Feminism: Trigger Jokes

[Content Note: Rape]

Another week, another deconstruction post about rape and rape culture. I'll apologize in advance in case these are getting too heavy for everyone, but this is something of a 2-part post piggy-backing off of the post from a few weeks ago.

A few weeks ago, I found out I was the last person on earth to hear about the Penny Arcade "dickwolves" debacle. Considering that it lasted for the better part of a year and I usually consider myself pretty plugged into gaming culture and internet feminism blogs, the revelation of my ignorance was a bit of a shock to me; time to start paying better attention. But in the meantime, let's use a year-old controversy as a hook to talk about trigger warnings and why they're useful. Part Two.

So a week or so ago I talked about why I think trigger warnings are a very good thing and that prefacing your words with "I am now going to talk about X" before talking about X allows people to choose whether or not they can deal with listening to you before they've had their coffee and a bracing walk around the block. (And maybe not even then.) Trigger warnings provide a modicum of space space on the big shared internet, and allow people the freedom to move safely through the blogosphere without having to worry so much that they are going to inadvertently read something that causes them to re-experience a traumatic incident.

However, trigger warnings really only deal with "I am now going to talk seriously about X", and not so much about "I am now going to joke about X". What do we do in those cases?

Last time, I argued that a positive side-effect of trigger warnings was a certain amount of self-awareness over what we write and whether or not we are expressing our points rigorously rather than reaching for easy-but-painful analogies. In many ways, I feel the same way about jokes: there are the easy jokes, and then there are the jokes that take a little longer to write but are ultimately worth the extra effort.

So let's say you want to make a joke about MMORPG games. There's a lot of material there for jokes, so you should be able to milk an entire comedic career out of that material. One of the things that is strange and potentially funny about MMORPGs is that because the game has to be the same for all the online players, your character can very rarely effect any real change to the gaming landscape. Since a lot of MMORPG "quests" are things like "rescue innocent people" and "kill bad things", this means that no matter how many innocent people you rescue and bad things you kill, status quo will always be restored immediately because the next batch of players needs innocent people to rescue and bad things to kill.

The practical upshot of this, of course, is that you could spend your entire life rescuing the same people over and over in the game (except that the game mechanics will probably prevent you from realistically doing this) but you won't because it's a game and the characters are fictional and do not actually need rescuing because they're not real. And, of course, the humor comes from the fact that your in-game character is essentially a psychopath: rescuing 5 innocent people for money or quest rewards, but no more than 5 because that's all you were contracted to rescue.

Haha, my sides. I jest; it's actually not a bad joke. It's one I've made to Husband a time or two, because it is a rather messed up setup once you think about it. So I would never blame anyone for getting a web comic out of this setup.

So let's walk through the setup of the joke. Innocent people are caught in a morally reprehensible situation, where it would be morally reprehensible to leave them, but 100% of players do leave them, because the mechanics of the game demand that they do, and no one in the game will ever call out the player for not doing more than the bare minimum necessary to complete a quest. So far so good.

But a problem arises when you want to convey in a short 3-panel strip that the people are innocents caught in a morally reprehensible situation. You're going to need to bring that across in a sort of verbal shorthand that is quick and immediate. And you might be tempted to reach for something easy-and-obvious like, I dunno, rape. Yeah, rape! Rape is bad. We can all agree on that, right? Rape is always bad, all the time. That's why it's called rape. So we'll have the innocent people be rape victims, because obviously it would be morally reprehensible to leave someone in a situation where they are being nightly raped. And just to be super-sensitive, we'll have the rape victims be white males, so that our predominantly white male audience will understand that Rape Is Bad and won't make stupid Rape Is A Compliment statements in the comments. The point is that the comic is not an endorsement of rape, and people will understand that.

And it's important to note that -- at this point in the timeline -- I think someone can absolutely think the above in good faith and with the best of intentions. But! Here's where it starts falling down.

1. People in Your Audience Have Been Raped. According to RAAIN, 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men are rape survivors in America. What this means is that a good, let's say, 10% of your audience are rape survivors. No matter how much your point in your comic may be Rape Is Bad, it's also about rape. It's about rape in a comic, which is -- let's face it -- a place where many people don't expect to get smacked in the face with a rape dialog at 9 am when they're trying to enjoy their coffee and catch up on the latest web comic.

Now, does the fact that 10% of your audience has been raped and may not find rape to be at all an amusing topic mean that you can't ever talk about rape? Not necessarily. But there are ways you can minimize hurting your own audience, such as putting up trigger warnings and giving people a choice to read this particular comic or not. You could say, "Hey, this particular comic has a reference to rape in it. If you still want to read it, click here."

Of course, you could just throw your comic up onto the screen along with the safer jokes and let god sort it all out. But in that case, you risk openly hurting your readers and (inadvertently or not) telling them I am not interested in trying to make this a safe space for you. If you don't like it, leave. That's your right: your site, your rules. But if you care so little about your readers that you don't mind hurting them, don't be surprised if your readership whittles down each time you make a trigger joke.

And this goes beyond web comics and in to ordinary speech. You can say "wow, I got raped by that video game last night" to indicate that the game in question is incredibly difficult, but you should also be aware that there's a very good chance that your audience may have been raped at some point in their life. Yes, they know what you mean. This isn't a question of understanding. But the word "rape" may also have a meaning for them (personal, real) that it doesn't for you (impersonal, distant) and by using that word in front of them, you are potentially reminding them of something they may not want to remember. And if you continue to use the word in front of them after being politely asked to stop? They are going to start avoiding you.

