Mar 7, 2012

Consenting Authors

I remember hearing a story when I was younger about how to kill a frog. Now, questions of "why the hell are you wanting to kill a frog?" aside, the interesting bits of it really lie in the social commentary of the metaphor. For those unfamiliar with this little chestnut, it works out like this:

If you decide that boiling the poor amphibian alive is the best course of action (and I'm assuming consumption of said Kermit is on the horizon), then simply tossing Brer Ribbit into the pot of boiling FrogDeath is the wrong way to go about it. Apparently, he'll have the instant presence of mind to toss yon hopper-booty out of the cauldron, and you're left with an empty pot. Sad panda.

But if you gently and tenderly escort Mister Frogger into a pot of cool, fresh and tranquil water, he'll just hang out there and enjoy himself, even as the water rises steadily to a level wherein his goose - well, his frog, anyway - is good and truly cooked.

I've never actually tried this before, just for the record, so I can't actually vouch for its authenticity. And no, this should in no way be taken to be an invitation to test this theory. Leave the frogs alone.

The point of it is that we become complacent in the face of slow change. I'm just not sure, sometimes, how much we pay attention to the changes in the social landscape. I kind of think we don't.

Dennis Miller - back when he was liberal - used to shake his head at the country, verbally worried that we kept letting ourselves be distracted by the crap that was shot out into the national consciousness, so much so that we let the important stuff skate right by. I don't know what happened to him, but this one old (and I'm guessing abandoned?) opinion of his has stuck with me.

Very few big social changes ever happen at once. Only the dramatic ones. Hitler didn't just appear at the head of Germany, Rome wasn't built in a day - rarely does anything HUGE happen all at once - - - and when it does, it really sucks.

So in this vein, I'm looking at a really horrible thing developing, and not really shocked that more people aren't at arms about it. We don't notice our lack of rights until we've lost the one that matters most, you see. The ones we don't really care so much about... well, those get pruned back, cut back, diminished, downplayed, and reduced until there is nothing left.

And I'm not talking specifically about gun control, abortion rights, voter rights, taxes, or really any one single law of the land that has become one of a thousand talking points about which people want to beat their drums and act as if it is the Single Most Important Decision You Will Ever Make In Your Entire Life. Those are all important, yes.

But I'm seeing a problem that lies at the root of it all.


Respect for each other's differences, respect for each other's value and worth, respect for each other's opinions, respect for the right to be - as unique as we all are from one another.

This is kind of a whole issue in and of itself, though, clearly. It's an emotionally charged word, full of personal experience and it generally gets caught in everyone's throat. Even now, as you read this, you're probably trying to figure out what I meant by the word "Respect" to you personally, and so on.

I really want this to launch into a big discussion about the different ways in which we as a culture have broken the basic laws of respect - there are so many to choose from - but this week I'm starting to see that people are not so immured to this as I had feared. And for this, I thank - once again - the internet.

Recently, there has been a big kerfluffle (as an aside, can I just tell you how much I wish I could get away with using that word? I swear, I'd use it hourly if I could) between internet payment service PayPal and ebook publishing website Smashwords.

The small version of it is that PayPal - citing pressure from its banking associations - was going to force Smashwords to remove any material which PayPal defined (loosely) as "obscene".

Now, listen. I'm not the sort who deliberately wants to go around offending people. I've always been a proponent of the idea "if you don't like something you see, stop looking at it" - and also a supporter of this one line I heard in a movie, which, paraphrased, is: "there are two kinds of crazy. The crazy that strips down, covers itself in flour and water and runs around in a circle, screaming and waving its arms. And the other is the one that does that in my front yard. One of those, I never have to deal with."

I don't really care what people do in the privacy of their homes. I start caring if it impacts me and my world, my life, my family, and so forth. What flavor ice cream you eat - if you eat it at all - doesn't negatively impact me. If you like to eat it while watching bukakke (I'm not going to provide a link. If you really want to know...well, don't look it up if you don't want to know. Fair warning.) ... hey, whatever floats your boat.

I myself LOVE the differences that we all have. As a writer, I've found that it's the little details which set us apart from one another that make us as interesting as the things we have in common. Sometimes, it's the differences that we have in common which really make us fascinating. I don't prefer homogeneity, I like diversity. If I draw lines, it's only a mathematical tendency towards pattern recognition and categorization that I've had since I was a wee child. I used to sort my M&Ms by colors, but only because I was curious to know which ones I had more of. Every M&M tastes the same, and if you ever close your eyes while you eat them, you know this is true.

So when I heard about PayPal trying to push Smashwords around under the pretense of "This stuff is offensive!", I was sad. When I saw that Smashwords was pushing back.... well, I was pretty excited.

An interesting twist for me personally popped up here.

And here's a little backstory:

My good friend and co-authoring partner Jen Ashton and I were chatting back on this past Sunday and our conversation turned to this whole nonsense. She joked that we ought to write a parody, showing how ridiculous this all was, and an idea began to form out of our brainstorming that made us both laugh hysterically. She told me "okay, we need to write this." I laughed again, "yeah, sure. We should."

