What Do Toxic Gamers and Fascists Have in Common?

“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.

Language, Insults, Slurs

In online communication, whether it’s on a forum or in a video game, it isn’t uncommon to see some strong insults (racist, sexist, etc.) being thrown about, and the ubiquity of such language has created a lot of debate on the subject among fans and others concerned. What I see from those arguing, however, is a tendency to take a rather extreme stance in one direction or the other, which ends up avoiding much of the nuance of such a complicated topic which goes well beyond video games and technology and into the deep recesses of human history. I’m no expert on the matter myself, and I’m bound to have my own oversights, but I wanted to lay out my own thoughts, as well as my own personal philosophy on the matter.

One of the stereotypes of being on the internet is that, in order to successfully participate, one must have or develop a thick skin. Behind the safety of a computer screen and at least a few hundred miles, it’s easy to say what you want, when you want. People will take anything they can to put you down, whether it’s because they want to seem tough, or they want to psych you out, or because they actually feel that way, and race, gender, and sexuality factor into that equation as well. However, while it’s true that listening to what every single random person has to say about you online and taking it to heart is a bad idea and that having an impermeable hide can help deflect the insults away, there’s still the problem of the very fact that words such as “nigger,” “faggot,” and “slut,” are considered viable as insults.

How often do you see someone try to put down another person by calling them white, heterosexual, or masculine? We take these values to be in may ways a societal default on practically a subconscious level. When you call someone a nigger online to try and get under their skin, even if you don’t really mean it seriously, even if they’re not actually black, you’re implying that being black is in itself a terrible thing. It’s one thing to trash talk to get a mental edge, and it’s another to even unknowingly reinforce the idea that some people are perpetually inferior on some inaccessible level simply because of the color of their skin or whom they find attractive.

That said, I am very much against censoring or removing slurs from the English language.

While I do not believe that words are necessarily innocent in and of themselves, as they may have elaborate backgrounds rooted in hatred and intolerance, I am a firm believer in freedom of expression, whether that’s artistic or verbal or any other form, and that includes the nastier side of how we speak. If the writer of a story wants to convey hatred through strong language, then that option should be available to them, just as the option to deride them for doing so is available to everyone who chooses to read (or not read) their work. If people feel the desire to express themselves using that language, then I do not think it’s right to deny them their own feeling. To simply say that we need to erase these words is like layering bricks over a massive sinkhole.

The problem with “faggot” isn’t that it originally meant “twig” or whatever and that we polluted its meaning, but rather that we allowed ourselves to believe that homosexuality is a quality worth insulting in the first place. This is also why I think people using words like nigger and faggot in a positive fashion, or at least trying to do so, is not necessarily reinforcing the negativity associated with these words, but that is a topic I will leave for another time.

One thing I am well aware of is the way such language can be so commonplace that those who are exposed to it frequently while growing up can wind up having it as a part of their subconscious mind and not realize the potential strength of these words. Using them becomes habit, as simple as saying “good morning.” I’ll admit it myself: when I was younger, I would use the word “gay” to mean “awful,” as in “You got a 50 on a test? That’s so gay!” If you had stopped me and asked whether or not I actually thought homosexual were inherently worse as human beings or that I actually hated them, I would’ve said of course not, but still, “gay” was in my vocabulary as an adjective to describe mundane areas of life. Eventually, I stopped using the word in that fashion altogether, but it didn’t come from me declaring that “from this day forward, I will no longer use the word ‘gay’ in a way which implies negativity!” It simply happened gradually and almost unconsciously, and if I had to attribute it to anything, it would be to meeting and becoming friends with people who are gay, the act of which likely educated me into thinking of them not as some distant idea or label, but as fellow human beings. Just as easy as it was to start using the word “gay” in that particular meaning, it became just as easy to stop after the fact.

In contrast, when I was even younger, I made the active decision to stop cursing, and while I’ve gotten somewhat more lax since, I still try to avoid such words as much as possible. I never mind if others use them and use them often, but I have knowingly limited my own regular vocabulary because I think it serves me better, and I will still use them when I’m quoting another person who’s used a word like “fuck,” or if I’m discussing it as a topic and feel that ideas get too obfuscated through the use of euphemisms.

The fact that I’ve consciously removed some insults from my language and unconsciously removed others can seem rather contradictory I realize, because it might seem as if I’m saying that people should consciously remove certain words from their vocabulary while also claiming that it happens naturally and we should just let nature take its course. The difference here, however, is that I am not claiming a solution wherein everyone eliminates offensive language from their vocabulary or society deems it fit to consider the use of those words a crime in and of themselves. Nor am I claiming that people should use only the words that I use. Rather, I think the key to addressing the use of slurs, whether the user did not consider the weight of those words, is simply education, and not on a didactic level.

If we can show people about how words can and do have power, or encourage people to realize that those they see as “others” are not some nebulous concept but as a group of individual human beings, then we can give them the power to shape their own language usage from an informed position, instead of an ignorant one. This way, when someone unconsciously uses a word that encourages intolerance, they can be shown the potential problems of doing so without forcing upon them a false paradigm of “right and wrong,” or trying to instill shame into them. Thus, if they stop using a word, it isn’t because the word never existed or that it has some vaguely defined negativity, but because they felt that, on some level, whether conscious or unconscious, that it isn’t how they would like to express themselves. Vocabulary is avoided but it isn’t removed.

Thoughts On the Pervasiveness of 4chanspeak

Since its inception, 4chan has generated a peculiar set of vocabulary. The term “weeaboo,” now synonymous with “japanophile” and “wapanese,” was born out of a word filter designed to mitigate usage of the term “wapanese.” Often times extreme and intentionally insulting, 4chan is also known for appending the suffix “-fag” to almost every word possible, to the point that its origin as a homosexual slur almost becomes a generalized slur. How else would you explain the usage of the term “straightfag” to denote someone who is annoyingly heterosexual?

Though it is convenient and perhaps comforting to think of terms such as “weeaboo” and “moralfag” as isolated elements of the 4chan userbase, 4chan-isms have permeated the internet to the extent that people who have never even loaded a 4chan page are using these phrases. I saw one such thread on a reddit video games thread, where after throwing around a bunch of classic 4chan terms, proceeded to ask what /v/ is  (the video games board on 4chan).

Personally, when it comes to my writing and even my online chatting, I prefer to keep the usage of 4chan-isms to a minimum, because I feel that they 1) have too much baggage that requires unpacking and 2) are overly broad when I tend to prefer a bit of precision in my sentences. I also prefer that other people do the same, though I don’t mind seeing it pop up every so often, especially for flavor. On the other hand, overuse of 4chan-isms to the extent that thoughts are conveyed using almost nothing but them can not only be difficult to read but causes my mind to kind of gloss over what they have to say.

However, given the sheer amount of 4chanspeak users out there, I find it increasingly difficult to write off what people have to say solely because of their excessive 4chan-sisms.  After all, if it has become so ubiquitous, if there is an entire generation of internet users who think this to be the normal way to speak online, then it is more than likely that very smart and insightful individuals who communicate primarily through such terms exist. While I can criticize them for using terms which probably have better alternatives, I cannot deny the possibility that smart things can be said in a “inarticulate” fashion. Not only that, but if someone feels most comfortable describing their feelings using 4chanspeak, who am I to judge? If someone says, “I got NTR’d and might become a suicidefag,” and actually means it, then maybe I have to just understand that sentence as being their way of expressing a hurtful situation and to take that seriously.