And Now Some Meta

Folks here and elsewhere have asked or speculated on the roots of my “Things I Don’t Have to Think About Today” piece on Monday. The fact is that I don’t have any particular reason for having written it when I did; unlike the “Being Poor” piece, which was written in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there wasn’t a single event from which it springs. I’ve just been thinking of this stuff for a bit, and the idea of writing something along this line has been rolling around in my head. This weekend I had some free time, so writing it up seemed like a good way to spend a Sunday evening. I posted it early morning Monday rather than Sunday night because I figured it might get contentious comments, and for moderation purposes I didn’t want to spend the first several hours of the comment thread asleep. That’s pretty much the reason it came out when it did.

As to why I’ve been thinking about this stuff at all, well, again, there’s no particular reason, except possibly for the fact that over the last several weeks I’ve been listening to and reading friends and others dealing with various nonsense that I don’t have to deal with on a personal level. It’s made me aware of just how much pointless crap I manage to avoid due to phenotype, both in a precise sense of the word and in a looser cultural sense. Which, to be clear, I am glad for, since I’m happy to avoid as much pointless crap as I can in day-to-day living. But I’m aware I get to avoid lots of it for reasons that aren’t about me. It seemed a good topic to write on.

Along the way I’ve seen a little bit of discussion on whether I wrote the piece out of white male guilt or to get Internet cookies or because this is me marketing myself so people will buy my stuff. The latter I find a bit clueless (if you want to see me in actual marketing mode, I’ll be happy to outline everything I did for Clash of the Geeks), and as to the former, I’m not well known for feeling guilt or for needing approval. The reason I wrote it really is the simplest explanation: it was on my mind and I decided to write about it. That’s what Whatever is for.

36 Comments on “And Now Some Meta”

  1. I think you wrote it because you are a good person and felt you had something important to say.

  2. I think rather than “guilt” it would be better to say “recognition of privilege by someone who enjoys said privilege (even though none of those things should _be_ privileges).”, though that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

  3. Damn writers writing all the time. What’s with all the writing, anyways? You know who writes because they just like writing? WRITERS.

    Stupid writers. Hate those guys.

  4. I’m thankful for the piece, John, as I’ve been considering my own accidental affluence recently. I have nothing particularly insightful to add, except that your piece probably scratches just into the thinnest surface of things I don’t have to worry about today.

  5. What Ben said. I don’t feel precisely guilty about my privilege but it’s important to recognize how much my path is smoothed and how much other folks have to overcome. I liked your piece because it was thoughtful and thought-inspiring.

  6. I actually like this post more then the one it comments about. I am white, male, and fairly good looking. Life is pretty darn easy for me, and all because of things that were handed to me. That is to say, I have been gifted. That doesn’t mean life is all rosy, I also have handicaps, like depression, poor vision, etc. But if I wish to measure myself against other people, it would dishonest of me to notice their benefits, and not also acknowledge my own.

    I also believe one should have a sense of grace about their gifts, call it a modern version of noblesse oblige. However, I view this as more of a spiritual issue, than a social one. I don’t expect others to feel this way, I just expect it of my close friends.

    Thanks for writing both posts.

  7. I guess I’ve followed you long enough to realize you don’t write things of this nature out of wanton self-pimpery. The thought just never crossed my mind.

    The last time a friend said to me “You just don’t know what it’s like.” I think I surprised them with “You’re right, but I’m listening.” I will never know what it’s like to be pulled over for driving while black. But I know it exists and want to change it.

    Listening and thinking about these issues may be the only thing some of us can do at a precise moment in time. But by doing so, we can maybe be ready and aware the next time we have a chance to help change some of these things.

    Pieces like this one keep us aware that inequalities still exist and that we have to keep striving. The 2008 election did not fix everything as we well know. In about two weeks we’ll know if we have continued to move forward or backwards.
    Go vote people. It is one of the major ways to affect change.

  8. The post was pretty moving for me. It is also something important to understand. Indeed, instead of being guilty about privilege there is a need to understand it and (I hate to use this term, but) own it. Your post was a great starting point for people who have never thought about it, hopefully it opens people’s eyes. It made mine tear up. Thank you so much for writing it.

