960,000 miles should be far enough. Preferably in the direction of our friendly neighborhood gravity well.

I also want to be clear, however, that the people who are going to twist Greenhall's words are people who would use any convenient weapon to attack Kane. This campaign of misogynist terror is not a force of nature. It's a group of people making conscious choices, and they, not Greenhall, are responsible for their behavior. Appeals to 'unity' and 'supporting the cause' are common tactics to silence abuse victims, especially when the abusers are popular and respected figures within a community. It isn't right to ask Greenhall to be silent while people uncritically support someone who has perpetuated the same pattern of credit-taking and erasure that women face throughout the tech community.

Now. Speaking of uncritical support.

Yesterday, before I'd heard Greenhall's story, I tweeted about Kane's work:

The point I was trying to make in those tweets still stands. Trying to separate the 'good,' 'nice,' 'worthy' activists you're willing to listen to from the 'mean,' 'bitchy,' 'rude' ones you can dehumanize and ignore is a means of control. It's saying "I'll recognize your humanity if you behave in the way I dictate." It's saying "Your anger is valid only so long as it is palatable to me." It also ignores the very concrete ways in which refusing to court the approval of those in power creates space for other women to speak.

But in the course of making that point, I uncritically supported someone who has erased another activist from her work. Even if you don't believe Greenhall about the verbal and emotional abuse (and again, I do), the trail of evidence regarding Kane erasing her from the history of Model View Culture speaks for itself. That evidence lives on the public internet, and I completely failed to notice.

For that, I apologize to Greenhall. I'm sorry she went through what she did. I'm sorry I didn't pay attention, and I'm sorry I perpetuated a reductive view of this whole situation as a binary question of either wholeheartedly supporting Kane or co-signing the campaign of misogynist terror that is being leveled against her.

Kane's work, and the work of other women who are willing to publicly, loudly refuse to cater to the egos of powerful white men in tech, directly benefits me. It widens the Overton window and creates space where I can speak more safely, because I'm behind the front lines. It's a tactic I have used myself to help make space for others, so I know firsthand that it takes a toll.

Supporting her also benefitted me--as of this writing, I've picked up something like seventy followers off those tweets.

But this system of lifting up individual people as heroes doesn't benefit any of us. Even in the very best cases, it's a lot of pressure to put on a person. We expect these 'heroes' to fulfill our narrative that The Hero Always Wins; to bear up under abuse and terror and triumph in spite of everything. We send them forth to the front lines of the struggle, but leave them without an adequate support structure to fall back on when the worst parts of the internet come gunning for them.

When we're not at the very best case, it can lead to situations like this one, where a leader in our community behaves badly, and we're left with the choice of either continuing to accrue the benefits of their work without regard for the people they've hurt, or else withdrawing support, which leaves a gap in the shield wall that violent misogynists will use to hurt them.

In her post, Greenwall calls for a third option with regard to Kane:

I think there should be room for a third option: You support diversity in tech and the work Model View Culture has done, but you are allowed to have doubts about Shanley’s sincerity or track record of abusive behavior.
— Amelia Greenhall

This option lays aside the hero narrative. It requires seeing other activists as human beings who can do important work but who can nonetheless be flawed and problematic, rather than reducing them to symbols whose flaws and weaknesses must be ignored in the name of the greater good.

When we acknowledge people for doing good work rather than for being a hero, it eliminates some of the cognitive dissonance that will lead us to ignore or silence evidence that they may not be everything we want them to be. It can serve as a safeguard against perpetuating the common pattern of ignoring victims and closing ranks around abusers. And, at the end of the day, I hope it can also take the pressure off people who are in the 'hero' role, so that they don't have to shoulder the burden of being invulnerable, bulletproof ideas.


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Posted on January 21, 2015 .