Nick Ascroft launches the first of his two-part report on the woke revolution at Scrabble

There was an extraordinary general meeting of WESPA, the world Scrabble players’ association, at the end of February. WESPA are a licensee of Mattel, who own the registered trademark Scrabble. Incredibly, the WESPA executive tabled a motion to divorce themselves from Mattel and rename the tournament game Crossword Game or somesuch.

Representatives from countries around the world attended the Zoom meeting. The reason that WESPA was considering the move to cut ties with Mattel was due to a diktat that, on the surface, you may find yourself agreeing with. Mattel is changing the box set rules of Scrabble to eliminate hate speech. That is, derogatory slurs relating to a person’s race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, religion, and so on, are to be deemed unplayable in Scrabble. In the same way you can’t use a place name, you will not be allowed to use a slur.

But this wasn’t all. Mattel declared that its licensee Collins, who publish the official tournament word list, would remove 400-odd slurs from it, and that its licensee WESPA would ensure tournament players used this dictionary.

The vast majority of tournament players across the world, including New Zealand players, are opposed to this. Why exactly? you are asking yourself. Here’s where the optics for Scrabble players might look less favourable. I am one of those Scrabble players, not some impartial journalist. And while dutifully conflicted about it like the fair-weather liberal that I am, I am opposed to the removal of slurs from the official tournament list.

I have three main points. First, some of the most offensive slur words have other less offensive meanings. That is, there are homographs: two words, two different meanings, same spelling. Second, there’s the problem of category vagueness and the criteria for capturing offensive slurs. Some words are highly offensive to many people. Others are slightly irksome to 12 or 13 people. Where do you draw the line? And might swear words be next in the sites of expurgators?

Thirdly, we can handle it. The culture that the English language springs from has many abominable things and things about which we are uncomfortable. Some are cultural taboos, some relate to prejudice and violence, but all are expressed with words, and a dictionary intends to capture them all. Dictionaries are descriptive of the language, not prescriptive. They attempt to present words without judgment. If we can handle this from dictionaries without suing them in offence, we can handle a word game based on dictionaries. To me, this is a problem for word games based on dictionaries, as opposed to a problem of words.

Many others have stated similar sentiments, and also provided reasoning I disagree with. A few players have complained it will be a royal pain to have to unlearn 419 words. Well. Diddums. But it does draw the attention to the fact that Scrabble players will have to concentrate on a set of offensive words and work hard to remember they are no longer allowed. Many say that words out of context are neutral and cannot be offensive if not used to slur anyone in particular. This only goes so far. You are not blind to the meaning of a word just because it is used neutrally as a string of letters to score points. But context surely means a lot when it comes to words.

Those are reasons not to cut an arbitrary category of offensive words from a word list. Mattel’s proposed expurgation, however, needs a different kind of refuting. Their press release was full of aspirational language, which gently chided us to do better.

Hate speech is not a set of words

It was explicitly ‘hate speech’ they were coming down on. Hate speech is a real and deplorable thing. Hate crime even more so. Some suggest it is on the rise. But to spit vitriol and bigotry and incite violence requires no specific vocabulary. Hate speech is in the content of sentences and not in the choice of terms. It is convenient to suggest otherwise. Some opinion pieces in the US about how to tackle China’s rise contain no slur words, no swear words, but are indistinguishable from racist rhetoric. Hate speech is not a set of words.

Some have suggested the expurgation is tokenistic. One poster of colour on a Scrabble Facebook group said they welcomed the focus on racism, and thought the work should be extended to expunge any racism from Scrabble associations and clubs, but that they thought cutting words was misguided. (I noted no replies to the comment.) The hard and ongoing work of anti-racists, one suspects, is unlikely to be achieved by grand statements and rug-sweeping.

Others have written eloquent defences of anti-expurgation. The Singaporean Ricky Purnomo writes that tournament Scrabble is like boxing. What goes on inside the ring would be considered highly inappropriate outside of it. But an agreement is made that society’s rules are suspended in the ring. There needn’t be malice between the players as they try to inflict violent hurt on one another and the crowds cheer.

There are holes in this parallel, but there is some truth to it. Ricky, echoing other people of colour, says at the end that he would congratulate a player who beat him when playing a racial slur against his ethnicity. A Ugandan representative at the 2020 WESPA meeting where the world players established they were anti-expurgation, said something similar and unprintable here. The president of the New Zealand association is the child of a holocaust survivor, and the grandchild of non-survivors. He says he will happily play YID and the like.

While I am trotting out minorities, the wonderful New Zealand player Olivia En, who is Vietnamese-Cambodian, a refugee, but best of all, blind, recently wrote this in the New Zealand players’ magazine: “Is this expurgation quest really about not offending our non-white brothers and sisters, or is it actually more about making ourselves feel better? Could it be that we want to avoid feeling awkward if a racially loaded word appears on our rack and we really want to play it because it would be the perfect word for the current game position, but we fear being tagged as racists if we do? Is expurgation actually about ‘them’ or is it, once again, all about ‘us’?’”

Are Mattel really concerned about hate speech? Or is it a good look for the brand to appear woke?

