Friday, June 29, 2012

Conversation with James Desborough and Why Perspectives Matter

Fair warning: this is a long post.

So, in response to my previous post, James Desborough and I had a conversation over email. I'd like to say that it was constructive, but it wasn't. He knows I'm putting this online and for fear of taking him out of context, or otherwise making myself appear too good after the fact, I thought it best to just post the exchange verbatim and talk about it.

After the conversation I'll have a few final thoughts.

James Desborough:
I only ask that we try to stick to one thing at a time and that you ask for clarity on things rather than assuming and that you don't get abusive. Had enough of that lately thanks :)
So shoot.
Casey Campbell:
My big thing, and I think something lacking in a lot of nerdy interests and society as a whole, is sympathy and empathy. I'm a white male who likes ladies and I think it can be very easy for someone like me to think that my status is the norm and that all other viewpoints and perspectives are somehow deviant from what is to be considered normal. I know as a younger and more angry man I would oftentimes be willfully oblivious to where someone would come from if they were a woman, person of color, or of another religion. It was so easy for me to just say, "Here is logic and your perspective is flawed." and just get short and rude to them.

It's taken years but I believe I'm reaching the point where I can better understand and account for other perspectives, or at least not believe that those perspectives are wrong or ridiculous.

I'm not very familiar with your work, I'm more of a miniature gaming kind of guy these days than a roleplaying guy, but your responses seem to lack that sympathy or empathy. It doesn't matter that you think the way you've treated women, sexuality, and rape is acceptable but what matters is that other people do and that maybe, just maybe, their view on this isn't totally flawed or otherwise irrational. 

For years I've heard men, largely single white men who aren't at all successful with women, wonder why there were not very many women involved in tabletop gaming. While most of this seemed to stem from awkward guys who didn't know where to meet women and just expected to find their own magical pixie dream girl at the game store, there was a grain of truth to this: why aren't many women as interested in tabletop gaming as men? I personally know of several women who are either interested in gaming or who do so in very controlled environments who do not feel comfortable doing so at a game store, convention, or other larger venue because of what they see is a hostile culture that merely wishes to commodotize their sexuality. Instead of arguing that things aren't that bad or that this perception is totally imagined I have come to accept their feelings as legitimate and valid.

Whether you intended to or not, whether you were making jokes or not, whatever your intentions are; I can only feel that your attitude, much less your work, has contributed to this larger sense of unease and hostility that many women feel.

That happens, we all make mistakes and it's difficult for any of us to understand perspectives outside of our own let alone every other perspective that can exist. The important thing to do at this point is to show some respect, acknowledge that someone's feelings are valid, and try to move on and improve.

I think women who are assertive to these issues get a bum rap because our society is still developing the language to talk about these subjects. A white man that tells a joke that uses the "N-Word" would be criticized for doing so, and his defense of it being a joke wouldn't hold much water. The same should be true of when a man makes light of female rape, or even if a woman were to make light of male rape, but the discussion and our language to talk about these issues are much less developed so it becomes difficult.

This isn't about "political correctness" or any other label someone might want to use, it's about respect. People want to feel respected, and the casual way in which the rape of women and girls is discussed makes people feel disrespected and unwelcome. 

That this whole issue has turned into a situation where white men feel the need to defend themselves from "political correctness" and "censorship" is really strange to me. I've seen this on the right, where they will try to attack those that object to racism or sexism in the same language used to object to the sexism and racism. That's a bigger issue that I won't get into here, but it's very strange to me.

I guess at the end I think you have two different paths you can take:

1) Be upset at perceived censorship and continue to alienate women and those that disagree with you to the chorus of cheers of those that lack the empathy and sympathy required to understand where another person is coming from;

or

2) Pull a Beastie Boys and acknowledge your past and grow from it. The Beastie Boys treated women poorly as young guys and when they grew older they acknowledged it and learned to respect women. Change is powerful and if you were to openly admit that your perspective is not the One True Truth of the universe you may find people willing to accept this and move on. You don't have to agree that your work was vile and endorsing of rape, but you can acknowledge that those that read it as such aren't wrong and that their perspective is valid and that you will, in the future, account for other perspectives other than your own. 

