If you’ve been around any tech or gaming sites this week, you’ve already seen the big brouhaha surrounding Cross Assault, a fighting game reality show sponsored by Capcom. To sum up: The leader of the Tekken team, Aris Bakhtanians, made a number of rather jaw-dropping remarks concerning sexual harassment in the fighting game community, which he seems to view as a God-given right. Player Miranda Pakozdi later threw a match after Bakhtanians — her own teammate, mind you — continued to harass her (queries about her bra size were the just the tip of the iceberg).
The whole to-do has already been covered extensively elsewhere, and a significant portion of the fighting game community has loudly decried Bakhtanians’ actions, stating that his boorish behavior is not reflective of gaming culture as a whole. If you’re a gamer, you already know that. There are plenty of awesome gamer guys out there who would never even consider engaging in this kind of nonsense. The Cross Assault incident is yet another case of a few bad apples spoiling the bunch.
However, what I would like to address is the all-too-familiar sentiment behind Bakhtanians’ appalling comments. The argument I see popping up a lot around this issue — and indeed, around most discussions of sexism, racism, or homophobia — is one of censorship. It goes like this: Trash-talking is funny, comedy is inherently cruel, and toning it down every time someone gets offended flies in the face of free speech. If you don’t get the joke, then go somewhere else.
Okay, yes, but…no.
Freedom of speech is something I will defend to the death. I’m a card-carrying member of both the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I believe that everyone should have the legal right to express themselves however they like. Please notice that I said legal right. The idea of a governing body dictating what you can and cannot say or read or watch or think gives me the shivers. So when I write about depictions of women in video games that I find, shall we say, less than palatable, I’m under no illusion that the developers are somehow obligated to change their ways. I hope that they will take the socially responsible route, but if they don’t, I’m not going to demand that the government should “do something about it.” I’m just going to spend my money on developers who do care about their female audience. Content creators absolutely have the right to say whatever they like. Similarly, I have the right to say that I don’t like it. Such is the beauty of free speech.
I also know that comedy is often at its best when it crosses social boundaries. That’s why comedy is so important in the first place. It’s a way for us to try to figure out our weird, contradictory world. And yeah, trash-talking can be fun, too (so long as everyone is laughing). Jokes about gender and race and sexuality can totally be funny — but it depends heavily on the context, the delivery, and the underlying message. Of course, comedy is also hugely subjective. Just because one woman laughs at a joke about women doesn’t mean that all women will laugh at that joke. And it doesn’t mean that all the women who don’t get the joke are somehow in the wrong. It just means that we’re all different.
This is where I think some people have a misconception of what “freedom of speech” means. Free speech does not give you carte blanche to speak without consequences. You are free to say what you like, but you are also responsible for your words and actions.
If you are a comedian, an author, a blogger, a podcaster — anybody who makes stuff for the masses — and decide to make a joke about a person or a group of people, you are within your rights to do so. This is a matter of knowing your audience. If a member of your audience gets offended, it’s up to you to decide what to do next. You can choose to amend your act, or your can choose to ignore it. It depends on who you want to keep in your audience. You’re under no obligation to pander to anyone. But people are under no obligation to sit and listen, either. If several members of your audience stand up and say “Enough,” then you should probably think about what’s coming out of your mouth before you wind up with no audience at all.
If you are an individual making a joke directly to another person’s face (in the digital age, that can mean through chat, Vent or blog comments as well), and that person tells you that they are offended, you still have options. If you decide that the joke was offensive, you might decide to never make a joke like that again, to anyone. If you don’t think that the joke was offensive, you might still recognize that that particular individual was offended, in which case you might decide to tell the joke only to people who will get it and to avoid the offended individual entirely (that person probably won’t want to hang out with you, either). Or you can keep making the joke directly to that person’s face, believing that you are blameless for the person’s offense, because it’s not your fault that he/she doesn’t find it funny — and maybe, his/her offense makes the joke all the more funny to you.
If you choose that last option, congratulations. You’re a bully.
Humans are a social species, and I believe that means we have a responsibility to the well-being of the people around us. We can’t be nice to everyone. We won’t always (or ever) agree with everyone. We don’t always laugh at the same jokes as other people. But when a person tells you to stop doing whatever you are doing directly to them, you stop. Period. End of discussion. Groups can disagree with one another, and even publicly decry one another. That’s okay; that’s human nature. Picking on an individual because they don’t fit into your group, however, is wrong. It’s heartless, it’s childish, and there is nothing funny about it.
This is an issue that goes beyond sexism, or racism, or any other ism. It’s not limited to the gaming community, or the comics community, or even to the geek community. But since we’re all here, let’s talk about the geek community. We have always stereotypically been a refuge for the weirdos, the nerds, the freaks, the explorers, the free spirits, the others. Bullying, in my eyes, does not belong here. You know what sort of people stereotypically bully others for the amusement of their peers? Jocks. Lets not be jocks. Lets be geeks. We’re better than that.
Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.