Thursday, November 1, 2012

Do Doo Be-Do-Do Ad Hominem

By Jay Stringer

There is a lot of talk online these days about "privilege" and "standing." They're not exactly the same thing, but they're close enough for me to lump them together into a quick post.

Shows like Girls (of which I've only seen 30 minutes) get criticised for having an all-white main cast and for not acknowledging feminist issues outside of the narrow demographic the show portrays. It's a show that comes with a title that suggests a broad and defining statement of a gender, but presents a very narrow sample. It's set in New York City, but only presents a version of that city that a select few people will identify with.

I get the criticism. Really. I'm not hear to say it's invalid (though I do think some of it is very mean spirited towards a young writer making young-writer-mistakes.) I get the desire to hold the show to a higher standard than it achieved in that regard.

It leads me to a question. Or a statement.

I wonder if we could say there are two kinds of realist writers. The first kind grows up in a place -or lives in a place- and says, I want to tell a story that represents this place. From these writers we get the art and entertainment that speaks to us about the culture, diversity and character of the location. The second kind of writer grows up in a place and says, I want to tell a story about people like me. And from these writers we get more narrow -but no less true- representations of one particular kind of person or social group.

Would you say that's a fair distinction? I wouldn't say either of them should be said to be better than the other. I also wouldn't want to criticise the second kind of writer for not being the first kind of of writer, even if the first is my preference.

From this I wonder if there are then two kinds of reader/viewer of 'realist' fare. Those who want to see something that is new to them, and that gives them an insight into the cultural mix of a location, and those who want to see themselves reflected back at them?

We see it within crime fiction just as we do on television. For some sections of the crime fiction community, the idea of a socially and ethnically diverse fiction is a basic starting point. There are others who really only want to see the one thing reflected back at them. And, again, there is room for both.

Sadly I think we're still a long way from everyone being able to find something that reflects them. The story of the white people living white lives is one that television still wants to tell above all else. I'm not sure that attacking the young writer of one of these shows is the answer, because that attack is still doing blessedly little to find the more marginalised voices and elevate them, but I agree with the frustration behind the criticism. I want to stand with them on the issue, but I would find it much easier to do so if the complaints were handled differently. I also have an inbuilt reaction when I see a group of people complaining about the work of a writer, which is to think, if you think it can be done better, go do it better. There are those who complain and those who lead by example. Does the media provide enough spaces at the table for these writers to show their own visions? No. But you're giving yourself a better chance by having the work written than you are by complaining about it online.

And whilst I agree with the notion that writers should be aware of their own privileges before aiming to speak for anyone else -a notion that I try to hold myself too- I think there's another aspect to the ongoing conversation that bothers me. And it's the aspect that borders on 'Ad Hominem.' It's a defining of the value of a person's ideas by their colour, ethnicity or sexual organs.

To my mind saying, "well you would say that, you're a man," is as crass as saying, "well you would say that, you're a woman." And ascribing someones opinion to their skin colour is reductionist and backwards no matter which colour or ethnicity you're using. Guilt by association, too, falls at the first hurdle for me simply because it's silly. These are not rational, adult arguments. We need to start moving away from this kind of reasoning, not simply adapt it to suit a different group of people.

Ultimately what I care about is the message, not the messenger. I may differ here to a lot of the campaigners and I'm okay with that. I don't care what the writer looks like, sounds like or what pieces of meat they have between their legs. Maybe I'm wrong and maybe I'm alone, but what I care about is the work that they create. Is that work true? Does that work speak of the world around us? Does that work show me something new, or give voice to a point of view I've not appreciated before?

And so I think that's where the focus needs to be. We want to see work that represents more people, ultimately all people. And, yes, one of the ways we get there is to have room at the table for all people to be storytellers, but I simply would rather focus on the work than the workman. I think it's a failure of human imagination that we don't have fully representative art, but it's an equal failure of human imagination to assume or argue that one kind of person can't put themselves in the shoes of another.

So the Stringer campaign slogan, catchy as it is;

Check your own privilege? Absolutely. 
Fight for better representation? Hell Yes.
Give a shit about Ad Hominem? No Way.

I've had different versions of this little rant in my head all week. But in the last couple of days I came across this video of David Simon. He's framing the conversation with the word standing. And the question of whether a person's standing invalidates their message. "They're arguing not against the content, but against the man. Or woman." I think it's a very compelling argument that touches on some of the points I've been making, though I would still stress that I think the  privilege argument is rooted in something very important.

1 comment:

Dana King said...

"The story of the white people living white lives is one that television still wants to tell above all else."

True. Still, the burden to broadcast more diverse programming is not on the creator of GIRLS, or any other individual show. Those creators have visions and directions for their show that will only be diluted by trying to be too many things for too many people. (Not to say a show can't do that: THE WIRE was a great example of one that succeeded.)

It's the executives who need to spread things out a little.