Surely, there are lots of other things to talk about than rape and disrespect towards women, right?

All the best,
Casey
Desborough:
OK, let me try and tackle these.

I'm going to keep it fairly short, not because I'm angry at you but because simple is often best and I've been going over these things a lot lately. Please don't take it as curtness.

I have a lot of sympathy and empathy for other people in many circumstances, however truth and logic do have to win out over emotional reactions. I place truth at the pinnacle of my personal hierarchy of value. Other people are perfectly able to disagree with me, loudly and strongly even, but that's it.

When people don't appear to have read the material, or have totally misconstrued it I tend to think the options are deliberate obtuseness or a lack of humour. Not necessarily that they just don't find it funny, but an inability to tell when something is serious or not.

If the question about why there's more men than women in gaming isn't rhetorical I have my own theories.

My hostility, such as it is, is to the censorious. The gaming culture is different here. The primary buyers of these 'problematic works' have been gamer women who have gotten the joke. The disconnect seems largely to be with American culture. Keep in mind that these books were also written 10 or so years ago and a surprising amount changes in that time.

Even racist jokes can be funny. Telling one doesn't make a man racist. Indeed a lot of black comedians get great mileage out of persisting stereotypes about both blacks and whites. It is possible to attack *isms by parody and ridicule and that's the case with - for example - The Slayer's Guide to Female Gamers. It's not an attack on women, the stereotypes etc presented within satirise the precise social awkwardness of male geeks that you, yourself have referenced. The idea that anyone would take it as a serious attack on women is, frankly, staggering. The same is true of the other works and so my initial response is sceptical sarcasm, followed by intellectual explanation - which some take as arrogance.

It is about political correctness. People want to control the language, take topics off the table. I am a libertine and an advocate of free expression and that simply won't wash with me, however good the intentions are behind it it's still control.

You mention the right. We're used to censorious actions from the Christian Right but it is alien to be getting the same sort of absolutist and censorious actions and thoughts from the supposed left. It's disturbing even. Where's the respect for the artist? People judge even before a work is complete and they completely ignore the intent of the creative and their execution. They react to buzzwords without absorbing the content as the fuss around me clearly shows.

This latest kerfuffle is just another one in a long run of fusses about, essentially, nothing. Elvis' hips, Horror Comics, 'Seduction of the Innocent', Paedogeddon, Pat Pulling and 'Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons', Jack Thompson and his 'murder simulators'.

I draw a sharp line between reality and fantasy and so do most consumers of geek culture. The only ones who seem to have trouble with that divide are those who object to it.
My respect for women - and believe me my wife would beat the shit out of me if I didn't have any - has nothing whatsoever to do with what's funny, dramatic or otherwise useful or appropriate in a fictive work. I will not be shut up and nor will I allow this to be used to shut anyone else up.

I was one of very few male writers involved in a protest against Paypal over the writing of transgressive erotic material. The vast majority of producers - and consumers - of such erotica are women. Those ladies don't want to be protected, don't want this material off the table and understand that you can right something espousing (or seemingly espousing, or lampooning) a certain point of view., while holding a different point of view.

