On Monday, I wrote about homophobic language in Battlefield 3. I thought I had sufficiently unpacked the words I quoted from the game’s multiplayer dialogue in order to make my point clear.
Unpacking bias in language is about context and association. It’s basically a semiotic exercise, pulling sentences apart and figuring out what the words mean underneath the words themselves. It’s slow and tedious and often frustrating, and I had thought not to belabor the point any more than necessary.
I erred in the wrong direction, because people seem to think the lines “I’m getting fucked up the arse over here!” and “Fuck, I’m getting my shit pushed in here!” in Battlefield 3’s multiplayer are expressing fear of rape instead of homophobia. Before I explain why that’s not the case, some background is in order.
I am white, male and straight. I am the definition of cultural privilege in the United States. Social justice activists like to argue that bias affects everyone, but I maintain a sneaking suspicion that’s more theory than reality. I could, at any moment, decide to pay absolutely no attention to the racism, sexism, or homophobia embedded in the culture and language around me, and my life would not change one whit. It takes effort for me to notice prejudice because I have to look for it. I suspect my efforts at being sensitive to prejudice are why I finally realised how this dialogue in Battlefield 3 was homophobic.
If you would like to argue that the soldiers in Battlefield 3‘s multiplayer are conveying fear of being raped in general, which is not homophobic, versus fear of being raped by men, which is decidedly homophobic, you are arguing that they are expressing fear of being raped by someone other than a man. In other words, you are arguing that they may be expressing fear of being raped by a woman in this specific context.
Technically, those lines could be referring to men and women. Anal sex is not strictly a gay activity. That is absolutely correct. However, in American culture, anal sex is linked to or often representative of gay sex. Saying that anal sex is a homophobic reference in this specific instance and context is not the same thing as saying that all anal sex is gay sex.
Someone asked me why I didn’t address the “cocksucker” lines when calling out Battlefield 3‘s homophobic multiplayer dialogue. “Somebody kill these cocksuckers!” or words to that effect is another one of the homophobic lines one might hear during a match. That’s a very clear example of homophobia because cocksucker, when used as an insult by one man against another man, is a gender-specific insult that unpacks into “Sucking cocks is bad.”
Maybe I should have brought that line up instead of declining to do so out of fear of beating the reader over the head with my point. To argue that the lines “I’m getting fucked up the arse over here!” and “Fuck, I’m getting my shit pushed in here!” have nothing to do with homophobia when they are happening in the same space if not simultaneously with lines about wanting to “kill cocksuckers” is absurd. The reason why you cannot make the argument that these soldiers are only complaining about not wanting to be raped and remove homophobia from the equation is because in order to do so, you have to remove these lines of dialogue from the entire context in which they are set.
Language doesn’t work like that. Context matters.
If you want to understand what these lines of dialogue mean, you cannot isolate them from the fact that they are being issued by members of an organisation which is institutionally homophobic, hence why Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is a relevant context for analysis. Part of homophobia is fear on the part of straight men that gay men will not be able to control their sex urges and express sexual interest in them. This is why homophobic straight men get uncomfortable with the idea of sharing intimate space like showers, locker rooms — or military units — with “queers.” You also can’t refuse to hold these lines of Battlefield 3 multiplayer dialogue up to that contextual lens, either, if you want to argue that you fully understand what they mean.
There is one other frequent response to Monday’s article that I’d like to address, namely that I am being over-sensitive. Having identified to you as being solidly outside the boundaries of where the injury from this sort of prejudice falls I hope I’ve blunted that idea in large part already. But then there’s my love of the word cocksucker. It can leap out of my mouth during a match of Battlefield 3 when someone snipes me from 100 yards away, or when I’m about to drop an M320 grenade into a crowd of enemy players and someone else runs me over with a tank. “That fucking cocksucker!” I might yell out, much to the amusement of the group of guys I play first person shooters with on Xbox Live.
One night my friend Scott joined the Party Chat of my virtual band of brothers. I held off on the use of my favourite curse word because Scott is gay. I chose to be sensitive and not use a word that might have made him feel uncomfortable. I cringed every time someone in my Party said “That gun is so gay” when they were killed by a weapon which they felt was unbalanced, or “Someone kill this fag that just shot me.” I have to recognise that I was just as responsible for my friends’ language that night as they were, because it means fuck-all not to use the word cocksucker when Scott was around if I am going to use it when he isn’t.
This isn’t about being over-sensitive, but just sensitive. In the process of calling out the homophobic language in Battlefield 3‘s multiplayer I was calling myself out, as well, for my love of the word cocksucker and how profligate I can be with its use. Even if I’m only doing so within a closed Xbox Live Party chat, the simple humanity of not using that word shouldn’t go away just because no one who might be offended is around to hear it. Whenever we use or turn a blind eye to homophobic language we encourage its use. It’s difficult now for me to chide my friends when they call someone a fag in Battlefield 3, even if that person will never hear them say it, because my love of the word cocksucker has helped create an environment where the use of that language is sanctioned. By not discussing the homophobic language in Battlefield 3‘s multiplayer, we help create an environment where said language is sanctioned, as well.
Even if you remain unconvinced for whatever reason, and don’t consider these lines homophobic, consider that since I published that article on Monday I’ve heard from plenty of gay men who do, and they are thrilled that someone with all the privilege in the world, who has no reason to pay attention to any of this, did. They’re thrilled because if a gay man were to have brought this revelation forward, people could and would have dismissed it out of hand. Instead, because it was me, a conversation got started. And even if you’re not convinced, at least you’re thinking about it.
Then consider that Battlefield 3 fans who are gay are forced to listen to language which some of them consider homophobic and which is entirely unnecessary to support the design of the game. The way I stop myself from using the word cocksucker even though I adore it so much is by reminding myself what it means in the context I use it, and what the consequences are of doing so. I wonder how Scott would feel if he were there to hear me say it. Then it’s easier to put the word down. I can use other words. So could DICE in Battlefield 3’s multiplayer. In fact, they did.
There is plenty of multiplayer dialogue triggered by the suppression mechanic which could not possibly have anything to do with homophobia and which is just as effective at letting us know our squad mates are receiving suppressive fire and need our help. Sure, the homophobic dialogue might be realistic, but there are plenty of things about war which are equally realistic which we would never want to depict in a military first person shooter. I’m suggesting the homophobia of soldiers is one of them.
Ours is not to decide whether someone shouldn’t be offended by something but to acknowledge that they are, and then decide whether or not we want to exercise a little compassion.