When Xbox Live's director of policy and enforcement, Stephen Toulouse, stridently vowed to ban any Call of Duty: Black Ops player who sports a swastika emblem online, I can't say I felt any particular way about it. As an fence sitter on the subject of censorship, I much prefer to let others do the hard work of untangling that Gordian Knot. Now I admit that the idea of censoring anyone—an artist who places a crucifix in a jar of urine, cartoonists who create visual depictions of the prophet Muhammed, the Westboro Baptist Church who organize hateful anti-gay demonstrations—leaves an almost instinctive bad taste in my mouth. Even so, I completely understand the human desire to practice religion, mourn lost loved ones, or even play videogames without having to feel provoked or persecuted.
So while the banning itself didn't ignite my righteous fury one way or the other, there was one aspect that kept coming back to bother me. Microsoft is making money hand over fist from developers who slather the emblem all over the backgrounds of what are essentially digital toys. In chastening players who exhibit the same emblem online, the company is building their house on some serious ethical sand.
All forms of media use WWII Germany as a kind of go-to evil army. Nazis fill the role of an absolute, irredeemably malevolent force that provides contrast for the goodness and light of our heroes—the normal people. Othering the elements of society that make us uncomfortable is reassuring. Those who commit heinous acts are labeled monsters, aberrations that exist outside the spectrum of what is human.
Videogames are no exception. When monsters get boring, Nazis act as a convenient target that can be mowed down in great numbers with zero remorse. The problem is that the Nazi movement wasn't comprised of necromancers, zombies, or robots. It was made up of people. People who loved their families, people who created art, people who felt joy and sadness, just like anyone else. This is hardly a defense of the atrocities of the Holocaust; the most frightening aspect of genocide is the elemental humanity of it.
Of all things, Quentin Tarantino's most recent film, Inglourious Basterds, demonstrates how deep these impulses run. In the script, the German audience cheers when their onscreen hero engraves a swastika into the stones of his sniping perch. In real life, the American audience cheers when their onscreen hero engraves a swastika into the foreheads of captive German soldiers. The Nazi menace isn't as remote from "normal people" as we often like to think.
The Holocaust wasn't neither the first nor last genocide to befall the populations of our world. Given a charismatic leader and a fear of the other, any society is vulnerable to the temptations of brutality. Mentally engaging with the human causes of such repeated suffering—instead of lazily characterizing it as senseless, undefined evil—is a critical step in reducing its recurrence.
So I ask which is more insidious: Internet jerks misusing powerful iconography to make some inflammatory, sophomoric statement, or the systematic misuse of that same potent imagery in a way that reinforces the idea that one of the world's most horrific eras originated from some cartoonishly inhuman menace? On what footing does that place the corporations that profit from of this practice? Toulouse asserts that this is an issue of "fundamental respect", but in what world is renewing the theater of World War II year after year for sixty dollars a pop considered fundamentally respectful? Regardless of the merits of the swastika ban, Microsoft comes off in this situation as little more than a monolithic hypocrite.