Consultancygate: An Overview

2014-08-09 23:52

So, I wrote a really long thing about this, but it is as noted really long. This article is intended to be a better-structured guide to what happened, and why I think that the attacks on Zak and Pundit are basically dishonest and without merit. This article does not attempt to include all, or even many, of the examples. I am not implying that the things I don’t address are true, or even plausible; I’m just picking the examples I think are the clearest and easiest to understand without a ton of extra research. I looked into a lot more of them, and kept reaching the same conclusions.

Dramatis Personae

  • Zak: “Zak S”, (“Zak Smith” on Google+).
  • Pundit: “The RPG Pundit”. (“Kasimir Urbanski” on Google+)
  • Failforward: The tumblr blog at failforward.co.uk. Apparently this is Tom Hatfield (@WordMercenary on twitter)
  • Tracy Hurley: Someone who’s been in conflict with both Zak and Pundit for a long time. (“@SarahDarkmagic” on Twitter)

Major sources (not an exhaustive list, just the ones I’m referring to):

Fact Claims:

  • The accusations leveled at Zak and Pundit in the Failforward piece are substantively false.
  • The writing in the Failforward piece is consistently deceptive and engages in rhetorical tricks to manipulate the reader even when stopping short of directly false claims.
  • I have no evidence that Zak has acted in a “transphobic” manner.
  • Zak is highly abrasive and behaves in a confrontational manner.
  • People on both sides of the argument have at least sometimes tried to get other people fired or blacklisted.
  • The conflation of “Zak and Pundit” is itself nonsensical; they are very different people, with very different behaviors. The only real connection is that they are both listed in the D&D 5e credits.
  • The alleged “outing” of a game designer in a post by Mandy would not have resulted in many (or possibly any) people concluding the designer was trans, had there not been ensuing public drama about whether or not it was “outing”.
  • I can find no complaints about Zak’s (or Pundit’s) interactions with LGBT people per se prior to July 2014.

Opinion claims:

  • Pundit is pretty odious.
  • I disapprove of the attempts to keep other people from working on all sides.
  • Zak’s confrontational manner, coupled with other people’s conflicting social protocols, can result in massive escalations without either party necessarily acting in bad faith.
  • There is no innate duty to change your conversational style just because it interacts badly with someone else’s.
  • Zak’s attempts to get people blacklisted appear to be tied to specific kinds of bad behavior, not merely to personal dislike.
  • Zak is fairly consistent in having unusually strict ethical standards for certain behaviors, but he appears to consistently apply those standards to himself and his friends, not just to people he’s in conflict with.
  • The reason there are suddenly allegations, but virtually no examples, of Zak being hostile to LGBTs is that the inclusive language in the 5th Edition rules was contrasted with Zak and Pundit in a tweet by Tracy Hurley. EDIT: To clarify, I don't mean to imply that Tracy started the conversation, just that I think her tweet was the one contrasting Zak and Pundit with "inclusive" language. I am not asserting that the outcome is somehow her fault.

Before I get into a review of specific claims, I want to give a broad overview of what I’ve found. I’ve found a lot of discussion about Zak, and a lot of fights he’s been in on the Internet, over a period of years. No doubt about it, the guy gets into fights. So does Pundit.

What I haven’t seen yet is even one assertion prior to July 3rd, 2014 that they’re hostile to LGBT people, or “transphobic”, or anything like that. The Failforward piece argues that this is because of the fear of retaliation, but this argument is irreconcilable with the huge volume of very visible public conflict with Zak (and Pundit), throughout any number of forums or communities, especially relating to RPGs. Maybe there’s been some before, but I couldn’t find a single one.

Problem: Since the offhand remark contrasted the 5th Edition rules being inclusive of gender identities other than “cis male” and “cis female” with Zak and Pundit, it became necessary to manufacture a narrative in which they were having huge negative effects on the LGBT community, and allegations of “transphobia” and the like. And then to manufacture an excuse for why no one had ever heard of this.

