Do We Gloss Over Questionable Media, Or Engage?

Is any piece of media entirely without flaws? I’d argue no — even that explicitly developed, created, and designed with an awareness of social issues. It’s impossible to please all of the people all of the time, and no creator should feel constrained by that mandate, although it would be quite nice if creators would try harder to think about social issues and the messages they’re sending with their work. Often, it seems like we’re fighting an endless uphill battle when it comes to pushing both consumers and creators of pop culture to reframe their attitudes.

Some media are more dubious than others. The popular game Cards Against Humanity marks a particularly interesting tipping point (and that was before the game’s creator, Max Temkin, was accused of rape and responded in a particularly terrible style, which is an issue I’ll get to in a moment). The game, billed as a party game for horrible people, is basically a no-holds-barred version of Apples to Apples, and it gets rather brutal. Users lay down a prompt card, while others respond with filler cards, and the results can be raunchy, awful, and highly dubious.

Before the rape accusations, I was a huge fan of the game, because it has a particular brand of dark humour that appeals to me. One of my ways of dealing with the experiences I’ve had involves making them into jokes and creating a sort of insider humour, which means I’ve always been careful about who I play the game with and where, but I’ve often enjoyed it. Especially since by the time I acquired a set of cards, the creators had removed a number of the more tasteless and offensive entries, adjusting it from a bunch of juvenile college boy jokes into something with a tad more sensitivity — though it’s worth noting that the game was and is still based on humour that’s rooted in privilege, and that in order to play it, I have to subvert that.

I have friends, however, who hate the game, refuse to play it, and cringe when it’s mentioned. It isn’t their kind of humour, and they feel deeply uncomfortable with it — they may feel targeted by the humour of the game, it’s not quite their particular flavour of dark humour, or for whatever reason, they dislike it. Some feel that the game is designed to make players feel like they’re assuring the rest of the group that they aren’t horrible people, in a sort of complicated dance around the cards and their answers where people play things so outrageous and so discomfiting that they have to be jokes, right? It’s a game that, in this sense, abounds with hipster -isms, with people playing around a central theme of trying to act cool around legitimate social issues.

Both of these readings of the game, along with lots of other socially-aware discussions, are totally valid and an important part of the discussion. (I am ignoring, for the purpose of focusing the discussion on engagement with pop cultural among progressives and liberals, people who unabashedly love the game and think it’s fantastic without any awareness of or interest in the social issues involved — the very frat boys it was designed for, in other words.) What’s not so valid, though, is playing it without engaging with it; declaring oneself progressive and yet loving it, and saying that it’s your guilty pleasure or personal weakness or whatever term you feel like using.

It’s perfectly reasonable to like dubious media. But what’s less reasonable is the tendency to gloss over it, rather than engaging, to act as though ignoring it is okay if you’re socially aware in every other sphere. Cards Against Humanity, our example for the purpose of discussion, is a game with a number of deep, serious issues. Pretending that these issues aren’t present is a disservice both to the players and to the game itself. Engaging with those issues deepens your relationship to the game, to the people who play it, and to the conversations about it — my ability to address the issues means that I can have conversations with people who refuse to play it where I respect their distaste for the game (and don’t try to argue them out of their position).

A refusal to accept that all media has problems, and a lack of interest in taking a closer look at those problems, is the hallmark of someone who isn’t willing to do some closer self-examination. Everything we engage with matters, and everything we do comes with messaging and experiential programing. As someone who wants the world to be a better place, and who works towards that end, I have to be conscious not just about the media I choose to engage with (I do not, for example, read Isaac Asimov or support his work in any way, shape, or form), but the media I consume. If I pretend that everything I consume is all kittens and rainbows, with no flaws or room for examination, it illustrates a profound desire to be a good person — but a lack of interest in understanding what that means.

The story with Cards Against Humanity has an added element of complexity, thanks to the rape accusation. In general, I do not support media produced by people accused of actions I think are unconscionable, such as rape, murder, and child molestation. Yet, what do I do when I already own that media? How do I engage with it in social settings? I don’t want to pass it on to someone else, thereby perpetuating the trend, and I don’t necessarily want to play it, thinking of the creator’s actions and how they undoubtedly influenced the creation of some of his cards. That leaves me with a big black box gathering dust on the game shelf, and a new round of thoughts about how what we do with media influences not just the public, but its own creators.

We shouldn’t be rewarding horrible people — even when they design party games that some of us think are fun.

Image: Improv Against Humanity, Faruk Ate?, Flickr.