Cancelling Cawthon: Why The Five Nights At Freddy's Controversy Is Ridiculous
Republicans are not welcome in the indie game dev scene. Well, not if you vote Republican anyways.
Five Night’s At Freddy’s creator Scott Cawthon announced his retirement yesterday after his financial donations to Republican politicians—and Tulsi Gabbard—were revealed. Deplorable heavyweights Cawthon donated to include Donald “King Cheeto” Trump, Mitch “Turtle Man” McConnell and Kevin “Whodat?” McCarthy. The list of horrors goes on and on.
Cawthon done goofed, my droogies. He committed one of the gravest, most diabolical sins in the known universe: Voting Republican as an indie video game developer.
I’ve written up an explainer of the controversy at my Forbes blog, so hop over there if you need to brush up on the details. Basically, fans in the FNAF community who are also part of the LGBTQ community (or allies of said community) are upset by Cawthon’s donations. They view this as a direct attack on LGBTQ rights since some of these politicians are anti-gay, anti-trans and so forth. Generally speaking, the GOP is less queer-friendly than the Democrats, though this is obviously not universally true and gay Republicans actually do exist in the wild.
Cawthon explained that he has never judged anyone by their color or sexual orientation (a mark of white-cis-hetero-male privilege if ever there was one) and that his support for Republican candidates is based on other factors—economics, foreign policy and so forth. But this didn’t stop a conflagration of backlash and retribution including denunciations on reddit and Twitter and even doxxing and threats. Par for the course these days, basically.
So Cawthon posted a long explanation about his financial donations and political views and said he’d step down if need be and then, sure enough, he stepped down. This was his own choice and something he did to help heal the community and preserve the integrity of the games. He’s made his money (clearly, donating all this scratch to the GOP and even more—$500,000 in one fell swoop—to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital).
So what to make of all this? Should Cawthon be cancelled over his support for Trump and the Republican party? If you vote Republican are you homophobic by default?
I voted for Barack Obama twice, but candidate Obama was opposed to gay marriage and only changed his mind on the issue after he was elected. I have been a staunch supporter of gay marriage since long before Obama was—but I still voted for him. His politics were still better than Republican stances on the issue as far as I could tell. What if I’d voted for a Republican instead because of some other issues (taxes or foreign policy or something) figuring that Democrats also opposed gay marriage so what’s the difference? You can already see how this kind of juggling act gets tricky fast.
Donald Trump was far from an ideal candidate when it came to LGBTQ issues, but beyond a single policy decision—banning trans servicemembers in the military, one of the thornier issues in the trans-rights debate—he was mostly silent or had positive things to say about gay people who, in his own bizarro version of reality, all loved him more than any other president. As far as I can tell, Trump bears no ill will toward the LGBTQ community, even if the party he globbed onto sometimes does, at least within the religious right.
Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, spent her long career as a Democratic leader opposing gay marriage—until she didn’t. The political winds changed and HRC changed with them. Same with Biden. Both these politicians voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq.
The point being, of course, that politics and democracy are messy and imperfect and support for one candidate or another is usually based on a variety of issues, not the full array of positions a candidate takes. Anyone who has ever voted—holding their nose often enough—is aware of this fact. Far too often we choose between the lesser of two evils because the only other option is not choosing at all—a choice in and of itself and also an imperfect one.
How do we judge another person’s values and character? Is it even our business to begin with?
If a person truly believes, for instance, that a fetus is a human life and that abortion is murder, should they not vote accordingly? Do they not have a moral obligation to vote on issues of life first and foremost (one reason foreign policy ranks so high in my own totem pole of beliefs given the loss of life our foreign policy decisions can lead to). Even if we disagree with someone about this position, should we demand that they sacrifice their own moral values in order to more closely align with our own? Making hypocrites out of our political opponents is a shallow kind of moral victory. So is bullying them into submission. If Cawthon voted for more pro-LGBTQ candidates, but those candidates supported positions he was morally opposed to, what would that achieve? We are very rarely confronted with easy, tidy choices and outcomes in this life. Realizing that is part of growing up.
Politics have become disproportionally important in this culture we’ve constructed, in our social lives, in our schools and in just about every interaction we have with others. On the one hand, being politically aware and involved is great. It can lead to a healthier democracy. Apathy is dangerous for obvious reasons.
On the other hand, it can also lead to unnecessary strife. Many Americans view one another as enemies now. Not just political opponents but literally enemies. In schools, kids are hyper-aware of one another’s political affiliations and just always too plugged into politics in general and identity politics above all else. Back in my day—when we walked uphill both ways miles and miles to school in the snow—we rarely knew or cared which politician other kids’ parents voted for. In high school I’m pretty sure the extent of our political conversation was joking around about Bill Clinton and blowjobs. 9/11 happened not long after I graduated and then the iPhone came along and Facebook and Twitter not long after that. Everything changed after the Fire Nation attacked.
Everything is political now but people are, paradoxically enough, still just as ill-informed about politics, history, science and all the other factors we ought to take into account when we make decisions.
There’s a fine line between political awareness and an unhealthy obsession with politics (and identity politics in particular, which are so easy to latch onto and obsess over uncritically). Cawthon is a Republican, and this makes him the enemy. I am a liberal but I don’t like woke politics so I’m basically a fascist (despite never having voted Republican in my life, let alone donated money to one!)
