Risk

It Doesn’t Matter if you Are Safe, It Matters if you Feel Safe

I wrote a book back in 2004 called The 100 Most Dangerous Things in Life and What You Can Do About Them. With a view to humor, I looked at statistics on hospital admissions and so on, and contrasted the danger from every day items to the more exotic dangers that pique our imaginations. You’re more likely to be injured by a teddy bear than a grizzly bear. While on the subject of teddy bears, you know those stories they put out every year at Christmas time warning about dangerous toys? They include valid statistics about how many children are injured each year by toys, but when you look at the data, you find that most of those injuries are not from swallowing small parts or from defective merchandise. In fact, most “toy” injuries are from people tripping and falling over toys that were not put away or from siblings hitting one another with them. In fact, in all categories of household injury, regardless of the instrument of destruction, the most common way a person is hurt is by falling down and banging part of the anatomy on the object.

In the introduction to my book, I wrote:

As I was writing this book, and discussing relative risks, I came to see how influenced I am by the culture around me. When I discovered that there had been no documented cases of humans contracting rabies from dog bites in years, I still felt compelled to warn readers not to let their guard down around strange dogs. I figured that someone might take this information to heart, decide it was safe to, say, walk up to a strange dog and tease it with a cap gun. Then they would get bitten, contract a nasty infection, lose a limb, and sue me for creating a sense of false security. In our society it seems almost irresponsible NOT to sound the alarm about something, even when the risk is minimal…

I had the same thought again while working on an update to the Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation. Writing an entry on the annoyance of figuring out how car seats work, I came across some evidence that car seats may not actually be safer than a seat belt. I ended up not including that information, because it seemed too controversial. It is one we rarely discuss, but our culture dictates that we sound the alarm. It is a taboo to say “Don’t worry.”

But as I wrote in Dangerous Things:

Frankly, we worry about the wrong things. Why? It has to do with basic psychology. Human beings, in general, tend to overestimate the dangers of rare events while dismissing the dangers of every day events. In fact, every day events are more likely to cause you harm if for no other reason than they happen every day. Also, we’re much more likely to fear man-made problems than nature-made problems. Risk consultant Peter Sandman believes our level of fear tends to correspond more to our level of “outrage” than to our actual level of risk.

Never has this been more true. In recent years politicians, especially of a certain far right variety, have been shooting at phantoms, trying to make laws to protect us from dangers that they insist–without any data–lurk around every corner. These dangers are stoked by misdirected outrage. The outrage has little to do with crime and personal safety, although that is how it is framed. The outrage is over the existential question of “What is an American?” Do we need to be alike as a nation to be cohesive? How much difference can we tolerate before we are not a single culture or community? When should people conform for the good of society and when should society tolerate difference? Who gets to decide?

Back in May the people of North Carolina, and by extension the nation, became embroiled in the question of whether people with non-conforming gender identities should be allowed to use the restroom of their choice. This was framed breathlessly as a need to protect vulnerable women from sexual assault in public restrooms by men who gained access dressing as women. You may remember that while this debate was hot I wrote about the flame war that I got into with a friend of a friend on Facebook after I posed a simple question:

That is to say, if we grant that these legislators were really concerned about restroom safety, (rather than, say making a point that people are always the gender that it says on their birth certificates and will not be accepted in any other way) would requiring people to use the restroom of the gender on a person’s birth certificate solve the safety issue?

Clearly no.

Let’s grant for a moment the premise that there is a big problem with men putting on women’s clothing for the sole purpose of going into public restrooms and raping or gawking at women. There is no evidence this is actually a thing, my sparring partner said that “there are cases” but didn’t care to be more specific. In any case, for the sake of argument let’s grant that this is a problem that needs to be addressed with a new law.

Assuming your state is not also budgeting to have people stationed at public restroom doors to check birth certificates, or requiring businesses to do so, then people are going to be on the honor system.

So now our fictional cross-dressing rapist can walk into a women’s restroom with complete confidence without changing his clothes. All he has to do, if questioned, is say “I was born Jane Marie.”

Clearly the legislators have not thought things through.

The person with whom I was debating was so concerned with women’s safety that he replied that he hoped I would be raped in a bathroom.

In a pluralistic society, we have agreed not to legislate that people must be culturally cohesive. We cannot require people to be Christian or gender conforming or straight. We can, however, make laws in the interest of “safety.” The “dangerous other” has reared its head in an ugly way in the executive order that Donald Trump recently signed barring entry to the United States to people from certain countries.