2. People in Your Audience Are Rapists. Remember when I said that 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men are rape survivors in America? Well, it would seem that something like 1 in 20 men are rapists (and I don't have numbers for women who are rapists). So when you use "rape" as shorthand for "morally reprehensible situation" in your comic, you aren't just reminding readers who are also rape survivors of an experience that some of them might prefer not to think about that day; you are also addressing readers in your audience who have raped people.

But that's a good thing, right? Your comic makes it very clear that Rape Is Bad and maybe these cretinous rapists will get it through their skulls that Rape Is Bad and they will go and rape no more. Right?

Probably not. See, when you used "rape" as shorthand for "morally reprehensible situation", you used a specific kind of rape. You didn't use rape as a whole, but rather violent rape perpetrated by strangers on slave victims completely unable to leave the situation. And that kind of rape is bad, but it's not the kind of rape that the majority of your rapist readers have perpetrated.

Remember when you thought to yourself "Rape is bad. We can all agree on that, right? Rape is always bad, all the time."? The problem with that statement is that we apparently don't all agree on that all the time. Most of society agrees that a certain kind of rape is bad all the time, and coincidentally, this is the rape you are using in your comic strip. But a rather large portion of society -- including many of your own readers -- do not accept that certain kinds of rape are wrong, or are even actually rape. And these rapes are the rapes that your readers are and have committed.

When you use a Rape Is Bad message, but the rape you give to illustrate that message is the one kind of rape that everyone agrees is wrong, you (inadvertently or not) highlight the extreme and rare case of violent stranger rape as the only type of rape. Violent stranger rape is rape, but by portraying it over and over and over and over again in media as THE rape, the definition of rape is eroded into something that (comparatively-to-other-kinds-of-rape) rarely happens. And the more common rapes that happen pretty much all the time are slowly turned into Not-Rape in many people's mind by the erosion of this language.

And the upshot of this is that by contributing (inadvertently or not) to the Violent Rape Is The Only Rape message that is a part of our culture, you are actually making your rapist readers more comfortable in their rape instead of less so. You aren't teaching them to go and rape no more; you're reaffirming a cultural narrative that as long as they don't lock a victim up in a room and rape them nightly for eternity, they aren't really rapists. Everything else up to that is a-ok. You may not mean to send this message, but you should be aware that you very well may be. And now that you are aware of that, do you want to send that message? Probably not.

And, once again, this doesn't just apply to web comics fed down to the masses. When you say "the boss monster raped me last night in the final dungeon", there is a very good chance that the person you are talking to may be or someday become a rapist. And by using the word "rape" to refer entirely to a brutal assault and not, say, to any of the other, more culturally acceptable ways to rape someone, you are helping to erode the difference between Violent Rape and Non-Violent (and therefore not really) Rape. You see that part in the italics? That's what your rapist friend is hearing. That's why they don't think they are a rapist.

3. Providing An "Unusual" Victim Doesn't Fix The Problem. So maybe you thought by making the victim an "unusual" or "unlikely" victim would lessen the sting of your dark humor. Sure, it's not funny if a girl is being raped because 1 in 4 women actually are raped, but maybe it's safe if you write your comic so that it's a guy being raped because men aren't raped. Right?

Well, actually, you already know this is wrong if you're reading these points in numerical order. Men are raped. But beyond that, you should be aware that there is a long history of male rape being minimized and used as the punchline for jokes. That long history doesn't meant that male rape jokes are comedic gold or safe from triggering; it means we live in a culture that doesn't take male vulnerability seriously and instead treats it as something to be joked about. Once again, if you want to add your comic or comment to the pile of Fail, it's your choice to do so, but be aware of what you are doing when you make that choice.

But, I hear you say, my comic wasn't meant to say Male Rape Is Funny! It was meant to say that Male Rape Is Bad! That's the point. But my point is that your comic is, ultimately, a comic. It's a comic that is meant to make people laugh and in order to get to that point, it uses male rape as a "funnier" alternative to female rape. And that's where a major point of failure lies: male rape isn't funnier than female rape because male rape isn't funny at all.

4. Trigger Jokes Are Intellectually Lazy. You know what's easy? Reaching for "violent stranger rape" as a morally reprehensible situation. You know what's hard? Coming up with just about anything else as a decent facilitator to a joke about a morally reprehensible situation. Challenge yourself to come up with something better than "we're being raped" to characterize a video game victim. Challenge yourself to come up with something better than "got raped last night" when trying to describe a difficult video game boss or final dungeon.

The trivialization of the word "rape" doesn't just hurt rape survivors and it doesn't just contribute to a rape culture where only violent stranger rape is rape and any other rape isn't really rape. The trivialization of the word "rape" into a vague "badness" contributes to a society where we can't articulate thoughts beyond a vague good/bad mentality. Every time I see or hear someone use "rape" to indicate something bad, including the absolute mind-boggling amount of rape analogies online with regards to intellectual property rights, DRM, piracy, and just about anything else under the sun, I'm reminded of George Orwell's "Newspeak" in 1984 where everything is good/bad, plus-good/bad, and double-plus-good/bad, to the point where conversation and even coherent thought is literally impossible.

This point #4 is so minor as to be not even worth mentioning next to the other points. But I bring it up for one reason alone: if you don't mind unexpectedly triggering a large portion of your readership into reliving a horrible and painful event, if you don't mind inadvertently reaffirming to a large portion of your readership that their victimization of others isn't victimization at all, and if you don't mind contributing to a culture that victimizes and belittles people like yourself for any level of vulnerability, then you might at the very least not use rape jokes because if you do so, you're a lazy writer who can't be bothered to think of anything more creative or nuanced than shouting DOUBLE-PLUS-BAD.

It's something I hope you'll think about when you consider reaching for the rape card in otherwise good faith.


Ana Mardoll said...

