Bullying and the Paradox of Tolerance

Content Warning: this post contains references to bullying, abuse, gatekeeping, body shaming, and contains strong language.

In the tabletop role-playing community there has always been the issue of bullying. I faced it many times while playing. Maybe more than others, because I have always been very vocal. Numerous times I have acted as the “lightning rod” to pull a bully’s attention away from another. Most importantly, when I see it, I call it out. I do not tolerate that kind of behavior at my table or in my life.

This is an issue which plagues the TTRPG community. We do not like to bring it up. There is a very basic reason for that. The TTRPG community has always been a “fringe” community. Despite the current popularity of D&D thanks in part to media like Stranger Things and Critical Role, TTRPGs have had a tendency to pull in people who just don’t fit in with mainstream culture. In essence, the players it attracts are people who have themselves been the target of social harassment because they are “different”. Because humans love to categorize other humans with binary logic, there is a mental breakdown within the TTRPG community that as a group who has been bullied for being “weird” or “different”, we in turn cannot be bullies.

[Please note: this is purely on the issue of bullying and harassment within the TTRPG community, and is not going to delve into other accusations or claims regarding Critical Role, a source of media that I personally do not consume. However, this particular issue is one I have been following, as it deals explicitly with an issue I have been fighting for decades.]

This does not logically follow. One does not cease to exist upon being the target of bullying or harassment. This is not like murder, where once a person is murdered, then that is it. They cannot in turn become a murderer after being murdered (yes, I know that they could have somehow set a bomb, etc., but arguably they already became in intent a murderer before their own demise). That is because their ability to do anything further has been stopped. Not so for the victim of bullying. They are not over. They can even actively be engaged in bullying when they themselves are being bullied.

Example from my real life: there were two kids in middle school who constantly made fun of me. We all played trumpet in band (I did not play it well, but I gave it my best). When one was behind me in the marching order he would make a point of hitting me in the back of my head with his trumpet’s bell every chance he got. They were not the popular kids. They were in turn picked on by other kids, but I was the “runt” (I was literally the shortest “boy” in my class every year after about 3rd grade). So I became their target. Their bullying led to my first “blow up”, when we were walking from the junior high building to the high school building (our band room was in the HS building) one day, one of them decided to push me off the path into some mud. I was wearing a brand-new pair of white sneakers. I lost it. I said horrible things that dare not be repeated in the heat of the moment. They didn’t get in trouble, because no adult claimed to have seen it. Then at lunch, they decided to further tease me. I then verbally attacked one of the boys and made fun of him because he was fat. Not my finest hour. That day ended their bullying of me. But in the moment I went for the one bully based upon his physical appearance like that, making a table full of thirteen year old boys laugh at his expense, I was a bully. I still feel bad about that moment.

Now, a lot of you may write off my actions. You may think that my actions were appropriate considering the bullying I was facing. Yes, what I did made the bullying stop. But it was not right. I use this example though to illustrate that being bullied does not stop one from being a bully or vice versa. My bullies were also being bullied by others, and then, in one instance of retaliation, the roles reversed and I became the bully.

Back to TTRPG space. We have a bullying problem. There is a reason why. For those who gravitate towards TTRPGs, they offer us an escape. A safe haven. We start to look at the people creating those games and associated media as if they are our friends. And we get VERY protective of the things that offer us comfort, especially for those of us who have had very little of that to spare. Add into this mix a vicious desire to actively dominate other people. Being the target of bullying and harassment does not erase the warped psychological need to dominate another. You wind up with local gaming groups that operate as cults of personality in miniature, with the person that controls the group making the decisions of what to play and when to play, and threatening anyone who defies their control with exile from the table.

And when you already feel like an exile and an outcast from the larger community?

Exile from what community you have found and feel a part of becomes devastating. You wind up even more willing to put up with the abuses and transgressions, because the alternative is that you are left absolutely alone. And if you happen to be other than a “man” in one of these groups, you wind up being used as sexual currency.

This is a massive problem, that we are only now starting to openly talk about within the community.

Now that we are to this point, I will address the Critical Role sized elephant in the room. Recently someone who has been very vocal regarding criticisms of Critical Role came forward with some claims. The most prominent of these was that fans of the program, or “critters”, had been mercilessly harassing them for years with a constant barrage of threats of physical violence, sexual violence, and death threats. Critical Role’s response was to launch an investigation, then release a public statement that amounts to, “We did nothing legally wrong in this situation. Don’t bully.”

So, where did Critical Role fail in the handling of this? I don’t know that they botched the roll, but I also don’t think they succeeded either. They allowed their fan-base to shift the issue from bullying to certain secondary claims made. The same fan-base that was being called out for carrying out online harassment campaigns. Critical Role allowed the more toxic element of critters to control the narrative. When you allow the extreme fringe of any group to control the narrative, it infects the rest of the group. Now, because of the soft-shoe “definitely advised by legal counsel on how to limit liability without alienating any of the existing fan-base” approach, the person who made the claims to begin with is being deluged by even more critters on the basis of attacking the thing they loved and being a liar-liar pants-on-fire.

