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Jay Lake
Date: 2012-05-20 06:58
Subject: [personal] Teachable moments
Security: Public
Tags:child, conventions, culture, gender, personal, race
It's been quite a good conference here professionally speaking, but last night I went to bed early feeling irritated and sour. This morning I woke up feeling depressed and upset.

I walked for an hour along San Antonio's Riverwalk and tried to really get down into why I felt the way I did. Some facile explanations readily presented themselves, but even in the midst of my emotional distress, I recognized those for what they were. I think I eventually reached a better understanding, which in turn made me rather uncomfortable.

The fact that I was rather uncomfortable strikes me as a important, and as a reason to talk about this despite my first impulse to keep the whole business to myself in a fit of passive-aggressive sulking. This is especially true in the light of John Scalzi's recent, excellent post on the Lowest Difficulty Setting.

Last night, well after all our formal events were concluded, about a dozen of us were in the conference suite goofing off, cutting up, and so forth, as one does. Alcohol had been flowing, a little of it into me. For me, this evening space at writing conventions and conferences among like-minded people has always been one of the few places in my life where I can really cut loose and be my unfettered self. Fast talking, flirty, potty mouthed, pun riddled, and rather over the top. Those of you who've known me for a while in real life have probably seen me in this mode.

Most of the time I'm Dad, or an employee, or a professional writer representing myself, my work and my field, or a cancer patient. (A hell of a lot of that last one.) Or I'm just some guy in the grocery store or the post office or whatever, going about his business. All of those are roles, adopted with varying degrees of self-consciousness. But that convention/conference party space is one of those rare places where I have always felt I can just be me.

Except it went wrong for me last night. To be clear right up front, not through anyone else's bad behavior, as no one treated me badly at all, but through my own internal processes.

A joke with religious content was told. Someone was offended and left abruptly. I neither told the joke nor was upset by it, but I certainly made a strong material contribution to the fast-and-loose social environment that made that joke seem reasonable to the teller, and made all of us but one laugh uproariously.

In the wake of that moment, the bunch of us got into a lengthy, serious discussion about our social responsibilities to one another, what I in a moment of flipness called a "white people encounter group." It was rather productive, especially given that a number of us were at least tipsy, and we were all pretty tired. It was also eye-opening for me.

I've been explicitly aware of the concept of privilege, as discussed in progressive social circles, since the late 1980s. The first time I can recall hearing the term with this meaning was listening to an interview on NPR in 1988 or so with Peggy McIntosh discussing her essay on white privilege and male privilege, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

I've been thinking and writing about it both directly and indirectly for the quarter century since then. I've expended a lot effort in my personal life to avoid leveraging that privilege in areas where I do have control. Put very simply, for example, not cutting in front of the deli line because I'm the tall(ish) white guy standing in the crowd and the clerk points to me next.

I'm also co-parenting a child who is a female person of color. One of my primary jobs as her parent is prepare for her life by helping her become a happy, self-confident, intelligent young woman with enough wisdom and resilience to deal with all the stuff she'll have to wade through that has simply never come my way.

As for me, in Scalzi's terms, yeah, I'm playing life on the lowest difficulty setting. I sometimes joke that if I were fifty pounds lighter and $500,000 richer, I would be The Man. Except that's not a joke, it's true. And yes, I can point to a lot of obstacles in my life history from childhood sexual abuse to deep clinical depression in my teens and twenties to cancer in my forties, but all of those were overcome in part through my privilege as a white male, for example, by having the kind of family support and adult employment that gave me full access to high quality healthcare with excellent doctors who treated me with respectful attention. Even with all the crap, I'm still playing on the lowest difficulty setting.

What I realized last night, what depressed and upset me, was that my sense of being free and unfettered, of being able to cut loose and be myself, is itself a distinct form of privilege. Once we got serious, some of the women in the room were willing to speak up and explain that certain jokes which had passed earlier made them uncomfortable, but they didn't want to ruin the mood by saying anything. I myself pointed out that there had been some psuedohomoerotic clowning around by straight guys, including me, which would probably have made any LGBTQ-identified people in the room uncomfortable, though no one had spoken up. I was sharply (and appropriately) corrected when I prefaced one of my comments by saying we now live in a culture where offense is in the eye of the beholder. That is certainly my experience, but I'm speaking and thinking from a position of privilege, almost all of it transparent to me as its beneficiary. As the other person pointed out, women are constantly being told by men what they should or shouldn't be offended by. Probably including me, some of the time.

I feel like I lost something important last night. I feel like I lost a sense of unguarded social freedom. How I lost that sense of unguarded social freedom was by realizing deep in my gut something which I've known intellectually for years. That is, that for most people, that sense of unguarded social freedom never existed in the first place.

That makes me very, very sad.

I hate teachable moments, especially when I'm on the receiving end of them.

