This letter from listener Brian Bethel comes as a response to our recent episodes on politics and Richard Rorty's Achieving Our Country, particularly to my criticisms of identity politics and the left (which Mark, Seth, and Dylan as far as I know generally do not share). I don't have a response to this right now—I'm working on a systematic exposition on my views on all of this that I'll publish soon. Also, PEL will be doing some episodes focused on white privilege and perhaps protest pretty shortly. But this letter is an eloquent expression of a point of view opposed in many respects to mine:
Hi PEL Gang—
First of all, I want to say that I love and deeply appreciate what you guys do at PEL. Your podcast encapsulates everything that I find exciting about public discourse, and I often find myself participating out loud in your conversations on long drives (I guess this could just as easily be a sign of mental collapse as appreciation, but I'll choose to interpret it as the latter). As a PEL Citizen, I'm proud to support such an accessible and exciting intellectual conversation, and couldn't resist the opportunity to be a part of this conversation, in however small a way.
I would argue that the communicating of the experiences of all of the aforementioned minorities has been essential to my deeper (and still ongoing) understanding of the 'water' that surrounds me every day.
The two recent Rorty episodes, as well as the post-election debrief episodes, left me with a LOT to think about, and a lot that I wanted to say. I was particularly appreciative of Wes's advocacy for the art of real, genuine persuasion, and acknowledgement of its scarcity in general cultural-political discourse. As such, I thought I would attempt a genuine act of persuasion myself and voice some issues that came up for me in the recent episodes.
Specifically, I wanted to address:
1) Wes's criticisms of identity politics. I know that you have already received feedback on this, but I believe it bears repeating: it is pretty difficult to hear a group of heterosexual (I'm making an assumption here, and if I'm off-base, I apologize), middle-class, white American males disparage the need for identity politics. I say this as a heterosexual, middle-class, white American male, one who for years shared similar feelings that I heard expressed on the show—e.g., "Why does racial/sexual identity matter so much? Aren't we all individuals with complex backgrounds that shape us? Isn't this causing more divisiveness than unification?"—and have also taken years to really understand how my own status as (let's be real here) someone occupying just about the most privileged status you could possibly occupy in the United States could deeply affect my beliefs and day-to-day experience. And one of the most fundamental points that I hear espoused by the underrepresented in America—be it from people of color, alternative sexuality, physical disability, or, you know, like, women—is that it really takes someone who doesn't experience a particular set of privileges to help you realize what that set of privileges truly is. I always think of David Foster Wallace's speech/essay, "This Is Water," in which he recounts the joke about a fish saying to another fish, "Water's pretty nice today, eh?", to which the other fish responds, "What's water?" Just as Wallace's essay goes on to define the millions of micro-assumptions, privileges, and experiences that we don't realize are underlying our day-to-day lives as being that very water—well, I would argue that the communicating of the experiences of all of the aforementioned minorities has been essential to my deeper (and still ongoing) understanding of the "water" that surrounds me every day.
Which brings me back to the difficulty in accurately addressing and debating identity politics without a person of underrepresented identity there. To those of us who benefit from heteronormative white privilege (or whatever you want to call it), it's hard to conceive of the importance of identity politics because, frankly, we already see our identity everywhere (generalization, I know, but bear with me), so it's natural that it would appear to be a less important subject to us. I know that you guys have had guest speakers on before—one of my favorite episodes was the guest-assisted Existentialist analysis of No Country for Old Men—and I wonder if you would consider a further discussion of this topic with a guest speaker of a different background. Otherwise, in my eyes, a group of white, cis-gendered people discussing why racial/sexual identity does or doesn't matter is the equivalent of a group of color-blind people discussing why colors do or don't matter (oh god I already hate this comparison, but it worked for "Mary's Room," right???).
The very act of protest is an expression of a belief that the dominant system is broken, to state that the officially-recognized avenues of communication are being ignored.
2) Conflating rhetoric with an entire movement's messages and goals. I would be the first to agree that there is a seemingly endless amount of hyperbolic, pig-headed, frothing-mouth clickbaity writing coming from those on the left. There is mountains of it. And as someone who went to a small, private liberal arts college, I have certainly gone through periods of time where I felt that I was drowning in a vitriolic pickety sea of PC soundbites that made me never, ever want to think about politics or race or class or gender or anything ever again. But I think it's important to recognize that the issue in both cases is with the rhetoric being used, not with the ideas themselves. The awfulness of internet writing is omnipotent and highly equitable—it offers itself to people of all political persuasions and backgrounds. But to characterize identity politics as necessarily aggressive, or all those who attend protests as necessarily people with pickets shouting catchy slogans and then going home to their couches, or all of those on the left as being totally unwilling to hear the other side, is to allow the lowest common denominator to represent (and, as such, discredit) an entire movement. I fucking hate the Huffington Post, I fucking hate it when people get in my face with their personal problems, and I fucking hate picketing and chanting. I hate it when people tell me that the world would be a better place if I listened to more "world music" (whatever that is) or ask for soy milk with my coffee. But none of these things have anything to do with the infinite complexity of race, gender, and socioeconomic status, the exciting ongoing conversations on post-Marxist thought, or the numerous reasons you could use to conclude that our democracy is presently in a seriously dangerous state. They're just bad expressions of it. And to portray the most obnoxious expressions of opinion as inherent to their corresponding ideas is just to continue with the proud American tradition of letting the shitheads frame the argument.
3) The characterization of "social justice" movements as primarily concerned with kindness, compassion, charity, or righteousness. This is exactly the kind of deliberate mischaracterization of outspoken leftists as a bunch of bleeding-heart, touchy-feely, weepy, and easily offended liberals that right-wingers use to put down activists and leftist pundits. As someone who you could say is involved in "social justice" (a term I abhor—there's a reason that "Social Justice Warrior" is the derogatory term of choice for a whole generation of GamerGaters) I will tell you right now: I (and those I associate with of a similar persuasion) do not call our senators, attend protests, sign petitions, spend our funds ethically, or donate money to Planned Parenthood or the ACLU out of a desire to be kind, or a feeling that really people just need to be nicer to each other, or because I think it's anyone's moral obligation to help the oppressed and give back to society. I fight for our civil liberties because I believe that when, say, a series of voter-suppression laws are passed that make it inordinately difficult for lower-class people of color to vote, or when corporations have far more of a political say than any individual ever could, or when our president states that a judge is potentially unfit to judge a case based on his Hispanic background—these are fundamental impediments to democracy, to the social contract that is the foundation of all our day-to-day lives.
For those of us who are highly unlikely to face deportation, voter suppression, or state-sanctioned religious discrimination, it's easy to look down on overly zealous protestors ... But that ignores the fact there we are benefiting from an inherent privilege that comes along with our race or gender or class or religious affiliation.
Thus the characterization of anyone involved in the realm of "social justice" is based on some basic belief in moral obligations and charitable obligations rings hollow to me. Fuck it, I don't think anyone has a moral obligation to do anything. But if these core aspects of a political system don't apply to everyone partaking in that system, well, then it's hard not to conclude that some are just "more equal" than others.
4) The disparagement of the acts of mass protest of the past several years. I have to fundamentally disagree with Wes's negative comparisons of any contemporary protests to those of fifty or a hundred years ago. First of all, to say that the current protests lack clear goals or messages is crazy. Yes, some people went to marches to hold up signs that read "#notmypresident" or made the inevitable tired Hitler comparisons. Those people are idiots. Again, they do not speak for all of us who are organizing and marching and protesting. If you need some clear, coherent goals and messages that motivated the three to four million people who marched the day after the inauguration, I'd be happy to provide a couple of examples:
A) The fact that we currently have a president whose family receives payments from foreign entities is explicitly unconstitutional;
B) An executive order that, by banning immigrants of select nationalities, plainly violates the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, is clearly illegal;
C) The Senate's intentional year-long delay of a Supreme Court nomination for no other reason than to "get their guy in" is arguably fundamentally in opposition to congress's constitutional duties (or at least an unprecedented dick move);
D) Many of us are intensely disturbed by the failure of any of our government's top officials to address these concerns, and would like to express our belief that, without the addressing of these violations of the law and the constitution, we will be hard-pressed to recognize our acting government as legitimate, and will be forced to act accordingly.
To say that these protests are pointless because they don't convince "the other side" of anything is to miss the point entirely. The very act of protest is an expression of a belief that the predominant system is broken, to state that the officially recognized avenues of communication are being ignored. My friends and I don't just go to protests and then tell ourselves that we've "done our part" and go home; rather, the act of protesting is one single component of a complex network of actions that, for many of us, involves repeatedly contacting our elected officials, donating to causes we believe in, discussing and educating, spending our money consciously and ethically, and writing emails like this one. To write off these activities as politically ineffectual or, worse, not part of the "political process," is intensely naive, as is the thought that what this "process" actually consists of is just buckling down and waiting two to four years to cast your next vote.
Again, I would urge you to not let the loudest or the shithead-iest define political action, and I do truly take offense to the notion that all of us thousands standing out there in the rain don't know exactly what we're doing or exactly why we're doing it. MLK was certainly not the only one who recognized strategies in media attention, striking, and agitation (the last of which is, as far as I'm concerning, wholly succeeding in encouraging our president to continue alienating just about everyone).
5) The luxury of "political inactivity." Finally, I want to loop back to that question of privilege, and acknowledge that to state that the best way to address the current turmoil in our country as by avoiding acts of protest or civil disobedience and instead focusing on long-term committee work or, like, poetry-writing, is frankly a luxury reserved for those not directly affected by the new legislation that seems to be getting passed every single day. For those who are living in the very real fear of unlawful deportation or obstruction to entrance, to those who have been targeted by the flurry of hate crimes that have arisen since the election, to those who face a giant oil pipeline threatening their homes, to those who are facing the impending attack on their reproductive rights, none of these are abstract concepts that can be poetically addressed over the course of many years. They are actions that, while blurry in their legality, are being nevertheless pushed forward by a government that has effectively overturned the system of checks and balances. For those of us who are highly unlikely to face deportation, voter suppression, or state-sanctioned religious discrimination, it's easy to look down on overly zealous protestors, people who block highways, or the frantic hyperbole that defines much of our current leftist political writing. But that ignores the fact there we are benefiting from an inherent privilege that comes along with our race or gender or class or religious affiliation. And, while I haven't yet read Rorty's Achieving Our Country (I have ordered a copy after all the praise you guys had for it), it seems to me that to speak abstractly about experimentally progressing the American project fails to the very immediate, very real threats that face some of us. Again, I think this is an area that could really benefit from having guest philosophers of differing backgrounds from your own.
Okay, that's it. I want to reiterate how much I love what you guys do, and thank you for (maybe) reading this long tirade. I would welcome your responses, and will keep listening to PEL with an eager mind and insane self-ramblings. Now, on to the great American project, comrades!
With love, respect, and appreciation,
Brian, writing from soggy California (never thought we'd see those two words together again)
Have something to share? We'll take both praise and blame. Send us a Letter to the Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I will wait for Wes to reply on most of these topics, I just wanted to bring up your first point.(1)
A critique on identity politics often comes from a place of fear, not exhaustion from racial and sexual issues being brought up. The inadventernt oppression it brings about are dangerous. Living on an impoverished reservation is just one first hand account of watching good intentions (this dips more into your fourth point) of people.
While there may be nothing wrong with identity politics, and sometimes we may find it necessary, it also comes with the consequences of problem solving social issues through the lens of categories only. When that makes its way to actual legislation there is a dangerous notion about laws, justice and a system which isn’t conducive to equality at all.
Tribalism is the natural product of this kind of approach. So, while not inherently wrong, it’s also not something I would advocate on the basis that the utility of this approach hasn’t met its good intentions.
Robert Bishop says
Do you think the same tribalism arises from utilizing other categories?
For example, is my undying allegiance to Arsenal Football Club a part of the problem, or are those sorts of categories, or tribes, apolitical, and thus, excusable?
Sports and other activities are places I feel channel tribalism in a fun or benign way. I’m not going to deny people are tribal, ethnocentric, etc. there are certainty ways which don’t turn into legislation. If Chelsea suddenly became a voting demographic, I’d discourage that use of identifying. But no, it is not inherently wrong, just dangerous when laws are involved.
Daniel David says
That’s arguably true in the US at this time, but I’m not sure it applies abroad.
H. Nguyen says
I don’t know that this is necessarily the case. In our current system, we have politicians from a particular states who sometimes advocate for issues that affect their state specifically. To say that this will lead to tribalism seems a bit extreme to me.
Let’s assume that Wes is a privileged person. Why is that necessarily bad, especially if he uses his privilege (education at good universities, enough leisure time to read philosophy, enough money to invest in good computing equipment so that he can participate in these podcasts?) to read good books, communicate what he has read in those good books to others, reflect on ideas (in a dumbed down world) and also to study psychoanalysis and to use his knowledge of psychoanalysis to make himself and others more self-aware and less neurotic?
Would the world be a better place if Wes, instead of dedicating his energy to philosophy, invested all his energy in doing away with injustice and privilege?
Yes, it’s good that some people dedicate themselves to doing away with injustice and privilege, but I can’t see why everyone needs to dedicate themselves to that.
Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii says
I got carried away on my soapbox, so my apologies…
In these types of conversations, I feel that it can be REALLY important to emphasize that “having privilege” and/or “being privileged” is never in and of itself a “bad” thing.
Ideally, people bring up privilege and the attendant issues connected to it in order to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that the perspective that is being espoused as “universalistic” is actually quite unique and specific, and is not in fact generalizable in the way that the speaker would suggest that it is.
For example, said perspective that claims to be generally/universally true may in fact 1) contain the speaker’s unrecognized biases, 2) fail to recognize/acknowledge the socioeconomically unearned benefits of the speaker, and/or 3) fail to recognize/acknowledge the difficulties and/or barriers that minority groups face when attempting to access comparable benefits. In the discussions of privilege, these types of biases and/or failures to recognize are pointed out because the way that the speaker is talking suggests that they themselves don’t recognize their own biases and/or failures to recognize (i.e., the proverbial “fish in water” that doesn’t recognize that it is swimming in water and/or that the water itself even exists).
With that said, I would hope that no one would find it “bad” that Wes has been able to edify himself and to share his experience with others. I think that there are many here who are grateful for that. I also feel that it is important to appreciate that we can all be both 1) grateful for such efforts and 2) recognize/acknowledge that Wes — as a white educated male, occupies one of the most privileged positions in our society, a position which may or may not result in him expressing views that mistakenly fail to factor in that position of privilege.
In the pursuit of truths — as they are always already interdependent on networks of meanings, is it not a worthwhile endeavor to expose our own blindspots, especially when those blindspots reproduce the structures and dynamics of oppression/marginalization that — when accumulated at the theoretical and systemic level, contribute to the continued accrual of unearned benefits to some while simultaneously limiting the access of others to those same benefits.
Is it sometimes not itself indicative of privilege to be a person that can choose to ignore discussions of privilege?
On the other side of this “coin,” people who are not in this privileged position don’t get the luxury of ignoring privilege when the point that is being articulated is identified as being inseparably bound up with a privileged perspective. In other words, there is no “truth” over and above the privilege. In such situations, it is not a “truth” that is being articulated by someone who has privilege, but rather a “truth for privilege.”
If I may continue to be simultaneously bold, banal, trite, and naive, truths exist never in isolation, but as interconnected dialectic fluxes that shade and color each other and each of us in turn. Further, if we claim to value the pursuit of truths, then as part of that process, should we not all work to recognize and acknowledge those moments when we have universalized a personal, privileged position as if it were applicable to all.
Dedicating oneself to “philosophy,” entails that one is also necessarily dedicated to at least some unspecified minimal relationship to injustice and privilege. In other words, to “do” philosophy, is to “be” in a relationship with injustice and privilege. There is not one in isolation from the others.
There’s a great Lenny Bruce (a comedian from the 60’s if you haven’t heard of him) rap about the “last guy”. Lenny points out that everyone has someone that they can feel superior to and lord over, but there must be a last guy that has no one that they can feel superior to and lord over. Let’s update that to last guy/last woman.
So everyone is privileged in relation to someone except the last guy/last woman. I come from Chile and I can look out my window and see people who earn so little and work so hard and are so pushed around by their bosses and maybe by their male partner (if they’re women in a very machista society) that all the non-privileged groups in U.S. academia live a life of elite privilege compared to them.
Most of the culture that I (and maybe you) value come from privilege. If Shakespeare had had to dig ditches, no Hamlet or Lear. The same for Mozart, for Nietzsche and even for Virginia Woolf (who had servants, etc.) and for Marcel Proust (who although gay, was rich enough to dedicate himself full-time to writing). Would the world be better if Shakespeare had had to dig ditches instead of writing his plays?
Should those who are relatively privileged be aware of their positions of relative privilege? I’m not sure. Would Proust have written better novels if he had been more aware of his relative privileges instead of focusing on the nuances of not being able to fall asleep?
In spite of the fact that you probably consider me to be a “reactionary old sod” (I’ve been called that), I am aware of my relative privilege. I’m almost heterosexual (“everyone’s gay until proven otherwise and there’s no proof” is an old saying), I’m middle-class, I’m well educated, I’m white, I’m fairly healthy given my age (70). I’ve been on the left my whole life, vote for the left, have worked for leftist groups, have demonstrated, been arrested twice (once in the U.S. and once in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship) for demonstrating, and beaten once by the cops, again during the Pinochet dictatorship.
So I have mixed feelings about privilege. On the one hand, I believe that privilege is bad and one should be aware of it, but on the other hand, I see that much of the culture that I value is the product of relative privilege and culture counts, for me at least. So I don’t think that there’s any easy answer to the question of relative privilege and culture.
No, I don’t mind soapboxes, as long as the soap is biodegradable.
Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii says
Thank you for your response and for being gracious enough to not take my soapboxing as seriously as I am sometimes wont to do.
As some sort of prologue…
In this response, I’m worried that I’m again soapboxing, while also detouring into fairly obvious territory that you yourself quite clearly understand, and that perhaps I’m missing your larger point…I’ll do my best to be succinct and circle back from that detour and address the issue of “cultural products of relative privilege,” which I feel is your main concern here.
I guess I should make it clear that I am not arguing against people living a “privileged” life. I am trying to make the case that privilege(s) simply just exist, whether one recognizes them or not. I would also like to emphasize that “privilege” in terms of identity politics (ip-privilege) is not the same as “privilege” as it is generally used. We should be hesitant to flatly conflate ip-privilege with ideas about general privilege that are often largely related to class/economic well-being. Further, it is worth noting that ip-privilege frequently looks at how the intersection of the “big 3” — race, class, and gender, simultaneously interact with each other in the manifesting of a person’s identity (and their statements about/actions in the world).
For example, a poor white man might — on average, be treated “better” by society and in some sense have it “easier” than a rich non-white woman…or at least, that’s how the story goes.
In particular — in the case of sexism, if someone believably performs “masculinity,” that person will be accorded greater amounts of respect and deference on average than a person who believably performs “femininity.” That is just an unfortunate fact of the matter.
This means that, in some cases, a man who is uneducated, inexperienced, not especially bright, not especially socially well-equipped, etc. might enjoy the unearned benefit of being given some kind of greater “social standing” than a woman who is well educated, experienced, bright, socially well-equipped, etc. simply by virtue of the fact that they are a man. For example, people might be more willing to listen to him because he is a man, they might be more reticent to interrupt him because he is a man, they might be more willing to take him seriously because he is a man, they might be more willing to offer him opportunities because he is a man, etc. On average, he moves through the world with a credibility excess due to his gendered identity, while she moves through the world with a credibility deficit due to her gendered identity. These credibility excesses and deficits thus have concrete effects in the world.
So, while Shakespeare probably never would have written Hamlet if he was digging ditches, he still would have had it better than most of his female counterparts.
As to the question of whether or not artists and the like would be better at their craft if they were more aware of the privileges that they embodied, I would like to argue that they would be. The ability to be self-aware of the unearned benefits that one enjoys should allow one to empathize with and understand others who do not occupy the same position as you; it should allow you to “put yourself in their shoes”/”see the world through their eyes.” If an artist can’t do that, then there is something a little hollow in their work. This doesn’t mean that a rich person has to live as a poor person in order to understand the reality that people who are poor face, but it does mean that if they are to describe that reality, they must do so by listening to those voices that embody that experience instead of just blindly making assumptions about that reality and then blithely speaking for the people who live it.
In short, I agree that cultural works depend on privilege, but let us separate to some degree the culture maker from the cultural product.
In my humble opinion, cultural works that simply and uncritically reproduce the architecture of marginalization and oppression simply do a disservice to humanity (let’s leave aside for the moment the role/”interpretive opportunities” of the consumer of that cultural product). For me, cultural products that simply and uncritically reproduce that architecture of marginalization and oppression do a disservice to humanity because the reinforcement of deleterious cultural biases and narratives can have concrete effects in the real world. For example, it seems plausible to suggest that the American cultural narratives about gender have helped allow for a reality in which the United States has yet to have a female head of state; this is while many nations around the globe have already broken that glass ceiling and currently have or have had female heads of state.
So yes, culture makers depend on having access to relative privilege, but their work need not uncritically reinforce and reproduce the mechanisms of marginalization and oppression. …The woman need not always be the side-kick/foil for the man’s “heroic” adventure, etc.
And yes, it seems like it is always a balancing act between creating cultures of fairness and cultures of progress that depend on unfairness.
And so…I suppose that in the end, I agree with your sentiment that there is no easy answer to the question of relative privilege and culture, let’s just open up the culture and hear from our polyphonic world.
…thus…may this soapbox likewise biodegrade as needed!! Thanks for listening!
First of all, no need to keep apologizing for yourself (the soapbox analogy). You’re fine.
Money talks. In a capitalist society at least. So while there are situations where a lower class male may have privileges over or may dominate a rich or upper middle class woman: situations of street sexual harassment, etc., money buys you better healthcare, better education, the opportunity to travel, better heating in the winter, a better diet, a longer life expectancy, etc. However, I grant that in any given class, males have privileges over women of the same class.
I’m going to focus on privileges or domination due to gender here, not on race, because I come from Chile and I’m not completely up-to-date on racism in the U.S. today (which is very different than racism in Chile) and I believe that sexism/machismo is fairly similar in the U.S. and Chile.
One evident problem that women face is male violence, especially sexual violence, including street harassment, sexual harassment on the job and in universities and rape. There need to be better and stronger laws to deal with this.
Another problem is lack of recognition of their talents or skills or abilities. I’m sure that you’ll hate me for saying this, but there are a lot of idiots in this world, including lots of idiots in important positions in universities and in all institutions of prestige, and why waste so much time and energy trying to get idiots to recognize your talents or skills or abilities? What counts in life (I think) is that your real peers recognize your talents or skills or abilities and value you for that.
