Sunday, July 05, 2009

Review "The Privilege of Being Listened To"

“Drawing attention to yourself” is perceived by a lot of people as “dangerous” or anti-social. There’s often a lot of pressure to “keep a low profile” and “fit in with the crowd” for the sake of safety until you’ve “paid your dues.” Sound familiar?

In Internet has turned this social paradigm on its side, and somewhat derailed it: because of free entry, anyone can become a celebrity. Because a lot of people “misuse the privilege” and create harm for others (as in the reputation area), there are bound to occur a lot of calls to restrain this sort of thing. Some of this kind of thinking comes from a logical impasse: you can’t prove a negative. If I have the privilege of climbing on the Web, I can’t prove in advance that I won’t harm someone else’s safety or reputation. But the same is true about getting behind the wheel of a car. No one can stop me from imbibing some Shots first. The only thing we can go on is my past driving record (which is good); if I abuse it, the license could be taken away and I could even go to jail. I guess we could come to see it that way with the Internet. Yet, telling people you blog publicly could sometimes be interpreted as enticing or as "anti-selective."

There is developing, I think, a notion of “a privilege of being listened to”. The Internet makes it easy for anyone to enter the debate on anything and make a name of himself, but “free entry” isn’t the only issue: in the past, one could have drawn a lot of attention with a sufficiently controversial letter to an editor published in print with conventional supervision. Although – in many people’s minds – the lack of supervision over what gets posted today does add to the “risk”.

Socially, we think someone deserves to be listened to when he or she has real responsibilities for others -- and can "compete" according to the "rules of engagement" of familial, social and political hierarchy in order to become a superior provider of others. We think of responsibility for others as something that occurs by choice – getting married and having babies (hopefully in the “right order”) – but in a real world, it doesn’t always happen that way. Our individualistic culture has somewhat demonized the risk of starting a family, and created some real sustainability problems, running up against the demographics of aging as well as all the other legacy social injustices that commentators like Bill Moyers broadcast shows about.

One of the emerging issues is that “family responsibility” isn’t just a matter of choice. The childless will do more of their share of eldercare – especially as the demographic demand outstrips the ability to outsource it – and helping raise OPC (other people’s children). Once one is “responsible for others”, it seems to get harder to remain objective about the issues, and it gets more tempting to support pols or lobbyists who will get your family its way.

As others have pointed out to me, “reproduction rules” – and the mere fact of being a blood relative of someone often leads to unearned benefits, so it isn’t necessarily wrong to expect involuntary but “elected” responsibilities for others, in the extended family setup. After all, that is part of what a "community" must expect, is it not, to guarantee taking care of everyone to some extent? What is wrong, is how a lot of us were “exiled” for a few decades, and defined as second class citizens in the law – told, for example, that we aren’t fit to share the risk of defending our country and our freedom if we open our mouths – even on the Internet. (I’m referring, of course, to “don’t ask don’t tell” – a malignant mentality). All the sudden, “you” want intimacy from us on your terms, which includes serving as pretend male role models when you need them. Yes – the shortage of people to teach disadvantaged youth and serve as the first line of identity and support for the disabled and needy is getting serious.

And, when “elected”, I sometimes resist. I want my own separate public identity first, I say. And you think that means I want to keep my mental “grade book”, ready to use it to call upon the “medical Gestapo.” I want to use my freedom to nurture a fantasy of perfect meritocracy. I want to see the final standings published.

I can understand how some people could believe that, as I can sometimes seem unempathetic. But what I do demand is that people understand what did happened, how things have evolved for the past forty years. There are reasons that I was sent into “exile” – they have a lot to do with what our society thought it needed to demand of young men a few decades ago to survive – and the existential problem non-conformity presented. Actually, we lived with it at times – despite the pretense of exclusion and of McCarthyism, gays often served in the military, somewhat openly, during WWII and in other “greatest generation struggles” with distinction. Now, demanding conformity, and pressuring someone like me into embracing your life and agenda and demonstrating the personal habit that would go along with your goals, is a way of making someone like me show that I could step up and raise a family if I had to. Tables have turned, and the wild pendulum is swinging back. I do get it. I understand the sustainability issue. I understand that there may be limits on the individualism with which I lived and rather prospered for a few decades. But I want “you” to really understand how things got to be this way. Therefore, I must retain “the privilege of being listened to.” I will not "hold my nose", overlook the past, and pretend to become a huckster of someone else's agenda (the "we give you the words" situation) and pretend that doing so solves the moral problems.

The original 2005 essay “The Privilege of Being Listened To” and responses is at an older site, here.

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