Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dialoguing on Dickwolves and the Philosophy of Polarization

Those of you breathing your sigh of relief that the war is over, those of you hoping to get back into your PAX routine, those of you hoping to never have to hear about this again, those of you who are still frustrated and angry, all of us, let’s sit down a moment and talk.  Calmly, please.  Here we go.

The past:
In the original aftermath of the comic (you know what I’m talking about, but if you don’t here’s a great history and the details; also thanks for adding Pretty Gamer to the list, DT!), a divisive shock wave spread across our community, fracturing us and creating deep cuts in our collective gamer family.  A comic meant to portray the irony of “heroic” gathering missions in online (and really, most RPG) games was immediately condemned as an obscene portrayal of “rape culture” and was largely perceived as advocating rape as a punchline to a sardonic joke.

Now, almost 6 months later, after countless blog and forum posts, eruptions on IRC and Twitter (cause that's useful...), and angry statements from all sides, our holy leaders finally issue their response.  And the response is somewhat surprising, no matter what stance you’ve taken so far.  Both Mike and Jerry decided to make their statements after receiving death threats (threats which have been lobbed at both sides of this divide and were also directed at several outspoken individuals, including Kirby Bits, a blogger who has been carefully, and vocally, monitoring this disaster).  It is shocking that only the threat of physical harm induced Jerry and Mike into a response, and also shocking and disappointing that individuals felt they needed to make violent threats in order to be heard. 

The present:
Mike’s terse plea essentially amounted to “can we all shut up about this NOW?”, a sentiment of suppression that has been echoed from the onset.  Obviously, at the beginning as it is now, not everyone is willing to let this go, and appeals to smother the entire situation probably aren’t going to do much.  Nice try, Mike, but the argument isn’t really convincing, especially given how badly you've been fueling these fires. Although I would grant that any violent idiots making stupid threats should just shut up and go away so the rest of us can have a real conversation. Perhaps Mike should stop talking for awhile too.

Jerry’s comment is much more conciliatory, and I was impressed that he included a section about his own education on the subject of rape culture after hearing and reading others’ concerns and stories.  Since last August, I’ve been asking myself why there wasn’t any discussion or explanation from Penny Arcade?  Why no apology, or at the very least, an acknowledgment of the situation (besides the asinine “follow-up” comic)?  Why the dickwolf t-shirts; was it supposed to be funny, or a passive-aggressive jab at a perceived adversary?  And now, why did you wait until the situation had escalated to death-threats before saying anything??

Jerry proclaims that his silence was borne out of the belief that there can be no dialogue or conversation about this topic.  The ideas are too different, the perspectives are to polarized.  That is pure bullshit, spun into gold.  There is always an opportunity for dialogue, as long as individuals are willing to engage in it; the trouble with this situation was that something was thrown out into the world and once it sparked a controversy, its creators disappeared, allowing their followers and their opposition to fight it out.  Wow, it’s almost a literal God-is-Dead analogy.  Protesters on either side had no direction or leadership to facilitate the dialogue, so what could have been a very enlightening and powerful conversation deteriorated into, well, death threats.

If someone would have had the courage to rise above the vitriolic assumptive fighting, the patience to assuage angry and hurt individuals, and the political power (wide-ranging or celebrity status) to reach an audience, this could have been a vastly transformative event that could have re-shaped the very framework of our community, and would have given us (gamers, women gamers especially) something to be proud of. 

The future:
But are gamers really inept at real, thoughtful dialogue?  Do we suffer from an aphasia that is cured only by controllers and computers (my apologies for the dramatic comparison)?  Is the ideology above our heads?  Is our community inherently unable to have intelligent conversations, or are we just more concerned with having fun?  At some point, we have to realize that we aren’t isolated (as much as we can try, through our computers and in our basements) from the rest of the world, and what we say in one place may have repercussions, and that sometimes we have to come to terms with our actions. 

