Words Have Meaning Dammit

I just read this post, a pretty well written one, talking about the trash lady from Deus Ex: Human Revolution. He contends that the character in question is not racism. He is only correct on a technicality, but his reasoning has me boiling.

See, he argues that racism requires intentionality. [These sentences have been removed until they can be corrected properly.] Then he goes too far.

Several times he gives examples that show words have no meaning without intention, but he removes all context so that there could be no intention. He says he calls a woman he loved “Chief” being that she is not an American Indian she it is just a cute little nickname. He is perfectly right in this respect. The word has no meaning outside of that connotation, BECAUSE she is not a Native American. Likewise earlier in the piece he says that the character’s use of “Capt’n” is only affix the racist term to it because it is spoken by a black woman, but has no connotation when on a cereal box with an old white man. Again since context is removed and therefore meaning is removed, that somehow means that the word has no meaning. I hate to burst your bubble, but should you put it back into context the uninsulting word becomes insulting.

I will use a less charged example to show my point. In Mass Effect 2 the main character’s name is Shepard. He partakes in missions titled A House Divided (Mark 3:25, Matthew 12:25), The Prodigal (Luke 11), Eye for an Eye (Matthew 5:38), Sins of the Father (Deuteronomy 24:16 or Leviticus 26:39). In case you haven’t noticed there is a very strong biblical theme running throughout the whole game with the player cast in the role of a Sci-Fi military Jesus. Through him all your squad mates shall be healed. The thing is the parentheticals are my additions. The mission names are just phrases or noun phrases that mean nothing by themselves. They are words plastered on the screen. They are imbued with meaning because I know something about Christianity and the Bible. You don’t even have to know that much because these are well known phrases, known to be biblical though the first one is probably more famous coming from Abraham Lincoln now. Is it everywhere in the game? No, but in most places. (Suddenly it makes more sense that Shepard mother is mentioned throughout the game but not his father.) Does the game have any of that? No, but it is there because it was placed there with the understanding Bioware’s audience could connect some mental dots.

Nothing exists without context in our world. Some comedians make their living off of simply repeating verbatim famous quotes or well-known scenes in new contexts. In fact all comedy is reliant on having some foreknowledge or understanding for something to be funny. Which brings me to the most misleading arguments of the entire piece.

He bookends the piece with a story of him as a baby that would howl should he ever be held by a black person’s hands. It ends with a story of him helping in a Madagascar clinic where the baby’s would have the same reaction when he held them. This is not proof that babies are racist or that the baby’s actions are racist or even that the actions have no meaning because they have no intention. Yes the baby has no intention of being offensive if it even knows what offensive is or hurt is beyond physical discomfort. In fact that uneasiness of the parents in both sets of circumstances is an example of us ascribing more to the moment with our own world knowledge than is inherent in the moment itself. But this is not because the action is without meaning, it’s because it is without meaning because it is without context. A baby has limited to no context of the world. I am no pediatrician or infant psychologist, but I feel pretty confidant is saying it’s not the skin color itself that is scaring the infant or any cultural connotations therein, but the fact that the skin is just different. Mommy and Daddy’s skin looks like this and this is not that color, this is a stranger, I want Mommy is along the lines you as an infant and the baby you held in the clinic were thinking. They have no context of the world. They don’t know what apartheid, the North Atlantic triangle, Rwanda, Imperialism, Jim Crow or who Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela or Malcolm X are. That comes with time.

The baby has limited context of the world and no context beyond anything relating to itself. The synthesis you create in the piece by introducing and concluding with these circumstances is to compare video games or any artistic work with a baby. Newly dropped into the world with no context for anything and just a thing that exists. And were the game designed by a baby that would be true, but it was not. It was designed by a large group of adults spending a lot of time going over every detail not just to see if it looks good but to make sure it works as intended and doesn’t break. These are intelligent people who are aware of the world. Deus Ex and Mass Effect and all other video games are a byproduct of the massive amount of blood, sweat and tears of the designers specifically to produce something.

Now does that mean a racist image or character or line in a work is bad. Not inherently. It’s all about context. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was recently censored in a certain reprint to remove the N word from the character of the escaped slave Jim’s name. Why? Because it’s racist. Yes it’s racist, but it isn’t racism. Mark Twain used it as part of the culture of the time and used it to humanize the character by highlighting the degradation and humiliation black of the south went through by attaching it to his name. Finn himself at the end of the book recognizes the inherent wrongness of it and Jim’s treatment. The book is very anti-racism and does it by using a racist slur. Context matters.

Before anything, we must admit that to simply depict something is not to endorse it.

BULLSHIT. Yes it does or they wouldn’t have made it or changed their names in the credits to Alan Smithy thereby disavowing the work. A creator, by making something and releasing it to the world is standing by their work. All parts of it. Mark Twain stood by Huckleberry Finn, Bioware stands by Mass Effect and Edios Montreal stands by Deus Ex: human Revolution.

Are the developers guilty of racism? No. Are they guilty of having put something racist in their game? Yes. Still not a problem, but the problem comes from as you say:

One talks with Letitia not to discover social insights into sub-species differentiation but to figure out where to go next and what to do there. The game is built like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces require a scavenger hunt. Objectives are unambiguous: break in to building X, go find person Y, bring object Z somewhere else. The puzzle is in discovering the prompts.

It’s because she has no other purpose than to be a means to an objective that it is a problem. There is no context other than the cultural knowledge that we bring to the game. There is no context as to why this character is unique to anyone else in the game other than her speech and mannerism. Not her class or her situation that others share. You said this was “before anything else, an aesthetic choice.” What did that aesthetic choice convey? Without any further context in the game, nothing concerning the game at all.

I am quite willing to chalk this up to Edios Montreal being idiots and leave it at that. Same with Capcom and Resident Evil 5. Massive, massive idiots. But you, you are the dangerous one here. I would not have stepped in were it not for you peddling of your anti-intellectualism garbage. Maybe it was unintentional. I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt that YOU did not know what you were doing. Words have meaning, the meaning we give them. And you cannot change the meaning of a word by yourself. Only a society can do that, because words are creations of a society. They are thoughts made audible or in the case of writing physical. They are the purist distillation of the mind that a human can create. To say or promote otherwise is an insult to any person still willing to use their mind. Some things change meaning when they changed contexts. Look up the word “set” if you don’t believe me. But some words are so powerful, so strong they create the context for everything else. The same goes for images and cultural conceits. If I may use a video clip to show what I mean in the visual realm:

Meanings can change, be co-opted, disappear and so forth. But do not tell me there is no meaning. Art would not, could not exist without prior understanding and meaning. I focus on this example from your article because each of your examples are not equivalent. They all have different context and say different things to different effects. But they all do saying something all by themselves. You cannot say otherwise without perpetuating a lie.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *