Monday, February 6, 2017

When the underprivileged are not political

I often hear the opinion that saying “I’m not political”, or choosing to avoid conversations about politics, is an act of privilege. That only sheltered people have the option of non-involvement. I would agree that if you’re personally effected by an issue, you are far more likely to care about it. I also recognize that people who are poor, or non-white, or immigrants, or women, or not straight, are often judged as “being political” when they’re just relaying their everyday experiences, because their existence itself is deemed political. All of this is true. But there are also ways in which marginalization can prevent political focus. Here are some examples.

A person who is homeless and living on the street is more likely to be focused on the basics of everyday survival than on contemplating political topics. If you’re expending all your time and energy trying to find food and shelter, you’re not going to spend hours reading about politics on the internet. You (most likely) won’t attend marches. You don’t have money to donate to causes, and can’t boycott products because you need to take what you can get.

Back in the fall of 2011, I was involved with the Occupy movement in New Haven. I’m glad to have taken part, as I learned a lot and met some wonderful people. Many of them made efforts to give to the homeless people on the New Haven green, which was good. They gave them food and offered a media platform to those who wanted one. But not every homeless person was enthusiastic. Some of the Occupiers were sleeping in tents on the green, and a homeless woman informed me she didn’t like it because “me and my friends need this space.” There was a notable moment when a fellow Occupier tried to high-five a homeless man in solidarity. He shook his head, clearly not enjoying the gesture. I’m not going to assume that none of the homeless people cared about politics, but many were too focused on their immediate needs to invest themselves in philosophical theories and keep up on current events.

If a person is not homeless but still living in urgent poverty, they may be too busy to pay attention to politics, get involved in community organizations, or similar things. They could be working so many hours that they barely have time to sleep, let alone dedicate large blocks of time to an ideology.

Additionally, mental health can play into this. I know people who disengage from social justice issues and choose not to involve themselves in political conversations—not because they’re apathetic, but because it will throw them into a psychological crisis. Extensive involvement in these things can be very detrimental to some peoples’ mental health, particularly if they struggle with depression, anxiety, PTSD, or agoraphobia. There are people with these conditions who choose to be involved, and that’s perfectly fine. But I respect the choice to disengage for their own well-being. Sometimes the ones who are most impacted by these topics are the ones who most need to pick and choose their battles, or else they strain themselves to the breaking point.

Some who are impacted by these social issues don’t have access to education that will teach them about it. Some are politically invested, but not liberal. I know people of marginalized identities who have right-wing values. Some don’t have the time, and others care so much that it drains them and they need to maintain distance for the sake of their health.

Many privileged people are involved in politics—and that can be a problem when they’re out of touch with others. It’s true that privilege can also play into non-involvement or apathy, but it can be more complicated than that.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Ethical publishing, and the bleach-blond elephant in the room

Roxane Gay, the author of “Bad Feminist,” is someone I greatly admire—both as a writer and as a person. She was recently set to have a book published by Simon & Schuster. She decided to cancel the deal upon learning that TED Books, a Simon & Schuster imprint, is going to also publish a project by Milo Yiannopoulos. In her words, “I can’t in good conscious let them publish it while they also publish Milo.” (While her book wasn’t going to be published by the same specific group that published Milo, there is a company link. TED is a Simon & Schuster offshoot that publishes works by conservative authors.)

I have heard of other authors making similar decisions. There are Thought Catalog writers who have pulled their work from the site because it provided a platform for some sexist, homophobic, and otherwise bigoted perspectives.

This is a decision I respect, and I understand the reasoning. This is a self-sacrificing choice for an author. They’re losing exposure and sometimes money for the sake of their principles. Roxane Gay acknowledged that she is financially comfortable enough to do this. She said she is “in a fortunate enough position to make this decision, so I’m putting my money where my mouth is.” Her ideals, combined with her understanding that not everybody can afford to make monetary decisions based on ideals, is one of the many reasons I respect her.

And if I were in that position, I am not sure I would make the same choice.

Part of this is because I am financially dependent and have nearly no income. I’m also an unknown writer with very few platforms. However, there’s a second reason I might make a different choice.

Milo Yiannopoulos is a thoroughly repugnant person who is not just an irritation, but a danger. He is a spokesman for the neo Nazi movement. If every author who stands against his beliefs were to pull their books from a publication, one of two things would happen.

Scenario one: The publishing company will stop selling his writings, and the writings of any of his peers. They will cease to give him a platform, and he will receive no more money from them.

Scenario two: With all progressive (or at least not regressive) voices gone, what will remain of that company’s clientele will be hateful, bigoted perspectives. They will become the voice of the company. In order to keep their business afloat, they will cater solely to that crowd and seek out more far-right extremists. Far-right fanatics who were previously obscure will then gain more publicity and a bigger following. It will become an expanding alt-right echo chamber.

Hopefully Scenario One would be the result, but I would be too afraid of the second scenario to risk that. 
If Scenario Two were to happen, I don’t believe in any way that the authors who pulled their books would be at fault. It is not their fault that there are scary hateful extremists in the world, and it is understandable they would want no affiliation. This is more than understandable; it’s ethical.

We would be hard pressed to find a company that has never published anything offensive, no matter how many forward-thinking authors they also include. Regardless, there’s a difference between publishing a garden variety “family values” crank, and publishing a Nazi sympathizer. Unfortunately, a company could point to their progressive authors whenever they want to evade responsibility for Milo. They could say, “We’re not sexist or racist or anti-Semitic; we published Roxane Gay!” Roxane Gay was most likely aware of that, and chose to circumvent the possibility.

It is also possible that a far-right author could refuse to publish with Simon & Schuster because they publish liberals. They could just as easily say, “I won’t work with them, because I want no affiliation with leftists.” The more outnumbered they are, the less comfortable they feel in that space.

I commend Gay for that value judgment, as well as anyone else who would share that conviction. Notwithstanding, I wouldn't fault a person who said, “I’m not going to take my voice away from this company. It contains a regressive voice, but it can also contain mine. Mine will counter the ignorance. And hopefully more voices will join my own, so my peers within this company will outnumber the bigots.”

Either decision can be based on honorable principles. I just hope the people with those principles win out, wherever they choose to publish their work.