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Dissecting the X-Card Controversy

Very recently, the controversy over the X-Card was brought up again. For those not in the know, and I was one of those up until it was recently brought up in our writer’s chat, the basic premise is a system where roleplaying or simulation game players can silently signal the subject at hand is making them uncomfortable, usually in the form of index cards with an X prominently marked on it, that they can tap or raise. While the subject was recently rebroadcast in a vlog, a very cursory Google search has brought up a debate about it that existed at least two years ago.

From what I can gather, there are three main objections to it: fear of censorship, alien experiences, and disdain of a culture of political correctness.

The cultural significance of censorship

The first is people feel like they’re being censored. This is not quite what censorship is, being that it’s “an official who examines books, plays, news reports, motion pictures, radio and television programs, letters, cablegrams, etc., for the purpose of suppressing parts deemed objectionable on moral, political, military, or other grounds.” The word, “official,” is the key part of the definition, as that means a person who holds authority, usually in terms of a governing body or religious order. Although one could argue a lesser form of censorship could apply to formal organizations or businesses, even if I believe being private affords them a degree of leeway that doesn’t violate the law.

Admittedly, our obsession with censorship comes from the principles of free speech granted by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (although I’m aware that’s something most free nations enjoy, but I’m an American, so that’s what I know), which states “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.”

Once again, this concept technically applies only to official suppression. But official rules, laws, and guidelines are so ingrained in American culture that even though U.S. Codes are not positive law, meaning they’re not enforced (this includes the codes governing the U.S. flag and our national anthem), and have been deemed to be protected under the First Amendment’s freedom of speech clause, culturally speaking, Americans treat them as they would any enforced law.

Within American culture, even though censorship only applies to official leaders, we balk at the idea of being told we don’t have the same protections in our private lives, as well. So much so that firm resistance to such forms exists in optional formats that don’t directly apply to us.

The X-Card is a prime example of this. It’s not even a part of any official rules, optional or otherwise, in any core rulebook I’ve been made aware of. It’s a thing some individuals have proposed that can be included in your game if you think you might cover sensitive topics, whether you’re aware they’re triggers or not.

My perspective

This may or may not be a thing that you realize, but we all adhere to a degree of censorship (using the term very loosely). Some of it is self-imposed, some of it is a part of the social contract we have, and some of it is imposed by the will of others. There are things you can and cannot say in public, or in certain company. I’m not even talking about politically correct things, either.

To start, I cuss. A lot. So much that I often don’t realize I’m doing it. Some people ask me to keep it down in front of them, and there are many who at least request I don’t do it in front of their children. My friends, aware of who I am, tend to try to be aware of other children in our area, so they can gently remind me when my language starts to get out of hand. I’m aware of this, and I accept this level of outside control over my choice in words, because I’m aware of other people, and that they have different moral compasses than I do.

To me, a cuss word exists pretty much like a comma, or some other punctuation mark, in a lot of cases. It’s very rarely aggressive. In fact, if I make a threat, I rarely cuss at all. I use my rather vast lexicon and vivid imagination to carefully describe what the outcome of my threats will entail. To me, that matters. Words only have the meaning we give to them.

However, I also recognize those words have very different impacts on other people, and I try to be cognizant of that. I’m not always successful, and it’s gotten me in trouble. One late night (like after midnight), I was at a Starbucks talking with a friend about deep philosophy. As our conversation turned towards Nietzsche, a uniformed police officer, who looked like he was on his break, came up to the two of us, and asked us to tone down our language.

While that’s the actual definition of censorship, and our conversation was anything but crude (even if our language was), he felt unspoken pressure by the few other patrons to have a word with us. We laughed at the absurdity of the situation, but obliged, because we have respect for others, and we were aware of the cultural norms of the area.

Or, I could talk about the way we, as Americans, try to avoid specific sensitive topics when dealing with people in our everyday lives, unless that’s the point of the conversation. Those are money, politics, and religion. We tend to censor ourselves in front of other people, especially those who don’t share the same beliefs, or, in the case of money, if we’re not in the same income brackets.

As a strict atheist, especially as one who respects that other people have different personal beliefs than me, I try to avoid the discussion as much as possible. If I’m put in a situation where I can’t, I do my best to avoid answering questions directly, especially if I’m confronted by those with extreme religious views. I don’t ever lie, but I’m extremely careful with my language.

Take it from me, while there are a number of Christians who attempt to take a victimized stance, the fact America is still 70 percent Christian (72 percent are a part of the umbrella Abrahamic faith, if you include Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) means Christianity is still the dominant religion in America. As an atheist, that’s something I’m acutely aware of, even if I don’t take any of it personally when people are unintentionally offensive.

Dismissal of alien experiences

It may be obvious to some, but I’m not talking about claims of extraterrestrial experiences. By alien, I’m referring to the definition of “unlike one’s own.” I have a little saying I like to point out when someone has difficulty understanding the actions or motivations of other people: “Other people are not you.” I frequently repeat this to my sister, who is even more liberal than I am, so it’s not a thing isolated to any one ideology or political party.

This is pretty much the guiding principle behind moral relativism. Other people have different experiences, different cultural moral standards, different brain chemistry, and different social norms, on both the micro and the macro level. These things are going to affect how they interact with the world.

Even two people who have a similar experience are going to react differently based on a number of different factors. One will be able to cope with the situation better than the other. Some attempt to suppress those negative feelings. There are those who will hide the fact something even happened to them, where others will be more willing to talk about it.

There are any number of reasons why people react differently. Cultural upbringing is an easy one to identify. There are those whose upbringing and experiences time and again show what they’ve gone through will be dismissed, or worse yet, they’ll be on the receiving end of victim blaming.

They may have grown up surrounded by people who don’t understand psychological problems are as real and as devastating as physical ones. Maybe those around them don’t have an effective understanding of what psychological disorders are like, or don’t understand the difference between similar, but ultimately very different, problems.

As someone who struggles with depression (among other things), it’s hard to convey to others what that actually means, and many treat me like I’m just sad. Some who are trying to help may try to cheer me up, but it’s counterproductive. The same can be said for those who are victims of something, or deal with things in their everyday life they’d rather not be confronted with.

They may be a part of an oppressed minority, and along with that comes a sense those in culturally dominant positions won’t listen to them. Even if the subject at hand doesn’t relate to the struggles they have to face every day by simply being born, they may feel like they won’t be listened to regardless, by the Game Master or the other players at the table, and so they may not speak up.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are people whose experiences allow them to cope more efficiently with the trials have been put before them. Maybe the thing that happened was anomalous, and so they can draw upon the strength they’ve been able to develop over the years. Maybe it’s the opposite, where their life has been so constantly hard they’ve learned to develop advanced coping mechanisms. Perhaps they have an incredible support system, and they have more people they can turn to. Possibly, their brain chemistry is just more effectively suited to deal with trauma.

It doesn’t matter why people have different reactions than others. What’s important is we all recognize other people are not us, and their reactions are likely to be different than ours.

My perspective

I would like to point out each of us has a different tolerance for different traumas. What for me may be a mundane experience, may feel insurmountable for you. This doesn’t have to be something big, either. I’ve had panic attacks in the past.

I’ve had earth-shattering, uncontrollable panic, for no reason whatsoever, where I felt like my body was turning inside out, and I was extremely tempted to slam my head against the wall until I knocked myself unconscious. Once I was riding home on my motorcycle from work in the middle of the night, and I literally screamed so loudly the entire way I became hoarse from it. An anxiety attack, to me, is not earth-shattering.

I still get them, even though I’m taking heavy doses of medication to help me manage my psychological disorders. I have routine coping tools I’ve developed with my therapists to help me re-center myself, allowing me to ground myself, and take back control.

Not everyone has those experiences and tools to allow them to manage anxiety attacks. For them, it feels like the end of the world. Even though my experiences are more intense, I recognize their tolerance for their feelings seems extremely intense, and they haven’t developed the coping techniques needed to feel like they can survive them.

It’s up to all of us to recognize everyone experiences life differently, and to have the self-awareness to treat everyone with respect, especially those who feel assaulted, regardless of what the subject is.

The rejection of political correctness

Relating back to the two previous subjects, especially the feeling they’re being censored, there are those who balk at the idea of political correctness. At its absolute core, political correctness is merely having respect for other people, their culture, and what makes them who they are.

However, between having a hard time understanding other peoples’ perspectives and having others dictate how you feel, what you say, and the way you act is a horrific principle. There’s also a frustration at not knowing how to treat other people, and feeling attacked because you don’t know how to react.

