Monday, April 14, 2008

The Post No One Will Read

The first time I saw the trailer for the new Resident Evil, I have to admit, I was pretty excited. I’ve been playing RE since I got a Playstation (first iteration) back in 2000, and I’ve always enjoyed its zombie-splattering, adrenaline-pumping action peppered with clever mini-puzzles. Many a college night could be described as “girlfriend feverishly studies whilst I unload gunshot after gunshot into the heads of the undead or scream like a schoolgirl as re-animated Dobermans jumped for my virtual jugular.” Eight years later, there’s a different girlfriend but pretty much the same scenario. I mean, I love the series to the point that I even own one of the movies (Resident Evil:Apocalypse because it’s most similar to the video game and because Jill Valentine is hot). Anyway, the trailer is set in an undisclosed location that could be an African or Caribbean village. The player assumes the identity of Chris Redfield, the ex-special forces, zombie killa from the original RE. While in the village, Redfield notices that the villagers begin to act strangely… blah blah blah…Umbrella corporation… zombie eat brainsshoot them in the face…yadda yadda… awesome.

Recently I came across this article via my favorite video game blog. For those who don’t hit the links, I’ll try to summarize (but I think you should read the article anyway). The article is an interview with N’Gai Croal, a general editor at Newsweek who has specialized in technology pieces since he started with them in ’95. Croal has also seen the aforementioned RE5 trailer and sees it in a different but valid way. Croal, and undoubtedly many others, see Redfield (white guy hero/ubermench) going into a dark, threatening unknown place to solve some problem and has to kill a mob of violent, mindless, scary-looking zombies (black villagers) along the way. Croal goes on to point out that the designers of the game did not consider the racial history of such images and the feelings those images stir up. I can’t begin to explain his point of view as eloquently and concisely as he does, so again, I’ll leave it to you to read the article for yourself.

Now the article itself has over 200 comments and the kotaku post has over 1000. Insane dialogue happening, and it’s kind of cool. Of course, you have to pick through the anonymous, purposely offensive statements to get the gems of intelligence, but it’s worth scrolling through. That said, here’s what I’ve picked out that may be worth exploring or thinking about.

1) What is the working definition of racism? I’ll just get this one out of the way cause everyone gets stuck on it. Here’s the simplest answer I can come up with: there is no working definition. Based on the comments I’ve read, everyone has their own definition. Being in social work, I have discussed this topic ad nauseam and the simplest definition I can come up with is: Power + Racial prejudice = racism. Now here’s the tricky bit, the key in the equation is “power” and without it, it’s prejudice. So when a black person in the U.S. tells you they can’t be racist, there is truth in that. Due to our country’s history, black Americans are one of the most disempowered populations, and no one can deny that. When one does not have power, one can not be racist.

However, one can be racially prejudiced, which is really no better. Prejudice is simply passing judgment or making assumptions based on some superficial quality. So minorities can be racially prejudiced, but not racist. Women can be sexually prejudiced, but not sexist. Basing your opinion of someone solely on some superficial characteristic, be it sex, race, ethnicity, religion, is dangerous and hurtful. Racism should be eliminated, yes. But prejudice is the larger problem. It’s a problem that we are all guilty of to different degrees but many of us have trouble owning up to it. I know I’m guilty of this. I’m making an effort to recognize my prejudices as quickly as possible. It’s a start.

Sure, this is a semantic argument to some extent. Getting hung up on semantics is a trap I fall into all the time, and while language is an important part of dialogue, it can become an enormous obstacle.

2) Speaking of semantics, When did the demonization of “politically correct” happen? I first became introduced to “politically correct” language in college, particularly because I went to a very liberal, very intellectual, small and diverse school. The idea seemed silly to me at the time, and much of it still does. I feel like being PC has become synonymous with being evasive or pollyann-ish. People get annoyed that they have to say things like “vertically challenged” instead of “short” or “follically challenged” instead of bald, and I can relate to that. I value truthful language that isn’t euphemized because it’s straight to the point and revealing of the person’s character. In a lot of ways, PC has gotten a little out of control. The conservative right is quick to point out that PC was a liberal campaign (so if you’re of a certain political leaning, think twice when you critique it). “Oh, it’s pansy talk,” they’ll say, but when one want to put some positive spin on an evident disaster, they’ll be quick to use it. Think “Operation: Iraqi Freedom.”

