Freedom of speech is a double-edged sword. People should have the right to express their opinions without fear of persecution from authority. People also have the right to express dissenting opinions.
Expressing an opinion, however, does not make you immune from getting yelled at by people who think you’re a wanker.
I am, of course, referring to the recent resurrection of the “dickwolves” controversy that has plagued Penny Arcade and Mike Krahulik since the August 2010 comic. When the first comic appeared, it immediately attracted criticism. Penny Arcade’s reaction to that criticism was to keep digging themselves deeper. This culminated in the release of the dickwolves t-shirt, angering those who pretty adamantly suggested that Penny Arcade did not get the point. Argument ensued, in which the issue of censorship was raised by those supporting the dickwolves comic and merchandise. You can catch up on an entire timeline of the events here, in case you’ve missed it. Essentially, during a panel at last week’s PAX Prime, Krahulik expressed regret at pulling the dickwolves merchandise from sale. This, as to be expected, was not received positively.
I’m not going to talk about the dickwolves part of the controversy here. There has been plenty of commentary on the actual strip and the comments made at PAX Prime this year as they pertain to perpetuating rape culture, made by much smarter people than myself. This article is about how criticism has been received and perceived.
The argument that criticising dickwolves, or, by extension, anything potentially hurtful or controversial, is an attack on freedom of speech and expression, is a non-sequitur. Identifying and critiquing problematic content is not a form of censorship. Saying “hey, that’s kind of wrong and nasty, perhaps you should rethink how and why you said that?” is different from forcibly removing the right of those to express their opinion. Freedom of speech does not grant carte blanche to be hurtful or offensive. In fact, there are conflicting rights at work – the right to freedom of expression, and the right to personal safety. If someone desires to invoke the right to free speech, they also have the responsibility to use their platform responsibly, and, if they don’t, they deserve to be told that what they are saying or expressing is not nice.
In a statement to Kotaku, Robert Khoo clarified the intent behind the statement of retraction made on stage at PAX.
“It wasn’t meant to be a comment supporting rape or sexual assault, but rather one about censorship and the shirt-pulling pouring gasoline on a sensitive discussion. I know we did a poor job of elaborating on that on stage, and as the guy moving the discussion along at the Q&A, I’m really sorry for that.”
Additionally, Krahulik expanded on those comments in a blog post, clarifying the statements. The subsequent clarifications are apologetic. And that’s good. But the poorly articulated sentiment that the on-stage comments were about freedom of speech and censorship are misplaced. To suggest that receiving criticism is akin to censorship is absurd, especially considering the visibility and reach Penny Arcade has, compared to many of those making the criticisms. Their speech is not being forcibly stifled at all.
Compare and contrast to Dennaton’s reaction to criticism regarding the sexual assault scene in Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number’s demo. Hotline Miami 2 copped a shellacking for its representation of sexual violence in its demo, recently showed at Rezzed and Gamescom. In an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun, Dennaton’s Dennis Wedin addressed those criticisms and made some interesting comments.
“We were really sad that some people were so affected by it, because maybe they had been through something like that of their own. Maybe they had a terrible experience of their own that was triggered by the game. That was not intentional at all. We didn’t add the scene just to be controversial. There is a meaning to these two characters. There’s a lot more to them than just this scene.
We removed it for the demo. We’re going to work with it, see if we can fix it. You get a bigger picture when you play the whole game, which is lost in the demo of course.”
For the time being, Dennaton have removed the scene from the demo of the game, and are considering its placement in the finished game. I don’t think the scene would be out of place in the context of the whole game – it just didn’t show well in the demo. And if it is in context, it could be an effective decision. Of course, it still has the potential to cause pain to those who are sensitive to that particular type of comment, but it seems like Dennaton are aware of that, and will be treating it with respect and care.
Dennaton received criticism. They apologised for causing harm. They removed offending comment, and committed to improving it so that it causes less harm. They did not express a feeling of censorship, or that their creative vision was being stifled. They heard the criticism, engaged with the criticism, used the criticism, and are working to alter their game accordingly, while keeping textual integrity.
Both this latest part of the dickwolves saga and the Hotline Miami 2 sexual assault content represent creators who have received criticism from commentators regarding the depictions of sexual violence. One responded defensively, assuming no initial responsibility for their actions, and offering only tepid apologies that were later retracted and contradicted. The other acknowledged the issues with the content as shown, accepted responsibility for any offense caused, and vowed to improve the content to an acceptable level.
Criticism is not censorship. It’s the opposite of censorship. Criticism is about stimulating discussion, solidifying justifications, and including more people in discussion. And if you claim censorship upon receiving criticism, perhaps you are not considering the rights of others to participate in the discussion from a position of equality. And that is censorship.