On Censorship and Principle

The internet has made the venerable epigraph “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (Evelyn Beatrice Hall, if you were wondering, but traditionally and wrongly attributed to Voltaire) seem a rather tired and worn-out bit of rhetoric. But overused or not these are words I have always tried to live by, as best as I can.

I disapprove of “Tournament of Rapists” in the strongest possible terms. It is a benighted piece of grotesque wrongheaded filth that should have never existed. I seriously question the character of the people who created it and who sought to publish it. I cannot overstate the fact that I am not a fan.

But censorship is always wrong. When a monolithic distribution channel like One Book Shelf, a self-acknowledged de-facto monopoly, bans a product, that is tantamount to censorship, and they know it. And they very nearly did so, not because it was in line with their principles, but to satisfy the demands of a screeching hate-mob of perpetually outraged social justice harpies who for some reason did not think that not buying the product and/or leaving it one star or less reviews would be enough to let the market sort itself out. This is shameful.

At DriveThruRPG, we trust publishers to upload and activate their own new releases without anyone at DriveThru reviewing the product before it goes public. Because this system worked so well for the past 14 years, we had no need to create an “offensive content guideline.” To avoid anything approaching censorship, we simply adhered to an unwritten policy of not banning any RPG product.

There is, however, a growing problem. Sometimes, RPG creators design content that goes beyond disturbing. For example, we recently — and rightly — received criticism for selling an RPG supplement called “Tournament of Rapists” for four days on our marketplace.
In hindsight, we realize that we should have suspended that product from sale immediately, pending further internal review and discussion with the publisher. For a variety of reasons, we relied on our standing policy of not banning RPG titles, even in the face of a product so offensive that the policy was inadequate. We understand that we were wrong to do so.

A New Policy

It is time to change the approach we have used on DriveThru. Our prior stance, that “censorship is unacceptable,” was tantamount to shirking our responsibility. As market leaders, we are in a position that requires us to be leaders also in keeping the RPG hobby inclusive and safe.

I have actually been hoping to try and strengthen our working relationship with DriveThru RPG in the future. And in the interest of being fair, I will acknowledge that OBS did not actually ban this product. They did ban another product, nearly a year ago, that was far less offensive by any reasonable human metric, for even more tenuous reasons, but that is neither here nor there. In this case, they spoke to the author and publisher who agreed mutually to pull the product, so that is alright. What is not alright is that DriveThru has changed its policy AWAY from a policy of “Censorship is uancceptable”. This is not a good change.

I don’t know a lot about James Raggi. He’s the designer of an RPG called Lamentations of the Flame Princess that I also don’t know much about, but that looks pretty cool and which is, while WAY BIGGER than anything End Transmission publishes, not exactly SUPER-WELL-KNOWN. Anyway, my point is, he recently said this on Google+. And while I’m not a Google+’er, I couldn’t + this enough. I don’t know what political baggage agreeing with him might entail, but I agree with what he had to say:

I checked my stats and according to the ranking function they have in the Publisher tools, I am a Top 2% seller on OBS. (which says more about how small the 98% are more than how big I am) I have done over $100,000 gross sales over the six years I’ve sold through the site, which isn’t nothing.

If one of my products gets pulled, or if the products of my peers are pulled without their consent, I am taking every LotFP product off of that site, which will be something of an economic armageddon for me and a hardship from everyone on my roster getting royalties from sales. I’ll also have pretty much no mechanism for conveniently delivering PDFs to people. (even reinstating PDF sales on my site would leave me no mechanism to provide access to people that do not purchase the title; I have rather cheap software and investing in more sophisticated software will be quite impossible without OBS sales money coming in.)

This past weekend a brainless howling mob showed they were in charge of this industry and have the power to disappear ideas and products they disapprove of. Whether this is the majority or a very vocal minority doesn’t make much difference to me; I consider myself at war with them. That this is within our industry feels like an intense betrayal; I have been literally shaking mad over the past several days. Simply shitting out pieced-together cheap crap POD versions of what I owe people and simply quitting has crossed my mind.

Without the ability to freely create, and freely reach people who might be interested in those creations, participation in this hobby and this industry is simply not worth doing.

Anyone who would restrict that creativity, or make it more difficult to find people who are creating things you might enjoy, anyone who restricts imagination and works of fiction, anyone who works to ban any work, is simply evil.

Evil.

We have lost a great deal over the past several days.

While I appreciate his turn of phrase (“brainless howling mob”), I think he’s going a bit far in calling this impulse to destroy art that offends you, and the business based decision to give in to that impulse, “evil”. But it’s sure as hell not good. A lot of social justice berserkers argue that censoring this product somehow makes tabletop gaming a more inclusive, safer space for women and minorities. That is so much bullshit. Censorship rearing its ugly head in this industry makes the space of tabletop games feel that much less safe for my girlfriend, just as one example. Because fuck censorship.

We are, of course, not actually pulling our products from DriveThru, for the same reason that End Transmission games, if it were a person, would not light a stick of dynamite and then swallow it: it would be EXTREMELY. FUCKING. BAD. FOR US. I am in no position to commit principle-based financial seppuku when we are trying to support our family and we are trying to do so through our games. Above and beyond this, a repulsive shitshow like Tournament of Rapists is not the hill my company is going to die on, thank you very much.

But I do need to shake my head at DriveThru caving to this kind of pressure. Censorship is always wrong. Answer speech you find distasteful with your own speech. Not by silencing it.

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