"No," she said. "This is my serious face. Write this. Write it now."

So we did. The story "Two People Having Sex" was conceived of, written, edited, and published within twelve hours. Seriously, by the next morning, people were already downloading it on Amazon. We decided to take it a step further, and put it up on Smashwords.

Thirty minutes later, I got an email from Mark Coker, founder and CEO of Smashwords. He loved it. Called it "Brilliant". He tweeted about it. He blogged about it. He emailed a reference about it to the Smashwords customer base.

Jen and I had a bit of a spaz about this, justifiably. She and I have been writing for several years with decent financial success, but this was something wholly different.

Then, yesterday, actor Stephen Fry tweeted this:

"Two People Having Sex" brilliantly addresses the Paypal CC madness: And that's my lunch break over. Back to work.

This is me, losing my monkey mind.

Yeah. Wow. Huh.

* deep breath *

So, ubermentalfreakout aside, it's really good to see that the conversation is out there. See, I understand the mindset of people whose actions mirror that of PayPal's. They fear the differences of others, they abhor that which they believe to be bad or evil or whatever. They want people to be just like them, either for validation or for comfort, or for any of a thousand reasons that really, in the end, only really matter to them. It's difficult to have your own opinion. People by nature want to associate with other like-minded people, and, when confronted with the distinct, they are faced with three choices: effect change, be changed, or live with the differences. That third one....well, it's the one we tend to forget about.

And yet, I believe it's the one we should be embracing the most. We're meant to have different voices. We're meant to be different. And rather than spend your time and energy trying to establish which one is better or worse, why not spend that trying to find ways we can both coexist?

Seriously. Why not?

Rush Limbaugh is in the news at this moment for some incendiary things he said, and everyone's up in arms about the different sides inherent to the "big debate", but what people AREN'T talking about is that his JOB - - what he is literally paid to do - is to get people talking. Seriously. He's a vuvuzela. Do you hate the vuvuzela? Or do you hate that yahoo that won't stop blowing it in your ears?

Does it matter what Rush Limbaugh says? In truth, no. He can't make you change your world, your mind, your job, your sexual orientation, your number of days in sobriety, your political affiliation; he can't make you do ANYTHING. Only you have the power to do that. Do I agree with him? Almost never. But do I respect his right to say what he says? Yes, absolutely, although I do wish he didn't. He can, though.

When I was 11, I learned about Dungeons and Dragons. I really wanted to play it. My mom had heard all about how evil it was, however, so I wasn't allowed to get a copy of the books for myself. But then my Aunt Margaret surprised me with a birthday present - the full white box kit of Dungeons and Dragons.

I still remember the look my mom gave her. But I think my mom must have seen the look on my face, and she just knew she couldn't take this away from me. Bless her, she let me play. And even in spite of a few clear and amusing conversations ("How was your game? Did you win?"), she came to see that it was precisely the creative outlet my young mind needed. I loved stories - even back then - and wanted to not just read them, but participate. Create them. I wanted to TELL stories.

So here I am, years later, with an 11 year old of my own (who only recently began playing in her very first D&D game!), and I'm still telling stories. And to think, there were people, back when D&D first came out, who tried to get those games banned. Oh sure, their reasons sounded good on the surface, though even more than a passing comprehension of what the games actually were would inevitably show you how wrong and ridiculous the accusations truly were.

And these accusations about books are ridiculous and wrong, too. They are. You can't ban a book any more than you can ban the idea that created it.

So, instead of ignorance and intolerance, we need to look to their opposites: understanding and respect. We must. We're at an interesting crossroads in our culture - a hair's breadth either way can change us all dynamically. I just want us to make that change in a way which will improve all of us. The whole country, the whole world. Not too much to ask, huh?

There's my homework for the day. Find a way to embrace someone who looks at the world differently than you do and respect them for their opinion - - even if you don't agree with it. Especially if you don't.

UPDATE:  WOW. Mark Coker is pretty damn awesome. Take note, other CEOs - - - THIS is how you should be doing things.


zenstar1974 said...

But if we all eat our own flavor of ice cream, the ice cream company will eventually go out of business due to lack of constant consumption, people will lose jobs, they will turn to a life of crime and look to drugs and alcohol to give at least some comfort from this cruel, cruel world. Then what? They'll probably end up writing a book about their sexy drug-induced experiences and it will eventually get banned... The circle of life.

Ren said...

Well, aren't you just a negative nancy?

Actually, you just reminded me, there's a movie coming out - a documentary called "Bully" which addresses the bully subculture that's wreaking such havok through schools (though I take umbrage if they imply this is in any way a new phenomenon) - unfortunately, it's looking to be getting an R rating (for 6 words), so the very kids who could probably best benefit won't be able to see it.

I'm guessing in the end, the MPAA will see some sense here, but it's still just one of those weird things with arbitrary delimitations that people use to censor things. It's frustrating.