The “Dickwolves Thing”

22:43 Sun 06 Feb 2011
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This is a post about humor, taste, rape, offensiveness/offendedness, and limits on discourse, all centered on a three-panel webcomic about video games.

It’s rather long; I meant it as a tighter, more abstract, discussion of the points above, but got pulled into a lot of the specifics as I went through them.

I have strong biases here:

  • Rape shouldn’t be treated dismissively; it’s a serious problem in our society, on many levels, and sex without consent is a potentially appalling experience that nobody should have to go through (obviously). Any dismissive treatment of it that normalizes or excuses it should be regarded as highly suspect at best.
  • I’m highly uncomfortable with regulation of expression, either formal or informal. There are certainly exceptions, and specific arenas often require specific regulations over expression—but regulation of expression on any kind of society-wide level is extremely dangerous, and must have extraordinarily good rationales behind it. (I also believe that regulating problematic expression is less effective than dealing with the underlying problem areas, although I see the value in trying to tackle both at once.)

How these biases play out will be evident, if you already know the controversy I’m discussing, when I describe the three-panel strip that started it all:

Panel 1: A clearly suffering, impoverished man in a cave addresses a well-dressed passing creature (presumably a Worgen, one of the playable World of Warcraft races) as “hero” and asks for aid, implying that he (the man) is a prisoner in a place of eternal torment.

Panel 2: The man describes the awful existence he endures in this place, including some of the tortures suffered by him and his fellow prisoners. (My summary/elision here probably makes my standpoint clear.)

Panel 3: The “hero” responds that he’s already hit his quota of slaves to free, refusing to aid the man.

Naturally, this description destroys the humor. However, it was a quite funny strip, and the target of its humor was the set of mechanics at play in many video games.

The point is that if the environment sets up a place of torment such as in the comic, then assigns quests involving freeing those within, but gives a specific quota for this (which is almost completely necessary for mechanical reasons), the morality of the whole thing is entirely twisted. Unless the game follows through with really good in-scenario reasons for why only that many can be saved, which is rarely the case, you’re left with situations like the one described in the comic: the players are given the “moral payoff” that they’re doing good things by freeing slaves from torment, but even a cursory examination makes clear that the actions they’re taking (which are likely the only actions the game allows them to take) are to attain in-game success and make little moral sense.

The comic’s authors are frequent, longstanding, and highly influential commentators on video games in general, and what they’re doing in this comic is what they do in many of their comics: identifying a weakness in a genre of games and mocking it mercilessly.

The authors are Penny Arcade, and the actual text content of the second panel, spoken by the man, is as follows:

Every morning, we are roused by savage blows.

Every night, we are raped to sleep by the dickwolves.

—Mike Krahulik & Jerry Holkins. “The Sixth Slave”. Penny Arcade, 11 Aug 2010.

It should be noted that the comic is very much in the usual style of Penny Arcade humor.

I read the strip when it came out, as I’m a regular Penny Arcade reader, and had no idea it would generate the amount of controversy it has. Mocking, somewhat crude, but very much hitting the key point of the ridiculousness of the game mechanics—that’s what I thought. Not something I thought would require entire blogs to follow the timeline of.

I don’t agree with any of the criticisms of the comics as “promoting rape culture” that I’ve seen. I’m not antagonistic to the concept of “rape culture”, as I believe we live in a deeply sexist society that additionally has serious problems dealing with abuses of power. That there are significant components in our culture that allow people to dismiss rape, and allow rape to occur more easily, seems evident.

I just don’t see how this strip is one of those components. Nor do I think that rape (or more or less anything else) should be considered comedically untouchable. In fact I think that the promotion of the idea that people who have been raped become unable to countenance the subject with humor is simplistic and dangerous in itself (see Amanda Marcotte’s second point for a good explanation of why).

The idea, stated in the first objection post at Shakesville, that Penny Arcade shouldn’t have used rape in the comic because rape “is a real thing that happens in the world every day” (in contrast to the other, purely video-game elements they’re dealing with), is ludicrous. The setup obviously requires suffering, of some kind. How is anyone served by removing rape here and inserting, say, “torture”? Are we seriously supposed to believe that “every night, we are tortured to sleep by scalpelmummies” would be fine? Because torture that doesn’t involve rape is “better” than the kind that does? So insert some other form of awful treatment, and with each one, that same problem occurs—leading to the conclusion that only less-serious forms should be used in the comic? That’s pretty stupid, isn’t it? The whole point is to make morally unacceptable the actions of the “hero”, and it seems quite difficult to do that (at all, never mind with humor) by toning down the suffering of the victim in the comic.

That’s what the argument against the comic seemed to come down to—either privilege rape as the most awful thing ever that hence cannot be discussed within a humorous form (and look, I’m not arguing that it’s not horrible), or insist that things past a certain awfulness threshold simply shouldn’t be discussed within a humorous form. No to both of those, thanks.

There’s also the argument that rape survivors might be traumatized by the comic. This is possible. Unfortunately, the same arguments apply there. No strips about war, because of the many (and I’m serious here, and not making light of the condition) PTSD sufferers in the ranks of those who have gone to war. No strips about violence at all, because of the many victims of violence in general (I’m not making light of the aftereffects of suffering violence, either). Where does this end? No strips about car crashes? Bicycle crashes? (And there I am making light, but why? Our sense of “bike crash” is generally of something milder than “car crash”, but that’s just a sense, and not really reflective of the potentially awful realities.) So, again, either privilege one form of suffering, or constrain all expression to an unacceptable degree.

