How We Talk About Ourselves

Some thoughts and clarifications on the subject of identity politics, here in response to “why we talk about ourselves” by Liz Ryerson. It is, as opposed to most of the responses I got, calmly written, but I also have to say that it misses the point of what I said (as I was accused of doing with Mattie Brice’s article). Please note that I’m also responding to a lot of the accusations on Twitter, which are not what Liz Ryerson’s article is about. I’m using some of the things she wrote as a jumping-off point for more general thoughts.

i think his larger point of contention is he wants to bring to light his own experiences of violence he’s had to face every day, as a former citizen of Greece. and i understand where he’s coming from there, to the extent that i can.

This just applies the logic of identity politics to a different identity, and that is precisely what I want to avoid. I wrote about Greece in the context of the necessity of avoiding nationalism, avoiding turning everything into a Greek issue. If I followed the logic of identity politics, I could start all my articles with references to the terrible situation in Greece and my personal pains and fears. I have plenty to talk about, much of it as emotionally touching and politically disturbing as anything in Mattie Brice’s article. But I believe that:

a) What affects me deeply is not necessarily relevant to every article, and it’s too easy to use such powerful emotions to sell yourself and your argument (L. A. Kauffmann notes how identity politics mirror the ideology of the marketplace). This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to make political or philosophical points based on your own experiences (where relevant).

b) Feeling strongly about a matter of oppression that I have experienced viscerally does not give me license to stereotype or dismiss others.

Now, if I was playing the game of identity politics, I could dismiss all criticism with the claim of racism or hellenophobia or even Orientalism. I do have some of those features people associate with the Orient: thick grown-together eyebrows, quickly tanning skin. In America, where the discourse is such, my father would probably be described by some people as “brown”. People who dislike my games? Racists. People who think my politics are wrong? Racists. The people who attacked me on Twitter? Privileged American imperialists replicating their so-called culture’s built-in hatred of everyone else in the world.

See? It’s easy. It’s also bullshit.

Now, I have called quite a few people here racist, because Greece is a touchy subject matter to me, and I do think racism is widespread. But racism isn’t when someone disagrees with an “ethnic” person, it’s a worldview that assigns stereotypical characteristics (including positive, as in the case of the noble savage) to a group of people on the basis of their origins. In the same way sexism isn’t to disagree with a woman (does disagreeing with Ayn Rand make you a sexist? was she oppressed?), but a worldview that ascribes stereotypical characteristics to people on the basis of their gender.

Identity politics conflates the writer with the written. Not a word of my article suggests that Mattie Brice’s experiences are anything but horrific and that violence against trans women of colour is anything but a problem. I never once condemn her for wanting more games to touch on these experiences, for wanting the state to take her persecution seriously. In fact, nothing I’ve ever written would ever suggest that I might even consider such thoughts. But to the logic of identity politics, it doesn’t matter. “You don’t get to talk about this.” “You can never understand her experience.” Those are the answers people gave – you cannot know (because you don’t belong to this group). People are utterly alien to one another, and not having a specific experience means that you cannot discuss the application of that experience to the world that you also live in, which gives that person license to say anything, no matter how offensive or problematic.

Looking outside this box for even a second should reveal how this instantly fragments society into bits that can never talk to each other, never understand, and never come together to fight for structural change. Because almost everyone on the face of this planet is oppressed in some way, they can all construct an identity around that and then defend it with sexist and racist logic that can never be assaulted. We can make it profoundly personal, too. America supported the quasi-fascist governments of Greece, so America supported my grandfather getting tortured. I never saw him able to walk properly, never saw him as anything but a broken, angry old man, and there’s no question that his brokenness, his withdrawn nature, affected my father and ultimately his relationship with me. There would have been so much less pain in my family if not for America, so everything American is not only irrelevant to me, but something to be actively hated. And those American trans people, they’re just another face of the American hegemony, like Obama and his support for the government that is siding with the same political groups that were responsible for all that pain.

