Wednesday, 6 May 2009

The War of the Words: Thoughts on Defining the “Adult” in Second Life, Part III

(Go to Part I)
(Go to Part II)

Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.
Jane Austen

Sometimes, language is unfair. Language is never indifferent or impartial: it is, whenever we use it (and when don't we?) always making decisions for us, always saying “What you really mean is this.” It is this characteristic of language that makes it such a useful weapon, for whenever we name something, we are defining it, attaching these extra meanings to it.

The most obvious modern example of this aspect of language at work is in the war of words that surrounds the abortion debate. Am I “pro-choice” or “pro-abortion”? Or maybe even, in some formulations, “anti-life”? At the most fundamental level, all of these terms denote the same essential ideological stance: I believe in the right of a woman to choose to terminate a pregnancy by medical means. It is the connotation of these terms, of course, that bedevils us, and reminds us that language is never neutral. Take for example the apparently neutral definition I have give above. Suppose I had omitted the words “to choose”: “I believe in the right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy by medical means.” The essential meaning remains the same, but note the subtle transformation of the connotation; supporting the right to “choose” is much more benign-sounding than fighting for the right to “terminate.”

Really clever people (like you and me) know that language does this, that ever word is a potential bomb loaded with extra meaning that can explode at the subtlest touch. So, to pro-life (or anti-choice) activists, I am “pro-abortion” rather than “pro-choice.” In a rather similar way, to those who would assert their “right” to include almost any kind of content in Second Life, I am “pro-censorship,” a sort of hysterically PC vigilante attempting to shut down “free expression,” and attacking, in the process, their individuality, identity, livelihood, lifestyle, and apparel choices.

This sort of rhetoric (Greek rhetor, orator; the use of language for persuasion) is hardly confined to Second Life, of course, but it is, in some ways perhaps, peculiarly American in flavour; in the US, to a far greater degree than in the rest of the West, “individual” rights have always trumped collective ones. It is, I think, far from coincidental that the most serious legal threats relating to pornographic content in Second Life come not from America, but from Europe, where the notion that society needs to be safeguarded at least as carefully as the individual citizen has a long provenance.

Linden Lab is, of course, American, and so it is not surprising that the “free speech” argument finds an ally in some of the language that has been used by that company to characterize their new classification system. Note, for example, that the first paragraph of the SL Blog announcement of the creation of an Adult region says nothing, in fact, about classification at all, but speaks instead in glowing terms about the importance of fostering “creativity” and “openness”:
From its beginning, Second Life has been an open place where Residents can explore a wide variety of creative pursuits. This has resulted in a vast amount of amazing content inworld, and has helped make Second Life the exceptional place it is. It is very important to Linden Lab that we support and preserve this creativity and openness as our community continues to grow, and as the range of uses for Second Life widens.
Upcoming Changes for Adult Content

The comforting and reassuring tone of this preamble is palpable. Its intent and target audience are clear. “Hey, I'm creative! I'm open! That's me, that's ME!” shout the Adult content creators as they jump up and down excitedly on their BDSM beds and Gorean sex rugs, rattling the attached chains and restraints in the process. “Openness,” having the freedom to create, they argue, is what SL is all about. One can almost hear, as they speak, the swelling strains of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, backed, of course, by a chorus of subs and slaves mumbling incoherently through ball-gags emblazoned with the motto “Protect Free Speech!”

And so it is the creators, marketers, and (somewhat more incidentally, for virtual money is real power in a virtual world) users of Adult content who have become the self-appointed champions of freedom in Second Life. They have armed themselves with a language drawn, in some cases, straight from the seminal documents of Jeffersonian democracy; they have defined themselves as the leading edge of free speech and creativity. And Linden Lab is apparently happy to concur. Here is a representative from the company reassuring nervous Adult content creators and providers that the new classification system is about “access control,” and not “content control.”
We're not creating and selling content in a state that we're providing it intact, in one piece. We're basically a platform for all of you to create, and sell, and contribute. . . . We see ourselves as a very open, collaborative, creative platform.
Adult Oriented content controls: merchant meeting transcript
Somewhere out there exists a list of positive and quotable “keywords” that has been supplied to LL employees, and “open” and “creative,” along with their derivatives, appear very near the top of it. The vocabulary applied to those who might question the value and validity of some of the forms of “expression” produced by this “creativity” and “openness” is somewhat different. In the same document, merchants are assured that “the A[buse] R[eporting] process will not be tolerated for people to try to go on campaigns to try and sanitize parts of the mainland.” Crusaders, anal-retentive “sanitizers” who might challenge the gloriously fecund messiness of free expression are not welcome.

