Monday, September 22, 2014

When the first-person person is a man

Nicholas Troester has (tongue-in-cheek) nominated a commenter to this very blog as "Commenter of the year," and with good reason. The commenter, who's chosen the discreet pseudonym of Anonymous so as not to be blacklisted by an op-ed-writing cabal, wrote the following, in response to my last post, on the women pressured into confessional writing:

Yes, but where is the demand coming from? This is a strictly by-for situation, but Hadley doesn't seem too keen to explore that angle (and neither do you, for that matter). The result is that demand for the "confessional" is put down to some non-specified blob of a demographic, even though we all know who is reading all this stuff. I'd also say that sociobiology/evopsych could explain this apparently perplexing phenomenon in about five minutes, but the op-eding class doesn't go in for biodeternism, so they'll continue to wonder why one half of society needs a visceral, emotional connection to the subject at hand. We really do live in an amusing world.
Between the lines, I think what Anonymous is saying is that women are the ones driving the demand for confessional writing, and that biological determinism explains why that's the case. And that if you don't agree, it's because you are part of, or have been silenced by, The Feminists.

Anyway, I was going to respond by pointing out that supply here is key: It's cheap (often free) to publish personal essays, and easy to get this content, because everyone can produce these, whereas not everyone can, say, analyze the subtleties of Cambodian politics. And you don't exactly need to factor in reporting costs - let alone international-bureau-type ones - if you're getting a 22-year-old's musings on the hook-up culture at her college. So even if the demand from men and women alike is greater for other topics, these are so much cheaper to produce that that's what fills the marketplace.

But then I realized I'd had enough Gender Angle for the moment, and will instead turn to two instances of personal-hook fails, where the authors are of the dude persuasion.

Here goes: Dude A wrote a piece about the downsides to prolonging life, Dude B, one advising parents not to leave money to their kids. Both reasonable topics, both pieces backed up with evidence.

But that's not enough in today's journalistic marketplace. We have to hear from Ezekiel Emanuel that he wants to die at 75, and from Ron Lieber that he doesn't want money from his parents. Why? Are we meant to believe that these authors are particularly representative of humanity, or that they, for personal reasons (as vs. professional expertise) truly get the issues at stake? What does it add to frame these topics in the first person? Is Kant's categorical imperative somehow involved? Is the idea that they're hypocrites until proven otherwise, and asserting that they'd do the thing they're advocating preemptively absolves them? Thanks to the personal twist, both articles end up reading smug-and-self-righteous in a totally avoidable way. The issue stops being inheritance or quality-of-life in old age, and starts being what sort of person we think Rahm's brother and this Lieber fellow might be.

And I'm not - as the way I begin this sentence suggests - an anti-first-person absolutist. What I object to is the first-person requirement. Or to this odd hybrid genre, where it's never enough that the writer feels whichever way (too subjective!), so you instead get a piece that results from how the writer feels, plus various evidence that supports whichever preexisting assumption.


caryatis said...

To what extent is that a preemptive defense against attacks on the writer's motivation? I.e. for fear of people saying that EE wants to kill the old or RL selfishly wants to keep money from his kids. The same reason I might mention I'm a transsexual black woman (hypothetically) to preempt being accused of racism/sexism/"transmisogyny".

Then the question becomes why people make, and take seriously, attacks on a writer's motivations instead of his ideas.

Phoebe said...

Chicken-and-egg, right? There's an expectation that the author's identity matters, and is what drives the argument. This holds for a surprisingly wide array of topics. I do tend to think it's far more the case when the author is some sort of (for lack of a better term) Other - either female, gay, a minority, etc. - because there's the persistent (and silly) assumption that a straight white male is a hyphen-free default person without any possible biases. So what's striking here is that there isn't some demographic reason these authors' identities would be at stake. It's become the case that every topic lends itself to a personal interpretation. I guess I'm not altogether shocked - when Conor and I did that Bloggingheads, I remember him mentioning during the conversation that he got called out for "privilege" for writing about drones. But still, the ubiquity of first person is surprising.