This is a test comment. Disqus, why must you be so temperamental?

depizan said...

Let's not forget the other part of the debacle. If you do make a comic about rape and people say to you what Ana said in this post, do NOT promptly act like a massive asshat. Do not defend or associate with people who are acting like massive asshats on your behalf, either. Denounce them. Not after a while, right away.

Creative people make mistakes all the time. * What makes people stop reading/watching a creative person's entertainment is not, usually, that they made a mistake (unless it's a DOOZY), but that, when the mistake is pointed out, they act like a massive asshat. If you hurt someone, you apologize. Even if it was an accident. You do not mock the people you hurt, you do not put the problem on them, you do not make F-ing TRIGGER T-Shirts to sell at and wear at a convention. If you do you are a MASSIVE ASSHAT. And I, for one, want nothing to do with your creative whatever anymore.

People make mistakes all the time.

Kit Whitfield said...


(i do believe it's actually good/ungood, so even more simplistic, but that's hardly the point.)

basically ... yup.

Will Wildman said...

What makes people stop reading/watching a creative person's entertainment is not, usually, that they made a mistake (unless it's a DOOZY), but that, when the mistake is pointed out, they act like a massive asshat.

Lots of this. I ran into a case of this last weekend - when someone said something slut-shaming, I assumed they were a bit ignorant, which isn't the worst thing in the world and only fractionally affected my judgment of them. When a person spoke up and said they were personally hurt and endangered by the remark, the original shamer then went into an intense self-defence that never veered near an apology or actual reflection on her views. That was what convinced me I had better things to do than hang out with this person ever again (after making my own intense disagreement clear).

Ignorance: not awesome, but not a moral failing, and more readily cured than self-centredness or bigotry.

Ana Mardoll said...

I'd forgotten they removed "bad". So, yeah, all the complexity of preference, choice, morality, and description boiled down to a single word (good) and a couple of modifiers (plus, double-plus, un-). Sad. :(

Dav said...

Heh. My advanced ESL class was all in favor of it, though. "English has too many words that mean almost the same thing!"

Silver Adept said...

Augh, yes, can we please not use the word rape as a slang term for anything at all. Failing that, can we at least avoid using it in contexts where the speaker is trying to appear macho and otherwise bro-tastic? It seems like whenever the word appears, there was or is some sort of stereotypically male thing going on. Which makes for the additional context of "men who are raped are [derogatory slang for vagina], but men who rape are strong and powerful and manly".


depizan said...

I really enjoy MMOs*, but the associated culture is awful. Awful. There are tons of nice people who play, but you quickly learn what to avoid (trade chat in WoW, for example, also the forums) in order to avoid the asshats. I have mixed feelings about playing WoW at all, since Blizzard seems to be firmly on the side of the asshat bros. I hate giving a company that keeps having to be shamed into acting remotely like decent human beings my money, but I like the game and I really like playing with friends. If there were competing MMOs that weren't run by asshats, I'd switch, but it really seems like none of the MMO companies do enough to not be asshats. I have some hope for Star Wars: the Old Republic, given the company and given that they've talked a out making it increasingly inclusive. If they really pull it off, I'm switching (as opposed to playing both), however much I love Draenei. (yes, I play WoW for the space goats. They're cute.)

I will say, though, that the people I play with aren't asshats.

*Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (like World of Warcraft)

Anthony Rosa said...

Hmm. The only part of this very good article I have questions about is the part where, by using this extreme means of rape, you automatically discount other types. I'm honestly not sure how that works? I mean, the part immediately afterwards, where if the only rape anyone ever talks about, the only rape that anyone ever claims is bad, is the less common stranger rape, then yes, I see the aggregate effect of that. But the logic that, if you talk about how x is bad, that >x is okay, doesn't make much logical sense to me.

If I talk about how bad mugging someone is, stealing by knifepoint, am I in doing that silently supporting non-violent theft when someone isn't looking?

Again, the aggregate social effect? Yeah, I totally get that, by talking about only one type, and ignoring the others entirely, as a society you send a message that the other type is, at minimum, not as morally reprehensible. And so talking about other types, and avoiding focusing on the one, is absolutely an important thing to do and to consider doing. By bringing it up, if you're going to bring it up at all, as bad, you do better. Because almost everyone uses the worst type as wrong, they won't miss the fact that your voice mentions a different type.

But what I can't get my head around is that one particular reason, out of the several others I agree with entirely. Does that make sense?

Ana Mardoll said...

1. Using "violent rape" as a stand-in for "rape" over and over again erodes language to the point where "rape" only means "violent rape". Everything that isn't "violent rape" stops being seen as "rape". This is the aggregate effect you noted, but the fact that it is an aggregate effect doesn't mean that people don't have to worry about it. Contributing to the aggregate is still contributing and culture doesn't occur in a vacuum.

2. The common defense in these situations is that the artist is portraying "Rape Is Bad". This is not true. They are -- at most -- portraying that "Violent Rape Is Bad". The latter is something that is generally not contested in our society. The former is something that is frequently contested in our society. Using the defense that the artist is somehow enlightening their readers about rape is being disingenuous, because they very much are not. At best, they are reaffirming what they already believed (Violent Rape Is Bad); at worst, they are reaffirming that non-violent rape isn't rape.

3. I didn't say you couldn't talk about violent rape if the situation were appropriate. I said:

When you use a Rape Is Bad message, but the rape you give to illustrate that message is the one kind of rape that everyone agrees is wrong, you (inadvertently or not) highlight the extreme and rare case of violent stranger rape as the only type of rape.

I used the word "inadvertently" there because I agree that this aggregate erosion can happen in good faith. But it does occur, and it needs to stop. If one must speak about violent rape, then one should do so. But one should not use violent rape as a stand-in for the concept of rape in general, because that plays to an existing cultural bias that needs to be torn down rather than continually reinforced.

