Racing to the Bottom: The Poverty of “Privilege”-Shaming

Most of us have probably seen this comic explaining white privilege, or have read similarly-themed comics, articles, listicles, blogs, posts, and memes imparting basically the same line of thinking. I tend to be of two minds when it comes to this material: I think it’s important to have these kinds of discussions, and yet, almost more often than not, they tend to play out in a way that deeply annoys me. My annoyance is disconcerting, because it seems to have no clear ideological basis. Sometimes, I feel annoyed with the “politically correct” side of an argument, even though I’m fairly left-wing and PC. Sometimes, I’m annoyed with the “anti-PC” side. Often, I’m annoyed with everyone—especially with myself, for being annoyed. It bothers me that I can feel any degree of emotional investment about the way that people chose to engage with each other over social media. On the other hand, the importance of this “conversation” perhaps calls for this much investment, both from me and from the people arguing about it.

The aforementioned comic, by artist Jamie Kapp, was an example of the sort of discourse that bothered me, for reasons I didn’t quite understand. None of the information in it was particularly controversial, and it makes a pretty good case for why inequality between whites and other groups is not merit-based, but a pretty obvious continuation of a long history of disenfranchisement. The comic ends with a call for whites to educate ourselves, which, if preachy, isn’t exactly a bad thing. I didn’t get what was irritating about it until the writer and teacher Frederik deBoer articulated what was wrong:

It’s a pretty perfect distillation of what I’m talking about: politics as avoidance of self-implicature. You might find that statement weird–after all, she says that she indeed benefits from white privilege and sometimes “catches herself being racist once in awhile.” But such self-denigration lasts only a panel; inevitably, we come to the point where she ends her work by telling other white people to “fucking educate yourself.”

Both the style and the content of the comic—the contorted, uncomfortable facial expressions of the protagonist; the admissions of personal shame that alternates into aggressive admonitions to her fellow whites—give expression to certain basic tensions between society and the individual that the piece is ultimately unable to resolve. (One of reasons that such issues as racism and sexism are so hard to solve is precisely because of these tensions: the problems are systemic, but the “solutions” are individualized.) “How can she actually be a part of a positive movement against the structural privileges that she claims to oppose,” deBoer asks, “when her arguments about those privileges inevitably end with her playing the role of righteous aggressor?” That the demand for people to “acknowledge their privilege” is often not followed by any substantive steps towards ending said privilege suggests that there is something lacking, either in the intentions of the person talking about privilege, or in their analysis of the issue. Ultimately, it never seems to go anywhere, whatever the intentions. For some people, the problems of social privilege, or identity-based guilt, seem to become an idée fixe—an overwhelming fixation that can only be verbalized endlessly.

In my perspective, a large part of the problem begins with this excessive focus on privilege rather than on the disadvantages experienced by the folks excluded from privilege. Should we feel bad that white people in developed nations tend to enjoy a pretty good standard of living, or should we feel bad that other peoples don’t? It seems to me that the latter would be a better center of focus, not just in a conceptual sense, but in an instrumental one. Telling someone they need to relinquish their privilege is going to be less effective than talking about the ways that other groups’ lives could be improved. In this sense, I agree with the conservatives who take issue with a “zero-sum” framework for social justice which treats one group’s gains as always another’s loss.

The corollary of this is also true: not all social disadvantages are a function of privilege, per se. For instance, while it could be argued that higher incarceration rates for non-whites have left whites with less competition in the workplace—ostensibly, making it easier for whites to get employment—it isn’t necessarily a given that having less people in prison would have a negative impact on the job market. (I’m of course ignoring, for the moment, other factors that lead to employment inequality—to say nothing of the fact that prisoners are often a source of cheap, forced labor.) It could just as well be that less people being fed through our prison industry would lead to better overall socioeconomic outcomes, both for the potential prisoners and for society as a whole.