That seems to be where me and my critics find the divide.
Campbell:
I appreciate your response.
A couple of quick points before I run to a meeting:
1) You can't say you respect, sympathize, and empathize with people and then just wave your hand and say that "truth and logic do have to win out over emotional reactions" and insinuate that you alone have the key to this truth and logic.
2) If people don't get the joke or don't understand your point the problem might not be with the people who read your work, it might be with how you write it.
3) I don't care much about your theories about why there are more men than women in gaming, no offense it's just not a subject I care much about, but I'm telling you very clearly that I know of several women who are interested in various facets of this hobby and who are intimidated or otherwise feel uncomfortable engaging in them in public settings. Part of this discomfort comes from the crass manners in which women are sexualized but also in how women are expected to "suck it up" or "grow thicker skin" when subjects such as rape are brought up, even if done to only make a joke. Your work, whether intended to or not, has contributed to this environment and the ensuing discomfort.
4) People are not trying to control the language used anymore than you are. You just wish people would endorse your language and attitudes, and seem to be upset that there are those that do not for various legitimate reasons. Stop saying people are trying to censor you, they are not. They are affecting the marketplace in a way they are able to and it is up to you and Mongoose, and whoever else, on how to respond. You seem to think "free speech" means speech without consequences, it does not.
5) There are few things I enjoy less than white men hiding behind the title of "artist" to excuse their own hurtful expressions. I write rules for miniature wargames and paint figures for them, but it does not make me an artist.
6) You are not Elvis.
7) Yes, we both deal in Fantasy. The Fantasy I deal in is fantastical and, outside of appealing to very base and boyish ideas of power and masculinity, has no real bearing on real life outside of the occasional bit of symbolism. You choose to create fantasy which focuses on very real and ugly aspects of reality.
8) If your whole thing is in erotic gaming, or whatever, than go find that market. Don't expect mainstream publishers, like Mongoose, to publish your work without any reservation.
9) Seriously, sympathy and empathy are good. As is humility. There exists a possibility that your work is legitimately offensive to some people, that those people are worthy of respect, and that you should show sympathy and empathy for them.
10) For me, at this point, I care less about your work than I do about your response. You can so very easily turn this ship around and reach a larger market if you actually demonstrate humility and sympathy. You have said, and I believe you, that when discussing rape you did so as a joke or as satire. If what you said is true and you seriously intended no harm maybe you should prove it by actually addressing the sincere harm some have felt with respect and sympathy? Communication is a two way street and if you tried to say one thing and another thing was heard it may not be the fault of either person. Instead of trying to then win some internet pissing contest about this maybe you should instead have humility and respect. State your case but move on, don't try to further hurt the person. This whole situation could have gone better for you had you not been petty and hurtful in your response. Trust me, I know how that is: I used to be an angry young man who believed that being right was the most important thing and if I was right, and had truth and logic on my side, I could say and do whatever I wanted to those who weren't "adult" enough to understand it. Don't be a bully.
The major reason I reached out to you is because I see from your responses an attitude I once shared. You don't need to have that attitude. You can still work and write whatever it is that inspires you, but you can also be respectful and humble to people while doing so. You were not and here you are.
Desborough:
1. You can respect, sympathise and empathise, but that doesn't mean you have to agree with someone. I may or may not have access to this truth and logic but it's more likely than someone acting purely on emotion.

2. It is possible the problem may be with the work, but given that most up until this point do seem to have gotten it I wouldn't say so.

3. I can't answer your point three without going into the surrounding issues and why there are already more guys than girls involved in these things (this is even more true for your hobby of wargaming than it is for RPGs). I do not believe in this 'rape culture' construct and I consider the problem in the situation you talk about to be in the reaction. Unless you think these guys really mean to rape someone or even mean the word rape in that sense?

4. I am trying to allow for greater breadth, others are trying to press for more narrowness so it's obvious which side the control is on. People don't have to endorse me, they don't have to like me - or indeed anyone else - but nor do they have the right to bully me into silence or censor my work.

5. Please don't be racist or sexist. I write fiction, I make games, I do a lot of things. I would consider you as a game designer of your own to also be an artist. Don't pull that 'white man' stuff or the conversation is over. I have as little tolerance for that nonsense as I feel you would have if I stereotyped a black woman (or whatever).

6. Not the point. The point being all these moral panics had one thing in common, they were hot air with no substance. I see no reason to think otherwise of this particular moral panic. Should sufficient evidence happen along I will happily change my mind.

