(Trigger warning: There are triggers throughout this post and in many of the linked pages.)
There’s a whole firestorm going on across the blogosphere about this Penny Arcade comic. If by some chance you haven’t heard about it, there are a number of interesting pieces covering it. The PA guys have made two responses: one comic and some blog posts.
There are a bunch of factors colliding here and that various people are upset for various reasons. It’s really sad that the PA folks have chosen the path of responses that they have. They’re good people who have done good things for the world. They set up Child’s Play, an awesome charity that has encouraged people to donate to children’s hospitals all over the world. They created Pax, which I’ve heard touted as one of the most female friendly cons around.
I can see the argument that the internet is vast and that free speech protects dark humor, even morally. I respect that they have a right to create things that I may not like. I still think they responded poorly. It is possible to explain yourself while still apologizing, acknowledging the issues you inadvertently tread on, and treating others’ concerns with respect.
While I fully support their right to free speech, which includes the right to saying things other people find offensive or distasteful, other people also have the right to criticize them. Freedom of speech is a two way road and we don’t have to be assholes about it in either direction. We can have different opinions, different interpretations, and hold different issues as more or less important without being dismissive or rude.
The part that makes me really sad is, PA don’t seem to understand the insidiousness of how they’ve casually dismissed the criticism. It implies that they don’t see a deeper issue. It is just a joke to them and the “complainers” are silly to suggest the whole topic should be treated any more seriously.
There are several problems with this. One is that casually dismissing criticism with hyperbole is a common technique used to silence feminists. Think along the lines of “What are you getting upset about? This is no big deal, stop being so hysterical.” This means that the way they’ve approached the criticism resonates even more painfully with the people they’re addressing. This was a bad call on their part. It will only hurt and alienate more people. As one of my friends put it, it makes the original comic look a lot worse.
Looking at actual content, the idea that a slave might be raped is not a new one. But for many people in America, that idea is so far removed from modern reality that it only exists in fantasy books and video games. They may know in the abstract that there’s slave trading in the modern world or that there are people who are forced into prostitution against their will, but it’s not part of their reality. It has no actual impact on their instincts or fears. They see no real threat that it could happen to them or to anyone they love.
I would urge you to go take a look at the story that started Love146, a charity that is working to end child sexual slavery. I think it’s important that the issue is real to you. It’s less important that it changes how you think about the PA comic, and more important you have a gut understanding that real slaves are being raped.
As I see it the problem now becomes, people read the joke in the comic and if they lack that gut understanding, the joke will further distance them from seeing the rape of a slave as reality. The over-the-top humor relegates the act and the situation even further to that world of fantasy and fiction. It makes the victim of the crime even more of a faceless, theoretical person who exists only in jokes and video games.
If there isn’t a systemic problem, a joke like this isn’t a big deal. In the case of rape, there is a systemic problem in our culture. One tiny chip at a time, jokes start to slowly turn people into that hero who walks away, because they don’t believe the crime is happening (or could happen) to a real person.
Yes, I’m being a little over-dramatic here. But no, I’m not kidding. I don’t think PA committed some sort of mortal sin with their original strip. I mostly thought it was a kind of tasteless joke when I first read it. They made things much worse by dismissing the whole issue so quickly and crudely.
Like I said before, I respect PA’s right to say what they want in their comic. It’s a shame they aren’t taking the issues behind the criticism of their work more seriously. There is a lot that could be learned and a lot of good that could be done.