See? If I cling to this with enough emotion, and shout enough about it on Twitter, it can sound pretty powerful. It’s still bullshit, though – even though everything I wrote about my grandfather is true. My legacy of sorrow and my personal experiences do not justify stereotyping Americans as evil imperialists, or dismissing the experiences of trans Americans because they belong to that “privileged” nation.

but when he tries to make the point that games like Bioshock and Spec Ops: The Line are relevant to people like him who have been through very real experiences of gun violence, he seems to be seeing a phantom.

I haven’t personally experienced gun violence (the worst I’ve experienced is tear gas, which isn’t fun, though I’ve been spared the newer types now in use in Greece, which are classified as chemical weapons that would be illegal to use against soldiers in a war), and I don’t think that Spec Ops or BioShock are relevant to me because I’m Greek. That’s why I spoke about the horrors in the Middle East and the American soldiers who are used to cause to them. That’s not my everyday life. But the fact that it’s not my everyday life does not mean it’s not real, or not relevant to me as a person living on this planet. Why should the problems I face make the problems others face irrelevant? To understand that the issues touched upon in Spec Ops, in no matter how superficial a way, are real issues – that war is real and terrible and not far away at all – is the essence of empathy. Which is why I found it shocking to be accused of lacking empathy for criticizing an article whose main point was that the problems of others (dismissed with the generic stereotype of the privileged white male, even though so many of those who end up in the army with images from Call of Duty in their heads are neither white nor male) are none of the author’s concern; more than that, that they are basically imaginary.

The inability to relate. Container cultures. “Empathy” doesn’t mean obeying a political dogma because some of the people supporting it are oppressed, it means trying to understand, having an insight into the emotional experiences of others – which the same people who say that I lack empathy claim is utterly impossible. Let the Greeks rot on their streets, let the trans rot in their rooms, let the Iraqis rot in their ruins – none of us can understand each other, and thus none of us can care – or try to understand the roots of our common misery.

I believe in the need for an internationalist, cosmopolitan understanding of struggle, both literally and metaphorically. I believe that we need to tear down these false categories of race, gender, nationality. Not by pretending their effects don’t exist, but by deconstructing them intellectually and by forcefully opposing them in the real world, through personal and political action. I think it’s ridiculous and outrageous to claim this viewpoint to be sexist. You can disagree with it strategically and philosophically if you desire, but it is not sexist.

What is sexist and racist, however, is dumping vast swathes of people into categories based on a middle-class academic phraseology that takes the United States of America to be the centre of the world. Even if you do it out of the best of intentions and with all the emotion of feeling oppression every day.

i don’t want to question his own emotional investment in those games, but it must be said that most of the people who are making the creative decisions on these big-budget games don’t have the kinds of personal experiences, nor have they done the necessary research to really understand the complex issues a game like Spec Ops tries to tackle. Mattie’s characterization of those game developers as privileged is more or less correct – because even if they, themselves, are not the ones benefiting from that privilege, they’re still buying into the dominant cultural narratives or what games should and shouldn’t be – namely, big-budget FPS games.

This is a completely different point now, but it does relate to this idea of identity. I’ve used the word “privileged” myself, but I’ve always been very nervous about it, because it doesn’t really describe something specific. It’s too relative. We can talk specifics about income, housing, political ideology – but just identifying a group as “privileged”, as if it was homogenous, doesn’t really work very well.

Accusing the developers of being privileged because they buy into the dominant cultural narrative because they’re making big-budget FPS games strikes me as unfair and illogical. First of all, the argument could easily be made (and I think is very relevant) that in order to subvert the typical narratives of the military shooter, in order to reach the audience that experiences this propaganda the most, they have to make a game superficially in the same vein. Otherwise their game can never do anything but preach to the converted – something that fits in with the self-centered, inwards-looking ideology of identity, but not with the desire to have an impact on the world and do something, even a little something, against war.

I also can’t agree with the equation of form with content. There’s nothing inherently oppressive about a big-budget shooter (Spec Ops is actually third-person, not that it matters), or even about a big-budget game. This is a kind of primitivism often found in the identity-based quasi-left: because the means of production are not owned by workers, let us abandon them and return to nature. But to acknowledge the problems of the system doesn’t mean to discard everything produced by it, as if there were no progressive elements within it at all. You get the same with some people and Hollywood, rejecting all big-budget films as inherently bad, even when Hollywood has produced far more politically radical films than the kind of self-involved European filmmakers who are often praised as the only alternative.