Penny Arcade got a lot of flak for this one. It’s not the first time they’ve gotten a lot of flak, and, as previously, they just stood their ground. Their next strip was more or less a big “fuck you” to their critics, in which they underscored the imaginary nature of their work and derided the idea that the first strip could encourage rape or rapists in any way—it ends with:

It’s possible you read our cartoon, and became a rapist as a direct result. If you’re raping someone right now, stop. Apologize. And leave.

Go, and rape no more.

—Mike Krahulik & Jerry Holkins. “Breaking It Down”. Penny Arcade, 13 Aug 2010.

They got even more flak for that, with both the original detractors and a lot of feminist-leaning defenders of the first strip condemning them for it; I think the third point in the Amanda Marcotte piece I cited earlier expresses those objections, as does this Melissa McEwan post. In summary, they argue that the second strip deals with straw man arguments that nobody was making, that it treats rape dismissively, and that it is profoundly disrespectful to the critics of the first strip.

While I have a lot more sympathy for this critique of the second strip than I do for any concerning the first one, I still don’t agree with it. Much of McEwan’s arguments rest directly on her analysis of the first strip, which I disagree with fundamentally, and this is centered on her characterization of it as a “rape joke”.

A rape joke is a joke about rape. It is a joke that treats rape as something less serious than it is, or as an object of humor.

The first strip does not do this. It is making a joke about the inanity and moral vacuity of video game RPG quests which involve specific goals and mechanics that clearly conflict with what actual moral conduct would or could be in the situations they set up. In making that joke, it references a situation containing various types of inflicted suffering, the very point of which in the narrative is to be awful, and mentions rape as one of them.

Mentions rape as one of them—as one of the awful things that make the conduct of the allegedly good “hero” so reprehensible. In other words, the concept that rape is a terrible thing is central to the meaning of the strip.

That is not a “rape joke”.

There have been plenty of situations where prominent figures online have done something (e.g.) profoundly sexist, been called on it by the online feminist community, denied wrongdoing, hidden behind evasions and claims that “it was just a joke” and so on, and eventually come around and apologized. I think that most of Penny Arcade’s detractors see this as the same situation and see the second strip as a classic example of refusing to admit wrong. I think that even Amanda Marcotte, who defends the original strip, sees the situation through that prism when she calls the second strip “tone deaf, sexist, and stupid”.

The problem is, this wasn’t one of this situations. Instead, this was a situation where the detractors were actually wrong, and misread the comic.

(Yes, we can argue whether such a thing as “misreading” is even possible, bring in reader-response theory, and so on, but I happen to believe that meaning, intent, and communication are possible, and in this case the communication failure was very much on the side of the critics of the first strip.)

It’s a sensitive area, and it’s understandable how such a misreading could occur, but it’s a misreading nonetheless.

From the Penny Arcade side, then, what do they see? They see a lot of people misreading their work in a rather fundamental way, and then demanding that Penny Arcade do something (like apologize) for it.

McEwan claims that the Penny Arcade response misrepresents the critics’ primary objection as the assertion that rape jokes create rapists and/or cause rape. That might be true, but I wonder about the extent to which that is truly a misrepresentation. One of the primary criticisms was that the comic “supported rape culture” through its treatment of rape. “Supporting rape culture” must help create and/or shield rapists in some way, else it would be harmless. So while Penny Arcade’s response is sarcastic and exaggerated, it’s not unfair of them to think that their critics were claiming precisely that the comic was encouraging rape on some level. They view this as fundamentally ridiculous, in the same way they view the idea that video games cause violence as fundamentally ridiculous, and this is why they exaggerate their response and state what they absolutely do not believe, that “it is possible you read our cartoon and became a rapist as a direct result”. They also don’t believe the strip encourages rape. And they’re right.

In doing so, however, they slide off one of the key points—that the strip wasn’t actually a “rape joke”—and argue with a defense that could be used for any (actual) rape joke. They’re only talking about their own comic, but they’re at this point involved in a larger discussion about rape culture, and in that discussion the “it’s imaginary, you idiots” argument is rightly given little weight.

That’s where I’d agree that Marcotte is right, the response was tone deaf—when in the context of the larger discussion about rape culture. That’s only one of the contexts in which the response resides, however, and another rather important context is the one where they’re getting a lot of flak from people who have fundamentally misunderstood their work.

A little further down the line, Penny Arcade release a new T-shirt. The T-shirt had “Dickwolves” written on it in the style of the name of an American sports team name. I think they decided that the “fuck you” represented by the second strip wasn’t enough to fully get the point across.

Naturally, this resulted in more controversy. I start to side with the critics here; I think the T-shirt was unnecessary. I think they had a chip on their shoulder from what they perceived as unfair criticism (and it was), and that the T-shirts are a result of that. I mean, strictly speaking the T-shirts are defensible in a “the comic still didn’t support rape culture” way, except that using as a mascot a beast you created to personify awful suffering really can’t help but trivialize that suffering. In other words, I think the “Dickwolves” T-shirts do end up supporting rape culture.

I can see where Penny Arcade were coming from, but I think they really stepped over the line with those, and I think it gets worse than that because there is (inevitably) a big group of their fan base who were antagonistic to any kind of feminist critique whatsoever not because it was a misreading of the original comic but because it was feminist—and I think those fans (as well as others with better motives) hurried to grab the T-shirt. At this point I agree with a lot of critics’ arguments about the T-shirts, such as Courtney Stanton’s post.

In late January, Penny Arcade removed the T-shirts from their store. The stated reason for this is that while they’re sticking to their stance on the original strip, they’re unhappy with the idea that by selling the shirts they’re making people uncomfortable at the Penny Arcade convention, PAX. They want PAX to be an inclusive space, and have gone to some lengths already to make it one (such as banning “booth babes”, for example), and so are pulling the T-shirts to help that cause.