Art: the great Marxist critic and philosophy Georg Lukacs says that Balzac, a writer with
reactionary political opinions, gives a more honest and more realistic picture of the evils of 19 century capitalism than well-intentioned “progressive” writers such as
Dickens and Zola, whose picture of capitalism is distorted by their well-intentioned efforts to criticize it.
So the key seems to be honesty in art, not progressive good-intentions. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, whatever Shakespeare’s undoubtedly sexist opinions about women, tells us a lot about the position of women in Elizabethan England in his portrayals of Ophelia and Gertrude (the Queen). Would that portrayal have been more honest if by some miracle Shakespeare had read the Second Sex?
In fact, if one looks at the three great 19th century novels about women stuck in bad marriages, Middlemarch by George Eliot (real name Mary Anne Evans), Madame Bovary by Flaubert and Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, all of them being honest (I believe), I’m not at all sure which one of them tells me more about the position of women in the 19th century. That is, Tolstoy’s portrayal of Anna Karenina is as honest and as insightful as George Eliot’s portrayal of Dorothea.
I think about two relatively recent writers known for their sexism, Charles Bukowski and Michel Houellebecq, but whose honesty and realism means that we learn as much about male privilege from them as we do from many intentionally feminist works.
So once again, I think that any honest portrayal of society will tell us about privilege.
Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii says
For some reason I wasn’t able to “reply” to your last post that begins —
“Money talks. In a capitalist society at least. So while there are situations…”
I sincerely take your point that “the key seems to be honesty in art, not progressive good-intentions.” I also take your point that there is a lot to learn from that level of honesty. Thanks for framing the discussion the way that you did and pushing back on some of my claims.
I’m now feeling a little stuck between two intuitions/compulsions. (And, I’m also feeling like I’m just echoing a sentiment that many other commenters have already expressed).
On the one hand, I agree that current (and dead) culture makers should be brutally honest when making their art, no matter what. There can certainly always be something there to appreciate/learn about…new dimensions to see, etc., even when we find smaller and larger aspects of the piece distasteful.
On the other hand, I think that there are also a good amount of folks who are just really tired of hearing from the current set of culture makers who reproduce and reinforce the same boring old tropes and opinions that consistently, continually, and uncritically marginalize people. Hence, the uncritical tale from the current tastemaker/artist about the brutally honest sexist, racist, classist, etc. just feels boring, wrong, and/or terrifying to a lot of people. Personally, I don’t see any problem in pointing out that someone’s perspective could use some adjustment, my own included. I also don’t see what the advantage is in arguing that we need to hear more voices that are more sexist, more racist, more white supremacist, etc. All of those perspectives are deeply problematic and need to be identified as such so that the person espousing them can do whatever necessary work they need to do in order to recognize and understand how problematic their worldview is. The other aspect to this is that I don’t know what the advantage is in NOT saying something when someone says something that is obviously problematic in terms of privilege (i.e., race, class, gender, etc.). …Why should we just let it slide? Who does our silence serve? I understand that you have to pick and choose your battles, but sometimes a lighthearted nudge can be enough to help get someone thinking along different lines,…and sometimes aggressively calling them out may feel warranted.
If the sexist has a good point to make that exists over and above their sexism, then I’m all for hearing them out. However, I don’t see the problem in also pointing out that it wouldn’t hurt if they toned down their sexism and/or reflected on why it is problematic.
Our conversation (and perhaps my own rambling) has drifted a bit, so to maybe draw it back a little I would like to add that simply and/or aggressively calling out privilege can itself, also be a somewhat empty gesture that unconstructively derails a conversation and prevents growth, rather than cultivating it. That much is definitely true.
That said, I don’t see why we shouldn’t generally be able to have a conversation where we can both allow the “other side” to make their “free-floating” arguments over and above their privileges, while also calling them out for uncritically using their privileges to set up their argument.
Again, let the sexist make their case, but let’s let them know that the way that they went about setting up their case was sexist and problematic and that we could all do some reflecting on it.
At this point I don’t believe that there’s all that much disagreement between us.
If you don’t want to read the brutally honest sexist, say, Michel Houellebecq, don’t buy his works. If I were a literature teacher (and I once was one), I wouldn’t assign his works to my class, because he probably would offend women students. Houellebecq is alive today, lives in a culture, France, where sexism is a matter of public debate and so is consciously and deliberately sexist. I find him to be very funny at times and quite lucid about 21th century capitalist society and I do read him.
Now if we’re talking about Homer or Aeschylus or Shakespeare and their sexism, well, they had no way of knowing that they were sexist, since the concept didn’t even exist. However, take a look at Aeschylus’s Agamemon, at the character of Clytaemnestra and you’ll see that an honest writer, with his or her eyes open, will portray 3-dimensional female characters without needing the concept of sexism.
If you want to call out people for their sexism or privilege, fine. I have no problems with anyone doing that and I myself am open to your criticisms of my male or white privilege. I’ve learned a lot from criticism received from women about my maleness, over a period of, say, over 45 years. I don’t go around calling out people on their sexism or privilege myself, but I do avoid people who are blatantly sexist or blindly privileged and I cultivate the friendship of those who are not.
Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii says
Again, I’m not able to directly reply to your last post for some reason. It’s the one that begins —
“At this point I don’t believe that there’s all that much disagreement between us.”
I suppose that I would have to agree with you that we seem to generally be in agreement. We’re maybe coming at the same (or a similar) sentiment, but just from different angles. And, maybe my entire comment here is just a restatement of what you’ve already said.
At any rate, I appreciate your clearly sweeping familiarity with literature, it is again a great method to push back against some of my claims.
The only distinction that seems worth making is with regards to Houellebecq. Though I’ve never read him (and so I can’t really speak intelligently about him), I am willing to give him credit simply by virtue of the fact that he is, as you say, “consciously and deliberately sexist.” A self-conscious provocateur whose aims might be higher than simply treading water in the ditch is certainly note-worthy to the extent that their art can reveal something heretofore unknown about the human experience. Yes, the use of sexism, et al can be “tools” in an artist’s toolbox that they use to create their vision. Beyond that, to the extent that artists are “true believers” in their own self-confirming “right” to oppress others, it is my sense that they should absolutely be challenged in the courts of culture and ruthlessly disabused of the notion that they have any kind of “right” to oppress other people. Let’s not pretend that certain “paintings” and narratives about marginalized people don’t have real world consequences — take the rise of white supremacist rhetoric and the baiting of it by Trump, and then observe the subsequent rise in hate crimes around the US in which real people are confronted with real violence. An artist might have noble or even just provocatively interesting aims, but let’s not forget what fires they are feeding. That said, vulgar exhibitionism for no other purpose than to titillate with the taboo grows tiresome pretty quickly, even when it is able to pull off something fairly novel — it is this sort of cultural work that I am more critical of and uninterested in, and which rightly deserves to be lambasted for it’s uncritical, un-self-aware promotion of oppressive sentiments that are often unquestioningly and popularly lauded.
…I’m having trouble recalling my comments from my previous posts (and don’t feel like rereading them at the moment), but I never really meant to make the case that there isn’t anything to learn from/appreciate from those we disagree with, even when we find some of their views repugnant. It is of course always useful to know/understand the positions of people that we disagree with, and of course they probably have some interesting points to make beyond and even within those that one may find unsavory.
That said, I also want to suggest that the letter to the editor and many responses to it also seem be more primarily interested in our quotidian interactions with one another and how those interactions may or may not reinforce oppressive structures. So yes, we can learn from those who abuse their privilege, and they may have something interesting and even profound to say beyond that, but it seems like a worthwhile endeavor to my mind to constructively call out privilege to the extent that it can help foster a better world for all of us.
If one reads Houellebecq with attention, there’s nothing in him which could foment hate crimes. An attentive reader of Houellebecq might turn into a politically skeptical hedonist, which would not be the worst thing in the world these days.
Today Houellebecq has round-the-clock police protection because Islamic fanatics see his last book, Submission, as an offense to Islam. Actually, in Submission the Muslim characters are much more serious, less frivolous, less superficial than the French progressives, whom Houellebecq portrays as empty and trendy. However, I doubt that any Islamic fanatics would take the trouble to read the book.
When I was growing up in the 1950’s, reading Nietzsche was widely considered to lead to Nazism or to becoming a serial killer. I doubt that Nietzsche was read in many universities back then, but today he is considered one of the greatest 19th century philosophers and widely read.
Actually, the Bible and the Koran have led to a lot more hate crimes than any novels or works of philosophy that I know of.
Fiction takes you to mental spaces where you otherwise might not travel, from the battlefields of Troy (the Iliad) to French intellectual cocktail parties (Houellebecq), it broadens the mind, as they used to say. I find that to be positive on the whole. It’s good to travel to other mental spaces, even if those mental spaces are not always politically acceptable.
Now if after traveling to those new mental spaces, some people see their experience as an incitement to hatred, well, the problem is with those people, not with the books of fiction. Admittedly, there are books like Mein Kampf whose only purpose is to incite hatred, but that’s not true of “politically incorrect” writers like Houellebecq or Bukowski.
We live in a fucked up society and there are lots of people filled with hatred and resentment. I don’t think that fiction is the primary cause of their hatred and resentment.
Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii says
Again, I wasn’t able to “reply” to your last post that begins —
“If one reads Houellebecq with attention, there’s nothing in him which could foment hate crimes.”
I must apologize…it’s quite clear that I’m not doing a very good job of explaining myself and my twin impulses for 1) the celebration of 100% brutally honest, unfettered artistic freedom on the one hand, and 2) the condemnation of popular and individual expressions of oppressive practices and ideas on the other. I also fully admit that I am (perhaps unsurprisingly) conflicted about these two impulses as well.
Generally speaking, I 100% agree with what you said in your last post (though I don’t know enough about Houellebecq to really have any serious opinion about him, his work, and/or his place in the general cultural milieu). And please, don’t misunderstand me…to the best extent possible, I am under no illusions about how “fucked up” the world is or about the fact that we all need to find ways to get along with each other despite our disagreements.
Beyond this, I am in no way arguing for any kind of restriction on the freedom of speech. Moreover, I seriously appreciate Wes’s emphasis on making persuasion a more serious part of our public and (perhaps) private discourses with one another. That said, I find it incredibly and profoundly disheartening, worrisome, and disappointing that we find ourselves in a cultural moment where the merits of white supremacism, white ethno-nationalism, racism, “soft” holocaust denialism, sexism, sexual assault, ablism, and religious freedom, et al are taken as serious topics of popular debate — this is, as you say, really “fucked up.” To borrow a popular sentiment, I would much rather be living in a world where wanting to debate the merits of those things automatically disqualified a person from any serious popular conversation. The merits of those things — much like the discussions about the merits of torture, should be unequivocally rejected and should absolutely never be deserving of serious debate. But unfortunately, debating those topics and their merits is precisely where we find ourselves these days…
Now, how do culture makers fit into this pictures?
I am willing to concede the possibility that someone like Houellebecq probably won’t foment hate crimes (but idk…it sounds like he has already enflamed passions which may themselves enflame reactionary passions). All the same, I also unequivocally concede artistic freedom to the culture makers…to the lowest among them.
