Feminism 101: Offensive Language and Dismissal of Responsibility

Welcome to another day in which a games journalist dismisses the criticism of many gamers and misses the point completely.  This article at IGN by Colin Moriarty shows exactly why gaming culture is what it is, and why it’s so difficult to make any real change.

Backstory: Borderlands 2 Lead Designer Hemingway refers to the game’s “easy mode” as the Girlfriend mode, which we covered.  Many game critics erupted in upset over yet another example where women are stereotyped into byproducts of the gaming industry without the skill required to play games as they’re designed.  Now, this IGN article has decided to counter the criticism and put us in our place.  Us being anyone with a single fuck to give about sensitive language and inclusivity in games, that is.

Let me lay just a little bit of Feminism 101 on you (which also equates to “being a decent person 101″):

1. If you are not offended, it doesn’t mean what was said wasn’t offensive.

Here’s the thing, we all have different perspectives in life.  I’m personally an able-bodied woman, and I recognize that privilege.  I am not going to be personally offended by ableist terms, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t know it’s wrong to say them.  I still have empathy for the people whom I am potentially offending.  I check my privilege when I speak, and make sure that I’m not being dismissive of concerns that are very real and very personal for people.

There is just about nothing in the world that is universally offensive to every person.  That’s not how offense works.  You don’t get a free pass to say whatever you want because you’re not personally affected by it.

Moriarty states:

Remember, Mr. Hemingway didn’t actually say anything offensive. People wanting to be offended are simply looking for anything to jump on, consequences for anyone and anything be damned.

Because Moriarty isn’t offended, that makes the phrase perfectly okay to say.  Never mind the feelings of other people.  And, it’s no surprise whatsoever that Moriarty is male, speaking up for the women (the “girlfriends”) who are stating that they’re personally offended by what Hemingway said.  Don’t worry, ladies, this guy’s got it under control.  We should all stop getting so hysterical over this tiny, minor injustice in the world that doesn’t mean a thing.  Except that it does.

I think it’s even worse to understand that people are offended yet belittle and shit upon their feelings than it is to say the offensive slur in the first place.

2. You don’t have to be racist to say racist things.  You don’t have to be sexist to say sexist phrases.

This is one of the most common dismissals that occurs.  Sometimes it manifests as “I have a gay friend” and other times it’s “but, I’m not racist.  I love black people!”

Someone who is a wonderful person can say offensive things, and they can offend people.  Someone who isn’t racist can not only say incredibly racist things (perhaps without realizing it) but can also assist on a day-by-day basis with perpetuating the larger culture of racism that exists today.  A person who has no personal issues with LGBT individuals can say things that other, disrespect, and shit upon gay people.  You don’t have to be a terrible person to be uneducated about offensive language and therefore use it without realizing who you are hurting in the process.  But when you DO end up hurting someone, that’s your opportunity to realize what you have done and own up to the mistake.  The fact that so many are quick to blame the person for being offended instead of checking their own privilege is a major cultural problem that perpetuates all of the issues that exist with intersectionality.

3.  Saying that you didn’t intend to offend someone does not erase the fact that you did.

Like above, if you claim to be a great person who isn’t sexist yet you use a sexist phrase, you better be prepared to apologize and learn from your mistake when you’re called on it.  If you say “I’m not sexist and I didn’t mean that to be a sexist phrase” does not correct your mistake.  It only hurts your argument if you continue to argue that what you said wasn’t meant to hurt people.  The fact is, it did.  Own up.

There are words, and there is intent behind them.  In many cases, the intent doesn’t matter.  You used the offensive phrase, and the damage was done.  Educate yourself and don’t use offensive phrases, and you’ll find yourself being a much more decent human being.

Finally, I just want to comment on the last bit here:

So expect to hear a lot less from developers in the future because of episodes like this, and a lot more canned responses from PR as a result.

Excuse me while I pick my jaw up from the floor.  If developers can’t speak about their games without offending people, I’d *rather* hear from PR.  I know that as a game journalist in the competitive field of scooping other media for the story you are most interested in hearing something sensational that will get you web hits.   But I’d rather just hear about the games and the features in a way that doesn’t make me feel like an outsider. Never in my life did I think I’d hear the argument “if we call someone out for being offensive, we’re going to hear a lot less from them.”  Shame on us for being critical of what a representative of a company has to say.   Shame on us for being so sensitive and trying to pick fights.

Thank goodness this IGN piece says “Opinion” right in the title, because I’m going to set it aside and call it one person’s very privileged and dismissing viewpoint.

