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The Jail That Tolkien Built: the Oppressive Propaganda in Roleplaying Games and How It Stifles Creative Storytelling

Stories are a part of every culture. Every group of human beings that has ever existed has its own unique body of myths and narratives. According to an increasingly large pool of research (e.g., Emory University in Atlanta, researchers in Spain and France, U.C. Berkeley, etc.), stories actually alter our brains, triggering the primary sensory motor region, and thus allowing us to “experience” the contents of a given story and to “feel” what the characters in the story feel. In other words, when we tell or hear stories, the parts of our brains associated with a given action in the story (tasting coffee, smelling a dog, feeling scuffed-up leather, kissing a lover, etc.) are stimulated and activated. The conclusions of these scientific endeavors all agree that this is why humans are such junkies for stories: they’re psychoactive drugs that essentially get us emotionally high.

These current studies also seem to be proving what those of us who critique civilized narratives and the Monomyth have been arguing for years: because stories cause those who hear/read them to “experience” the events of the story, the ways we think, feel, and act are therefore informed by the stories we tell. Largely due to television, movies, and all the other forms of popular cop fiction, the average noob in the civilized world tends to think that cops are heroic defenders of law and order, saving treed kittens, thwarting rapists, killing evildoers, and helping old ladies cross the street. It’s because of the popularity and prevalence of these narratives that most people don’t understand the reality of police as violent, sociopathic enforcers of institutional hierarchy and systemic oppression.

The same is true with so many other narratives. Civilization’s earliest story, the Epic of Gilgamesh, lays the groundwork for deforestation, urban culture, warfare, taming the wilderness, prostitution, religious control, and so on, and continues to inform the actions and direction of civilized society 10,000 years after it was written. So too with the myths of the Bible, the Quran, the Talmud and other religious texts. So too with Fox News, the state of the union address, the CIA’s recent torture report, internet memes… on and on and on.

The stories of civilization are many faces of one monolithic god of control, destruction, and misery. And these stories underlie and inform most people’s attitudes and opinions. However, as the title of this piece suggests, this is an essay about roleplaying. I don’t intend to tackle the civilized Monomyth here, nor to dissect and dismantle each and every shitstain narrative of the dominant society. Rather, this piece is about casting a critical eye upon the popular narrative tropes in roleplaying games and fantasy fiction, analyzing them and tearing them apart both from a radical political/ethical perspective AND from the position that they stifle real creativity and encourage mental laziness.

So in order to begin this discussion, let me just lay it out: I am a huge gaming nerd. I love fantasy fiction, and I especially love narrative and storytelling, hence my lifelong passion for roleplaying games. If the above-mentioned research is valid, roleplaying games are, at their core, a way of human beings connecting with one another, sharing experiences, and collectively getting story-stoned. Maybe this is why I and so many others find story gaming so appealing, or maybe not. But the fact remains that roleplaying games, as a form of storytelling, are a collectively beneficial and enjoyable activity.

Unfortunately, however, this form of storytelling, like all forms of storytelling, suffers from some deeply-rooted and extremely fucked up tropes and stereotypes. This sucks for two reasons: first, because the narrative stereotypes that plague roleplaying games reflect and reinforce the institutions of civilized oppression (i.e.: classism, sexism, hierarchy, and extreme anti-indigenous/pro-civilization propaganda), and second, these stereotypes suck because they limit the boundaries and growth of creative fiction.

I’ve been fortunate in my roleplaying experiences in that the gaming groups I’ve been a part of have largely been composed of radical folks with developed understandings of oppression and good imaginations. I’ve also never been a part of a campaign with an overtly racist and Tolkien-inspired system (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons, Middle Earth Roleplaying, etc.). However, because I’m a nerd and I love learning about fictional worlds and societies, I’ve read a ton of campaign settings and RPG rulesets.

And the unfortunate and near-universal trend I’ve noticed is just that point I’m hammering on in this essay: roleplaying games and campaign settings are racist as fuck, classist, Eurocentric, misogynist and patriarchal, and hateful toward traditional peoples and cultures.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at several popular RPGs and their corresponding campaign settings. At this point in popular culture, Dungeons & Dragons is a household name, even among people who know nothing about RPGs, nor have ever played one. D&D is a ruleset (the d20 system), and a number of campaign settings exist within the D&D umbrella. Forgotten Realms is perhaps the most popular and best-known D&D setting, and is indicative and typical of the whole fantasy gaming genre.

In the Forgotten Realms setting, we find a host of fantasy races, most of them borrowed almost directly from Tolkien. There are Elves, a fair-skinned (read: European), lithe, woodsie people who dwell in forests, love nature, and despise all the “evil” races of the world. Then, there are goblins and Orcs, vile green-skinned “savages” who dwell in filthy tribal hordes, raid and pillage the “civilized” peoples of the world, and revel in chaos and evil. Now, to those naysayers who don’t have comprehensive knowledge about the other races (and racial trends) in Forgotten Realms, this might seem like a coincidence or just one instance of lacking creativity and bad writing. So, to counter such easy dismissal and to drive home the point, here’s a nice little chart detailing many of the races in this campaign setting, the prevalent political form governing the society of those races, the color of that race’s skin, and that race’s typical alignment (i.e., whether they’re good or evil):

Race                   Skin Color                     Typical Alignment                    Political Organization

Human                 Typically white/European  usually Good                            Monarchies, feudalism

Calishite Human    brown, middle-eastern      Neutral, Neutral Evil                  Autocratic, caliphate

Rashemi Human    dark brown, African          usually Neutral                         Gynarchy

Halflings                white/European               usually Good                            Rustic European

Elves                     white/European               usually Good                           Monarchies, chieftains