Critical Role further exacerbated the situation by not taking a more aggressive position. By not saying, “If you are engaged in bullying, harassing, dog-piling, name calling, or in any way attacking those who criticize Critical Role, you are not welcome in our space,” they have enabled that toxic environment. By not saying, “We are a business. If something needs our attention, we will deal with it. We have lawyers to do that. What we do not need are people thinking they need to be our crusaders. If you have to have a crusade, then crusade against systemic racism. Crusade against the injustice within the gaming community. DO NOT crusade on our behalf. If you ever find yourself considering doing so, DO NOT,” they are enabling their critters to engage in these group attacks on any dissenting voices.

“But Critical Role is about embracing everyone in the community! If they start calling people out or saying they aren’t welcome, they would be hypocrites!”

This is where we get into the Paradox of Tolerance. The reasoning behind this argument is that if you claim to be advocating for tolerance, you must therefore be arguing for universal and absolute tolerance. Therefore, if you come down against people for any of their actions, including being intolerant, you are a hypocrite because you yourself are no longer absolutely and universally tolerant. This has really caught on with certain groups on the Internet over the last decade as what they consider to be their ultimate argument against “the Left”.

[Odds are, anyone trying to use this argument has never bothered to read Karl Popper’s full analysis of this issue. That’s often the case with philosophy. People just grabbing the most easily distilled fragments of what is an incredibly complex line of reasoning. Often, the philosopher in question will go on to refute the popular snippet that the public takes and runs with.]

In this context, they will argue, “Critical Role claims it is for everyone! But then they followed up with saying bullying won’t be tolerated! Well, I’m a bully, but I’m also part of ‘everyone’, so which is it? Are you for everyone or not!?!?” (see current argument going on over Games Workshop’s recent “Warhammer is for everyone/except you fascists-racists-sexists-abusers/you will not be missed” post and the response from certain corners of the fan-base and you will observe the same argument being made over and over again.)

This is all, of course, bullshit.

What the people making this argument are trying to do is undermine the notion that their behaviors are unacceptable within the community. They want to play-act as if they are the victims. That somehow, not allowing them to behave without consequence for their actions is unfair.

Some of you wonder why those who are not cis-gendered men and people from marginalized groups don’t like to hang out at the local friendly game store? It is because, no matter how many signs you post up, no matter how many times you assure others that your table is a “safe space”, it means nothing if you do not take action and hold the actual bad actors to task.

Those making the argument of the Paradox of Tolerance are intentionally shifting the argument, because I have not met a single person who when they speak about being more tolerant they are actually arguing for limitless universal tolerance. That’s never been the argument. When they try and twist those words, bring the hammer down and say, “No! No one has been arguing for universal tolerance.” If they keep going, respond with, “Oh, blow it out your ass, Howard.”

Because this is not up for debate. When you debate, you cede control of your position. When you engage in debate, you accept your position is debatable. Do not step into their court. They have a script that they follow, and if you force them off script they will yell and howl and claim you somehow cheated. You never win in those debates.

The only position to take regarding bullying/harassment in your community is to take a firm position that it will not be allowed.

Now, for Critical Role, you may be asking, “But what can they actually do other than make what the critics will just say are performative statements?” In reality, they hold very little power beyond their words, which is why using their words is using their power. Personally, I gained a lot of respect for Games Workshop with their PR statement. It was clear and concise and told the toxic element of their fandom to basically fuck right off.

We need more of that. We need more concise statements that really can’t be cut apart. We need statements like:

“Bullies will not be tolerated. You don’t yell at people, threaten, harass, raise your hand in anger here. You will not brigade or dog-pile someone who has said something in criticism that you do not like. It does not matter if the criticism is good or not. You WILL NOT engage in that behavior. If you want to be an asshole, leave. You have a choice.”

We need the people with influence to use their platforms to actually rise up when they see an injustice being done. We need them not to remain silent. I get it. No one wants to have someone claim they are the bully. But there is a difference in standing up for yourself and others and being a bully. I think many of us are very aware of what that line is, even if we aren’t overly fond of admitting it.

One thought on “Bullying and the Paradox of Tolerance

  1. Great post. When you told of becoming a bully after being bullied, you described a thing called “reactive bullying.” When a target gets so fed up with the mistreatment that he/she lashes out. As an overcomer of school bullying myself, I can tell you that a person can only take so much and after so long of trying to be the better person, you get worn down and exhausted, then you snap. It’s a vicious cycle that must end. Thank you so much for this post.


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