Tuesday 03 December 2002

Looking at everything from another’s point of view

I owe Dorothea and Tish an apology. It’s been knocking around in my head for just over a month and Dorothea’s recent post provided the impetus for me to settle down and write. There’s a lot of history in this, that stretches back as far as August (I should have written this earlier, but it took me a long time to figure out what it all meant). If you’re sufficiently interested, the archive for Dorothea’s Grunchy stuff category is a good place to start (she links to all the important contributors). Yesterday she wrote:

I guess I’ve gotten to a place where I don’t feel my contributions to the blogsphere are effective, welcomed, or useful, because of what I have said about sexism. This is in all likelihood a false impression, given the many private emails and some public blogposts with explicit or implicit support, explicit or implicit thanks even, for what I have said and the way I have said it. Moreover, this is a far cry from all I talk about. I checked the sizes on my category files the other day, and the “grunchy stuff” category is near the bottom of the list; only announcements and metablogging are smaller…

I do not say these things in anger, or even in a Burningbirdesque passion, though I have posted in anger in the past, and done rather more harm than good thereby. I say these things in sorrow, in disappointment, in a certain amount of disillusionment. I don’t know why I thought the blogsphere would be any different from a world in which the true stories I have told about myself, and many others I haven’t told, happened. If anything, I ought to have known that a medium priding itself on its expressiveness and openness would bring to light ideas and attitudes I’d rather not face, rather not believe exist—even in people I daresay I’d have no trouble at all liking in real-life encounters, when those attitudes are more or less carefully masked.

No, take that back—I like these people now. I do. I am upset and bewildered that this should be such a barrier, that this self I am constructing is so difficult for other selves to accept. I don’t know how best to handle my own thoughts and feelings, much less those of others concerned.

When I read Dorothea’s post I was surprised. What did she expect? There aren’t too many shrinking violets in the Blogarian population given that weblogging is, crudely, about putting your thoughts and feelings out into a public arena in the hope of inspiring a response. At the level Dorothea is playing the game—which, whether she accepts it or not, is first grade (or the major league, call it what you will)—isn’t it inevitable that you’ll encounter pushback from the opposition? (And that players drift in and out of the opposing team, depending on the issue, so that someone who was on your side last week wants to kick your head in today.)

More to the point, Dorothea isn’t exactly shy about dishing it out on occasion:

I am completely apoplectic that this pompous jerk had the unutterable gall to accuse David and the hard-working WETA people of dishonest and intentional traducing of Tolkien’s work when he either didn’t or couldn’t (honestly, I don’t know which is worse!) read the runes himself. (The Khuzdul Incident)

I could try to explain why NetLibrary’s systems were so messed-up when I saw them, but I’d rather point to my article on conversion houses and remark quietly that NetLibrary when I visited it was the epitome of the stupid, short-sighted, crap-ejecting conversion house. (Why E-Books Cost More)

The OEBF working group that Frumkin sits on is poorly led, has accomplished nothing, and when I left bore no signs that it was going to accomplish anything anytime soon. Poor leadership is the bulk of the problem, but lack of technical expertise also looms large (though Frumkin himself is pretty clued, most of the other WG participants are very not). The expression that comes to mind is “fiddling while Rome burns.” (On Fire!)

(Hmm, you might be thinking, this is a weird apology. Don’t worry, I’m getting to it.)

There’s a difference between Dorothea’s forthright criticism and her upset/bewilderment that the “self [she is] constructing is so difficult for other selves to accept.” The difference is this: Dorothea’s critical remarks are invariably directed at organizations or anonymous individuals (on the rare occasions the criticism is directed at an individual, she apologizes).

Her distress, as I understand it, springs from another place. The key issue—her experience of sexism and her sense of failure in communicating its importance—is entirely personal. And it’s my part in contributing to Dorothea’s frustration that warrants an apology.

It all started with my response to the Doc Searls/Burningbird sexism controversy. What I wrote was overwhelmingly well-received. For example, Tish commented: “This is an eloquent, generous and precise synopsis.” I should have quit while I was ahead.

Instead, I wrote a follow-up post about men’s magazines in the barbershop, ostensibly in response to a post of Dorothea’s about the sickening grunch, but really because I’d been wanting to write about the barbershop for a long, long time. Because I genuinely believe that blogging is a conversation, many of my posts are framed as responses to items I’ve read on other blogs.

The barbershop post was different, because it was written in bad faith. Instead of responding honestly to the substance of Dorothea’s argument, I used her post as an excuse to write about something that interested me, in a manner that was guaranteed to cause her discomfort:

Heck, I’m already starting to feel uncomfortable (not grunched—uncomfortable) with the directions Jonathon is going in; I’m wondering if I’m about to be set up as the Straw Feminist so that arrows can be shot at me.

I’ll save you some time, Jonathon: the arrows will hit, sooner or later.

I don’t have a problem with discomfort. If I thought the purpose of my weblog was to make those who read it feel comfortable I’d stop immediately. “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull,” wrote Kafka in a letter, “why then do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves.”

But discomforting ideas should be voiced with an honest intent: not out of an immature desire to shock the bourgeois, but because there’s a truth that deserves to be articulated. In essence, I appropriated Dorothea’s issue (the sickening grunch) and her anguish, in order to make a cheap point. “Is it OK then,” I asked disingenuously, “to read girly magazines in the barbershop?”

For that I apologize, in Dorothea’s own words, “humbly and unreservedly. It’s not enough, but I do.”

