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 . . .)

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