I’d like to share an anecdote from a Dungeons and Dragons game I ran a few years ago.
The group of player-character adventurers was attending an aristocrat’s ball. Their goal was to ingratiate themselves with the rich dilettante hosting the ball, to gain passage on his flying whale-cum-airship to their next destination.
The six adventurers were well-placed to gain the aristocrat’s favor, having rescued one of his associates in a previous quest and having spent some of their loot on making sure they didn’t look out of place in the airship hangar full of old money. The party was a motley bunch at best—a well-spoken robot psychic, a clumsy dragonborn warrior, a bloodthirsty wood elf archer, a pompous high elf mage, a grim minotaur soldier, and a quietly regal shaman from a race of shapechangers with ties to rats and ravens—but they gave it the good D&D try.
And the moment the shapechanger tried to speak to that nobleman, he glared in the direction of the two elves and the robot and barked, “Control your livestock!” The rest of the brief conversation transpired between the three “civilized”-looking characters and the nobleman, with the more “monstrous” dragonborn, shapechanger, and minotaur cowed and silent.
The players controlling those characters were, then, too taken aback by the force of the rebuke their characters received to contest it, either in-game or out-of-game. They simply accepted that they would be excluded from this particular plot point, and dallied with their smartphones until they would again have a meaningful way to contribute to their party’s benefit. But what if they hadn’t been?
The aristocrat’s racism was not something I’d thought about in advance. It came unbidden in a moment’s improvisation, perhaps as a not-entirely-conscious effort to keep from having to juggle six conversations at once. It wasn’t presaged with prior information about his behavior, it wasn’t an established feature of the region’s culture (which none of the PCs were from), and it wasn’t something the characters had encountered before. Just spontaneous, unexpected bigotry cutting those players out of part of the adventure, to no discernible benefit to them or to the plot, with no obvious means of escape and the promise of ruining the negotiations and wrecking everyone else’s fun if their characters protested.
Did I mention that all three of those players were at least one letter of QUILTBAG?
So they grit their teeth and waited, and eventually the entire group fell apart, to be replaced by an almost wholly new set of players and characters.
I don’t know what I would have done if one or more of them had taken me aside or written an Email explaining that being subjected to such random, intractable discrimination with no way to even wreak an escapist revenge on its in-game source was too close to home. I don’t know how I would have reacted if they had told me that encountering unanswerable bigotry in their shared fantasy world was not a gratifying bit of “realism” or “local color” for them to gawk at and walk past, but a hard shove directly into wounds both old and fresh. I don’t know how I would have taken it if they had told me that letting down their public defenses enough to enjoy a friendly gathering only to receive the same kind of othering that they receive while out and about in our sickeningly bigoted world was the exact opposite of the experience they wanted, and that they had no reason to seek out environments where they would be so treated, even in the guise of roleplaying game personas. It was a long time ago, and I’ve learned a lot since then.
I only wish I’d learned it before most of them stopped talking to me.
This experience is the core of why I’m so deeply mystified by the chorus of dolts and sociopaths who vociferously shout that avoiding triggering people in creative works is a bad idea.
I get it. I used to be one of those reflexive defenders of my own “artistic integrity” against all comers. I used to instinctively regard any criticism of a creative work of mine as a censorious attack. I thought myself so distinctly inspired and idiosyncratic that no one could improve what I had created, least of all the unwashed masses who couldn’t be expected to even understand it. I understand the benign version of the mindset that hears “Maybe you could tell stories that don’t romanticize abusive relationships” and receives “I’m going to arrange for a squadron of jackbooted librarians wielding scissors and white-out to make sure that your glorious opus never sees the light of day.” I’ve had teachers tut-tut behind me when I opined how tragic it was that my distinctive “style” wouldn’t survive their exhortations to not be so goddamn wordy. I lived it.
I lived it, and thanks to that I know from behind the curtain just how obnoxiously, pretentiously elitist it sounds.
Not to mention how monstrously callous.
I like to think that, even in the darkest cavern of my adolescent arrogance, if someone told me that a story I read aloud to my high-school creative writing club set off flashbacks to a time when someone tormented them, took their agency away and made them beg for escape, and turned them loose knowing that most people who heard about it would either disbelieve them or tell them they brought that monstrosity on themselves, and that even those who meant to help them would ask them to relive that nightmare over and over again, and that millions of other people would experience that same microcosm of horror and pain if they came across that piece as-is…that if I could have achieved the same literary end without subjecting people to that trauma, I would have. In a heartbeat.
But some people would rather fling that knife around, daring other people to try to “censor” their thrusts and jabs. Some people would rather claim that the psychological injuries they inflict on people are their victim’s fault, for not avoiding such callousness more effectively. As though it were up to us to not get stabbed, and not on them to not stab. Some people would rather insist that it’s a greater harm to alter one’s creative output in response to the fact that it’s hurting people than to remind and reinforce the second-class status of millions in the name of “artistic integrity.”
Some people would rather act like I was looking for someone to remind me how far Hispanic people still have to go when my favorite post-apocalyptic absurdist cartoon presented me with its two Latino cast members: a battered concubine in a gimp mask whose only appearances are as a servant presenting the other characters with burritos and as a mangled corpse; and a cockroach with a Speedy Gonzales accent. Who tastes like quesadillas.
I’m pretty sure it’s not vital to the story of Apocalypse Lane that the characters are all white people (even the aliens, robots, and sentient animals), except for minorities that appear as racist comic-relief sidekicks or otherwise well-conceived series villains.
So why is it okay that they did that? Why is it “censorship” to suggest that that wasn’t a well-thought-out decision on the part of its creators? Why is it “censorship” to suggest that, next time around, they maybe put a few women in the cast who aren’t manipulative liars with hidden agendas or shrieking harpies with magnificent kitchen skills?
Why is it “censorship” to suggest that artists give this issue some thought next time they’re telling a story, so we don’t get yet another creative work that just flat-out forgets to deal fairly with people who aren’t straight white men?
Why is it “censorship” to suggest that maybe we as content consumers should care about these things, even if they don’t personally affect us? Why is it “censorship” to suggest that people should look for and prefer content that doesn’t prop up racism, sexism, pro-religious bias, and other oppressions, instead of passively accepting whatever trickles their way from its sacrosanct creators?
I don’t think the friends I subjected to that racist aristocrat in a flying whale hangar would have thought of me not making their escape from the pressures of their reality look just like that same reality as “censorship.”
I think they would have thought of it as basic fucking decency.