Jef Rouner
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When Free Speech Becomes Its Own Form of Censorship

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A while back a friend of mine’s daughter wanted to start her own YouTube show about video games, and because I covered GamerGate for Houston Press and was an authority on how bad life for women can be in the online space, she asked me what I thought about it. I sadly told her that unless she wanted to have her daughter harassed and possibly stalked, it probably wasn’t a very good idea. She never made her show.

There are few terms that get misused more than censorship, except perhaps free speech. To hear some people talk these days, you’d think there was an actual PC Police storming through the streets trying to shut down the very concept of expressing thought, usually because they think liberals are fragile snowflakes unable to handle bad words.

But these folks never seem to question their own unending attempts at censorship that they dub free speech. To return to the GamerGate example, members of that group have literally spent years targeting people like critic Anita Sarkeesian, sending her highly-specific death threats nearly every day of her life, all for the crime of examining tropes in videogames through a feminist lens.

The goal was never to rebut her, though her harassment and the harassment of many others was often framed that way to make it palatable to the army of useful idiots whose numbers turn a standard image board raid into a national story. The goal was to silence her and make her go away. The fact that Sarkeesian disables comments on her videos and routinely blocks her attackers on social media, was all the proof those people needed that she was an enemy of free speech and artistic integrity.

The real motivation, though, was the weak-kneed fragility of speech that they puff out their chests and pretend to be fighting. There’s no censorship if a critic chooses to highlight expressions of misogyny in a piece of media. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of that, creating more content centered around the medium everyone claimed to love.

The doomsday scenario was that publishers and developers would fear dread at angry liberal gamers, and would proceed to pepper their games with content they considered “political.” Often this reached truly ridiculous heights, such as when they began screaming that Virginia was yet another example of this ominous specter simply because the main character is a black woman. That’s the level of cultish outrage that obsesses the absolutist free speech crowd; anything that even hints at diversity, no matter how banal, is treated like a culture war. God knows what nonsense is being spouted in response to three Triple A games this year having trans characters.

Discussing things like problematic language or lack of diversity in gamecasts does not promote censorship, even if developers decide to alter future content based on those discussions. Not every artistic idea, especially in something as large and complex as a video game, deserves to be expressed and applauded as beyond reproach. It’s not self-censorship if an artist decides to respond positively to criticism. It’s just another form of free speech. Assigning the label of “politics” to that evolution of the work is silly. There’s nothing inherently more political about wondering why a game doesn’t have more women than there is wondering about its resource management system.

We have to be free to criticize things, but that doesn’t include large-scale harassment, especially of marginalized people. I’m a lot less worried about whether the next shooter gets a gender or race change because the makers think it’ll get them diversity points than seeing another Jennifer Hepler get driven out of the industry because a bunch of entitled brats thought she should fear for her life because they didn’t like Dragon Age.

God knows I stir the pot myself in my various publications, and the harassment and ease with which it can be done takes a significant toll on my ability to create. When they turn up the volume, it turns mine down, and that is exactly their aim.

The problem with most people who have made free speech their raison d’etre is that their conception of it is stuck in the ‘90s, when we had panics that blamed violent media for school shootings. The enduring narrative that stuck around was that any discussion of the effect of media was the purview of the crazed moralists who simply couldn’t handle blood and tits in a video game. It’s a very “you’ll never stop rock and roll” sort of mindset, even though no official censorship of gaming ever came to pass or even really came close. Still, the message was clear; it was cool to be brutal and crass.

No, Grand Theft Auto didn’t turn people into spree killers, but the whole reason that the movement ever had any momentum is because there is a science behind it. Cultivation theory is a well-respected part of social science that covers everything from advertising to war propaganda, and whether or not playing a sexist or violent video makes you actively sexist or violent, denying that the media we consume affects our worldview is just silly. There’s been a lot of study on the subject, though people for whom their idea of censorship is Capcom deciding not to show R. Mika’s buttslap animation probably haven’t been keeping up.

Those people are predominantly white cishet men, a group accustomed to having their voices heard as a matter of course. They don’t think of their voices as being censorship for others because they don’t get shouted down, and virtually always have a forum to speak. Now they’re finding a lot more empowered groups who want a say in how things are in the world, and they don’t find your insistence on slurs and Nazi jokes to be the daring stab against the man like you thought it was back when JNCOs were a thing.

Free speech absolutists worry only about whether they can say something with as little consequence as possible. Calling Leslie Jones a gorilla on Twitter is their proof they are advocates for a cause. And they are; just not the one they think. What they’re advocating for is the silence of any idea that questions their unexamined worldview, and any indication that the ideas they might have about art and themselves might just not be worth much. They’re not worried people will stop making video games because a woman said mildly unkind things about a dead sex worker in Hitman. They’re worried because less and less people find dead sex workers in Hitman to be a desirable feature. Diversity and avoidance of misogyny is simply getting more popular with people, largely because of stellar critical work being done on the art form. In the marketplace of ideas (and I assume the creative minds of game makers wanting to expand their toolbox), the dreaded censorship so many accuse of trying to shut down creation is actually making more of it.

Criticism is crucial to the evolution of thought and art, and so are critics. It’s unfortunate that so many have used the wonder of the internet to attack critics, and that popular Twitter users amuse themselves with the forum to try and silence other voices. Often those voices end up muffled out of fear, and the assailant justifies himself by pretending free speech is at stake if he can’t say cunt whenever he pleases. The more vulnerable a person is, the less likely they will have the resources to fight back against an avalanche. Fear for your life should not be the price of speaking up, and the only reason these people don’t understand that is because it almost never comes home to roost for them. If your free speech is only free for you, it’s not actually that free.

  • Ad Lib

    This is a great article, Jef. Thanks for writing it. Perhaps you’ll consider a part 2, and tackle the illogical stance, “Your existence is infringing on my rights” trend in lawmaking lately?