  9. My exbf used to say it this way (usually when things were going wrong for him): “I’m a white male in America, what do I have to complain about?”

  10. A writer who thinks about things and then writes things down?

    What next? A scientist who researches ideas and then tries an experiment on them?

  11. Chalk me up as someone who would be curious to see a post from you on everything you did for Clash of the Geeks. I have a dim idea of what “actual marketing mode” is like, since I’m in your target market, but only a dim idea. Seeing what it looks like from the other side would be interesting.

  12. Is it necessary to question what the motivation is? If the words mean something to a reader their meaning has no relationship to the intention of the writer.
    Once a writer has published the words, he relinquishes all ability to control the way it is interpreted. And whatever his intentions, they mean nothing in the wake of what people read into it.

    All too many times what is intended by the writer and what is understood by the reader are entirely different. And once you find out the motivation of the author it may very well ruin what you understood. Since you cannot control anything but yourself, you might as well just focus on what you get from it as a reader.

  13. It says something about our society that we look to things external to a work, rather than the work, itself, to understand the ideas expressed in the work. I’m not sure that I like that inability or refusal to understand, to demand motives, profit-loss statements, and collective judgments, before feeling and thinking for one’s self.

  14. I appreciate the original, and the sentiment.

    However, a gentle reminder that lives lived with the discrimination that comes with being a PoC, disabled, GLBTI, class, woman, or any intersection thereof is not “pointless crap”. It may seem pointless to be discriminatory, but it is not pointless being the target of discrimation.

  15. Sheesh, why do people assume something is about guilt when no guilt was expressed or (IMO) implied? Why would you feel guilty for stuff that *doesn’t* happen to you that happens to others? Where’s your guilt in all that? Why can’t something be worth exploring and thinking about and talking about without having emotions ascribed to the thinking and talking and exploring, which then makes it about you and not about the things you were actually writing about? And why can’t I think of anything to say about this without writing it in question format?

  16. Curiously, this is the chain of thought I had a few minutes ago.

    “Oh shoot, today is the day everybody is supposed to wear purple in memory of those kids who committed suicide; I wish I’d remembered that when I was getting dressed this morning. Hm, I wonder if Scalzi wrote that thing about privilege the other day because of that. Oh, that reminds me, I haven’t looked at his blog today.” *click* *read* “Oh.”

    Pretty impressive, how you answered my question so fast.

  17. Please, go meta on us anytime.

    What a swell intro to your writing and to your site that THINGS I DON’T HAVE TO THINK ABOUT TODAY is… and what a ginormous percentage could have come from me (were I as aware as you, which I ain’t.)

    You just popped my brain.
    I think.


  18. There is a sweet spot in between “I worked hard for everything I have and I don’t want to hear your excuses for why your problems are society’s fault” and “I shall rend my clothing in penance for belonging to an Oppressor Class”, and the “Things I Don’t Have To Think About Today” essay pegs it.

  19. Just remember that a large part of why you don’t have to think about a lot of those things is that you are living in Ohio. There are plenty of places you could be where your circumstances would not be so advantageous.

  20. Hey, being a writer is — or should be — all about writing whatever YOU want to write. There are always bills to be paid, of course, but the principle stands.

    People tend to forget this… in fact, sometimes the writer’s biggest fans can become adversaries in this respect. “Why are you not writing exactly what I want you to write? More Sherlock Holmes stories, Mr. Doyle!”

  21. As someone who *does* have to think about some of the stuff on your list, I am very grateful you wrote it. It’s nice to know that someone who doesn’t have to think about or experience this crap still takes the time to understand me and my situation. That’s empathy, not guilt. Here in the US, we could use a whole bunch more empathy and a whole lot less anger at people whose situation we don’t understand. Thanks.

  22. BW @ 21

    Sheesh, why do people assume something is about guilt when no guilt was expressed or (IMO) implied?

    One possible reason is that it’s an easy excuse to avoid thinking about what they might be guilty of.