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Kate Schaefer
User: kate_schaefer
Date: 2012-05-20 14:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you.
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Tim Lieder
User: marlowe1
Date: 2012-05-20 14:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I always felt it depended on both the joke and the intention behind the joke. Sometimes there's just discomfort with the other that needs to be dealt with in the only way possible. Other times it's the "don't be offended, I was only being a total asshole" way (thank you Onion).

Got a lot of jokes when I was starting to convert to Judaism. Still kind of get them. Most of the time it comes down to that episode of Seinfeld with the converting dentist who just wants to tell Jewish jokes that offends Jerry as a comedian. Other times, there's just something rather hostile about the whole endeavor.

I had one friend who would end many exchanges with "I guess it's because you're being Jewish" - most prominently in my mind when I mentioned that I was going to sell the comics that she gave me because I had read them and I didn't have space. She just went "don't do that. You are being such a Jew" (yeah like I knew how to handle money I would be trying to be a writer) and she had this smirk on her face as if I was supposed to be all amused with her assessment.

But then I don't know. I didn't mind my friend Jojo's Jewish jokes because they were offensive and funny and he had such an enthusiasm about them (and I was the same way with his particular cultural background) but when the woman at the pagan bookstore put on that shitty fake Yiddish accent, it drove me nuts. I never said anything because I know that she was trying to ingratiate herself.

I think that humor is just our way of trying to get to know each other and find acceptance. It's a dangerous way since it can backfire.
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User: fjm
Date: 2012-05-20 15:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Fake accents, I have discovered, are still acceptable in the US. Someone tried it on me in a lift at Wiscon and I was quite taken aback to discover that others thought this was acceptable.

In the UK it is likely to get you into Big Trouble.
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curious Eve: dancing Jedi
User: curiouseve
Date: 2012-05-20 15:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:dancing Jedi
Wow. I'm glad you shared this.
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scarlettina: Live and learn
User: scarlettina
Date: 2012-05-20 15:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Live and learn
Thanks for writing about this. ::hug::
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User: deire
Date: 2012-05-20 15:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Maybe. But being able to learn and admit your mistakes is something in which to take genuine pride.
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User: joycemocha
Date: 2012-05-20 15:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you for sharing. I have some thoughts, specifically about being a person of faith in cultures where faith tends to be a minority POV and the practice or mentioning of that faith is both a.) genuinely oppressive to others who have suffered from the misuse of faith against them and b.) can lead to ostracism because of the impact of a.) if I say much about how certain statements/jokes make me feel.

IOW--I've developed a pretty thick skin. But I do have to endure commentary that is hurtful and negative about something that is and has been pretty important to me, from people I care about and want to maintain friendships with. I understand the underlying pain and hurt that drives such comments--god only knows I've gotten similar condemnation at times from my co-religionists, especially those walking a narrow fear-driven line.

But it doesn't mean I don't hurt sometimes when the anger comes out. There are situations where I do a lot of biting of the tongue and tempering of my own reactions because I don't want to offend in the same manner that I've just been offended against. Because I don't choose to be completely in one camp or the other--I've never really had that sense of unguarded social freedom, except in extremely close friend circles, and that most often in isolated hunting camps way out in the woods.

(And yeah, some of it is the profession...teachers really can't afford to have a lot of unguarded social freedom moments)
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User: cathshaffer
Date: 2012-05-20 21:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It's a strange phenomenon. Even though atheism is a small minority in the larger culture, in fandom and among sf writers, it's something like 99.7645 percent, and more than once I've been hurt by a casual comment flying around a convention bar, and let it go. I know that the person making the comment meant no harm, and I forgive them instantly. I don't make a thing of it. I would never walk out of a room in a huff. But religion is a strange thing. It's not like other identities, because at the end of the day it's a choice, and the power position doesn't always belong to one group. It really changes depending on where you are and who you're with. Since I live in an extremely liberal/progressive community centered around a university, and most of my business connections are in the field of science, I am always in the minority except for when I'm literally at church. I feel constantly on guard of either offending people who don't believe in God, of them finding out I do believe and being discriminated against because of it*, or of causing them to lose face in a social faux pas such as Jay described.

*It's such a persistent meme these days that Christians don't understand science that I worry about losing career opportunities of people find out I believe in God, even though my denomination is actually very pro-science (and I wouldn't have it any other way)
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User: keikaimalu
Date: 2012-05-20 15:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It's laudable to challenge one's own assumptions, particularly in service of social justice. And my heart genuinely goes out to you.

But I would argue that you don't know the experience of being female, a person of color, a person without privilege -- which means you don't know whether they have their own safe spaces to be genuinely who they are, that "unguarded social freedom." As a woman, I sometimes feel like when I get together with other women and we have dedicated female time, it is enriched by sharing our experiences of dealing with people trying to push us around or define our realities. And I sort of feel sorry for men that they can't have those conversations, that particular kind of bonding, because they are not the recipient of those experiences.

So -- take heart. Even the downtrodden may have sacred social moments that are just as powerful for them as yours are for you. Or even more so. You can't know for sure, but seeking out places of acceptance and support is a universal human phenomenon.
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User: mevennen
Date: 2012-05-21 08:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It's an odd one. For instance, I really don't like being around other women if they start having explicit conversations about their sex lives: it feels, to me, like a complete violation of their partners' privacy. Trevor informs me that men of his close acquaintance (mainly middle aged Brits but of various classes and ethnic backgrounds) don't similarly discuss women like this, and most of my close female friends don't either.

I don't personally subscribe much to the idea of a safe space. Life is inherently unsafe, as you have discovered, Jay.
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User: jtdiii
Date: 2012-05-20 16:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Was at Choate yesterday for our 30th anniversary yesterday. Many examples of that 50 lbs lighter and several $500,000s wealthier were in evidence.

It was good to go back, but I would have felt far more at home amongst your writers...
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User: creed_of_hubris
Date: 2012-05-20 17:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I made an encounter group comment on Friday -- as I understand it the way you run the criticism sessions is straight outta Esalen.
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slweippert: read more
User: slweippert
Date: 2012-05-20 18:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:read more
Thanks for having the courage to post this, because it's true. As a woman, I can't just relax in any public space that includes men I'm not in a close relationship with. Too many times when younger I've brought the conversation to a halt by being an "opinionated woman". There's a fine line I walk to express my thoughts without others (usually men) glaring at me.
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User: cissa
Date: 2012-05-28 06:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
If I am unguarded, I tend to ask awkward questions. Thus I am always guarded.
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Leah Cutter: Flying Home
User: lrcutter
Date: 2012-05-20 18:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Flying Home
Thank you for posting this. I understand your sadness, but what you learned is true--that there is no sense of unguarded social freedom for most people. Wiscon, for me, comes closest to being that safe space, though it isn't 100%. But I'm aware that it only exists in small groups of close personal friends for others, if then.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2012-05-20 21:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Wiscon, for me, comes closest to being that safe space

Which is ironic, given my own extremely difficult relationship to that convention at this point. I'm glad they're there for you.
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User: torreybird
Date: 2012-05-20 18:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you.
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User: mmegaera
Date: 2012-05-20 23:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I suspect this is one reason why I'm as much of a loner as I am. I'm not good at playing roles and always goof up at some point or another if I have to play one for any length of time, and I have a hard time perceiving what other people are really saying to me when they are in their roles.

It's sort of like going through life wondering how much (not if) I've missed, and what.
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User: keglinfool
Date: 2012-05-21 07:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yes, thank you for posting this. When you expand the areas where you "avoid leveraging that privilege", as you certainly will based on your new level of perception, people may see it as distancing or greater reserve, or reserve where there was none before. And in the circustances you describe, it *will* be distancing. You don't want to go there, you don't want to be that guy. You never did. The difference now is, you have a better feel for how not to be.

Your first reaction may be a feeling of loss. It's not irrational: you have lost something. But in each instance where life beats you up, you can either get tough, or get gentle. The kind of awareness you have just gained will make you more gentle. This is a good thing.

That's an awkward way of putting it, but it's true.

I get offers to join in, to be that guy, all the time. Not doing so makes me suspect to the person or group making the offer. It makes me seem distant and reserved. I don't mind putting distance between myself and that guy. I've been a coward when it comes to derailing or diverting the social dynamic you describe, but the older I get the less afraid I become.

These things that are hard to talk about, both because they create feelings of awkwardness and even more because they are difficult to articulate, are very valuable in shaping the social narrative. You lose a bit of freedom bought at cost you hadn't seen, we all gain from reading about it. Again, thank you.

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User: mevennen
Date: 2012-05-21 09:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
>As the other person pointed out, women are constantly being told by men what they should or shouldn't be offended by. Probably including >me, some of the time.

I hopethis is not derailing, but although I am obviously not keen on being told by men on what I should or shouldn't be offended by, what I REALLY object to is being lectured by other (female) feminists on the same issue. One of the most active people in this regard on the science fictional part of the net is a woman who writes RL fanfic, something I find profoundly offensive. Apparently I am the one with the problem, as she is a professional academic and activist and could not possibly do anything that was not politically correct, and thus is the arbiter of all social mores including those of people from another country. (There is someone in town here whose political beliefs verge on fascism, whose attitude to women should technically appall me, and yet I'd far rather go out drinking with him than with the woman above, because he doesn't try to shove his beliefs down my throat or lecture me on what and how I should think).

It boils down to the fact that I don't like hypocrites. I think that all of these things are questions of degree, and I also don't think that language determines the structure of the world: IMO, that's a category mistake. I do believe in listening to people and trying to understand why they are upset. In my own case, I don't object to the content of atheism, or, generally, jokes told against my religion, since much of that religion is frankly risible. I do object to the arrogance which often accompanies atheism, but to me, that's not innate to the position, but is evidence of a mindset which is found across ideologies - recognisable to anyone who has had the misfortune to spend time with Trotskyites, upper class huntsmen, nationalist Odinists or Christian fundamentalists.

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