Honestly, these past months have violently dislocated multiple aspects of my beliefs and identity; on the one hand I am ashamed to call myself a female gamer in a community that is so unforgiving towards women and victims of rape, and on the other hand, I’m forced to return to the feminist/gender equality/social justice closet, for fear of being labeled--once again--as a reactive, over-sensitive, liberal bitch.  I have been appalled and, at times, physically nauseated, by the callous and hateful nature of many people who I had, for some time, considered my good friends.  I’ve been forced to re-think my own past, my own identity, and reflect on what is really important in my own life.  For some, this was a stupid argument easily forgotten, for others, it was painful to the core, and for me, it’s made me disappointed and ashamed both for my community and for myself, in ways I never imagined.

This conversation and this “issue” should not be GAME OVER.  We shouldn’t sweep this under the carpet and pretend it never happened.  What we should do is use this situation, and the responses on either side, to BEGIN to have the dialogue that should have started from the beginning.  We should acknowledge what happened and instead of raw anger, raw emotion and ignorantly reactive statements, perhaps we could all stand to have a little humility and patience with each other, support each other and different points of view, and maybe this gamer culture can evolve, just a little.

The philosophy:
Jerry mentions his attempts to view the overall dialectic, the arguments on either side and how they come together to form a dialogue (as opposed to a debate where one side has to win) in an attempt to discover the heart of a situation.  A dialectic assumes that a single, universal truth can be gained from the discussion.  The truth could be that rape culture exists and that by selling dickwolf t-shirts, PA was exploiting it.  The truth might be that the internet is full of things that could trigger trauma or PTSD and victims should be prepared.  The truth could be something else entirely, or nothing else entirely, but it would be a universal, dialectically-derived truth. 

I propose that we evolve our discussion and begin to think about this hermeneutically; there is no truth, there is no right or wrong and no one can “win” the argument.  There are only ideas and perspectives that exist because of our unique experiences and backgrounds.  Instead of a dialogue to search for a universal truth, we can engage in a discussion that seeks to explore our relationships with this conflict, and truly listen to each other to create a real community.  Let’s talk about social justice on the internet, let’s discuss freedom of speech and rape culture, and let’s see what we come up with. 

Are you interested, or would you rather go play Halo?  Is this too progressive or too philosophical for gamers, or too much effort?  Is “being open to other perspectives” too much to ask?  Is true dialogue on the internet even possible??  Let us hear your thoughts (not your anger). 


Writer’s note:  after I finished writing this post, I read Lesley Kinzel’s incredible blog post deconstructing the situation through the lens of social justice and humanity.  Read her post, “On dealing with dudes: an open letter to Penny Arcade”, her writing is eloquent and insightful, and is everything I've been "kind of" trying to say all along.

Note #2:  I'm starting to read through the timelines, and blogs, and tweets again, after having tried so hard to ignore all the asshat(t)ery and not let it get to me.  The more I read and look back, the more pessimistic I become that anything good can ever come of this.  Especially if Mike keeps giving ignorant trolls an excuse to be dicks.  Unless he begins to realize the impact he has, and his own part in perpetuating this violent and oppressive rock-throwing--and actually, it's probably already too late--then there's no chance we'll see any growth or development of dialogue any time soon.


  1. This discussion centers on the concept of 'rape culture.' Because one group has been pushing that concept strongly, and the idea that any joke about rape helps perpetuate or support 'the' rape culture, the idea is becoming more and more firmly entrenched. But if you reject the idea that all rape jokes are pro-rape culture, a lot of what this vocal, aggressive group (I use Shakesville as a mental stand-in, but they aren't alone) calls supporting a rape culture just completely falls apart.

    For example, I went through Shakesville‘s archives where she talks about rape jokes prior to the dickwolves debacle, and she was completely hit and miss on correctly identifying whether a joke was a rape joke. One, attributed to John McCain in 1985, had a woman beaten and raped by a gorilla ask "where is that marvelous ape" - a joke that clearly normalizes and condones rape. Another was from SNL, and involved Hu Jintao giving a press conference with Obama saying at one point a reworked version of the line "I like to be kissed when I'm being fucked" joke, which has absolutely nothing to do with rape. I mention this in so much detail because I think it's important that the people originally accusing Penny Arcade of supporting a rape culture can’t always tell whether a given joke is about rape or not.