Here is the most important fact about the list of countries in Trump’s executive order:

In the 40 years to 2015, not a single American was killed on US soil by citizens from any of the seven countries targeted – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – according to research by the conservative-leaning Cato Institute.

Not a single American. Not one. Left off the list are majority Muslim countries where Trump has business interests. Also excluded are the home countries of all of the September 11 attackers, most were from Saudi Arabia and the rest from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon. Also excluded are known terrorist hotbeds Pakistan, Turkey and Afghanistan. It does, however, to a good job of targeting Shia Muslims.

This was legislation created in response to an applause line to appeal to people who have never been asked to take the time to differentiate between the citizens of different foreign nations. The general public might be outraged by terrorist attacks and blame a nebulous, overbroad “other.” We can perhaps forgive a busy person who was never really taught geography in school for not knowing the difference between Muslim nations, especially when our public discourse seems to do its best to obscure it. It is the job of our elected leaders, however, to be more informed and to come up with solutions that actually address the problem and not simply to make a show of safety. National security and our values as Americans are too important to be conducted by social media likes and television ratings. And shame on those politicians who know the difference, and who are willing to stand by and say nothing.

 

“Vulnerability”

Vulnerability

This morning two stories in my Facebook feed did a little dance around one another.  The first was a post from the Detroit Metro Times which linked to an Al Jazeera America story about small creditors who are left out of the negotiations in Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings. (Unfortunately most of the commentators on the Metro Times blog chose to comment on Al Jazeera rather than on the material of the story.)

 

Like pensioners and bondholders, these tort claimants are unsecured creditors who can walk away from the bankruptcy with only a small fraction of what they are owed as the city seeks to resolve its mammoth debt. But unlike pensioners and bondholders, they have been excluded from the process, given no seat at the table in the high-stakes negotiations over Detroit’s bankruptcy or the plan that has them taking a staggering 80 percent cut.

 

After reading the story, I returned to Facebook and the next post was from TED. A link to Brene Brown’s viral talk “Listening to Shame” with one quote highlighted; “Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.”

I thought about that word “vulnerability” as it applied to a man featured in the Al Jazeera story, Dwayne Provience. Provience is a father of three, who was wrongly convicted of a murder at age 26 based on the perjured testimony of a homeless man who said he had evidence on the crime he had not witnessed in order to reduce his own sentence for breaking and entering. After spending a decade in jail, he was finally exonerated with the help of the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic. After he was set free, his lawyers fought on his behalf to get a financial settlement from the city to compensate him for his wrongful imprisonment. They fought their way through a series of appeals and were “on the goal line” when Detroit filed for bankruptcy protection and all judgements were halted.

I thought about what “vulnerability” means as it is used by Brene Brown, and what it means when applied to someone like Dwayne Provience. Before he went to jail, Provience had no education and little money. (He went on to earn his GED in prison.)  When the police came after him, guns raised, he was vulnerable. When he went to court in an overburdened system, in a financially struggling city, he was vulnerable. Now as the city invites large creditors to the negotiating table to determine who gets what, he is vulnerable.

This is not the kind of “vulnerability” anyone in his right mind would hold up as a virtue or a gift. Compare this to what it means when someone like Brene Brown– and I count myself among these fortunates– talk about strength through vulnerability.

“Vulnerability is not weakness,” Brown says.I define vulnerability as emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty. It fuels our daily lives. And I’ve come to the belief — this is my 12th year doing this research — that vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage — to be vulnerable, to let ourselves be seen, to be honest.”

We are not talking about being afraid that we will not have food, or that we can’t afford to live in an area that is free of crime, or that we might be pulled over at a stop sign and be mistaken for a murderer.   When people like us use the word we usually mean emotional vulnerability. We are afraid of a loss of status and self-esteem. We are afraid we might not be as admired as we would like if we admit our imperfections.

Indeed, that sort of vulnerability is our strength, because if that is the only way we are vulnerable then we are lucky indeed. We are lucky indeed.

 

The Organization Man

I’ve been reading William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man.  First published in 1956, it describes a shift in American culture. The author argues that in spite of all of our rhetoric in praise of the American dream of success through rugged individualism, our real dominant mythos has to do with loyalty to organizations.

In some ways the book is dated, for example when it talks about young people today– the college graduates of the year 1956.

There were parts of the book, however, that seem as if they could have been written today.  I particular, Whyte describes how Americans continue to use the language of rugged individualism but put it into service of a new mythos of championing organizations.