7. My body of work is far greater than these few items that have been mentioned and includes horror, pulp, spy-fi, board games, card games, fiction, social media games... a lot of stuff. These items aren't even particularly representative. Sometimes I like pure escapist fantasy, sometimes I like something with a bit more depth and grit. A game like INVADERZ is going to have a very different character to, say, something like BLOOD! Some people like horror movies, some people watch history channel. It's all a matter of taste. 'Fun' is a very nebulous and broad topic. I like to play around with stereotypes and satire, in particular, and like to put 'issues' and interesting things into the background of my games. Sometimes these aren't very nice. If you're a 40k player then one need only look at the Imperium (itself derived largely from Judge Dredd and Nemesis the Warlock) to see 'not niceness' writ pretty large.

8. Mongoose commissioned these works from me as a follow up to The Munchkin's Guide to Powergaming, along with a few other non-sex books. A publisher can publish many things in many niches and not every product has to be for everyone. Every one of these products was clearly labelled and contained disclaimers. At some point people have to take responsibility for themselves. You should also note that even in self-publishing material this would not satisfy the censorship body. I was part of a group called 'Bannedwriters' who protested attempts to coerce Paypal into not accepting payments for erotic goods and stories. This stuff runs deep and is a real danger to freedom of expression and people's livelihoods.

9. So it's offensive to them? So what? You don't have some right not to be offended. It's not like these books leap out on people and force them to read them. I respect them enough to believe people have the capacity to stop reading, to not read at all and to avoid things that upset them. I expect them to respect my right to express myself as well. I'm very much with Steven Fry on this offence thing:

'It's now very common to hear people say, "I'm rather offended by that", as if that gives them certain rights. It's no more than a whine. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. "I'm offended by that." Well, so fucking what?'
—Stephen Fry


Or there's this, that says it well too: (Skip to 3:24)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHMoDt3nSHs

10. I cannot agree that any harm has been done. Being offended is not like having ones eye put out and nobody, after all, has to consume anything I produce.

Garbage in, garbage out. If people call me a 'rape supporter' without so much as a by-your-leave I'm not going to take it well.
Campbell:
Gotcha, I think I understand where you're coming from. I hope that you see at some point that no matter how right you feel you are on this subject, and you are very wrong on it, it is not worth hurting other people over.  
"Rape culture" or no, if someone feels uncomfortable in a situation I believe it is important to understand why they feel that way. You believe that women who feel uncomfortable in gaming environments do so out of some problem they have, and I doubt there is much one of these women could say or do to change your mind on that. I tend to believe that most women who express such discomfort do so because they are sincerely uncomfortable, and not because they are hysterical or otherwise unstable.
And, yes, there are fewer women who paint toy soldiers and play games with them than play RPGs. I'd argue that's mostly because of the hobbies themselves, but I fully admit that places like DakkaDakka.com and other such websites create very hostile environments for women.
No one is bullying you. No one is trying to censor you. All I have seen is that people are unwilling to do business with companies that tacitly endorse someone they see as helping to foster a negative environment for women. That is not censorship, you are not owed their business nor is anyone obligated to support your work. You are still free to write and communicate whatever it is you wish to communicate, but do not expect to do so without any consequences from the marketplace.
White men are often oblivious to the perspective of others. They often see the "white male" perspective as being normal and all others to be deviant from that. I do not care for white men who are offensive to others while insisting that it is those that are offended who are at fault, while using the title of "artist" to some how validate or bring legitimacy to their offensive work.
There is a very real environment that is very hostile towards women. Your work has contributed to that, but unfortunately your defense of your work and the actions of your supporters have done this to an even greater extent. Elvis gyrating his hips did not harm anyone, it was him expressing his own sexuality. This is different and if you had respect and empathy for others you would understand that.
We're now talking in circles. I assert that you contribute to an environment that is hostile to women. You are not alone responsible for this, but your attitude has definitely not helped push back against it. You can say that no such environment exists and that is where much of our disagreement stems from.
At this point all I can do is ask that you entertain the possibility that when people assert that a hostile environment exists that it is not fiction or hysteria speaking. Simply getting exasperated and playing the victim because people do not share your perspective is not helpful to you or anyone else. 
I appreciate the dialogue and I hope my language has conveyed the respect I have. I may copy some of this for a post I've been kicking around as this is all pertinent, and if I do I promise to not take you out of context.
Have a great night! 
Desborough:
I do not consider myself to be wrong on this subject and merely asserting that I am is not going to convince me. Nor do I consider any genuine harm to have been done. If people don't like something it is perfectly within their wherewithal to avoid things they don't like. For myself, I don't like courgettes, squashes, cucumber etc as a foodstuff and I manage to avoid it. Occasionally one hides in something and I spit it out and avoid the rest. It's really not that hard.
There are many things in this world that make people uncomfortable, that doesn't mean these things should not exist.
I'm afraid people are bullying and censoring. Ms Cooper's petition was engaged to try and prevent me from having work. The discussion in the 'public square' on many of these topics is dominated by the bullies who conflate disagreement on a particular point or claim with nonsensical things like - for example - 'being a rape supporter'.
I am not owed their business but I am owed the space and capability to work and to express myself.
I am not going to engage sexist and racist claims. Especially when I already flagged that up for you.
I think we've gotten about as far as we're going to.
Thank you for the civil discussion.

