On Tolerance in SL (with some help from Slavoj Žižek)

One of the concepts upon which we all seemingly build our existence and activity in Second Life is tolerance. To some extent, this concept works: it allows avatars from all sorts of different walks of life and backgrounds (cultural, religious, ethnic, national) to exist in SL, as long as they don’t get into an uncomfortably close range from others who might be disturbed by what they stand for. So, it allows me to exist in SL in the form I possess, as long as I stay away from regions that are hostile to latex fetishists. Or as long as I make sure I exit even a region that is not hostile to latex fetishists (even if the region is rated “Mature” or “Moderate”) just in case someone might feel “offended” by my latex form and/or my display name (I have some personal experience on this and I’ll elaborate on this in an upcoming post) and file an abuse report against me.

So, exactly what is this “tolerance” that is so often touted as one of Second Life’s virtues? And is it really a virtue? This is what got me thinking and I ended up reading what Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek (“the most dangerous philosopher in the West”) has to say on the matter. This article, titled “Why Tolerance Is Not A Virtue” is what drew my attention. In the tolerant world of Second Life, you can be just about anything: homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, transvestite, a shemale, a demon, a latex drone, a gimp, an alien, a robot – as long as you stay away from those who might feel “offended” by  your existence in the virtual world. Of course, far be it from me to condone abhorrent “preferences” such as Dolcett/snuff/guro, paedophilia (masquerading in SL as “ageplay”) or zoophilia (let’s face it: there’s nothing consensual in zoophilia and paedophilia and even in BDSM-related circles, the outrageous practices of Dolcett, snuff and guro don’t conform to RACK or SSC), or criminal ideologies such as nazism, racism and fascism. But the whole concept of “tolerance” is basically an answer to the wrong question and a provision that does not provide the right tools for coexistence.

Žižek reminds us that Martin Luther King Jr. never used the word “tolerance” in his speeches. He says “[f]or him (and he was right) it would have been an obscenity to say white people should learn to tolerate us more.” Think about it. What was the goal of the Civil Rights Movement? Was it an appeal to liberal magnanimity or was it a movement that demanded equity (including economic)? And, at least in Žižek’s views, tolerance is a retreat from this very demand. When Martin Luther King Jr. marched to Washington, D.C., did he say “learn to live with us”, or something else?

One hundred years [after the Emancipation Proclamation], the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.

Now think about the situation in SL, with its attempts to become “SFW” (Safe For Work). We have G-rated (General) regions, we have M-rated (Mature) regions and we also have A-rated (Adult) regions – and we also have SL’s demand that all profiles be G-rated (the latter policy is not only never enforced, but it’s also utterly stupid, because we all sign up in SL to be what we want to be and usually can’t be in RL – and this also includes our sexual and romantic desires). In the current context, someone with a sexually-oriented display name could very easily find themselves on the business end of an abuse report if they teleport (even accidentally) to a G-rated region and someone (usually a morbidly obese, lazy-ass, Dorito-munching puritan “lady” from the Bible Belt who roleplays as a Skank-O-Matic 2000 in-world, but her own promiscuity is absolutely OK; it’s others that must be banned) takes offence. The avatar with the “offensive” (I am using quotation marks because most of the time these reports are filed against people who just want to have some harmless fun) display name is generally allowed to exist in SL. They can travel to M- and A-rated regions; but they just have to stay away from G-rated regions.

I’m going to quote Žižek once more: “The liberal idea of tolerance is more and more a kind of intolerance. What it means is ‘Leave me alone; don’t harass me; I’m intolerant towards your over-proximity.” In SL, this over-proximity is translated as “stay out of the region where I’m at”; mind you: By “region” I do not mean the “offended” person’s owned virtual land (where the “offended” would have every right to eject and ban anyone for any reason at all). No. It’s the region (oftentimes M-rated and sometimes even A-rated!) where the “offended” may be shopping or clubbing. A region that does not belong to the “offended”, but to someone else. So, we have the “offended” person try to get Linden Lab to enforce the “offended” person’s worldview and morals on the “offensive” avatar and, if you want, the owner of the region where the “offended” saw the “offensive” (i.e. with a sexually-oriented display name, or perhaps in a not-quite-modest state of dress or undress) avatar.

I’m pretty sure everyone who is involved in “adult-themed” communities and goes around SL in a form reflecting their particular desires and fantasies has, at one point or another, had the “opportunity” to “enjoy” some drama from a (tolerant) user who took offence at their attire, profile entries or display name. And this shows us exactly where LL and its entire user base have got it all wrong.

When you go out and market (intensively, mind you – even publications you’d never imagine, such as Greek ultra-conservative newspaper “Kathimerini”‘s weekly bundled magazine titled “K” gave extensive promotional coverage to SL) your virtual world as a place where users can be who or what they want to be, you grant them a right, which, in this virtual world you have created and market so heavily and intensively, becomes inalienable. And then you water it down with the concept of “tolerance” and all the bowdlerization (the ridiculous, pathetic and vain attempt to make SL “SFW”) that keeps going on in SL.