That said, oppressive practices aren’t some purely bottom up phenomena that occur in a vacuum — there is a dialectic and mutually reinforcing relationship between culture consumers and culture makers. To state the obvious, it is problematic when popular culture and even “high” culture regularly put forward narratives that unthinkingly utilize some “naturalized” version of identity politics that plays on some notion of the “naturalized” inferiority of women (for example). Narratives like these frequently suggest and reinforce oppressive ideas about women — like that they lack independent agency, are mere objects of enjoyment for men, are good sidekicks/foils for men…but not good leaders/teammates/co-equals, need a man/family/children to be fully human, etc. This fact is a real problem.
Women’s equality then becomes true only in word, but is de-centered, hollowed out, and delegitimized in cultural practice — both in the “real world” and in artistic practice. Again, let’s not pretend that culture makers aren’t primarily the ones creating our cultural landscape and the ideological background in which we move Or that they aren’t incentivized to appeal to pretty base impulses. Let’s also not pretend that these types of narratives don’t reinforce oppressive ideas that play out in very real ways in the very real world. These types of oppressive ideas that necessarily and implicitly play on the background of a “naturalized” version of identity politics need to absolutely be challenged.
Let’s also remember where identity politics came from in the first place…
Who were the parties that were drawing those lines in the sand; in whose service were those original lines of difference drawn? Why isn’t it identity politics when (rich,) white, straight men are just “doing their thing”? Why does “identity politics” only get a name when marginalized people speak up?
I sincerely and absolutely have no interest in making things personal, so let’s just say that it would appear to be much easier and a lot safer for a lot of white men with relative economic security to not feel too threatened by oppressive cultural practices and works because those oppressive practices and works are not primarily directed at them. On the other hand, things are a bit different if you’re someone who — through no choice of your own, necessarily has a stake in the way that people like you are popularly portrayed in culture. Why would that person have a stake in the way that they get portrayed? It is because real violence, real marginalization, etc. gets visited upon them and people like them as a result. …Should we be surprised then that people are angry and in the streets?
Thus, is it not itself indicative of privilege to be in a position to ignore, safely indulge in, and disregard cultural practices that marginalize people that are not like you?
Let’s be clear here, artistic practice is not divorced from the artist, the consumer, and the culture as some kind of free-floating social good that always operates without consequences. It has real consequences, and at some level, we must choose to accept that fact if we are going to choose to co-create the freest society possible. Let’s also admit that there are of course expanded horizons and things to learn/to appreciate from the most repugnant culture makers, as well as from culture makers that play on our own cultural taboos (e.g., John Waters) — that’s fine. At the same time, I find it increasingly important to push back against the culture makers and individuals who continue to unthinkingly promote and reinforce the same tired, oppressive, and marginalizing narratives that literally put people’s lives in danger — oppression is not entertainment and entertainment is not devoid of consequences.
As they say…If we stay silent about these things, who does our silence protect?
As a final thought, I want to add that it seems reasonable to suggest that identity politics was obviously a reaction to our long history of racism, sexism, classism, etc. and that we are now in a “reactionary” moment fueled by bigoted attachment to that long history. …thesis => antithesis => anti-antithesis…synthesis?
One of the larger questions seems to be (at least for this letter to the editor and this whole thread), to what extent does identity politics simply just energize bigoted reactionaries and divide us from each other vis a vis the rhetoric of difference — in other words…
Are identity politics part of the problem?
If so, who is it a problem for?
To what extent can we replace it and/or subsume it within a rhetoric of commonality?
Moreover, I think that we have to ask, to what extent can we actually afford to ignore a rhetoric of difference? It’s obvious that the rhetorics of difference, marginalization, and oppression will persist and will need to be addressed…How do we deal with them and come together at the same time?
For me, we need to talk about our differences and the realities of marginalization and oppression…these things need to be addressed. Nothing will get better if we just keep quiet and pretend to ignore it. Difference must be part of the conversation, but loving each other has to be too (as quaint as it sounds).
There certainly is an identity politics of the privileged and powerful, as you point out, and they are very good at it.
We agree that artists/culture makers should have 100% cultural freedom and that those culture-makers who promote oppressive practices or attitudes should be criticized.
As I’ve said, I don’t live in the U.S. and have not visited there for 8 years, so my vision of what happens there is largely the product of what I read in blogs, etc.
I’ve seen in some blogs that a criticism of political correctness and of so-called “social justice warriors” masks an anti-feminist project. That should be criticized of course.
However, I’ve also participated in progressive or leftwing blogs from the U.S. where leftwing or feminist political correctness reaches levels of heresy-hunting, where anyone who questions the leftwing or feminist orthodoxy is viciously attacked, where anyone who diverges from the party line is pounced upon by political commissars worthy of the Moscow purge trials in the 1930’s or of the Stasi in the ex-German Democratic Republic.
That kind of political orthodoxy and collective self-righteousness, even in a good cause, that of feminism or the struggle against privilege, stifles creativity and the life of the mind.
So we have to walk a narrow line between letting the privileged get away with their privileges and on the other hand, a leftwing orthodoxy which allows no dissent. I realize that online leftwingers have shot no one for their opinions, but they do at times create a climate that makes one fear that if they were to be in power, they’d suppress dissent as viciously as certain leftwing governments have done in the past. Remember that the Russian Revolution started off with good intentions too.
I appreciate that we’ve been able to discuss this in a civilized manner, and that Wes, Mark, Seth and Dylan have been open enough to converse about these matters without falling into either extreme.
Alan Thomas says
Athena Sophia and S. Wallerstein,
I’ve been reading your back-and-forth with interest. You both make serious, well-argued points.
I’d like to throw in one point that represents a more empirical, or maybe social-psychological, angle. This is something a couple of my friends and I strongly feel, and I can’t imagine that we aren’t a sample representing many millions of others.
We are straight white guys who identify strongly with progressive politics in many respects. We want to see government tax rich people much more, and spend the money on redistributive social programs that benefit the poor and the working class and stimulate the economy in a Keynesian manner. We want a higher minimum wage, more stringent regulation of capitalism, much stronger environmental regulations, We support reparations for slavery, and we supported gay marriage long before Obama or Clinton did. So there’s clearly no room for us on the right, or even in the center. I would call us center-left only because we are not calling for all out Marxist socialism and because some of the BLM and trans-rights agenda give us pause.
But even setting all the specifics on issues aside, straight white guys are the whipping boys of the left. Rarely is there a distinction made “…except the liberal ones”. Among progressive activists, there is no concern about heedlessly throwing around categorical disparagement of the straight white man as a matter of course. And the straight white men who do wholeheartedly throw their lot in with this crowd do so in a masochistic manner, acting as virtual flagellants or hairshirt-wearers. They hasten to denounce their own kind more loudly of all, lest anyone get the mistaken impression that they are not thoroughly ashamed of, and disgusted by, their straight, cis-gendered male whiteness.
But (and I suppose this is why Nietzsche appeals to me), I’ve got too much pride and self-respect to take this subservient, boot-licking role. It’s not that I feel it’s beneath me to do so *because* I’m a straight white guy; I wouldn’t take it in a group of straight white dudes either. I’ve just got too much drive to try to be in the upper echelon of the proverbial pack, or at least not be the omega. And no matter how much a black lesbian might scoff and insist I’ve always got my privilege no matter what, it’s really not true if one tries to join that progressive pack. They’ve (understandably, as one of you pointed out above) so strongly reacted to all those centuries of unfairness that within that movement they have quite effectively turned the hierarchy upside down and stuck us on the bottom, or below the bottom in a pit to have garbage hurled at us. No matter how understandable an impulse that is, I’m just not down with being in that position.
The reaction from many on the left to this kind of plaint is derision, scorn; basically “oh, you poor baby, cry me a river”. Implicitly, they say “sod off, we don’t need or want your whiny straight white maleness anyway”. But DON’T we actually need each other? I saw a survey once that showed white men had the greatest percentage identifying as “very conservative” of any demographic group–no shocker–but also the greatest percentage describing themselves as “very liberal”.
And there’s just a lot of us white guys, even still. More than one-third of the electorate was white men. Hillary Clinton got 31% of our votes, a total of 14.4 million votes. That’s more than half again as many votes as she got from black women: despite the fact that a miniscule 4% of them voted for Trump, the 94% voting for Hillary only added 9 million to her column. Latinas (Hispanic women) contributed another 5.7 million, so the combined forces of WOC only amount to a Democratic voting bloc only a tiny bit bigger than that of white men alone.
Therefore, telling us to “go jump in the lake” as my mom would say (I would use a coarser expression, but I don’t know about the language policies here) seems like an extraordinarily poor strategic move. If white men had voted for Trump in the percentages black women voted against him, Trump would have won the popular vote by a margin of 26 million votes. By comparison, the biggest margin ever was Nixon’s 18 million over McGovern. Even in percentage terms, the 19-point win would be bigger than Reagan’s over Mondale, and would trail only LBJ ’64, Nixon ’72, FDR ’36, Coolidge ’24, and Harding ’20.
In short, you need us, we need you, and we need to unite against our common political adversaries in a spirit of partnership, compromise, and mutual respect. We cannot tolerate being the whipping dog or even the junior partner of the coalition, any more than you can.
Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii says
Again, I wasn’t able to “reply” directly to your last post that begins —
“There certainly is an identity politics of the privileged…”
Thanks again for your comments and your willingness to read through my perhaps overwrought, melodramatic, longwinded screeds! It’s been fun! I think that we’re pretty much in total agreement at this point. And, I wholeheartedly second your sentiments about PEL and Wes, Mark, Seth, and Dylan…I and I think many of us are extremely appreciative for all of the work that they do and for everything that they provide to the public.
Are Brian and Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii the same person here?
Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii says
Nope. I am not Brian.
Chris Schoen says
I think if Brian cares to take this line of inquiry to a deeper level he will quickly be able to see it for the McGuffin that is is. Vanishingly few liberals or leftists believe that it’s harmful or misguided to stay aware of the different impacts our culture has on people with different levels of privilege. A problem arises, however, when this type of awareness is weaponized against class consciousness. Capitalism *loves* identity politics because it deflects energy away from the main driver of misery and oppression.
This is why you often see the strongest resistance to identity politics among leftist women and people of color, who know that the kind of liberation that operates strictly along identity lines is always going to hit a hard wall if class is not taken into account (and when identity politics is weaponized, that is exactly what happens). The result is a society in which class privilege becomes even harder to talk about, as people like Beyonce, Sheryl Sandberg, & the Obamas are held up as celebrity barrier-breakers. Meanwhile precarity and inequality continue to increase catastrophically, segregation is more brutally enforced in our public school system, US energy policy ravages the climate in the equatorial regions where most of the world’s least powerful and most vulnerable live, and our foreign policy hits those same populations from the other direction.
Henry Regan says
Agreed. Most of these “leftists” capitulate entirely to dominant capitalist norms, and it just distracts people from more pressing concerns, like the complete collapse of the natural environment which sustains life on the planet, to take one minor example.
It’s not that we don’t see sexism, racism, and so on as serious problems, but the sheer hyperbole regarding them does not help, especially in the face of,as I say again, actually calamitous problems out there.