Dark Elves             gray, jet black                 universally Evil                         Matriarchy

Dwarves                white/European                usually Good                          Monarchies, chieftains

Fey’ri                    dark red, gray, dark          usually Evil                             Meritocracy

Gray Dwarves        gray, dark                       usually Evil                             unknown

Gnomes               white/European               Neutral, Good                          unknown

Goblins                green                              Evil                                        Tribal, “barbaric”

Kobolds               red, reptilian                    Evil                                         Tribal, “barbaric”

Orcs                   green, dark green             Evil                                         Tribal, “barbaric”

Tanarukk            dark green                       Evil                                         Tribal w/ matrilineal influences

Although there are exceptions to the trends presented in the chart above, the rule in Forgotten Realms is clear: white Eurocentric cultures with feudal era societies are Good, and dark-skinned peoples with tribal societies (especially those with matriarchal/matrilineal tribes) are Evil. Whitey is good and chivalrous; darkies are savage, warmongering, bloodthirsty animals. Forgotten Realms is by far the most popular of the D&D campaign settings, and as such it is indicative of the general attitudes of racism, misogyny, and anti-indigenous/pro-civilization propaganda.

But it certainly isn’t a singular anomaly. A vast number of other fantasy campaign settings – especially D&D campaign settings – mimic and perpetuate this oppressive thinking. To name but a few such campaign settings, consider the following popular D&D worlds: Dragonlance, Greyhawk, Planescape, Eberron, and Dark Sun (notable in that “progress” and wizardly meddling, arguably an analogy for civilization, destroyed the biosphere of the planet Athas, but still super racist).

Beyond the scope of D&D, in other fantasy RPGs and in non-RPG card and board games, the same tropes crop up again and again. All the elements of fantastic racism, misogyny, and anti-indigenous sentiment are present in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, World of Warcraft: the Roleplaying Game, ElfQuest RPG, RuneQuest, Rolemaster and Loremaster, Middle Earth Roleplaying, the card game Munchkin, Magic: the Gathering and its extensive mythos (with exceptions), Pathfinder RPG, Lone Wolf: The Roleplaying Game and the original Lone Wolf gamebooks, and just about every online MMORPG and fantasy-themed flash game ever made. And to drive home the point that this is a near-ubiquitous phenomenon in the fantasy world, keep in mind that the list above is but a small sample of the hundreds of games and stories that incorporate such suffocating bullshit.

To play devil’s advocate, the ubiquity of fantasy racism, sexism, and anti-indigenous propaganda can be in part attributed to Tolkien’s dire influence. Tolkien, with his Lord of the Rings cycle, is undoubtedly the progenitor of contemporary high fantasy, and his works have obviously influenced much of fantasy gaming. And within Tolkien’s work we find the very same racism and civilo-centricity. At the top of Middle Earth’s hierarchy are the Elves, nimble, graceful, beautiful white people who live forever, exult in their sylvan monarchy, frolic in their pastures of privilege and entitlement, and spit on all the “lesser” dark-skinned peoples, foreigners, and the Dwarven working class miners. Right up there with them are the Halflings, wealthy white aristocracy living in a pastoralist’s paradise, reminiscent of the delusional myth of “jolly old England”. Then, on the other end of the hackneyed dichotomy, we find the Goblins and Orcs, evil people of color who rape, destroy, and pillage everything they get their grubby paws on. Joining with them are the Eastron men (men, never humans, mind you), human beings who are so obviously a rip off of tribal African and Middle Eastern cultures it hurts, and who are likewise evil people of color. The cultures of Elves, Dwarves, and Men (all the good whiteys) are invariably monarchic, and feudal European in flavor; the cultures of the Goblins/Orcs, and wicked Eastron men are, unsurprisingly, tribal and “barbaric”.

Tolkien sucks, and Tolkien’s influence on all subsequent high fantasy fiction sucks worse. I’m with China Miéville, renowned author of Perdido Street Station and other amazing works of fantasy steampunk badassery, who quipped “Tolkien is the wen on the arse of fantasy literature”. I couldn’t agree more.

Tolkien may be the origin of these pernicious trends, but he’s not their sole raison d’être. So, to what else do we attribute the pervasive racism, Eurocentrism, patriarchal misogyny, and anti-indigeneity in fantasy fiction? What else could it be except the bias and oppressive mentality of the writers of said fiction themselves? Having read an assload of roleplaying supplements and other fantasy material, I can accurately say the majority of writers in the field are white civilized men. Just so, this internalized enculturation and bias is entirely unsurprising to me.

I’m an anarchist, a feminist, and I’m totally and vehemently opposed to civilization. And so, as an avid gamer with radical politics, I’m completely offended and disgusted that so many elements of civilized oppression trickle into the realms of fantasy. But this essay isn’t just a political screed, and I’m not just annoyed to all hell by these tropes because they’re oppressive. I’m also enraged because these clichés are choking the life out of creativity and aborting novel ideas in fantasy fiction.

Do we really need to hear the boring-ass story of the Elf Ranger who fights with a bow, loves the woods, and hates Dwarves for the nine-thousandth time? Does anyone still give two shits about the Dwarf Fighter who wields a battleaxe, drinks copious amounts of ale, mines gems and metals, talks in a Scottish accent (although there are no Scots on his plane), strokes his mighty beard, and hates Elves? How about the story of the Orc warrior who is brutish, stupid, ugly, uncharismatic, and who loves to pillage and destroy? Does that story really need retelling? Again?