Bificommander said...

I've never been a fan of Penny Arcade's brand of humor. I hadn't heard about this stuff before, but it does sound like the PA crew was not very interested in a civil debate on this. But I would like to come back to the original problem, namely the comic without a trigger warning.

There are people who have experienced rape, and they may have a reaction to reading about rape in any context. Okay, I follow. But there are of course also many victims of other forms of violence. From what little I read in Penny Arcade (and many other comics), there's quite a lot of inflicting various forms of violence for comedy. I'll admit, in case of Black mage from 8-bit theater or Belkar and Xykon from Order of the stick, I do often find it very funny (come to think of it, the former has it's share of rape-jokes too). But isn't there a similar risk of triggering any of those victims? I haven't been a victim of either crime, so I have no way to judge how likely it is victims of either crime could be 'triggered' by a joke on that subject. But I could imagine a similar problem for those cases (I have no knowledge of the number of victims of violence, and the percentage of the people shaken up sufficiently to be triggered, so if it is a much, much smaller problem, feel free to correct me), in which case half the comics need to come with a trigger warning. And frankly, the entire PA site can be one giant trigger warning in my book.

And there is the minor problem that pre-pending a joke with a trigger warning is kind of spoiling the punchline, meaning you might as well not tell the joke. Of course, "Mission accomplished!" is a valid counter argument I suppose.

Ana Mardoll said...

The point of this post is not that no joke should ever contain a reference to rape or violence. The point is that if you want to do a quick one-off joke about a "morally reprehensible situation", there are reasons to not immediately reach for rape as the short-hand for that.

Ana Mardoll said...

in which case half the comics need to come with a trigger warning.

That would be point #2 here: http://www.anamardoll.com/2011/10/deconstruction-why-i-like-trigger.html

But it's true that trigger warnings can't be applied correctly 100% of the time -- you're going to miss things, and you're probably going to miss things a lot. Look at me! I accidentally drop "abusive marriage" comments into Twilight comment threads and give readers heart attacks. *facepalm* I have a lot to learn about when and how to use trigger warnings, and for what. But having said that, I'm not bothered by the fact that perfect trigger warnings are an ideal and not a possible goal. For me, it's about trying your best to be sensitive to ways that words can hurt people, and learning more about people and their hurts in the process. The point where I think "THAT was triggering for someone?" isn't a reflection on their super-sensitiveness, but rather a reflection on the fact that there are a lot of different people in the world and I just learned something. I'll see if I can't work that knowledge into a better trigger warning next time.

Jonathan Pelikan said...

This is why I hate reading feminist bloggers - most of the time, they're so damn right. It hurts to read, the same way it hurts to read an article explaining, in minute detail, what cheap lettuce costs us in America.

Here's to trying to change gamer culture, and the way we use language, bit by bit.

hapax said...

I do want to think about the larger point about "triggering" jokes in general, because I think it's important.

I still remember with burning shame when I tossed off a suicide joke on the Slacktivist comments, and had to be informed politely "Hey, not cool." And I think we are all grateful to Kit (among others) for their tireless advocacy against insanity jokes.

I'm wondering, though, if some people count as their own "trigger warnings." Let me explain with a specific example, by which I do not mean AT ALL to be picking on or "calling out" one person, but because I think it will be familiar to many of us.

When I see a certain commenter post, I am automatically braced for swearing and / or some kind of hyperbolic violent suggestion (not that zie makes one every comment, or even most, but yeah, I'm not surprised to see it.) I have never ever seen this person make a joke about rape, or belittle victims or support rape culture in ANY WAY. But yes, some of zir accustomed epithets are not uncommon triggers.

Now it may be that I give zir a "pass" because I almost always agree zir targets "deserve" it. Or maybe because zie is consistently funny. Or maybe just because I like zir.

But, in a sense, I do see that name and automatically append a certain set of TWs. Yet, is this not -- in a sense -- exactly the same thing the PA creators are asking for, when they say, "Well, you know what kind of comic this is!"

Not disagreeing with the main post at all. Just ruminating...

Ana Mardoll said...

I agree it's very tricky. To put a more neutral spin on it, I held off on Twilight Trigger Warnings for the longest time because it's Twilight. I mean, do I have to say it's going to involve serious issues? Well, I don't know. Maybe. I've got warnings up on them now, because why not.

I do think that if a site wants to clarify that they're all about X trigger, then that's their right to do so. I love 8-Bit Theater, but it's clear from the first 10 comics that the main characters are murdering narcissists who are going to callously ruin the lives of everyone they meet. I wouldn't really expect them to put out individual TWs because they'd have to do so for every post.

PA on the other hand is a little different, I think. They say they've done rape jokes in the past and sure enough they dug up... 5? I think?... but I read them on and off for a couple of years and never saw any rape jokes, so I think a TW would have been in order.

As for commenting... it's hard to say. I love participating on Shakesville, but their assertively safe space policy -- while I respect it deeply -- isn't always my cuppa, just because it's a bit tricky to remember to TW every single post for every possible trigger. Back to the "I like TWs" post, I'd say that I like 'em, I think they're a great tool, and they're a nice ideal to reach for, but it's not a perfect system.

For me, the biggest annoyance over the original PA comic was less the lack of TW and more the intellectual laziness. Anyone can be edgy and reach for rape (and in doing so traumatize a handful of readers and reinforce a harmful cultural narrative). It takes creativity to not reach for the R-word every time you need a villain. Well, that's my thought anyway...

depizan said...

For me, the biggest annoyance over the original PA comic was less the lack of TW and more the intellectual laziness.