TJ Downing says
Identity politics as I see undermines the very causes it claims to fight for, and that’s the issue I see Wes and others taking with it. The argument isn’t that identity isn’t a constitutive feature of one’s political struggle, but that it doesn’t sufficiently account for the spectrum of issues that arise in political conflicts. The experience of a wealthy black man in Beverly Hills would be categorically different than if the same man were to visit the Bronx in New York and live in the ghettos for a week. The identity of the man hasn’t changed in either case, and yet the reality of his struggles couldn’t be more different. If you only think in terms of race, gender, and class (or whatever other salient feature of one’s identity you care to choose) you wouldn’t be able to account for this. Obviously the mitigating factors are environed by the particular community you find yourself amongst, as well as the history of inter and intra-communal conflict of that group. It’s why the experience of a Wahhabi Muslim in the rural South would be lacking the “privilege” (an obnoxious term that needs to die in my opinion) that he would enjoy in say, Saudi Arabia. These so called privileges are predicated on the history and relative traditions of a particular political scene, which is something I think identity politics manages very poorly. I’m sure that many proponents of identity focused politics would acknowledge these points, but more often that not I see them neglected. Such a neglect of context only serves to partition or even segregate American culture into homogeneous groups of like ‘identities’ that create something of an incommensurate culture clash and ultimately divide political movements rather than unite them.
In Achieving Our Country, Rorty argues along these lines, “If the cultural left insists on its present strategy – on asking us to respect one another in our differences rather than asking to cease noticing those differences, it will have to find a new way to find a sense of commonality at the level of national politics. For only a rhetoric of commonality can forge a winning majority in national elections.”
In this sense, I think this obsession with identity politics that has overtaken the more progressive elements of the Left will ultimately serve to concede more and more of their political purchase to the Right, who are the only ones attempting such a “rhetoric of commonality.”
Couldn’t agree more with TJ Downing on this issue. There is a distinction between ‘observation’ and ‘critique’. Pointing out one’s identity as a factor in the lens in which they view the world is simply an observation. It is not critique in and of itself. It only shows that you observed something. And, more often than not, in the current cultural climate serves to derail the conversation away from ideas and instead becomes about personality or identity. Imagine that instead of listening to Wes speak, ‘knowing’ or assuming what you do about his identity forming his world view, you read them from an anonymous author, or a robot. If you cannot focus on the identity of the author, the next step is to focus on the content of the ideas. This is not to say that identity is meaningless in any means. However, a good deal of identity politics stops at the level of observation as a stand in for critique. Pointing out ‘white privilege’ is not critique. The implication that one’s identity somehow can disqualify or diminish one’s ability to speak about certain subjects is troublesome at best. I do not need to be a billionaire to be able to critique the idea of too much money in politics. Nor do I need to be poor to do so. I don’t need to be ‘of color’ (another absurd term, and I’m saying this as a person who others would identify as so), to speak intelligently about racial inequality.
Brian Brethel says – ” Wes’s criticisms of identity politics. I know that you have already received feedback on this, but I believe it bears repeating: it is pretty difficult to hear a group of heterosexual (I’m making an assumption here, and if I’m off-base, I apologize), middle-class, white American males disparage the need for identity politics”
Why? Why is that difficult? Other than making an observation about the fact that everyone has a subjective experience of the world and therefore a degree of bias, by definition, what is the critique of the content of his argument? It was suggested that the PEL folks should have had someone from an underrepresented cultural category on the show for balance. How so? Balance in what way other than identity?
Adolph Reed Jr. is an incredibly articulate political scientist and professor, highly critical of identity politics, critical of the Obama administration for perpetuating such politics, and wants to shift the focus of discussion in America to talk more about the unpopular subject of economic inequality. Does the fact that he is also identified as African American make him more or less qualified to speak intelligently on the subject? Should he have to balance out his argument with someone with another background in order for it to be fully considered?
Other than a few hot button issues (affirmative action for example) it is difficult for me to see how these social issues play out in terms of policies? Like how do you address issues of white privilege/racism/sexism/hegemonic culture vs. minority culture, etc. through legislation?
Do we want our presidential candidates making it of central importance to try and pass legislation on bathroom behavior? or do we want them talking about the economy?
Robert Bishop says
I find aspects of both Wes’s and Brian’s position compelling. At times, Identity Politics seems to indulge in the genetic fallacy–where a conclusion is dismissed because of its source, which, in this case, is a white, heterosexual male.
Nevertheless, there may be a compelling argument for Identity politics based on epistemic oppression, in which certain individuals’ epistemic contributions to a community of knowers is blocked by historical prejudices, and thus, the community is unable to make valid conclusions regarding the oppressed. (Kristie Dotson- the recent subject of an Elucidations podcast- has done quite a bit of work on this).
I find myself caught between these two interpretations of Identity Politics; however, I do think Wes’s emphasis on persuasion in the political sphere is spot on. I am looking forward to hearing Wes’s reply regarding Identity Politics, and I would also be interested to see Seth articulate his view, since he registers as the most politically inclined in the group.
I do want to quickly say with regards to protest movements, that protests, civil disobedience, etc. Was a really critical driver of the gay-rights movement which is basically the biggest left wing success story of the last 40 years and basically happened outside of and without strong support from the Democratic Party.
Bryan Cahall says
When DFW uses the term “like” in his written prose to mimic the common speech dysfluency (and as a device for establishing tempo), he doesn’t use commas to separate it from the sentence, you’ll notice. He’s explicit about the reasons somewhere. The commas are counter productive w/r/t tempo considerations. I just figured, you know, if you’re trying to emulate him…
Also, the bad writing on the internet is “omnipotent”? as in “all-mighty”?
Much of what you’ve said here re identity politics is very sincere. And some of it even constitutes argumentation. But to claim that you believe no one has a “moral obligation to do anything” is either disingenuous or confused. Your first point is not an argument for identity politics. It is a claim that, given the imperatives of identity politics, properly applied, white cis straight males have a certain obligation not to disparage, regardless of their reasons. This is because their identity configuration precludes w.c.s.m.’s from having access to sound reasoning and evidence on these matters by definition. So since any argument they make is in principle a bad one, we are forced to analyse their motivations which, again given their identity configuration, simply must be “rooted in privilege”.
That’s not an argument. It’s a dogmatic restatement of the assumptions of identity politics, a moral commandment. Remember what a society based on identity politics looks like. It’s apartheid South Africa. It’s Jim Crow.
The fifth point fails similarly. Oppressed people can’t afford to write poetry as a response to power? So now you’re defining for the oppressed which actions are efficacious and political? Check your privilege. Get woke. 2 through 4 are on point tho.
Aslan Bolkonsky says
Well, what a foolish and uncharitable response to Brian’s letter…
First, to open with criticisms of the language here is not only to focus on irrelevancies, but is incredibly snooty and uncharitable. And I’m not even sure that you’re right about the use of commas around the term “like”. Just because DFW adopted a particular style does not mean that all writers must forever follow in his footsteps. I notice that when you use the phrase “you know” to “mimic the common speech dysfluency (and as a device for establishing tempo)”, you have chosen to separate it by commas. Blah…
More importantly, at no point does Brian state that straight white males are automatically precluded from commenting on identity politics. You’ll notice that, when he suggests having a discussion on this topic that includes a person from a different background, he does not suggest that the PEL people be excluded from the debate. Nor does he suggest that they sit there silently and agree with everything that guest speaker says. He simply makes the modest point that, in a discussion about issues of race/gender/etc, it may be useful to listen to the perspectives of people from outside the dominant ‘straight while male’ group. And, really, apartheid South Africa? Jim Crow? To make the claim that Brian’s request for another perspective is comparable to the logic of these societies is either disingenuous or seriously confused.
Daniel David says
One thing that I think has been missing from the ongoing conversation on this site is how far identity politics extends beyond just race and gender. These are obviously its most controversial domains, so it’s no surprise, but advertising, media and data science has long been carving up and creating demographics in a way that has huge implications for the cultivation of identities..
For instance, see : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claritas_Prizm
When the NRA makes its statements they don’t take the form of a logical argument for the merits of gun ownership, but are actively constructive appeals to a certain kind of person, which provide them with reasons to identify as a “gun owner,” which has a connotations far beyond just having a firearm in the closet. This is the dominant form of address for most political movements these days, regardless of political affiliation.
Robert Bishop says
For you, does the preponderance of cultivated identities that we don’t usually perceive as harmful– e.g. marketing demographics–constitute evidence against the claim that Identity Politics ultimately encourages division?
If not, what do you think makes certain divisions innocuous and more overtly political ones problematic?
Daniel David says
Bob, good question, and thanks for getting to the point and ignoring my hurried grammar.
To your question – I was merely trying to point out that media and the forces that profit by it are, to my mind, inextricably bound up with how identity gets expressed and coded, which elements of what groups get exposure, how often, and so much more. Tim Wu’s recent book “The Attention Mer
In my view, the political, commercial and cultural landscape has now converged almost seamlessly around the tactic of playing the media for effect, and, to this end, identity provides some great affordances. I’m not sure what’s innocuous and what isn’t, given that the same data science is being used to influence us by such a multifarious array of interests.
It seems to me that many of the problems we’re dealing with now have to do with personalized information bubbles that have arisen from these micro-demographics becoming so refined that people all over the world, of various stripes, are all at once starting to think they’re the only ones who have noticed the invasion of the body snatchers.
Daniel David says
I was going to add that Tim Wu’s recent book “The Attention Merchants” is good on that industry’s historical role in shaping identity, and Joseph Turow’s “The Daily You” gets at the current landscape in more detail.
Robert Bishop says
So for you, when we discuss Identity Politics in regards to race and gender, we also need to look at the way Identity is formed by the media and commercial interests, since these two forces powerfully influence personal identity by observing, and then reinforcing, micro demographics. I hadn’t yet thought about considering those forces. Cool. Couple more questions (which you may not have answers to, I certainly don’t.):
Is the identity reinforcement (by media and commercial interests) inevitable in a world saturated with media and consumerism, or could we meaningfully reduce such reinforcement?
Also, and perhaps more importantly, is identity molded by a commercially influenced media a bad thing?
It seems like it would be, but I can’t think of an argument right now against it. Maybe, you could start by saying it harmfully limits self-determination, or something like that.
Also, I will check out “The Attention Merchant” and “The Daily You,” since the relationship between Identity and what we might call “Identity Influencers” is just plain nifty.
Thanks for expanding the discussion.
Daniel David says
More good questions. My feeling is that, to sell toothpaste, the worst that this manipulation can do is get us to maybe spend a couple more bucks or buy one product over another, but when used to sell politicians or to push certain narratives on behalf of whatever interest group, the same sorts of manipulative tactics become very dangerous. The tactics I refer to are really too many to name, but it’s telling that, in that Wu book I mentioned, he consistently emphasizes how often the best minds in media/advertising and the masters of propaganda have borrowed and built upon one another’s methods.
I don’t think many people really understand how subtly our information diets can influence our outlooks; we often seem to think everyone else is a sap and we ourselves are savvy. To the subject of identity politics specifically – when news and other media can appeal to us on the basis of previously identified world views or sympathies, they have a default interest in reinforcing those distinctions in order to retain their audiences and in promoting them in order to grow. It seems to me that even where this isn’t intentional, the fragmentation has a degrading effect on society.
For just one example, I watch Bill Maher sometimes, and, to my frustration, I’ve often seen the conservative guest be the most eloquent and prepared person on the panel. It’s no surprise – they know they won’t have the audience on their side, which means that they can’t get away with hyperbole or fishing for the easy amen. They have to be careful (they often still aren’t) in a way that Maher can get away with not being. If I could say one thing to any media entity that had a desire to combat its own biases, it would be not take its audience for granted in this way – make the best argument every time, be careful and precise with language, steer away from pandering to the emotions of the base, etc..