First things first: I don't think James Desborough is a rapist, condones rape, or otherwise encourages rape through willful actions. He makes light of and may contribute a small part towards a vile culture that makes rape more acceptable than it should be, but I do not think he is explicitly a bad guy.

He's just ignorant and either afraid or unable to see other perspectives. The more I've thought about this, the more I believe that many people are afraid or unable to see outside of their own perspective. I'm a white male who likes women and is into nerdy things so that is the group I am most able to talk about, but boy, white male nerds are the worst.

I'm serious, just look at DakkaDakka, Reddit (this post about my wife's article on her experiences in wargaming is an especially good example), or any other website that targets white male nerds and you will find an environment that is quite hostile to women and oftentimes politically far to the right.

White men need to acknowledge a few things, chiefly that being a white man has given us an advantage in society. It is up to all of us that are white men to acknowledge this advantage and to work hard to make sure everyone else can live in a world that benefits and supports them as much as us. Whether it be hostility towards women (or their objectification), poverty, racial discrimination, intolerance of sexuality, or a host of other issues, it is up to those of us with privilege to stand up and try to make a difference.

Instead, all I see are many white men who think that trying to create a world more welcoming for women is somehow misandry, that African Americans face no discrimination and that they should stop expecting things for free, that the poor just need to pull themselves up by their boot straps, and all other sort of platitudes. It's sad to see people so blessed with advantages in society assert that life is equal and that they are successful because of their own virtue and that others fail because they are simply not good enough. Of course no one wants to think that they may have been given an unfair advantage or that they might not have been successful if they weren't a white male, but us white men cannot ignore reality and grow hostile towards others who articulate this.

More to the point, we can not view the white male perspective as somehow more logical or reasonable than others. We can't just point to South Park or some other comedian to say that our attitudes should just be accepted as a joke. Instead of seeing people who have legitimate issues with the world and accusing them of being lazy, hysterical, liars, or otherwise trying to gain advantage through illegitimate means, we should instead look at them with sympathy and try to understand their perspective and work with them to resolve it.

So, yes, if a woman says she is uncomfortable with rape jokes or otherwise making light of rape maybe, just maybe, she is doing so out of a sincere concern for how this effects women. Is it so impossible to conceive that her feelings of discomfort are legitimate? And, yes, if your original comments regarding rape were not meant to be hurtful but you continue to make them after attention has been called to them, then they become intentionally hurtful and it makes you a bully.

I hope we can reach a world where more people can look at other perspectives. I hope we can live in a world where empathy and sympathy aren't bad words. And I mostly hope we can live in a world where people can stop trying to win an argument about why someone's feelings should not be hurt by a person's hurtful rhetoric and attitudes.

But, hey, I'm going to a midnight release for the new edition of 40k. I can't wait to talk about how crappy Tyranids will still be!

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