“Officially we are a people who hold to the Protestant Ethic…there is almost always the thought that pursuit of individual salvation through hard work, thrift and competitive struggle is the heart of the American achievement. But the harsh facts of organizational life simply do not jibe with these precepts…When a young man says that to make a living these days you must do what somebody else wants you to do, he states it not only as a fact of life that must be accepted but as an inherently good proposition…the committee way simply can’t be equated with the ‘rugged’ individualism that is supposed to be the business of business.”

When the economy crashed in 2008 and so many Americans were laid off, the populace as a whole did not say what you would expect in a culture that truly praises its cowboys and risk-taking lone entrepreneurs. We did not hear that these people were laid off because they took the easy route and worked for someone else rather than blazing their own trails. No, what you most often heard was that it was unfair because these people “worked hard and played by the rules.” They got educations, they got good jobs. In other words, they played their roles as organization men and women.

Back in 2010 sociologist Claude S. Fischer took on the question of just how independent Americans are in his blog Made In America.

“There is considerable evidence that Americans are not more individualistic – in fact, are less individualistic – than other peoples,” he wrote.

The article displays the results of a series of responses given by people of different nations in the International Social Survey Program. Of the different nationalities surveyed, Americans were the least likely to endorse the idea that personal conscience should sometimes trump the law. They were the least likely to say that right and wrong were matters of individual conscience. Americans were the most likely to say you should support your country, even if your country is wrong.

Fischer resolved the seeming contradiction by saying that America’s real culture is neither that of the rugged individual nor of the organization man.

What makes Americans culturally exceptional is not their historical commitment to individualism, but their historical commitment to voluntarism. Voluntarism is about being part of a community, but belonging voluntarily. Americans have long held that people can and should join or leave groups – families, congregations, clubs, townships, and so on – of their individual free will. But Americans also insist that, as long as individuals are members of any such group, they owe their loyalty. “Love it or leave it” seems to be the dominant ethos.

This rang true for me when I first read it, but I would add that there is considerable pressure to “voluntarily” define oneself as part of certain groups. When politicians say that middle class people deserve a break because they did “all the right things” they are clearly defining what groups people should choose to join. You don’t have to be an organizational man. It is your choice. But being an organizational man makes you, in some way, blameless. You chose of your own free will to do what you are expected to do.

Writing, Risk and Reward

There is an interesting article today on Teleread that aggregates some of the comments flying back and forth between authors and Steven Zacharius, head of Kensingon Publishing. Among the comments from authors trying to explain the gulf between how writers and publishers view the business, was this one from Kathlena Contreras.

Okay, here’s the thing. Every single word I write is “on spec,” to borrow a contracting term. Every word. No matter how many hours, days and weeks I spend writing, there is no guarantee that anyone will ever buy my work, paying for my hundreds of man hours, much less whatever I spend on covers and so forth. I am taking 100% of the risk that I will ever see a dime of payback for my efforts.

Publishers, on the other hand, see manuscripts as fruit from a miraculous vine that never ceases producing. They go to the vine and select the most beautiful and succulent fruit, spend hours and money preparing it, then serve it for consumption. (Thanks to Kris Rusch for the metaphor of stories as produce.)

Does the publisher take risk? Yes. Does the publisher take as much risk as the writer? I don’t know. But if those hours and investments were added up, I suspect not, especially if you include all those manuscripts written that are never accepted by a publisher.

If I could have done so without causing the people in my immediate vicinity to give me strange looks I would have shouted “Hear! Hear!” 

When I first got a literary agent (I had sold my first books, including my best selling book to date on my own) I was initially thrilled with the work he did on my behalf. He got me a contract with a major publisher fairly quickly and after that he followed up with leads on proposals on a regular basis. These were not ideas I originated, but concepts pitched to me by the agent on behalf of an editor somewhere. I felt optimistic. I had never churned out as many proposals in my life– proposals for my own concepts, revisions of proposals to tailor them to specific editors, and proposals requested of me.  The good news was, I had constant work. The bad news was, none of it came with a salary. Few of the proposals actually panned out and became books. When I started to be a bit reluctant to keep doing full proposals, and asking how likely the lead was to have a result before I did the work, I got the sense that my agent thought I was lazy. I wasn’t. I was hungry and burnt out. I realized that if I was going to survive, I had to pace myself, monitor my energy, and make some money for the writing I did.

