Heat Street, a website recently launched by News Corp and run by the conservative British commentator (and former Tory MP) Louise Mensch, is very concerned about “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” and the like. The site exists, in large part, to channel and stoke outrage over other people’s outrage: to monitor who is getting offended, decide whether they are getting offended about the right things and exhibiting an appropriate quantity of offense, and then, if warranted, draw attention to their misguided or overblown offense accordingly. Naturally, the targets are almost universally progressives and feminists (conservative people never get offended over stupid stuff).
Heat Street sometimes latches onto people or subjects for what feel like odd reasons. Yesterday, for example, after a bunch of conservative and libertarian types realized they had been blocked by the writer Lindy West, some preemptively, the site devoted an entire article to her blocking habits.
Heat Street’s Emily Zanotti explains:
The prevailing Twitter theory seems to be that West uses a “block list” similar to those used by #GamerGate foes — perhaps even the same one — or an auto-blocking bot, like The Block Bot, that seeks out Twitter relationships and blocks people pre-emptively based on whether they interact with social media accounts the bot operator considers to be unsightly, or “troll accounts.”
According to West, it seems, that list includes literally everyone who has ever even vaguely mentioned “libertarian” or “conservative” (or, for that matter, what West considers “anti-feminist”) principles. That’s a strange definition of “troll.”
The piece, which like any good article in 2016 is mostly just embedded tweets, goes on to accuse West of hypocrisy for having told Buzzfeed on Monday that she likes interacting with internet trolls. Nailed her!
It is strange that Heat Street would decide to publish an article criticizing a writer for deciding to block people, particularly when that woman has dealt with as much harassment, some of it violent, as West — including, in one case, someone posing as her dead father on Twitter and lobbing insults at her. (West tracked down that particular troll and confronted him for what became a pretty remarkable article and This American Life segment.) But it’s less strange when you pair this article with another really weird recent Heat Street item — “Coming Soon to Virtual Reality: More Safe Spaces” — and then place both in the broader context of what the site and its ilk are trying to pull off.
In the “Safe Spaces” article, reporter William Hicks mockingly embeds a couple of less-than-graphic video examples of “virtual rape” in online worlds to make fun of the idea that fragile social-justice-warrior feminists are asking for VR “safe spaces.” They’re triggered!
But if you actually follow his link to “[t]he insufferable pop culture blog Fusion,” you’ll find an article by Kevin Roose (formerly of this magazine) where he excerpts this account from the Oculus Rift subreddit:
I have been having a lot of fun in Altspace VR lately, but I noticed how some people get in other peoples faces a lot, especially with leap motion and Vive contollers, even if they ask them not to.
Sadly this is especially bad when a girl comes into the room. Since you can’t really control the behaviour in an online chat like that, I would suggest a toggelable function, to provide a personal space that cannot be intruded.
It can really be uncomfortable to have some random person waving his hands in your face and coming up to a few centimeters to your face. It is a great example how immersive VR can be, when you instinctively feel like your personal space is getting invaded. [sic]
Reading Roose’s article, it’s pretty clear that all people are asking for are VR equivalents of muting — a way to render the virtual world’s thrusters and gropers invisible — and/or the same abuse-reporting feature almost every other decent platform has.
These are eminently reasonable things to ask for. Just as it’s eminently reasonable for a victim of a multiyear harassment cascade to take preemptive action on Twitter to staunch the flow of assholery. But Heat Street doesn’t couch these as reasonable requests — it couches them as part of what the right sees as a recent, crazy turn toward oversensitivity.
Obviously, some people are oversensitive, particularly in certain online pockets and activist communities. There are people on Twitter who really do consider crazy to be an ableist slur worthy of a remonstrative tweetstorm, and people on campuses who can discern microaggressions where 99.9 percent of humanity would fail to see one.
On the other hand: There’s also a lot of actual, real-life harassment and hate speech. There are actually a lot of eggs who will dog pile you if you express the wrong view about feminism or abortion or Donald Trump or anything else and that view gets noticed by an angry jerk with a lot of followers. There are little boys in basements who will hump you in virtual reality forever. And one of the m.o.s of Heat Street and other sites riding the current wave of conservative outrage-outrage is to crimp the boundaries of acceptable responses to these sorts of incidents — to make it ever-easier to ridicule anyone who doesn’t respond in the “right” way. Had West angrily lashed out at someone insulting her on Twitter, Heat Street or some other arbiter of appropriate outrage would have called her a crazy, triggered feminist, of course. By blocking would-be harassers, on the other hand, she is guilty of avoiding what Zanotti terms a “conversation.” Ah, yes — those enlightened dinner-party-style conversations that take place in the Twitter feeds of prominent feminist writers.
So what is the right way to respond, in the eyes of Heat Street? It would be interesting to pose this question to Zanotti and Hicks. Does Hicks think women getting ground-upon in VR should just (virtually) stand there and take it, that there shouldn’t be tools to allow them to prevent these online worlds from descending into the worst nightclubs imaginable? Does Zanotti think that West should individually engage and argue with the endless hordes of eggs and anime avatars who would sludge into her feed every day if not for whatever block strategy she is employing? What is the proper, Heat Street—approved way to hear out and engage in a thoughtful conversation with someone calling you a “fat cunt”?
Confronting these questions honestly doesn’t make for good, clickable outrage-outrage. It’s easier — and more profitable — to just stick to the “something something something triggering LOL social-justice warriors” headlines.