I thought that was pretty awesome. Even before I’d fully thought through my feelings on the T-shirts, I thought it was a pretty good move to make, and I certainly thought it was a sign that some kind of positive dialogue (in general, not necessarily involving Penny Arcade directly) might come out of the whole thing.

However, a lot of their fans were very unhappy with the decision to remove the shirts, and in addition when he was asked whether or not the shirts would be permitted at the convention, Mike Krahulik (“Gabe”, one of the Penny Arcade duo) responded, “I’ll be wearing mine.”

Partly because I hadn’t worked out my feelings on the T-shirts fully at that point, I thought that was somewhat provocative, but okay. I thought he was trying to walk a very fine line between his individual stance and the institutional stance of the convention, which is pretty tough to do as one of its main luminaries.

Now, though, I think it’s the wrong thing to do and the wrong message to send. Especially to the people who have adopted the shirt for what amount to misogynistic reasons (rather than because they’re making a comment about humor and its limits or lack thereof, for example). Although he’s definitely disavowed the more misogynistic elements on Twitter, and made some efforts to rein them in, I strongly suspect that his statement about wearing the shirt will encourage a kind of “campaign” to wear it, which will do nothing but harm to the attempts to make PAX an inclusive space. At that point Mike’s wearing of the T-shirt really won’t be interpretable purely as the “I won’t apologize for making comics about whatever I want even if you miss the humor” point which I strongly suspect he intends, but will rather fit into the interpretation that he’s supporting the faction of the fan base who are essentially closing ranks around the status quo and denying that the rape culture critiques have any place in the gamer realm at all (which they certainly do).

The other half of the Penny Arcade Duo, Jerry Holkins (“Tycho”), wrote up his thoughts on the matter last Thursday. I’ve already seen his response dismissed as not addressing the original complaints, but I don’t think that’s fair or true—partly because as regards the original strip, he and Mike were correct and their critics wrong, not the other way around.

I’ve never been to PAX and have no investment in it, but personally I’d love to see Mike and Jerry pull back from the Dickwolves T-shirt and see that as a response it comes rather close to doing what the original strip was accused of doing (but did not). I’d love to see them make that point and go further in the direction indicated by the decision to pull the T-shirts in the first place. An apology for the T-shirt would be nice too, although I can see how that might be too much for them to stomach.

I admit to an ulterior, additional, motive in that desire: the T-shirt makes it far too easy for the original critics to point at it and say “see—we were right all along”. This makes it very easy for them to gloss over the deep flaws in that original critique, and I happen to believe that it would be very healthy for the “movement against rape culture” (not a monolithic entity by any means) to admit that, despite having been right in similar situations in the past, this time they actually screwed up and owe Penny Arcade an apology.

19 Responses to “The “Dickwolves Thing””

  1. Maz Says:

    While video games do have room for the feminist and anti-rape culture because they’re a form of a expression, I think it overstepped its bounds when it began an activist approach to the comic and t-shirt. All of this has hearkened me back to the year 2006 when Isaac Hayes (Chef) quit South Park over their attacks on Scientology (his religion) while he’d been on the ride through all their attacks on Judaism, Mormonism, Christianity, Islam and so forth.

    The comic has done far worse in its years than mention rape off-handedly in a panel and actually mentioned rape in a few other strips (http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/05/12/) without an Internet uprising. So I subscribe to the Trey Parker and Matt Stone School of “It’s either all okay or none of its okay.” These people would have more reason to decry the rape of the villain in Ace Ventura 2 by an African gorilla, as that was more of a joke about rape.

  2. Welp Says:

    I appreciate you understanding the idea of having to ban mentions of war/violence/car crashes etc, but that wouldn’t fly with the other feminists, who are completely focused on rape to the point where it is more important than genocide.

    As for rape culture, no one makes fun of rape in a situation where they also wouldn’t make fun of death. It’s a part of human nature when it comes to something they’re not personally connected to, I could argue that the concept of rape culture is a lie and an imaginary enemy, though I’m sure others have delved deeper into it and that’s why even wikipedia refuses to take rape culture as a legitimate concept or phenomenon.

  3. Doctor Slack Says:

    Compare and contrast with RaceFail ’09. These debacles always start with a common element: the intervention of (or origination by) a toxic personality who isn’t at first recognized as such, but whose around whom several reflexively partisan “sides” coalesce in misbegotten shows of solidarity over some fairly trivial debate or conversation.

    In the “RaceFail ’09″ debacle on LiveJournal, the original toxic personality was “Avalon’s Willow,” who kicked things off with a fundamentally unreasonable attack on Elizabeth Bear and thus begat a “debate” characterized by one “side” criticizing the original unreason, another “side” backing “Willow” who blithely disregarded the flaws in her position out of the mistaken belief that her overall cause was theirs, a third “side” of toxic reactionary dickheads who came thundering in imagining themselves as supporters of the pro-Bear party but who were really just dickheads (and whose involvement sent everything straight to hell), and an assortment of bemused observers of the smoking wreckage.

    If that sounds familiar, it’s not by chance. DickwolfGate ’11 has followed exactly the same trajectory. In the first couple of exchanges, there was nothing much noteworthy, and there is obviously nothing very noteworthy about the original comic (that wouldn’t also be noteworthy about PA comics using brutal violence, serial murder or Tycho’s childhood abuse as running jokes, or about non-PA memes that attracted no such controversy, like Rapebear). Basically, the initial PA response of saying “it shouldn’t be news that we do off-colour humor” and making another joke should not only have surprised nobody, it wasn’t, given the context, at all unreasonable.