What compounds the issue is not knowing what’s going to set people off. By large, people are good, and they want to do the right things. No one wants to be the bad guy. It’s just some have a limited scope of understanding of other people and outside cultures, so when others get offended, and react harshly, they feel attacked, and resist being told how to operate. On a long enough timeline, those feelings turn into disdain for other ways of thinking, and even hate.

That’s where the idea of a rejection of inclusive thinking comes into play. Why should they consider how other people think when other people don’t consider where they’re coming from? Then, when alternate options are introduced, it makes them feel like they’re being told they’re wrong for not doing it.

I saw that very frequently in the build up to the release of D&D Beyond. Even though it is completely optional in nature, there was a significant backlash by many posters that Wizards of the Coast was asking them to buy the books for a second or third time (if they also bought the content for another service, like Fantasy Grounds). Now, take that rage and apply it to people who feel like they’ve been told they’re wrong for not accommodating other people in ways they don’t always know how to appropriately react to.

My perspective

Political correctness, at its core, isn’t about censorship. It’s just not being a jerk. It’s about respecting the concept that other people have perspectives, beliefs, histories, cultures, and experiences completely different than your own. Ideally, you should censor yourself, to be aware of those around you, and be considerate of them.

Ideally, we would all have a better understanding of each other. Even more ideally, we would strive to seek out truth and understand different cultural perspectives. We wouldn’t use inaccurate labels to describe each other, or deform definitions of  words to render them useless. We’d take the time to understand everyone has views more nuanced than we’re aware of, and take the time to learn what they are instead of labeling them, or assuming we have an understanding of what they are based on our own cultural biases.

Personally, I find most people have a logical chain of thought leading to their conclusions. Not everyone does, and I find a lot of people start from false assumptions, or from a place of feelings over facts, but it’s easy to trace the logic back to their roots if we’re just willing to listen to each other.

The X-Card controversy

Finally, I’m getting to the root of my point. For those who’ve stuck through this, thank you. It was a long wait, I know, but a necessary one. I could’ve easily just said my piece and moved on, but context matters. As I’ve been saying for the past 2,500+ words, it’s important to have perspective, and to understand each other.

The controversy over the X-Card exists because there’s a disconnect between those who advocate for it, and those opposed to it. To start, I would like to point out that, despite what some people will argue, the X-Card is completely optional. I highly recommend it, but it may not be necessary for your group to include it.

This is a thing I’m going to start offering at my tables. The reason is because I believe in including a wide variety of story options, for the players as much as for myself. One example I always bring up with my players as an idea of potential topics, which I do in private, is the possibility of mass sexual exploitation and trafficking of minors.

That particular situation hasn’t come up, yet, but I want a specific example of the darkest places people are capable of. While I like to mix things up between light and dark, and thus not everything is going to be hard to deal with, using as an extreme of an example as I can is designed to get my players to really think of where I’m willing to go with my games. I want them to tell me up front the lines they don’t want me to cross.

However, not everyone is willing to share the kinds of things that are going to bother them, especially if they have personal, and traumatic, experiences with particular subjects, even if I engage each of my players privately, in one-on-one conversations. They may also not be fully aware of how much certain things are going to affect them until they’re confronted with them.

That’s where the X-Card becomes the most beneficial. It allows people to feel like the game table can be a truly safe space. It doesn’t have to be so extreme, either. Maybe their dad was abusive as a child, and saving a kid from an abusive home could be too much to handle for some. For others it could be cathartic to save someone, even a fictional someone, from a life they had to suffer for so long.

Different people can experience the same thing in different ways, and it’s insensitive and indecent to assume otherwise. The X-Card can allow people to opt out of being confronted by situations causing them emotional or psychological distress without having to explain themselves or being forced to relive them any more, or even if they’ve never had those experiences, but it’s still too much for them to handle.

For more information about the X-Card by John Stavropoulos, this links to a Google document with explanations and more from the creator of the X-Card.

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Joshua is bad about talking about himself, but won't shut up about anything else. A nerd since birth, he's experienced a lot of the culture. A gamer by nature, a writer, an actor, a film lover, an English major, and a recent discoverer of Dungeons and Dragons. Currently, he lives in Oregon, where his primary focus is to write novels, hopefully get a comic book series published, and maybe try his hand at making a very entry-level tabletop RPG game. He's always had idiotically lofty goals.
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