    It’s also worth noting that the rending of clothing that Seth mentions @ 25 can be an excuse to avoid thinking about what one could actually do as a member of an oppressor class. BTDT, a little.

  23. BW @21: because they’re uncomfortable at the thought that all the blessings in their lives are not 100% deserved and earned by them, so they attack the messenger: how DARE you “make me feel guilty”?

  24. So in other words, they would be criticizing John for expressing “white male guilt” because they themselves feel guilty, so they’re projecting their feelings onto John. Or they’re assuming that it must have been written out of “white male guilt” because no white male could actually empathize with people in different situations. Wow.

    However, in reviewing the comments on that post, I only saw one person who read guilt into it, and he didn’t actually attack John. That’s actually pretty good.

  25. Well I for one did not read anything into that post other than good intentions.

    “White male guilt” ugh. It just makes me puke when I see people spout that nonsense online. It is usually followed with things like “entitlement”, “The establishment” and “hetero-normative”. That last one tends to only happen in GLBT topics of conversation.

  26. I read what John wrote, and what disturbed me was that he felt it necessary to say this at all. Having been raised as a white male Christian American, this is pretty much what I was taught in Sunday school, give or take phrasing from the Sermon on the Mount. We are privileged and we have a duty to improve the lives of people around us. Whether we call it “original sin” or “white male guilt”, of course we are guilty and if we spend our lives making up for it, maybe we get a pass at the final reckoning.

    I have to think about the things John mentioned, today and every day, not because any of them are applicable to me personally (which none of them really seemed to), and not because some of them are directly applicable to immediate family or close friends (which many of the points are), but because I was taught to think about how my actions and choices affect other people. I mean if that isn’t what happens in schools and Sunday schools today, then I have to be concerned.

    Explaining this to children is education. Our understanding of some of these issues has improved since I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, but I don’t think the specific issues are the point. The essay sounds like an affirmation by a recovering sociopath, which I have to hope hasn’t become a societal norm.

  27. Great post and comments, though the need for follow-up is a little exasperating.

    It reminds me of one fan’s response to the CSNY documentary and its antiwar angle: “I just wanna hear their music, not what they have to say!” Ouch.

  28. First off, I liked the fact that you chose to address this. It is not a shot out of the blue from you and I can see it also in your dealing with the Bechdel test on AMC. I liked that where many of the comments addressed those people’s own issues, valid though they may be, your post dealt with privilege and the understanding of issues that do not personally hurt you. I admire you putting yourself forward in this way. Sometimes people equate earnestness with triteness, and the “out of white male guilt” or not can make one a target regardless.

    I like that you recognize that somethings in life are unearned, that some come only with the great support some of us are lucky enough to have around us. That we are lucky not to suffer the injustices that others face. I am glad to that you think these are things worth thinking about.

    I also understand that there are limits both to what goes in an essay for both thematic and mental space considerations. One has to draw the edges somewhere. But or more hopefully also….

    I guess my question is, beyond treating people with dignity and respect and trying not to treat others as unjustly lesser, do you feel that as a society we owe some greater form of remediation to these issues? Its a hard question and one that didn’t have a place in your essay. But as we get sort of congratulatory over identifying a problem I am not sure I get a broad sense of a solution. I am glad you see the elephant, but can we look forward to posts on solutions? It seems to me that doing no harm while personally enjoying the unearned benefits is a beginning but is not enough. But also the social and legal force can be overwhelming to liberty. I don’t know if you know the idea of positive and negative liberty but these problems seem to call to both. It is not that I expect you to solve these problems personally, If you could I’d draft you for public service and face Krissy’s wrath. But your post seemed to end just short of the HARD problems.

    I hope this doesn’t come across a berating you for something missing. If I had the solutions I’d run for office :). It just seems that your post actually calls for more posts on this subject. At least that’s what I am hoping for.

  29. malpaspace:

    The short answer is that I’ll write more on the subject when I think I have something useful to say and/or when it strikes me to do so. I’ve written on the general subject before, as a walk through the archives will show.

    That said, I’m not entirely sure “Scalzi confidently offers solutions to the world’s privilege issues!” posts are always going to be greeted with general huzzahs, for various reasons.

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