Wrong on the internet, part 1: The Penny Arcade kerfuffle

What does the above Penny Arcade comic mean to you? Ten points if you spot it as a World of Warcraft reference, making fun of the twisted morality of the game (where if you only need to rescue five slaves, the sixth is out of luck). Beyond that, a chunk of the internet has been twisting itself into a knot over the rape reference.

The kerfuffle was summed up neatly by a commenter at the blog Pandagon:

Blogger: I will completely miss the point and be insulting about it. PA: OH YEAH? I’LL SHOW YOU COMPLETELY MISSING THE POINT AND BEING INSULTING ABOUT IT! Everyone Else: Goddamnit. Blogosphere: *moves on after another 2 minute hate, with no one’s views or opinions changing on anything, and no one actually learning anything*

Read on for the juicy details.

The initial objection, the one everybody seems to be reacting to, came from this post at Shakesville, where the poster proclaimed

The problem is, I just don't find rape funny. Because rape survivors exist among us, and after being victimized by rapists, they are revictimized by a society that treats even real rape like a joke, forced to live in a culture that actually has a lot of rape jokes, including those about rape victims being actively denied justice for no other reason than because people don't take rape seriously. I don't find rape funny because rape victims are often doubted, mocked, and insulted openly.

While the poster has a legitimate point, my take would be that she is overreacting in this particular case, where rape was simply mentioned in passing, and where it was presented as a terrible thing. Just because rape is bad doesn't mean no one should ever talk about it. Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon has a much more articulate response:

I found the blog post an annoying rationalization for disliking humor in general, which the blogger admits she does. I find the “but rape is real!” argument against jokes of this nature to be a disingenuous one. Slavery is also real, as is murder and general violence. But there’s no way that the blogger would have gotten mad about jokes in those veins, but a joke about a form of torture that is supposed to sound over the top and mystical got her into offended mode.

At this point I, like Amanda, would have just brushed off the Shakesville poster and gotten on with my life. But the PA guys seem to have been getting a lot of pushback, and they posted a most unfortunate response:

Yes, they did: Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, for whom I normally have nothing but love, actually went and did the thing they were wrongly accused of—they made a joke minimizing rape. While the comic was clearly aimed at the oversensitivity of the commenters, the sneering, patronizing tone put it over the line (at least in my opinion) into offensive territory.

Their blog post on the topic (scroll down) actually made more sense:

Did the comics about bestiality, suicide, murder, pedophilia, and torture not bother them? Or how about the fruit fucker? I mean, we have a character who is a literal rapist. What comic strip have they been reading all these years?

For the most part I think that people are perfectly happy to laugh at offensive jokes until the joke offends them. Then it’s not funny anymore.

As is often the case, the whole debate reveals more about the people reading the comics than the people making them. Amanda's post at Pandagon has spawned an epic comments thread, and Larry Cruz has a nice summary at The Webcomic Overlook followed by a shorter, more manageable discussion in comments. Reading through them, I realize that the issue is multilayered. Is rape taken seriously in our society? Some say yes, it's obvious that we all agree that rape is bad, but others protest that some forms of rape, and some rape victims, aren't taken seriously. Well, is it OK to mention rape in passing? Some say it minimizes rape, while others say that's an excessive response; mentioning it is not the same as condoning it. Do we all have to stop mentioning it because it would offend rape survivors? Are rape survivors all offended by the mention of rape? Does protecting rape survivors from rape jokes actually reinforce their victimhood? (Incidentally, the poster at Shakesville did not claim to be a rape survivor, although she did cop to not having a sense of humor, which I think should disqualify her from commenting on comics at all.)

While many of the people posting were pretty firm in their opinions and unlikely to be swayed by others, I, as a fairly agnostic reader, found it fascinating to sit back and follow the arguments. Unlike a lot of internet debates, this one was fairly intelligent and civil, despite strong feelings on all sides, and it was an interesting example of how people with the best of intentions can view the same thing in so many different ways.

Oh, and also an object lesson in how not to respond to controversy. Fortunately, everyone will forget about it in a month or so and life can continue as usual.

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