I don’t know if everyone caught the Sandel episodes, but I found his argument in “What Money Can’t Buy” about “sky boxing” and other pay-to-excuse-yourself-from-the-masses services utterly compelling (this is putting aside his heavy argument about liberalism). He basically thinks that those services are fundamentally undemocratic and foster an alarming lack of sympathy for others by virtue of allowing some folks to avoid interacting with everyone else. But if its true that those practices are corrosive to democracy, what does that imply for information technologies that allow us to winnow our social, commercial and political interactions down to situations that are almost entirely of our choosing?
Sandel argued that those old irritating situations had a hidden benefit: they compel us to interact with people we wouldn’t necessarily interact with if we had our druthers, and they create a common experience that helps lay a foundation for communication. With respect to philosophical discourse, which I love, I think that argument hints at the limits of a priori abstract reasoning when it comes to this kind of thing. Personally, I’ve never read an academic work on identity politics that’s been more instructive or an honest conversation with a person of another race or gender, which I can have riding the bus or downtown trying to get my power turned on. Just my two cent.s.
Daniel David says
sorry; make that *more instructive than an honest conversation
Robert Bishop says
I too agree that the fragmentation you describe seems to have a negative effect on society. Something that I feel contributes to such fragmentation is, as Wes has pointed out, the absence of persuasion from political discourse.
For example, often partisan news networks will simply field discussions reinforcing their own position, rather than investigating the merits of other points of view. By my lights, this is not only intellectually dishonest, but it models close mindedness to the general public.
All that naysaying aside, I think that much of the discourse on this thread pushes past that close mindedness and evaluates other individual’s positions. So maybe there is hope after all.
Regarding your assessment of philosophical reasoning’s place in political discourse, I agree a priori philosophical daydreaming and its results pale in comparison with gains made by one-on-one conversations with individuals; however, I think that philosophy’s careful thinking is necessary for real progress against these tangled problems, and that hopefully, the products of this careful thinking will filter into the general public to garner change. (But I want to be an academician, so my opinion may be biased.)
Thanks for the discussion and replies compadre.
Daniel David says
Likewise, Bob; best of luck with your studies.
Michael Favale says
First, thank you Brian (et commenters) for the thoughtful and respectful discussion. As a liberal educated white male who is in turns a political skeptic and a bleeding-heart liberal, this issue is near and dear to me and occupies my thoughts often. The more insight and critique to chew on the better.
I’m usually a pretty reticent person to jump into forums like this, but a series of recent events in my own life have lit a fire under me.
My wife is a fairly moderately conservative Catholic who works at a liberal arts university. She has a PhD in what essentially amounts to Feminist Philosophy and Contemporary Women’s Fiction, but in the last few years converted to Catholicism and fell off the feminist/identity politics bandwagon (which has made life interesting for her liberal atheist husband). At the moment she is part of a search committee for a new hire for the great books honors program at her university. Without disclosing too much, essentially this search committee is facing the choice between hiring an extremely qualified Asian woman, an extremely qualified white woman, a moderately qualified white man, and an unqualified white man with personal connections and influence.
The discussions that I’ve been privy to would knock your socks off (its a small town, small university, everyone knows everyone and talks). The obstacles that have been placed by the white male, Ivy League educated members of this search committee before the women candidates, especially the woman who is Asian, are staggering. The women must literally be twice as qualified to even compete with the men. There has been talk of needing “standard types” (despite the committee previously making diversity an explicit factor in the hire), of not being able to understand the woman of color (who is perfectly fluent). Double standards abound, including needing more “spice” when a white male candidate could be thought to bring some because he’s from outside the U.S., but then reversing this talk to needing “less spice” when an Asian woman is being considered. Despite being objectively less qualified, the male candidates are clear favorites for the male committee members. It seems obvious that pedigree and being a “standard type” trump actual experience and expertise. At this point, so many bells have been rung that can’t be un-rung, the objectively most qualified candidate simply will not get hired. A lesser choice will be made between the moderately qualified white man and the highly qualified white woman, with the cards stacked against the woman. My wife, the conservative ex-feminist Catholic, someone who is visibly disgusted by the likes of HuffPo identity politics claptrap, has been so upset by what amounts to basically un-coded racism and sexism that she’s literally losing sleep and pulling her hair out over it. She told me just this morning that this whole experience has made her feel chided and somewhat ashamed for having had a stick up her butt about liberal identity politics.
I bring up this anecdote not to incite chest-beating or rile anger (these little tidbits are a dime a dozen), but to illustrate a problem.
Throughout this conversation, including the discussion of identity politics on the podcast, I’ve been needled by a burr I can’t shake: assuming there is something objectionable to today’s identity politics (and I find much that is objectionable, a la Wes), how does one change the conversation when the political categories of race/gender/sexuality/etc. have been, and continue to be, actively constructed and enforced by those who (implicitly or explicitly) benefit from the marginalization of these groups? E.g., how does one stop talking about race without simply conceding to the racists by pretending the categories of race are not relevant, therefore simply white-washing the historic and continued marginalization of these groups? In my anecdote, each of the people involved are from a “privileged” class of top-tier-educated professionals. If talk of race is replaced by talk of class, how does that not deny the historical (and personal) truths of millions of people of color who have in fact been oppressed not because of their class but because of their race? How is one to respond when a person right in front of you is being marginalized not because of lack of education, ability, experience, or expertise, but because the color of her skin makes it hard for white men (but not the white women or men of color) in the room to understand her?
To be clear, these questions don’t preclude any discussion of the real dynamics of other categories, such as class. These categories seem to me to be overlapping and concomitant, not mutually exclusive or at zero-sum odds.
I apologize in advance if any of this comes off as a straw man of Wes’s argument. If so please disabuse me. (P.S. Wes you are the best.)
Keep up the good work,
Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii says
I’m just throwing this out there as a fairly undeveloped thought meant as a conversation prompt, so please take it with a grain of salt or even just ignore it altogether…
If we stand back a little from identity politics, it seems like a reasonable point of inquiry to suggest that identity politics is fundamentally a critique of power and power dynamics. Is it not a critique of the functionings of the various ways in which credibility excesses and deficits manifest throughout culture?
Thus, if something like this is the case, would it be reasonable to shift registers and posit “counter-power” as the Rorty-esque “rhetoric of commonality”? Would it be a commonality that somehow ignores differences while simultaneously subsuming and including them as well?
It certainly seems to be the case that much of what animates people these days is that they feel like they have very little control over their lives and/or that they don’t feel sufficiently able to resist the coercive effects of economic and political power — I think that this is true for both the right and the left.
Hence, a further question (for me) is…Is there a uniquely leftist “Rorty-esque” rhetoric of commonality that utilizes counter-power as it’s starting point? Is this a doomed endeavor from the start?
I don’t know…just some thoughts.
Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii says
Hegelian dialectic of Lordship and Bondage…am I right!?
I am definitely stepping in way over my head here, but that particular dialectic “feels” relevant somehow…idk.
Though I frown on myself for quoting something from Wikipedia — Behold…words from Robert Brandom in Wikipedia’s entry on the “Master-Slave Dialectic!”
“Hegel’s discussion of the dialectic of the Master and Slave is an attempt to show that asymmetric recognitive relations are metaphysically defective, that the norms they institute aren’t the right kind to help us think and act with—to make it possible for us to think and act. Asymmetric recognition in this way is authority without responsibility, on the side of the Master, and responsibility without authority, on the side of the Slave. And Hegel’s argument is that unless authority and responsibility are commensurate and reciprocal, no actual normative statuses are instituted.”
Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii says
…just another point I wanted to add.
I do feel that the white supremacist ethno-nationalism conjured by Trump and Trumpism is partly a direct reaction to the identity politics of the left…hence, the emergence of that new constellation of white identity politics.
But, if we take a step back, other people that are brighter than I am have pointed out that, in a very real sense, the identity politics of the left was itself a reaction to the historic traditions of the Euro-American colonialists, imperialists, and standard bearers of the past who catalogued and ranked people based precisely on their race, class, and gender — designations which quite literally determined people’s access to material goods, services, and opportunities, etc.
In this sense, to claim that identity politics is a new phenomenon in any real way is just a complete farce.
What is new is that the marginalized identities created by the colonialists and imperialists are now more and more “rising up,” speaking for themselves, rallying allies, and calling foul when the old guard tries to keep them in that box.
The real question then becomes (as I think so many others have suggested), how do we nullify these categories of difference created and utilized by the “oppressors” and step outside of the terrain of the game that they created.
If identity politics is still using the categories of difference bequeathed to them by the masters of mankind, are they not just reinscribing the coordinates of their own oppression when they use them as their point of departure?
…Is identity politics a situation where “the Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house!?”
Instead, of playing “their” game, let’s leave it behind and create a new one based on commonalities…right?
Was this Wes’s point all along? Am I really so slow as to have taken this long and this much writing to understand Wes’s point!?
I’m a bit of a skeptic with regards to broad claims of “privilege,” but one narrower claim that’s actually legitimate is that folks in a “dominant” group tend not to have much of a visceral understanding of problems faced by a “subordinate” group. To some extent, debates over whether we should do policy(X) in response to problem(Y) hinge on whether you believe that problem(Y) is severe, and your judgment of that is going to be affected in some way by whether you have that sort of “visceral understanding” of problem(Y). Now, if problem(Y) is mainly (or only) faced by the “subordinate” group, that becomes a problem if the people making the policy mainly come from the “dominant” group. To be sure, this point cuts both ways: people without the visceral understanding might grant too little weight to the problem, but people with the visceral understanding might grant too much weight to the problem, however you might want to do that. Ultimately, you need some sort of group-neutral evaluation of the problem. And to be clear, the issue I’m pointing out here doesn’t really justify the claims of “check your privilege” to shut people up — really, all “check your privilege” can legitimately mean is a suggestion that you’re underrating problems because you yourself don’t personally experience them.
Alan Thomas says
“Finally, I want to loop back to that question of privilege, and acknowledge that to state that the best way to address the current turmoil in our country as by avoiding acts of protest or civil disobedience and instead focusing on long-term committee work or, like, poetry-writing, is frankly a luxury reserved for those not directly affected by the new legislation that seems to be getting passed every single day.”
Personally, my family is likely to be very directly affected by Republican shenanigans now that they have so much power. I have four kids, and they have had 100% free (no copay) health coverage since before birth (including prenatal care and the birth itself) thanks to the SCHIP program, which is really just an expansion of Medicaid under another name. I assume this is likely to be threatened, or at least curtailed; but I don’t really know, because I went from being a huge news and politics junkie to avoiding current events altogether so as to try not to get too depressed. (I interact with politics at all now only when it is mentioned on PEL or on one of my podcasts dedicated to TV and other pop culture, which is actually fairly often.)
I’m still going to vote, including in off-years as I always have, and try to give what I can afford to Democrats. But closely following politics, agitating, all that, I just can’t.
P.S. I’ve been going back and slowly working through the old podcasts from before I discovered PEL. I just listened to the Machiavelli episode, in which Wes said Stalin failed to preserve the institutions he created past 1989 (which some might say really meant 1991…otherwise, you could also go the other way and say 1985). I wonder, in the wake of what ex-KGB Putin has been up to in recent years, if he still stands by that statement!