    Penny Arcade has a long history of making violent and offensive comics, and of being accused that violence in their comics (and in games) desensitize people to violence, normalize violence, and in general promote a culture of violence. They've always rejected this reasoning, as do most gamers, and tons of other people. So, they make a comic not about rape, but in which a slave gets raped, and get accused of promoting a rape culture. Now, we may disagree on how like Jack Thompson Shakesville is, but look at it from Penny Arcade's point of view - this accusation is coming from people who, on the subject of rape culture and comedy don't know what they are talking about. So they dismissed the criticism. Completely. And made a comic about it.

    That second comic has been spun as making fun of rape victims - it's not. I stand by this absolutely. Penny Arcade received emails from rape victims who were offended by the comic, and they probably ignored them, but the comic is not addressed to them. The punchline of the comic is aimed squarely at the promoters of the rape culture debate. People have said they don't understand the difference between promoting a rape culture, and encouraging rapists, but I submit it's possible that they do understand that difference, that they rejected both arguments just as they've been rejecting the games-cause-violence argument for years, and made a comic in which the rape culture position was exaggerated.

    After this, everything else falls into place. Was Gabe a jerk to people on twitter? Yes, people who accused him of supporting a rape culture, and always making fun of them in the context of that same rape culture accusation. No one ever said, you're supporting a rape culture, and had him respond "rape victims should get over it," or "you're stupid, fat, and ugly," or anything that was unrelated to the original (in his eyes, false) claim. Did Gabe mock trigger warnings? Yes, after, when he tried to point out that the entire history of Penny Arcade is a trigger warning (not in those words, but that's what the point of his response over at Shakesville was) he was scolded for not putting a trigger warning on his comment. Was he making fun of people with triggers, or making fun of people using trigger warnings as a club to beat him with? I don't know, but I think it's more open to interpretation than most people have thought.

    I think that the reason this thing has gone on so long is that people keep reading one set of motivations into Gabe and Tycho when there are multiple sets that fit, some which don't make them monsters. You may wonder if the others actually fit all that well to begin with.

  2. No offense but I think you overestimate the presence of feminists in the gamer community, PAX will probably be full of dickwolves tshirts and people trying to spite what seems to them like another small Jack Thompson group trying to bully them.

    The recent accusation of violent games causing real rape probably brought it to a new level.

    I know feminists are easily offended or triggered or whatnot but just about every bridge that can be burned has been burned by demanding so much obedience and sympathy from the internet of all places, and opportunities to change things have been lost.

    Nearly no one respects the "funny until it offends me" mentality.

  3. I greatly enjoyed this article - thank you for writing it. Dialogue is a difficult problem, but I would argue that there are two sides with six different groups total. On each side you have the Jerks, the people who think threats of rape and violence are perfectly okay and so forth, you have the Willing, people who are open to the idea of dialogue, and then there are the Unwilling, the people who hold their views as sacrosanct.

    As I see it, the problem isn't the Jerks but the Unwilling. These are the passionate people who hold some level of truth and honesty, and people look to them as the examples. Penny Arcade, for instance, points out that rape, pedophilia, violence, and so forth have been used for years - "We are artists!" And so people crowd around the philosophy. On the other side are people like Melissa McEwan of Shakespeare Sister who are obviously authorities on things like rape culture but who take it to a terrible extreme. As such we have a small knowledge base on which to draw so we go to the extremes.

    I've read several of McEwan's articles, for instance, and found that if I went by technical definitions for rape that she used I could be considered a serial rapist, as could the overwhelming majority of sexually active people (men and women). As such it's extremely hard for me to look at her views and say "This is a person I can talk with."

    Dialogue involves admitting uncomfortable truths. On both sides of the issue, I think people fear this.

  4. I am not disappointed in Mike and Jerry, I'm disappointed in the community. There were people threatening to spray paint dickwolves t-shirts at PAX. It's fine to be offended, and to talk about how offended you are. That's your right. It's not ok to try and beat up or vandalize those who oppose you.

    That being said - I stand behind Nomad. I think she brings up some great points. She understands that the comic was not a thing about rape culture, in fact, the original comic condemned rape as the worst possible thing that can happen to a person. The problem was how Mike and Jerry reacted to the if they've never received it before. Why pick on this particular group of out criers?

