The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Twelve: Being Heard

I have the expectation that when I want to say something, people will listen.

I have that expectation because for the large majority of my life that is what’s happened. When I was a child, I could expect to be listened to by teachers and by others because I was clever and good with words. When I was in high school and college I was That Guy Who Wrote Things, who was encouraged by educators to get my words out there and given spaces where others would read my words and react to them.

When I left college, my first job was as a critic and a commentator — literally someone who is paid to tell people what he thinks. I’ve been paid to be a critic or commentator almost without interruption for twenty years. I started a blog just before they became a thing and have benefited from 13 years of growing an audience and being linked to by others. On any given day, tens of thousands of people drop by to see what I’m blathering about now, and occasionally (like the last couple of days) rather more people visit than that.

Just short of seven years ago now I became a successful novelist and a (very) minor celebrity; one of the side effects of this peculiar status is that now there are people who are interested in what I have to say because I’m me.

At this point in my life, me speaking and being heard are expected enough that when I don’t speak, people wonder why. If I take a day off from the blog without telling people I’m doing so, I get concerned e-mails asking me if everything’s okay. Speaking and having what I’ve said being heard is my default state. It pretty much always has been.

Certainly some of this is by design, and effort on my part — I’ve used my skills to raise my voice because I like being heard. But then again, come on, who doesn’t? Who doesn’t want to be able to have the option, when they choose to speak, of having those around them pay attention and take them seriously? There are also other things at play here, the things I get for free.

Like what? Well, like luck, which I have very recently essayed in terms of how it’s affected my life and career. Riding the wave of the blog revolution back in the day, and having my fiction career take off in the manner it has certainly expanded my ability to say what I want to say and get it out into the world. Being in the right place at the right time does wonders.

And, why, yes, as it happens, so does being a well-off straight white male. Yes! I know! Still! Amazing. Many in the Straight White Male community like to roll their eyes and get affronted whenever it’s suggested that being these things continues to confer an unearned benefit, but, well. I think the rest of us know better. Speaking as a well-off straight white male, what it means is that when I speak, and people run through their checklist of Default Reasons to Ignore Me, they can’t cross off any of the usual boxes. That’s helpful.

(But, but, but — there are women and minorities and gays and maybe even poor people who get heard too, you know! Indeed there are. Generally speaking, I don’t have to work as hard for it as they do, and I don’t get nearly the amount of crap they get for doing it. Life’s not fair, and sometimes the “not fair” aspect bends in one’s favor. This is how it works for me.)

Being heard is usually beneficial, but it does have a flipside: When one shows one’s ass, that ass is seen from a long way off. This seems fair to me, although speaking from experience it’s no fun when it happens. What one hopes to learn from such events is that being heard comes, if not with responsibilities, then at least with consequences. If you’re lucky, what you take away from the experience of showing your ass is an understanding that what you say matters in one way or another. Therefore it’s worth making the effort to say it right and to try to know a bit on what you’re talking about, or be upfront about what you don’t know.

If you’re not lucky, what you take away from events like that is that some people just can’t take a joke and should really lighten up. Here’s a pro tip: When you say “It’s just a joke, lighten up,” it’s understood by the rest of the world as you saying “I’m almost certainly being an asshole right now.”

I like being heard when I have something to say, even when what I have to say is “look, this is my cat.” I recognize that this ability I have is partially earned though my own effort, but was also partially given to me by things and events I don’t control. I acknowledge the fact of what’s unearned and work on the things I do control, and I give thought to what I say because at the end of the day, what I say is how most people know me. I’m thankful to be heard. I try to be worth listening to.

23 thoughts on “The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Twelve: Being Heard

  1. It also helps a great deal that you have funny or interesting or clever or profound things to say. And that you aren’t a pedantic political “believe me or you are an idiot!” person. That makes you worth listening to.

  2. Yup. Those are things I work on. A good guideline for me is my own bullshit and boredom detectors. I get bored easily, including with my own writing, and I (generally) know when what I’m writing is vaguely ridiculous. It helps.

  3. I would add that there’s a certain amouunt of gratitude to confer not only on the Straight White Male status, but the Straight White *American* Male status. In this country, and in what we refer to as “the civilized world”, you get paid to write fictional stories, and you get paid for your personal opinion, totally without consequence except for when someone tells you they don’t like what you wrote, or they disagree with your position on something. Living in “the civilized world” means that we can each have our own opinions, and we can express our opinions openly, without fear of retribution. In many countries, unfortunately, this is still a Big No-no.

    In short…I’m grateful for the First Amendment.

  4. Not just a well off, straight, white, male, but an American, well off, straight, white, male. In the great dice roll of life it’s all sixes. Naturally I’m insanely jealous since I only qualify for one of those criteria, well one unqualified example and one where it is only relative to people not in my hemisphere.

