Freedom of Speech

Had an interesting thing happen yesterday. As I may’ve mentioned, I’m a gamer, mainly MMORPGs. I was in one of my standby games … you know, the one that’s entertaining without really be overwhelmingly engrossing, that gets you through while you’re waiting for “the” game to release …

Anyway. For those of you who don’t know, most online games, especially MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online), have ways for people to hang out together, relating to their interests. Sometimes, these groupings of people are called clans, and sometimes they’re called guilds. There are many reasons people play online games; some, for socialization in a “fun” environment. Some, for role-play purposes. Some, for the e-sports aspect, some for some good-old fashioned PvP (Player vs Player) interaction. Generally speaking, guilds or clans form as a way for like-minded players to hang out and pursue goals together.

During most of my MMO gaming career I have tended to look for more social guilds; places where people can hang out together, chat, discuss, argue (respectfully!), and pursue common goals. For most of the guilds I’ve been a part of, those goals may include running group content together, or questing/exploring together. Guild chat, which is the main “chat room” in most games, is generally an arena where we can all hang out with each other, ask and answer questions, and generally just have a good time while we’re doing our own thing, socializing with and making friends all over the world.

Yesterday. Yesterday, there were a couple of people in the guild I’m in talking about Net Neutrality, among other things, in guild chat. Their discussion was polite, courteous, respectful. There was no name-calling; rather, opposing viewpoints were bandied about, with questions asked, answers offered, and generally, it was a very stimulating and interesting conversation. As is my usual practice, I pretty much stayed out of it … until one of our guildies screamed out “STOP THE POLITICAL DISCUSSION, I CAME HERE TO GET AWAY FROM REALITY!” Now, for those of you who don’t know, typing in all caps online is generally an indication of yelling. In effect, this was the same as someone stomping their feet, pitching a fit, and demanding that their needs be acquiesced to, and not tomorrow, now!

I asked the person doing the screaming why they couldn’t just change their chat tab to one that didn’t have guild chat in it. Now, this is what you need to understand; in most MMOs, chat tabs are very customizable. You can create new tabs that show only the chat options you want, or you can do what I do frequently — you can create a chat tab that has NO conversation available. Pure, wonderful, complete silence. So I couldn’t understand why this person, who was not involved in guild chat at all that I could see, prior to this conversation, would not just change a tab so they didn’t have to see what they found offensive.

The culmination of this is that the members of the guild online at that time became quite polarized over this topic. On one hand, most of the people online felt that since the guild is a social guild, and guild chat is where we socialize, asking people to refrain from “certain” topics in guild chat was akin to censorship. For others, they adamantly believed that others should stop talking about the things they found personally offensive, rather than them have to change their behavior, or anything about their environment, so they would no longer have to be exposed to this “political” conversation. I still struggle to see where it was political, actually, when I consider the conversation. No party lines were drawn, no one was pushing one way of being over the other … in other words, no toes that I could see were being stepped on … except for those of the people having this conversation.

Later, after I’d had supper and had gone back in game to finish up some tasks I’d set for myself, the guild leader came into the game and enquired why seven people had left the guild over this. A guild officer was also online. Both seemed to listen to the responses we made, but both also said many times “political discussions do not belong in guild chat.” The response to that was actually less than happy; most of the people online at the time felt that the seven people who left the guild were being big babies, and that organic discussions that can be respectful, courteous, and informative shouldn’t be “banned” due to the sensibilities of “some” people, especially not when most of us were really enjoying the conversation.

Ok, to sum up where we are so far, the situation is that, in an online forum in a game, several people were having a discussion. One player, then followed by six more, began demanding — in all caps — that the conversation desist this moment. When alternatives were offered up regarding how these people could avoid seeing the conversation, those alternatives were not even responded to; in fact, all they did was continue screaming their demands for instant acquiescence in guild chat. The guild leader and an officer, in essence, supported these people, rather than supporting the ones who stayed and asked, “Why should Group A have to comply with Group B, when Group B can silence the offending chat?”

The question this raised in me little pea-brain was simple: Whose rights are being trampled on here? I mean, let’s take it by the numbers:

  1. Both groups of players have paid for the game; thus, both groups of players have a right and expectation to play the game in a way that is enjoyable to them
  2. Nowhere in the guild’s guidelines did I see an admonition to keep “political” topics out of guild chat; that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but it’s not anywhere I can easily find it
  3. Group A, the ones having the “political” conversation, were not introducing any drama to the guild chat, but rather were engaged in a lively, thoughtful conversation about the history and pros/cons of Net Neutrality — a topic which actually does affect gamers quite a bit!
  4. Group B didn’t politely ask that the conversation stop, they demanded it and, when their demands weren’t met, left the guild as a protest
  5. Guild leadership appeared to choose the path of least resistance, putting the onus of responsibility on the people having the conversation, rather than on the people offended

This, sadly, is very emblematic of where we stand, in the United States, today. Because our society has become apologists; because our society has learned the necessity of bending over backwards in order to not appear offensive; because it’s easier to ask the polite, respectful people to be even more polite and respectful, than it is to ask the whiners and disrespectful complainers to moderate themselves; for all these reasons, we’ve become a nation that only protects ones’ right to speak freely when that right doesn’t impose on someone’s squishy sense of offense.