The resulting narratives are painfully dishonest and inconsistent, combining lack of evidence with shoddy excuses for that lack. By contrast: Look for evidence of people accusing Zak of being the wrong kind of D&D player, and you will find pages and pages of results showing him coming into conflict with people. You want to argue about sexism, rather than LGBT issues? There’s lots of people arguing with Zak about sexism and misogyny. None of them seem to be afraid to argue with him, call him names, or anything else. There is likewise no shortage of people criticizing and attacking Pundit.

So the overall conclusion is: This whole thing comes out of a need to try to make an offhand remark seem more coherent than it really was. The more serious allegations of significant real-world retaliation are probably just a fiction to support the narrative explaining why suddenly people were complaining about a thing they’d never mentioned before. But this does nothing to explain why everyone else felt safe about getting into fights with Zak, or Pundit. The allegation that the attacks primarily target women and LGBT people might serve, except for how insanely condescending it is to suggest that there were hundreds of LGBT people who were afraid to say anything, while hundreds of presumably-not-LGBT people were quite comfortable attacking Zak or Pundit. Especially since I’m sure you’ll find, if you investigate, that many of the people attacking Zak or Pundit in the past have also been LGBT, but have reported no such stalking and harassment.

With that in mind, some analysis of the specific writing:

Section 1: Just plain false.

Some of the claims made in the Failforward piece are just plain false.

To be clear, I am not accusing Zak or Pundit of making these calls, there is no evidence for that. What they do is point out targets and refuse to admonish their fans when they step over the line.

The first sentence is likely true. Which, it turns out, is pretty good evidence of innocence: Phone companies keep records. If they had made the calls, there would have been evidence. But the second sentence seems to be just plain false. Zak says, over on G+, not to stalk or harass people. (Since I can’t find a way to link to comments directly on G+: It’s a comment some ways down the page, starting “What a good reason to ask for a list”.) The relevant quote:

Now while any sane person can see why it’s a good idea to make a list of people in the RPG community who are willing to lie for no real reason and let other people see that list, the conspiracy theorists will say that this is so people can stalk or harass them. Well, don’t stalk or harass them, that doesn’t help me at all—I want them discredited and harassing them only *adds credence* to their bullshit.. Just don’t ever trust or help any of these people ever, and confront them with a demand for proof when they make accusations.

That’s an unambiguous, direct, request that people should not stalk or harass the people listed. This is not “refusing to admonish fans”, if indeed any fans are doing such things. There are others.

Specifically they’re part of the ‘Old School Rules’ movement: people who think everything since the earliest editions of D&D was unnecessary.

This is a ridiculous assertion, given that the complaint here involves their involvement in 5th Edition D&D as consultants. It’s also completely irrelevant, except to the underlying long-standing RPG community feuds that drive the whole thing.

Section 2: Contradictory and misleading claims.

Okay, let’s just start with the easy one:

These are Zak and Pundit as I knew them when the news broke. It’s the image most were already familiar with: angry nerdboys who spent all their time trying to gatekeep the hobby.

This, I became aware, was because anyone who criticised the pair found themselves subjected to harassment, abuse and real world stalking.

While this behaviour is alarming, it the choice of victim that is the most telling. These attacks nearly always target women and LGTBQ individuals, mostly freelancers and independent designers.

The RPG community is small enough that almost every woman, person of colour or LGTBQ individual seems to have had a run in with Zak or Pundit.

Zak presents himself as a sex positive feminist, but spends all his time derailing conversations on sexism, defending sexists and attacking real feminists by painting them as anti-sex conservatives.

So, on the one hand, “anyone” who criticizes them is subjected to harassment, but the attacks “nearly always” target women and LGBTQ individuals, “mostly” freelancers and independent designers. Meanwhile, they are spending “all their time” trying to gatekeep the hobby — an activity which would require them to be focusing on newcomers, not existing members of the hobby. There’s other issues with the wording here, such as the ambiguity about “run in”; is any conversation a “run in”? Also, Zak spends “all his time” on yet another task, meaning he’s using at least two and a half all-his-times just on Internet drama, to say nothing of time spent playing D&D or doing paying work.

That last quote continues:

Zak presents himself as a sex positive feminist, but spends all his time derailing conversations on sexism, defending sexists and attacking real feminists by painting them as anti-sex conservatives. When called out on this he defends his words with a greatest hits list of derailing arguments: ‘I know women who disagree’, ‘You’re just anti-sex prudes’ and even attempting to debate what the word ‘sexist’ means.