If we take another, even further step back, why do we insist on telling stories in worlds that are modeled after the European feudal era? Do we need fantasy worlds with self-righteous paladins and godly clerics, haughty, classist knights and power-hungry mages? What’s the collective fascination with telling the stories of such one-dimensional characters who are cookie-cutter archetypes – I’m a druid, I’m a fighter – when characters in real-life and in good fiction are multifaceted, complex, and have a variety of skills and passions? Do we need to constrain ourselves to worlds in which Elves, Dwarves, Humans, Goblins, and Orcs exist? Must we always defer to these over-used and outplayed afterbirths of Tolkien’s mythological plagiarism? Does anyone actually believe that a fucking chainmail bikini is a viable choice for protection?! And why the hell is everyone so interested in monarchy and knighthood? Should not the fantasy worlds we explore and create contain a multitude of nations and autonomous political entities with a variety of organizational forms? Do we truly believe that Humans are the only race composed of a diverse and broad spectrum of individuals, and that every other individual belonging to every other fantasy race fits the pre-ordained mold of that race? And if we are to incorporate all the elements above, why don’t we tell stories from the other side? From the eyes of the heretic, the nomadic Orcish horde, those fighting for their way of life against the forces of religion and state? Those stories are surely more interesting.

And what of the dichotomous morality that plagues our gaming worlds? Does any roleplayer (outside of religious halfwits) really think the world is black and white, Good and Evil? Are we stimulated by the story of the vigilant, sanctimonious paladin who always does Good? Or the necromancer who is motivated purely by Evil and the lust for power? Again, with the one-dimensional characters. What about the paladin who presents a faithful facade but who is secretly sinful in his thoughts and actions? What about the necromancer who only learned her arts because she can’t let go of a dead beloved? Is it not more engaging and better storytelling to create characters who have a variety of motivations, who do good and bad things because of their passions and desires, their secret obligations, and their own multi-dimensional morality and ethics? Can we not see beyond the racist notions of mighty Whitey and the evil Dark Skins?

Though these Tolkienesque stereotypes ooze from the pores of most every RPG in existence, it’s not all bad. There are some campaign settings and worlds that challenge these ridiculous and oppressive concepts. For one, if my readers will indulge me a moment of shameless self-promotion, all the campaign settings I’ve written and publish (free at break with these harmful traditions. China Miéville’s world of Bas-Lag, in which three of his novels unfold, is a brilliant example of real fantasy, creative, dark, frightening, weird, and diverse. The Shadowrun series of RPGs is also a wonderful and welcome change, incorporating traditional Tolkienesque elements (Elves, Orcs, Dwarves), and infusing them into a cyberpunk world of corporate hegemony and violent resistance to it, and encouraging players to create diverse characters within the races provided (Elven Street Samurai, Orcish Shamans, Troll Deckers, etc.).

There is also a growing number of radical gamers who reject the noxious stereotypes of traditional fantasy gaming. Among these is Wundergeek at Go Make Me a Sandwich blog, whose essay in three parts concerning offensive stereotypes in gaming was a major inspiration for this piece. I heartily encourage everyone to visit her blog and read said essays:

Part 1: How Not to Fail at Writing Inclusive Games and Game Settings

Part 2: Avoiding Offensive Stereotypes in Your Work: Gender and Sexuality

Part 3: Avoiding Offensive Stereotypes in Your Work: Race Edition

Likewise, the blog post Five Destructive Myths Perpetuated by Roleplaying Games from the blog Mythcreants sheds additional light on these tropes:

Let’s remember that the stories we tell have real impacts on our hearts and minds, on the ways in which we frame reality. And in remembering this, let us work together, as gamers and as folks with radical politics, to annihilate the constricting shackles of systemic oppression in our fantasy games. Only in breaking out of these mental prisons can we create fresh new worlds and campaigns, and move away from the bonds that tie us to the twisted abominations of civilization.

For fantasy to live, Tolkien must die! Let’s tear down the walls of the prison he built, and in its place erect thousands of new worlds and ideas!