Tolerance is a gift that we give (or not) to someone. I tolerate, for instance, a female friend who keeps watching those stupid Turkish soap operas with their promotion of misogynistic views, honour crimes and their crappy scenarios and screenplay. I tolerated a boyfriend (in RL) who snored heavily. I tolerate the men in my social circle who talk about football (soccer for U.S. readers) all the time, even though it bores me to tears.

Rights, on the other hand, are inalienable. This is where both Linden Lab and the user base have failed to make a distinction. Then again, distinguishing between the two requires some conscious thought – exactly how many people out there can be bothered with that?

Perhaps, however, many people felt that LL’s policies have made their experience not worth their investment (of money and time). I sometimes think that the continuing decline of rented regions in SL is not only because of the double-dip (to me, it looks more like a quadruple-dip) recession going on in the world economy, but also because of what LL is doing regarding how it treats its user (customer) base, a user base that is predominantly adult.

I’m going to close this article by commenting on LL’s obsession with “turning SL into a SFW internet experience”. This is complete and utter bullshit and there’s no polite way of presenting it. Unless your job is to design, implement and/or manage your RL work’s presence in SL, SL will never be “Safe For Work”, because when your boss catches you goofing off at work in the virtual world or looking at SL-related blogs and websites that have nothing to do with your work, it won’t matter if you were looking at “prim titties” or SL porn or if you were looking at art installations organized by the Linden Endowment for the Arts: you’re going to, at the very least, get reprimanded – at worst, you’re going to get fired. And it’s going to happen because you were goofing off instead of working and this made you (look like) a lazy moron who doesn’t care about his or her job. Whether the top brass at LL like it or not is not my problem – it’s reality.


Shortlink: http://wp.me/p2pUmX-C


2 thoughts on “On Tolerance in SL (with some help from Slavoj Žižek)

  1. Interesting post; one which takes time to absorb. However, there are two issues (as in points of discussion, not points of contention ;-)) which I can immediately see here.

    The first is that SL itself is a curious mix. On the one hand, its gives people the freedom to ben and do what they want (as long as they keep within the ToS – which is itself pretty broad). They can express themselves through choice of avatar, what they do in SL, what they create (again, bearing in mind borader issues such a IP. etc.), where they go and what they do. The medium makes itself for an incredibly broad range of self-expression which simply is not possible in many respects in real life.

    BUT – and as people often remind one another – SL is bounded by the fact that it involves “real people” behind the screen. This means that inevitably, SL is going to be constrained by a wide range of external influences – religious, social, political, and so on – which are going to inevitably complicate any interactions which occur in-world at some point or another. And sadly, this does mean that all-too-human prejudices will be enountered by many within their chosen role in SL.

    Given this, the question becomes how does one respond? By showing a similar “lack” of tolerance? By withdrawing to another place? There are pros and cons to both – which is why this is such a huge topic for discussion.

    A side issue to this also occurs: when someone dresses in what might be seen as being unnecessarily provocative / deliberately sexual / faunting a fetish/deviance – fill this in howsoever you like – and then goes to a region denoted as General or Moderate – they are not themselves exhibiting a form of intolerance towards others in the same region who might not be anticipating encountering such a display?

    It can cut both ways.

    The other aspect of the article which pokes at me is the idea that LL are trying sweep away adult content and make SL “SFW”. This is an idea that has been circulating for years, and which gained prominence during the development of Zindra.

    Yet adult activities continue to thrive in SL. Adult remains the fastest-growing maturity rating for land in SL.

    The simple fact is that if LL were trying to contain / restrict / reduce adult activities in SL, they could have done so by now. Two of the easiest ways this could have been achieved would be by keeping “Adult” out of Search and the Desitnation Guide (and Adult was very much conspicuous by its absence in the original DG). Instead, they’ve made it easier to search for Adult goods in-world and on the Marketpalce, and they’ve promotioned Adult into the DG.

    Yes, some in LL might well be uncomfortable with a wide range of activities which come under the “Adult” banner, but this doesn’t mean they are pro-actively trying to remove it. This is again where RL impinges on SL. Where LL are trying to limit the exposures of Adult activities, it is probably more fair to say they are doing so because that is was society demands of them. Maturity ratings, defining a broad level of expected behaviour according to a region’s rating, etc.

    I personally think that in this regard, LL are very, well, tolerant, towards their community. Far more some than other platforms perhaps are.

    1. Thank You for Your comment. As has always been the case with Your posts, Your comment is very well-written. i’ll get to the issue of “making SL SFW”: unfortunately, LL has decided – it was a deliberate decision, not a display of negligence – to not provide users with the option to set their profile’s rating by themselves (in stark contrast to Flickr, for instance – Flickr also provides extensive, comprehensive and easy to understand instructions for this) and, of course, protect themselves from the trigger-happy prudes.

      At any rate, it’s an issue that can spark quite a discussion. Let’s see. I’m only just starting to touch on Žižek’s approach (which seems to be influence by Lacan – whom I haven’t yet started to study).

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