Jennifer Tejada says
Just wanted to say thanks to Brian for writing this. It was such a good read and expressed some of the repressed feelings I’ve had about this past election cycle. I have been so critical of the left, but I think it is because I am very reluctant to criticize the right. It’s both because I worry I will blow my cover as a person who doesn’t take serious issue with conservatives. It’s safer to criticize those with whom you mostly agree, and because they represent your own feelings and points of view, you really are more invested in them representing your ideas well. While people on the left don’t deserve to be represented by the shitheads, they bother me more than the idiots on the right because I tend to put all people on the right into one giant bucket to which I give charity which is really kind of patronizing when you think about it. In other words, I have been critical of the left BECAUSE I respect their points of view so much. Anyway – thank you for saying all you did because I needed to hear it.
Alan Thomas says
I posted a message in reply to Athena Sophia and S. Wallerstein. After it went up, but well within the five minute edit window, I saw a couple errors and went to edit them. Then I got a notification that my edited message had been marked as spam, and “if this is in error, please contact the administrator”. Please help! I spent a lot of time researching and writing that. (I did save it on my computer if you need me to resubmit it.)
Mark Linsenmayer says
Found it in spam and restored.
Alan Thomas says
I received your post by email, although it does not appear in the thread, as far as I can see.
One would suppose that a minority group, black lesbians, to use your example, would seek allies in order for their cause to be successful. Progressive white males like yourself would be useful political allies in that case.
Since in politics, most people pursue their class interests or those of the group with which they identify and vote for stuff they will directly benefit from, the fact that you support stuff like reparations for slavery, which will not benefit you and which will probably raise your taxes is worthy of praise or should be worthy of praise, not scorn.
Bertrand Russell speaks of the “fallacy of the superior virtue of the oppressed” and in fact, being oppressed does not necessarily make one a better person in the least. There is a lot of sadistic pleasure to be gained by manipulating the guilt feelings of any fish you have on the line (I can tell you from personal experience) and with doubt, some activists enjoy rubbing salt in the wounds of white progressive guilt.
That being said, one isn’t involved in politics to meet great new friends or to be welcomed with hugs, but because of certain principles, and I do believe that your progressive principles, as you outline above, are sane and that you should be praised for supporting causes which do not benefit you directly.
You might find that your new comrades on the left are no better people than the average group of white hedge fund traders, but the principles are the point, not the people.
Franklin Marsh says
*”it is pretty difficult to hear a group of heterosexual…middle-class, white American males disparage the need for identity politics.”*
It’s also pretty difficult to hear a group of identity politicos, from their own privileged positions, incessantly disparage white males as the plague of humanity. Make no mistake, this ideology is not about a critique of privilege, it never has been.
It’s about appropriating forms of speech to marginalize individuals on the basis of their race, ethnicity, culture, political affiliation and gender. It’s about denying the legitimacy of a particular racial identity while at the same time using that very identity to de-legitimize their standing – politically, culturally, morally, intellectually, and even existentially: “All I Want for Christmas is White Genocide.”
It’s about using violence and threats of violence to suppress speech, to deny others their rights of assembly and presence in the public sphere simply because of their presumed identity. It’s about using institutional barriers to deny certain “groups” equal access to open spaces. It’s about requiring particular forms of speech and then attempting to institute sanctions for those who refuse to comply.
It’s about triangulating the language of privilege, race and gender to hide their totalitarian visions of a “just” world through a wholesale condemnation of those whose identity has been marked with a brand not of their own making.
I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but the above probably suffices to demonstrate how far astray identity politics has devolved in its self-righteous, hypocritical crusade to rid the earth of modernity’s infidels – white males.
Disparage the “need” for identity politics? I guess that’s one way to put it…
Alan Thomas says
Franklin, I would not put it so strongly, but I am somewhat sympathetic to your case–as my earlier comment would have shown, had it stayed up. I’m leery of saying much more, as I felt burned by losing that long and carefully researched comment.
Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii says
For whatever reason, I wasn’t able to directly reply to your previous comment that began…
“I’ve been reading your back-and-forth with interest. You both make serious, well-argued points.”
Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I fully appreciate interested and sincere discussion and push back against my own ideas, it helps to clarify one’s own position and understandings (obviously).
With regard to your sentiment, “straight white guys are the whipping boys of the left,” — since I’m not precisely sure where you’re coming from and/or what your background knowledge of these issues is, I’ll precede by making some assumptions about your general perspective. In short, I’m just going to describe what you sound like to me, but please correct me if I’m wrong or if I’m just stating things that are patently obvious to you.
I’m totally willing to concede that “(rich/economically secure) straight white guys” probably are and/or feel like a target of abuse from people on the left. That said, let’s not get things twisted. Identity politics has (to my knowledge) never been about just making idiotic observations and saying things like, “That person has white skin/That person is a “man”/That person is straight/That person is rich.” If that’s all that someone sees in identity politics (IP), then no wonder people think IP is idiotic…because that is a totally idiotic conception of IP.
(VERY) Generally speaking, if you have white skin, are a “man,” are “straight,” and have a financially secure existence, there’s not really much that you can do (or that most people will do) to change those things. Let’s take white skin as the easiest/least malleable example. If you’re white — barring any kind extreme medical process (or historical considerations of the constructions of “whiteness”), you really can’t undo the color of your skin…right? So, in this case, it is just some sort of seemingly quasi-bare essential fact that your skin is “white,” much like the sky is blue or the grass is green. To my knowledge, no one intelligently involved in IP are using people as punching bags simply because their skin is “white”…as in, “You’re a bad person because you’re skin is white.” That’s totally idiotic…That’s like saying, “Blue is a bad color, therefore the sky is bad.” I really don’t get the sense that that’s what people mean, even young 20-somethings who might end up using IP as some kind of “weaponized” blunt force instrument.
As an aside, how useful is it really to try to understand IP through 1) the lens of young 20-somethings who are still trying to figure out the world and themselves…I’m not saying that they don’t have something to offer, because I absolutely think that they do…they definitely have something to teach all generations, but many are also in the throes of youth and the challenges thereof. Moreover, how useful is it to try to understand IP through 2) the lens older journalists who are trying to understand young 20-somethings use of IP. And additionally, how useful is it to try to understand IP through 3) comment sections on the internet (PEL comments excluded of course) that are filled with vitriolic trolls and half-formed ideas, OR 4) people who have their own self-flagellating baggage that they’re trying to work out — that’s on them. I would argue that none of those approaches are particularly useful tools to understand IP. If you want to understand it, then you have to go to some source material and do some work for and on yourself.
Furthermore, if you have a problem with the people that you’re surrounded by who are “heedlessly throwing around categorical disparagement of the straight white man as a matter of course,” then that’s on you to figure out a way to discuss that concern. You can’t just sit in the corner and think to yourself, “Oh, well, I don’t like the way they said this or that about straight white men. It makes me uncomfortable.” You have to speak up, start difficult conversations…no one is going to do it for you. If you’re not willing to get your hands “dirty” in hard conversations with other people, then it’s hard for me to see where you have room to complain. As they say, if you want to get in the game, then get off the sideline (I’m sorry if I’m sounding harsh, it’s just my gut reaction to how I’m reading some of your sentiments).
So, what are people attacking when they use “rich, white, straight, men” (RWSM) as punching bags. For me, and I think for a lot of people that I know who are involved/concerned with these issues, people partly use RWSM (or some variation thereof) as a terminological stand-in for classism, racism, homophobia/heteronormativity, and sexism. So, to bash RWSM is to bash those kinds of oppressive practices/structures/benefits that actually marginalize and disadvantage people. So, if you’re not a classist, racist, homophobic, sexist, then all of those RWSM-type of insults are not about you (…maybe you can even learn to laugh at some of those RWSM-type jokes). If you are a classist, racist, homophobic, sexist (and probably everyone is to a greater or lesser degree), and you feel guilty, and you feel like people are telling you to “lick their boot,” well then maybe you should pay attention to some of that aversion that you’re feeling and ask yourself why you actually have a problem hearing attacks on RWSM. If you’re not a jerk, then no one is talking about you and your “white guilt” or whatever — in which case, I absolutely subscribe to the notion that RWSM people should “suck it up”/”learn to take a punch” when marginalized people say something that seems to hurt you. If RWSM or you yourself are getting called out for oppressive behavior by marginalized people (or by allies who are more “woke” than you), then just consider what it’s like to live a day, a week, a month, a year, a lifetime in their shoes where people who are not like them feel entitled to “shit” on them for being different because they perceive that difference as meaning that they are somehow “less than.” IP is about expanding your reality to include more perspectives than the one you were handed when you were born…
Let’s not forget what all of these “-isms” are actually being critical of. They’re being critical of one person thinking that they’re better than another person and that they’re entitled to the right to oppress and marginalize that person — not because of some kind of weird meritorious activity that has somehow “earned” them the right to do so, but because the identity that they were born into just happens to fall into the category of being rich or white or straight or male or all of the above.
In the American caste/class system, those four identities are valorized to the detriment of others…right? It’s a series of completely artificial binary oppositions — rich people are better than poor people, white is better than non-white, straight is better than LGBTQ+, and men are better than women. What are the popularly identified attributes of those categories? — aren’t they just mirrored opposites of each other…rich people work hard, but poor people are lazy; white people make good heroes, but non-white people make good sidekicks; straight people are normal, but LGBTQ+ people are deviant; men are stoic, women are emotional; etc. Each category sets up and reinforces its antithesis, and people are rightly calling bullshit.
Now, here’s a point that needs to be emphasized, there are plenty of folks who would never subscribe to the idea that they think that they are better than another person or that they’re entitled to the right to oppress and marginalize other people just because of their race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, etc. However, precisely because of their race, class, gender, and sexual orientation (e.g., RWSM), they are accorded — through social practices, various unearned benefits and credibility excesses that help to reinforce and reproduce various types of marginalization and oppression.
For example, men can take it for granted (mostly) that if they go out late at night, they don’t have to worry about being raped…Men, as compared to women, don’t generally have to worry about being constantly interrupted, talked down to, not being taken seriously, etc. These seem like fairly obvious examples (I hope).
In this case, what are men supposed to do about this sort of situation? It seems like that’s kind of just the way that the world works, and that’s kind of true to an extent — that is how much of the world works. But, if you’re a man who is even mildly self-aware, you should be able to recognize that just because you don’t really have to worry about your own physical safety and conversational credibility doesn’t mean that everyone enjoys that same unearned benefit.
So, what do you do about that? Well, if you’re a man, you help make sure (in a non-overbearing, sexist way) that your female friends and associates have a safe way to get from point A to point B. If you’re a man and you catch yourself interrupting, talking down to or over, or not taking seriously a female friend or associate, then you correct that and stop yourself from being a jerk. It’s pretty simple stuff. This is just one example, but you can imagine that there are a million types of these things that are worth thinking about and trying to get better at taking into account.
Again, for example, when people say “Black Lives Matter,” they’re not saying that other lives don’t matter. They’re saying that black lives matter TOO, and that all too often black people get treated like their lives don’t matter. Without delving into the nitty gritty, when people say that black lives matter they’re saying that black lives matter just as much as everyone else’s and that they deserve to be treated that way…no matter what you think, they’re not saying that black lives matter more than everyone else’s.