    But enter the toxic personality, in this case Melissa McEwen at Shakesville, in whose post “rape joke” and “rape culture” came onstage as the curiously amorphous polemical cudgels that have bedeviled subsequent exchanges… and who sought to ratchet up the stakes by accusing Penny Arcade of victimizing people with their evil japery in real time. The “triggers” argument:

    “There’s also the argument that rape survivors might be traumatized by the comic. This is possible. ”

    But extremely and in fact spectacularly unlikely, in a way that it’s hard to believe McEwen could be unaware of if she knows as much as she seems (or claims) to do about triggers.

    PTSD “triggers” do exist, of course, for events ranging from kidnapping to childhood neglect to assault to car or plane crashes to, yes, sexual assault and rape. But these triggers are a) intensely personal, specific to each victim and the circumstances of the trauma, and b) usually tied to something directly related to the event: especially to a sensory memory of something associated with it (be it a kind of light, a piece of music, a smell of a certain kind of fabric or cologne), but also to an anniversary of it, a graphic representation of events similar to it, news stories following the case or the assailant (where applicable), et cetera. Jokes that mention the general category of the event are not a common trigger, and the correct treatment for PTSD triggers — which can be almost anything and run afoul of anything — is professional treatment in dealing with the world after PTSD, not sophomoric blog comments policies like “trigger warnings.”

    As far as I can tell, it’s this toxic and insupportable claim that Penny Arcade comics constitute the active brutalization of rape survivors that’s brought the “debate” to its current pitch (and, predictably, attracted the usual toxic brigade of reactionaries with their own misbegotten sense of solidarity, cf. #teamrape). What it illustrate is an ancient piece of Internet widsom: do not engage with toxic personalities. Nothing but toxicity can result. Do not feed the trolls.

  4. Tadhg Says:

    Maz: The problem here is that some stuff just is over the line. It’s not that it’s impossible for Penny Arcade (or anyone else) to produce work that would be truly reprehensible. Even if I kept reading them after that did that, it would be with an understanding that I was reading something reprehensible. I would still argue for their freedom of expression, but that’s a slightly different issue. The issues here are: where the line is, whether or not the strip crossed it, and also (of course) who gets to decide those things.

    My disagreement with a lot of people on the “feminist side” is about those points, and not really about the concept that activism shouldn’t be applied to a comic, or the T-shirt. In fact I think the T-shirt is far over the line.

    Welp: I don’t think there’s a single bloc that constitutes “feminism”, so I don’t think that your claim about their attitude to rape versus genocide can be sustained. I also think that anti-rape activism is pretty damn important, and regardless of its Wikipedia status am pretty convinced that rape culture, by which I mean a culture which in a variety of ways makes rape and other abuses of power far easier to accomplish than they should be and which seeks to dismiss or trivialize the problem in order to let this continue, exists and is sadly quite evident in every Western society I’ve been in.

    DocSlack: We disagree on Racefail 2009. I admit that I started following that controversy with a viewpoint similar to yours, but I think that Avalon’s Willow made a reasonable criticism of Bear, who after all had shortly before set herself up as an authority on “writing the other”. In addition, the defenders of Bear went way over the line really damn quickly (maybe this happened in the Dickwolves case too, but if it did I missed it), and then just kept going and going, perhaps highlighted by calling Bear’s detractors “orcs” in a debate about race and later making threats to ensure that the critics would never be published.

    It’s possible that I view that as worse because I’m dismissive of the over-the-line PA defenders as just being idiots, while the egregious offenders in the Racefail 2009 case were all highly-respected authors who had no excuse whatsoever not to know better.

    I also don’t agree that there was nothing wrong with the initial exchanges; it looks to me like the comic was misinterpreted and serious and vociferous critiques of it were delivered on the basis of that misinterpretation; it’s those critiques that I think were wrong.

    I also think Melissa McEwan’s take on it was wrong. I fuzzily remember having issues with some of her stances in the past, and I am extremely skeptical about her views, but I don’t know enough about her to make the claim that she’s a “toxic personality”.

    I also don’t know enough about PTSD and the efficacy or lack thereof of “trigger warnings”. I do know that some people were legitimately disturbed (I’m not willing to quite go to “traumatized”) by the comic, but I don’t think this means the comic was wrong or should not have been posted or should have come with some kind of warning.

    I concur that one of the reasons for the high intensity is the presence of that claim of the comic doing active harm to rape survivors, conflated with the claim that it perpetuates rape culture, also conflated often with a general reference to “offensiveness”. But I don’t think any of the primary voices involved in this conflict are trolls.

  5. Doctor Slack Says:

    On RaceFail, the specific dynamics of what happened when and who did what are of course different. However: I admit that I started following that controversy with a viewpoint similar to yours, but I think that Avalon’s Willow made a reasonable criticism of Bear, who after all had shortly before set herself up as an authority on “writing the other”.

    What happened AFAICS was that the conversation started with a very aggressively confrontational demand that Bear explain herself about her approach to “writing the other” (she hadn’t really set herself up as “an authority” on it beyond stating that she was interested in it and that it was a major part of her process). Avalon’s Willow might have seemed (barely) “reasonable” at the outset, except it quickly became apparent that there was no professional answer Bear could have given that would have remotely satisfied her — what she was really looking for was a crawling mea culpa — and relatively little came from either Willow or her partisans that could concretely explain what Bear could or should be doing differently except in that she should in some vague sense be more “sensitive” or concerned. Much of the crossing of the line in fact, it seemed to me then and now, started there, in excessively personal attacks on Bear and later on her defenders and in a vague but charged dynamic that ultimately amounted to calling them down, but in profoundly insulting and inflammatory terms, for not listening to other’s feelings. This again is a parallel to the Dickwolfery debacle. Things started subtly off-kilter, and then got more so and more so; the difference was in that the debate was hijacked by a toxic personality rather than started by one.

    The authors of course took it personally — surprise! creators have an emotional relationship to what they create and don’t take kindly to careless accusations of racial insensitivity — and quickly became offended. This was the context of the “orcs” remarks which, while foolish, are routinely quoted out-of-context (as they were at the time). Later on (considerably later on, actually), some of them proved themselves to be the sort of writers who should stay away from the Internet, surprisingly including Teresa Nielsen Hayden who wound up issuing the way over-the-line professional threats to which you refer. Most of the worst offenses came from writers who, in that case, formed the cluelessly reactionary third “side” in what had ceased to be a debate. In Penny Arcade’s case, Gabe and Tycho have remained comparatively restrained, but the rising frustration for their supporters and eventual disastrous involvement of reactionary pseudo-supporters follows much the same trajectory.

    But the core point is that the escalation didn’t start with them, and the people who did begin it have not, I think, really confronted their own responsibility. Nor do I think they’ll do so in this case. The debacle “timeline” that brought me to your post is clearly already an exercise in self-justification by partisans of McEwan.

    As for McEwan herself, it may be that I’m being too hard on her. On the other hand, taking up clinical PTSD as a rhetorical cudgel is perhaps something you need to think about and research a bit before you do it. I don’t see any sign McEwan did or has done that (the “Doctor” in my ‘nym isn’t a claim on actual medical authority, but this debacle did prompt me to some considerable amount of research on triggers and I haven’t found anything anywhere that could substantiate her extremely inflammatory rhetoric about them), which if not “trolling” is at the very least insultingly sophomoric and foolish. Much as with the over-the-top accusations of racial insensitivity that doomed the RaceFail debate to its trajectory, I think that’s a fundamental contributor to everything that’s followed. That doesn’t excuse the missteps of PA nor the dimwittedness of their avowed followers on #teamrape, but it does mean that Shakesville and their various partisans have some soul-searching to do about this that it looks to me they’re already insulating themselves from doing.

  6. Doctor Slack Says:

    Just for completeness’ sake: I do know that some people were legitimately disturbed (I’m not willing to quite go to “traumatized”) by the comic

    Being disturbed would not be an issue, but of course the tone of Dickwolfmania* was set by claims far, far exceeding this, about the actual enablement of “rape culture” and the quite specifically clinical traumatization of survivors.

    (* I’m just trying out different terms for it at this point.)

  7. Tadhg Says:

    Doctor Slack: I came to Racefail a little late, so I could be wrong about the specific timing, but I recall that Bear wrote a piece on “how to write the other”, that Avalon’s Willow read it and pointed out that Bear didn’t do too great a job in her opinion, and that things went sideways from there; I do however think that most of what went wrong at that early point was due to Bear’s “side”. I take your point about her emotional attachment to her work, but I recall there was a lot of commentary suggesting that Avalon’s Willow basically had no right to the criticism she was making. I can’t quote because I don’t remember it well enough, but there was definitely enough in there to make me take my initial stance siding with Bear and her defenders and move it away from them.

    I do think you have a point about the structure of the sides, although it’s messier than that in reality, of course. And, further, there’s a lot of disagreement about how restrained Gabe and Tycho have actually been; as stated in my post, I think the Dickwolves T-shirts crossed the line.

    I agree about some of the responsibility involved, of course (that being part of the point of my post); I have trouble with the concept that a serious criticism of that kind could be leveled without any consideration given to the ramifications if the criticism were unjustified. It’s not “you can’t criticize”, it’s not “you can’t criticize unless you’re guaranteed to be right” (which would obviously be dumb), it’s “if your criticisms are serious and you’re wrong you should take some responsibility for this”.

    I know that the anti-PA side will point out that PA’s (later) actions were far worse, but I certainly think they should take responsibility also. And I do think there are differences between an overtly humorous webcomic and a clearly serious written critique, the most important of which is that specific charges are being made in the critique.

    In other words, I can’t seem to get away from:

    1. Serious charges were leveled.
    2. If you make serious charges you have to take ownership of that and of the consequences of being wrong.
    3. Those charges in this case were wrong. (There are a lot of people who claim to think there was nothing wrong with the first strip who don’t seem to be making any noise about accountability for the charges being wrong; I’m more curious about that right now than I am about those who have insisted all along that the charges are correct.)

    Branching off of 3., I’m disturbed by the fact that some of the arguments in the anti-PA camp seem to suggest that it’s almost impossible for those original charges to have been wrong. I understand that there’s a lot of nuance around this topic, but even so there should be some possibility of falsifiability. Instead attempts to pin down claims seem to end in mist. Of course it’s possible that I lack some ability that would let me grasp the situation properly.

    Thank you, by the way, for pointing out that I’m now on the timeline; I hadn’t been aware of this.

    Yes, McEwan, in her “Survivors Are So Sensitive” post, does make claims going far beyond “disturbance”, and while I don’t know enough about the subject, as stated, I am quite skeptical of some of the claims she makes about triggering.

    I’m even skeptical about this line, which may be key to my disagreement with her: “No “joke” is worth triggering someone.”

    That is quite a statement. If we accept her model of “triggering”, any and all of the sickeningly numerous ways in which human beings assault and maim each other would constitute potential triggers. No joke, then, would be worth risking the possibility of triggering someone, which would seem to rule out jokes based on any kind of suffering. That is an awful lot of humanity’s jokes, gone.

