Thursday, May 17, 2012

how long are we going to keep doing this shit?

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.

15 comments:

Tim Donaghy said...

You say that even the original post was animated by "mockery and dismissal" and I'm trying to figure out what you're talking about. To me it seemed pretty earnest (factoring out Scalzi's usual layers of distancing sarcasm).

And yeah, he made fun of some trolls. Presumably you think he should have engaged with the trolls in some way? But how? What exactly are you saying would have been better?

What's more you seem to be using that follow-up post as ammo against the first one, which is a very different animal. Kind of a bait-and-switch, if you ask me.

Still, it's an interesting question. It seems to me there's a lot of people out there who simply won't read a "thoughtful", "pedagogical" attempt to "educate" about privilege that uses academy-approved language. Scalzi's post got attention because it cut through all that by being funny and clever. I'm inclined to see that as a huge plus.

Freddie said...

Actually, I quite liked the original post. I'm talking about his conduct with the comments. Will update to make that clear.

Tim Donaghy said...

Fair enough.

FWIW, I think the type of education you're talking about basically has to happen in the real world, face to face. If someone is going to troll a post about SWM privilege, then mere typed words probably aren't going to change their mind. A transformative encounter might, however.

So the troll-mocking was maybe in bad taste, but probably not much of a missed opportunity.

Josh said...

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?

Man, I hope you know by now that I enjoy reading your work, but those two sentences call into question a great chunk of, if not your entire blogging career. Or they would, except that of course it's more complicated than that. A single blog post, or a single writer, is not a self-contained enlightenment-generator. But Scalzi's metaphor has the advantage of resonating particularly with the demographic it's most relevant to (young, white males who can afford video games). Somewhere, not long from now, someone on a dorm-room couch will use it, and it will stick in somebody else's brain, just a little.

Freddie said...

Good points from both of you!

Josh said...

;-) I should have read the Balloon Juice post first.

Frankel said...

Freddie, don't listen to josh. While Scalia's article may have been a fun read it has no "advantage of resonating" with anyone it intended to target. You are spot on that the only people who thought anything of it were people who agreed with his points anyway.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

I've given you plenty of shit, Freddie, but this is a great post. You're absolutely right, the (largely white) online liberals who write about "privilege" are appallingly blind to class and poverty, particularly as they affect white males. I think you're right that part of it is an identification issue. But I think it's also a way of justifying their own class bubble. It's easy to feel like your circle is "diverse" because you have an Indian lesbian friend that you met at Andover or whatever; it's another to actually know something about the lives of people outside the Ivy League.
Scalzi replied to the class complaint in his follow-up, and amusingly repeated all the worst right-wing canards, saying he didn't include class because it's easy to change your class and he knows 'cause he did it. So can anyone. Christ, what an asshole.

J. Otto Pohl said...

While being the poorest and worst off white heterosexual male in the US may be "privileged" compared to being a poor black lesbian it is still a pretty low position. The fact is I don't compare myself to the most oppressed members of society. I look at other people with similar backgrounds. Compared to other straight white men with US passports and PhDs I am quite poor. Despite having a good publication record I was unable to get even an interview for a fourth rate adjunct position in the US and I applied to over 300 openings. The place that did hire me has no affirmative action because everybody here is already black. And none of the liberal and leftists complaining about racism in the US would ever apply to work here precisely because in contrast to what they say they have a strong aversion to actually living in black majority societies.

Will Shetterly said...

Mockery is the standard response for many in the "social justice" community. It comes, I suspect from the tension between the desire to make the world a nicer place and one of their favorite memes about not having to educate anyone or "teach 101" as they condescendingly say.

Will Shetterly said...

I noted this at Balloon Juice, but it makes sense here, too. Martin Luther King, who did not mock people, said, “In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.”

And since we're dealing with rights and mockery, here's Malcolm X: "Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery."

Ben Schwartz said...

Freddie, I completely sympathize with your questions about whether self-criticality can be celebrated broadly. I often wonder about this myself. If I can use what I hope is a functional but not-too-trite analogy: I think that self-criticality in writing is sort of like discipline in martial arts. When you start writing on the interwebs, whether a blog or just comments somewhere, you're often motivated by the goal of defeating one's argumentative opponents. Much like the martial arts initiate, you seek to utilize your fledgling resources and strengths in whatever manner gets the job done (or you think gets the job done). And also like martial arts, a kind of brash self-confidence often accompanies these initial efforts. Lest you show your fear or uncertainty and have it used against you. Yet, as the martial artist progresses in his education he realizes that the goal is less and less to defeat one's enemies, and instead to avoid confrontation entirely. Of course he learns this while ironically mastering his physical skills to a much greater degree than when he first wished to only crush his enemies. In writing you see the same kind of progression. After suffering a few setbacks and realizing that you still have some things to learn, your writing becomes more humble and equivocal. You use less absolutist modifiers. You start to explicitly acknowledge the limits of your own intellect and abilities. And ironically, you become more persuasive precisely because you stop attempting to bludgeon your interlocutors with persuasiveness.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Straight white males are around a third of the population. While there is a certain advantage to mapping that way, it's not as large as the advantage to mapping to wealth; and I agree that the professional left has an issue with condescension in this area, to me-too the wise Will Shetterly.

Anonymous said...

"...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."

This, this, a thousand times this.

It's about attention, and nothing but. That his feigning of support tends toward liberal causes is simply because that's where the chips of expediency fall in our current sociopolitcal climate. If you attack the liberal mindset, you face the wrath of people who are, by and large, well-educated and who stand a good chance of arguing you into the dust and making you look like a fool. It's simply not a case of time and effort well spent, and could definitely have a negative effect on one's carefully-groomed public image as an alleged supergenius.

On the other hand, if you attack the conservative mindset, you get what you see in entry after entry throughout Scalzi's blog -- assaults from the less intelligent, hair-trigger, 'fuck you, man!' crowd, who are easily dealt with, cut down, and dismissed. Takes less time, allows you to treat the process as an assembly line of boilerplate insult & shaming rhetoric, and, after a few hundred thousand blowings-away of the easiest of targets, makes you look like quite the marksman.

Or to put it in currently-fashionable video game terms: if you need to earn experience points, you can take the risk of attacking a powerful, high-level monster, or you can wander around grinding out kill after kill of Level One Nothings with no danger to yourself.

In the end, for him it is *never* about trying to make the world a better place. If charred ash were currency, Scalzi would burn this world and everything in it to the ground without hesitation. In the end, it is *only* about getting website hits -- hits that translate into book sales, hits that lead to people in the SF writing community making themselves into exploitable resources who owe him favors, hits that help him sell his services to Hollywood.

To mistake him for someone who wants to make a positive change in anything besides his bank balance is to make an error of the worst sort possible.

Anonymous said...

"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."

EXACTLY. This isn't persuasive writing at all, just preaching to the choir, and said choir ate it up.

But if his intended audience were to read the piece more critically they'd realize Scalzi's hand-waving denial of the effect of poverty effectively makes his argument identical to the argument made by every right-wing pundit: if you can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps it's your own fault. There's even some anecdotal "If I can do it, you can too!", charming.