"Why Are You So Angry?": Examining the Psychology of Online Hate Mobs

I don't like talking about online hate mobs in the vein of GamerGate (GG), Sad Puppies, etc. – I shy away from mentioning it, as I feel like I'm enabling the idiocy of it all – mainly because it frustrates me to the point of speechlessness. It makes me angry just to think about it, which, ironically, is probably the one and only thing that I have in common with GGers and their ilk.

My frustration comes from the knowledge that GG et al. doesn't allow for dialogue, for a conversation. It was never a movement because it was never about negotiation, and more importantly, its claims aren't rooted in reality. There was never an intention for its negative and destructive force to result in anything constructive. It just all seemed like reactionary backlash of a group that resented another group – specifically the non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual part of society – for its slow and gradual emergence from the margins of cultural representation and commercial relevance.

Nevertheless, I always had the sense that because GG was the sum of many, incoherent voices, screaming through the net in harmonious disunity it would be worthwhile to consider the fuel and dynamic of these phenomena.

I was very happy, therefore, to find the video series Why Are You So Angry? produced by Innuendo Studios, i.e. writer and producer Ian Danskin, and published in July 2015 on YouTube. In six parts, the series explores the psychology behind the reactionary prototype dubbed "Angry Jack" and asks how and why he is so angry. In the following paragraphs I want to offer a short overview of Danskin's argument, but I really recommend taking the time to watch this very well-written and compelling series.

You’re Ruining Everything

Part I is a short overview of the attacks that have been launched on Anita Sarkeesian since she delved into video games with her series Tropes vs Women In Video Games and the incredible hostility she has been forced to live with ever since. It is a good introduction to the series because it gives the question – why are you so angry? – the necessary weight, especially if a viewer is not aware of the extent and insidiousness of the harassment or has never heard of the issue at all because they live in a better world.

Part II examines the roots of Angry Jack's anger, namely the fact that someone else's opinion or worldview somehow threatens his belief in his own moral integrity. When faced with a mindset that comes out of a differentiated examination of commonly held beliefs and the rejection of the same, Angry Jack sees this as an implicit criticism of his own mindset, and he cannot deal, except by being angry at whoever stirred up this doubt within him. The most important part about this is that we've probably all had our Angry Jack moments, but hopefully overcame them.

In Part III, Danskin refers to Susan Faludi's Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, a seminal feminist publication that examined the media-fueled pushback against feminist progress in the 1980s. He points out that women are portrayed as intruders into a cultural space that they were actually once part of, and that Sarkeesian serves as a scapegoat for this intrusion, so that Angry Jack gets to "hang years of vague anxieties on her." These anxieties are not the result of an external threat as much as a symptom of arising doubts about his moral integrity, as he explained in Part II.

He compares Jack's relationship with feminism to the one we have with doctors. We might know that that funny looking mole could be a problem, but we choose to believe that it’s fine and forego a visit to the doctor, choosing to live in blissful ignorance. We can't help but feel anxious and resentful when the doctor tells us that the mole actually looks dangerous, and we need to do something about it. Systemic social diseases like racism or sexism are like someone else's cancer: something that's been dealt with, that doesn't affect us personally, that we have no control over. When Angry Jack's vantage point changes, he suddenly has to deal with that even though he really doesn’t want to. I guess the most resentment comes out of the implicit suggestion that he is the cancer, at least in part.

Bait and Switch

Part IV is devoted to GG and begins with an interesting question: "To what extent did GamerGate know it was an anti-feminist hate mob?" Danskin divides GGers into two groups: a small core that used the ethics in journalism narrative as a smokescreen to systematically harass women through trolling, doxing, SWATing etc..; and a much larger group that Angry Jack is a part of, who genuinely believes that there is an issue with ethics in game journalism and rejects the first group's actions, feeling persecuted for being associated with the first group. However, Angry Jack's entire perspective is based on the narrative fabricated by the core GGers surrounding Zoe Quinn, corruption in game journalism, and the scary magic power of vaginas with the help of an angry ex-boyfriend. Even though the arguments Angry Jack wants to bring to the table are based on the fabulations of openly misogynist asshats, he believes in the righteousness of his cause – and reacts badly to being shut down when the source of his claims is debunked as 4chan troll poop. Without Angry Jack, GGers can't claim legitimacy through numbers. The two are engaged in a symbiotic relationship in which one can keep harassing women and minorities while the other can keep his eyes closed and indulge his anger.

