The Eternally Problematic Yesterday

On older Wizards of the Coast products on DriveThruRPG.com (exclusively from the TSR-era, I believe), you’ll find the following boilerplate:

We (Wizards) recognize that some of the legacy content available on this website does not reflect the values of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise today. Some older content may reflect ethnic, racial, and gender prejudice that were commonplace in American society at that time. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. This content is presented as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed. Dungeons & Dragons teaches that diversity is a strength, and we strive to make our D&D products as welcoming and inclusive as possible. This part of our work will never end.

As the Prius-driving Massachusetts liberal on the Rolling Boxcars team, I appreciate the general sentiment behind these words. But… Of course, there’s a but.

I find myself trying to understand at what point Wizards of the Coast became “perfect” enough that their current products don’t need such a disclaimer. A conversation I had with my fellow Rolling Boxcars authors included a discussion about things that are commonplace today that might be considered abhorrent by future generations—quite possibly in some of our lifetimes. Will the future look in horror over the consumption of meat? The use of paper for books? The burning of fossil fuels in vehicles? To quote Commander William T. Riker of the Starship Enterprise, “We no longer enslave animals for food purposes.”

Changing attitudes is very much on my mind. I remember “the me” of the 1980s. If you watch Stranger Things, I was the same age as the protagonists (my kids have seen old photos of me and claimed I looked and dressed a lot like Mike Wheeler). And truth to tell, attitudes were different then. And for the most part, not in a good way. The use of racial expletives among white folks was a lot more common. “Gay” was thrown about as a casual slur.

However, I’m fortunate. My words and writings are lost to history and exist just in a few people’s foggy memories. And while nothing I said or did was all that terrible, I like the person I am today more than the person I was. TSR veteran Tim Kask recently wrote the following in a public Facebook post.

The “Old School” guys, in which category I fall, were not all sexist, misogynist horrible pigs. We were a product of our times, from the rules of Grammar were taught to prevailing social mores in our everyday lives that we absorbed through social osmosis. Most of us have matured as we aged and have adopted the present reality wholeheartedly. As a former History teacher, I know all too well how easy it is to criticize something from the past based on the standards of today.

Where I fall is to generally take people at their word when they say they acted with the best of intentions unless they illustrate otherwise. I’ll acknowledge as a cisgender white guy that’s an easy stance for me to take. So I will add my opinion that we need to recognize and acknowledge that, as products of our times, we caused hurt to people—unintentional hurt, but that makes the wounds no less painful. We absolutely should reflect on that hurt, examine the society that gave fertile soil to that hurt, and reflect on the ways that we may have contributed to that hurt, and make what amends we can. It is fortunate that those of us from recent decades are able to do better and be better. Not everyone chooses to.

You’ll find changing social norms in many forms of media. The early episodes of M*A*S*H casually objectified women. Friends could be cringingly transphobic and extremely white (hailing from New York City and with an adult daughter who lives there, I can assure you that’s not the case).

However, those shows have much to recommend them. For example, M*A*S*H dealt with the horrors of war, of (paraphrasing Howard Fishman in The New Yorker)  decent people trying to be decent in an intolerable situation. It featured my favorite depiction of a clergyman, a true shepherd to his people.

What advice would I give to Wizards of the Coast and others dealing with this sort of issue? I’ll begin with it is certainly within their purview as a business to decide for itself what products it wishes to sell—and if some product does not represent their values, it is certainly within their right. This is not censorship.

But I think the boilerplate they use is just too broad. If they’re going to be broad, I’d suggest every single product bear the disclaimer “this product is in many ways representative of the time it was published.”

I would rather publishers be specific. If there is something problematic, say what the problem is. Discuss how it might have come about. For example, Isle of the Ape is a tribute to the 1933 King Kong movie. And as such, it inherited a number of problematic racist stereotypes. I’d even invite authors and artists to participate if they are amenable.

The advantage of being specific is that it forces an honest examination of a product that shows the legacy of its time. If a product is that problematic, then don’t continue publishing the darn thing. For example, the notorious White Wolf 1990s Gypsies book is nowhere to be found on DriveThruRPG.

Do I think every product from the past needs a disclaimer? No. Every product is a product of its time. But the overly broad disclaimer, to me, seems too close to “I’m sorry you were offended.” If there’s something in a past product you feel no longer reflects your company values, say what it is.

Reflecting on Krask’s words—that most of us dinosaurs, myself included, “have adapted to the new reality wholeheartedly”—it is also worth remembering that most are not all. There are people whose words and actions today are poison. And not all of them are dinosaurs from the 1970s or 1980s.

As I wrote earlier, I’m writing this from the perspective of a white cisgender male in the United States – the least marginalized group one is likely to be a member of. So I do welcome opinions from others. Are disclaimers like those from WotC appropriate? Overkill? Not enough? Am I giving too much of a “best intentions” pass to myself and others of my generation?

I want to extend my thanks to Modoc and DadsAngry for being great sounding boards as I reflected on the best way to express these opinions.

~ Daniel Stack

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