Also, liberals hate America and the Constitution. Republicans are all gun nuts and racists. The Left wants to burn everything down, get rid of police and let illegal immigrants run things (I’m still waiting for my damn taco trucks on every corner!) Baskets of deporables in MAGA hats are retiring to mansions built with nothing more than white privilege. If you don’t love America leave it. If you voted for Trump you’re a Nazi. If you voted for Biden you’re basically killing baby Jesus.
The Others are coming for your rights, whatever those rights may be, and we must stop them at all costs.
It’s madness. It’s exhausting. Cancelling Cawthon doesn’t solve anything. His resignation won’t help the LGBTQ community—but somehow we’ve come to a place in our culture where we think that an indie game dev’s political affiliation is enough to smear and denounce him, and that cancelling him counts as some kind of grand moral victory.
There’s an unfortunate but prevailing sentiment among non-marginalized people that in order for one to be racist, homophobic, or transphobic, one must be an active and malicious participant in racist, homophobic, or transphobic actions, or shun the people racism and homophobia affects. It’s the “Black friend” defense. Cawthon can’t be homophobic or transphobic, look at all the LGBTQIA+ people he’s befriended.
“I’ve never cared about anyone’s race, religion, gender, or orientation,” Cawthon wrote. “I just treat people as people, everyone the same, and because of that, I’ve ended up with a very diverse group of people that I’ve worked with over the years.”
But like racism, the rampant homophobia and transphobia in this country is systemic. It is a vast network of laws and practices that work together to oppress marginalized groups. And because it is systemic, only systemic action can reverse it. That means passing laws that protect the rights of people of the LGBTQIA+ community. It also means not supporting the kinds of people that vote for laws that disenfranchise these communities. It doesn’t matter that Cawthon has so many diverse friends, because his donations enabled the continued oppression of those friends.
If racism, homophobia and transphobia are systemic (rampant, even) then how does cancelling one person at a time actually achieve . . . anything? The point of recognizing systemic bigotry is acknowledging that it goes well beyond one person’s feelings or words or actions. Cancelling Cawthon won’t change a thing. A nice guy with some old-fashioned values we may not share—who has made games about Jesus and the bible in the past—getting ousted from FNAF will not bring justice to a single soul.
Cancel culture seems to only affect people who actually do care about these issues—who care but maybe not enough to be part of the tribe. It’s not enough to be a non-racist these days you have to be anti-racist now actively seeking out people to denounce as racists (and won’t you buy the book or hire me as a speaker at your company retreat to show you just how anti-racist you ought to be???). If you’re not denouncing someone else as a witch, you must be a witch yourself. So much for “do not judge lest thee be judged” it’s every man for himself.
You can’t really cancel true racists because they don’t care. Richard Spencer wants you to call him a racist. That’s his schtick. That’s what fuels his appeal to other racists. Regular people like Cawthon are easier targets. And who cares if it makes more sense to work together and seek out allies and treat people with respect even when they don’t share all the same values or vote for the same politicians. It’s no fun. It’s hard work. There’s no dopamine rush.
I’ll end with a question that I’m not sure I have an answer to. I take the position that Cawthon’s political donations, coupled with his statements and explanations, make it pretty clear that he isn’t anti-LGBTQ and shouldn’t be treated as such. His politics are his business based on his own worldview, his religious values and his observations of the world.
But what if those donations hadn’t been made to Republicans, but to actual Nazis? What if Cawthon had given money to Spencer or sent off donations to the KKK? What then? We all have sliding scales when it comes to these sorts of moral calculations. I wouldn’t want to buy games from someone whose money is going to prop up actual Nazis, so why should I care if some people don’t want to support a man who gives his money to Republicans? That’s their right, and it’s Cawthon’s right to give money to whoever he likes.
There’s nothing wrong with voting with one’s wallet. We live in a free country. We can donate money to communists or fascists or any other political group because we enjoy freedom of speech and expression and people can form their own opinions about that and act accordingly.
Maybe what we all need is to take a deep collective breath and stop looking at all the ways we’re different all the time. On a molecular level we’re remarkably similar. When it comes to values, there’s not such a huge divide between most of us either.
There’s just not that much daylight between the Republicans and Democrats when it comes to fundamentals. Both tend to get us into wars and favor the rich over the poor and both have historically supported positions that hurt marginalized groups. Meanwhile, most people—mostly powerless and alone and just looking to be part of a community—I think most of us want to support what we believe will make the world a better place. We see enemies everywhere, but maybe that’s a symptom of a deeper sickness. Maybe that’s just what they want us to see. Better to keep the peasants fighting over scraps, over a grab bag of identity politics, than to stare down the barrel of a unified populace.
Read more about this controversy at my Forbes blog, and thanks so much for subscribing to diabolical! I have another Substack you should also check out: At fantastical I put the politics on hold and focus entirely on the good things in life. Games, movies, fiction, fun. It’s the yang to this newsletter’s yin, because what are we without balance in our lives?
My latest post at diabolical is about Halo Infinite and the controversy I stirred up when I made a joke about fake Cortana. Bad bad Erik! Wicked, bad naughty evil Erik!