It just struck me now, but what does it say that simply leaving slaves in slavery wasn't bad enough? True, it isn't an exaggeration - it's what one actually does in game. But if the game world were real, it would be horrible.

And suddenly I find myself thinking that they did intend rape to be funny in the comic, if only because of the fantastical beasts involved. I also suspect that rape isn't "real" to the creators. It isn't something they fear happening to them, so it's joke-worthy.* I just can't see the strip working unless the suffering is at least partially unreal and unlikely (or viewed as such).

If that makes sense.

*That's not to say that people can't and don't joke about things, even horrible ones, that they do fear or have experienced, but the strip doesn't read like that.

Ana Mardoll said...

I just can't see the strip working unless the suffering is at least partially unreal and unlikely (or viewed as such).

Probably that was why the "dickwolves" got so much attention.

I don't think it's wrong to find the joke funny. Amanda Marcotte, Feminist Blogger, is on record as liking it. I didn't find this one humorous, but a similar one in 8-Bit Theater tickled my funny bone. I definitely hope this doesn't come off as Don't Joke About Rape Guys, but instead as something a little more nuanced in the sense of (a) does the joke really NEED rape as a go-to for "bad situation" or can you come up with something funnier that isn't triggering and (b) if you're going to trigger your audience, you might want to warn them.

And, well, (c), as you pointed out: don't be a jerk about it when people complain and pretend that it was some kind of public service announcement about rape because, yeah. You are being a jerk at that point. No law against saying, "Crap, I'm sorry my comic triggered you, and I'll try to put a warning up next time."

Case in point, Melissa recently used the word "dark" to mean "bad" in a post on Shakesville. Someone asked her to reword because there's two much cultural conflation of those concepts. Melissa basically said, "That's a good point, I'm sorry," and changed it. It was all very mature and didn't devolve into hurt feelings and THAT'S NOT WHAT I MEANT and stuff like that.

depizan said...

I don't think you're coming off that way at all. I hope I didn't - I did find the joke funny the first time I read it. But - and this could just be their reaction coloring it - I do think there's something about the strip that suggests a lack of personal concern. Or it could just be that anything I'd come up with to replace that line would be something fictionally awful and unlikely.

But, yes, think, warn, don't be an asshat.

Pthalo said...

apropos of nothing, the Hungarian word for rape is nemi erőszak, which means sexual violence. There have been plenty of cases of experts in the field saying "well if it wasn't violent then it can't be sexual violence now can it?"

Ana Mardoll said...

Gah, this is why a little knowledge is a bad things. Words don't work that way -- they grow beyond their original roots.

It's like the always-fun "if zie doesn't HATE women, then zie can't have done something MISOGYNIST" logic. Words don't work that way.

Pthalo said...

Yeah. Hungarian is structured so that for most words, the etymology is readily apparent. "vacuum cleaner" is "dust sucker". "train" = "thing that's pulled" "curtain" = "thing that hangs". "rain" = "thing that falls". "irresistable" = "against + stand + can + not" =(that which cannot be stood against) computer = number -> count -> counter + machine. Making a word is a lot like playing with legoes. Which has the consequence that single language dictionaries are really uncommon in Hungary. Many households have a hungarian <-> english dictionary, but not a dictionary that explains what hungarian words mean in hungarian. And so for most Hungarians, the word seems to be the sum of its parts, even though a phrase like "sexual violence" means all the different kinds of rape, and there isn't any other word you could substitute for it.

The same problem happens in English speaking countries, but they don't blame it on the readily apparent etymology of the word. They just make all the excuses we're all familiar with.

trigger warning till end of comment: discussion of rape laws.

Judicially, Hungary is probably about 30-40 years behind the western world, but we're catching up. some of the laws are in place -- it's illegal to rape your wife now for example, whereas before 1999 that didnt count as rape, but a woman still has to show that she fought back hard enough. And our age of consent is still 14. So if you're 15 and you don't fight back hard enough against your 40 year old attacker, tough luck. It's estimated that 96% of rapes go unreported here. And of the ones that do get reported, very few make it to trial and of those even fewer end in an conviction, which is usually just a few years in jail.

Also, DNA evidence is not accepted because all it proves is that they had sex, not that it was non consensual, and also because it's expensive. Instead, they typically look to see if there was damage to the cervix, which happens in only a small number of rapes. Broken bones count in your favour as well. You also have to have screamed loud enough for the neighbours to hear because otherwise you were complicit in the action. Trying to keep quiet so as not to wake your children isn't good enough. The only exception is if you are a person in the room with you is in immediate danger of losing their life. So, if your attacker says he'll kill your relative next month unless you do it, that's not good enough. He has to have the means to do it right there in front of you.

So, in retrospect it's good I didn't report mine. Nothing would've come of it and I would've had to talk about it before I was ready to. I said no and stop and all that and tried to push him away, but he didn't stop until he was done. Afterwards, he stalked me for 2 years. I wasn't physically injured by it. I wasn't in threat of my life and we were alone in my room. I didn't scream. Therefore, it doesn't meet the legal definition of rape. At first I didn't even think of it as such because I've had worse and it wasn't that bad and I didn't really mind. But it had a bad effect on me and I failed out of university and ended up hibernating in a cave in our inner world for most of the two years we were being stalked. (Probably the same inner world were our house is, but you can't get to the cave from the house or visa versa). When I came back from hibernation I realised I'd minded after all.

Pthalo said...

"you are a person in the room with you " should have been "you or a person in the room with you."

Rowen said...

I really hope I can say this without victim blaming . . .

Anyway, I read some of the stuff on the timeline. I wish the original person posting on Shakesville had 1/2 as much of a well thought response as I saw here. I might have to go reread that article again, but what I remember from it was a lot of passive aggressive "Well, I THOUGHT I liked comedy, but I guess I'm just not a funny person."

I liked how Ana's reaction recognized what the original comic was *trying* to say, and managed to point out why it fell flat on it's face. I didn't get that from the *original* post. (I'm not going to make any comments about the rest of the discussion. PA's immediate response was . . . low brow, shitty, and uncouth, and that's me doing my best to be polite and remain positive today.)

Ana Mardoll said...

@Pthalo, thank you for sharing that. :(

I keep thinking that I'd like to write an autobiography some day, if only because I think it's valuable to have non-violent rape stories out there for people to see that rape is harmful even when bones aren't broken in the process. The catch-22, of course, is that a lot of people would read my story and scratch their heads and say "that's not rape!" I'm not sure the solution for that, to be honest.


I understand. I think the Shakesville article was more of a broad one, because iirc the article was largely more of a "here is why I avoid comedy clubs and web comics and comedy movies, because the artists refuse to use trigger warnings and it personally triggers ME" article. And I get that, but I can see why the PA guys didn't because it wasn't a "Feminism 101" article, it was an "insiders" article written for a completely different audience. (Shakesville doesn't do Feminism 101, because there are already dozens of sites that have that covered. They do, if I understand correctly, safe space discussions.)

And, as you say, "not understanding a feminist safe space discussion article" isn't an excuse for "being an asshat". "Not understanding" means you "go do research" or maybe "engage in polite dialogue with the people criticizing you" or possible "be quiet for a few weeks and see if you learn something rather than getting entrenched in your privilege" or really any number of other options.

Nina said...

Rowen, you don't sound to me like you are victim blaming, but you do sound like you are making a tone argument. A tone argument is when someone (usually an ostensible ally) criticizes the tone of another activist instead of the content of hir arguments. Feminists hear this a lot: instead of criticizing the tenets of feminism, some (many) people claim instead that feminists sound too shrill, too angry, not sufficiently patient and sweet. It's great when someone like Ana can present a calm, well-reasoned argument like this post, but some people don't have the spoons, the patience, the inclination. And there's a place for that kind of blunt speaking, just like there's a place for Ana's calmer tone. Suggesting that someone sounds "passive aggressive" in hir post is just another way of saying "I didn't like the way you said it, cater to me and say it differently." Besides, plenty of people in comments and in other places on the internet spent time discussing what the comic was trying to say. That wasn't the point of Milli A's post and anyway, when we remember that intent isn't magic, we can also see that what they were trying to say isn't necessarily relevant to the idea that they were contributing to rape culture.

Ana Mardoll said...

I'll confess that I make tone arguments from time to time, and I'm trying to work on that.

A problem for me is that tone does matter to me - for instance, I do think that some of what the PA guys said in response to the criticism could have been toned very differently for a better effect. (For instance, the fact that they'd done rape jokes in the past without complaint was worth bringing up, but NOT in a "where were you critics then, huh" hectoring tone.)

I actually left a feminist board I was quite fond of because one of the moderators had a habit of engaging the comments in a way that I found to be verbally abusive, and that made me angry and uncomfortable, despite the fact that her points were generally valid.

On the flip side, tone arguments can be derailing 101 because it addresses style instead of substance, and thereby hides substance.

I don't know what the answer is. Communication is hard, I guess. I know I still have a lot to learn.

Rowen said...


I had a response planned to what you have to say. However, it got away from me and was going into a place that I didn't even agree with myself. I need to run an errand for work, but I wanna think about what you said and how I'm going to respond, if I even should. brb.

Rowen said...


You said more or less exactly what I was thinking,

With the Shakesville piece, I got the impression that the author wanted this to be a rebuke for the PA strip. I have a very different response then if it was intended to be more of a. . . opinion article or online rant.

Ana Mardoll said...

It was probably a little bit of both/and. One part opinion piece anchored off of a recent event and one part learning piece if the authors of the recent event wanted further perspective on why they were getting upset emails.

I do think that if people are emailing an artist saying "I am upset and this piece explains my perspective", the best thing for the artist to do is read and try to look beyond the tone. I understand why a supporter would worry about the tone, because tone does matter to a lot of people, but the flip side is that if that tone resonated with the triggered fans, then the author's responsibility is to listen and try their best to understand.

So I guess I would say with tone arguments, that I think it's alright to be concerned to the point of saying "I thought X was a more approachable way for an outsider than Y", but less to say "I think X needed to be written a different way." I think the former is just a statement of preference, whereas the latter runs the risk of sounding like the bad response was the fault of X for not being perfectly constructed to exactly the right tone. Even if the person totally didn't mean it that way.

Man, I'm thinking all this out loud here and I'm not even sure I agree with me anymore. Gonna have to think about this some more -- I've had problems with tone arguments for years. Maybe it's something to do with "Good Girl training" that I can't shake.......?

Ana Mardoll said...

Also, where's that Derailing 101 link I love so much? *googles*

I can't find "tone argument" specifically in there, but there's this which is close:


You Are Damaging Your Cause By Being Angry

By now their feelings are probably deeply hurt and they’re very angry. Don’t forget they encounter this kind of discrimination in subtle ways every single day of their life, so they’re bound to be emotional about it, even resentful.You can take advantage of this weakness to emerge the victor! After all, everyone knows the Marginalised™ have an obligation to conduct themselves with quiet dignity in the face of infuriating tribulation and if your quarry begins to get angry and “aggressive” then you have won! Why? Well, it’s very simple – just hold them as representative of their entire group! You could try saying something like “you realise you’re making all X look bad?”, or “well, congratulations for backing up the stereotype of X as being angry, irrational and oversensitive!” Maybe you can even say “well, I was about to say I was willing to listen to you, but then you got insulting so now I don’t have to!”Don’t worry about silly things like their feelings – c’mon, they’re grownups, aren’t they! The only thing that matters is defending your discrimination as completely fair and to avoid examining your prejudiced arguments in ways that may challenge them. You could even drop this little bomb: “You are damaging your cause by being angry, real understanding can only happen if all sides are respectful and patient”.

Not only do you come across as a smug, self-righteous asshat (though you may prefer the term “bigger person”) you can also manage to subtly make them feel guilty about their anger, as though it’s undeserved! Everybody wins! Well, except them of course.

I would guess that a tone argument would be (intentionally or not) hurtful because it kind of invalidates the emotion of the upset person and demands they be emotionless, logical robots about something that deeply hurt and triggered them.

So it sounds like the "try to avoid Tone Arguments" meme is less "because they're fallacious" and more "because they hurt people who have already been hurt by the hurtful material". I can get on board with that -- it's the same logic behind extracting ableist language from our conversations because even though we don't mean for our words to hurt someone, they do. Does that sound about right? I'm still working this out myself...

Anthony Rosa said...

At the same time, though, there's places like the Pharyngula comment threads. Those threads at times are filled with some of the most outrageously hateful vitriolic speeches, arrogance and holier-than-thouness that I've seen outside of places like Rapture Ready. And if anyone dares to disagree with them on any point... or if anyone dares point out how blatantly hateful, not merely angry, but actively hateful, they become, they bandy "tone argument!" as though they are sharks smelling blood, and toss out a new wave of bullying invectives.

In other words, my only real experience seeing the phrase tone argument is to bully people. And I hate bullies, even if they're on my own side. Especially then.

But yes, if people are using the tone argument the way you talk about, yeah, that's totally wrong and a cruel method of invalidating peoples' arguments. It's been used historically to try to discount the desire for change, and because of that I have no problem with the term or usage. But using the "oh, that's a tone argument" to both bully other people, and as a justification to allow someone to continue spewing cruel, hateful bile is something I've seen way too much there.

My God, I will never, ever post in Pharyngula's comments sections, on any subject, ever. I'm pretty sure I'm done reading the comments over there period, actually. That comment section reminds me of the three-minute hate sometimes. In any case, let me reiterate that's not a problem with the term at all! In fact, it only reminded me of something I wanted to express, that's much bigger than that.

It's that even in a supposedly "rational" environment, the same sorts of bullies, trolls, and self-righteous pricks thrive which do in too many other places. And the worst thing about such people? They'll use the language and concepts of the community [i]itself[/i], even the ones meant to protect, as a cudgel to hurt who they want, and hold themselves as superior.

Dav said...

I think a lot of my problem with tone arguments - for me personally - is also about acceptable social responses, particularly from women and minorities, who are often expected to express their emotions in ways that are pleasing to the majority. So when someone tells me that they won't listen unless I don't swear, don't appear too emotional, don't appear personally invested, don't criticize anyone in particular, don't imply that anyone present had anything to do with racism or sexism or homophobia or anything bad ever, etc., what I hear is "we will only condescend to listen to you if you fulfill your expected social role. And since that expected social role often includes deferring to authority (white, straight male authority), that's . . . really problematic. It also reinforces that activists should play by the rules, not rock the boat, and obey the social structures that they are probably also implicitly criticizing. It lets the privileged set the ground rules for addressing oppression, and lets them choose whether or not to engage based on the "good behavior" of the minority. (My experience: the privileged, including me, can always find a way not to engage if we play by those rules, if only because addressing matters of privilege is always (?) super uncomfortable and one of the demands of many people who make tone arguments is that the comfort of the privileged should be primary - above the needs of the less privileged.)

Will Wildman said...

My usual view on dialogue is 'people can say whatever they like but have to accept the consequences for saying those things'. E.g., free speech means you are absolutely free to be a bigot but you don't get to complain if a dozen non-bigots yell at you for your jackwagonry. But then there's a corollary that "You never get to 'accept consequences' on someone else's behalf", and since the more significant consequence of being a bigot is that you're causing someone else harm, you don't get to 'accept' their suffering.

I tend not to make the kind of statements that attract tone arguments, and I'm sometimes skeptical about the effectiveness of those that do, but: that is not my decision to make! They get to argue however they like and I'm not going to tell them they're doing it wrong. But then there are situations when I think I have specific information relevant to ideal tactics and suddenly it becomes a question of who gets to accept the consequences.

This is of course closely tied to the Nuker/Emoter/Logicbomber/Appeaser dynamic, which in discussions has a tendency to slide towards the format of Nuker Justifies Their Existence To Everyone Else.

Nina said...

Yes, this is what I was getting at. Tone does matter, obviously. But "I don't like your tone" is used as a silencing technique, especially, as Dav points out, against women and minorities. I don't think Rowen meant it this way, but some of the subtext of hir comment came off to me like this and that rubbed me the wrong way. I appreciate that people are willing to discuss it with open minds in this space.

Ana Mardoll said...

I appreciate that people are willing to discuss it with open minds in this space.

Me too. I really love everyone here. I'm so full of Fail sometimes and it's really great to be able to discuss things and learn and grow thanks to everyone here. :)

Rowen said...

The sad(?) thing is that I had to work very hard to try and keep that kind of language out of my post. I reread my original one and realized it was saying something that I did NOT agree with.

Nina said...

Yeah, I sympathize. Part of the reason I don't comment often is that I have a lot of anxiety over my ability to communicate online. I often get halfway through a comment, think "oh noes, it might sound like I think this, not that!" and then erase it all on the pretext of better safe than sorry. Of course, that means I don't participate in discussions as much as I could, so...sometimes I think you aren't better safe than sorry, especially in the context of group discussions.