The barbershop post also offended Tish:

Do I think Doc is sexist? Yes. And in the two places I spoke out about it I was quick to say that I don’t read Doc. There’s no big reason for that. Look at my blog role. I have places I need to be. There’s only so many hours in the day. Do I think Mike is sexist? Yes. I think I am sexist. I think we grew up in and live in a sexist culture. It takes work to understand that in our selves and others. It’s a hermeneutics thang. And it seemed to me that when one woman said she thought something a man said was sexist she got jumped on by men and women. She was scolded for not valuing her allies. A swirl of refracted pros and cons hit the web and at the end of the day what seemed to happen, in my opinion, was that she was told not to criticize the little bit of sexism in the good guys. And when another woman asked to not be included in the loopy valuing of women’s bodies we saw crazy extreme images of women’s bodies embedded in the response of an generally lovely, respectful, generous man. The whole thing left me feeling incomplete, raw, and a bit afraid to speak up.

The “crazy extreme images of women’s bodies” were contained in a composite image of three men’s magazine covers included in that post. I knew at the time it was provocative to include them, though I didn’t understand that—again—I was acting in bad faith. I’d written:

I accept that other people—men or women—may have ethical, religious, or ideological problems with such photographs and I respect their objections. The simple answer is, though, that they are not obliged to enter the barbershop, pick up the magazines, and read them. If the mere sight of a scantily-clad young woman on a magazine cover causes profound discomfort, I’d point to the multiplicity of more serious injustices that warrant their immediate attention.

On the other hand, I would be offended if I saw Inside Sport, FHM, or Ralph in amongst the magazines in the doctor’s or dentist’s waiting room. Or in the magazine rack at the local library. Or in the pile of newspapers and magazines in the pickup area at the local pizza shop.

I’m guess I’m saying that it all boils down to context. What might be acceptable in the barber shop isn’t necessarily tolerable elsewhere.

Firstly, I argue that girly magazines are OK in the barbershop (where one might expect to find them) but not in the doctor’s waiting room or the pizza shop where they would be reasonably regarded as inappropriate. Then, I plop the girly images in the middle of my weblog, images that would be entirely unexpected given those I normally publish.

I should have followed Stavros’s example. Linking to an item about a rape in Korea, he wrote: [Warning : Graphic and disturbing image of rape victim, halfway down page.]

I’ve subsequently amended the post. Again, I apologize to Tish, humbly and unreservedly.

What have I learned? I’ve learned this: I need to pay more attention to nuance and intent in another blogger’s post before responding with one of my own. Not all the time, but sometimes.

I need to occasionally corral my instictive exuberance, my heartfelt belief that conflict, and only conflict, offers the key to engaging an audience’s attention.

I need to resist the temptation to commandeer someone else’s ideas to make a point that’s only tangential to the topic under discussion. If blogging is to be a conversation, it needs to be a genuine conversation in which each of us listens carefully and responds honestly to what the other has actually said. Otherwise, we become like bores at a dinner party, cutting across the conversation to score debating points.

How does one learn to listen carefully, to pay close attention? Andrius Kulikauskas suggests relinquishing one’s strongly held point-of-view:

The only thing you really need to know is “Always look at everything from their point of view”. Then you can be hyperflexible, respond in the ways that any good person would, and ready for the good to come from any direction. And you will get hurt just a very little bit…

“Always look at everything from their point of view”. I may apply my own mind, but only to their situation. We may disagree on everything, but never the fact that I am one with them, completely devoted, not I but he, not I but she.

Needless to say, this takes a sustained effort. Discussing Christopher Hitchens’ Why Orwell Matters, David Brooks writes:

Hitchens argues that Orwell’s most prominent quality was his independence, and it was an independence that had to be earned through willpower. Orwell was, Hitchens continues, something of a natural misanthrope: “He had to suppress his distrust and dislike of the poor, his revulsion from the Jews, his awkwardness with women, and his anti-intellectualism.” It was through continued acts of self-mastery that Orwell was able to overcome most of his natural prejudices, in order to see things as they really were and champion groups that needed championing. Orwell was always checking himself, which perhaps explains the tone of cool reserve that marks his prose.

I adore Orwell as a writer and I admire him as a human being. I love this image of his “continued acts of self-mastery”—that conveys to me the core requirement of existential good faith.

Is it difficult? Almost certainly. Is it impossible? Probably not. I’ll leave the last two words to Tish.

I guess I want to hope that men who are my allies – deep in their hearts – will listen when I tell them that something that they say is sexist, think about it for a minute, if they decide they agree acknowledge the sexism and then we can laugh and move on. No pillaring. No silencing. No expectation that it’ll never happen again. Just a moment of mutuality…

There is a part of me that wants to say that the young men who felt like they had a right to comment loudly on and reach for Dorothea’s breasts may have just been at the barber shop. And there is a part of me that feels like the minute I say it I will hear the tongues hitting the backs of teeth, and see the eyes roll. But I gotta tell ya, that whole boys will be boys thing is lost on me.

And Dorothea was asking for help. We are all asking for help. We can not do this alone.

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I do have my moments. *grin* I don't know that I can excuse myself for the post you correctly cite as no-holds-barred. All I can explain is that I typically get a lot nastier defending others than myself.

(There's also some history there -- which is also not an excuse.)

Thanks, Jonathon. I found this post a considerable relief. I think it's harder on you perhaps than it needs to be, but I guess I didn't write it.

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 3 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Thank you for posting this. It's from your heart. A good reminder for bloggers like me, too.

Posted by Elaine of Kalilily on 4 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Dorothea used the word relief.
That is the word.
I really appreciate this post Jonathon.
Thank you.

Posted by Tish on 4 December 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour