“Fascism is not a specific ideological system with particular content. It’s just a strategy for taking power and maintaining power against the rule of law, and against the majority in a democracy.” –Jamie Raskin
Years ago, I wrote my thoughts on the use of slurs online by gamers to insult others (language warning). I expressed the idea that many of the people who use these words aren’t aiming to be racist or sexist, and that part of the problem is that we live in a society where describing someone as gay, black, or whatever else can be viewed as demeaning in the first place. But the above quote from United States Congressman Jamie Raskin stuck with me because of the way it describes fascism as a strategy rather than a belief system, and it had me reflecting on the strategic use of words to harm others.
What I’ve come to realize is that I had approached the topic of online toxicity from a limited angle. Freedom of expression and the full repertoire of a language are important things that I still support, but there’s another dimension to consider.
One problem with how easily slurs get thrown around online isn’t as simple as whether or not the words are deeply offensive to different peoples and cultures. It doesn’t matter how silly it is that some gamers will throw these words out even if they don’t actually apply to the person on the other side of the screen. The individuals who behave this way, whether they’re conscious of it or not, are basically trying to hurt the person they’re talking to by any means necessary. They’re using slurs as buckshot and hoping the spray will do damage. Similar to fascism, this is less an indicator of beliefs and more of a method to exert power over others—however limited in this specific context—even if they might also actually be racist or whatever. But what happens when the context gets larger?
It’s no secret that Gamergate was basically a precursor to the fecal stain that is Trumpism and the alt-right in the United States, which bring with them the very real threat of actual fascism. And while I truly do not believe that all gamers who ever used slurs to insult others are inherent fascists or will inevitably turn into them, that desire to use words not for the ideas they represent but as tools to probe cracks and fissures in order to do harm feels all too similar to what I see from the fascists who try to undermine American society day in and day out. Donald Trump, right-wing media, the Republican Party, and others in power lie endlessly because “meaning” is meaningless to them—they’re just trying to find the thing that sets people off and helps them maintain power.
Beyond the scope of words alone, this mindset bears scary resemblance to the kinds of strategies we’re finding out were deployed in an attempt to stop the transfer of power in the US on January 6, 2021. Whether through enraging a mob and turning them violent, or trying to exploit gaps in the Constitution and other legal documents, what we saw a year ago was an attempt to twist words and their meaning into crowbars to try to pry open and undo American democracy. Though cliche, I can’t help but think of a famous line from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power.”
Calling someone a slur whether in frustration or contempt is not an automatic pipeline to undermining the foundations of a government; I’d even hazard a guess that most people who engaged in the former never got anywhere close to the latter. But the ease by which words are weaponized in smaller contexts feel like they should be scrutinized more carefully. After all, the alt-right specifically targets gamers, seeing gaming as a resource for young and disaffected men. The racism and sexism expressed in them are a major part of the problem of how words are abused, yet they’re also reduced down to cudgels meant to inflame and diminish. While we should avoid censorship as a blunt form of enforcement, the less weight we feel the weight of the words we use, the more easily they become the tools of fascism.