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Thoughts On Freedom of Expression, From Some Random Guy
Rediscovering the basic values of our society that make it function. How fun!
I have a pair of interesting role-playing exercises for you. A pair of moral puzzles for your enjoyment.
If you release any words or art in a public space, even if it’s just one picture or drawing or Twitter joke, the issues below should be of some importance to you.
Situation Number One
About 15 years ago, I wrote a humor piece called, "Helpful, Non-Threatening Quiz: Am I a Serial Killer?" This was when there was a craze of serial killers in popular media, and I wanted to make fun of it. I thought this piece was very funny (if really dark), and I still do.
Not long after I put it out there, I got a very upset email from a young woman. She told me that one of her friends was killed by a serial killer, and my smart-ass article greatly upset her. (I believe her email and her stress were genuine.) She asked me to take it down.
Put yourself in my shoes. What would you do?
Situation Number Two
I write computer fantasy role-playing games. Every one of my games has spiders in it. They're a nice, classic bad guy monster, and I think spiders are cool.
However, I have gotten many sincere complaints over the years from people with severe arachnophobia. The spiders in my game are upsetting to them. I've been asked to put in an option in settings to have a different graphic for the spiders. This would be effort and expense, but not a lot.
Put yourself in my shoes. What would you do?
And Don't Be Glib About it
I've told people about these situations, and I've gotten this response: "Who cares? They can just get over it." Which, sure, is a possible answer.
But I ask you to not be so glib about it. Whether this is the best response or not, my work did hurt or upset people. It's kind of different when you're the one responsible. I write humor and video games to make people happier, and I'm not a sociopath. I don’t write to hurt people.
So take a moment and think: What would you do?
What Did I Do?
Well, it should be pretty clear from the fact that the article still exists. And I'm still writing games with spiders in them.
For situation #2, I give permission for people to mod my games to take out the spiders, and I help them do it when asked. But I didn't change my games. There are spiders in them because I wanted spiders to be in them.
For situation #1, I sent the lady a very nice email apologizing for the sadness I caused her and wished her well in the future. That was all that was required. When people send you messages like that, they don't usually want you to actually delete your work. They just want to feel heard. But I didn't take it down, and I will continue to not take it down.
In the end, I didn't change. I make the art I want to make. Then I release it. Then I listen to feedback. Then I repeat the process.
That's how I will handle being a public communicator in the crazyhouse that is 2022. And that, at last, brings me to the point.
If You Want To Talk Today, You Should Have a Code
If you write anything online today, and yes I mean ANYTHING, you have to be prepared to answer for it before the world.
If you write a blog or even a single tweet, you are putting your words out before the entire world.
If you sent someone an ill-considered private message when you were 15, some vengeful stalker might sneak a copy and drag it out years later to wreck your life. (And the New York Times will celebrate it.)
This is the world now, and we're still adjusting to it. Alas, I don't think the people setting the rules now are particularly wise, empathetic, or kind. So I'm tapping my tiny spoon against my tiny cup in my tiny corner of the internet. I only get one vote, but I might as well use it.
What Should NOT Be the Rule
Some say that the rule for appropriate communication is: Total harm prevention. If someone is hurt or offended by what you say, you should not have said it. I have had people seriously describe unwanted words as Actual Violence.
(No. This is insulting to anyone who has been a victim of Actual Actual Violence.)
I reject total harm prevention. If you want to put any words out anywhere now, you should bear this in mind: Anything you say, anything, will upset someone. Maybe you accidentally prod an old wound. Or a fear of spiders. Or any of a countless array of potential triggers. This is a sad side effect of human communication.
If you can erase art, erase thoughts, because someone was hurt by them, it turns the joy of art and debate and human communication into an eternal war of all against all. Everyone is a censor. Everyone is a cop. Everyone is subject to the rule of the most sensitive and most perpetually aggrieved among us.
And you can't create under those circumstances! Creation requires a mental looseness, a sense of freedom. If you sit down to work and immediately try to figure out how to avoid offending Everyone In the World, weighing every thought and every syllable against the whims of unseen billions, you will quietly go mad.
So that is how I make my peace with my words upsetting people sometimes: It is inevitable. And the alternative is worse.
But I'm speaking the language of principles. Which is so Boomer of me. Public communication in this century isn't about the expression of principles. It's about the exercise of raw power. I have some principles. But this is a very outdated thing to do, and I don't recommend it.
What Are My Principles?
To be an artist is to communicate with the world. When I create, I am using my flawed, finite mind to make a picture of what the world is like. Then I share this picture with you. Hopefully it will provide you with interest and entertainment.
Whenever I create something of any substance, it will upset or anger someone. When this happens, they can communicate with me. We can talk it over. Sometimes, this changes my point of view, and then I create different things.
But. The bar to delete something that has been created is very, very high. To erase a work of art, even a crappy one (like mine), is to steal something from humanity. Destroying art makes us all a little dumber.
I Feel Dumb Writing This
Of course, I'm not saying anything smart or unique here. Twenty years ago, these sentiments would have been thought so obvious and universal that stating them would be wasting everyones' time.
All I am talking about here is Freedom of Expression, one of the founding and most valuable principles of my civilization.
Note that I am not talking about Freedom of Speech, a part of the Constitution of the United States of America. I am talking about Freedom of Expression, a universal moral principle, an invaluable tool for improving human society, and, to my people, an unalienable right.
I believe that, in this neurotic, pandemic-crazed, shouty mental environment we are trapped in, you need principles. They are the compass that guides you when fog covers everything. I say let everyone speak, and then argue about it.