In fact, I would argue that the mainstream games industry has produced more – tragically few, but still more – games that seriously engage with the bigger picture. Yes, the indie scene has produced a lot of inwards-looking, contemplative, personal games, and that’s fine, but in terms of actually engaging with the world, in terms of looking not into the self but beyond it, there is precious little. Indies are fine with talking about how they feel, what scares them and what turns them on, but very few will even consider looking at the global systems that affect all of us.

but even if they did approach any real understanding of the complexities of real-life warfare, i’m very skeptical of any triple-A game’s ability to make any sort of substantial, coherent criticism of any part of society when shackled by massive team-sizes and market research and having to somehow manage to be enough of a cynically marketed FPS to make a profit within the current market. it just doesn’t seem possible. and yet, we have set the bar so low that we’re willing to convince ourselves that it is. that, i believe, is pure delusion.

There is some truth to this, as the developers themselves have acknowledged – the nature of working within capitalism distorts the artist’s work. But does it make it worthless? And is the indie scene, which also exists within capitalism, in which people are still bound by market forces and the need to survive, that much better? That, I think, is the real delusion: creating identities like “indie” and “mainstream” and assigning them moral values without examining their roles in detail.

One of the people in gaming I respect the most, a feminist and a woman firmly on the Left, works in the mainstream games industry. Do I dismiss her because of that? To dismiss the developers of Spec Ops: The Line without recognizing even remotely their bravery in taking on this subject matter and attempting to shed light on propaganda in the games industry is entirely unfair.

at the heart of Jonas’s criticism, though, is a larger issue. why the sudden, endless descent into discussions of identity on game websites?

Not really, actually. I don’t have a problem with what Electron Dance described as confessional writing, I only have a problem with how it is sometimes used. I believe it can form a part of criticism, but for the most part it is autobiography; interesting, even enlightening, but more about the role of games in our lives than about the games themselves.

still, i cannot and will not devalue the emotional experiences other people have with videogames, or try to say it’s not genuine or valid to write about them, because that misses the point entirely. it’s increasingly impossible to ignore the culture that games have arisen from, and the sort of stranglehold that culture has on all the discourse that occurs. transwomen who want to get into games find themselves on a difficult path (and women in general, but i’m speaking in reference to Mattie’s article). most transwomen experience the sort of social isolation and ostracization that many people who get really into videogames experience, except tenfold. videogames represent spaces and experiences separate from our bodies that we can form our own associations with, free from pressures of social identity, while still participating in an activity deemed “socially acceptable” for those categorized as males. games are rife for emotional projection of whatever kind of role you wish to occupy onto them. i can’t ignore that they can be excellent tools of self-discovery, and i think this is a big part of why so many transwomen are so passionate about games, and technology in general.

Yes! Absolutely! I challenge anyone to find a single sentence in my previous article that suggests that any of this is not true. Of course art engages with the things that matter to us, with our understanding of self, and games are very good at that. That’s important. But it still doesn’t mean that any application of the personal is meaningful, especially when it stereotypes others and dismisses the very possibility of empathy (what a tragic irony). The problem isn’t that we talk about ourselves but how we do it. The self is a powerful thing and it’s easy to get lost in it.

there is a disturbing amount of rage bubbling underneath the secure pockets of technological introspection that so many of us try to escape into when we want to avoid dealing with each other. i believe it is one that will boil over soon enough. if we don’t want to all kill each other, and kill the planet in the process, it’s time we who like videogames learned how to start being human – and how to start empathizing with one another.

That I can only agree with. That’s why I wrote my article. Because I believe that the politics of identity, instead of helping us, instead of cultivating empathy, are in fact one of the pillars of the socio-economic system that profits from pitting us against one another in the name of this flag or that, making us turn a blind eye to the Other even as we stereotype ourselves.