Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Vanity of Scribes

For quite a while, I swore off posting comments at Bookninja, mainly because any time someone advances an argument there that goes against the grain of approved sentiment, they get vilified and called names. And because I find writers, particularly when they gather in packs, to be--brace yourself for gross unfair generalisations--a petty, self-absorbed lot, whose sense of entitlement is way bigger than their brains or talent. In fact, I started this blog back in February in large part because I wanted to haul my arguments about the Atwood-Harper issue out of the mud-slinging morass that had bogged it down in the Bookninja discussion forum. Although several people, both on Bookninja and in back-channel emails, supported the case I was making and criticised the distorting arguments of others, the whole thing became incredibly distasteful.

But, like that kid who repeatedly gets his tongue stuck on a frozen flagpole, I couldn't stay away. The issue that drew me back into the fray is a post on The Writers Union of Canada's press release about the civic strike here in Vancouver. First, someone made an ill-informed statement about TWUC's supposed lack of support for their striking brethren. George Murray pointed out that TWUC isn't a "real union" and I pointed out that there was no lack of support and that, in a press release, it's far more strategically sound not to explicitly take a side, so as to avoid polarising the issue and alienating people's sympathies. (Were I in their position, I would have done the same. Fortunately, I'm not, so I can alienate people's sympathies as much as I want...) So far, so good. But then Zsuzsi (presumably Gartner, but it makes no difference really) contributes a long, articulately emotional post about how the work stoppage has affected the city and her family. Which she then goes and stomps all over (see "sense of entitlement" and "petty, self-absorbed lot" above) by saying this:

And, let’s face it, the “sanitation workers,” for example, make more an hour than any of us writers could hope to. A starting wage for a garage collector is even more than I get an hour teaching part-time at UBC at the graduate level. I know it’s “not about the money” as they say — but, come on, it’s always about the money.

Clearly, for Zsuzsi, at any rate, it's about the money. Moreover, it's about resentment that someone in an "unskilled" trade is making more than she is for the valuable contribution she makes to society teaching people how to write fiction. Look at the phrasing here: "starting wage"; "even more"--like, can you believe it? Isn't that atrocious (cue the application of the back of the hand to the backtilted brow). Okay, I'm being a mite sarcastic, but I do sympathise with Zsuzsi's plight. I have a lot of friends who work as sessional instructors at universities, and altho many of them are exceptionally good teachers, they are used and abused and generally treated as a caste below the "real professors" who have tenure and do research and all that good stuff. The treatment of part-time staff in relation to tenured faculty is a serious issue. But in relation to garbage collectors??? Jesus. Zsuzsi, I'm sorry your job sucks, but that doesn't mean that people should simply be satisfied with what they've got and go back to work because you make a pittance at UBC. Boohoo. The ultimate test, to me, of this apples-and-oranges nonsense is this: would you trade places with the trash collector to get his wage instead of yours. If you wouldn't, then just maybe they deserve what they make. I'd love to have a train-engineer's salary (circa $120K/year) and I could have it, if I trained for the job (there's a massive shortage of qualified engineers in this country, which is only going to get worse as the aging corps starts retiring in droves). But I don't want that lifestyle. It's a tradeoff I'm not willing to make and as Nathan Whitlock points out in the Bookninja discussion "I feel very lucky to have the privilege to choose to make a terrible wage in the cultural sector, and am more than happy to have people doing shit work that I don’t want to do make more than me per hour. I call it a trade-off." So let 'em have it. Ditto lawyers, ditto doctors, ditto UBC professors. Ditto sanitation engineers (altho it's a career path I've contemplated in the past--cause, you know, the money's good...).

As much as the citizens of Vancouver are suffering as a result of this strike, the people who have lost the most are the workers on the line. And the people who have saved the most are the citizens of Vancouver, or at least their proxy, the City Council. Every day and week the strike goes on, the workers lose more and the city saves more. Which is why we've seen none of the strike-breaking legislation that has become the too-typical norm in our neo-liberal age.

