So this followup post by John Scalzi is very, very teachable.
Over at Balloon Juice, I wrote about Scalzi's much ballyhooed, much Twitterati-beloved piece on how to talk about privilege to the people who have it. I wrote at BJ about the post's failure to appropriately highlight poverty and social class. Scalzi hides discussion of socioeconomic class in his consideration of skill points (or whatever) and how they're unevenly distributed. He makes no attempt to distinguish between random factors and poverty, which we know (empirically) is not random but rather heritable, self-replicating, and enormously difficult to rescue yourself from. And unfortunately, the white liberal political class is terrible at talking about white poverty. Taking white poverty seriously and advocating for the interests of poor white people is simply too challenging to the social and cultural commitments of most people in the media. I think that's important so I wrote about it. Because there's tremendous suffering, out there, and it is preventable, and the people suffering from it don't deserve it, even when white, straight, and male.
Unfortunately, since the initial post Scalzi has not made things better. He's made them worse. A rundown:
1. John Scalzi publishes the post, which has the explicit purpose of making it easier to convince white straight men of their privilege and, in doing so, perhaps reduce racism, sexism, and homophobia a little. You know. Improve social justice, that sort of thing.
2. Straight white men show up in the comments of the post and, as is frequently the case, say stupid, misguided stuff, about how they're the real victims, sexism isn't real, etc. In other words, they announce themselves as precisely the people who need educating about privilege.
3. Scalzi does not educate them. He mocks and dismisses them. His supportive commenters either lavish his post with praise, engage in the mockery themselves, or both. Scalzi publishes an entire post which has no function other than to mock the (admittedly ignorant and wrong) men who he claimed to want to educate. Given human nature, they are likely to be less willing than before to admit their privilege or to consider racism, sexism, and homophobia. Again, commenters sympathetic to Scalzi participate in mocking the rubes and fall over themselves praising him.
4. Scalzi publishes the followup. It deepens every one of his sins. He responds to claims that he should have talked more about poverty by claiming that poverty is different from race, sex, or sexual orientation because it isn't "intrinsic." (I would argue that this is an ass-covering way of implicating poor people in their own poverty.) He continues with the mockery and dismissal that animated the original post. He is completely dismissive of the idea that we have to demonstrate privilege empirically, when in fact that is absolutely necessary for engendering change. Worst, he expresses a kind of condescending ambivalence to the question of what white straight men should do-- exacerbating all of the negative feelings of the people who need to know how to behave better and giving them an excuse to exculpate themselves.
There appear to be two rational explanations for this behavior. One is that Scalzi and the commenters who aped his behavior have a simply atrocious grasp on psychology, human behavior, and politics, and sincerely believed that mocking people would lead to their enlightenment. The other is that John Scalzi's purpose was never to actually contribute to education and social justice, but rather to demonstrate his superiority to those people he claimed to want to educate, and in doing so show what a brilliant and enlightened guy he is to the liberals he is in cultural competition with.
The idiom that Scalzi has used to present his case is no doubt familiar to you. It's the default language of many prominent liberal or leftist publication when the talk about racism, sexism, or homophobia: self-aggrandizing, pawing at a kind of witty derision, choked with condescension, and invoking a tribalism of the enlightened. That this kind of discourse is a profound rhetorical failure-- that it is the kind of language that is never going to convince anyone of anything-- appears to be of no consequence.
Scalzi's piece is teachable in large part because his initial post stated explicitly that he wanted to provoke change, that he was out to show a way to better inform people and educate them. Which means that he can't defend his subsequent conduct by saying that he was just trying to get to "the critical truth," or whatever else people say when they dismiss their total failure to express their politics in a way that has a chance to produce tangible benefits. He said he was engaging in an attempt to engage with the problem, but then did everything possible to undermine that engagement, and in a way that brought him accolades. (I often wonder: do people think it's merely a coincidence that their discussions of race and gender and social justice always end up being a discussion of their own superiority?)
I read a lot of articles, blog posts, and tweets expressed in this language. I can't imagine someone arguing that it's working. The people who talk this way, after all, would agree that this is still a terribly racist, sexist, and homophobic society. And I'm sure that they would tell you they want to change that. So why the continued use of totally ineffective tactics? Why engage in language that ensures that you aren't going to actually invite anyone into greater enlightenment? If you just don't care, cool. If you want to pose and say "it's not my job to enlighten the ignorant," cool; you aren't obligated to try and fix things. But please, if you think that these problems are worth solving, and you want to give yourself credit for being on the right side, consider your rhetoric. Ask yourself if the language of condescension is actually a vehicle for any real change. Consider whether you have to choose between being funny and cutting or being productive.
How long are we gonna do this shit before we realize that this is why we lose? And what will it take for critical self-reflection to be as celebrated, linked, tweeted, and read as self-aggrandizement?
Update: To be clear, I quite liked what Scalzi was doing in the original post. What bothered me was his reaction in comments and the subsequent posts he's done. It bothers me precisely because he undermines what he could have accomplished in the first place.