The list of derailing arguments is vague enough to include a broad range of things. There are, in fact, quite a number of conflicting definitions of “sexist” in use, and people will often argue about whether something is sexist or not, but really be arguing about what “sexist” means. This is characterized as being in bad faith, but anyone who’s spent much time talking about feminism will have seen debates on the topic. And while you may believe strongly that one party in such a debate is being disingenuous, the chances are good that at least one is attempting to prevent a derail. The casual contrasting of Zak with “real feminists” is pretty much pure question-begging.

In several cases, assertions are made, and evidence provided, but the evidence does not align with the claims. The most obvious example, from the failforward piece:

Zak and Pundit have taken pains to defend themselves against accusations of transphobia, but I know several transpeople who their fans have attacked and harassed.

There’s two substitutions here. First, “their fans” are substituted for “Zak and Pundit”. Second, “transpeople who have been attacked and harassed” is substituted for “people who were attacked because they were trans, or in a way specific to them being trans”. Zak gets into conflicts with lots of people; it would be sort of weird if none of them were trans. But the writing implies that it was because they were trans that they got attacked. Furthermore, it’s very odd that none of those accusations appear to predate the July 3rd initial release of the 5E rules, in contrast to accusations of sexism or misogyny, which have been going on for years.

The Failforward piece quotes Mike Mearls a couple of times. In two cases, the piece summarizes what Mearls says, then quotes his words:

Days later Mearls responded. No-one had given him evidence that Zak or Pundit had not spoken any slurs, so he was throwing the complaints out. The allegations of harassment it seems, were secondary to whether they had ever spoken a bad word:

  • I haven’t seen or received any evidence that Zak has made homo/transphobic or racist statements.
  • I have heard from a number of people who feel harassed and marginalized in the gaming community.
  • At the end of the day, the responsibility for working with Zak and RPGPundit, and more importantly *not* directly working with marginalized groups falls solely upon me

Mearls says “any evidence that Zak has made homo/transphobic or racist statements”. Failforward characterizes this as “evidence that Zak or Pundit had not spoken any slurs”, and then emphasizes this with “the allegations … were secondary to whether they had ever spoken a bad word.” That characterization is absolutely incorrect.

Mearls again replied, saying that he was not taking the accusations seriously because some of the people stating them where members of the Something Awful forums, which he claimed has a history of harassing Zak:

My impression is that SA folks are using gender and race issues to drive their personal grudges with people. It’s very damaging for making real progress on these issues. People getting in touch with me are pointing to that site to undermine the real issues we face in gaming.

Again, the actual text quoted from Mike Mearls does not say what the Failforward piece says it does. The intent is that the reader sees the claim, sees quoted text, and skims the text or interprets it according to the claim. That’s why the description comes before the quoted text. And that’s why I’ve put my characterizations of the quotes after the quotes, so you read the quotes for yourself and then see how I interpret them.

Section 3: Accusations of transphobia.

There’s a number of layers of accusations here. Some involve a now-deleted blog. Worse, a lot of them revolve around accusations of “outing” a particular person, or personal attacks on that person, making it extremely difficult to discuss these issues without compounding the problem. So, unless I hear from the person in question that they want this talked about, I’ll leave it at this: There appears to be some dispute about relevant facts and/or chronology.

More recent writing has added as evidence of Zak’s alleged transphobia claims that he’s “denied” that this person is trans. But this creates a clash between conflicting standards. On the one hand, Mandy is accused of being involved in “outing” someone by revealing them to have two names (out of a list of five or so) of which one sounds masculine and one feminine. But Zak’s accused of being transphobic for not fully endorsing third-party allegations that someone is trans. Usually, I think, the preferred response is to not draw a conclusion either way unless the person in question (rather than third parties) tells you, and not to go speculating or inquiring, because it is in general none of your business.