This is not to say that people of colour – or blind people – are some monolith who, by a stroke of luck, back me up on every point. But I see much of the drive to remove words comes from white people, as does the hand-wringing. Some wag on a Facebook Scrabble group posted a picture of Mattel’s board of directors. They were all white. That’s not a fair dismissal of their position, and who knows if it is completely true. Yet there is some window there into another viewpoint. Is Mattel really concerned about hate speech? Or is it a good look for the brand to appear woke? Might it even be about avoiding lawsuits? An Australian has lodged an official complaint and is claiming damages from Mattel over the inclusion of slurs for aboriginal people in its dictionary.

We players want this depicted in the media as a David versus Goliath story. The corporate Goliath of Mattel is pushing us around, and we in our threadbare Scrabble players’ association are fighting back. But an easier headline is that Mattel want to end hate speech and Scrabble players want racism to continue. It’s a good angle and, in a world of tweet-length takes, harder to immediately refute. There is a larger picture, however, and the issue of the expurgation of slurs from the word list clouds what I think is the main gripe.

There are two issues really. One relates to whether or not certain offensive words should remain playable in tournament Scrabble. The other and perhaps more important issue is the fact that Mattel think it’s its decision to make. They dictated this change out of the blue without consultation. Mattel no longer care about the tournament scene. They have stopped organising or promoting tournaments or providing prize money. They were complicit in the world youth tournament – organised by committed volunteers for many years – having to change its name when Mattel licensed the use of the term ‘world Scrabble’ solely to Mind Sports International. The issue for players is whether or not we can continue to tolerate the ownership of our game by toy companies, and their revolving doors of management. The issue of expurgation and the issue of our capricious owner have become intertwined, and recently intertwined in the minds of players who bombard the Scrabble Facebook groups. (Like any social media microcosm, the most opinionated voices are the loudest.) The truth of the matter is that Mattel has sown chaos in the world game.

The world of Scrabble has already torn itself apart in North America. There, the game has not only a different rights holder, Hasbro (the other big American toy company), but a different set of playable words too. Hasbro tried to sanitise their word list in the 1990s, but came to an agreement that the list sold in book shops would be the ‘family friendly’ one, and the tournament list would keep all allowable words that appear in the source dictionaries, offensive or not.

A player suggested that to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, the N-word be removed from the tournament word list. This didn’t seem like a bad idea on the face of it

Years passed and this fragile balance held. In 2019 or early 2020, as the current story goes, a player suggested that, to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, the N-word be removed from the tournament word list. This didn’t seem like a bad idea on the face of it. People might then call for some of the other highly taboo words to be cut, but if the dictionary committee stuck to its guns and cut only this word, players would likely say, fair enough, a one-off.

This is not what happened. Instead the balance was tipped. The American association looked into cutting the word, or cutting all offensive slurs. Hasbro got wind of this move and told the president of the association that a complete cull of offensiveness would go ahead. The executive committee, knowing they couldn’t overturn Hasbro’s decision, nevertheless took a vote. An impotent majority were against expurgation.

For some American players, this was the nail in the coffin for the players’ association, which had been run with questionable levels of democracy, and had recently made an unpopular decision not to ban a widely accused sex pest. A rival association is pushing ahead, but Americans are still uncertain what their word source is to be.

Image by Nick Ascroft

WESPA, seeing the fallout in the US, decided to pre-emptively get a steer from players in the rest of the world on the feeling towards the expurgation of slurs or offensive words. The reply at the 2020 meeting of national players’ association representatives was a universal ‘no thanks’.

Then came Mattel’s press release on the removal of hate speech. Not only did they declare it as a fait accompli, they said that the work would be ongoing. A cynic might say that if anyone objected to a word left in the list they could claim further deletions were under way. This made WESPA’s dictionary committee uneasy. That the expurgation might continue unabated until only Newspeak was left might sound an over-reaction, but until this point a robust process determined inclusion and the work was a partnership between the lexicographers at Chambers or Collins and a dictionary committee of player volunteers. When the WESPA vote was lost the two main members of the WESPA dictionary committee resigned.

Meaning well, or meaning nothing, Mattel have infuriated the tournament Scrabble community, and broken the volunteerism that made a world game possible. What did they think would happen?

A US multinational toy company is in no position to dictate manners and mores. I resent its posturing on hate speech. In 2018 they laid off over 2000 workers. In 2007 they were fined by the US Consumer Products Safety Commission for marketing, importing, and selling non-compliant toys. That is, toys made on the cheap in Asia containing exposed batteries and (admittedly small) amounts of lead in the surface coatings. Mattel has long since outsourced all manufacture to Asia. It is good at making money, and this skill is not one that sits easily with morality. The idea, I suspect, is to project goodness and solidarity, and avoid bad press and lawsuits.

For Mattel, once the press release went out that it was removing slurs from the world of Scrabble I suspect it washed its hands and walked away, thinking, job done. Back to hawking Hot Wheels and Barbies. And fine. I will keep spending my money on those things as often as my terrifying four-year-old demands. Mattel is just an irritating bungler when it comes to Scrabble.

There were many reasons the WESPA vote to divorce from Mattel didn’t pass. Some were political, some procedural, some sentimental. All associations were against Mattel dictating their word list, but some weren’t ready to break with the name of their beloved game. I see a silver lining. The seed of an idea has been planted, of breaking away, of freeing Scrabble from its dubious overlords.

Tomorrow in ReadingRoom: Nick Ascroft will feed the tabloid appetite in you to see the words in question

Wellington poet Nick Ascroft is the author of five collections of poetry, published by Te Herenga Waka University Press. His celebrated poem Gone Mad (Estate agents gone mad./ I'm stuck in an elevator...

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