The White Guy at the Dinner Party
So, I have been reading this website, Requires Only That You Hate. It is very refreshing. The woman who writes it is angry, and unapologetic, and has drawn the attention of a lot of different science fiction and fantasy writers who probably imagined that they were super-progressive and are off-put by how gleefully and viciously Requires reminds them that they’re not. It makes me feel bad, sometimes, to see the sacred cows of SF/F just slaughtered — like, killed and then tied to a truck and driven a hundred miles down the road and then set on fire and thrown off a cliff and then maybe the truck is thrown off the cliff on top of the slaughtered cow. I feel bad, but in a good way — like, is there a way that your sense of ego can get kicked around and it will be sore the way that your body is sore after a good workout? You hurt, but you hurt in a new and interesting way?
All of this has made me reconsider a couple of my positions on things, but mostly it’s led me to construct an elaborate metaphor.
You know how I’m half-Martian, or whatever, and so your hu-man feelings are strange to me? In order for me to understand hu-man experience, I have to construct elaborate metaphors, and this one revolves around a dinner party. This is aimed primarily at explaining things to the straight, white, cis-gendered men in the crowd. Dudes, listen up; everyone else, check back later, when maybe I’ll talk about Ghost Rider some more.
Imagine this. You’ve come to a dinner party. It’s one of those fancy dinner parties, with all of the extra forks and glasses and dishes, and there are a whole bunch of different courses AND a little buffet. It’s complicated. Also, it’s pretty dimly lit, and you’ve just come in from outside where it’s really bright out, so your eyes haven’t adjusted to the light yet, you can barely see anything.
This is you, straight-cis-white-dude, coming into any discussion by anyone who isn’t you.
The protocol in the dinner party situation is pretty obvious, right? What do you do in this circumstance, where you don’t know the rules and you can barely see? Do you start waving your arms around, knocking over the glasses, using the wrong spoon, spitting in the soup, et cetera? Or do you shut up and listen, wait for your eyes to adjust, and gradually try to participate in the conversation like a civilized fucking human being?
Dude, you can’t even see, don’t start grappling around, serving yourself from the buffet with your soup spoon. Just sit there for a minute, you know?
It also makes it clear that a lot of the things that you and I (we both do them, it’s true) do that’s meant to defend ourselves in circumstances like this are completely boneheaded. Like, am I going to go into a dinner party where I can’t see and I don’t know what’s going on and, after knocking a bunch of glasses over and serving myself from the buffet with the soup spoon…after doing that, am I going to go to the person next me and say, “Hey, sorry I’m so much fucking trouble, can you explain to me what I’m supposed to be doing here?”
1) You know what you’re supposed to be doing here: you’re supposed to shut up and listen.
2) That person next to you? They’re here for a dinner party, not to babysit some bonehead who doesn’t have the sense to use the serving spoon instead of his soup spoon.
Likewise, asking the people at the table to give you a list of books of etiquette that you might consult before you go to the next dinner party? Dude, you weren’t even invited to THIS one (that is something I forgot to mention: you weren’t invited to this party, you just assumed it was okay if you came in and sat down; the other people at the table are polite, that’s why they didn’t throw you out).
Maybe you think it’s a good idea to check out what the party’s like before you invite yourself in?
Obviously, you’re not going to start loudly listing all the other dinner parties that you went to where you DIDN’T make an ass of yourself, because what does that have to do with whether or not you knocked the soup in your neighbor’s lap, or started yelling across the table like a dickhead?
“I’m not being a boor! My friends invite me to dinner parties all the time!” Wait, what?
Hey, you know what else you and I might do? We might loudly declaim that these rules are stupid, that the people at the table are being tyrants for imposing a lot of stupid and arbitrary rules on all of us when we just want to enjoy the dinner party too, isn’t that our RIGHT as AMERICANS? To sit down at whatever fucking dinner party we want and have as much fun as we’re able to have by ignoring whatever rules we don’t happen to give a shit about?
Hey, so WHAT if I want to serve myself from the buffet using my soup spoon? I didn’t even put the soup in my mouth, there are no germs on it. This is just some PC rule that persons of color and women and everyone who isn’t me uses to OPPRESS ME, zomg, wtf.
Except, duh, you don’t use your soup spoon at the buffet because the soup had peanut oil in it, and now you’ve gone and put peanut oil all over that food, you asshole.
See what the problem is? You assumed that the rules were arbitrary, because instead of coming in and sitting and listening and paying attention, you just did whatever you were used to doing, and it didn’t even OCCUR to you that maybe you should think about what things have peanuts in them.
This, incidentally, is what’s typically meant by privilege. I want to digress a little bit here, or maybe expand on my (increasingly) elaborate metaphor: you’re not a bad person because you’ve never had anyone who was allergic to peanuts over at your house. The fact that you didn’t KNOW that someone might be allergic to peanuts, and that the soup might have peanuts in it, that doesn’t make you a shithead, necessarily. It’s ignorant, yeah, but not ignorant in the pejorative sense (the way we typically use it to mean “stupid”), it’s ignorant in the literal sense: you literally just didn’t know.
So, imagine that you did this, in your ignorance, and someone eats from the buffet and they go into anaphylactic shock. While they’re rolling on the ground, choking to death, grappling for their epi-pen, what do you do? Think carefully, because this is the part of the story where we find out whether or not you’re a shithead. Do you:
a) Apologize profusely, realize that a lot of these rules and customs aren’t arbitrary at all, and start rethinking your relationship to peanuts and spoons in general?
b) Hold your breath, stomp your feet, maybe start yelling at the person you’ve just poisoned? ”Why didn’t you TELL me you were allergic to peanuts? I didn’t know! I DIDN’T KNOW!”
In this context, it’s pretty easy to see what the right action is, huh?
So, I figure there are two ways people are going to read this previous part. The first is they’re going to say, “Listen, you’re trivializing sexual assault by comparing it with an allergy to peanuts.” Okay, it’s fair to not like the comparison, but a serious peanut allergy is not trivial, I don’t think. You’ve got to carry around an epi-pen with you all the time, because your life hinges on how well food is labeled. You’ve got to question every menu in every restaurant that you go to because hey, it turns out that most people don’t BOTHER mentioning whether they’ve put peanuts in stuff, because like many other people, it’s never occurred to them that it might actually be harmful to another person.
So, obviously, no, the experience of sexual assault, or racism, or homophobia is NOT AT ALL like the experience of having a peanut allergy. I am right now just trying to take some of the emotional charge out of the comparison, because I have a hunch that dudes who’ve never experienced sexual assault are probably going to understand it better this way.
The other thing that people are going to say (dudes are more likely to say this) is that a peanut allergy is a REAL THING, that can be genuinely fatal, while the trauma from sexual assault (or any other kind of psychic trauma, like the consequence of homophobia or racism) is in someone’s imagination. That is obviously bullshit. We know a lot more about trauma now that we ever did, and one of the things that we know about it is that it is a real thing that stays with you, that triggers the same neuro-receptors that are triggered when you experience physical injury, that it can be reactivated by hearing about sexual assault, by even having it mentioned.
It’s a real thing, that really hurts people, guys. You don’t think it’s maybe worth at least a warning? At least a little bit of care when you’re using the spoon?
And if you’re a writer — I guess, uh, in this metaphorical context you’re a chef — let’s say you’re a chef and you want to make a dish and say, “Hey look, I put all this peanut sauce in it! But it’s not like I ENDORSE peanut sauce, I’m not saying peanut sauce is great or anything. It’s an INTERROGATION of peanut sauce. It’s an ironic re-appropriation of peanut sauce!” Oh, well, as long as you didn’t mean it, that’s fine.
“I HAVE to put the peanuts in, otherwise it wouldn’t taste right!” Well. Do you, though?
“I can’t make a food that SOMEONE isn’t allergic to!” Okay, I mean. Can’t you?