This is the longest video in the series because the dynamic between the core GGers, the bandwagon GGers, and the rest of the world is so complex and insane. Danskin's portrayal of Angry Jack as someone whose investment in the cause is rooted in deeper anxieties about his privilege and, very simply, about change is both convincing and scary.

Most interestingly though, I feel like anyone who affiliates with GG or sympathizes with their anger is prompted to re-examine the psychology and emotion behind that reaction – if they are willing to listen. It speaks to anyone on the fringe of any "movement" against socially progressive isms who might have a tendency to call out critics based on fabricated facts that are circulated so quickly that they become powerful tools of harassment, aimed at anyone whose opinion challenges the social and internal status quo of the people they dare to be critical of.

Understanding this dynamic is essential because GG gave rise to more hate mobs and more targeted campaigns against anyone and anything critical of male, white privilege and/or dominance. Beyond that, however, Danskin's argument about stretching the spectrum of rationality is of course relevant to political discourses (especially considering the current American elections and Trump mania):

"This intentional polarization from small minorities within a community is largely what movements like GamerGate are for: to react so negatively as to make a reasonably statement seem like the far end of the spectrum and to make the half-way point between reasonable and bug-fuck irrational seem like the moderate position."

The "moderate position" is where Jack lives. It’s the place where he can deny his ideological alignment with core haters while still being part of the forces that hinder women and minorities – god forbid – changing the status quo, for encroaching on what he feels is his territory. He can rely on the core faction to deliver him the ammo he needs to shoot down anyone critical of him and his opinion (namely calling them Nazis, pedophiles, racists, SJWs and/or other lovely things that are divorced from reality) and make himself look like the progressive force at the same time.

Danskin pointedly describes the dynamic of GG as a dance that consists of "getting someone to dedicate himself to your cause by constantly reassuring him that he is nothing like you."

The Good, the Bad, and the Innocent

Part V is dedicated to Angry Jack’s self-perception and his moral logic. Feeling like he is being cast in the role of the bad guy, e.g. for enjoying games that someone points out to be sexist, even though he himself sees himself as a good guy. The trouble there, Danskin points out, is that this logic follows a strange dichotomy of good and bad, of right and wrong that comes out of a Puritanical mindset. Although Danskin uses the word rather tentatively, it is actually very fitting: Puritanical doctrine relied on the interpretation and judgment of everyday actions and events as a way of determining whether a person was in God’s grace, that is whether they were destined to get into Heaven or not. Angry Jack’s mindset comes down to counting, measuring, and balancing actions on the moral scale, so that the implication that his consumption of certain media could tip the scales the wrong way makes him very uncomfortable.

There is, however, a loop hole in this black-and-white logic. If Angry Jack can claim his choices were made ignorantly – i.e. he wasn’t aware of the sexism in the games he consumed – then he is also free of guilt. Danskin connects the impulse to cling to innocence to the idealization of childhood. A person chooses not to be ignorant anymore and seeks out information about their consumptive habits – e.g. the food they eat, the clothes they wear, the media they consume – Angry Jack interprets this as an implicit judgement on his choice not to do so. It’s not that that person is wrong, it’s that he doesn’t want to be reminded that the innocence he can claim by remaining willfully ignorant is a bit of a sham.

The important takeaway is that whenever someone raises an issue through critical examination, e.g. misogyny in video games, no one wants to talk about whether Angry Jack is a good or a bad person for playing them because that’s not the point. The point is talking about how the issue that is at stake affects the world. The complexity of such issues is implicit; however, if Jack isn’t told that he is not solely responsible for that issue, he sees this as a purposeful attack on him and his choices as an individual. His feelings of helplessness overwhelm him and he goes into offensive defense trying to protect himself from the judgement he interprets to be the main message.

