Sunday, September 8, 2013

On PAX, Privilege, and Free Expression

I've been watching the news and opinions coming out about Mike Krahulik's statement at PAX last Monday. One issue that keeps getting brought up again and again is freedom of speech, which is a topic I've spent a not-insignificant amount of time thinking about. I'm not sure what I can really add to the discussion beyond what Rachel Edidin has said in her fantastic piece over at Wired, but I'm going to give it a shot because I want to weigh in a bit on the free expression issue.

In case you're not familiar with the situation, I'm going to crib Edidin's breakdown of the facts because she does a pretty good job at it and, frankly, it's not what I'm interested in talking about here. Do go give her piece the hits it deserves though, it's well worth it (and I feel slightly guilty quoting from it at such length):
Here’s some quick context: In 2010, Penny Arcade posted a comic strip that involved a character describing being “raped to sleep by dickwolves.” The rape joke wasn’t the point of the strip — it was an illustration of the screwed-up ethics implied by the quests in videogames like World of Warcraft, where after a player has rescued, say, five hostages or slaves, there’s no real impetus (and sometimes no mechanic) to save any of the others.
Whether or not the strip was offensive isn’t really relevant at this point: More than the comic itself, what made the most impact was how Penny Arcade responded to the readers — including rape survivors — who said it upset them. First, they mocked their critics with a series of posts and a flippant non-apology. In a subsequent “make a strip” demonstration at PAX Prime, Krahulik further needled the issue by drawing a dickwolf, and Penny Arcade even monetized the discomfort over the rape joke by making and selling “Team Dickwolves” shirts and pennants. 
Eventually, the argument died down to a dull roar.Penny Arcade made it clear that they still disagreed with both the criticism of the initial strip and the subsequent concerns from critics, but pulling the t-shirts and pennants out of the store was a significant gesture, one that — perhaps — signaled a willingness to acknowledge that this was a situation where inclusion mattered more than proving that they had the power to do whatever they wanted.More people protested, and some companies and speakers began making noise about pulling out of PAX Prime. Finally, the dickwolves merchandise was was removed from the Penny Arcade store. Krahulik made it clear that he objected to the decision to stop selling the merchandise, and would be wearing his dickwolves shirt at PAX to illustrate that point, even though he knew the dickwolves — and the sentiment they expressed — made many potential attendees feel uncomfortable and unsafe. 
And then on Monday at PAX, in front of an audience of thousands, Krahulik told business manager Robert Khoo that he regretted pulling the Dickwolves merchandise from the Penny Arcade store — merchandise he had created as a “screw you” to rape survivors who had had the temerity to complain about a comic strip. While the audience burst into applause, Khoo nodded sagely and said that now they knew better; now they would just leave it and not engage.
I still read Penny Arcade comic now and then, and I genuinely like Ben Kuchera and the other fine folks at the Penny Arcade Report.  But lately I find that whenever Penny Arcade gets my attention it's because of something awful Krahulik has said, or an aggressively defensive stance he's taken after being called out for his shitty comment. I'm not alone in making this observation. Krahulik and his perspectives are increasingly the focus of commentary on the Penny Arcade brand. Most recently he made some flippant remarks about trans-gendered people that sparked an online debate that (I felt) was at least ultimately productive-ish, thanks entirely to the bravery of Sophie Prell. The whole fiasco culminated with Krahulik making a half-hearted apology that basically amounted to "I don't feel any different but I'm sorry my perspective hurts people."

And then he brought the dickwolves thing back, out of nowhere, at PAX this week.

Chris Franklin AKA Campster -- who makes extremely awesome and intelligent videos that you should check out -- had this to say:

Campster's point was in response to Krahulik's continued defence that he's "just some guy who draws comics, and was a victim of bullying." As Emma Story (quoted in the Wired piece) puts it,
The unexamined privilege in [Mike's] viewpoint is sort of breathtaking — the fact that a straight white male, a celebrity with countless followers who will agree with anything he says, doesn’t see that he is in a position of power over other significantly marginalized groups is almost beyond believing. What he is doing is bullying, no question, and it’s not excused by the fact that kids were mean to him when he was in school.
Story puts the whole thing into perspective by identifying Krahulik's position of influence and apparent refusal to recognize that power. This is the same man who, just a few months ago, said
My reaction when I feel backed into corner is to be an asshole. It’s essentially how I defend myself. It’s been that way since was in elementary school. I’m 36 now. Maybe it’s finally time to try and let some of that shit go. 
Lets set aside the fact that even in that statement Krahulik still ignores his privilege and instead focuses on his personal baggage. By bringing dickwolves up again Kraulik made it clear that he has not let that particular shit go. He clearly still feels it was wrong to take down the merchandise that implicitly mocked rape victims. He still feels like that was a loss, that Penny Arcade 'backed down' and relented to critics via self-censorship.

