Life, it may be said, is lived in fiction. If you got up and went to a job today, odds are that you did it for the money – itself a fiction, but backed by the government, which is another fiction. Your house and car physically exist, but your loans on them constitute promissory notes – financial fiction – owed to a corporation – a legal fiction. Somewhere in all this fiction we write narratives that explain what kinds of people we are, who we talk to, what we find good and evil, and how we live our lives.
The Penny Arcade controversy may be said to be the clash of competing fictions. What is Penny Arcade’s identity in the yet-ongoing ‘Dickwolves’ fight? Are they rabble-rousing hatemongers hell-bent on pushing a pro-rape agenda? Are they freedom fighters, trying to cling to their own ways of thought in an increasingly pressurized society? Or are they merely two guys who made a dumb joke? Twitter was ablaze yet again as this clip from PAX 2013 circulated (click to open video):
“I think that pulling the dickwolves merchandise was a mistake.” – Mike “Gabe” Krahulik, artist of Penny Arcade
Perhaps it’s impossible to be for free speech – whether caricatures of George Bush, graphic violence and gore in anime and manga, girls with improbably large breasts, or Serrano’s Piss Christ – and to turn around and be for the censoring of speech and thought because one particular group of people you like is sacrosanct. The basic concept of free speech in art is: whether an artist’s speech is distasteful or tasteful should not control whether we as a society permit it to exist.
“If jokes about violence, rape, aids, pedophilia, bestiality, drugs, cancer, homosexuality, and religion bother you then I recommend reading a different webcomic.” – Gabe
To Penny Arcade, it appears this is more or less a straightforward free speech issue. From their point of view, they say stupid stuff but they don’t mean harm by it; some of it is hilarious and some is offensive, and some might even be both. They’re crass and careless, but they are equally crass and careless with each other. In the above PAX 2013 panel video, they publicly joke about how if one of them dies, the other already has plans to spend the life insurance money! Sensitivity is clearly not something they are any good at.
Penny Arcade’s fans cheer them because they are cheering the idea that in a complex world of disproportionate reactions – a scary world where kids get in trouble for chewing pastries into the shape of guns – it’s okay to be yourself. It’s okay to break the rules of politeness, it’s okay to say socially unacceptable things, and it’s okay to make a comic about utterly juvenile humor juxtaposed with gaming references. They don’t understand what all the fuss is, and they don’t accept that a joke about the absurdity of RPG questing that uses rape as its “BAD END” has anything to do with real life rape. They want to live without having to worry about consequences for every dumb thing that comes out when they open their mouths.
Set against this are those who believe that culture is deliberate. To them, every word and thought must be carefully measured for fear of contributing to one repressive culture or another. In this particular case, that’s “rape culture,” and all of Penny Arcade’s bluster is nothing less than horrifying. This is the other story; the other version of events; the competing fiction. Those who believe in rape culture believe in a sort of semiotic butterfly effect, whereby constant mention of rape as a laudable act (“we raped the other team in LoL last night”) or as an item of humour desensitizes people and eventually contributes to the incidence of actual rapes.
It would be easy to call this difference one of liberalism vs. conservatism, but that would be false: the Dickwolves argument is a clash between one liberal paradigm (third-wave feminism) and another liberal paradigm (free speech)! To third-wave feminists, it is utterly shocking that someone would willingly choose to wear a Dickwolves shirt after the backlash. After all, even if others don’t agree with their way of looking at culture, it’s obvious they are horrified by it. Why would anyone willingly offend them?
“A moral panic is a public panic over an issue deemed to be a threat to, or shocking to, the sensibilities of ‘proper’ society… Where the moral panic involves a group whose members are conscious of their subordination, the denounced behavior may become a symbol of opposition and rebellion.” – RationalWiki
It has to be noted that third-wave feminists do not form a majority consensus in society at large; only in educational institutions and on the Internet – where liberalism holds sway – are they taste-makers. “Rebellion” against any standards they impose may therefore also be understood as a clash between online and offline standards.
Of course, moral panic in the abstract is regularly derided in the gaming community, because of its associations with video game censors like Jack Thompson. Penny Arcade itself publicly feuded with the now-disbarred lawyer in 2005. Perhaps this illustrates a valuable lesson about how people apply ideals. People get that moral panic is absurd when applied to something they instinctively find harmless or positive like gaming, but change the bugbear to something like hurtful speech, and suddenly they’re all in. After all, stereotypical video game nerds and anime otaku have a long and storied history of being verbally abused.
Will Penny Arcade spawn more controversies in the future?
“With me not being able to keep my mouth shut – I’m trying very hard to be better about that . . . When and where it’s OK to say the things that I think. When I do things or say things that hurt not just me but fourteen other people who rely on Penny Arcade for their livelihood, when I say something dumb to make somebody mad . . . that I can see happening again. I hope it doesn’t, but I know who I am.” – Gabe
There you have it. It looks like it will happen again, and they are aware of it to the point of being fatalistic. While Gabe and Tycho are incredibly crass and offensive, perhaps we can at least say that they are also incredibly honest about who they really are. Time will tell whether they are remembered as hatemongers, advocates of free speech, or guys making dumb jokes.