Civilization and Its Stultifying Consequences

Stultify. As a verb, it means a number of things. In the archaic legal sense of the word, it means “to allege or prove to be of unsound mind and hence not responsible”. In contemporary usage it means both “to cause to be stupid, foolish, or absurdly illogical” and “to impair, invalidate, or make ineffective”. Although this word is poorly known and sparsely used in today’s English vernacular, it applies to every facet of Civilization and civilized life. Indeed, Civilization is the art, science, and process of stultifying the human animal.
There is essentially no body of research regarding intelligence in domesticated humans vs. wild humans. This is unsurprising given the civilized myth that civilization is a process of higher learning, enlightenment, and intellectual development, and that primitive life is uneducated and ignorant. It is also unsurprising that civilized people have neglected to research the limitations of their own intellectual development. However, some data does exist that compares the brain weight and cortex volume of wild animals and their domesticated counterparts.
Grzimek’s Encyclopedia of Animals contains the essay Animals in Captivity, which provides this data and discusses the many stultifying effects of domestication on animals. Among the animals sampled are rats, guinea pigs, rabbits, pigs, sheep, llamas, ferrets, cats, and dogs. In every case, the domesticated version of the wild progenitor species suffers between 8% (rats) and 33% (pigs) reduction in brain size, and between 12% (rats) and 37% (pigs) reduction in cortex volume. A number of studies by the German scientist D. Kruska corroborate and elaborate upon these findings. And yes, before skeptics get up in arms about brain size equating to intelligence, a number of corollary studies have been done proving that these smaller brain sizes and cortex volumes do, indeed, mean these animals are dumb as hell compared to their wild relatives.
Are we not also mammals? And have we not also been bred for 10,000 years for selective traits (e.g.: specialized labor, servility, passivity, submissiveness, etc.)? If so, then I think it’s fair to extrapolate from these findings that domesticated humans are also considerably stupider than their wild counterparts. And if the science isn’t convincing (or isn’t valid by virtue of its being science), one need only look at the state of contemporary people to prove how stupid, how stultified they are. Look at the celebrity flavor of the week. Watch some reality television. Watch any television. Go talk to your neighbors.
Beyond the process of domestication and selective breeding, civilization uses another particularly hideous means of stultifying the human animal mind: education. I won’t delve deeply into this topic here, as it’s been extensively shredded elsewhere (see citations). Suffice to say, education exists and was intentionally designed to make people obedient and dull-witted minions, smart enough to follow orders and too stupid to question authority.
So too religion. So too the dominant culture’s media. Television. Movies. The internet. Radio. Newspapers, magazines, comics. Celebrity worship. Video games (to which I am addicted).  All these tools and tactics of civilized domination stultify the human mind, stunt our intellectual growth. And all under the guise that civilization is a “high state of intellectual development” and “refinement of thought”. Brilliant fucking propaganda!
But stultification isn’t just concerned with the mind and with intellectual stupidity. It also entails impairing, invalidating, and making ineffective. Beyond that, there are many other forms of intelligence besides the intellect, and stultification is the process of impeding and stupefying these forms as well. And, in addition to these two points, stultification is also about the removal of mental agency and therefore one’s responsibility.
Civilization encapsulates and excels at all of these methods of stultification.
It impairs, impinges upon, and invalidates our animal intelligence, our senses, our perceptual understanding of the world. Civilization and its homogenizing monotony attempt to extract and eradicate all sensual pleasure in the world, and the need for sensual awareness. What’s the point of smell when the whole world reeks of burning petroleum, fast food, axe body spray, and heaps of rubbish? How acutely can one hear in the deafening cacophony of industrial machines and constant blaring media? What’s the point of seeing when all we look at are glowing screens? How well can we feel changes in weather and intimate changes in our surroundings when all our skin ever feels is climate control, air conditioning, and the imprisonment of synthetic clothes? How can we even begin to know our own deep desires when our whole lives are regimented, planned, controlled, and dictated by clocks, by bosses, by advertising, by the need to work to pay rent?
Civilization stultifies our vision, makes us blind. All we see is screens and virtual people, a world increasingly covered in alienating technologies. We stare straight ahead, eyes fixed on our next planned task, never deviating from the prescribed route. House to car to work to restaurant to shopping mall back to house, all flat, all straight ahead. Eyes always forward, never once looking up, down, behind or around. Never looking for details or minutiae, because everywhere Civilization has gone and conquered, complexity and diversity are abolished and replaced with homogeneity and monoculture. We hardly even bother to look, to really see, anything but digital media any more. The average American adult devotes a whopping 11 hours a day to various forms of digital media, 5 of which is television and 1 of which is the internet.
Civilization stultifies our hearing, makes us deaf. Airplanes, cars, 18-wheelers, the bright flickering babble of television, radio, youtube, netflix, Call of Duty, the clangor and clamor of machines tearing down and building up – these are the only sounds we hear . Newscasters in their flat San Diego accents spew poison in our ears, while police gunshots and 40mm tear gas canisters sound distantly. Helicopters and freight trains and traffic jams round out the nightmare, and leave us reeling. Some of us drown out the roaring gyre with earbuds or headphones, deaf to the stultifying noise of Civilization, even deafer to our own alienation, and deafest to the pulsing web of life all around us.
Civilization stultifies our ability to smell. The burning of gas and oil, perfumes, colognes, deodorants, body sprays, scented lip gloss, aftershave, fabric softeners, drier sheets, dishwashing liquid and other detergents, soap, shampoo – these smells pervade the air, invade our nostrils. The far-off stench of paper mills and sewage treatment plants wafts in, mingling with the stink of human shit, smoldering crack pipes, exhaust, kitty litter, burnt rubber, burnt sugary cornerstore food, and the dried blood of protestors all over the pavement. Civilization makes us smell-blind to the real scents of the world: dank soil, mycelium, the meaty skunk smell of a lover’s armpits, all the thousands of shades of green plant smell, sweat, animal smells, bird smells, ocean and river smells, smells that herald weather changes, and petrichor, the finest smell in the world.
Civilization stultifies our sense of taste. Urban industrial culture continues to destroy diversity and to standardize existence. And in so doing it supplants the traditional hunter-gatherer fare of our species with a diminishing pool of a few plants. Civilization deprives our tongues of all the world has to offer. We eat no bitters, few sour foods. All the industrial swill that touches our tongues is sugary sweet, ultra salty, high-fructose, hydrogenated, dyed with colors derived from coal tar, and imported from half a world away. Civilization robs us of the ability to taste our landbases, to lick dew from a drooping bay leaf, to revel in the delicious ecstasy of bitterness and sour and savory.
Civilization deadens us to touch, stultifies our skin and hands and feet. The only surfaces we’re allowed to touch are concrete, lacquered wood, glass, and worse, plastic, linoleum, pleather, nylon, acrylic, and polyester. Our bodies eke out miserable lives trapped in suffocating clothing, jailed in shoes and boots and high heels, and our hands hardly ever touch anything solely for tactile pleasure. Most of the touch we receive is violent and/or painful, even that which masquerades as affectionate and loving touch. Infants develop neuroses because their civilized parents never hold or even touch them any more. Civilization steals from us the ability to revel in touch, and holds us back from doing so with its norms and taboos. We never learn to love the squish of wet mud through our toes, the bliss of walking barefoot and feeling all the pulses of the earth, the jubilation of rain trickling down our naked bodies, the atmospheric shift that happens when a predator enters an area, the electric embrace of the desert in a thunderstorm, or the feeling of complete contentment that comes with fully and consensually giving our bodies to our lovers and friends. Civilization stultifies all these avenues of touch, and knows only the touches of pain, punishment, enclosure, and imprisonment.
When one combines the ways in which civ stultifies our senses, the stultification goes even deeper, making our bodies themselves and the ways we use our bodies stupid, ineffective, and impaired. Civilization seeks to flatten and level the world, blanketing it in concrete and making it “easy” and “accessible” to get around. This means we no longer use many of our finer muscles and muscle groups that traditional peoples living in uneven and chaotic landbases use daily. Everywhere we walk is flat, devoid of obstacles, we don’t have to crouch or maneuver to navigate difficult terrain, we never climb or descend anything except for sport. And of course, this only applies to a select few civilized people who actually walk or move at all, as the vast majority drive or take public transit everywhere they go.