I have had almost as many proposals requested of me, for book ideas I did not generate, which were subsequently rejected by the very people who had come up with the idea in the first place, as I have had published books. (See also my previous article “You Weren’t Expecting to Be Paid, Were You?“)

Unless you are at a J.K. Rowling or Stephen King level, publishing contracts are generally designed to mitigate the risk on the side of the publisher. Let’s face it, the publisher has the upper hand when dealing with starving writers. It is standard, for example, for a contract to get first right of refusal on the author’s next work, and for the publisher to wait until the first book is published to see how much it makes before even looking at the next proposal. This makes complete sense from the publisher’s perspective, they want to hold on to the author if they have a hit on their hands, and they don’t want to be committed to publish a second book by an author whose book goes straight to the remainder bin.

“It is your advantage,” I have been told. It would be if it meant that they were going to snap up the next thing I sent them.  “Refusal” though, usually means exactly that– refusing to buy your next proposal.  It can be as much as a year between the time an author finishes a book and the time the publisher is ready to release it. After that, they want to wait until the first royalty statement and sometimes until the second to see the results.  That means it can easily be a year and a half or more before you know that you’ve been refused, a length of time that you are unable to move forward on your next project as an author. (You can, of course, always work– writing and saving up proposals and manuscripts. What you’re not able to do during that time is try to line up the next payment for your work.)  By the time the publisher does get around to first refusal, the fact that they have refused tends to remove some of the luster from the proposal and the enthusiasm on the part of the agent. Even if your agent remains enthusiastic and sends it around, it can be months before you hear back from everyone. It is a long time to wait between jobs.

The publisher is taking a risk with your book, and gambling on whether or not they will want to keep you. The writer is gambling with her ability to have a stable career, housing, food. If the risk the writer takes is not financially greater than that of the publisher, it is certainly more personal and deeply felt.

The idea of the artist as a risk taking entrepreneur is an important one. I don’t know if acknowledging the investment of the writer and the amount of risk she brings to the table will do much to change the dynamic between writers and publishers. It seems to me that businesses trying to capitalize on labor by minimizing their risk and keeping salaries down is not something that is going to go away any time soon. Changing the dialogue and the way we value ourselves, though, is a good first step.

See also:

Be Favorable to Bold Enterprises

Be Favorable to Bold Enterprises

I have been thinking a lot about the mean remarks that you often find in the comments section on blog articles, especially the shame that is heaped upon anyone facing financial hardship. I’ve been trying to understand where the hostility comes from.  Whenever an article features a person who is in need, someone is almost guaranteed to post in a menacing tone seeking to demolish any excuses the person might have for their situation. If they have a service job that doesn’t pay enough to cover expenses, they might chide them for being too lazy to get an eduction or better job or a second job.  If they have a PhD they will flame them for thinking they are too entitled to take a service job. They might critique their choice of study.  If the poor person is a single mother they will question her morals.  “Why did you have those kids in the first place?” What strikes me about the comments is the level of offense people take at someone else’s life. They seem to feel personally threatened by the existence of the poor.

They seem to be operating out of a belief that the world is one of scarcity. There is only so much wealth and well-being to go around and if you get more, I will get less.   They assume that the poor resent their good fortune and they also feel guilty for whatever mechanism allows them to have more of the stuff and resent the poor person for making them feel that way.  “It’s not my fault you’re poor– it’s yours.”

The other day I watch Jessica Jackley’s Ted Talk “Poverty, Money and Love.”

Jackley said something that gave me a bit of insight into internet shaming of the poor.

“After a while… I started to feel bad every time I heard about (the poor)… I gave when I was cornered, when it was difficult to avoid and I gave, in general when the negative emotions built up enough that I gave to relieve my own suffering, not someone else’s… It became a sort of transaction for me… I was purchasing something– I was buying my right to go on with my day and not necessarily be bothered by this bad news… So as I did this, and as I think many of us do this, we kind of buy our distance, we kind of buy our right to go on with our day. I think that exchange can actually get in the way of the very thing that we want most. It can get in the way of our desire to really be meaningful and useful in another person’s life and, in short, to love.”

She went on to talk about how her experience with Kiva, the micro-lender, taught her to think about the poor in a new way because she was “told stories about the poor that were different than any stories I had heard before… those individuals he talked about who were poor was sort of a side note. He was talking about strong, smart, hard-working entrepreneurs who woke up every day and were doing things to make their lives and their family’s lives better. All they needed to do that more quickly and to do it better was a little bit of capital. It was an amazing sort of insight for me. And I, in fact, was so moved by this– it’s hard to express how much that affected me.”