The Ghosts of Puritans

Many people in the antiracist camp (perhaps most, I hope) understand this, and have pointed out that, so long as whites have been satisfied with being better off than other ethnic groups—so long as they “believe that they are white“—they have been able to tolerate an ever-diminishing socioeconomic status for themselves, relative to the growth of the economy. This downward-focused competitiveness motivates, for instance, much of the emotional opposition to raising the minimum wage or increasing social spending (economic or “anti-state” arguments aside)—why should they get the same stuff that I get? Worrying that some poor people have it “too easy” can be a fairly effective moral distraction from worthier economic concerns, such as overall income stagnation and the concentration of wealth into fewer hands.

Some people seem to respond to imbalances of power by ideologically identifying with power structures against the weakest among us, perhaps to satisfy a psychological need to feel some semblance of control or power over life, even if it isn’t their own. For many of us, it is just easier to vent our anger and frustration on undocumented laborers or “welfare queens” than it is to demand better treatment from an employer or a judge, who has the power to harm us. Thus, it isn’t surprising that many religious conservatives, of various socioeconomic positions, like to think of themselves as on the “side” of God—the ultimate arbitrator of power—against the dubious forces of social justice, who want to punish honest, capitalist achievement and give “free stuff” to the takers.

These notions of meritocracy have been valued in these United States to a perhaps greater degree than any other place. Our countries mostly Protestant origins, combined with our relative lack of a traditional aristocracy, have produced a nation of “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” where there is seemingly no limit to the success—or earnings potential—of each constituent. This strongly-held belief in self-attribution has, on the one hand, led to a conflation of personal wealth with “Christian” virtue—a view that wealth in and of itself represents, or even is somehow constituted of the Protestant virtues of “hard work, thrift, self-discipline, etc”—and on the other hand, has led to a great deal of contempt towards people not exhibiting these austere, Protestant virtues: a homeless person sleeping on a park bench rather than “getting a job”; a “fat” person using food stamps; an average, working-class male drinking “fancy” imported beer rather than cheap, watered-down crap—the American gaze sneers at these sorts of things. With all the hedonism that our country seems to embrace, as channeled into our popular national holidays, there remains an underlying current of Puritanical pessimism and misanthropy beneath it all, and while the Capitalist ethic—to it’s credit—has made permissible certain earthly enjoyments, the basic idea remains that any amount pleasure must be “earned,” usually with some amount of suffering, or at least some shame.

This obsession with “unearned” pleasure or comfort seems to have informed the left-wing in this country as well as the right; the chief difference being that this sort of Christian guilt seems less effectual, if not counter-productive, in the liberal-left’s hands, even though the reasons for this guilt may seem to have more merit. The fundamental problem is that the guilt that progressives or the left-at-large feels about their varying levels of “privilege” have almost no tangible moral solutions. Just as the poor person is made to feel personally accountable for their impoverishment, in spite of the many factors outside of their control, the privileged person is charged with unloading “the invisible knapsack” of her privilege, even though this “knapsack” is an abstracted complex of social, economic, religious, political, and historical dynamics which both precedes the individual and extends far beyond her grasp.

“Sin” and Punishment

It isn’t entirely surprising that the “sin” of privilege, much like the “sin” of not having or producing wealth, resembles Christian “original sin,” with secular trappings. Our country was founded on Christian individualist values, and these values are encoded into our political and economic structures, as well as our culture. The strength of our belief in the power of the individual is such that the basic concept of emergent properties—the notion that there are things that occur (such as climate change or, indeed, systemic racism) that are emergent of society as a whole, rather than the conscious choices of any particular individuals—is a novel, foreign concept that is viewed with suspicion. This idea that there are no “accidents,” that every social consequence must be the result of someone’s deliberate intentions, underlies, for instance, our countries popular tendancy toward conspiracy theories. It’s a mentality that places the individual (rather than the larger social structure) as uniquely responsible, either for their own misfortunes, in the case of the disadvantaged, or in the case of the privileged, for the misfortunes of others. Lacking in institutional avenues for fulfilling this responsibility, for relieving this guilt, the guilt is often “transformed into implacable moral aggression: hatred of both the sinner and the sin,” as historian Stanley Elkins observed of American-style political movements. A kind of identity politic emerges from this which treats “guiltiness,” in whatever it’s form, as something that is self-evident, both crime and punishment.

