Thursday, December 01, 2011

Checking one's privilege at the first-class kiosk

Katie Roiphe has discovered, recently, it seems, that the Internet is not the utopia of kindness and goodwill she might have hoped for. On the Internet, there are these "angry commenters" who, using iffy spelling and grammar, hold forth emotionally on how wrong some article was, and take this out on the writer.

If her entire point was that there are trolls on the Internet, that might be worth noting because it's rare to see someone who writes for an online magazine discovering this for herself in 2011, but I don't have enough angry-commenter in me to point out things like this for their own sake. Rather, I'm interested in the YPIS ("your privilege is showing") angle. Roiphe notes, correctly, that furious responses to articles often take the form of a YPIS:

There are several common fantasies about the writer that fly through comments sections. One is that the writer is “privileged,” and/or getting rich off of their insipid and offending article. The confidence and specificity of this fantasy is interesting. One commenter claims that a writer “typifies the white, middle-upper class man who attends Harvard. … This is because of his race and class privilege. To him, no one really has access to the "old boys' network" or is thinking too much about jockeying for social position. That's because he is a de-facto member of the old boys’ network and already has his social position.” One Slate commenter asserts that a writer “can afford to work only sporadically”; another asserts that she “pulled herself up by her manolo blahnik bootstraps,” yet another that the article is enabling her to put more polish “on her Mercedes.” Assuming the commenter does not live next door to the writer and is not the writer’s sister or best friend, one wonders a little how the commenter is quite so confident about the content of the writer’s bank account. Especially since most freelance writers for places like Slate are not exactly paying the rent on the penthouse off their efforts. If the writer has come from a place of privilege—and as in the rest of the world, some have and some haven’t—they are most likely frittering away whatever they do have by entering an insecure and unlucrative profession like writing. These demographic realities, though, make little impression on the angry commenter, who, one notes admiringly, sticks to her guns. 
We are clearly in a season of class war, and one can understand the class war against a hedge fund guy, but a writer
Roiphe, understandably for someone who thinks the "angry commenter" phenomenon is new (I was getting angry comments back in '04!), has ignored the existence of something called "Google." It is possible to find out, in under 30 seconds, a great deal about people you don't know, things that tell you, if not the precise status of their bank accounts, the extent to which they come from privilege. If Barbra Streisand starred in a movie based on a novel your mother wrote, this is maybe somewhat relevant to how you came to have a platform not accessible to others. Commenters often hurl less-than-nuanced YPISes, so if what they're really miffed about is that Roiphe writes for Slate and they don't, they may phrase this in terms of luxury items they imagine Roiphe can afford, when that's not really the issue. They may have not much sense of what the compensation is for one freelance article, and how that matches up (or doesn't) to the price of Louboutins, but I'm not sure that's important.

Obviously, that Roiphe did not emerge from poverty or anonymity doesn't discredit her as a writer. The problem is that on Slate especially, but elsewhere as well, writers are producing one "overshare" or, in neutral terms, first-person autobiographical account, after the next, and then revealing themselves to be surprised and hurt when readers respond not to the piece, but to its author. Writers who choose the personal as subject matter have to realize that they're asking to be Googled and judged. They also have to have thick enough skin, not for genuine threats (which should be condemned, dealt with, prosecuted, etc.), but to realize that the angry commenters have it in not for Katie Roiphe the woman, but "Katie Roiphe" the character about whom they have limited knowledge.

Furthermore, in the course of this personal writing, the author will so often reveal herself (wait, do men also write these things?) to be the kind of person who'd be really sad if a YPIS were hurled in her direction. Once a writer lets slip that she's touchy about this issue, it's a safe bet that a commenter will let her know just how necessary it is for her to check her privilege ASAP. Roiphe has opened herself up to if anything far, far more of this than she'd been receiving up to this point.

What Roiphe is saying makes sense, however, if you're talking about angry responses to strangers about whom it's tough to know the full story or close - non-famous bloggers, that is, or fellow pseudonymous/anonymous commenters. The truly virulent YPISes get hurled among Jezebel commenters, for example, who can't possibly know anything about one another. There is often a great deal of certainty about the wealth, whiteness, thinness, able-bodiedness, maleness, etc., of avatars.  YPIS, as typically employed, is about silencing others, not the evening of any playing field. YPIS is most dangerous when hurled at those who don't have much of a platform, or much "privilege," for that matter. It deserves condemnation, but cases that involve well-known writers whose privilege (in some key areas, at least - we don't know Roiphe's full life story) is not exactly the subject of speculation seem  on the less pressing end of the spectrum.

1 comment:

-k- said...

Katie Roiphe, of 'uses Slate as her personal platform to announce to a bewildered national audience how much she doesn't care about/is not involved in a feud with the unnamed wife of an unnamed novelist' fame? (

I'm not sure how likely I am to take anything she writes seriously after that one. Reading your analysis, though, was great fun.

(And oh, the over-oversharing extravaganza that is Slate- did you see the recent 'behold, I did IVF' slideshow, complete with the author's photos of her injecting herself in the stomach and--bonus!--a refrigerator door showcasing the oh-so-many drugs competing for space with various and sundry condiments? I don't know how I've lived for so long without having seen it.)