A Response to John Scalzi Giving People Quarters

In the same vein as my response to my response to Maggie Stiefvater and Colten Hibbs a couple of weeks ago I want to state right up front and in bold letters that this while this is a response to Scalzi’s post, this is mostly a reflection on issues of power and privilege. I’m using Scalzi’s post as a handy example to interrogate larger contextual issues  mostly because it’s there. 

So. John Scalzi wrote a post where, for much of it, he advocates kindness and respect and listening to others and trying to solve problems. That’s wonderful! He also, says this, and actually, names his post for it:

But I also believe that after a certain point, it may become obvious that some people just want to complain, or to be angry, or to be an asshole, or whatever, and that nothing a reasonable person can do will ever make those people happy or satisfied. So you give them a quarter, metaphorically or otherwise, and tell them to call someone who cares. Because you have other things to do. And then you go on doing those things you need to do.

And, to some extent, this is true. I’m sure we can all think of times we have felt this has happened to us.

But this is key: I’m sure we can all think of times we have felt this has happened to us.

This is where I bounced off his post. Scalzi has an enormous amount of structural privilege–along axes of race, gender (both in terms of being male and cis), in terms of education and the veneer of class higher education bestows especially for white people.1 I believe he identifies as straight, which adds more privilege to his social position.

Look, as Scalzi himself said, he’s playing on the lowest difficulty setting. But what does that really mean? Like, in practice? It means things that people are more likely to listen to him than someone with far less accumulated or intersectional privilege, say a woman of color (WOC). It means Scalzi’s personal experiences are more likely to be affirmed as right and just and sane and reasonable than a WOC’s. It means that when he dismisses someone as unable to be satisfied because they are just unreasonably angry other people will, too.

He says that when someone “just wants to complain,” you should, essentially, wash your hands of them:

They won’t be happy, but then they were never going to be happy, and it’s not your responsibility to fix their problem — “their problem” not being whatever specific complaint or grievance they might have, but a worldview that requires them to always have a complaint or grievance, and/or to believe that the root of that complaint is somehow about you.

But again, this is more an issue of felt rather than actual truth. Because people in power have always said exactly this kind of thing about people they have oppressed who have spoken out.

Here’s an example of this happening that doesn’t involve Scalzi at all so you know for sure I’m not just picking on him. I used to be a member of a socialist organization which was led almost exclusively by white men.2 Eventually leadership started asking why there weren’t more women in the organization, and I wound up on the women’s caucus3, which worked on possible causes and solutions to this issue. Nothing we presented was ever really implemented. At a party, a drunk leader of the group, a middle-aged man, told me he understood that we were angry–of course we were! sexism! it was part of capitalism!–but that he had personally worked through his internalized misogyny so he shouldn’t be held responsible for our complaints. Which is what they were: complaints, not real issues. And after all, it wasn’t his fault that women just got less…committed, or whatever, after they had kids. It just happened.

That guy just felt that we were complaining for the sake of complaining, that he was not complicit, and nothing we could do could really make him see otherwise. So he wrote us off.

This is my issue with handing out quarters. I don’t trust myself to do it because it’s been done to me one too many times by people in power–by people who wrote me off as crazy because it was more convenient than addressing structural inequities, by people who thought me unprofessional me because I brought issues to bear too impolitely for their tastes, by people who just plain don’t want to be bothered.

I will give quarters to people with more structural power than me, but I won’t do it to people with less structural power than me.

Oppressed people are allowed to be angry. They are allowed to express it. And if they are expressing it at me, I probably did something to cause it. I want to dismantle all the isms, and to do that, I have to constantly check myself. It’s fucking hard work. It sometimes takes getting snapped at by wounded, wary people if I step on toes and microaggress them.

I’m not obtuse. I understand where Scalzi was going with his post. It was about the service industry and about the draining emotional labor embedded in that kind of work. But, still, the messages in that post raised red flags for me because it was flippant. Scalzi has a large platform, and he’s talked on it before about race and social justice. But if he’s really serious about that kind of work then it is incumbent upon him to think about how his words–all his words–are taken in the context of his relative and comparative privilege

Nothing is ever written in a vaccum. Not his post; not mine.

1I don’t know his class deal, but I do know from personal experience that a white person with enough degrees can pass as suitably middle class in most spaces, or, at the very least, look like they’ve “made good.” These things are often not available for people of color, for whom college degrees are harder to obtain in the first place, and when they are obtained, are ignored or minimized or qualified until they don’t actually matter.

2Brocialists, mostly.

3This was back before I came out as trans/non-binary.

2 thoughts on “A Response to John Scalzi Giving People Quarters

  1. One thing that struck me about the overall argument (not necessarily Scalzi’s response), is that from an economic standpoint, a lot of people have to try and put out as many titles as they can. New titles tend to sell fairly strongly at the start (ideally) and then trickle off over time (again, hopefully to a decent regular amount rather than dwindling to no sales). Each time you put out a new title, you get that initial bump and a bump of your backlist. You may want to spend more time on things, but financially you need to write faster to have a chance at making your income. So you may have to either choose between–writing very fast, keeping the day job, or having an alternate means of support until the writing takes off. I could write faster if my bank balance depended on it, but I fell into a big pot of privilege when I got my book deal and can afford to write around one a year if I get paid roughly the same amount for them.

    Hearing white, relatively privileged people saying “take more time” can be really frustrating if you really can’t if you want to eat, or you’re really motivated to give up that day job. I liked Chuck’s response as he didn’t seem to gloss over that factor as much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am obviously missing some massive context to Scalzi’s post. I read it, apparently, completely out of this context (which, give that it had no links or direct mentions of context makes it kind of a sub-blog-post??). So, this is enlightening. I was reading Scalzi’s post blind, essentially. And reading it without the surrounding context I couldn’t help but see a white guy scoffing and dismissing people he simply didn’t want to deal with.

      Having sought out the possibly instigating furor, this whole thing reeks further of privilege and actually may need further unpacking. So far as I can tell the conversation has been had by a host of white writers who make their living off of writing? And are talking about what the appropriate amount of novels to publish in a given year are? Without talking about issues of gatekeeping that maybe led them to be successful novelists in the first place that keep marginalized writers on the fringes?

      But I agree. Wendig’s post was more realistic in terms of “hey maybe this is about survival for some people.”


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