To believe or not to believe? That’s not really the question

“One of the most radical things you can do is to actually believe women when they talk about their experiences.” -Anita Sarkeesian

A few days ago I was giving a talk on masculinity, media and violence. When I got to the video games portion of my talk, which of course included mentions of “GamerGate,” Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu and Anita Sarkeesian, a student in the class who appeared female, raised their hand and said something I was completely unprepared for. Basically, they spat back a bunch of GamerGate talking points, including claims that Anita Sarkeesian is unfair and off-base in her criticism of games and that she faked “at least some” of the death threats she received to gain attention.

I was shocked and almost didn’t know what to say in response… not because I hadn’t heard these claims before, I’d heard them plenty. Rather, I was surprised to meet a real live person who actually believed that stuff. Up till then I imagined GamerGaters and their supporters were like a bunch of little Agent Smiths…

Agent(s) Smith

Agent(s) Smith

digital beings, living programs designed to be major pains in our collective asses, yet unable to cross the boundary into the real world. Yet here this person was, live and in the flesh, GamerGating all over my lecture. In all honesty, I was also surprised to hear someone who presented as female making such claims. Shame on me for stereotyping. Anyway, while everyone else in the class was visibly appalled by the images I was showing (screen shots of the “Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian” video game and tweets directed at Brianna Wu, Sarkeesian and others), here was this person refusing to believe verified reports of death threats simply because they didn’t agree with Sarkeesian’s message.

Clearly GamerGaters choose not to believe Sarkeesian and the rest of the women they’ve targeted because it suits their purposes. It’s just another way for them to discredit and harass their targets. Besides, GamerGaters are responsible for the harassment in the first place… That young person in my class though? Perhaps I’m stereotyping again, but they didn’t strike me as a hardcore GamerGater. They struck me as being a bit more reasonable and open to dialogue. Sadly, I didn’t have time to derail my talk so I didn’t get to engage much about it. But if I could have, I would have asked this; “what would it hurt for you to believe Sarkeesian?”

Believe me

It’s very tiring.

Oppressed people in particular have to contend with an epidemic of disbelief. I say oppressed people because it’s not just women’s experiences that are brushed aside in such a manner. A brief look at the current events in Ferguson, MO (to name one of many recent protests) demonstrates the way black people’s experiences are equally discounted, discredited and rejected. But it really doesn’t matter if we’re talking about women, people of color, or any other group of people, in the end one simple fact remains: it’s an act of privilege to minimize and disregard someone when they tell you their stories of pain/abuse/harassment/oppression. Here’s what I wish I had time to say to that young student and what I’d like to say to anyone else whose opinions aren’t rigid and set in stone: I challenge you, when someone tells you about a harm or offense they’ve suffered, to ask yourself; “what will happen if I choose believe this person?” And I’d ask them to really consider this, especially when they don’t want to believe what they’re hearing or are having any difficulty accepting the storyteller’s truth.

Now, I’m not giving any advice that I haven’t had to take myself. When I was a young man for example, around 19 years old, a group of guys in my dorm and I were up late one night talking. I don’t remember what sparked this revelation, but at some point in the conversation a tall, awkward, red-headed-kid told the rest of the group that when he 16, he was abducted by aliens. To be clear, he wasn’t joking, not at all. He was opening up to us about something painful that troubled him. Being insensitive 19-year-olds however, the rest of us laughed at him and disregarded his story.

Years later as I look back at the incident I really wish I had handled things differently. Who knows if this guy was really abducted by aliens and frankly who cares? I wasn’t (nor am I now) FBI, CSI, one of the galaxy defending Men in Black, a lawyer or a judge and he certainly wasn’t on trial. Clearly something had happened to the guy and he was seeking support. Maybe he was abducted by aliens. Maybe he took some serious drugs one night and hallucinated the whole thing? Or, maybe he was abducted and/or harmed by regular humans and that was how he coped with the horrible things that happened to him?  We’ll never know, but the question remains… what would it have hurt for us to believe him? Or at minimum believe that something had happened, even if we couldn’t accept the aliens bit. Perhaps instead of shutting him down, we could have helped him to cope, or even directed him to a professional more skilled with these things than a group of 19-year-old jackasses.

I’m also able to looking deeper into my laughter all those years ago with more mature adult eyes and recognize that my response wasn’t only about insensitivity. There were in fact a few more reasons why I refused to believe this young man. For starters, I’m not a believer in alien abductions, so what he was telling me posed a direct threat to my belief system. Add to this the peer pressure of the situation. Everyone else was laughing at him and sadly, at the time I wasn’t brave enough to break from the crowd to defend him. My point is; there’s often more to disbelief than we may first assume. This is important to consider when you find yourself struggling to accept another person’s truth.

But I guess that’s part of the issue right? Once we believe someone’s story of pain/abuse/oppression then we start to feel and question. Maybe we feel empathy. Or maybe we’re forced to question our belief systems, or the systems that contributed to this person’s oppression and the role we play in those systems. Or maybe –and perhaps most frighteningly– we’ll have to step up and stand with the storyteller in the face of attacks and derision from others. Whatever it is, once we start to believe, it becomes very difficult to sit idly by in the face of another person’s pain. If that young person in my class chose to believe that Sarkeesian had in fact received death threats, then they may have started to ask why? And from who? Which could have led to all sorts of unpleasant revelations and difficult truths. I get it. It’s easier to just invoke privilege and minimize, deny and disregard… whatever it takes to avoid feelings, to avoid caring, to avoid getting involved.

This leads me to the next set of questions I would have asked that young student to consider… Instead of asking “is this person lying/exaggerating?” why not take a second and consider; What are this person’s claims bringing up for me? Why am I reluctant to believe them? and Why are these other people disbelieving in the first place? What purpose does disbelief serve for them? Do they benefit in any way from disbelieving or even worse, discrediting? If you take a second to question your own and other people’s motives for disbelief, instead of immediately mistrusting the person sharing, the scope of the situation may suddenly become clear.

Obviously this approach isn’t useful in every situation. Do people lie? Yes. Do people exaggerate? Also yes. But in a situation where someone is telling you difficult to hear stories of abuse, harassment, assault, or oppressions they’ve experienced, this approach is very useful. Because “to believe or not to believe” is not really the question. The real questions are: “what will happen if I choose believe this person?” and “why am I having difficulty believing them in the first place?”

Who knows, if we started questioning ourselves and examining the seeds of our doubts a bit more, it just may go a long way toward improving relations between people of all types.

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