Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Last Argument

I. Recently, in response to the new Mad Max movie, Anita Sarkeesian had some comments about the nature of violence. Specifically, the idea that "media feminism" often limits itself to the idea of women doing masculine things & being respected for it, even when those things are distasteful and hateful (i.e. "killing people").

I was thrilled, of course. You all know my thoughts about toxic masculinity by now. I don't support dehumanization, and I don't support tragedy being turned into positive, indulgent entertainment. As I've written before, it's possible for a character to be strong, confident and in control (the "positive" elements of masculinity) without being the kind of hateful person who goes around looking for reasons to murder people (the "negative" aspects of masculinity).

There are plenty of people who didn't like Sarkeesian's comments. This includes the obvious crowd, but there's a lot of people who support feminism and "progressive" ideals who felt slighted by those comments, as well. Again, I've written before about the phenomenon of people who feel that media does affect us and that some things shouldn't be turned into entertainment, but who still feel that violence is basically fine and normal. There are a lot of people out there who enjoy violence and want to make excuses about why they should be allowed to indulge in it. My favorite argument is the argument that violence is okay because it's "natural", even though the people making that argument are generally not okay with sexism, racism, and other things that are just as "natural" as killing is.

But it's not just the act of "killing" that's the problem. It's the culture around it. As always, people make the argument that they can separate fiction from reality, and then go on to prove that they absolutely can't.

II. When I talked about Rorschach a while back, I pointed out the fact that in Rorschach's world, he makes perfect sense. Rorschach lives in a world where criminals are not just people making mistakes; they are, almost universally, hardened thugs who cannot be negotiated with. As a result, Rorschach's methods make perfect logical sense, even if Alan Moore thinks they're bad.

That's the problem with violence in media. Not just "it happens", but the reasons it happens. Violence in media is justified because the bad guys are always slavering monsters who cannot ever be negotiated with. Ergo, the "last resort" becomes the first and only resort.

Who would build a world like this? Who would present a narrative where human beings behave like monsters? Imagine the kind of person who sits clutching a gun in their house, paranoid about "thugs" breaking in and murdering their family. That's easy enough to imagine, right? It's a concrete, well-established bloc in American politics, after all. "Paranoia" is the foundation of the Republican party. If we don't maintain order, everything's going to fall apart. The Muslims are going to blow up our cities and then the Illegals are going to take over what's left, and they're going to spend their welfare checks on lobsters!!

Here's the thing, though: those people? Yeah, those are the people who are responsible for our current ideas of "being a badass". Those are the "John Waynes" of the world, the kind of people who support stoic detachment because emotions might make you weak at a crucial moment. Those people wrote superhero comics and action movies. I mean, why the hell do you think superheroes spend so much time stopping bank heists? Who the hell cares about bank heists except for conservatives and people looking for an opportunity to "be a hero"? Nobody, that's who.

The mistake people make is thinking they can separate "violence" from "problematic elements". The entire concept - the dehumanization, the forced stoicism, the toxic masculinity - all of it comes from the same well. Nerd culture idolizes "badasses" because the people who created nerd culture a century ago had specific ideas about how men should behave. And even though some of the ideas from their time became unacceptable - overt racism and sexism, for example - the idea of "killing thugs" maintained its credibility because people were fooled into thinking that it's apolitical.

III. The thing about violence is that...well, let's back up. There's a lot of people who've been accusing Anita Sarkeesian and Jonathan McIntosh of being "pacifists", even though that's clearly not the case - in fact, I myself have been the recipient of that same accusation. The implicit statement being made by that accusation is that they (or "we") are naive and idealistic, blind to the ways of the world, which is why we think violence is bad when obviously it's very good and important.

But that's not accurate, for multiple reasons. First off, there's a difference between being a pacifist and being against dehumanization, in the same way that it is possible to imagine defending yourself against a mugger without fetishizing the idea. Violent media is not just about making use of violence, it's about enjoying making use of violence, and feeling morally justified for doing so. That is the disgusting part. Violence can be justified, but dehumanizing people to justify mass slaughter? And then treating that mass slaughter like it's not only morally accepted but also fun? Reflect on the fact that, seventy years ago, a movie like Mad Max would have been about cowboys gunning down Native Americans.

Second off, reflect for a moment on the idea that pacifism is "naive". Earlier, I said that the Republican Party is founded on paranoia. "Pacifism is naive" fits perfectly into the conservative wheelhouse. It's the idea that if you try to be nice to someone, they're going to take advantage of you. It's the idea that if you show weakness, someone's going to break you. It's all the worst bits of toxic masculinity combined with the worst bits of conservative ideology and people really just don't seem to get it. So even if Sarkeesian, McIntosh & I were pacifists, which we aren't, the idea that "pacifism = naive = bad" is totally derived from the kind of mindset that people claim to hate.

Violence is a thing that exists. It has a place in narratives. But, like rape, it is easy to abuse its inclusion. It is easy to misrepresent violence, just as it is easy to misrepresent rape. It is easy to trivialize violence, to turn it into perverse entertainment, just as it is easy to do those things with rape. Violence is horrific. Violence is traumatic. Violence isn't a game, but "games" are where you see the majority of violence in your life. You're so exposed to the idea of this cleaned-up, sanctified violence that you might not even understand what's weird about it, in the same way that people are so exposed to the idea of "rape = stranger in an alley" that they don't really understand what "rape culture" actually is.

IV. Some of you may have noticed that the issue of violence and dehumanization has essentially come to dominate my blog, overtaking previous issues of realistic depiction, feminism, and sensible plots. There's a reason for this: it's the last argument that needs to be made. Everything else I've ever written about is pretty much common-sense stuff. You either accept the idea that women should be depicted as possessing agency, or you don't. You either accept the idea that realism can heighten people's tactile immersion, or you don't. But violence tends to be "the exception", because people are so used to thinking of it as an apolitical concept. People get the idea that media is important, and then they stop when they get to violence.

I've watched people argue about the unrealism of "boob plate", or the dehumanization of objectification, and then immediately turn around and make excuses about why it's okay to kill hordes of dudes who throw themselves at you until you grind them into pulp. It's our culture's biggest blind spot. People understand the value of realism and they understand that dehumanizing people for audience gratification is bad, and then they throw those concepts away because it might make them feel bad for participating in mass slaughter. Even people who claim they learned something from Spec Ops The Line will make this argument, which is why I'm so dismissive of that game: because it doesn't seem like it worked.

Right now, violence is the breaking point holding together two separate worlds. In one world, media affects people. In the other, it doesn't. Either you think video games affect people, in which case subject matter is important, or you don't think that video games affect people, in which case you're going to play whatever you want. The problem right now is that the people who live in the "media affect you" world are currently attached to the "media doesn't affect you" world by way of violence. They accept the premise, but they're still attached to the idea of being a murderous badass. They'll make arguments against objectification or rape or whatever else, but when it comes to violence, suddenly they don't want to.

The idea that media affects you is a prerequisite for any other discussion of media's effects on people. You need to accept this premise if you want to talk about anything else. Things like objectification and sexist design can't exist unless you accept that premise. That's why it's so disheartening to see people who claim to accept the premise, and then immediately shut it down as soon as violence gets involved. Because the fact is, until people do that, our "media culture" isn't going anywhere. You're going to end up trapped in a world where people make excuses for Hideo Kojima putting a vagina-bomb inside a rape victim, and then making a busty sniper lady who gets graphically tortured (but also, remember to buy her sexy figurine!). These are the seeds you're sowing. That is the world you're going to inhabit until you accept reality. Silent Hill was canceled because gamer culture is Silent Hill now.