There is an actual example of a post in which Zak uses a word which is apparently a slur. I’d never heard of it before, but apparently it is. So, in “Zak Makes New Friends”, someone calls him out on it. There’s some back-and-forth conversation, in which Zak asserts that he didn’t know what the word meant, a claim I find eminently plausible, since a quick straw poll turned up only one person I know who had ever heard it before. When someone explains why they find it offensive, he offers an apology. There’s some interesting social dynamics, because he seems to be concerned both with (1) apologizing for any insult, and (2) making it clear that he genuinely didn’t know the word. I am inclined to accept both claims.

Long story short: I see no evidence of transphobia. The closest would be claims that some of the people Zak fights with are trans, but given how many people Zak gets in fights with, I don’t find that persuasive.

Perhaps most importantly, most of the hostile writing has taken one of two courses; either asserting outright that Zak’s many LGBT friends don’t exist, or accusing them of being biased. These two accusations, however, are mutually exclusive, and sort of ridiculous; very few trans people are so “biased” as to completely disregard transphobic behavior. The continued refusal to acknowledge these people is the only actual example of “silencing LGBT people” involved. There are LGBT people on both sides of the feud, but only Zak’s critics are refusing to acknowledge the existence of LGBT people who disagree with them.

Section 4: Sort of true

Some things are at least partially true, but embellished with additional unverifiable claims. The obvious example would be Failforward’s claim:

[Zak] has in the past posted lists of people who he feels have displeased him in some way, complete with their real names. Those people then lists find themselves subjected to sustained campaigns of harassment. Not mere internet name calling, but phone calls to people’s houses in the middle of the night that say “This is where your children go to school.”

There is one partially-true claim here, which is that Zak has posted a list of people who had done something he strongly objected to. Specifically, according to Pundit, they had endorsed a false accusation that someone had made rape threats. The characterization of this as “feels have displeased him in some way” is highly misleading; it implies minor transgressions against Zak, not major ones against someone else. I’ve only found a reference to one such list. It is not obvious that the list is “complete with their real names”. A couple of people have names attached, and G+ usernames often look like names, but G+ did not at the time enforce “real” names, only “realistic” names. There’s also a big jump in the “subjected to sustained campaigns of harassment” claim; no evidence is ever provided for that.

Zak’s explanation:

This was on the logic that: If somebody would lie or fail to do their homework about rape threats, they’d pretty much be willing to lie or casually accept *anything*.

However, the underlying claim that Zak has at least once posted a list of people who did a thing he found highly objectionable does seem to be true. There’s also at least one defensible accusation against Pundit:

Here [Pundit] is comparing an expo instituting an anti-harassment policy harsh Islamic modesty laws, managing to insult both women and Muslims in one article.

This is somewhat misleading, because the term “anti-harassment” policy, in the context of a convention or expo, is usually understood to refer to a policy banning harassment and outlining how the convention will deal with harassment complaints. This one, though, covered a broader range; in particular, according to posters in the thread, it had somewhat vague “modesty” rules, which are not usually regarded as necessary for gaming conventions. On the other hand, if it was a “trade expo”, that might be different. On the other hand, the comparison to Islamic modesty laws is there, and is just as stupid as it sounds.

Section 5: Evidence of malice.

So, at least some of the claims are false, and some have “support” offered which doesn’t actually support them. The next question is whether the article could be advancing sincere beliefs, and merely logically incompetent, or whether the deception is intentional. It’s intentional and malicious. This is shown by the use of tactics which are deceptive or manipulative, but are offered incidentally rather than as claims or evidence for claims, and also by the use of particularly emotionally-laden language.

Roland Jones A has a pair of very interesting sentences:

Mandy is (or was) Zak’s girlfriend.

So, the people testifying that Zak is not transphobic are his (former?) girlfriend who outed a trans person, and a blatant Zak fan who defends outing trans people.

The “outed a trans person” and “defends outing trans people” claims were addressed elsewhere; I believe them both to be factually incorrect, but it is perhaps conceivable that they were offered in good faith. But what exactly is the reason for the parentheticals? Zak and Mandy have been together for something like eight years. There’s no obvious reason to think they aren’t still. No other relationships between people get these special qualifiers. They’re not relevant, they’re not tied into anything asserted anywhere else; the sole effect is to cast some sort of aspersions or doubt on Zak’s romantic relationship with Mandy. Furthermore, the claim that these are “the people” defending Zak is false; it’s been adequately documented that there are other people making the same assertion, such as Zak’s friend Scrap Princess. But Roland disregards her comments, because they don’t fit the narrative.