Civilization’s heinous propaganda outlets teach us the worst forms of communicating, and stultify our capacity for communicating with body language. Civ people are all so out of touch with their bodies that non-verbal communication is impossible. And due to the influence of television, movies, and all the shiny baubles of Spectacle, when civ people do communicate verbally, it’s almost always passive aggressive, actually aggressive, coercive, manipulative, and indirect. In marring our ability to communicate effectively, directly, and non-coercively, in this way too does civilization stultify us.
And it goes on. The civilized agriculturalist diet stultifies our health perhaps more than any other factor. It is an indisputable fact that eating a diet primarily consisting of grains (i.e., wheat) leads to all manner of health complications: dental carries (cavities), autoimmune diseases, and obesity.
This has been proven time and again by contemporary science and basic observation (see the attached notation, and do your own research; the data is abundant). What’s more, this has been happening throughout civilization, all the way back to the Neolithic. In Rome, the gladiators were known colloquially as hordearii, a name that literally means “barley men” or “grain munchers”. They ate a vegetarian diet consisting of barley and lentils, not for health benefits, but to make themselves fat! Having a large cushion of fat insulated their abused bodies against cuts and blunt force trauma, cushioning their bones and protecting their nerves and blood vessels. The point is, they ate the civ diet and got fat. So too with the ancient Egyptians. Apparently, many Egyptians, including both commoners and royalty, had a slurry of health problems related to their diet, including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. Upon analysis, the mummy of Hatshepsut revealed that she died a 50 year old obese woman with a fucked up grill full of cavities. The cause of death? Metastatic cancer. And the attributed cause? The ancient Egyptian civilized diet.
We’re all subject to the same. Impaired bodies. Obesity. Heart disease (which according to the CDC now accounts for 25% of all deaths in the US). Dental carries and all kinds of oral health problems. High blood pressure. And this is just one more of the myriad ways Civilization is stultifying.
Another is sexuality. Civilization is catastrophically stultifying to our sexualities, to both our desires and to the ways we have sex. Civilization teaches us that sex is all about power, about getting off. It enculturates males and females with too many patriarchal gender norms and roles to name here, and forces the claim that these are integral and “natural” parts of human sexuality. Civilized sex is solely about dominating others and getting off; it has nothing to do with intimate connection with another human being (or human beings), certainly nothing to do with emotions, it’s not even about procreation. When civilized people do have sex, it’s either overt rape, or so closely resembling rape and rape culture that it might as well be rape.  And increasingly, as Civilization approaches the zenith of its extreme alienation and techno-fetishism, people are less capable of and interested in having sex with each other.
In her book Vagina: a New Biography, feminist writer Naomi Wolf takes an in-depth look at porn and porn culture, and comes to a some startling conclusions. Not only are a large number of people now incapable of having sex without porn being displayed on a nearby screen, some have become so addicted to porn and its culture of theatrical abuse and absurdity that they prefer masturbating to pornography to having real sex. Perhaps even more disturbing is new neuroscience that suggests that repeated viewing of porn actually rewires the human brain, causing it to crave more porn, more extreme porn, and more alienating screen-based sex.  Couple the mind-altering drug fix of porn with recent developments in robot sex technology. For example, Roxxxy, the world’s first sex robot, whose creator claims that he’s worked with psychologists to create a “true companion” capable of “real connection” with users. Equally frightening is the Autoblow 2, a “hands-free” automatic fellatio machine.
Civilization is so impairing, so harmful to our innate animal sexuality, so stultifying to our sex lives that civilized people now prefer watching porn and getting off with machines to actual physical sex with one another. Truly stultifying, truly horrifying.
One final aspect of civilization’s inherent stultification I want to discuss is the archaic meaning of the word “stultify”. In this sense of the word, civilization doesn’t exactly stultify. It doesn’t allege or prove the unsoundness of the minds of its subjects, but Civilization does absolve civilized people of their responsibility in thousands of facets of life. One could argue that civilization itself IS the absolution of personal responsibility and deference to authority figures.
In this use of  the word, Civilization is so utterly stultifying that it’s difficult to decide where to begin describing it. Civilized people have always been stultified in terms of making their own decisions, whether deferring to the god-kings and priests of ancient Sumeria, the pharaohs and priests of Egypt, all the various Emperors, Kings, monarchs, princes, Iron Age chieftains, soldiers, prophets, slavemasters, and on and on. As a consequence of the specialization born out of agriculture, civilization has always fostered and relied upon hierarchic division and authoritarian governance. Just so, this is the foundational stultification of civilized life. Civilized subjects give over their desires, their agency and personal will, to the State and to all its enforcers, and are thus made stupider and weaker because they do so.
We see this sort of absolution of personal responsibility every day in contemporary civ. When conflict between people arises, they don’t deal with it directly and responsibly. Instead, they call cops and have each other arrested, beaten, coerced, and killed by external enforcers. Or they rely on the courts and sue each other into compliance. When the industry and civilized life require resources (as all civilized life and industry do), the people of a given civilized nation rely on the military to go seize the desired resource for them. They certainly don’t go out and take it themselves. When resources are plentiful but the urge toward violence is still prevalent, civilized people get their fix through ritualized sports teams who do the work for them. And most civilized people look to religion to tell them how and why the universe is and what morality should look like, exporting their metaphysical quandaries rather than have a direct relationship with the material world. Likewise, most civ people look to the law AND to religion to tell them what morality and ethics should be, rather than puzzle out for themselves what they think is right and wrong.
In interpersonal and intimate relationships, the same thing. Couples rely on therapists, relationship and  grief counselors, and lawyers to settle their disputes, exporting their discontent rather than work it out directly or with empowering community/friend mediation. Parents and other adults encourage their children to come to them to settle divisions between them, and children happily follow suit, deferring to adult authorities rather than learning how to resolve their own social problems. People send texts, emails, and facebook messages rather than have difficult conversations face to face.
And in all these ways and many others, civilized people collude with the project of Civilization and relinquish their own agency and personal responsibility. This is how civilization mentally and emotionally stultifies all its slaves. Though one can only speculate about such matters, it is perhaps due to this mental and emotional stultification that civilization is able to physically and sensually stultify its subjects.
In any event, Civilization is, without a doubt, the art, science, and process of stultifying the human animal. It exonerates us from our personal agency and responsibility for ourselves and our actions. It impairs us, impedes us, impinges on our lives and desires, and invalidates our existences. Ultimately, it makes us weak and stupid.
In undoing our domestication, in attempting to re-wild ourselves, it must be an integral part of our practice to discover and destroy all the ways Civilization stultifies us.
Kruska, D. (2005). On the Evolutionary Significance of Encephalization in Some Eutherian Mammals: Effects of Adaptive Radiation, Domestication, and Feralization
– Kruska, D. (1988). Effects of Domestication on Brain Structure and Behavior in Mammals
Frank, H., & Frank, M. (1985). Comparative manipulation-test performance in ten-week-old wolves (Canis lupus) and Alaskan malamutes (Canis familiaris): A Piagetian interpretation
– Udell, M., Dorey, N., & Wynne, C. (2008). Wolves Outperform Dogs in Following Human Social Cues
– Gatto, John Taylor. (2003 & 2005). Against Schools! and The Tyranny of Compulsory Schooling
– Jensen, Derrick. (2005) Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution
– Leidloff, Jean. (1975). The Continuum Concept
– Pedro Carrera-Bastos, Maelan Fontes-Villalba, James H O’Keefe, Staffan Lindeberg, Loren Cordain.(2011). The Western Diet and Lifestyle and Diseases of Civilization.
– Curry, Andrew. (2008). The Gladiator Diet.
– Eades M.D., Michael R. (2007). Obesity in Ancient Egypt.
– Wolf, Naomi. (2012). Vagina: A New Biography