The question I want to explore today is who loses, when we live this way. It’s not about arguing the applicability of amendments, or any of that — it’s simply to talk about who loses out when we become a nation of people afraid to share ideas.

In the case of yesterday’s example, I honestly felt like I was one of the ones losing out. I mean, let’s assume these people having the conversation about NN decided to take it into a private chat. I’d then have had to ask “Hey, can I be part of this too?” Being relatively new in the guild, I don’t know any of these people that well, so that’s a bit much for my shy self to do, but I can accept that that’s a choice I had. However, what if that conversation had begun and ended in a private chat? I’d never have even known about it, much less been able to glean new information from the discussion.

Further, I feel that the people having that conversation also lost; they were told, essentially, that any similar conversations they would like to have must be held in private, outside the main guild chat. This kind of eliminates spontaneous conversations like this. I mean, you’re chatting in gchat and someone makes a point that causes you to think of something else, and you guys engage in conversation. Then another person gets involved, and you’re having this rousing discourse … when all of a sudden you have to stop and ask yourself, “Oh, wait, could this be in any way construed as political?” or “Could this be offensive to anyone currently online?” All of a sudden an innocent conversation becomes something stressful; should we take it private? If we don’t, is someone going to protest over some offense we haven’t even thought of? It creates an atmosphere where people are afraid to speak openly, to share and trade and debate ideas.

But it also hurts the people who were complaining. By this, I mean that the determination to keep any potentially offensive conversation private can hurt the ones who’re most likely to take offense.

Why do I feel this way? Simple. We are catering to their belief that their happiness is dependent on the actions and behavior of other people, not on their own actions and behavior. If we automatically comply each time someone says “Hey, really, that sucks, don’t talk about it!” then we’re saying “Oh, wow, sorry man, I didn’t think about the fact that you can [pick an option] block the chat/walk away/myriad other options. I’ll modify my behavior so that you don’t get offended.”

We all know that our schools are more interested in teaching us what to think than how to think (interesting perspective on this). We also know that, for many of the current generation, popular opinion and actions are based on a manipulative media machine (clicky!). Lastly, there’s the fact that, for most people, it is far easier to surround ourselves with those like us in thinking, attitudes, and actions — which means that we’re unaccustomed to hearing, debating, or listening to dissenting opinions (echo chambers). Any dissenting opinions, especially those posed online, are soundly debated with media-provided soundbites, and usually in a vitriolic and offensive manner.

By living this way — by allowing ourselves to limit the input we receive — we are limiting our ability to operate in a society. See, society demands compromise; compromise is the beginning of cooperation. When I was a Realtor, we had a saying: “The best sale is the one where both people walk away feeling like they gained something great and gave up something they didn’t want to give up.” This means that both parties won and lost equally and is the goal we worked for. In society, however, that seems to be skewed — one party must give everything up in order to satisfy the other party. In yesterday’s example, everyone else in the guild chat was expected to give up their free and spontaneous conversation in the main chat room in order to satisfy those who were unwilling to simply block the speakers, or turn off (temporarily!) the chat window.

This ain’t reality, and it reminds me of raising my kids. How many times did I have to explain to them that what they thought should be often wasn’t representative of reality and that, in order to operate successfully in reality, they really needed to realign their thinking? I taught them that it was important to listen more than they speak but, also, when they felt it was important, they needed to understand they had both the right and the responsibility to speak up for what they felt strongly about. I won’t lie, it’s a delicate balance to maintain, but it is necessary, unless you wish to become a hermit and never interact with people again.

If we, as a society, have become afraid to speak up and out for what we believe in because other people can’t manage and mitigate their own responses, what does that mean for the future of our society? Have you read 1984?

What I got a strong sense of yesterday was loss; loss of an interesting conversation, loss of the ability to spontaneously hold interesting conversations without fear, loss on the part of the people who refused to countenance changing their behaviors in order to create the environment they wanted. And a larger loss; this, this game environment? It was a microcosm. A small sampling of what’s happening in our society. If this is common in this microcosm, what must it be on the larger scale? Oh, wait, I can see that easily on social media — how many friendships have been destroyed because people would rather scream for someone to shut up than actually responsibly debate them? I really feel this is a loss at the societal level; how many great ideas are lost because people are now afraid to speak?

But it was the overall message of “Don’t expect to be able to speak freely” and “We’ll protect and coddle the whiners, but you who’re obviously able to think for yourselves? You get no help, no protection — we don’t want to encourage you!” that I found most disappointing. I actually halfway hoped I’d log in today and have been removed, based on my support for the original conversationalists. I still have issues with this, because I do still recognize that we’re all paying the same amount for an enjoyable game session. But I can’t help but feel more strongly that we should be protecting the rights of people to speak — in clear, respectful, compassionate, courteous language — rather than protecting the rights of people who don’t want to “be offended,” but who also refuse to take simple steps to protect their own happiness.

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