Later, they link to Tracy’s “What Happens When You Engage” piece:

Edit: Further evidence, both Zak S and The RPG Pundit are now trying to have Tracy Hurley blacklisted from the RPG industry for speaking against them, after they engaged and started attacking her first. (Warning, content linked is full of misogynistic slurs aimed at Hurley.)

There’s two significant issues here. One is that, if you bother to look through the history, it’s pretty clear that Zak’s conflict with Tracy Hurley goes back to 2011 discussions, and that he feels he and/or his friends were attacked “first”. The other, though, is the sneaky rhetorical dodge. We get a link captioned as being about Zak and Pundit attacking Tracy Hurley, with a helpful warning about all the misogynistic slurs. This implies that Zak or Pundit originated the slurs; in fact, they didn’t, it was other people. It wouldn’t have been a horrible imposition to clarify that the slurs came from other people not named, instead of leaving that implication there.

Failforward uses some rhetorical shenanigans too:

The list includes heavyweight designers like Kenneth Hite and Robin Laws but two names stand out as not belonging: “RPG Pundit and Zak S”.

The reference to the “heavyweight designers” is entirely irrelevant to any claim asserted; its sole purpose is to cast aspersions on Pundit and Zak as credible writers or critics of game rules.

It’s easy to dismiss this as harmless crankery, but conservative art often comes with conservative politics, thus it came as no surprise when Pundit’s Glenn Beck style rants switched targets from ‘storygame swine’ to attacking “Psuedo-activism swinery”.

Pundit’s politics are irrelevant at best here; the only reason to include them is to exploit the LGBT community’s usually-justifiable fear of bigots; calling someone “conservative” and invoking Glenn Beck’s name is a good way to poison the well.

Recently, in a post defending Zak and accusing his detractors of misogyny, his girlfriend attempted to out a trans designer. (update - the post has now been edited to remove the designers new name)

There’s a couple gimmicks here. First, the allegation of intent is unsupported and probably unsupportable. Second, the phrase “remove the designer’s new name” is misleading. General community consensus is that, in most cases, if you’re going to refer to someone by only one of their names, you use the new one. This phrasing implies that the old name was left. That’s not really accurate, though; both real names were replaced with “Lastname (various first names)”, and the other names present were screen names. There’s additional complexities, but I can’t talk about them without being more privacy-invasive than I am okay with being. The point: Mandy’s post doesn’t specifically assert the old name as the correct name, but this is written to imply that it does.

It wasn’t the most confidence inspiring appeal, but nonetheless people leapt upon it. Told their conversations would be confidential they shared with Mearls all the stories I’ve shared with you, only with names, links, screenshots and other traceable information I have removed to protect my sources.

Nevermind the fact that, apparently, Mearls didn’t think he received any convincing evidence at the time. What exactly is the reason for the qualifier “Told their conversations would be confidential”? The only purpose this can serve is to foreshadow a later reveal to the contrary, but no such reveal occurs, and there’s no evidence that any confidentiality was violated. The sole purpose of this additional clause is to create an anticipation of harm that never actually happened. That pattern repeats:

Those who sent Mearls information began to panic, had he just shared their complaints with their harasser? Mearls responded that he had told Zak the claims were baseless, but hadn’t shared any names or details with him. Nevertheless they were not pleased, nor did they feel safe. Why had Mearls consulted with Zak before replying to them?

There’s a general rule in journalism: If the answer to the question is “no”, don’t use it as your headline. The same principle applies here. The emotionally-heavy language (“began to panic”, “nor did they feel safe”) emphasizes the fear of being revealed… Even though there is simply no evidence whatsoever suggesting that anything of the sort happened.

This reached it’s height two days ago, when Fred Hicks, co-creator of FATE, shared a link defending Zak and outing one of his favourite targets (update - Hicks has apologised and stated that this was not his intent).

The deception here is subtle; this is phrased so as to imply that this is a new event, but in fact, this is just a reference back to the previous allegation of “outing” one of Zak’s targets. Usually, if referring back to a thing you’ve already talked about, you’d use a reference back to that, such as “a link to Mandy’s post”. The only reason to make it look like a new post is to imply falsely that there was more than one post which allegedly outed somebody.