Toward a Stronger Primitivism: Logical & Linguistic Failures in the Primitivist Critique and the Effort to Remedy Them


Before I jump into this piece, I want to establish concretely, for the sake of those who don’t know me or my work, that I am an ardent primitivist. I’m not some disgruntled outsider, some snarky critic bent on discrediting or dismissing the primitivist critique. I despise the hydra called Civilization, and while I stab at the heart of the Beast, so too do I seek to hack off each of its insidious heads: Patriarchy, Capitalism, Statism, Institutionalized Hierarchy, Mediation, Ecocide, and so on.

The anthropology underlying primitivism is solid, and the majority of arguments within the primitivist critique are coherent and hard to dispute. Even so, within the contemporary anti-civ milieu, there remain some glaring errors, oversights, and sketchy logic. The purpose of this piece is to address these mistakes and move toward remedying them. I offer these criticisms and suggestions as a means of honing the primitivist edge that it might better cut through the lies, delusions, and bullshit of civilization. I offer this piece as a gift and a labor of love, NOT as an attack against any person or their work, nor as an indictment against anarcho-primitivism itself. With that in mind, let’s continue.


The first topic I’d like to discuss, and one that irks me to no end, is the near-ubiquitous presence of the naturalistic fallacy in just about all the anti-civ literature I’ve read and many of the in-person dialogues I’ve had with other primitivists. The naturalistic fallacy, for folks who don’t know, is this line of reasoning: ”nature” is good, therefore that which is “natural” is good; anything that is against nature or is “unnatural” is bad. Almost every essay, book, blog post, lecture, podcast (ad nauseam) I’ve read or heard from an AP perspective suffers from this fallacy.

So much of the language we primitivists use – and I’m even guilty of this myself, when I slip up from time to time – further embeds this fallacy in our hearts, minds, and arguments. Just take a brief look at some of the words anti-civ arguments employ on the regs: we’ve already visited “Nature” and “natural”, but there’s also “wild”, “wilderness” and “wildness”, “rewilding”, “feral”, and a score of other nebulous words that fall into the naturalistic fallacy.

Worse yet, in my opinion, is the tacit underlying moral dualism in this fallacy that so regularly rears its head in political discussions. That is, even in trying to “re-wild” and un-domesticate themselves, primitivists still subscribe to the good-vs-evil, right-and-wrong morality that is a cornerstone of Civilized religion and jurisprudence. Civilization is EVIL and we anarcho-primitivists are the warriors of all that is righteous and good!

Yeah right.

Now, I’m not making some nihilist argument here that all morality and/or ethics are undesirable. I’m simply saying that to fall into the cesspool of moral dualism, of good-vs-evil thinking, is to remain dichotomous, to remain mired in Civilized patterns of thinking, and, ultimately, to remain alienated from our desires via moral justification for our philosophy and actions.

Fuck that!

Rather than hold fast to dichotomous, alienating morality, I maintain that we should argue against Civilization and all its horrors from our own experiences, desires, thoughts, and feelings. I don’t need “Nature” and what is “natural” to justify the slurry of raw horror, compassion, and rage I feel when I witness a clear cut. Nor do I need to look at “wild” human communities and their relationships to validate the visceral disgust I experience when I witness the misogyny toward and oppression of women on a daily basis.

It is enough for me, and should be enough for others, that we desire a healthy, functioning biosphere, that we want to nurture maximum biodiversity, that I love trees and non-human animals and value their lives. It should be sufficient that I respect female people and want a world in which they are not battered, raped, and killed for their sex, that I value their animal existence, and that I desire healthy interactions and communities in which women are equally valued. I cherish the Oak Savannahs of Northern California, and devoted years of my life to developing a relationship with the rainforests, valleys, and mountains of Cascadia; I love these landbases, want them to thrive, and would kill to defend them because we mutually enrich one another. I don’t need to vindicate these relationships by arguing that ecocide is “unnatural” and therefore “bad”.

To be clear, in pushing for an embrace of individual and collective desires rather than referral to fallacious moral dichotomies, I’m definitely NOT arguing against coherent language. Quite the opposite, really. In addition to re-framing AP arguments in terms of desires and relationships, I also think there are improvements to be made in regards to the actual words we utilize.

For example, when we say we want to protect the “wilderness” or return to a “wild” or “feral” way of life, what do these terms actually mean? In practice, the term “wilderness” is turbid and abstract. So too is the word “Nature”. These words describe lofty concepts, complex symbols that are deeply anchored in the Civilized psyche. How about “technology”? What symbols and imagery does that word evoke in your mind? Again, a relatively meaningless and highly symbolic word, but a word upon which many primitivists and their arguments rely.

Just so, I feel it’s crucial to rethink and re-imagine these terms such that we strengthen and reinforce the primitivist position. Let us not appeal to “nature”, that tired and dried out husk of abstraction. Instead, let us speak of the biosphere, of the intricate interconnectedness, the web of relationships that is all life – this is a concrete, physical, and tangible thing, to which we belong and of which we are a part. Let us not argue that ecocide and urbanization are “bad” because they are “unnatural”. Let us rather exult in our love of healthy, functioning landbases and egalitarian communities, and of our desire to see what we love thrive!


I witness this obnoxious tendency all the time, and the dishonesty and subtle racism embedded in this practice annoy me to no end. Usually this comes in the form of sweeping generalizations. “Native Americans were blah blah blah,” “all hunter-gatherers lived in egalitarian bands”, “no division of labor and very little sexism exist in hunter-gatherer cultures”, etc. Even among those primitivists I meet who don’t generalize, and who use particular cultures and peoples as examples in their arguments, there is a tendency to fetishize gatherer-hunters, to portray them as virtuous, as immaculate, as “good”.

This is simply dishonest, and it is untrue. Few generalizations can be made about pre-contact “Native Americans”, as there were thousands of distinct peoples, languages, cultures, customs, traditions, stories, technologies, and lifeways. Some indigenous Americans were indeed primarily hunter-gatherers, some pastoralists, some agriculturalists, some a mix of all of these. Some groups were matrilineal, and some patrilineal. Some peaceful, and some warlike. Some, like the Coast Salish and Haida peoples of Cascadia, were downright civilized – they were stationary, domesticated dogs, engaged in protracted and brutal warfare, had slaves, had centralized, hierarchic leadership, and so on.

Likewise, even among those peoples who primitivists love to reference, there’s sometimes “trouble in paradise”. The Hadza, for example, who are and have been hunter-gatherers in Tanzania since the dawn of humanity, are a favorite idol of many contemporary primitivists. They are roughly egalitarian, subsist on gathering and hunting, and live in an ecologically responsible and respectful way, much as they have forever. And yet, as Frank Marlowe describes in The Hadza: Hunter-Gatherers of Tanzania, these primal peoples practice female genital mutilation in the form of clitorectomy. This is not only a grave manifestation of misogyny and patriarchy among an otherwise “ideal” hunter-gatherer people, but it also represents a significant form of specialization in a society that is broadly anarchic and egalitarian.

These very brief and wholly incomplete examples concerning indigenous Turtle Islanders and the Hadza people serve to demonstrate the folly in tokenizing, fetishizing, and making generalizations about gatherer-hunters. In my experience, this happens quite regularly among anarcho-primitivists. I would like it to be my future experience that it stops happening, and that those with a critique of civilization speak honestly and factually about such peoples.

In fact, I’d really rather primmies speak from their own experiences and desires rather than allude to hunter-gatherers at all. Whatever the Hadza do, however various indigenous Turtle Island groups lived, whatever the behaviors of the !Kung happen to be, ultimately these things are useful to consider but are irrelevant. I want to live as a hunter-gatherer, I want to abolish the civilized death machine, I want a vibrant and fecund biosphere. That’s valid, and it’s enough. I don’t need the Hadza or Pirahã to corroborate my desires.


In recent years, as green anarchism and anarcho-primitivism have gained acceptance in radical undercurrents, I have noticed an increasingly popular and bothersome trend. As a growing number of anarchists adopt the critique of civilization, so too do they begin to look to the past for guidance and methodologies for decolonizing and rewilding (i.e.: un-domestication). This, in itself, is a praiseworthy pursuit.