Linden Lab, of course, has to be careful about its language: it doesn't really want to offend anyone and, for that reason, a comparison of transcripts of meetings with different groups of stakeholders reveals not surprisingly that the terminology employed varies to suit the audience. In contrast, in the public blogs online, most of which are abuzz with discussions of the new classification initiative, we see a no-holds-barred approach by the defenders of freedom and creativity. The following comment, which appeared recently appended to an SL Herald article defending rape sims, is entirely characteristic (if marginally more articulate than the average):
This is what happens when you allow a society (virtual or real) to become overwhelmed with blind hatred and ignorance. When tolerance for differing views are tossed out the window and replaced with misinformed judgments and public lynchings. Campaigns of fear, uncertainty, and doubt become common place, just as whats going on right here and now, and just as they did within the fascist regimes back in WWII.
Op/Ed: Asking for it
The irony inherent in the leveling of an accusation of fascism and “public lynchings” by a defender of virtual slavery and simulated bondage, torture, and murder seems to have been lost on this particular participant.

What such ironies highlight is the degree to which this kind of redefinition is really a trick of language, a not-so-subtle manipulation of the potentialities of connotation. In truth, no one is truly “pro-censorship,” anymore than anyone is really “pro-abortion.” Both are purely functional corollaries of the choices we make, rather than choices in and of themselves. Abortion is a nasty, traumatic, and sometimes hazardous medical procedure that no one in their right mind would simply “choose” to do; it is merely a means to an end, a necessity when a choice has been made, for whatever reason, to end a pregnancy. In much the same way, censorship is not a “choice”: it is an unpleasant and unfortunate procedure that is necessitated by the production of socially harmful content. Nor, of course, is censorship the sole domain of the “PC” crowd: we all censor. Even the most virulent libertarian will generally be compelled to concede that the legitimacy of some kinds of utterances is dependent upon context: to employ the classic example, “free speech” does not justify shouting “Fire!” in a crowded bondage club. This is, of course, much to be regretted.

So, really, the issue is not “free speech” versus “censorship”; as a characterization of the debate, this is far too black and white. Instead, the focus should be upon the legitimacy and validity of the meanings produced by what we articulate. So let's turn our attention for a moment to the issue of what exactly is being “expressed” by the productions of these “creative” and “open” providers of Adult content. What does a set of standard sex pose balls “express”? Is it a cri de coeur for the interconnectedness of humanity? A paean to the necessity of love? Honestly, I have no idea, but whatever is being articulated here I will happily admit is pretty benign and (in my view) fairly unobjectionable. This said, I know (as do you) what they are used for, what their functionality is. It is hardly coincidental that so many of the advertisements for the Second Life sex toys of all kinds trumpet the fact that they can be used one-handed. As expressions of the profundity of the human mind and spirit, most of this material would be hard pressed competing with a paper-bound edition of Penthouse Letters.

Of course, not all human activity need be profound and transcendent; I am far from objecting to virtual sex per se. Indeed, it can be argued at least that interactive cybersex is less solipsistic than a strenuous workout with a vibrator, porn magazine, or video. But shift a bit further down the spectrum, and things start becoming a bit more complicated. What is being “expressed” in a set of pose balls that enable a simulated rape? How does a butcher’s table, fitted out with poses that combine graphic bodily mutilation with sex, “speak” to us? Again, I honestly don’t know what these denote, how they are supposed to address us, but I am pretty clear about their implications, their secondary meanings. These particular word bombs explode with an especially disturbing violence. What they tell me, indirectly, but in a fairly uncomplicated way, is that women are at best props, sex toys. Indeed, women are meat. Do with them what you will: like Lego sets, they can be disassembled and transformed into something new at the user’s pleasure.

Let's concede that the violence enacted upon the avatar by poses and scripts such as this is virtual and simulated: no is really hurt, or at least, not physically. But if this is so, it is equally true that the violence wrought upon the meaning of “woman” is real, quantifiable, and potentially dangerous. The War of the Words has always produced its own casualties.

(To be continued . . .)

Sunday, 3 May 2009

A Paddle by Any Other Name: Thoughts on Defining the “Adult” in Second Life, Part I I

(Go to Part I)

You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think.”
Dorothy Parker

Ah, words, words, words. And the funny, and sometimes powerful things you can do with them.

