Last night, Anita Sarkeesian cancelled a speaking event, scheduled for today, at Utah State University.
Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic who addresses the representation of women in video games (and does so, I think, quite brilliantly) has been a consistent target of violent threats for some time. Such threats against Sarkeesian and other women in the video games industry have only escalated with the development of the so-called #Gamergate “movement” (for a primer on Gamergate, check out this article). There’s a lot to be said about Gamergate, about the culture-war identity politics at play in it, and about how its most strident, misogynistic voices exemplify the paradoxes of fictimhood at its most distilled – they are at once shrilly pseudo-aggrieved while simultaneously they threaten people who are genuinely marginalized – but that’s not the purpose of this post. Instead, I want to focus on the background and circumstances of Sarkeesian’s cancelling her talk.
As Utah State University News indicates, Sarkeesian received threats prior to the talk, which the FBI determined were “similar to other threats that [she had] received in the past.” Among these was the specific threat of “the deadliest school shooting in American history” targeting her and other “feminists.” However, Sarkeesian – who has bravely and regularly faced down threats of violence in the past – cancelled her appearance not simply due to this threat itself, but because Utah State officials informed her that licensed Concealed Carry permit holders would be allowed to carry loaded weapons into the speaking venue. This is not a matter of University policy: in fact, Utah State law specifically prohibits public colleges and universities from banning concealed carry on their campuses. Although the State Board of Regents retains some limited authority when it comes to regulating the presence of guns for campus, this only extends to allowing students to request to share dorm rooms with roommates who aren’t licensed to be armed, and to maintaining no more than one “secure area” where guns are not allowed in which to conduct private “hearings” (IE, for grievance procedures, disciplinary hearings, firings, etcetera); that “secure area” ceases to be a gun-free space, by the way, the moment the hearing event is over. When it comes to a public event like Sarkeesian’s, then, Utah State’s hands are tied. And although Utah is the first state in the country to have laws like this on the books, other States are poised to enact similar ones soon, and Georgia (where my own university is located) appears to have already “accidentally” enacted similar legislation this summer.
Now, in case you’re curious, the requirements for getting a CC license in Utah are listed here. As these things go, the requirements are fairly high (in that you have to take a course with a certified instructor), but Utah also maintains reciprocity honoring licenses issued by numerous others states, including, for example, Georgia, where all you have to do is fill out some paperwork, undergo a background check, and wait about a month or so for your permit. In other words, beyond having that, a gun, and a willingness to show up at a Utah college and murder someone in public, there’s really nothing stopping you: unless you’ve already made your identity and intentions clear (and most of Sarkeesian’s threats are anonymous), campus security will wave you on in.
Of course, gun rights advocates will doubtless say that the presence of guns on campus should make things safer, rather than less (in fact, there’s a national Students for Concealed Carry group that makes this case explicitly). Whatever the statistical odds of dying in a “random” mass shooting, the primary threat against which Campus Carry groups advocate arming oneself, the situation with Sarkeesian is entirely different: she is being specifically and personally targeted with the threat of assassination. Against that backdrop, her desire not to have an audience containing armed people is eminently reasonable – and far more reasonable than, say, suggesting that a “good guy” with a gun could somehow manage to get the draw on a “bad one” before the bad guy manages to get a shot off at her. At which point, what is Sarkeesian supposed to do? Bring a gun of her own, and keep it in one hand to sweep the audience with while she holds a laser pointer for her PowerPoint in the other? Roll in with her own coterie of pistol-packing supporters, forming a human shield around her, maybe?
All of this is at once ridiculous, tragic, and terrifying. As I have argued elsewhere, the presence of guns at contentious public events inevitably changes the dynamic – there’s a chilling effect on expression, an ever-present implicit threat. Knowing that random members of the public are in your audience carrying heat is something that certainly should and will impact what you say, particularly when you’ve already been told that someone will show up to your event and shoot you. While I readily admit that I also find the prospect of ludicrously over-militarized campus security personnel toting M-16s and grenade launchers likewise toxic when it comes to impacting speech on campus, and in quashing student dissent in particular, I believe that colleges and universities are supposed to be places where ideas can be exchanged freely and without fear of violent repercussion. They should not be places where speech hangs in the balance of who’s better armed or who has the quicker draw – and certainly not places where a speaker should be silenced from the get-go by the prospect of having to speak in the crosshairs.