There it is: censorship. [noun] /ˈsensərˌSHip/ The notion of being forced to not say/do something by others. Never mind the fact that the particular thing at issue here was an aggressive response to some fans saying they were made uncomfortable by a throwaway joke. Oh no, what's important here is of course the principle of being able to say or do whatever you want whenever you want, no matter how it affects other people. That was clearly what Krahulik had in mind when he announced he'd be wearing a dickwolves shirt to PAX in 2011, and it had the desired response of rallying certain Penny Arcade fans like (the aptly named) @Teamrape, who tweeted
Krahulik is a mess of an Internet celebrity but to his credit he is at least trying to be better: in his "clarification" of the dickwolves comment this week he manages to sound an awful lots like the Parallel Universe Mike Krahulik that Daniel Griffiths imagines; whether it's too little too late is a matter of perspective, but at least there's that in his favour. However, what continues throughout all of this is the notion on the part of Krahulik and his ardent fans that there is censorship at work here. That somehow they are the ones being bullied by those who think all this dickwolves nonsense is unacceptable.

There's a stark difference between rights and what's right, and when concepts like freedom of expression get bandied about in relation to asshole-ish conduct then that line gets crossed. At its core this whole debate isn't -- and has never been -- about what people can or cannot say. Shy of violent or hate-promoting speech, go nuts and say what you want, just don't pretend that listeners aren't entitled to react. What's at issue here is the fact that Krahulik did something that other people found offensive, and when they called him on it he responded aggressively by questioning their right to criticize him. Since then his fans have rallied around the concept of freedom of expression and gotten into some sort of grudge match with rape victims and their supporters.

I for one am sick and tired of free expression being used as a blanket defence against reproach when people say shitty things on the Internet. In particular, I am done with it being the go-to response of dudes who feel attacked when some property they adore gets criticized. "Oh, you didn't like it when my favourite video game employed sexist art and game mechanics? Well fuck you! It's my right and how dare you say otherwise?" It's infuriating to see free expression used as the go-to flag of self-righteousness for people who want to act consequence-free, and who can't seem to see the irony of using that freedom itself as a basis for censorship -- because yes, the endgame behind all the dickwolves rallying is that the critics shut up and let the Penny Arcade guys go back to doing whatever they want.

Free expression is not about being able to speak or act with impunity. It does entail being able to express what you want and face the consequences. But there's more going on here than that because of the position that Krahulik holds in the industry and the sheer significance of his support base. As evidenced by developer Christine Love, who told Wired that "despite not feeling safe or comfortable at PAX, she was afraid to pull out of the show because it was a rare opportunity to showcase her independent work." What's more, Krahulik's fans and supporters are many of the same people that developers like Love are trying to attract with their work, so even stepping out against him entails potentially disastrous commercial ramifications.
Krahulik has a lot to learn about his privilege and he had better do it fast because at least some people are making it clear that they're not willing to put up with his bullshit anymore. They still feel like they have to, and that's a whole mess of horrible in its own right, but that kind of influence will fade if Penny Arcade doesn't take steps to slow its fall from the pedestal of gaming icons. Krahulik and all of his fans also need to wake up and get a sense of what freedom of expression really means. Sure, it's their right to embrace the dickwolves joke as some sort of unifying raison d'être, but likewise it's ours to tell them to shove it. If the disapproval is so great as to make the great untouchables at Penny Arcade reconsider their actions then that isn't censorship. Anyone who thinks it is would do well to rethink their understanding of what free expression means, as well as the importance and meaning of other perspectives.


  1. "But lately I find that whenever Penny Arcade gets my attention it's because of something awful Krahulik has said". You might want to think of this in terms of selective attention. When kids at PAX tell Mike and Jerry that they have given them the hope to keep on living despite being bullied in school, you don't hear about that because it doesn't make feminists angry. When Mike writes about explaining to his son that some people are gay and that's fine because all sorts of people love each other you don't hear about that because it doesn't make LGBT activists angry. When Mike fails to live up to every progressive ideal and shoots his mouth off you hear about that, because those are the circles you run in---your filter is designed so you only hear the bad. Mike is his own worst enemy with respect to all of this, but inducing from him not fully embracing feminist or progressive ideals to him being a bad person or a poor internet celebrity is just massively unfair. He has done so much good.

    BTW this thing that makes me register for Disquis rather than just signing in with my Facebook or Google account is a pain.

  2. Doing good and making bullied kids feel better does not give you a free pass when you yourself act like a bully every-time someone disagrees or calls you out for being an ass. Quite the opposite; It makes it worse.