Zak even now tries to portray these allegations as prudish conservatives out to smear him due to his involvement in pornography. Yet for that to be true almost every marginalised voice in the RPG community would need to be part of a secret right wing conspiracy.

"Almost every"? I know a pretty large number of LGBT gamers, autistic gamers, and other people who can reasonably claim to be "marginalized". The overwhelming majority of them have no such complaints. Why this broad brush? First, no one can have a statistically meaningful sample to poll to confirm or deny it. Second, using the claim that almost every "marginalized" person in the RPG community as a premise, rather than a statement, might trick the reader into accepting it without questioning it.

Even if we assume that the writer sincerely believes all of the underlying allegations about the behaviors of Zak and Pundit, the article then goes on to intentionally give false impressions, communicating things which the writer clearly doesn’t believe to be true. That’s where this crosses the line from “unsubstantiated claims” to “visible malice”.

Conclusions

First off, I want to point out: I don’t for a minute claim there are no possible criticisms that might be valid; it’s just that the Failforward piece didn’t make an effort to find them. For instance, here’s Pundit keeping it classy in a review of 4th Edition D&D:

Get rid of randomness, and you get a game that becomes predictable; and thus less playable to all but those few aspergers-retards who start to scream uncontrollably when they are confronted with something they can’t predict, and just want a pseudo-game where everything is mapped out for you from the moment you start.

See, that? That’s an actual example of using a slur, not in an ambiguous or possibly self-deprecating way, not maybe unaware of what it means, but as an insult tied to the relevant offensive stereotype. That would have been great evidence to advance the claim that Pundit was a bigot. Shame no one bothered to do any research on it, I guess?

Tracy’s article about “What Happens When You Engage” shows, I think, a big part of the problem: There are real and coherent claims to be made about undue message board hostility, but the Failforward piece tries to play it up as serious danger. “Posted something annoying on a message board” does not deserve the same kind of response as “calls to your home in the middle of the night”.

More generally, I think it highlights that the most fundamental disconnect is probably at the level of what it means to say that evidence supports a conclusion. Tracy and others seem to pretty consistently assume that evidence of any given bad behavior is evidence for any other possible bad behavior, too. Since Zak is hostile, they take allegations that he’s behaved in flagrantly illegal ways as unexceptional and accept them based on only the vaguest of support or tangentially-related evidence.

There’s plenty of evidence that Zak is confrontational and hostile on the Internet. I haven’t seen any evidence that this rises to the level of “stalking and harassment” as normally understood. I haven’t seen any evidence for the accusations and implications of transphobia. What I mostly see is a bunch of pointless Internet drama which escalated hugely when a book actually listed Zak and Pundit as contributors, even though there have been forum threads about their involvement in the project for over two years now.

None of this is really good enough to be a reason to yell at a company for hiring people. None of it is a good enough reason to deliver an ominous message like:

I’m sorry D&D, you don’t get to have it both ways. If you want praise for your inclusive language, you’ll also need to answer for the people you hire.

And that brings us back to my conclusion: The unifying theme of this whole piece is a desire to make it seem like there is a meaningful contradiction between the way Zak and Pundit behave, and the inclusive language about gender in the 5th edition D&D rules.

That unifying theory explains:

  • The near-total absence of complaints about Zak’s (or Pundit’s) treatment of LGBT people per se prior to July 2014.
  • The general recognition of Zak as obviously being a consistent advocate for LGBT issues.
  • The massive contradiction between the sheer volume of visible conflict between Zak and Pundit and literally thousands of other people online in previous years, and the assertion that no one dared speak out against them.

Important note: Sometimes if you say a dumb thing in Twitter, you should just admit that it was dumb and move on.

Peter Seebach

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Comment

  1. That was the most awesome dissection of an internet flame war I’ve ever seen.

    BUT – you included details, evidence, and logic, so you are disqualified from the internet olympics.

    Lissa Lysik'an · 2014-08-10 01:55 · #

  2. Thank you for your carefully reasoned and researched article.

    — Yahzi · 2014-08-13 22:32 · #

 
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