Silver Adept said...

And sometimes things get taken differently than intended, even with care taken. What I thought was an innocent question in a forum different from this one turned out to have a significant amount of baggage behind it, because the assumption on the receiving end was that said question was questioning the experience of the poster, instead of accepting that experience as the truth. Someone did take the time to explain to me what I had done, but it felt like the standing rule of that forum was "I'm right, and until you accept that as the truth, you will not be accepted here." I'm pretty sure that was not the rule, but I haven't really gone back since.

Kit Whitfield said...

Personally I didn't see Rowen's comment as a tone argument. My experience has been that there are two situations where people get accused of a tone argument, and Rowen's, to my mind, fell into the latter.

Situation 1: Somebody focuses on their opponent's tone in order to invalidate their point, either by saying, 'Well, if you take that tone I'm not going to listen to you,' or by saying 'If you're that upset you must be irrational/bad.' That, to my mind, is an actual tone argument.

Situation 2: Somebody says, 'Hey, I may or may not agree with your point, but I don't like the tone you're making it in.' That, to my mind, is not a tone argument because it's not a comment on the argument being made. Rowen, as far as I could tell, was saying zie agreed with the basic 'Dude, not funny' argument, but preferred the way Ana presented her points to the way the Pandagon writer did. In other words, zie wasn't using the Pandagon writer's tone to dismiss her argument; she was simply saying that she didn't like her tone arguments aside.

The times when I've seen 'Tone argument!' used to bully people into silence have generally fallen into the second category. I believe Ana made this point herself a while ago, but some people can use 'Tone argument!' as a tone argument - ie, 'You said something, anything about my tone, therefore I don't have to listen to anything you say.'

The Internet is a place where logical fallacies get over-used, and to my mind, situation 2 is similar to someone saying you've used an ad hominem argument against them when you've merely commented on their behaviour. (I remember one guy saying I'd used an ad hominem because I pointed out that he was trying to derail a discussion about social problems into a discussion of his personal feelings, for example. The fact that I mentioned his feelings at all, even though he was the one who brought them up and was talking about little else, was, to him, a good enough reason to pull out the phrase 'ad hominem'.)

I should stress that I'm not trying to imply that Nina's comment about tone arguments was in any way comparable to that guy. Caution about tone arguments is a good thing when it comes to feminism. I just think that if we class any kind of commentary on tone as a tone argument, we open the door for bullies who know how to game the system.


It's that even in a supposedly "rational" environment, the same sorts of bullies, trolls, and self-righteous pricks thrive which do in too many other places.

That people whose self-image rests heavily on being 'rational' would include some self-righteous pricks does not surprise me. I'm all in favour of being actually rational, but a lot of people find it equally important to define an irrational Other in order to feel rational enough.

Anthony Rosa said...

Kit: Thank you for your post today, it is full of wonderful things.

Personally? I've had people use situation one on me. Because I was angry must mean I was irrational. It must mean my words were not to be taken seriously. It upsets me. So, obviously, I should never do it to someone else. I'll make sure not to.

Weirdly enough, Kit, when you mentioned the use of tone argument itself being a tone argument, I've actually thought the same thing... twice, when reading online comments. "Wait, isn't that itself a tone argument?"

Anyway, thank you for the post, I agree with what you said in the whole thing wholeheartedly.

Rowen said...

I find tone to be such a fascinating thing, because I've seen tone, and the tone argument, get used in SO many ways to both shut people down and to MAJORLY belittle them. And I see this all the time in the real world. I once had a conversation with an HR rep about a supervisor I was having trouble with. (I had already talked to the store manager, and he was ok with me going to the HR rep just so I could have documentation.) The rep stared me down and said, "So, this is only about your supervisor's *tone*?!"

The good thing is that I know what buzz words to pick out, so was able to counter that belittling statement with "Hostile Work Environment."

Marc Mielke said...

Language policing hits a lot of the same buttons with me as tone argument warnings do with you.

Even going tasteless, there's a right way to do the 'rape joke' and a wrong way, and if you're any good you can come up with another joke that's just as good. The Penny Arcade people should've noticed at some point that each time they addressed the issue they looked like bigger assholes.

Who do I think can pull it off, who would even want to? Warren Ellis. Garth Ennis. GRRM. That's about it.

Ana Mardoll said...

Zombie Thread Update!

It should probably be appended to my post above that eventually you do lose the benefit of the "maybe you just didn't know it would be offensive" doubt.


depizan said...

Oh for fucks sake.

So glad I quit reading their strip after the dickwolves debacle.

Ana Mardoll said...

Heh. Yeah, I liked the Shakesville comment that said, essentially, "There is a point at which you JUST STOP. We are way past that point."

depizan said...

The passed that point early on in the dickwolves thing. Very early on. They have no sailed so far past that point that they can no longer see it (or much of anything else) in their rearview mirrors.

Dav said...

This makes me realize that I still, despite all evidence to the contrary, expect people whose work I find enjoyable (sometimes) to have a Come to Jesus* moment eventually. And yet, no.

* Jesus in this case being played by the only feminist ever allowed to be mentioned in examples of feminists, Gloria Steinem.

Ana Mardoll said...

I had kind of the same thought too, and I think it's what Liss was getting at: you kind of think, "ok, they felt like they had to dig in their heels but after it all dies down they'll GET why it was a bad thing -- or maybe they'll listen to someone they trust on the subject -- and then it Just Won't Happen Again".

Ha. Come To Gloria moment. I like that. :D

hapax said...

Alas, sic transit Gloria.

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