    I also agree with the first commenter though. That was very well said. They weren't at all making fun or light of rape. They were making fun of those who were "promoting the rape culture debate". The trolls. Not rape victims. TROLLS.

    In the end though, I have to answer Nomad's question in this article honestly. Would I rather have a debate about rape culture or violence in video games or sex in video games...or would I rather ignore it and play video games? I'm going to stick to my Halo. It could be that I think all these things are non-issues to begin with that got blown out of proportion by the vocal angry minority. However, I do think there is value in talking about issues that split our community, as long as those discussions remain valuable and don't turn into the spitting match this one has.

  5. Thank you for this thoughtful article.

    I think that Jerry was actually right. What would have happened if there had been no further response from PA after the 2nd comic?

    No shitstorm, no bonfire. Let the whole thing be what it was: an argument about nothing.

    I don't hold Mike any more accountable than I do Melissa. Both of them have contributed fairly equally to this mess, and if Mike should have shut his mouth and not made trigger jokes or t-shirts, then Melissa should have quit being such a polemic asshole in the open forums.

    Honestly? I CAN'T be too upset over this. How could we? How can we lament the lost opportunities or the increased divide when really this is about two people being assholes, and more assholes jumping on the pile.

    That doesn't define a culture. That's not how feminists and gamers treat each other or themselves. That's not how people behave at PAX, and I reject the notion pushed by Melissa that this is business-as-ususal, that this is what we can expect. This is what we can expect from two people who have a lot of growing up to do. The rest of us are doing just fine.

  6. Nomad,

    I wrote up a piece about the next steps; what we should do to start fixing the damage done. It's not a solution, but I think it's a good start. Mind taking a look? I'd love your input.

  7. @dkh:
    "I've read several of McEwan's articles, for instance, and found that if I went by technical definitions for rape that she used I could be considered a serial rapist, as could the overwhelming majority of sexually active people (men and women)."
    Would you be so kind and provide links for the specific articles? I could've browsed to search for those myself, but I'm afraid I'd become upset over some other political ones and lose interest altogether before encountering the right ones.

  8. Barry,

    this is the specific link that I believe defines me as a rapist.

    "Rape is not determined by the existence of force, but the nonexistence of consent."

    I recognize she's talking specifically about the use of alcohol in the example, but if really all it takes is the lack of given consent to make sex turn into rape, then it begs the question about implicit consent.

    Let me elaborate in a way that will be a bit graphic. For a man to not use any force, at all, a woman must be unclothed enough and in a position that accommodates intercourse. This.... just doesn't happen on it's own. In 99% of cases, one of them is going to have do some repositioning. If the woman repositions, couldn't that be considered implicit consent? If the man repositions, couldn't that be considered force?

    I understand I'm quibbling over minutiae, but the point stands that when the issue is black and white, yes or no, like McEwan describes it, then suddenly the minutiae is all I have.

    For the big essay that McEwan wrote on the subject of rape culture that everybody seems to be linking to, here you go.

    It's very informative and comprehensive, yes. But it's also very black and white.

  9. I would say that the Rape Culture 101 post is a clear example of the kind of MISinformation and illogic endemic to the shakesville blog. A primary cause of that misinformation is the term Rape Culture, which is both counterintuitive and self-contradictory:

  10. "I am not disappointed in Mike and Jerry, I'm disappointed in the community. There were people threatening to spray paint dickwolves t-shirts at PAX. It's fine to be offended, and to talk about how offended you are. That's your right. It's not ok to try and beat up or vandalize those who oppose you."

    " I also agree with the first commenter though. That was very well said. They weren't at all making fun or light of rape. They were making fun of those who were "promoting the rape culture debate". The trolls. Not rape victims. TROLLS."

    I'm a little disappointed with the wording of your response Eye-shuh as you seem to imply that the only people who were being assholes here were those were speaking out against PA. While I strongly disagree with spray-painting shirts, I also am disgusted by the threatening remarks that members of the PA community directed at Shakesville and other people who criticized Mike and Jerry.