There have always been those who have argued that words are unimportant, definitions irrelevant: what matters are the things themselves. Take the famous case of Juliet, arguing herself into an acceptance of her love for Romeo, despite the fact that her new paramour belongs to a hated rival family. Well, so what? muses the precocious 13 year-old. Whatever his name, he is what he is: “that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” Sounds convincing, doesn't it? Yet it is easy to forget how mistaken, how really disastrously wrong Juliet actually is here, for her “rose” is irrevocably, irredeemably a Montague, and she a Capulet. The origin of the tragedy that follows, that final scene littered with sad young dead people, is to be found in the signification of those two names, and the way in which they insist upon the definition of the two lovers as unwilling players in a deadly rivalry. Certainly, Juliet's family didn't think that Romeo smelled “as sweet.” It is altogether too bad that the young lover's last name wasn't Smith (or Rossi, or Conti): the play might have ended instead with the happy pubescent couple moving into a nice suburban villa with all the mod cons on the outskirts of Verona.

So, words matter, and definitions count. This is as true, perhaps even more true, of Second Life as it is of the physical world in which we actually live. Consider, for example, the case of the “paddle.” For those who don't know, the “paddle” is an object, shaped variously like a cricket bat or an oversized ping-pong paddle, that can be worn and used to virtually “spank” other avatars in the vicinity. The animation is simple and predictable: when the wearer clicks on another avatar, he or she takes a quick swing, and there is a satisfying “thwack” sound. In some versions that I have seen, the object adds a line to the local chat to the effect that “so-and-so has spanked so-and-so on the ass.” This is a surprisingly common item, and not, as I might have guessed, limited to those who enjoy playing the ever-popular “Schoolmaster and Pupil” game (or who, alternately, have salaciously pleasant memories of the uses to which their parent's rec room ping pong table might be put). It is a perennial favourite at dance clubs, for example. Personally, I find this object pretty unobjectionable, if mildly moronic, but there are those, apparently, who think it endlessly amusing. Clearly, it takes all kinds.

Suppose we take essentially the same object, and rename it, from “paddle” to “wifebeater.” The “wifebeaters” that I have seen are shaped like a riding crop (catering to those who prefer a good romping game of “Dastardly Squire and Buxom Milkmaid,” I suppose), but in function and action, it is essentially identical to the “paddle.” So, why is the “wifebeater” so objectionable, where the “paddle” is merely idiotic? The answer, of course, lies in the name that has been bestowed upon the former. While the object and its function remain fundamentally unchanged, the connotations, the secondary meanings and associations of the term “wifebeater” are horrific, especially to anyone with even a passing acquaintance of the grim reality towards which the word gestures. This is a pretty vital point that some seem quite unable to grasp: neither object in themselves causes any “actual” harm, but the term wifebeater has the very real potential to hurt and damage.

I don't want to belabor the point, but one more example might make this notion of the power of names even clearer. I recently sent in Abuse Reports concerning two sex animations for sale at a stall in a BDSM sim, the one called “Forced Missionary,” and the other “Forced Doggie Style.” Images associated with each showed a “couple” engaged in copulation employing the specified positions, the chief thing distinguishing these from other similar animations apparently being the fact that the male was, in each case, pinning the female down, or holding her in place, by her hair. (Incidentally, the employment of the euphemism “forced” seems to have been designed as way around using the term “rape,” but has become instead merely a synonym for it, another example of how trying to engineer a redefinition of an existing word generally doesn't work.)

Now, hair-pulling has never been my thing. To begin with, it hurts. And I think I may also have been traumatized by an incident in the second grade involving a particularly promising aspirant to juvenile delinquency by the name of Charlie McKendrick. However, such is my strength of will and mind that I can rise above this, and frankly declare that I really have no moral or ideological objections to coiffure-tugging during the act of sex. What I do, strenuously, object to is the deliberate association of this with rape, which is clearly what is intended by the names given to these two animations. It is an association which trivializes a very real and enormously destructive act all too common in our culture. Even a simulated rape – or, more accurately, a simulation that has been identified as such – has the potential to cause real pain to those who have been the victims real life sexual assault. Most importantly, perhaps, the dwindling of real life trauma into a “game” reinforces the notion that rape is acceptable, and even “fun.” Had these animations been differently named, my view of them might have prompted an involuntary shudder (shades of the execrable C. McKendrick), but I would not have sent in an abuse report. In essence, I was reporting the names of these animations, rather than the animations themselves, but that is a subtle distinction that would likely have escaped Linden Lab's enforcers.

So, words have power. They can titillate, distort, and hurt. They can transform the things to which they are applied into something else: they can turn a horsewhip into a “wifebeater,” and turn a friendly(?) game of hair-pulling into a sexual assault. And it is this power that also makes words remarkably effective weapons. Through the power of language, I can impose an identity on something or someone; I can damn or praise with meanings and associations that may be quite exterior to the person or thing so transformed. With words, in short, I can redefine almost anything.