    Laughter is one of life’s joys. How much joy to how many people would be lost if we followed McEwan’s statement, versus how much suffering prevented (even if she’s right about her triggering model)? Hard to measure, of course, but it seems to me that more would be lost than gained. A lot more, because—why stop at humor? Why is it merely “jokes” that aren’t worth triggering someone? Why should other forms of mere entertainment?

    I know, don’t give up the jokes or arts, just apply “trigger warnings”. I have trouble with this one too; where does it end? Do we end up in a situation where every piece of creative expression comes with warnings on it? Right now I’m too tired to articulate why I find that concept so horrible, and I’ve wandered some distance from the original point about alleged provocation of trauma.

  8. Doctor Slack Says:

    I’m disturbed by the fact that some of the arguments in the anti-PA camp seem to suggest that it’s almost impossible for those original charges to have been wrong. I understand that there’s a lot of nuance around this topic, but even so there should be some possibility of falsifiability. Instead attempts to pin down claims seem to end in mist. Of course it’s possible that I lack some ability that would let me grasp the situation properly.

    I suppose based on my prior remarks, it won’t come as any surprise that I don’t think you’re lacking some subtle sensitivity that would make sense of all this. I think a basic consequence of refusing falsifiability to any emotional claim is that you become basically incapable of responsible and intellectually honest debate.

    This is a problem that has plagued the feminist blogosphere, in which this attitude — I think of it as “emotional entitlement” — is rampant and commonly treated as credible. I understand the source of it, intimately in fact: it is in fact a common tactic by those attempting to derail conversations about racism or sexism to claim that the other party must be misconstruing or non-credible about what they experienced, and that can be maddening. But it represents a default to an opposite extreme in which one’s raw, unreflective opinion must be treated as sacrosanct… which in fact is a precise mirror of the clueless geek male privilege that Shakesville’s proprietors purport to be decrying in this instance, and which makes so many white male-dominated gamer communities online so hideous. And for the feminist blogosphere it’s been deeply destructive, a direct contributor in innumerable cases to the breakdown of even the most rudimentary conversations within the online feminist community, as well as in that community’s attempts to engage with others. When it becomes simply impermissible to disagree with an argument based on what someone feels or claims to have experienced, it becomes permissible to trivialize and refuse to engage with arguments that might otherwise be uncomfortable or force the re-evaluation of claims.

    You can see the effects of this in other posts on the timeline itself. Take this post from Brett Douville (which occurs on the timeline underneath a very loaded attempt to imply that Gabe chooses his iPod shuffles in order to offend rape survivors): the comments thread features a commenter ‘nymmed “chickwithmonkey” explaining that because Shakesville is a “safe space,” it’s their policy to delete comments that “deny” someone else’s experiences, this by way of justifying why a woman with the handle “Brett” was dismissed for “mansplaining” when she failed to toe the blog’s party line. It doesn’t seem to occur to her at any point to wonder if this “safe space” policy is in fact prejudicial to intellectual honesty or has contributed to Shakesville’s continual escalations. There’s a huge, huge problem there.

    It’s heartbreaking to watch this stuff. The feminist Internet should, by now, have been able to score some community-building successes of its own to compare with PAX or Child’s Play, or political sites like DailyKos. I think it’s stuff like this that has made it essentially impossible for them to do so, and while case-by-case you can explain it away with common mantras like “maybe it’s okay for us to be talking to ourselves,” and “it’s not our responsibility to do all the activism,” eventually some questioning of the larger context and what’s fuelling it is going to have to take place.

    Anyway, I’m rambling now. And I’m not trying to be argumentative. Above all, thanks for providing one of the most intelligent commentaries on this whole absurd business I’ve seen.

  9. Tadhg Says:

    Doctor Slack: Briefly, as sleep calls—Thank you for your comments, I truly appreciate them.

    I agree that something like the tendency you describe is unfortunately prevalent; you might be interested in a post I wrote about RaceFail 2009 that touched on that area: “Reflections on Offendedness” (you’ll probably disagree with its summary of RaceFail 2009, but that’s not the heart of the post).

  10. 2bit Says:

    Care Bears for all so….

    Epic LOL Fail (I speek internetz too y’know)

  11. smhll Says:

    One of the primary criticisms was that the comic “supported rape culture” through its treatment of rape.

    Would you please tell me what you are quoting (or paraphrasing) here? I’ve read and reread the first guest post at Shakesville, the first Shakesville post you link to. It doesn’t even include the phrase rape culture. It also doesn’t call out for an apology or address the PA creators by name or even refer to them as you. (Your link to the post I mean -> The idea, stated in the first objection post at Shakesville, that Penny Arcade shouldn’t have used rape )

    You state that this first editorial about the PA strip on Shakesville was wrong. But if you read it carefully, you can see that it criticizes the strip without attacking the creators or asking for any response. Obviously it GOT a response. But it didn’t state that it required one. I think that statement was written into the discussion, or read into the discussion, a bit later on.

    I think later posts are being mentally rolled into the first one, and feminists are being accused of accusing others of being rape apologists quite a bit before one or more people, possibly not the original writers, actually said that.

    It’s really ironic when there are many accusations that the comic was not read carefully enough by some readers. Careful reading and careful quoting are both not happening fairly often. And the longest arguments appear to prompt the most skimming. Sometimes the most carefully assembled arguments are skimmed and then summarized in really dismissive ways.