This sense of absolute personal guilt is perhaps an inevitable outcome of a belief in absolute freedom, since there are always going to be conditions that are beyond the individual’s control. Because this “freedom” conceptually places the individual somehow outside of her social and material conditions—the poor person “chose” to be poor, and thus “deserves” to go hungry—it can end up reproducing the conditions which caused the guilt in the first place, since it doesn’t admit any external inputs; any modification of her external conditions would only “cheat” justice. In this framework, the only acceptable responses to social ills are punitive ones, and seemingly, there is no limit to the punishment required by this thinking. It ultimately would seem to conclude in Fascism—”a boot stamping on human face—forever”.

Now, to be clear: I don’t mean to say that vulgar libertarians or radical social justice movements are proto-fascists. I’m merely commenting on the tendency toward moral indignation in our discourse, and what I believe are the problems with that way of thinking, perhaps the biggest problem being that it is ineffectual (at least in the US, where neither a “right-wing” nor “left-wing” dictatorship is really possible, in spite of all the partisan shouting to the contrary). For free-market libertarians, blaming poor people is ineffectual because it turns most people off from their cause; for left-radicals, shaming privilege (at least as the primary focus) is a divisive distraction from the institutions that produce inequality. In both cases, the fixation on personal responsibility prevents us from finding any solutions. Stanley Elkins’ criticism in his book on US slavery and abolitionism, seems just as applicable to many of our “revolutionary” social movements today:

While European radical movements have tended very often to overemphasize the institutional structure of their activity, the case in the United States has never been anything but the opposite. The initial burst of energy is typically dissipated for lack of a structure, and instead of leaving some residue of an organization, it leaves, more often than not, nothing at all.

In the case of the abolitionist movement, the fight against slavery was prolonged in this country largely due to our opposition to the political (ie, non-punitive) solutions that had succeeded in Europe. Compensatory emancipation ended slavery in more than a dozen countries, but didn’t provide the “common sacrifice” that the abolitionists wanted—a desire that seemingly was more than satisfied by the Civil War that ensued. Yet since “the easing of guilt is always a most hidden function of such movements,” as Elkins argued, more often than not they “seem to disintegrate without accomplishing anything; guilt may be absorbed and discharged in ways which may make unnecessary a literal attainment of the objective.” [emphasis added]

“First World Problems”

Nietzsche—if it’s still permissible to speak of him—who’s views of morality has had some influence on my thinking on the subject, predicted that “the democratization of Europe will lead to the production of a type prepared for slavery in the subtlest sense,” producing “weak-willed and highly employable workers who need a master, a commander, as they need their daily bread.” I would modify this statement by substituting “liberalization” for “democratization”—and I refer to “liberalism” in sense that I believe Europeans understand the term, a “liberalism” that includes people as diverse as Margaret Thatcher and George Soros: namely, anyone involved with the advancement of global finance or capital. The fact that in the US, the center-left has begun to self-identity as “progressives” rather than “liberals” suggests that here, too, the term no longer has anything to do with left-wing notions of liberté, égalité, fraternité.

In much of what passes for politics today, people seem to depend on corporate entities through which they can channel their social aspirations. Our inability, as people, to form lasting organizations in an “organic” or community-based way means that our political causes tend to get absorbed into the existing power structure and it’s monied “special interest” groups. Instead of coordinating with each other, we spend our time curating talking points, internet quotes, and memes, which are meant to express ideas that most closely approximate the image we have of ourselves. We cultivate these fragments of our “self,” mostly from the corporate world, reproducing this “self” as “content” for the social media industry. In this setting, what is “unique” about us—“Five Things Only Redheads Will Understand”—”20 Common Questions Bronies Are Tired Of Hearing”—becomes more important than the things that we have in common. Identity, and the sense of ourselves as “individuals” has perhaps never seemed more significant, and has never been more meaningless. Meanwhile, the problems we have in common, such as our increasing exclusion from the social contract, are as important as ever.

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