The R-Word (Trigger warning)

16 Jul

So recently there has been a lot of hype surfacing around the “culture of rape” that exists in games and on the internet. But it’s also surfaced in more “common” forums, such as when comedian Daniel Tosh made a “rape-joke” and was called out for it in person and via twitter. It’s also come up with regards to the newest Tomb Raider. Anyone who has ever spent any time on Fark will also know that there are several consistently repeated memes that also make rape jokes (specifically, prison-rape jokes).

Tosh’s joke prompted the response from an audience member that “rape jokes are never funny,” and Tosh responded by suggesting that it would be funny of that audience member (who happened to be female) were raped right then and there. The issue, of course, is not whether rape jokes are funny, but whether or not they should even be allowed. As Jezebel’s Lindy West points out in the article, “At this point, the conversation has devolved into two polarized camps: outraged feminists arguing that ‘rape jokes are never funny,’ and defensive comics wailing about how the ‘thought police’ is ‘silencing’ them.”

West takes an interesting and somewhat unexpected stance on the point: that both sides are actually wrong. She thinks that making rape jokes is okay even though rape itself is horrible and wrong. She also thinks that Tosh was irresponsible and disrespectful in the way that he used the topic.

And then she addresses the central point, which is that people have the right to censor things when they feel they are inappropriate, but not the right to stop them from being said to begin with. In other words, if fans want to refuse to listen to Tosh because of this, then that is their right. If he has no fan base and is fired, that is not silencing Tosh (who is welcome to keep speaking all he wants), that is responding to the audience’s corresponding freedom to listen/disapprove.

In short, people should think about what they say before they say it based on the response they want/expect to receive. She puts it crudely, but accurately: “This fetishization of not censoring yourself, of being an ‘equal-opportunity offender,’ is bizarre and bad for comedy. When did ‘not censoring yourself’ become a good thing? We censor ourselves all the time, because we are not entitled, sociopathic fucks….So when you make a joke in that room that trivializes rape or mocks rape victims, you are deliberately (because now you know!) harming those people. On purpose. Not because you’re a rapist—you’re probably not—but because you’re selfish and amateurish and lazy and scared.” Essentially, West comes down on the side of community – rather than organizational – censorship. If we don’t like what we’re hearing, then we as the audience need to tell the speaker that we don’t like it and don’t want to hear it. And then hope they will self-censor out of a sense of their own humanity.

But does what works in comedy and entertainment also work for online communities? For games? Can we rely on the gaming community to call for censorship of offensive material loudly enough that companies running the communities will enforce the audience demands (in the way that West suggests Comedy Central would if the fan outcry against Tosh were loud enough)? Or will a sense of decency and humanity prevail in a space that is largely anonymous and doesn’t involve having to look the person you’ve just harassed in the face?

In the case of Tomb Raider and the attempted rape/not-rape of Lara Croft, there seems to be a bit of panic concerning terminology. The problem there, for me, is not that the game portrays a scene of sexual assault (because, at least to me, that’s what it is), but that the PR people are afraid to admit it. The inclusion of sexual assault and rape in a videogame should not be censored any more than it is in films or on television shows. It’s disturbing, yes, but the point being made – even in Tomb Raider – is that it is bad. Players, they point out, want to “protect” Lara, and that is an indication that people are responding appropriately. They don’t like it. They want to eliminate it. And that’s a good thing. But it’s something that should be talked about, not censored with vague euphemisms like “close physical intimidation” or “pathological situation.”

For instance, at the end of her article, West actually chooses four rape jokes she thinks “work.” All four are commentary – used ironically or sarcastically to make the suggestion that rape is actually bad, not intrinsically funny. And that’s the difference, she seems to imply, between Tosh’s poor joke and the ones made by the other comedians.

And I think that’s really the point. Shakespeare didn’t put the rape of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus because he thought it was funny. He didn’t have the hand- and toungue-less Lavinia pick up Titus’s chopped-off hand in her teeth because he thought rape was a good idea, either, even though watching it is funny. He included it because sometimes in order to face and talk about horrible things we have to make them darkly humorous. It’s the same reason that Team Fortress 2 is occasionally hilarious despite its violence (and is especially so in the “Meet the…” video series). The game itself doesn’t condone wanton homicide… but it uses it to expose the irony that we seem to only be capable of working together when there’s an opposition, that we as a species bond over acts of violence and atrocity and idolize those who commit those acts in our works of art.

Using violence and yes, rape, in a darkly funny way to comment on the horror of human atrocity should be acceptable in the right place and context. Yes, it will offend some people, and they should have the right to say so and to avoid the places, people, and products that make them uncomfortable. They should be able to do so without fear of condemnation or the feeling of being belittled or victimized. There should be places and situations where such jokes are inappropriate and unacceptable, but there should also be places where it is. And that is really where this comes back to so many of the discussions I’ve posted on recently – the ability to choose to listen or to be forced to endure. What happened, for instance, with Sarkeesian was forced on her, directly attacked her, and was not an issue of “freedom of speech.” It was an issue of abuse.

So to come back to a central question – do we rely on institutions to do our so-called “thought policing”? Part of me wants to say “yes,” but part of me knows that “thought police” do not distinguish irony or sarcasm or social commentary from abuse very well. Which leaves me feeling uncertain, because while I think that XBL should probably ban or limit participation on abusive behavior, I don’t think they have the right to restrict legitimate commentary, even if it does contain a rape joke, and I don’t trust institutionalized mediation to be able (or willing) to make the distinction.