About Tami Baribeau

Lead Editor and co-founder of The Border House, feminist, gamer, lover of social media, technology, and virtual worlds. Pansexual, equestrian, dog lover, social game studio director and producer. Email me here and follow me on Twitter!
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26 Responses to Feminism 101: Offensive Language and Dismissal of Responsibility

  1. Dave says:

    You know what? I want to hear more from developers. But I want them to be held as responsible for the things they say publicly as they are for the other work they do. The policy should be: talk all you want, but it’s your ass.

    I would have killed for that kind of microphone. I wanted to tell people about all the cool stuff I was doing, to get them excited about the game. A lot of the time you can tell if a game is going to be good by how excited the people making it are about it.

    What you need to do is have the PR people teach the devs/artists/designers how not to be idiots in public first, before they go out and put their feet in their mouths. Also, teach them how to issue a prompt and sincere apology that doesn’t sound like, “I’m sorry that you were offended at my totally reasonable/innocently humorous remarks, you over-sensitive twit.”

    • Ermoss says:

      That’s not really a solution. Anything that makes it harder or riskier or more damaging for game developers to talk to the press will naturally make game developers talk to the press less, because aside from PR folks game developers care about making games, not about the press. If devs are given the choice of wasting time in a PR class, getting fired if they draw bad press, or shutting up and making games, they will shut up and make games. The solution, naturally, is for studios to make sure that the things people are saying around the water cooler aren’t sexist, so devs repeating it won’t get in hot water; better to worry about not being sexist than about not getting slammed for sexism.

      • Dave says:

        Very good point. Yes, the correct approach is to just create a culture that isn’t sexist (or racist, or whatever-ist) in the workplace.

      • Dav says:

        Yeah, but there’s a flip side to that. People who are excited about their projects, people who are awesome allies, people who are funny, people who support other game devs – those are all people whose games I’m more likely to check out.

        Bioware shot itself in the foot about a bazillion times with DA2 and ME3 in my book, but because of some of the awesome responses to “wah, gay people in my games”, I haven’t written them off completely.

        Women are a large target market, and I’m not the only one who pays attention when I see developers working against sexism in the community. So it’s not a zero sum game: if you can behave yourself, you have a better chance of getting my custom. If you can’t . . . well, it doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t buy, but there are a *lot* of games out there.

  2. gunthera1 says:

    I really dislike the assertion that Hemingway didn’t say anything offensive. Even if Colin Moriarty is not offended personally, no one can act as the judge of what does or does not offend other people. That opinion piece reads as incredibly dismissive of anyone that has a problem with the term used by Hemingway.

    I would also add that the idea that this is inconsequential comes off as neglecting the power of language. Words have meaning. Words can hold great power. As a writer, he should know that words are more than just a jumble of letters. The words we use do matter.

    • Korva says:

      Thank you. Yes, “just words” and similar attitudes are bullshit, and I’m really tired of how they’re trotted out as a silencing tactic all the time. The same is true for the whole “choosing to be offended” spiel. Goodness forbid people get upset by the constant reminders that entire groups of us are regarded as worth less, worthless or downright subhuman.

      Anyone who thinks words don’t matter should try to go without words for even an hour. Hell, unless they’re good at meditation or another way of emptying their mind, they probably won’t even be able to pull it off for five minutes.

      • glitchy says:

        So much this. Words are so important – they affect the world and they affect our minds. Whenever someone argues that something was “just words”, I want to ask them, “Okay, if you don’t think words can do things, why are you bothering to argue about this? If what we say really is all ‘just words’, your argument, which is also ‘just words’, won’t have any effect at all.”

  3. Matt says:

    You don’t have to be racist to say racist things. You don’t have to be sexist to say sexist phrases.

    I’m not a huge fan of that characterization since we all have our own prejudices and privileges lurking in the background and this almost seems to deny that.

    I’d rather that we explicitly disavowed ourselves of using racist/sexist as a label for people completely: There are no racists, only bits of racist bullshit going around from person to person and it’s everyone’s duty to stop spewing it and stop believing it whenever they see it for what it is.

    • Zoya says:

      I agree with that. It doesn’t matter who you are, these views float around all of us to some extent and it’s possible for any of us to do or say something racist or sexist. We should be able to just say ‘that was sexist’ in the same way that you say ‘you’re standing on my toe’.

      • Jonathan says:

        I think that’s absolutely spot on. It’s a shame that we see so many arguments between people who try to insist that they didn’t stand on your toe (often while still being there and occasionally jumping up and down) and people who are accusing them of systematic, malicious toe-stamping. All it needs is a quick, albeit genuine, “I’m sorry, it was an accident. I won’t let it happen again.”

    • Maverynthia says:

      I disagree, because there are people out there who ARE racist/sexist. You can tell them by the way they will defend racist or sexist thing.