So anyway, I told Zsuzsi I thought her concluding "argument" was sickening. Which pissed off someone pretty good:

Zsuzsi was merely stating basic undeniable facts ... very relevantly on a site that is frequented by writers, not too many of whom are likely also Heroic and Sweaty members of the Labouring-TrainWorkingclass such as yourself.

Very relevantly? Relevant to writers, I suppose, but scarcely relevant to the topic at hand, particularly considering that garbage collectors are but one group--albeit a prominent one, given the stink of rotting refuse in the streets and parks--in this dispute. Is the only way to make something politically relevant to writers to bring it back to their own wealth and welfare? This does seem to be a leitmotif on Bookninja, so maybe so. But it only underscores the gross, unfair generalisations I make above. Zsuzsi was making a good point and making it well--right up to the point at which she moaned about how good the garbage guys have it compared to her. Maybe, given a do-over, she'd have the sense and decency to revise her post and cut those two offensive final paragraphs. She's a good writer, so there's reason to believe this. We'll see if she has anything else to say.

"JS" goes on:

I could go on to jerk your ignorant speculation about the strike out of context and pretend you’re advocating for back-to-work legislation (wouldn’t your Working Brothers in Solidarity love to hear that?), kind of like your cheap distortion of Zsuzsi’s comments as “don’t tell me about how good they have it, okay?”/“that shit,” but that wouldn’t be diplomatic… or tactful.

Actually, no you couldn't JS, but no matter. The only distortion he does perpetrate is that I was sickened by all of what Zsuzsi said--when I made it clear it was only the end of her statement that stank. What she said was shit and there was a very strong implication (see, again, the emphases she places on "starting" and "even more") that she deserved more than they do. This is not a wacky reading of her statement, it's the only reading of it she allows.

In typical Bookninja fashion (referring here to the site's commenting readers, not its admin), some anonymous dipshit in the peanut gallery told me to "put my leash on." Harharhar. So many arguments have been derailed over there by this kind of passive-aggressive name-calling crap. What the hell is your argument exactly, "Anonymous Donor"? That I'm a dog? Good one, shithead. Sorry, just talkin' to ya on your level...

And now, once more, I'm taking Sieur de Montaigne's counsel and swearing off arguing with idiots.

UPDATE: Not surprisingly, Zsuzsi responded intelligently to me on Bookninja and conceded that her point about the garbage collectors wasn't quite on the money, as it were. I say not surprisingly because I've heard her on the radio, read her reviews and I know she appreciates a good argument. Unlike this JS character, who, like other shrill shrews on Bookninja, was reduced to even more petulant name-calling. Perhaps JS's most stunning coup-de-grace is this:

Anyway, thanks for your insightful and creative translation of those three sentences into “disgusting crabs-in-a-bucket cliché,” “a great deal of snobbery, ressentiment [what?] and self-entitlement,” “shit,” “tell[ing] me about how good they have it,” and “whatever garbagemen make, it should be less than me, on principle.”

The "[what?]" is his/her editorial insertion, implying I suppose that I made up this word, or misspelled it or something, a pretty cheap tactic to try and discredit an argument, even if it's accurate. It's not, in this case. All this proves is that s/he's not only ignorant of the term in question, but also doesn't know how to use google. Go home, JS, you suck at this game. Nahnahnahnah-nahnahnahnah-hey-hey-hey-goo-ood-bye.

Because Zsuzsi isn't an idiot--just a little naive about labour relations--I did respond to her. What I forgot to say in my response is that, just like there are lots of writers and teachers who think they should be earning more than garbage collectors, there are lots of blue-collar workers who think they should be making more than teachers. There are also lots of people who think that writers are self-important narcissists. So what? Nul point. Here's what I do know: with all the extra garbage--er, recycling?--being generated by CW programmes, we need good trash disposal more than ever.


rob taylor said...

why no discussions of how hard it is to disattach garages from houses in the first place, let alone collect them?

p.s. sometimes the comment section on this site resembles bookninja's a bit...

Alex said...

That thread is an example of why I've basically sworn off commenting on blogs. The thing is, it's impossible to really gauge the proper tone, a problem that also dogs e-mail (one reason emoticons are so essential to internet discourse). On blogs people say things off-the-cuff, sometimes they're serious and other times they're trying to be funny. Invariably someone takes a comment the wrong way or there's a misunderstanding. And people feel personally under attack. And of course everyone's sensitivity to these things is different. Some people like a good scrap, others are turned off by what they perceive as the wrong tone, others figure it's just a blog so who cares what you say or how you say it, and others are really sensitive.

To be honest Z., I agree with the points you were making but I thought your use of the word "sickening" in response to what Gartner wrote was, at the very least, undiplomatic. You could have said you strongly disagreed with her in a way less certain to cause others to be offended. If someone says they disagree with something I've written then you have the beginning of a debate. But if someone says they're sickened by it then as far as I'm concerned there's no point in continuing the discussion at all. That's like using a rhetorical nuke, and it's kind of hard not to take personally ("You make me sick!").

But of course I know you, so that would make a difference. But my point is that everyone reads these things differently, and the nature of most forums is to just follow a line of increasing acrimony as people go back and forth misunderstanding each other. I've been involved in a few of these in the past and they are no fun at all. You come away just feeling angry, drained and depressed.

Alex said...

BTW, before you jump all over me, I see you did not say "sickening" but "makes me sick."

Zachariah Wells said...

I'd agree with you completely, Alex, if I hadn't explained what about it left a bad taste in my mouth. Without that explanation, sure, rhetorical nuke, nothing to say. But the fact that Zsuzsi did respond says a great deal, I think. She can take a punch, and she has a mind of her own.

And the fact that all JS had to say was what righteous arseholes--to paraphrase--Nathan and I are says a great deal about him/her. I have no problem with this person's tone; what I object to is the utter lack of substance in what they're saying, their nil contribution to the argument, addressing neither the issue, nor the arguments made (except to say it's "ignorant speculation," without explaining why that might be), but relying exclusively on ad hominem slurs and defending a point whose maker conceded was dubious. You really don't need emoticons to figure out what this person's mood or motivation is. And that person should bloody well consider him or herself under attack. Unlike TWUC, I have no one to speak for but myself, and myself thinks that JS is a stupid, gutless shit. Does that statement require an emoticon?

Steven W. Beattie said...

That discussion thread exemplifies everything I hate about the Internet's vaunted "freedom" and "democracy." Basically, it frees people who are unable to make a cogent argument to engage in vitriolic, insulting, ad hominem attacks with impunity, because they are shielded by their anonymity.

In my experience it's always the insulting voices that choose to remain anonymous; people like Zsuzsi may disagree, but their responses are more measured, perhaps due to their realization that they're putting themselves on the line. (Granted she didn't use her full name, but she offered enough biographical information to piece together her identity, and Zsuzsi is, after all, not the most common spelling in the world.)

I've been challenged online by people who come clean about their identities and by people who remain anonymous, and ten times out of ten the challenges are more cogent, thoughtful, and worthy of respect if the challenger is willing to take responsibility for what (s)he is saying. This is why Zsuzsi is worth listening to, and why "gutless" is a fair characterization of your Bookninja nemesis, Zach.

There also exists a distinct inability among the denizens of the blogosphere to engage dispassionately in an argument; the knee jerk reaction to being disagreed with is to take the disagreement personally, and to devolve into pettiness and name-calling. This is why I think so many discussion threads on sites like Bookninja end up sounding like petulant schoolchildren whining at each other, rather than intelligent adults engaging in a dialogue.

I agree with Alex that different people have different tolerance levels for strong opinions, and some sensitive people will inevitably take offence at things that weren't meant personally. However, this free-for-all mentality of responding to a perceived slight by firing off streams of invective doesn't promote reasoned debate; it just makes for a whole lot of frustration and ill feeling.