Danskin's final point here is that Angry Jack, like many others, “treats morality as being about saving yourself.” This ties back to the Puritanical mindset, which is very individualistic – and selfish – and presumes that moral perfectibility is about individual salvation rather than society’s. “Until [Angry Jack] realizes that morality is bigger than him, he is incapable of listening,” Danksin concludes.

What Now?

“The war against social justice is something to do with [Angry Jack’s] frustrated anger, but there is no win state for him,” Danskin surmises in Part VI. As he rightly puts it, women who are fighting for representation and respect and against misogyny “have more skin in the game” than Jack, whose problem is his discomfort now that his innocence has taken a hit.

Referring back to Susan Faludi, Danskin explains that backlash is not the reaction to social change, but emerges in anticipation of it. For this reason, GG at el. will not be the end of hate mobs. So what can be done? Danskin suggests talking to Jack, engaging with him, the mantra being: “be calm, be reasonable, be clear.” The outcome should not be to convince him to set the pitch fork down, but to stop him from drawing anyone else into the vortex of online anger. “Your duty is to the proto-Angry Jack, who could go either way,” Danskin argues. Knowing that he could be considered treading on thin ice in this world of mansplainers and false allies, Danskin makes it clear that, with this plea, he is primarily addressing men who are in a position to do a decent thing without risking too much harm. His argument for engaging Jack is that silence is harmful and that as a male, your privilege shields you to a certain extent.

In late July, Danskin revised this point of view in a Tumblr post titled Talking To Jack, It Turns Out, Is Complicated after he has had the chance to talk to Lindsay Ellis and Zoe Quinn via Twitter. They pointed out that engaging Angry Jack can have consequences for people outside of the conversation. Danskin writes:

“The actionable advice I gave was that we, privileged people who have most certainly been Angry Jack at various times in our lives, need to engage with him when he shows his face. His rhetoric is an enticing narrative that tells people feminism and racial politics and social issues aren’t worth thinking about. When people are figuring themselves out online, they come across this rhetoric, and I think it’s dangerous for them to see it go unchallenged - it leaves the internet a training ground for proto-Angry Jacks. […]

My feeling was that I, as a privileged person, can get away with kicking a hornets’ nest. The angle I’d never considered, likely because I and the people who helped me make the video have never been on the receiving end of this kind of backlash, is splash damage. That when you engage with Jack, there are often bystanders. That privilege may protect me, but it doesn’t protect everyone in the blast radius. That if I engage with Jack about Anita, he might just go attack Anita in retaliation. The thing about hornets is they don’t only sting the person who kicks the hive.

Zoe says a lot of harassed people she’s worked with through Crash Override are suffering from this kind of attack. Lindsay says that she got shit from people when Tauriq Moosa left Twitter, which she had nothing to do with. This is an angle I sincerely wish I’d considered while I was still making the video.”

The post ends with several conclusions about where and how the discourse can be fruitful. Basically, it comes to choosing your battles and thinking strategically. A battle of words with Angry Jack on his own turf isn’t likely to be productive, while establishing a space and an audience of your own gives you more of a chance to get through to people. I recommend reading the entire post, which is not very long.

Go Forth and Ponder

Danskin explains the psychology behind the hateful dynamic of GG and friends in a way that I feel helps both those on the receiving end of Angry Jack’s ire and those on the cusp of becoming Angry Jack. If nothing else, it helps one re-evaluate a next knee-jerk reaction to someone else’s socially responsible choices. We all need the occasional reminder that we are not the center of the universe.

The series is a well-illustrated reminder that fear – in this case of a loss of innocence, of judgement – does indeed lead to anger, hate, and the Dark Side. As I've said before, I think that it is a good starting point for a conversation about emotions, online abuse and hate mobs. The series should probably be used as a tool in class rooms. The cycle of anger and hatred can be broken by potential hate mob recruits from following their emotions without any introspection, so this is a conversation that, ideally, needs to be had at an early point in life. You know, like Jedi training.

However, it is never too late to listen and ask oneself, “Why are you so angry?”

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