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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Privilege and internet trolling...or walking in someone else's boots

If you haven't been on the web for the past 24 hours you might not know about the latest internet uproar. It involves a contributing Forbes tech writer, Gene Marks, who is a white, middle-aged man placing himself in the position of a poor black youth and expounding on how he would basically pull himself up by his bootstraps by utilizing today's tech resources. The posted article is egregious in its short-sighted privilege. The author seemingly doesn't understand that most of the youth who are without his own privilege face overwhelming odds against their ever rising above their parents' station. This fact has been shown in studies and has been related in anedoctal testimonies. The reality is that most bootstraps can't levy against the weight of lifting a person up from crushing circumstances. Some straps may snap altogether. Some boots may have no straps at all. Or the boots may be non-existent

You see, not every house has such technical mainstays as a personal computer or smartphone or the latest Apple product. Even computers offered by public libraries have severe time limitations, not allowing the leisure given to those with personally-owned computers. So for all of the author's theoretical expounding, it simply doesn't work in the real world.

Given that the article was printed in Forbes (which is hardly reading material for most inner-city youth or youth in any neighborhood) you'd have to wonder whom the author's obvious audience is. It doesn't take much rumination to know that the article isn't actually meant for the black youth who are the focus of the write-up but rather is simply a victim-blaming diatribe that allows the mostly mainstream Forbes readers to exempt the system that has produced the inequities and lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of those who find it hard to combat that system.

But that's beside the point of this post. As offensive as some may find the article on its face, there is a particular reason that I refuse to link to that article. That is because I now have reason to believe that much of the controversy generated was a deliberate move by the author to bring "eyeballs" to Forbes and increase his own "marketability."

One Forbes staff writer (which is a different animal from the contributing writer) actually sums up the situation for what it truly is: trolling the internet. Forbes staff writer Kashmir Hill details how contributing writers to Forbes are paid based on the unique visitors as well as returning visitors. Editors at the magazine do not approve these posts in advance so the writer has a lot of carte blanche to drum up those eyeballs by writing something so totally obnoxious that visitors simply go to the article to lambast it. Ms. Hill offers that Gene Marks is especially adept at "trolling the internet" to build his brand, even at risk of diminishing his brand. As for me, I simply refuse to be manipulated by a soulless human being who would use the plight of the truly disadvantaged to build up his bank account.

This is strikingly similar to the controversy that arose earlier this year on the Psychology Today site when the obstensibly racist and incompetent social psychologist, Satoshi Kanazawa, wrote some worthless screed about the unattractiveness of black women. Not only was the post offensive but it was roundly disputed and proved unfounded by Kanazawa's own peers. As with Forbes, Psychology Today also had a set up of no oversight for contributing writers. And I suspect that contributing writers to the site were paid based on the "eyeball" tier. The more controversial a post, the more hits to the site as well as links to the article...and the more money for the offending writer. Of course, the fierce backlash had the site rethinking it's pay scale system...or at least its editorial non-oversight. And just as with Marks, Kanazawa used the plight of someone else (in this case, black women) to increase his branding power.

The problem with branding and increasing one's marketability at the expense of others is that there are consequences. Unfortunately, these consequences tend to fall on the maligned as opposed to the maligner. Marks' irresponsible post to his Forbes article only bolsters some readers' stereotypes about inner-city youth. And Kanazawa's stupid "research" just gave fodder to the outright racists who are always ready to pounce on "proof" of their idiotic beliefs.

But to give Marks a break, let's just argue for argument's sake that he wrote with the belief that he was actually helping black youth with his "advice." Well, let me say Mr. Marks that the problem with giving off-the-cuff advice like that, especially when you have actually walked in the boots (or on the bare feet) of the less privileged, that advice comes off as patronizing, paternalistic and less than helpful. Those who have never had to walk a certain path cannot truly map out that path for others.

I recently had a run-in with a commenter who strikes me as equally dense in her privilege. She commented on one of my earlier posts where I took to task a couple of readers seeking "free" downloads of my books on a pirate site. Someone on the site linked to that post and I've received quite a bit of traffic from that link. Anyway, this particular commenter by the name of Katie came onto my site with the privileged attitude that my financial woes weren't due to the piracy but were basically due to the fact that I needed to get off my ass and get an actual job outside of writing. When I told her that I would hardly take advice from someone pirating my book, she responded that she hadn't downloaded my book but was just on the pirate site to download textbooks. She also managed to slam my works as "trumped up Harlequins" and "overpriced fanfiction" even as she reiterated that she was only trying to help me.

See, I figure someone with the privilege of going to school may be young or may have the privilege of being financed by parents or a partner or someone else to help her tide over. For her to assume that I have not looked for full-time or even part-time work shows how out of touch she is with today's economic reality for those of us approaching 50, who have suffered the loss of a full-time job and are without the sponsorship of parents or loved ones. It was personally insulting to me for this woman to accuse me of sitting on my ass just so she could feel better about herself and at the same time divert blame from those illegally downloading my books (which has cut into my profits).

See that's the problem of the privileged. They tend to bloviate and espouse shit a lot of times because they simply don't know what they are talking about. They don't have the map to the rocky roads many of us are travelling because their paths tend to be a little more paved and therefore easier to traverse. With easier paths tend to come less empathy; this fact I am unfortunately discovering.

And that's the problem with Marks' article; he expresses mock empathy for the underprivileged without actually experiencing actual empathy for the underprivileged. I would suggest to Marks and "Katie" that they take off their privileged shoes and walk without them for a while. They'd be surprised how discomforting being without those privileged shoes can be.

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Sharon Cullars Coffee Talk at 12/14/2011 03:52:00 PM Permanent Link     | | Home


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