  12. Doctor Slack Says:

    “Would you please tell me what you are quoting (or paraphrasing) here? ”

    Seems evident to me he’s citing Melissa McEwan’s terminology. Her “engagement” with the comic, such as it was, very quickly eclipsed the first “guest post;” it introduced the inflammatory “rape culture” and “triggers” arguments purportedly being made on behalf of survivors. The subsequent brouhaha was in large part driven by sides that formed up for and against her, not the original post (which was comparatively tame, albeit curiously muddled). I do wonder what that original poster thinks about the way Shakesville and McEwan in particular saw fit to take up and run with their objection.

  13. smhll Says:

    OK, I did my own legwork.

    If we start with the Pratville timeline, referenced above, then this is a chunk from the second Shakesville Objects link.

    (This first chunk really explains her argument.)

    “Most critics of rape jokes object on one of two bases, neither of which are “your rape joke will directly cause someone to go out and commit a rape.” (That idea is absurd—which is why it’s so appealing to defenders of rape jokes to deliberately misrepresent critics’ arguments in such a fashion.) One criticism is that rape jokes are triggers for survivors of sexual violence (and/or attempted sexual violence). The other is that rape jokes contribute to a rape culture in which rape is normalized.

    It’s that second objection that tends to get repackaged as “your rape joke will directly cause someone to go out and commit a rape,” which is, of course, a willful and dishonest simplification of a complex argument. The rape culture is a collection of narratives and beliefs that service the existence of endemic sexual violence in myriad ways, from overt exhortations to commit sexual violence to subtle discouragements against prosecution and conviction for crimes of sexual violence. The rape joke, by virtue of its ubiquity, prominently serves as a tool of normalization and diminishment.

    No, one rape joke does not “cause” someone to go out and commit a rape. But a single rape joke does not exist in a void. It exists in a culture rife with jokes that treat as a punchline a heinous, terrifying crime that leaves most of its survivors forever changed in some material way. It exists in a culture in which millions and millions of women, men, and children will be victimized by perpetrators of sexual violence, many of them multiple times. It exists in a culture in which rape not being treated as seriously as it ought means that vanishingly few survivors of sexual violence see real justice, leaving their assaulters free to create even more survivors. It exists in a culture in which rape is not primarily committed by swarthy strangers lurking in dark alleyways and jumping out of bushes, but primarily by people one knows, who nonetheless fail, as a result of some combination of innate corruption and socialization in a culture that disdains consent and autonomy, to view their victims as human beings deserving of basic dignity.”

    Further on in the same page, Melissa writes:

    “And while I’m bothered by the fact that the jokes normalize and effectively minimize the severity of rape and thus perpetuate the rape culture, I’m more bothered by the thought of a woman who’s recently been raped, who’s just experienced what may be the worst thing that will ever happen to her, and goes to the site of her favorite webcomic, or turns on the telly, or goes to the cinema, or a comedy club, to have a much-needed laugh—only to see that horrible, life-changing thing used as the butt of a joke.”

    If maybe just half of what I quoted above got quoted and linked around a lot in this discussion, then I could maybe see some congruence between what she wrote and how people are shorthanding what she wrote. But rereading the big chunk that I quoted, the most common paraphrasing I hear of her idea is kind of offbase. Not deliberately obtuse, but not carefully accurate.

  14. Doctor Slack Says:

    Some paraphrases of her ideas are a bit hostile, influenced by whether one accepts either her parameters in talking about “rape culture” (some people agree it exists but don’t necessarily accept her definition, others — less convincingly — deny the whole notion) or in referencing “rape jokes” in this context (there being no general agreement that “The Sixth Slave” qualifies), or in assessing how the one interacts with the other and whether humor touching on the topic can ever be morally permissible at all (among dissenters McEwan’s approach would appear incomplete at the least), and the vehemence of dissent in each case. Most paraphrases I’ve seen, however, portray her as accusing “rape jokes” of which “Sixth Slave” is presumably an example of being contribution to “rape culture” and thereby direct implication in the suffering of millions. That seems to me to be perfectly fair, since it is in fact what she says. If anything it’s a mild version of what she says.

    On the same page, Melissa goes beyond just saying “while I’m bothered by the fact that the jokes normalize and effectively minimize the severity of rape . . . I’m more bothered by the thought of a woman who’s recently been raped . . . only to see that horrible, life-changing thing used as the butt of a joke.” That in fact is a side point for her; it is not the substance of her argument about triggering. Her argument about triggering purports to be a very specific and clinical reference to PTSD triggers, which is why she’s not just talking about “feewings” (her term).

  15. Tadhg Says:

    It’s possible that I am conflating the McEwan article with the original article, since I didn’t read them in chronological order when I first went back to them.

    I still think that Milli A.’s article is making that claim about the Penny Arcade strip; at the end of the fourth paragraph the link “Or not” goes to a McEwan post with the title “Today in Rape Culture”. However, even if I’m misreading Milli A’s article, the comments make clear that a lot of commenters there felt the strip was perpetuating rape culture; for example, Vanshar states an intent to email PA and in that comment implies that the strip constitutes “rape apologia”. My impression is that emails along those lines are what PA received and what they were responding to in their second strip.

    It should be clear that if Milli A. never made the claim that the strip perpetuates rape culture, or did anything but describe a personal reaction to the strip, then it’s clearly not the case that Milli A. should offer any apology to Penny Arcade.

    I think detractors who did make those claims were wrong, however. I also disagree with a number of Milli A.’s own comments on the original post, such as “This is a joke for people who don’t take rape seriously”, which suggests to me that my reading of the post is not far off the author’s intent.