However, the destination at which many anarchists arrive on this ideological journey is, unfortunately, still civilization. I’m talking about the Iron Age. The Celts. The Vikings. The Gauls, Goths, Vandals, and other Iron Age “barbarians”. European paganism, witchcraft, Scandinavian runes, and proto-Germanic polytheism. You name the Iron Age European culture, and I’ll wager there’s some well-intentioned but ignorant primitivist who’s trying to resurrect and relive it.

To a certain extent this is understandable. The hunter-gatherer peoples and cultures of Europe are eradicated – their languages are destroyed, they kept no records, and they’ve all been conquered or enslaved or raped out of existence by civilized shitbags. With little to no information remaining regarding European hunter-gatherers, and an overwhelming abundance of information about the Iron Age, it is unsurprising that many primitivists end their historical search a tad shy of the Stone Age.

Don’t get me wrong: I love viking metal and folk metal just as much as the next person. I just don’t think that’s the trajectory or end point of primitivism. I don’t want to be a Celt, I spit on my Viking heritage, I don’t want to practice European agriculture or pastoralism or insane religions full of dude-bro gods who rape and pillage. And I sure as hell don’t want to be a part of a culture that routinely and as an integral means of its existence raids, pilfers from, conquers, and rapes its neighbors. Fuck that. Fuck the Iron Age, and fuck replicating it!

For those well-intentioned and historically ignorant primitivists I mentioned (and I know there are many, because I’ve had this conversation a thousand times), please!, if you want to discover more about your European heritage, don’t stop at the Iron Age! Look into the Paleo peoples of Europa. Watch Ray Mears’ fantastic Bushcraft series, the first episode of which is entitled Aboriginal Britain. Read Tacitus’s ancient and propagandistic accounts of the Sami people of Northern Europe in his Germania. Hell, read about the Sami today, and about their forced transition between hunting-gathering and reindeer pastoralism; read about how said transition and their forced Christianization has caused the cancerous blight of patriarchy and sexist abuse to spring up in their society. There’s so much to be gleaned, so much that affirms the primitivist stance in that people’s ancient and recent history. Study the Ahrensburg culture of Paleolithic Scandinavia, the Aurignacian, then Solutrean, then later Magdalenian cultures that spanned much of mainland Europe and southwest Asboudicaia.

To be fair here, I’m not suggesting that there’s nothing to be garnished from Iron Age European cultures. As far as symbols go, I think the Germanic runic futhark (alphabet) and its associated symbolism is intriguing, fun, and cool. I think Celtic metalworking and knotwork is beautiful. I like re-purposing civilized detritus to cobble together piecemeal post-apocalyptic renditions of Iron Age armors. I like swords and scalemail, longships and fire arrows. I LOVE mead, wine, and beer! And I especially like historical accounts of “barbarians” resisting and defeating the forces of empire. Vercingetorix, the Gallic warrior-king, and Boudica, the Celtic warrior-queen who avenged the rape of her two daughters, both led their people into fierce open rebellion against Rome. I hella respect that and it inspires me, even if these were bloodthirsty, land-destroying, slave-taking civilized grain-munchers.


That’s about it for now. I have other criticisms I’d like to level at contemporary anarcho-primitivism at some point, but these are the most bothersome among them. In the hopes that this piece doesn’t spark some factious flame-war on the internet or drive ideological wedges between myself and others, I want to stress again that this is meant to be constructive criticism. Some of it is even a reminder to myself to avoid certain pitfalls of logic and discourse.

So yeah, don’t take this personally, take it proactively. With love and rage, let’s tear this monolithic shitheap down!

The Work of Opposing (and Dismantling) Civilization – Part 1: Introduction

In a recent post on his blog Uncivilized Animals, the author, Ian, quotes from John Zerzan’s piece in the current Fifth Estate. He writes:

There is an understandable, if misplaced, desire that civilization will cooperate with us and deconstruct itself. This mind set seems especially prevalent among those who shy away from resistance, from doing the work of opposing civilization.” [emphasis added]

Like Ian, I too was struck when I first read this phrase. So many times in countless discussions and debates, I’ve heard people agree with the primitivist stance against civilization, but resign themselves to inaction and despair. Yes, civilization sucks and all that, but what can be done? What can WE do?! Even among those close friends and allies whose vitriolic hatred of civilization rivals my own, this resignation is often deeply rooted.

This isn’t a new question, nor a particularly difficult task to analyze. And yet, as the anti-Civilized critique grows broader, fuller, and stronger with every passing day, the question remains unacknowledged and unaddressed. If we, as primitivists, accept that Civilization and its toxic lifeway are destroying the biosphere and immiserating all life, if we accept that Civilization and its systems of oppression are the greatest obstacle to self-actualization, autonomy, and healthy community, is this not, then, the most important question ever asked?

I hold that it is.

What does it mean to oppose Civilization? How can we set about dismantling and destroying Civilization?

This essay is concerned with these questions, with beginning to address them and to initiate dialogue about them. I by no means think that I have all the knowledge, all the answers, or that my path is singular or the “correct” way. However, being true to my animal self, I do feel that I’ve made significant inroads in answering this question and in radically transforming myself toward healthy animal being and away from the shackles of civilized life. Just so, by sharing my thoughts, feelings, and experiences regarding this question, I hope to inspire others to tackle this most daunting and pivotal of questions.

In order to properly answer this question, we must first look at Civilization itself, at its structures and methods of domination, hierarchy, and control, at its myths and narratives. The second part of this essay will do just that. Then, in each of the subsequent parts, we’ll take the information discussed in Part 2 – the structures and methods of Civilized power, i.e., the shit that makes Civ function- and explore how best to oppose, destroy, and supplant those structures.