    • Cuppycake says:

      I see what you’re saying, but I have to respectfully disagree. I know some people who will not deny that they’re intentionally trying to hurt people. They might even identify as racist, and proud of it.

      I think intent matters, and that’s the difference for me. People saying racist things with the purposeful intent to hurt = racist people. People saying racist things without realizing it’s racist = ignorant yet potentially good people who don’t know any better.

      • Matt says:

        I know some people who will not deny that they’re intentionally trying to hurt people. They might even identify as racist, and proud of it.

        I had such people in mind. Sometimes a discourse gets so polarized that the other side starts identifying with the thing you’ve denounced as evil specifically because you’ve associated them with that evil and they want to spite you. I remember when “politically incorrect” became a badge of honour in the late 90s, and I recall reading something about suttee becoming more common for a while as a symbol against British colonialism.

        But then again, naming and shaming and Othering the wicked (another example!) certainly is worth something rhetorically when the aim is not to eliminate an acknowledged evil but to show that something is evil to begin with. Which stage I think we’re mostly past with racism (which accusation is quickly associated with Nazis and Klansmen and might become defamatory per se in a hundred years) but likely not for sexism (which accusation I think for many circles is a badge of healthy male virility and viewing the enforcement of the bad old establishment line as “honesty” about the way things “really” are).

        …yeah, I suppose we still need the noun for at least one of them. Better yet, as well, to come up with a more disgusting and plainly evil image to fit it, on the same level as the brown shirts and the hoods – anyone got any ideas for that?

  4. skoosc says:

    “…they’re especially sick of being subjected to the vocal whims of a few people that feel like they need to be there to protect someone or something that never requested their help in the first place. (If you pay close enough attention to society at large, this is a common problem.)”

    Ahh so THAT’S what’s wrong with society today, too many people speaking up to help other people.

  5. Anjin says:

    I don’t comment here very often, but this is driving me crazy. I went over to IGN to find out what this guy was writing (and was immediately reminded that he’s the same one who came out in defense of Tomb Raider last month). The article was bad, but I am even more astonished at his cheering section in the comments. And not only that, he used his echo chamber to support the fact that no one was really offended by these issues. It’s one thing to be blind to an issue, but a whole other to be intentionally blinding oneself.

    I’m feeling very ranty. My apologies if this is not the right place.

    • Sif says:

      “My apologies if this is not the right place.”

      From the comments section, neither is IGN. (Heyooooooo!)

      But seriously I know the feeling. I hope more major gaming sites pick this up and discuss it in a less smug, more thoughtful manner.

  6. Violetta says:

    Can I please temporarily venture from the subject matter at hand by asking exactly HOW Colin Moriarty got a job as a writer? Sorry but anyone who uses the terms “PC” and “thought police” sounds like he’d be better suited as a talkback radio host. Perhaps he’s vying for a job as Rush Limbaugh’s apprentice?

    • Kala says:

      Don’t give Mr. No taxation any ideas. He’s quite outspoken about politics as it is.

      The most maddening aspect of any “thought police” argument is that people that use the term don’t have a problem walking the “thought police” beat themselves.

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  9. Quinon says:

    I wonder if Moriarty would still be tripping over himself to defend Hemingway if he’d called it the Black Friend Mode.

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  11. Anna says:

    I really dislike framing the context in terms of ‘offense’, because that sets up a convenient derailing point where the problem is completely elided. What we should be talking about is *harmful* language. Language that propagates *material harm*. Which is pretty much the same thing as ‘offensive’ language, incidentally. But it frames the conversation in a way that is more productive (by being more difficult to dismiss on points of semantics). Here’s a couple of relevant posts:

    http://finenessandaccuracy.wordpress.com/2010/01/13/i-dont-care-if-youre-offended/
    http://genderbitch.wordpress.com/2011/04/02/words-offense/

    • Matt says:

      Thank you.

      God help us all if we ever stop being offensive to bigots and fundamentalists… and if I’m ever sorry for being such it’d damn well better be limited to being sorry that they’ve had such viewpoints that they would be offended to begin with (while wishing them a quick introspective journey resulting from their offendedness to a better paradigm).

  12. Sharks says:

    This:

    “The fact that so many are quick to blame the person for being offended instead of checking their own privilege is a major cultural problem that perpetuates all of the issues that exist with intersectionality.”

    This is such a huge problem, and I think a lot of it is tied to a culture severely invested in empty self-esteem boosting. People would rather believe the sky is falling instead of admitting that they’re stupid, uneducated, and they made a mistake. God forbid they admit they’re less than the perfection they’ve been told they are all their lives.

    Yeah, I’m crabby.

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