    I hope it’s clear from my own post that I’m neither dismissive of the idea of “rape culture” as I understand it nor interpreting the critics of the comics as implying that the strip would cause people to become rapists. At the same time, I can see how PA reached the point of mocking just that in their response, because: if the critics are making the point that there’s something seriously wrong with the comic, what is that something? The PTSD arguments from McEwan come later, as far as I can tell, so that leaves that it perpetuates rape culture in some meaningful way (because if it’s not meaningful it wouldn’t be serious), or that it’s offensive. If it’s offensive, PA have the reasonable point that they offend lots of people (or at least I think it’s a reasonable point). So if the charge against the comic is that it perpetuates rape culture, and PA regard that (as I do) as a false charge, what exactly is wrong with their response? That they unfairly mocked the arguments made in support of that false charge?

    This is one of the key issues for me; my impression is that a lot of the “anti-PA” side in this controversy are behaving as if there’s no difference in the issues with PA’s second strip between the case where the first strip actually does perpetuate rape culture and the case where it does not. I don’t think that’s true; it remains an important question even if their later behavior was entirely reprehensible (and for me, they crossed the line after the response strip, not with it).

  16. smhll Says:

    “Perpetuating rape culture” is perhaps the crux of the disagreement between the two ‘sides’.

    I think a lot of culture is self-perpetuating. Some of our beliefs, our memes, about men and women have a life of their own. They keep going and going and spawning new joke variations. Not all of our culture’s ingrained beliefs about gender and sex and respect and violence are 100% true, although many of us let them slide or repeat them as if they are. I postulate that if we aren’t stopping or at least slowing rape culture, then we are letting it be perpetual.

    I think there have been some posters in this big discussion that wouldn’t agree if I said that the USA has a violent culture. They might be comfortable with the level of violence exists or feel that it it average, or more pertinently “normal”. I’m sure that some of the less articulate PA supporters wouldn’t agree with me if I said the USA has a misogynistic culture, and that includes the people that don’t know the word and additional people who don’t think it’s true because it doesn’t happen much to them.

    I just started reading Jane McGonigal’s book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better And How They Can Change The World. She makes the point that I really hadn’t thought about — that we have an anti-gaming culture. She starts her first chapter with this. “Almost all of us are biased against games today — even gamers. This bias is a part of our culture, part of our language, and it’s even woven into the way we use the world “game” and player in everyday conversation.”

    On one side of the Sixth Slave discussion I see people who think we live in a “rape culture” and want people to be more aware of it, even if it falls far outside of their experience. On the other side I see some people who appear think we live in a “censorship culture”. Today I had my “consciousness raised” a little bit about censorship culture. A little kid, whose mom is a friend of mine, got in trouble for answering his friend, who asked him on the playground “what is sex?” The answer wasn’t even graphic, or particularly accurate, but this kid is in trouble for answering a question. I find that really creepy. I don’t like the increasingly totalitarian way schools are run. (I graduated a long time ago, so this isn’t forefront in my mind much.)

  17. Doctor Slack Says:

    In truth, I understand the people — like McEwan, apparently herself a rape survivor — who want people to understand more about “rape culture.” There really ought’nt, in the age of Abu Ghraib, be people who can’t imagine that “rape culture” is a real thing or that there are norms that perpetuate it.

    I don’t understand people who lack the imagination to think that humor can be a positive way of dealing with it. There’s a point where lack of imagination becomes a moral failing. “It’s not my thing” I can get and is perfectly okay, but the people who choose to speak of “rape survivors” as a unitary group of people too fragile to encounter a mild joke slightly touching a fantasy version of the subject on Penny Arcade are mystifying to me — the moreso when they’re making up fantasy versions of PTSD triggers to justify that — and are more than a little of an insult to the people they claim to speak for as a whole. I would’ve understood The Battle of Dickwolf Hill from the Shakesville side of the trenches if there’d been an issue at stake like Penny Arcade making the sort of “rape joke” that turns up in prison “comedies” or Ace Ventura movies. The way it actually went down was bullshit, though, and I don’t think the Shakesville crowd has the guts or the integrity to admit it. And, especially given the censorship culture rightly referenced by smhll, that’s really unfortunate.

  18. smhll Says:

    Yeah, I wasn’t personally offended or triggered by the “first” Penny Arcade strip. I thought the second strip, with the “rape no more” comment was on the snotty side.

    I think feminists are saying that their arguments are being summarized and dismissed in kind of sloppy ways, since feminists who feel that laughing at rape is bad, aren’t actually callling jokes with rape punchlines or rape references “gateway drugs” to rape. And yet people are reacting as if they were.

    One of the reason the discussion necessarily gets sloppy is that (as far as I know) the emails to Mike and Jerry from feminists in response to The Sixth Slave and the follow-up Rape No More strip were private. I’ve clicked on most of the links on the major timelines and haven’t seen any emails reproduced there. (I have seen a few tweets.) So, at this point discussion relies on how Mike (or Jerry?) summarized the emails he received. Without reading the actual emails that really torqued him, I can’t know which feminist went over the line (if one did) and actually called him a perpetuator or an apologist. I’d like to see it, but I probably can’t, and I know this issue is getting stale.

  19. Doctor Slack Says:

    Without reading the actual emails that really torqued him, I can’t know which feminist went over the line (if one did) and actually called him a perpetuator or an apologist.

    True. We do have some lengthy and pungent public examples of it, though, cf. that McEwan’s entire argument about the rape joke is that it perpetuates rape culture (and therefore rape and the suffering of countless millions) by normalization and diminishment, thereby manifesting some combination of innate corruption and disdain for consent and autonomy. PA’s actual clumsinesses aside, that pretty much is calling someone a perpetuator and apologist. I have a feeling I can take a rough guess at the content of some of those e-mails, just as I can take a pretty good guess at the content of some of the hate mail McEwan and others must have received in the course of things.

    I know this issue is getting stale.

    Yeah. Thank God for that…

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