Sunday, February 17, 2019

My Suggestion for a Community Response to the Abuser in the RPG Scene

On February 10th, Mandy Morbid spoke out publicly about how her ex-boyfriend abused her, and how he tried to manipulate her into helping him abuse other women. Her statement was immediately supported by two other women, Jennifer and Hannah, and on February 12th, Vivka Grey spoke out publicly as well. I believe these women. I think their bravery in speaking up to help protect others from being abused by this man in the future is nothing short of heroic.

The man who abused them is Zak Smith, one of the most prominent figures in the online RPG scene.

Very quickly, people who had once been Zak Smith's close friends spoke out to say that they knew him well, knew Mandy Morbid well, and although they hadn't seen the abuse taking place, they believed her account of it. They also explained how he had emotionally abused the people who thought they were his friends, including themselves. You can read accounts from Patrick Stuart, Scrap Princess, Kenneth Hite, Kiel ChanierStacy Dellorfano, Jack McNamee, Ben L, Arnold K, Emmy AllenZedeck Siew, Geist, Luka Rejec, Jeff RussellLSkirin, Fiona Maeve Geist. It also took bravery for these people to speak up, to admit things they did because Zak Smith asked them to, and to confess to ways he hurt them that they might have preferred to keep private. That takes courage too, and I admire it.

Zak Smith fought online endlessly with people in the RPG scene. He hurt the people he fought with, and his fights hurt the entire community of RPG players. You can read accounts from Michael Prescott, Alex Schroeder, Alex Schroeder, Brian Harbon, Skerples. My own experiences were most similar to theirs. I hid from him, was afraid of him. I never linked to his blog, never talked about him in any way, not even to condemn him. I watched him hurt people I considered friends so badly that they left the scene. But I also sometimes still read his blog and his other public statements, still permitted his words to influence my opinions about the things he talked about. I still paid money to buy his books. My silence haunts me.

I debated with myself whether to write anything about this. I questioned whether I had anything to add. I still wonder if the potential good of making a statement can possibly outweigh the risk of backlash for making it. But I think one thing that has gone under-remarked so far is the way that the abuse Zak Smith inflicted in his personal life was inextricably connected to his public persona within the RPG scene. I think understanding that is important for understanding what can be done about him now. Everything I say below are conclusions I've drawn from reading the statements I linked to above.

In brief, Zak Smith used his relationships with the women he abused as a way gain status among RPG players. In turn, he used the money, the fame, and yes, the infamy he got from the RPG scene as tools to facilitate his abuse of the women he lived with.

Zak Smith used his relationship with Mandy Morbid and the other women he lived with to promote his blog and his persona as a cool and well-liked guy who already had the private approval of glamorous women. He used their occupations as sex workers as a kind of bait to attract attention and fame. His blog made the promise that if you read it, you could vicariously experience his cool and glamorous lifestyle, that if you bought his books, you could own a small piece of that lifestyle, and that if you befriended him online, you could be part of it. He borrowed and stole these women's grandeur and laundered it through his blog to establish himself as a leader within the RPG scene.

He used his blog and his social-media presence to attract people to him. He drew them in with flattery and praise. He asked them to socially isolate themselves online by interacting only with himself and the others he'd already drawn into his orbit. He asked them to intervene in his fights with outsiders on social media. These people considered themselves his friends, but in their own way, they were also victims of his emotional abuse.

He attempted to make them dependent on him, and to make them complicit in their own abuse. He attempted to make them feel guilty, by telling them, whenever they disagreed with him, that they were abusing him. He attempted to make them place his requests higher than the demands of their own consciences by asking them, in online fights with outsiders, to say and do things that violated their personal morality. And whenever any one of them disagreed with him too much, he declared them outsiders, and used the full weight of everything he knew about them, every secret they confided in him, every bit of guilt he had established in them, to try to destroy them emotionally, and then to persuade them to publicly declare that they deserved to be destroyed.

The people Zak Smith approached often had marginalized identities, and many were socially isolated online and off. Prejudice and social injustice and isolation hurt these people and made them vulnerable, and Zak Smith noticed, affirmed, and then exploited these vulnerabilities, just as any predatory animal is drawn to the scent of blood from an open wound. Mandy Morbid was marginalized by her chronic illness and her occupation, but Zak Smith targeting people like her didn't make him an ally of oppressed peoples or a friend to sex workers.

In turn, Zak Smith's online fame and notoriety fed back into his abuse of the women he lived with. The money, celebrity, and pool of supporters he attracted obviously gave him that many more tools to economically, emotionally, socially, medically, physically, and sexually abuse them. But his enemies were a tool as well. Getting into online fights appears to be the thing he enjoyed most in life, and he used these fights as a tool of control. When Zak Smith appeared to be hurt by an online fight, it led Mandy Morbid to feel sympathetic and protective toward him, it lent her the appearance of power, which he immediately asked her to relinquish to protect him. When the people Zak Smith fought with lashed out at Mandy Morbid, their attacks did hurt her - and while it's true that these attacks remain the fault of the people who committed them, it's also true that he sought out and cultivated conflicts that could rise to that level of hostility, and that he made full use of the hurt those attacks caused to increase her dependency on him for protection. He also directly exploited her name, her reputation, and their relationship in these online fights by writing a defense of himself and demanding that she claim authorship of it and post it on her own website. For countless of his supporters, the idea that he was a good provider and a loving caretaker to Mandy Morbid underwrote their ongoing acceptance of his behavior online.

Zak Smith sought to make the entirety of the RPG scene complicit in his abuse, by giving him attention, money, supporters, and enemies, all of which he used as tools of control. And we let him.

I obviously didn't know about Zak Smith's abuse of Mandy Morbid or the other women he lived with, but it turns out I didn't really understand his public persona either. In one way, I knew that he was a bully who got into online fights, recruited his friends to fight on his behalf, and who was inexhaustible, so that anyone who fought him gave up first. But in another way, I didn't understand him at all. I believed his self-presentation as a smart man with big ideas about art and games, even if I found the way he argued in favor of those big ideas to be abhorrent. I sometimes admired his eloquence, and appreciated when he spoke favorably about something I also enjoyed.

But based on what his former friends have said, I think I was wrong. I think Zak Smith only ever had one idea - and that idea was that Zak Smith is perfect, and other things are good and true to the extent that they resemble Zak Smith, and are false and wrong and evil to the extent that they are different from or displeasing to him.

Based on what his former friends are said, I think you have to presumptively assume that every word he ever said was a lie.

I think all his alleged opinions were just sophistry, pleasant sounding falsehoods masquerading as reasons or causes that he made up to disguise his actual motivation - to praise himself by praising things that reminded him of himself. He said a lot of smart-sounding things about why some RPGs were good, but I think those were post-hoc justifications meant to paper over decisions made purely on the basis of self-interest. I think his only aesthetic theory was that his own art was best.

He said a lot of things that sounded high-minded and morally-righteous against games he disliked and the people who made those games, but I don't think he disliked them because they were wrong, I think they were wrong, in his eyes, because he disliked them, possibly just because they were too different from him for him to praise himself by praising them. And I think his moral theory extended no further than to believe that anything that displeased him was a lie, was ugly, was incorrect, was not merely wrong but actually immoral, that anything and anyone he disliked must be evil. He made so many accusations against others because it followed logically from his first and only axiom that anyone he disliked was guilty of something, even if not the sin he tried framing them for.

He was famously a man who would tell you that you're lying if you quoted his own words back to him. He would say that it was because in quoting him, you were imputing meaning to his words that he didn't intend. But really, it was because anything you said that he disagreed with must be false, and anything he says in response must be true. All his theories and ideas, all his online fights, appeared to be about art or games, but in his eyes they were really only about the issue of his own superiority. If that sounds insane, that's because it is. It's narcissism so severe it verges on solipsism, on believing yourself to be the only real person in the world, and seeing everyone else as akin to animals, or toys, or just things. It's only a step or so removed from declaring yourself to be god.

And as I said before, he tried to make the whole of the RPG scene complicit, by getting us to accept his judgments, to agree with his aesthetics, to believe the false reasons he gave to hide the true basis for his beliefs, to accept his pronouncements of morality.

So what can be done?

There are four theories about the punishment, about the purpose it serves, about the goals is can accomplish. The oldest is retribution, that punishment should harm those who have harmed others. Rehabilitation says that punishment is intended to give the guilty party an opportunity to reform themselves and become better. Deterrence is the idea that we punish one person with the goal of clarifying a moral boundary so that others are forewarned not to cross it. And then there's incapacitation, the idea that you punish someone so that, at least for as long as they're being punished, they can't hurt anyone else.

I know people worry about the justice of attempts to punish people on the internet. But the RPG scene exists at least partially online, and though he hurt Mandy Morbid worse, Zak Smith also hurt the online community of RPG fans. I'm not recommending retribution. I don't think rehabilitation is within our power. I don't know what deterrence would mean here. Drawing a collective moral red-line against abuse might be an important statement of community values, but I doubt that the threat of expulsion from online roleplaying will truly deter any would-be abusers.

But incapacitation interests me, because I think it might just be possible. I think the RPG scene collectively has the power to incapacitate Zak Smith, at least to a limited degree. We may not be able to prevent him from doing harm in the future, but we can reduce his capacity for it. Do not give him money. Do not give him attention. Do not give him a forum to talk in or an audience to listen to him speak. Don't be his friend. Don't be his enemy. Don't try to hurt him. Don't fight with him. Don't stalk, threaten, or harass him. Don't talk with him at all. He is happy enough to have infamy and opponents to fight, and he has proved that he knows how to use those fights to do harm. Let him be ignored. Let him be alone. Deny him the money and materiel and munitions and supporters and foes he needs to make war.

Don't buy his books. Don't visit his website. Don't play his games. Don't listen to his explanations. Don't quote his ideas to me. Don't tell me you still think he was right about this, or that his enemies were wrong about that. I don't want to hear it. I'm sure some of the people he accused of misdeeds actually are guilty - for example the people who used their online fight with him as an excuse to heap further injury onto the women he lived with - but I no longer believe it's possible to think a person is guilty just because Zak Smith said so. If he praised something you liked, find a new reason to praise it. If he criticized something you disliked, find a true reason to criticize it. And in both cases ask yourself if you really liked or disliked them, or if you just let Zak Smith convince you you did. Incapacitate him. Block him, ban him, mute him, ignore him. Take away the tools he used to hurt us. You can't stop him from hurting anyone else in his personal life - Mandy Morbid has done more to protect other women from him than anyone in the online RPG scene ever possibly could - but you can refuse to be complicit in supporting him any longer.

If you've done something wrong, notice that you did it and acknowledge it. Stop doing it now and figure out how to stop yourself from doing it again in the future. Find a way to make amends. An actual "I'm sorry" apology is one way to acknowledge, one possible step in making amends, but it might not be necessary, might even be counterproductive. Don't just do what might make you feel better about yourself. Do something that might genuinely help someone you hurt, or might help others who have been hurt in the same way by someone else.

This is the first time I have posted about Zak Smith on my blog, and I hope it will be the only time. Let this be the end of him.