Prominent youtuber John Bain (aka TotalBiscuit) said recently that the death threats against Anita Sarkeesian are not credible because, and I quote, “she’s still breathing”. That is, he isn’t going to trust that someone intends to kill someone else until they’ve done so. He goes on to say there’s a difference between someone posting on Twitter that they want you dead, and actual murder. My complaints here are about factuality, context, intent, and tone, in that order.
First, factuality. Is it true that death threats are not credible unless the threatened individual is dead? Obviously not. If someone is pointing a gun at you and has just murdered another person, and the gunman is threatening to kill you, that is a credible threat. If someone proves that they have weapons and they know where to find you, and they claim to want to kill you, that threat has less credibility than it would if they also proved that they’ve already killed someone, but it’s still at least somewhat credible. So as a matter of principle, Bain’s statement is incorrect. However, we can take it as hyperbolic.
Bain is, however, ignoring context. Sarkeesian has been getting death threats of the variety Bain disparages for months or years. She is intimately familiar with them. She only recently got a death threat significant enough for her to leave her home. There is obviously a difference in the death threat that motivated that move and the thousands she’s received in the past. This brings us to intent.
Why is Bain talking about this in this manner? Does he honestly believe that someone who has received thousands of death threats in the past without being forced from her home cannot distinguish between something that is a risk to her life and mere (if one can call it that) toxic vitriol? No. Has Bain has studiously avoided investigating the public death threats against Sarkeesian, maintaining a level of ignorance that would be unconscionable in any journalist speaking about this topic? Or is he familiar with them and the level of reaction that they have solicited from Sarkeesian — which consists of lectures, jokes, videos, and reports to Twitter — noticed that this new death threat resulted in a much different reaction, and simply not reached the obvious conclusion that there must be something different about this new death threat? Perhaps Bain is simply convinced that gamers are good people and can’t send credible death threats to anyone, no matter how many Twitter death threats are tossed around. Perhaps he can’t accept the cognitive dissonance between this and the evidence before his eyes and so edits his reality in accordance with his desires and not with reason.
Perhaps he thinks that it’s so rare for someone to make a credible death threat against another, even when that person is one of the more reviled people for a large group, that it’s more likely that Sarkeesian is lying. But as far as I know, Bain has no training in criminal psychology, has not studied the literature, and has no statistical knowledge of the topic. He is a lay person making statements from ignorance and broadcasting them to a hundred thousand followers. This is grossly irresponsible at best.
The other side of intent is the goals he had in mind. What was he trying to do when he made that statement? Quite possibly he hadn’t thought enough about it to have an explicit goal in mind. If he did have a goal, what might it be? The most obvious possibility is simply silencing and discrediting Sarkeesian. After that, his words serve to reassure people who are telling Sarkeesian and other women that they should die. These people are being told that they aren’t hurting anyone, or at least that their actions are having only a minor effect. Adding that to the discrediting effect, it means that people will be even more enthusiastic about harassing Sarkeesian. I don’t think Bain intended to increase harassment, but he did mean to express contempt and incredulity. His word choice reflects that.
At the very least, Bain is guilty of incautious communication and a level of ignorance he wouldn’t accept from anyone else in a similar position. He allows himself this level of ignorance, even with the size of his audience, simply by denying that he’s a journalist. I’m sure that’s an immense comfort to the victims of gamergate.