Incidentally, this also reveals how dunderheaded the notion that “irony” is a defense against being a jackass is. ”Oh, I didn’t REALLY knock the glass over, I’m just being ironically clumsy.” Likewise self-deprecation. Let me ask you something, if you invited a person to a dinner party, and they staggered in blind and drunk and then just kept knocking shit off the table and spitting in the soup and whatnot, but then they yelled loudly, “Hahah, I am so clumsy and dumb! What a dummy I am!”, if they did that, would you invite them back to the dinner party?
For as banal as this metaphor seems, I think there’s a lot of merit to it, actually. A chef who only understands peanut sauce in the sense that he finds it distasteful isn’t going to be as leery of using it (or warning people about it) as a chef who recognizes that peanut sauce is physically harmful. Likewise, dinner-guests who understand unwanted foods abstractly (“I think peanuts are gross”), while they might prefer not to eat foods with peanuts in them, don’t experience peanuts the same way that people who are actually allergic to them do.
In fact, you probably get a lot of guys who’ll say to people with peanut allergies, “Oh, yeah, peanuts are gross, that’s why I always eat around them.”
But you know, there’s a lot of guys that wander into conversations, sit themselves down, being completely disrespectful of the real, practical, genuine needs of the people around them, and they start talking about whatever they want, doing whatever they want, knocking over whatever they feel like. And when someone at the party tells them, “Hey, asshole. Stop that,” they get mad that someone called them names.
The worst part is, if they don’t get an invitation to another party, or someone finally gets fed up and calls the bouncer to throw this sucker out, a dude is going to complain that he’s going to be censored. ”I have the RIGHT to eat with whatever spoon I want! I have the RIGHT to be inconsiderate of everyone’s anaphylaxis! YOU ARE CENSORING MEEEEEEE!”
I think part of the problem is that, in America especially, but always in the privileged classes, we don’t put a lot of stock in humility. And that’s why a lot of these guys, when they’re on blogs or forums or things (I delete a lot of comments by dummies on this blog, but not nearly as many as I’m sure Sady Doyle does), they don’t really get what’s happening when someone shuts them down. When those dudes talk about their “Freedom of Speech”, they’re not really talking about their right to say what they want — they’ve still got that. This is the internet, man; any racist, misogynist bonehead can go wherever they want, start up a blog, and do nothing but post racist-as-shit comments on it forever (I know this is true because there are a depressing amount of blogs that do just that).
What a guy crying about his “right to speak” is really crying about is his right to be *heard*, here, in these circumstances, by these people. His right to have his opinions taken seriously, his right to be considered as vital to every conversation as he thinks he is. Which, duh, no one has that right. What he’s unable to understand and accept is that sometimes, your and my opinions? Don’t actually matter. We actually DON’T have anything to say about a subject, we DON’T know what the fuck we’re talking about, we could all stand to learn a lot from the people around us.
I am especially guilty of this. Look, I just concocted an elaborate metaphor featuring peanut allergies and sexual assault, despite the fact that I am not allergic to peanuts, and have never been a victim of sexual assault. (I have behaved like a boor at dinner parties, though.) Kick that ego around, guys, it isn’t doing you any good; we’re all here to learn, not to teach.
All of this is really just a very long way of apologizing for recommending R. Scott Bakker’s books (and even my half-hearted defense of George R. R. Martin, which was really more of a defense of Alyssa Rosenberg, though); after a lot of reconsidering (and finding myself getting increasingly bored with them). I do think there are some interesting ideas in there from a very abstract point of view, but I made the mistake of failing to notice that the parts that I merely found distasteful (and so could easily ignore), are actually potentially real, harmful, damaging things to other people.
Ignorance by itself is not shameful; the persistence in ignorance is. Consider me gradually coming to a better understanding here.
This entry was posted on April 28, 2012 at 3:19 pm and is filed under Braak, crotchety ranting, Politics with tags Braak, misogyny, racism, social justice. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.