In August 2010 Penny Arcade ran a comic strip that upset many people and stirred a lot of controversy. Numerous blog posts were written both to shame and to defend the Penny Arcade writers, Gabe and Tycho.

The issue had since left the spotlight, but a piece on the Border House blog on Monday brought it back to the attention of activist gamers. I kept quiet six months ago because the argument was so intense I had little hope someone would actually listen to what I had to say. (Nobody seemed to be listening to anybody else back then.) Now though things seem to have settled a bit and I’d like to share my opinion.

There will be potentially triggering content after the jump.

For those of you who don’t know what all this is about, a recap. The comic strip makes fun of rape. According to people like Kirby Bits (who wrote that Border House article), this is not cool. They say it perpetuates rape culture.

Lest you remain ignorant, rape culture does not mean a culture in which everyone is a rapist because of comics. It means a culture that oppresses rape victims and does not care about the damage inflicted to people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a consequence of sexual assault. Every time rape is mentioned or referred to oh so casually that could be a trigger for such people to re-live painful experiences.

So there was this sizeable and relatively loud group of mostly smart people who thought Penny Arcade should be made aware of how their comic strip can be harmful and expected them to apologise.

Another group, vastly larger and way louder, backed Gabe and Tycho who decided they have nothing to apologise for. They went several steps further, mocking their detractors, shrugging off the importance of their actions and making a t-shirt referencing the comic strip. (As of writing this, the t-shirt is no longer available on the PA online store.) At least that’s the perception they created.

Where do I stand on this? I think both sides are wrong.

Rape jokes are offensive and triggering to rape victims. No doubt about that. But fat jokes are offensive to fat people, gay jokes are offensive to gay people, Mohamed jokes are offensive to Muslims, pope jokes are offensive to Christians, Irish jokes are offensive to Irish people, cancer references are triggering for people who’ve lost loved ones to cancer… When all is said, there are precious few things, if any, that we can openly joke or even talk about without being offensive to someone.

I have nothing but sympathy for PTSD sufferers and I think one must be very insensitive and stupid to think they can convince them to just lay off and enjoy triggering jokes. Rape will never be funny to rape survivors, no matter how the joker intended the joke.

But to demand that rape should never be made fun of is equally oppressive. There are many people who don’t have that kind of experiences and find such jokes funny. Humour is, after all, a potent defense mechanism. By laughing at rape jokes, people defend themselves against the anxiety caused by the thought that it could happen to them.

I agree that the dickwolves comic strip and t-shirt are triggering and offensive to many people. I agree that Gabe and Tycho’s response has been inadequate. I think Gabe tried to make a point similar to mine, but it was overshadowed by follow-up comic strips that seemed to show Penny Arcade disrespecting those offended and telling them off. If they really felt that way, then that’s awfully immature of them. If they didn’t, they should have come out and stated at length what they really thought, separating real life from art.

I also think Penny Arcade have every right to joke about whatever they want. That is what comedians do. Politically correct, sensitive comedy has never been funny.