I just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s Payback. No, it isn’t a book about some epic feminist revenge. It’s a little known book she published just after the financial crisis about debt. It’s not a book that teaches you how to manage your money, or explains how we got into the financial crisis. It’s a book about the nature of debt. How debt is woven into religion, into sex, into power, into our sense of virtue and right and wrong going back to ancient religions and through today.
The book is a lot like having a conversation with Atwood. She’s one of those people who has read everything and pulls seemingly disparate threads together to make an argument, jumping from point to point like lily pads, with you just hanging along for the fascinating ride. That thread could be an ancient text or a song she learned when she was three. At the end of the book she reimagines A Christmas Carol if Scrooge was a climate destroying tycoon today. None of this is what you think you are getting when you pick up a book about debt in the wake of the mortgage crisis.
She talks about how much the language of debt is woven into our world. And one thing that occurred to me as I was reading it is how gendered it can be.
In recent years, how often have we talked about what men think the world “owes” them? How equality for others seems to be taking something away from them unfairly that they are due. Men exposed during the #MeToo movement who felt a woman “owed” them somehow. And people who justify sexual assault based on men just getting the wrong idea based on how a woman was dressed or if she was too friendly. As if somehow a short skirt was tantamount to signing an IOU.
Then there are women: Who frequently talk about what they owe people. At our Seattle dinner one incredibly successful, no-nonsense, badass Chairman Mom member said something I have said a thousand times: That a supportive male ally was responsible for her success. I thought nothing of it when she said it, but @Milo pointed out that actually she was responsible for her success; she was the one who had done the work. It was an obvious sort of revelation. And yet, the corporate world is stacked in such a way, that a supportive white male ally in power can dramatically change the trajectory of a woman’s career.
In recent years, I have struggled with this idea. There are several men who were advocates of me, investors in me, and defenders of me, who no longer speak to me as a result of all the forces that have ripped Silicon Valley alliances apart in recent years. Between loyalty to people who’d helped me personally and my job as an investigative journalist—especially when it came to standing up for women—it was an “easy” choice to make that cost me a lot, and still emotionally costs me a lot. I’ve had to sever the idea that, as a journalist, I only owed anyone that I would tell the truth.
Is this sense of obligation also tied into women apologizing more than men?
It strikes me reading Atwood’s book and listening closely to the language of debt that there are those in society who feel they are owed and those who owe. I’m not sure either is a healthy point of view.
Today’s new questions on Chairman Mom: