Non-Binary Digital Debates

I have to give a lot of thumbs up to the points John Scalzi raises in his recent essay on the Amazon-Hachette public negotiation troubles. My favorite quote:

This is where many people decide to opine that the cost of eBooks should reflect the cost of production in some way that allows them to say that whatever price point they prefer is the naturally correct one. This is where I say: You know what, if you’ve ever paid more than twenty cents for a soda at a fast food restaurant, or have ever bought bottled water at a store, then I feel perfectly justified in considering your cost of production position vis a vis publishing as entirely hypocritical. Please stop making the cost of production argument for books and apparently nothing else in your daily consumer life. I think less of you when you do.

It’s one of the things at the heart of digital pricing: the specter of production costs, and the impact these sorts of arguments have on the perceived value of content itself. I won’t for one second pretend there’s not a discussion to be had about the value of content. It’s just that sometimes “lower production costs” winds up as a stand in for “this didn’t cost you anything to make,” which is both not true and tends to overshadow any other discussions.

Favorite sound bite notwithstanding, the biggest reason I’m linking Scalzi’s post when I’ve not really pointed at anything else I’ve seen on these sorts of negotiations is because the essay as a whole actually sounds like an opening for discussion. Just about everything else I see seems to declare that either the publisher or Amazon is Evil and Trying to Screw Us, and by comparison the other party is Totally On Our Side.

Scalzi rather directly makes the point that BOTH Amazon and any given publisher (1) are not evil, but (2) are on their own sides. If you want to have a debate about which position is best for authors and/or readers, I think that’s vitally important. The binary ideology here is a trap, and winds up shutting down real discussion in favor of one spin or another. That in turn retards real progress that helps the people at either end of the production chain, instead of just the corporations in the middle.

Sliding Backwards

I don’t know that I have a whole lot to say about the current, final season of True Blood, but a tiny little detail in this past week’s episode gave my process-brain a bit of a tickle. Don’t worry, this is completely non-spoilery.

All you need to know is that, in the episode, Sookie is reading aloud from someone’s diary. At first, I thought it odd, since she’s trying to find out recent information, but the entry she starts with is from late in 2010. Then she flips to entries near the end of the diary, and those are from 2011.

Then I realized what was happening. You see, with two big exceptions, True Blood has no time gaps between its season finales and its season premieres. In fact, quite a few season premieres happen mere seconds after the finales, even though it’s a year–or more–between seasons.

Like I said, there are two exceptions to this. There’s a gap of a year that occurs at the start of season 4 (though even this feels like it’s immediate to at least one character), and then, the end of last season involved another jump, this time of 6 months.

Honestly, I’d not thought much of it. I suppose I might just be used to corporate super-hero comics, where the exact When of things sort of exists on a sliding scale. Otherwise, Spider-Man and Batman would be ready for retirement.

But, yes: if we assume that Bill and Sookie met in 2008, when that episode first aired, then the active structure of the narrative really would build up several years’ worth of lag behind the present.

I guess the interesting thing to me about this past weekend, then, is that the writers chose to raise their hands and draw attention to that gap. It wouldn’t have been particularly difficult to have Sookie say “this entry is from October of last year … this one is from last month.” Actually, that likely would have caught my attention less than the way they chose to structure it.

Clearly the dates weren’t accidental. Someone had to sit down and work out a timeline there so that the diary entries synched up with at least a rough approximation of the progression of time in the series as presented.

Given that it seems like a fair amount of effort to do that calculating, I wonder if there’s more purpose to it. I wonder what’s happened between then and now that might effect the writing. Are they trying to avoid one or more developments in the world? If they’re keeping track of dates like that, does it make pop-cultural references more difficult? Is that also something that’s being vetted?

It’s possible it’s nothing more than the writers waving to the audience and saying “yes, we’ve been paying attention. Have you?” I just found it an interesting choice for the writers to draw attention to the discrepancy, to effectively announce that the series takes place in the recent past. And I wonder how that does or doesn’t impact the writers and the production choices being made.