When I was promoting my book Broke is Beautiful occasionally someone in an interview would ask me if I had anything against capitalism, didn’t I believe in rewarding risk?  Risk-taking is the American way. It is what made this country great. If you look at the back of a dollar bill you will see the Latin inscription “annuit coeptis.” It was Ben Franklin’s personal motto an it means “Be favorable to bold enterprises.”

What I always said was that I did believe in supporting people who take risks, but that a risk, by definition, does not guarantee a reward. In fact, a lot of the people who are broke got that way because they took risks that didn’t pay off.  If you want to be favorable to bold enterprises, you have to accept that people are going to fail, and fail spectacularly.

As I listened to Jackley speak, I thought of the poem Failure by Philip Schultz which begins:

To pay for my father’s funeral
I borrowed money from people
he already owed money to.
One called him a nobody.
No, I said, he was a failure.
You can’t remember
a nobody’s name, that’s why
they’re called nobodies.
Failures are unforgettable.

I thought about how insidious poor shaming is. As the trolls shoot down every “excuse” they are saying, in essence, that the only people who are deserving of empathy are those who are blameless. If your situation is your fault, you have no business asking for my help or even my compassion.

And so the poor person, as a form of self-defense, must come up with reasons why it is not his fault that he has fallen on hard times.  “It was not my fault, I was laid off, the storm ruined my crops, I had medical bills that insurance wouldn’t pay.” If it could not be foreseen or avoided, then it is OK to ask for sympathy.

But what happened to the bold American spirit of encouraging risk-taking?

Failures are unforgettable because they jumped headlong into bold adventures with a spirit of optimism, passion and commitment. The very things that internet trolls might use to shame us are the things we should be most proud of– our glorious attempts to do something meaningful. The woman who had a brilliant idea and launched her business under capitalized; the man who was deeply inspired and wanted to make the world a better place by sharing his love of literature, who now has a PhD in Renaissance poetry and thousands of dollars of student loan debt; the woman who married the man of her dreams and believed they would be in love forever, who is now a single mom.

When we run away from our mistakes, and try to disown them, we are disowning the things that drove us and gave our lives meaning.  This is why I find the concept behind Failure:Lab so intriguing.  When you look deeply into your failure you will see in the shadow of regret the beautiful dream.

People may try to shame you for not winning everything you try.  Don’t let them.

You were an entrepreneur investing in something important.  If it had taken off–Oh! how the world might have changed!

Related articles:

“The Poor”

Are you “We?”

The Famine in Our Midst

Demonic Pigs and Hearing Voices (discusses poor shaming)

and my Failure Series

What Does Writing LGBT Literature Mean to Me?

Blog Hop“You wrote a novel?  That is so exciting.  What is it about?”

It’s an experience that I, as a straight person, hadn’t really faced before but one that has since become familiar. 

It’s that moment when you look at the person making friendly conversation, asking you about your life, and you stop and size her up.  How do you imagine she is going to react?  Do you know her to be a conservative Christian?  Will she think of you differently after you respond?  If you work with her, might her feelings about your response affect how she views you as a client? 

My book is about a Christian minister who falls in love with another man.  It’s about how his faith and relationship with his congregation evolve as a result.

Do I say this directly or do I speak around it?  “It’s a bout a minister and his relationship with his congregation.”  “It was inspired by a trip I took to the mountains.”

Coming out.

No, I can’t claim to know what it is like to have this come up about everything: your weekend plans, your family situation, “Who is that person who brought you lunch?”  But writing LGBT literature, that is to say, writing one book about gay and bisexual characters, has given me a small taste.

Before I wrote the book, I had the luxury of holding but not voicing my opinion when it was not convenient, of keeping quiet and letting people assume I agreed with whatever they believed.  Like most luxuries, it came at a high price: fear and inauthenticity.

I have friends who have reacted with— let’s call it surprise at the topic of my book. They love me anyway.  My worries were unfounded. That realization spills over into many areas of my life.  Trying to avoid offending anyone is a great way to avoid saying anything worth expressing.

I have a theory that social change happens not when the first trail blazers take a stand— as important as they are.  The change really happens when average people stop nodding in agreement to things they don’t believe.  I do think we’ve reached a point in history where a lot of people have stopped nodding.

I read a poem once with the title “Unlearning Not to Speak.”  That is what writing lgbt literature has been for me, a process of unlearning not to speak.