(Go to Part III)

Saturday, 2 May 2009

The Curator and the Pornographer: Thoughts on Defining the “Adult” in Second Life, Part I

A rose is a rose is a rose.
Gertrude Stein

Like many of you, I have spent a fair amount of time of late perusing online discussions of Linden Lab’s new classification system for regions. Much of what I have read is vague, some of it mildly annoying, and much more of it dull, dull, dull. Every once in a while, however, one comes across a little snippet that sort of jolts the cerebral cortex, and demands attention. As, for example, this excerpt from a question and answer session hosted by Linden Lab not too long ago:

Even art. I mean, art is subjective. You can have the exact same two pictures, both naked people, and you put that in a museum, and that is art. You put that in a strip club and it is pornography. So it is subjective.

However, on a PG sim, it is just purely not allowed. I think that definition...I think that PG has already defined itself. Honestly, I am not even going to take my six year old kids to a museum where there is T&A hanging out. They don't need that right now. They are going to get it enough when they are watching TV.
("Adult Oriented content controls: definitions meeting transcript")

I confess I was a little floored by this particular contribution by an unnamed speaker designated only as “Q.” (The dull thumping you hear in the background is the sound of my forehead rhythmically striking my desktop; it’s an involuntary gesture that occurs every time I reread this quote). It is just so . . . wrong . . . in so many ways, that it’s difficult to know where to start. Perhaps with the image invoked here of crowds of slavering trench-coat-clad strip-club patrons lasciviously ogling Titian’s Venus or Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass in decrepit pay-by-the-minute back rooms? With the revelation that museums are hitherto unheralded fleshpots of luridly exposed “T&A”? (Once the word about this gets out, imagine the boon to cultural institutions everywhere, as museum ticket receipts shoot through the roof!) With the implied equation here of “T&A” with pornography? (Other dangling bits apparently need not apply.) Or should we simply applaud this fond parent’s wise decision to leave the TV on for his kids, while carefully insulating them from the pernicious effects of museums?

Of course, I am being a little unfair here. “Q” is correct in one regard at least: Art is subjective, or at least vulnerable to the ebb and flow of public opinion, as witness the furor that surrounds the emergence of every new school of artistic expression, not to mention the sorts of controversy aroused by apparently “borderline” works like many of those of Robert Mapplethorpe. Yet, the definition even of something as apparently subjective as art does stabilize with time. We are all likely to agree that Picasso produced wonderful paintings, that Stravinsky was a great composer, and that Delta of Venus is a valid and important work of literature, but ’twas not always thus; these redefinitions have come about through a slow and gradual process of collective usage. In practice, language proves pretty intractable to deliberate attempts to meddle, to define; it is, in general, the slow acceptance implied by collective usage, rather than the definition handed down by imperial fiat, that determines the meaning of things. Yet, it is something very like “fiat” that Linden Lab is attempting to impose through its new tripartite classification scheme of “PG,” “Mature,” and “Adult.” Really, this is all about “definition”: indeed, the excerpt I quote above is from a “brown bag” meeting of Linden Lab representatives with a group of unidentified “residents” about the “definition” for “Adult” in Second Life.

Now, I am pretty sure that Linden Lab is going to have problems with whatever definitions they finally settle on for “PG,” “Mature,” and “Adult.” To begin with, their apparent inability to enforce their own policies regarding restricted content (anyone filed a verifiably successful abuse report recently? Anyone?) suggests that Linden Lab is not going to be very effective at actually applying their new definitions. I also rather suspect that the banishment of sex to the “Adult” region is going to lead to a massive migration of all sorts of content to those areas: after all, who really wants to inhabit a world without sex? In practice, the community will soon impose its own redefinition upon the term, with the result that it will still be impossible to get a decent cup of virtual java without walking past that really noisy BDSM club down the road.

So, I think Linden Lab is going to have problems. And these are going to be accentuated by the way that they are going about doing this. While I am willing to give the Lindens credit for at least consulting with some residents about this process of redefinition, there still seems to be a lot more “telling” than “asking” going on here. We may also legitimately question the breadth or representativeness of the community that Linden Lab is consulting. If you, like me, find yourself horrified by the notion that our contributor “Q,” cited above, is being permitted input into the definition of anything, yet alone something as complicated and nuanced as the meaning of “adult content” in Second Life, then you will probably agree that there is some cause for concern with current developments in our favourite virtual world.

(Go to Part II)