    I count myself insanely lucky to even get one an a half. I know how hard it is to be heard with that, I am really, really grateful my life-lottery gave me even that advantage. It’s a tragedy of the highest order that most of the planet will never be listened to. Those of us who have even the slightest advantage ought to feel much more of a duty than most of us do to speak on their behalf.

  5. My father, Cum Laude from Harvard, listened to me, and corrected my grammar politely. My mother, Magna Cum Laude from Northwestern, listened to me, corrected my grammar politely, and gave me books to read. Their parents, and 2 of their grandparents, listened to me, and told me how much better it was to live in America now. My teachers listened to me, and gave me homework assignments plus motivation. Some of those teachers had NObel Prizes or Yale Younger Poets Awards and so forth. I started going to famous authors — Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, and asked to co-author with me. They listened, because by now I had something to say.

  6. Speaking of “look, this is my cat”… I’m eagerly anticipating whatever day of Thanksgiving Advent has to do with the pets. There are no pet pictures on your front page right now! It’s almost criminal!

  7. You didn’t talk until you were nearly 2 yrs old. We figured that until then you had nothing to say. Then you talked in complete sentences with knowledge about what you were going to say. Of course people listened, some thrilled (me) and some a little scared. You haven’t really stopped talking, learning, writing since that time. I am proud that you have a voice and very thankful to have you as my son. Love to all, Mom

  8. And you’re never more heard than when what you have to say is “look, this is my cat with bacon taped to its side!” It’s a weird world.

    ps Is that really your mom? What an awesome note from her!

  9. John, your own personal demographics aside, I think it is more your personality and sense of humor that makes you so easy to sit up and take notice when you speak. And by the way, how IS the cat?

  10. The fact that you didn’t speak until you were 2 years old brings to mind the story of 10 year old Billy who had never spoken a word. Every morning he came downstars for breakfast, drank a cup of hot chocolate, then went about his day in silence. One morning, Billy came downstairs, sipped his hot chocolate, spit it back into his cup and said “Yuck! That’s the worst hot chocolate I’ve ever had in my life”. His mother leapt with joy. “Billy, you can speak! Why have you never spoken before?” she asked. “Well,” said Billy, ” up until now everything was okay”.

  11. Recognizing those ~free~ gifts (white, male, etc.) is brilliant. My sons didn’t get a chance to discover it for themselves because I introduced it before they were old enough to be that introspective. I’ve always felt that it’s difficult enough to be human in this world and every bit of assistance one can offer is a most humane thing. Using your platform to offer your thoughts/views/humor is, I think, a way to offer that assistance to those who may not have figured it out on their own or maybe just need a ‘bump’ in the right direction. Good on you.

    Hello John’s Mom! Congrats on your son. I have 2 of my own and am forever grateful for their presence in my life. I claim nothing because as my dear & departed Southern Gramma once told me; Don’t claim credit for the good things they do so you don’t have to take the blame for the bad stuff. (all her kids were good ones so we’ll never know =)

  12. John: you have an awesome Mom.

    John’s Mom: I’m taking a wild guess here that your son grew up with the expectation of being listened to and taken seriously because you listened to him and took him seriously from the get-go. IMO as both a child and a parent, that’s one of the first, best, and most lasting things you can give your children.

    Congratulations to you both!

  13. Odd that this topic surfaced today. Almost synchronicity, as I wanted to comment on the discussions I’ve been reading here about JoPa and the Republican candidates over the past few days but didn’t want to hijack the thread to do so.

    I don’t believe I was ever seriously listened to as a kid and came from a family situation where I was mostly encouraged to stay out of the way. I kind of feel that most of my internal life has been somewhat apologetic for even existing while externally trying to justify that existence.

    I am a fairly new (maybe a year?) visitor to your site, mostly a lurker but once in a great while making a fairly throw-away comment.

    I’ve been reading the JoPa and Republican candidate discussions and kind of shaking my head in wonder. I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen/heard such articulate, well considered and respectful (mostly) conversations between such a varied group of people with obviously differing opinions. It has been a very rich learning experience for me to watch this process, which has frequently included a policing of flawed assumptions or facts by the participants.

    Your comments today about being listened to and its results in your life caused an *ahhhh…* nod from me.

    It is a new value to me to understand commenting from a place of something considered that I want to say rather than from just wanting to say something.

    Respectfully, wow wow and more wow. Thank you so much.

  14. You just helped me realize that I’ve been showing my ass a little too often in my own little sphere where people listen to me. Thanks, John.

    and to John’s Mom, you did a pretty good job with your son, maybe he’ll get around to being thankful for you on this little list at some point. (j/k John)

  15. Being listened too is a great gift, yes.

    I’ve been raised to be quiet – the whole “being seen, not heard” bit you know? – and while I am sure there was no malice behind it, I regulary find myself still apologizing for taking space and breathing air. It’s a hard habit to get out of. Getting better, but still, I ruined so much oppertunities with that…

  16. I’m thankful that you found the voice that you have, that it is so wonderfully skilled, and that you chose to share it with us. It has moved me tears, and to laughter, and I hope you, and it, continue to do so for a very long time.

  17. Liz:
    True story. I also didn’t talk until I was 2 years old. My mother said I didn’t even try. She took me to a doctor to have me checked to see if I was retarded (as they said in those days). The doctor said I was fine, but apparently just didn’t have anything to say.

  18. Hey John. I don’t really read any science fiction, and have never read one of your books, but I read your blog just because I enjoy your particular brand of blather! :) Can’t remember how I found you originally, but I’m glad I did.

  19. I’d like to ask about the straight, white male privilege concept.

    1. Does the concept of straight, white, male privilege assume that it works because straight, white, men are racist, homophobic chauvinists?

    So there are two models in my head, and I’m not sure which one you have in mind. In version 1 there’s an assumption that most or at least a sizable portion of SWMs treat other SWMs preferentially because they’re racist, homophobic, and sexist. But in an alternative view, all human beings relate more readily to those who are like them. In which case the SWMs aren’t necessarily particularly bigoted. They are just in positions of power. (Which, itself, may be a result of various historical discrimination, but let’s set that aside for the moment.) So if I was a lesbian, Native-American woman, then other lesbian, Native-American women would tend to treat me better (unconsciously) than SWMs, but since there aren’t a lot of lesbian, Native-American women running Fortune 500 companies it doesn’t help me out as much overall.

    I think a lot of folks who roll their eyes when they hear “male privilege” may be reacting to a perceived accusation that they are bigots or that they at least benefit from the bigotry of others. (Version 1). But if we sort of defuse the bigotry accusation–and I think that’s reasonable based on studies of human behavior–then perhaps there’s room for more common ground on the issue? I don’t know, but I’d like to know which–version 1 or version 2–more closely represents your view, John. (And others, of course.)

    2. What’s the morality of receiving unearned benefits?

    I’ll set this one up really quick with three scenarios. Each (hypothetical) scenario ends in me going to college and getting a better job than I otherwise would have gotten, but there are three routes to the same ending.

    A. I worked really hard and earned better grades.
    B. My teacher demonstrated favoritism and gave me higher grades than I had earned.
    C. My parents demonstrated favoritism and got me into very good private schools at an early age (which they paid for by making sacrifices and using need-based scholarships) and so–with the same amount of effort I got better grades than I otherwise would have.

    The last two – B and C – seem really similar when written out this way, but I just have this gut intuition that they are different in some important way that I can’t quite articulate. I think people who don’t like to hear about SWM privilege may be, in effect, reacting to a perceived accusation that SWM privilege is entirely type B. They might feel it’s entirely type C. I think it’s certainly a mixture of the two.

    I’d like to know what John and others think, however. To what extent is SWM privilege like B rather than C, or am I just totally off base?

  20. Nathaniel Givens

    Just tackling question 1 here:

    It isn’t just that we tend to favor people who are like us. It’s that we don’t, instinctively, see the experiences of people who are unlike us. Going from a base-state, no-history, no-culture argument, I as a woman don’t understand what it’s like to be a man, any more than you as a man understand what it’s like to be a woman. So I not only favor women, but I don’t quite get what you see in men.

    But we’re not in that world. We’re in a world where we’re influenced by culture, by books and advertisements and religion, and the subtle morality we parse from our legal system. And all of these things, historically, have been created by one set of people, expressing their instinctive feeling that people like them are just right, and people not like them are kinda subtly wrong. And that has become our template for what books and laws and all the trappings of culture should be like.

    Thing is, people internalize the messages of their culture. So women, and people of color, grow up in a culture where the books and the laws and all of the culture says that mens’ experience is normal, that being a white male is the default and there’s something wrong, or at least extra-notable, in being something else. And it’s hard not to soak that up like a sponge, to internalize those judgments. It’s hard to look at women and not half-look at them the way that heterosexual men do, as other, as people whose appearance and attractiveness is an important factor (because, you know, mating). It’s hard not to see myself as a failed man.

    Privilege is about the fact that I grew up in a cultural context that taught me about how you see the world, to the extent that I try to make my experiences fit it unless I work on changing that. But you did not grow up in a context that taught you how I (would) see the world (to the extent that I was not taught to see it your way). You are, unless you put some effort into it, blind to how I experience the world.

    The reason it gets into all kinds of guilt and shame (one reason, anyway) is that much of what you’re not seeing fall into the category of “penalties for not being the default straight white male”. So when you take the blinders off, when you make the effort, it turns out that a lot of the things that you haven’t been seeing or haven’t considered the impact of on women are guy things. And a lot of the people who are perpetrating them—some obliviously, and some intentionally, because people do vary—are the people you’re naturally sympathetic with. That you identify with. People like you, maybe even (unconsciously, probably) you at some point in the past.

    Some people bounce off of that, and bounce off it hard. Thus the inevitable Privilege Thrash.

  21. Abi Sutherland @1:37am

    That was incredibly well articulated. This is a difficult issue to understand, and you make it very clear. Thank you.

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