Thursday, January 24, 2013

On Platforms, Privilege, Controversy and Conversation

CAUTION: Stream of consciousness.

I haven't written in a while, and it's not because I'm incredibly busy (although I am), and it's not that I don’t have anything to write about (because I do).

It’s because there are already too many voices, and so very many times, I feel like mine’s just adding to the noise.

So I’ve been trying to take more time to listen.

You see, you start a blog and a couple people like what you have to say (most of them family and close friends), and then those couple of people tell a couple of other people and the next thing you know you have a “platform” (bloggers love this word…I mean, like LOVE IT love it, to the point that when I read yet another post/tweet/status update about it I want to bash my head through the computer screen) Once you’ve got your “platform” (I will always use the uber-sarcastic scare-quotes when using that word in this context), blogging is really no different than stump speeches and political campaigning in a few key ways:
  1. You’re up on stage, saying important things that may or may not be followed by any kind of action. 
  2. Most of the people listening already agree with you anyway (or at least are inclined to do so). 
  3. You’re faced with the occasional heckler (though in the blog world, it’s that most courageous of souls, the anonymous internet commenter, or more affectionately: the troll).
Here’s the thing about a “platform” though: by definition, it elevates. It privileges the words of the speaker. It gives a sense of authority (whether or not it is deserved) to those who would stand upon it.

And like politicians, we bloggers tend to get a little too enamored with that authority (or maybe I’m just projecting here).

So let’s take a second to talk about privilege and why it matters in this conversation. 

First things first, what do I mean when I say privilege? Put simply, I mean it is the set of advantages that members of a particular gender/race/class/religion/etc enjoy in society simply for being a member of that particular gender/race/class/religion/etc in that society.

Privilege is, to put it bluntly, the lubrication on the gears of inequality.  

Someone once broke it down for me in perhaps the most relatable analogy ever (I can’t for the life of me remember who, maybe Danielle over at From Two to One?). [Edit: The analogy comes from John Scalzi's blog, the full text of which can be found here. Thanks to Jessica for the tip.]  Privilege operates like that option when you’re getting ready to play a video game:

Please select difficulty level:


It’s like this; for me as a white, straight, middle-class, Christian, able-bodied (mostly, anyway) dude, there should probably be another setting above “Easy” that says “seriously bro, you pretty much barely even have to try.”

The common objection to this characterization of privilege is the age-old “bootstrap” comeback that says, “I got everything I have by my own hard work.”

Respectfully: no, you didn’t.

I’m not devaluing your hard work at all, it certainly matters a great deal, but there are others who do not enjoy your privileged status in society that have worked both quantitatively and qualitatively harder than you have, yet still they are not successful. The opposite is also true: there are others who have put in virtually no work, but because they enjoy a more privileged position in society than you do, are more successful than you, despite your hard work.

Look, if “hard work” was actually the currency of success, women in sub-Saharan Africa would likely be the most successful, prosperous demographic in the world...

...and politicians would be the least successful.

Neither of those is the case.

That should tell us something about the interaction between hard work and privilege.

Why all of this matters is simple: blogging can easily become an echo-chamber of privilege, where we turn controversy into currency for the sake of building a constituency, and cash-in on tragedy for publicity. But the real question is, to what end? Or better yet, at what cost? 

So where am I going with all of this? To be honest: I really have no idea. All I know is that the blogosphere, and especially the Christian blogosphere, is saturated with privileged people. Now granted, any kind of analysis of bloggers is going to be skewed since it kind of presupposes a certain level of privilege. (I mean, if you have a computer, internet access, and enough spare time to crank out a couple of blog posts a week, chances are you’re not doing too terribly bad.)

But here’s the real rub: every time the controversy-of-the-day erupts and the interwebz go crazy talking about it, the voices of those who really need to be heard are drowned out by the voices of those who are yelling from their "platforms." The voices of those whose lives are actually affected by this latest controversy are lost in the din of those pontificating from their platforms of privilege (me, all too often, included). There is rarely an attempt to empathize with this Other in these conversations, but rather, the focus too often seems to be to use the Other as a means to achieving a particular political/theological end. It’s exploitative, and in the end, it just doesn’t do anyone any good, especially those most vulnerable, the ones we’ve effectively silenced by turning their struggles into a commodity to be exploited.

Well, I’m not quitting, if that’s what you’re wondering, although it’s certainly tempting (and that was pretty much my intention when I started writing this). I may slow down a bit, and change the tone, but the fact remains that all of the stuff that I hate most about the world of blogs and blogging and bloggers is the very same stuff that compels me to keep at it. There are so very few places where genuine dialogue might take place. There are so very few voices who speak for the most vulnerable.

Now I’m certainly not saying that I’ve got it all figured out by any means (seriously people, I’m a disaster), and I will probably continue to fail just as often as I succeed in my endeavor to start honest, safe conversations about the really important things.

But I will keep trying.
I hope you’ll continue to be a part of the conversation.
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