Of Its Time
I was looking through some writing from the mid-90s last night — no particular reason for it, I was just wandering through my own archives — and after having done so, noted this on Twitter:
I will note this is just the sort of comment that sneeringly gets me labeled as performatively “woke” by the sort of terrible people who can’t abide people learning and growing and trying to be more decent to others, but a) eh, they’re terrible people, who gives a shit what they think, b) I wasn’t noting it to beat myself up.
I don’t feel particularly bad about writing what I did back in 1995, or believe it was so heinous in its construction that I should be hauled up in front of a tribunal. It wasn’t good that I was more sexist at the time, to be clear; not trying to excuse it. And also, for the mid-90s, it was… not unusual, and nothing about it would have called attention to itself, in terms of its baseline sexism. Evidence for this: two levels of editors at the Fresno Bee, where the material I was looking at was written, let it go to press on a regular basis. My editors there were men and women, and they told me to tweak things for publication on a not-infrequent basis. They wouldn’t have hesitated to let me know if what I’d written was out of line.
And what was this sexist stuff? Honestly, mostly slight attempted humor trying to point out differences between men and women, of the “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” variety — broad cultural generalizations based on gender and sex. I was already aware of the, shall we say, incompleteness of this worldview, inasmuch as I was in a relationship with Krissy at the time. But I didn’t let that stop me, because I thought it was funny and also because in context of the time it was allowed. Which is a way of saying that in mid-90s I was a lazier writer than I am today.
I already knew this about myself, I should note. I’ve mentioned here before that much of my early writing has the vibe of someone with talent being lazy because he could be. What changed that was becoming an editor myself, and having to work with other writers to improve their writing. After that happened I looked back on what I’d written before, and was dismayed to see how much better it should have been. To look at it again now, from the perspective of someone in his 50s and living in 2020, and to see the sexism in it I missed before, is not that surprising.
It’s not to suggest that I’m 100% perfect in dealing with my sexism now; I still have places where it pops up, and I’m still lazy at times. But I do think I’m better at it, relative to where I was a quarter century ago. For one, I’m less self-impressed with myself as a writer. I believe there’s always room for improvement, which is not necessarily a thing I would have admitted to myself when I was 26. For two, I have wider life experience, and that wider life experience has made me both more resistant to accepting without examination received information about gender (and sexuality, and race, etc), and more aware of the range of how humans live and move about in this world.
And for three — and here’s where the sneering accusations of performative “wokeness” will come up again — these days I’m happy not to be the dude who needs to have everyone in little predetermined boxes just so I’ll have one less thing to think about. Demanding that from others wouldn’t make me a better writer or person (rather the opposite), and people won’t do what I want them to do anyway, just for the sake of my own convenience. So, fine. I’ll try to do the work on this stuff. I don’t think that’s trying to be “woke,” I think that’s just part of trying not to be terrible to the people that exist on the planet.
All of this, incidentally, is one reason I’m not in a rush to bring most of what I wrote in the 90s back into the public eye. I’m not hiding it — head over the the Internet Archive and you can find earlier iterations of this site that have a lot of it, and if you’re really ambitious and have money to throw around, you can get all my Fresno Bee articles out of a news archive — but I’m also fine not putting it front and center either. There’s that thing that people say when they’re trying to explain (and often, excuse) writing from a previous era: “It was of its time.” Well, my writing from the 90s was very much of its time. It should probably stay in its time. I’m largely content to leave it there.