Critics of PC language fail to realize what the true purpose is about being respectful and recognizing the power of words. Language is the way we communicate our thoughts and feelings, so if we speak with disrespectful language, it can solidify or reinforce our disrespectful thoughts. Here’s my personal peeve: Use of “gay” or “retarded” to describe something you think is stupid. When did “gay” and “retarded” equal “stupid,” “undesirable,” or “less-than”? How did those words invade our daily lexicon? How do eight year olds learn this phrase? How are those same eight year-olds going to treat someone who identifies themselves as “gay” when they become eighteen? I would gladly live in a world I have to use “vertically challenged” to describe myself if it means “that’s retarded” isn’t used anymore (unless it’s being used clinically to describe a person with below average IQ. (BTW “retarded” has become so viscerally appalling that some clinicians hesitate to use it. That’s a little too far)

3) This whole tirade started with someone getting offended. That doesn’t bother me as much as people who took offense at someone getting offended. People were railing against Croal in the comments and taking shots at one another. This lack of empathy in society is what I find most disturbing.

Do people really believe that everyone shares the same ideas and perceptions as they do? Do people lack the ability to recognize that their singular perception may be wrong? How can you be upset at someone who has an emotion? Feelings are not controllable. I will not be swayed on this. You can control your thoughts and behaviors, but you can’t control your feelings. Your thoughts or beliefs lead to your feelings, but emotion is a natural response. Your response then leads to your actions. Example: It’s the middle of the night and you hear a noise. You think there’s a burglar in your house which leads to getting scared or angry. You then decide to go running down the hallway in your underwear armed with the first solid thing you get your hands on, be it toy lightsaber or dildo. Thought-feeling-behavior. If you change the belief to “it was just the dog” or “it’s my insomniac roommate,” you’d have a different emotional response and behavior. The thought that precedes the feeling makes all the difference, so changing beliefs changes everything else and prevents you from having to apologize for bludgeoning your roommate with a sex toy. Now, if your experience has lead you to believe that your race or sex has been devalued by your society, you are going to see things and feel things differently. Is that hard to understand and account for?

In my opinion, if you can’t see how your actions or language impacts others, then you have not matured as a person. The ability to actively empathize is a sign of development and not to make broad generalizations, but in my work experience, adolescents are the population that has the most difficult time with empathy.

4) The internet has given us the ultimate power of anonymity. You can now put your 2 cents in on any subject regardless of your expertise, maturity, or cognitive ability. If you can turn on a computer and navigate the interwebs, you can share your thoughtful opinion or do your best to offend everyone with as few words as possible. Gotta love the diversity.

5) That pretty much leads to my last point: Why does everyone have to prove that everyone else is wrong? I’m a proponent of critical thought, but why can’t everyone be right? Everyone has their own life experience that gives their viewpoint some validity, so what’s the purpose of trying to tear down everybody’s arguments? By the way, there is nothing wrong about being able to see both sides of an argument. There is nothing wrong with recognizing that you may have made a mistake and changing your mind. Politicians will have us believe that sticking by your guns is the only way to lead and “flip-flopping” is a sign of weakness. I disagree. I think it’s a sign of intelligence, thoughtfulness, and humility, all things I want in a leader.

So, in the end, you can have an intelligent conversation and dialogue based on video games. Gamers are so intent on video games being recognized as an art form in its own right and I believe they have an argument. Art is meant to provoke thought and feeling. Encourage critique and self-reflection. I think it’s impressive that a 2-minute trailer can generate thousands of comments and deep thought. I’ll admit now that when I saw the trailer for Resident Evil 5, I said, “Sweet! Another way to avoid reality for a few days.” After reading Croal’s commentary, I realized how my positive past experiences with the series kept me blind to the racially offensive tones of the trailer, and I was humbled. It’s painful to think that I would get excited about something that pained so many others. It’s painful to think that even though I’m not black, as a racial minority in this country, I didn’t see the problems with the trailer. It’s painful to look into the mirror and see something you don’t like, but it’s so much more gratifying when you do something to change it.

No comments: