Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Utility And Propriety Of Sardonic Responses

Quoth Amanda in reaction to a kerfuffle over at Penny Arcade:

3) That said, the guys at Penny Arcade responded in officially the worst possible way to respond. As Melissa correctly notes, they attacked strawmen, and this time they really did make light of rape. Jokes where you condemn rape in a sardonic tone really do imply that rape isn’t a big deal. In the time it took them to write the response, there were probably like 10 rapes in the U.S. alone. The cartoon implied that rape is less common than it is, that rape culture isn’t real, and that the whole subject is beneath you. This was tone deaf, sexist, and stupid.

That's a tremendously uncharitable interpretation, more or less the worst-possible reading of the cartoon, especially when you consider the nature of the accusation to which they were responding. Helpfully, Amanda characterizes the critique of the original comic as follows:

2) Someone at Shakesville takes offense. I found the blog post an annoying rationalization for disliking humor in general, which the blogger admits she does. I find the “but rape is real!” argument against jokes of this nature to be a disingenuous one. Slavery is also real, as is murder and general violence. But there’s no way that the blogger would have gotten mad about jokes in those veins, but a joke about a form of torture that is supposed to sound over the top and mystical got her into offended mode.

Milli A (from Shakesville) is arguing in bad faith that the folks at Penny Arcade are endorsing/trivializing rape, a fact of which said folks are apparently aware. Thus the contentious comic should be read as a response to an argument in bad faith addressed primarily to Milli A (and anyone else who might share eir opinion). The question, then, is whether Amanda's critique is valid in this light.

I tend to think not. Here's my reading of the meaning of each panel:

  1. It is irrational to interpret the previous comic as an endorsement of rape given its overall tone and contact. People who say otherwise are arguing in bad faith; they know it, we know it.
  2. Because you're arguing in bad faith we're not going to seriously engage your argument but respond with a sarcastic semi-rebuttal instead.
  3. Yes, we're assholes.

Their intent is not to "condemn rape in a sardonic tone". Rather, they're engaging in much the same critique as Amanda herself, calling bullshit on a bullshit argument. They're most certainly not setting up a strawman; by Amanda's own reckoning their representation of Milli A's position is accurate.

There is, of course, the secondary issue of whether their response was appropriate. There might have been a more productive way to go about rebutting the accusation, right? Once again I give you Amanda:

Well, Amanda, you might be asking, what were these guys supposed to do? That’s a good question. In all honesty, I think they should have ignored it and the whole thing would have blown over. I realize that’s really hard to do sometimes. And sometimes addressing concerns is a better idea. It really depends on the situation. But in this case, the critic comes right out and says she objects in a very general way to comedy. When you’re facing someone who condemns the entire genre you work in, I don’t really think there’s a possibility of communication there. It’s like trying to argue the finer points of a rap song to someone who says hip hop isn’t music. Explaining the joke isn’t going to work, either. Trying to make jokes about the joke will fail you as well---remember, your critic has made it clear that she finds comedy distasteful.

Their critic has also made it clear that ey thinks they are endorsing rape, a fairly serious accusation by any measure, and Amanda's advice to them is "Sit down, shut up, and hope it blows over?". Umm... no. Even if Milli A might not be moved by the power of their argument they can still sway observers to the conversation. Moreover, these same observers might interpret silence on the part of Penny Arcade as a tacit admission of guilt, so a reply is probably merited.

Was it appropriate to be "sardonic"? Yup... my rulebook says that you're not required or expected to engage earnestly with someone who is arguing in bad faith. The application of sarcasm, while no doubt satisfying in its own right, also does a public service by highlighting that someone is engaging in dishonest rhetoric. As Amanda points out this dishonest rhetoric does a grave disservice to rape survivors by casting them as "a group of women too delicate to even understand context and meaning".

1 Comments:

Blogger Weasel said...

Shakesville has become a joke. They have, within the last few years, become the PETA of feminism. The fact that someone got their knickers in a twist over something that, let's be blunt here, is nothing in the cosmic scheme of things just proves it.

I used to post there but I can't anymore. I lost all taste for the place when one poster decided to concern troll a dying nine year old's wishes. (Seems a little girl was dying of cancer and wanted to "marry" her best friend in a mock ceremony. The sheer handwringing over the "Shouldn't a girl want something more than this?" was too much for me. My brother-in-law died of cancer. If his last wish was to have visited the moon, I would have tried to accomodate him.)

That said, I almost hope they keep up this sort of response. Maybe one day they'll realize that they're part of the problem and not the solution.

1:11 PM  

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