    I think we, as a community, have done a great disservice to our members who have been victims of sexual assault. I have spoken with more than one rape victim who feel that they cannot say anything for fear of being, at the minimum, mocked, or worse, have actually had their claims met with anger and blame. Heck, as someone with a very real trigger I would not feel safe, say, discussing it in PAX IRC as I see individuals who would probably take advantage of it for their own amusement. Leaving aside the argument of whether a rape joke can be funny or not (though personally I'm a fan of using humor to deal with the horrifying), there is something wrong when the pain of the INDIVIDUAL is attacked.

    Whether "rape culture" as defined by Shakesville and her lot exists (and I do disagree with them on a lot), I think as a community we have a long way to go in learning to treat our fellow humans with dignity and respect. Throughout this entire debacle I have seen those who tout Wheaton's law mock people for their pain, which in my book is the biggest dick move ever.

  11. Ah well I didn't mean it that way but I do think people need a reminder that the dickery has been more than two sided. And while I think the way assault victims have been treated through this is shameful I also think that Mike and Jerry were attacked and this entire thing started for absolutely no reason.

  12. I have to admit, I’ve been avoiding reading these comments for awhile, I was prepared for the worst. But you’ve all proven me wrong, thank you all so, so much for all your great ideas and contributions! I really appreciate it!

    Andy, I LOVE your piece and your ideas and I wish I had an awesome phrase to submit. I'll be thinking about it! And don't let the pessimists get you down!

    dkh, I think you bring up some great points as well; I understand how some people were angry (“flaming pissed”) about the situation, and rightly so. But, in my opinion it was NOT handled well by Melissa or Shakesville. While she/they were possibly the first to speak out, and the most vocal and informative throughout this "era", it was obvious that speaking out of anger, suppressing non-violent comments and taking an almost elitist stance will never--and did not--encourage anyone to re-think their actions or ideas, or think critically about what happened. Shakesville's attitudes ultimately most likely only served to entrench the fear of censorship and the (incorrect) notion that those opposed to the comic/response/bullshit comments were just
    "too sensitive". I read several times that they suppressed the comments of others (and other survivors) who just needed to have their voices heard, which is NOT ok, even by their own standards.

    Shakesville may be one aspect and one opinion on feminism, rape culture and gender equality, but there is a very wide range of ideas about all of these subjects, and Shakesville is just one blog perspective. I don't like that "PA loyalists" and "censorship haterz" are grouping all equal-rights and social justice ideas under this particular type of "feminism" and dismissing it entirely. There’s much more education and dialogue that needs to be done.

    I love what Andy says (see link above) about Mike and Melissa being "lost causes", I think that's spot-on. It's time now for the rest of us to become educated on this topic and understand what it means within our own frame of reference, and not worry about the polarized sides lobbing verbal bricks at each other.

    So keep thinking and keep talking!

  13. And Kai: great analysis, this was really interesting to read. I agree with you that whether or not Mike and Jerry’s comic/comments/response/etc was condoning or enforcing rape culture is entirely up to one’s perception, and that everyone was reading into their motivations. I would suggest though, that there were assumptions and perceptions on all sides (and against all sides), and from everyone who heard about all of this. Everyone is seeing this from a different lens and through the lens of her or his own experiences, discussions and education. Which is why I don’t think it’s possible--especially because rape culture and its definitions are so new and varied--to decide one way or the other. You can’t say that PA absolutely did not enforce rape culture, and I can’t say definitively that they did.

    And that’s what I’m sort of trying to get at: there’s not one absolute truth here, there is only interpretation, as you say. Moving forward, I hope that this will cause everyone to think about the actions and reactions involved and learn about each other’s perspectives, and respect that while we all have different ideas, we should all respect each other and go play some freakin’ videogames (without the racist, sexist, heteronormative shit-talk).

  14. And one last thing: dickwolves might be hilarious, but the thought of being "raped to sleep" is fucking terrifying.

    If you're interested in learning more about oppressive statements (not saying anything either way!), subconscious bias and/or privilege, I recommend reading more about microaggressions. A lot of research is based on racial microaggressions, but it's not exclusive to other forms of oppression, like gender.

    Here's what I could find quickly:

    If you're interested in learning more, drop me a line at metaversenomad [at] gmail and I'll see if I can find some other resources to send you!

  15. I would guess that there is no such thing. We might be ignorant about the photon's polarization. polarization recovery