Something like The Newsroom is intentionally designed to take place in the recent past. It’s been that way from the beginning. True Blood, though, has sort of slowly slid its way into that temporal space, and I’m curious to see if there are any other noticeable effects still waiting to crop up as the season progresses.

Comparatives vs Absolutes

As happened the last time I went on to talk about cultural issues like this, I had a friend post a Tumblr entry to Facebook. This Tumblr post, in fact. It’s a brief, witty post about several of the contradictions in the messages the US government sends and the actions it takes as regards pay, education, and parenting. It’s short enough that you should just go read it all, then meet me in the next paragraph.

As with the last time my friend posted a link to a Tumblr entry like this, someone took offense at the line that higher “education will be inaccessible to most disenfranchised people and skewed in favor of the financially stable and white people.” (emphasis mine).

At least a few people balked at the very notion of white privilege, because their lives had not been easy. They had worked, and struggled, and many people like them had to go through major hardships. Being Caucasian, therefore, hadn’t proven a magical cure-all, and thus the notion itself is flawed. I weighed in once, but realized that how much I want to say constitutes a thread hijack, and that Facebook comment threads are rarely the best forum for making this kind of case, anyway.

I do, however, have an oft-neglected blog, so let’s make use of the personal soapbox, shall we?

I’ve talked before about how feeling like they’re being lumped in with racists can be uncomfortable for people who consider themselves open-minded. Likewise, I think a lot of Caucasian (or male, or heterosexual, or cis-gender, etc) folks find the term privilege unsettling, as they feel like it suggests they’ve had things easy. That, to me, is where the communication breakdown lies.

Privilege is about easier, not easy. The kind of privilege we’re talking about here isn’t an absolute, but a comparative. At nearly any point in the race (demerits for the pun), a member of a given minority is going to have one extra strike–at least–to contend with than a peer who falls into the given, privileged category.

More defining, here, as I think it’s also important to take peer into account. Just as people seem to think privilege is an accusation that life is a walk in the park with no stumbling, they similarly seem to insist that those who subscribe to the notion that privilege exists have hard-line stratified society: Things for any single member of the class with privilege are universally easier than they are for any single member of a minority outside that class. If that were my intent, then by all means: slap me upside the head and call me a moron. Thankfully, it’s not.

Are there minority individuals whose lives have been easier than some Caucasian individuals? Of course there are. To insist there are no examples of that would be as bone-headed a presumption as insisting all dogs are larger than all cats. It completely disregards reportable examples and oversimplifies everything to the level of a Dick & Jane story.

There are plenty of people who struggle and work and suffer and despair who are members of any given privileged class. That’s humanity. It’s not that there are no obstacles in the lives of those with privilege; it’s that there is an absence of a very specific set of obstacles, and that absence is generally so integral to our culture that it’s hard to notice if we don’t make an effort to.

Being the societal default, for whatever value we’re looking at here, means you’re already meeting part of someone’s expectations. It doesn’t mean you automatically win, doesn’t mean there are no obstacles, no hardships, or no flat out horrors in your life. It means that, on top of whatever other crap you have to deal with in your life, you don’t have to deal with being off from “the norm.” No one is consciously or unconsciously adjusting expectations or re-aligning a mental image upon meeting you. Sometimes that’s merely a small, barely-detectable scratch, others it’s a massive wall you need to get over with no handholds. But it’s there, and insisting that it isn’t only helps keep it there.

There seems to be an inverse assumption in a lot of the objections to claims of privilege, as well, that acknowledging privilege as a problem means that we all think the solution is to make Everything Easy Forever for minorities in the comparison. Once again, we’re picking at the wrong terms. The paradigm of privilege is a bad one. Inverting that paradigm doesn’t seem like an especially effective means of fixing anything.

Subverting it, on the other hand, is something I’m all for.

Related: I’m pretty sure more than a few bits of this are inspired by this excellent discussion of discrimination by John Scalzi. Since he’s likely doing it better, do take a look if you’ve got the time.

ETA: I also just ran across This excellent post on privilege by Jessica Price that does a really good job of flipping the discussion in an effort to better make the point.