Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Violence in (RPG) Communities (not another post about killing orc babies)

This is decidedly not a political post. It is a post about why I despise violence in all its forms, why we (maybe) need tolerated and ritualized forms of violence nonetheless and why the oxymoron "fictional violence" can tell you right there how stupid it is to think that describing or visualizing violence somehow actually is violence. It is a lot for one post. It is probably a difficult one as well, but it is heart-felt and I think we all could benefit from talking about what is acceptable in a community and what is not. The short of it is:

If you use violence against others, you are the problem. If you promote violence against others, you are part of the problem. Do good instead.

The quotes I'll use in this post (in italics) are from the Tao Te Ching to illustrate that those thoughts aren't new. We can know this. Actually, we have to go as far as ignoring it if our own selfish needs dictate otherwise. This also is very relevant to our hobby, as it happens far too often lately that I see people promoting violence or using verbal violence to achieve their goals, even justifying it more or less eloquently. I believe this to be toxic behavior. People using violence should be ashamed and change their ways. Here is why.

What is violence?
Those who advice the ruler on the Way,
do not want the world subdued with weapons.
Definition time! We need to know what we're talking about here. I'd like to go with the definition provided by the WHO (the link leads to a page with some research on violence, for those inclined to look deeper into this):
The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.

The definition used by the World Health Organization associates intentionality with the committing of the act itself, irrespective of the outcome it produces. Excluded from the definition are unintentional incidents – such as most road traffic injuries and burns.

The inclusion of the word ‘‘power’’, in addition to the phrase ‘‘use of physical force’’, broadens the nature of a violent act and expands the conventional understanding of violence to include those acts that result from a power relationship, including threats and intimidation. The ‘‘use of power’’ also serves to include neglect or acts of omission, in addition to the more obvious violent acts of commission. Thus, ‘‘the use of physical force or power’’ should be understood to include neglect and all types of physical, sexual and psychological abuse, as well as suicide and other self-abusive acts.
This is a lot to chew on already. Actually, I believe it covers all the bases. In the report this is quoted from, they go 380 pages into that topic. Here we'll just scratch the surface and only talk about those elements I deem interesting for what I think relevant (encouraging everyone to research as they desire and come to their own conclusions).

What that definition doesn't do is evaluating what violence does, what the consequences are and why, indeed, violence is something we need to get a grip on (the study does that, of course).

It also lacks the search for the origins of violence. But fear not, psychology has some answers there.

Agreeableness is a human trait ... and so is disagreeableness!
Those who praise victory relish manslaughter.
Those who relish manslaughter cannot reach their goals in the world.
"The science is clear on this one," as they say. It's the result of some really interesting statistic research that started in the 1920s and is still going on and is called The Big Five. It is a statistical taxonomy of personality traits using common language descriptors. Very well researched and very well worth the time you can sink into it, if you want to learn something about yourself (or others, actually), imo.

For this post we only need to talk about two aspects of this, though (and short, at that, but it is important for the whole picture):

(1) Having our nature defined like this, doesn't mean we will be able to actually live them. The traits might be in conflict with their (social) surroundings. Following the definition above, those conflicts are always some form of violence or another.

(2) In a sense, violence creates violence that way. Either you are very disagreeable and violence is the only tool you know and appreciate or violence is done to you because of one of your traits or you react to that abuse with more violence. It is a vicious circle like that.

Knowing this and realizing its full potential is the first step in understanding why people do what they do or who wants to do harm to others and why. As far as our communities are concerned, I'd like to point out that it is important to see that people are different and have different temperaments (believes, even) and go from there. A community should embrace the whole spectrum of it under the condition of moderated and fair discourse.

It is important to mention ritualized forms of violence in this context, I think. Although only tangentially (it's discussed further below). Since violence is very much a trait humans inherit, it is important for societies to implement ways to channel it. Martial Arts are the prime example here, as they embrace a philosophy in which discipline masters violence to a degree where it is no longer needed or even overcome. All forms of competition work that way. Laws work that way, come to think of it.

The point is, being potentially more aggressive than others, does not excuse acting violently towards others. Never. There are ways to learn restraint or let off steam in every civilization that is worth anything. People ignoring this because they get a kick out of it or because the end justifies the means or some such bullshit, just decided to be bad people.

It is also important to note that to the degree this can (will) exist unchecked in any society, it also tends to guise itself as taking the morale high ground. So this is another aspect how it relates to gaming communities (or as much as it relates to anything else, really).

People wanting to act violent will find ways to do so. The degree of excusing they need to do with it could be seen as an indicator how wrong their behavior actually is (or how healthy a community actually is). And yes, there still are societies out there where you don't need excuses at all. They are, however, in the minority. We should thank the gods for that.

Exchange without violence, that's what makes a community healthy and productive. To get there it needs acceptance, reflection and the option to change for the better.

Are there accepted forms of violence?
Those who defeat others are strong,
those who defeat themselves are mighty.
Here's what civilization and culture have come up with over the course of the last couple of thousand years: the state has the monopole on violence. It is basically the essence of what has been discussed here so far.  Let me point out the first, most obvious critique to this idea: what if the state is abusive and violent?

There is no easy answer to this, but there is a bail-out: it is an ideal and as such something a people should strife to reach. It doesn't give you any answers, though. Would violence be a means to overcome a violent state? Did any attempt in history ever result in anything but more violence in the long run? I'd say, no. I'd say, if everyone would just start with themselves, all would be for the better.

But I digress. Violent states it is right now. What can I say. A close look at history reveals that things really got better over time. Extreme poverty is declining, people become more and more aware of how important the environment is for our own survival ... The list goes on. If not for it's individuals, humanity as a collective might be on a good way.

However, as always, you have the mean or average to look at, and the extremes. And there definitely are harsh extremes in the margins, making their presence felt. Rape, torture, murder, all kinds of violence and abuse make headlines all the time. It's a challenge to address and face those in every community. The best way so far seems to be to have laws and authorities to enforce those laws.

Naturally, those authorities underly the same rules of having means and extremes. It is, as they say, the nature of the beast. Overall, however, you will find more evidence that authorities do an average to outstanding job than doing harm and although those systems will have drawbacks every now and then, they evolve over time, aiming for a better version.

So overall, it's definitely a good thing to have laws and authorities to enforce them. It's also a good thing to monitor, discuss and change the modalities under which they operate. There is always reason to optimize. Just imagine a world without any kind of "law and order". Better yet, research it. Happened a lot and it's always ugly. Really ugly.

For the rest? Well, society provides ways to compensate violet urges (both healthy and unhealthy, and to a changing degree from society to society). Some of it is ritualized, some of it institutionalized, some of it inherited or, say, a natural consequence of who we are.

The mix changes from region to region, from community to community, of course. However, as a constant you could say that western civilization as a whole made access to all kinds of collected knowledge in that regard very easy. All you need is access to the internet or a library and you can start researching to help yourself (or helping others). Most will even offer therapy if you recognize the problem and want to change it.

What is NOT violence?

What differentiates us naked monkeys from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to learn from abstract experiences. We can read a text or see a picture or a movie and we can emphasize. We can understand second hand feelings and ideally, it prepares us for the challenges we have to face in our own lives.

That is why stories and art have value. It's why they matter. They carry meaning and if we take the time to confront some unwelcome truths about life like that, there is no better way than the abstract and safe way fictional realms of all sorts offer. You will always be better for it.

Zen is one answer [source]
 Furthermore, having fun exploring those ideas (like you'd have when playing some FPS, for instance) is not the same as actually doing it. It's not even the same ballpark. Believe it, they try for decades now to pin that label on computer games and it just doesn't stick. There is no harm in playing games with fictional violence or reading or seeing fictional violence.

I've written at length about this just two months ago, so if you want to read more about my take on this aspect of the discussion, you can do so here.

As an aside (probably a whole point in its own right), the same goes for humor and comedy. I've heard just the other day a comedian say (I think it was Theo Von) that comedians are the "canaries in the coal mine" as far as the political climate of a society is concerned. If what they say (or draw or whatever form of expression they chose) is considered violence, a society is in deep shit. I believe this to be true.

Oppose violence, always
The forceful and violent will not die from natural causes.
Beware the people that find elaborate means to excuse violence. There are other, more civilized ways to solve problems and seeing a simple truth like that ignored should warn people that something is afoul.

It is difficult to distinguish the good from the bad "players" in a community and it is easy to fall for passionate ideological claims if they resonate with your fears well enough. It is tempting to use the shortcut and act aggressively to reach you goals as it is tempting to look away when others act that way. I know it. It's a fucking struggle.

But seriously, not trying to understand, not trying to be a better human being, is just as bad as using violence (in fact, neglect is a form of violence). All of it, the looking away, the calls to arms, the verbal abuse, all of it is doing harm to everyone and in the end, everyone loses. That's not what we should want in a community (or a society, for that matter).

Struggle. Be better. Educate yourselves. Help and understand each other. Seek dialogue before confrontation. And if you can stomach it, oppose violent behavior. However, the best way to oppose violent behavior is by acting good yourself and showing others how they can do the same.

You might think you don't have an impact like that, but you'd be wrong. Every little thing helps. A nice comment, a like or just resisting temptation and not engaging in a fight (digitally or otherwise). Do not applaud or condone violence ... Little things like that, done every day, will have a positive impact in your surroundings. It'll resonate and encourage others to do the same. If that's not worth struggling for, I don't know what is.

One last thing: if you find yourself to be a victim of abuse, you should always reach out for help, regardless if it is in the rpg community or elsewhere. That said, I'd like to encourage the idea that there is always a way to heal and overcome shit like that. You'll get stronger than you think if you get strong enough to have it never happening again.