Dear SXSW: harassment is a terrible reason to cancel a panel on harassment

Are your irony detectors broken? Or can you just not hear them with your heads buried in the sand?

In case you missed it being reported by pretty much every media outlet, last night the South By Southwest (SXSW) festival announced it was removing two gaming panels from its 2016 lineup that were intended to tackle the sexist abuse, lack of diversity, and online harassment that have become so embarrassingly and intricately tied up with the videogame community. The panels SXSW had planned were called ‘SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community’ and ‘Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games.’

The Level Up panel in particular was focussing on harassment, highlighting the difficulties faced by women in the gaming industry, which has become an especially controversial topic as a result of Gamergate, which highlighted unrelenting campaigns of abuse targeting notable figures like game developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu, and critic Anita Sarkeesian.

It was only a week since they’d announced the events, but yesterday SXSW was resolute when cancelling them in response to various threats made against the festival. The festival issued a statement saying:

“SXSW prides itself on being a big tent and a marketplace of diverse people and diverse ideas.

“If people cannot agree, disagree and embrace new ways of thinking in a safe and secure place that is free of online and offline harassment, then this marketplace of ideas is inevitably compromised.”

SXSW Interactive Director, Hugh Forrest, decided that “maintaining civil and respectful dialogue within the big tent is more important than any particular session.”

Ignoring the depressing irony of an anti-harassment panel being cancelled due to harassment, and the absolutely bizarre implication that there’s going to be some kind of ‘big tent’ holy ground coming to Texas the sanctity of which must not be compromised, let’s look at the wider implications.

From the perspective of the Gamergate and anti-Gamergate debate – which was actually not directly mentioned in the description of either event – both sides were eager to see their panel happen, and neither is claiming responsibility for the threats. So, that means it’s time to drop the labels, because not only does it make this whole thing easier to understand and less likely to be dismissed by those not involved, it highlights that this is a much bigger problem than a pissing match between gamers on the internet. This is important. This is real.

But besides that, we have to say – seriously, SXSW? Anyone hosting a large event should be prepared for threats and have a plan in place for dealing with them. The people being discussed in panels on harassment have to deal with it every single day, they don’t get to cancel their event and walk off scot-free. SXSW surely couldn’t have expected to host panels on such controversial topics without inviting hostility.

Rather than brush this under the carpet with a “nuke the whole map” mentality that solves nothing, up your security, take extra precautions, do not perpetuate the problem of harassment by weakly folding to it when you have the resources to set up a platform where it can be safely discussed. In doing so, SXSW, you’re validating the harassers, telling them that their cowardly tactics are effective, and highlighting how essential the panel you cancelled actually is.

Main Image via SXSW