No intelligent person — and I sincerely doubt that most people seriously involved in IP, is trying to turn “the hierarchy upside down” and put rich, white, straight, men on the “bottom.” They’re calling bullshit on the very existence of the hierarchy in the first place and just want to tear it down all together, not replace it with some kind of “kinder, gentler” or more personally “advantageous” hierarchy. Progressives and radicals that I know want to step outside of the hierarchy and think that everyone is kind of “naturally endowed” with their own freedom to be their own authority over themselves. That type of self-actualizing “self-authority” comes with the caveat that, in some idealized sense, you no longer get to be an authority over other people and who they get to be on the one hand; while on the other hand, you commit yourself to standing up and stepping when other people try to limit other people’s ability to freely be themselves. Now, I’m sure that you will have picked up on some tension here, some sort of contradiction…and you would be right that it exists.
In other words, is it ever okay to oppress the oppressor (who is just trying to live their own self-actualized life)? That is to say — Is is ever okay to oppress the RWS male? I don’t have any kind of neat, clean answer for this. I’ll just say that for me, I’m willing to live in that space where that tension/contradiction exists. I think that it is okay to “oppress the oppressor” to the extent that you have the twin aim of stopping the oppressive act on the one hand, and helping the oppressor to understand how they’re being a jerk on the other. But yeah, it’s pretty dumb, malicious, ineffectual, and doesn’t truly serve a higher purpose to just try to make people feel bad about themselves. That said, I also completely understand (to the extent that I can) why some folks are pissed off, angry, and hurt and that sometimes that means that other people get hurt who may not necessarily deserve…we all have to work together to make this thing work. Sometimes it’s okay to let yourself be a punching bag for someone who needs it, that is if you’re strong enough to handle it.
So, racism, classism, sexism, heteronormativity all exist (I hope you would agree). All of those things give some people an unearned advantage to the detriment of others. This is a real problem…maybe not for you, but definitely for a whole slew of other people whose lives are endangered just because of how they were born (mostly). What are you going to do about it? Nothing? Are you going to stay on the sidelines because it’s messy and sometimes your feelings get hurt? Are you going to try to put yourself in other people’s shoes and try to understand why some voices are completely shot through with pain and anger? idk.
Is there ever the “right” amount of racism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity for the world? Not too much, but a little is okay? What’s the right proportion…what makes for a good balance of “naturalized” enmity? For me, my point of departure is that no amount of those things are okay…It is never okay to believe that you’re better than someone else and “naturally” entitled to treat them poorly or make fun of them simply because their race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. are different from your own. I draw the line. It’s an ideal that I may never achieve even within myself, but I draw the line nonetheless because that’s the right thing to do.
I obviously can’t speak for you, but for me, I want to make the effort to try to understand other people’s experiences as much as I can, so that I can tear down my own walls and maybe other people’s walls as well — so that I can expand my worldview, my circles of concern, and so that we can all hurt each other a little less. This doesn’t mean that we all need to be friends, it just means that I’m ready to go out of my way to recognize that not everyone has had it as easy as me, and that means that I should do what I can to rectify and recognize that imbalance.
P.S. — I don’t know what have or haven’t read about IP, but here are places to start that I found helpful and which are all available online.
1. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” an essay of sorts by Peggy McIntosh
2. “The Color of Fear,” a documentary by Lee Mun Wah
2.a “MUST WATCH: Black Man LOSES IT Explaining RACISM, WHITE PRIVILEGE, And SUPREMACY To White Man!!” — despite it’s sensationalized title, this is a YouTube excerpt from “The Color of Fear” that quickly gets to the point in a very real way
3. “Rethinking Tone Policing,” an internet essay from someone named John (?)
I think it’s worth repeating here something that John says in his essay:
“Using ‘tone policing’ as a shield against criticism of intentionally hurtful language is to remain trapped in what Paulo Friere calls the ‘first stage of liberation.’ Tone policing as a defense is no longer a desire to have parity of voice with the oppressor, but a desire to allow one’s voice to have the same kind of oppressive power as one’s oppressor. Tone policing as a defense becomes a means whereby we can use our voices to inflict the same kind of, or similar kinds of oppression upon other people that we have experienced.
Tone policing as a defense is not intended to give people carte blanche freedom to say whatever they want to say to anyone: it is not intended to allow people to say things like ‘white identifying b***h a** n***a,’ and not face the real effects of saying things like that. Tone policing as a defense was intended to protect the modes of articulation of voices of the oppressed, especially when those voices are shot through with anger and rage at the situation they have been born into.”
Alan Thomas says
I will make a much fuller reply when I have a keyboard rather than my phone to work with. But I am itching to at least express my frustration with what comes across as patronizing “femsplaining” of concepts you should have no reason to doubt my familiarity with.
Most egregiously, the implication that I would be one of those dullards who don’t understand that “blacklivesmatter” carries with it an implicit suffix of “also” or “too”, rather than a prefix of “only”. It is not the general sentiment I have a problem with (I organized and led a march against brutality by white police against an innocent black man in my city), but the way in which specific BLM activists have acted. I also greatly lament that they chose in Michael Brown the worst possible poster boy for their cause.
More broadly, please keep in mind that I am in my forties and have been an active participant in Democratic politics (knocking on doors and all that) since I was a teenager. My father was an anthropologist with a shelf full of books by and about Marx (and I too studied Marx in college, in a seminar that also included Hegel and Kant). My mother is a retired sociology professor who voted for Nader for president 3 times and supported Bernie Sanders this past year. My 17 year old son also fervently supported Bernie and continues to bombard me with articles from lefty publications. (He can’t get over the fact that I supported Hillary.)
Point being that I am intimately familiar with the perspective of the left and I don’t need this Leftism 101 kind of lecturing. Nor, I suspect, does almost anyone else on this page. So it would be nice if we could avoid the patronizing language and keep the discussion more elevated intellectually. But this is part of the problem I see–that many people who are deep into leftist politics think everyone else is one of three things: ignorant and simple-minded; malevolent and right wing; or complacent/corrupted/compromised. You seem to have assumed the first, while many other online interlocutors assume the second; my son generally attributes the third set of motivations to me.
This is more than I intended to write on my phone. But I do want to quickly add that you shifted the goalposts a bit by talking about “rich” white men. I was not setting out to defend them, although if they are giving lots of money to Democrats and support progressive taxation then I *would* defend them. But I am not one of them. To illustrate: my four kids have only ever gotten health coverage through Medicaid (thanks to a law Hillary Clinton negotiated with Republicans in Congress), and I personally went nearly 20 years without any health coverage at all, until last year.
Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii says
My apologies. I take your point. And, as I attempted to communicate at the outset of my diatribe — I had a hard time discerning where you were coming from…hence, my “Leftism 101 kind of lecturing,” which I clearly got carried away with.
As a quick aside, I don’t know that I fully agree that I moved the goal posts. While yes, it is clearly the case — as in your situation, that I did. However, in plenty of other situations, the critique of classism is completely alive and part of the conversation. We can add it or subtract it from the conversation…it doesn’t really matter — the same mechanism that is at work in classism, is the same one at work in racism, sexism, and heteronormativity.
Alan Thomas says
“Identity politics has (to my knowledge) never been about just making idiotic observations and saying things like, ‘That person has white skin/That person is a “man”/That person is straight/That person is rich.'”
It’s not stated in such stilted language. What happens is that if a straight white male liberal (SWML) weighs in with some difference of opinion about a subject (not a Republican/conservative type difference, just a little different from the non-SWML’s), his opinion is dismissed and/or he is accused of “mansplaining”. He might be lectured about how it’s time for straight white guys to sit down for a while and let others take the lead.
Another thing that happens a lot among TV and movie critics (I follow many such critics on Twitter and elsewhere, as I am a big cinephile and have also become enamored with “premium” TV over the past few years) is to scornfully dismiss a show if the protagonist is a SWM. They might derisively mock him “Oh noes, another middle aged white guy with angst!” Even if the show or movie is diverse in its casting, there are usually at least some SWMs in it (we are numerous, as I have said), and they will be held up for derision and mockery, especially if they display any sign of emotional pain. Again, it’s a “oh, poor baby” deal, with much rolling of eyes.
“Furthermore, if you have a problem with the people that you’re surrounded by who are “heedlessly throwing around categorical disparagement of the straight white man as a matter of course,” then that’s on you to figure out a way to discuss that concern. You can’t just sit in the corner and think to yourself, ‘Oh, well, I don’t like the way they said this or that about straight white men. It makes me uncomfortable’ You have to speak up, start difficult conversations…no one is going to do it for you. If you’re not willing to get your hands ‘dirty’ in hard conversations with other people, then it’s hard for me to see where you have room to complain. As they say, if you want to get in the game, then get off the sideline (I’m sorry if I’m sounding harsh, it’s just my gut reaction to how I’m reading some of your sentiments).”
That’s very surprising that you would get this vibe. No one who has known me for long, even just online, would mistake me for someone who sits on the sideline. Rather, it’s more likely they will get disgruntled with my “mansplaining”, or say “you always think you’re right” (that one always puzzles me: I’m as willing as anyone to concede when I WAS wrong if such is demonstrated–but who thinks they are wrong in the moment they are asserting something?).
“For me, and I think for a lot of people that I know who are involved/concerned with these issues, people partly use RWSM (or some variation thereof) as a terminological stand-in for classism, racism, homophobia/heteronormativity, and sexism.”
Yes, that’s absolutely what’s going on, and that’s as I say a huge mistake. Remember what I pointed out in that other post: the 14.4 SWMLs who voted for Hillary is roughly equal to the number of black women and Latinas who voted for her, combined. That’s a lot of “woke” dudes to unfairly use as a stand-in for precisely what they voted against.
“If you’re not a jerk, then no one is talking about you and your ‘white guilt’ or whatever — in which case, I absolutely subscribe to the notion that RWSM people should “suck it up”/”learn to take a punch” when marginalized people say something that seems to hurt you.”
You’re entitled to feel that way, and clearly many people do. I don’t see this as too far removed from the “logic” I have heard, several times, from actual 21st century people: that when they use the “N word” they are talking about a certain kind of black person–and if an individual African American is “one of the good ones” who doesn’t act “ghetto”, it doesn’t apply to them.
“If RWSM or you yourself are getting called out for oppressive behavior by marginalized people (or by allies who are more “woke” than you), then just consider what it’s like to live a day, a week, a month, a year, a lifetime in their shoes”
I think a lot of people would nod at this point. It’s a powerful one. But we are interested in philosophy: think of the reductio ad absurdem here. It would mean that if you aren’t a black, undocumented immigrant lesbian with a disability, you need to “check your privilege” or whatever. How about if we judge people by their ideology instead of their identity? (That sentence would be the bumper sticker version of my argument.)
“In the American caste/class system, those four identities are valorized to the detriment of others…right? It’s a series of completely artificial binary oppositions — rich people are better than poor people, white is better than non-white, straight is better than LGBTQ+, and men are better than women.”
Sure, if you’re Trump or some random fratboy douche who treats women like disposable playthings and is going to get a cushy executive job in Daddy’s company. But I’m talking about SWMLs here, emphasis on the L. Straight white guys who identify with the left, and could not stomach throwing their lot in with people who think the way you are describing. Their (our) reward for being more enlightened in that respect should not be to find ourselves without any social group that really values us. The rich white guy caste sneers at us as stupid “cuck” liberals, and we find them and their values disgusting. But due to the race, gender, and sexual orientation we were born with, we’re not really wholeheartedly embraced by the other side. That sucks, honestly.
I may not know what the hell I’m talking about (none of us really walks in anyone’s shoes but our own), but given as how I obviously haven’t gotten any financial/professional benefit from my SWMLness, I think I’d prefer to be able to cast off at least one of those letters so as to not be seen, as you noted, as the literal embodiment of sexism/racism/heteronormativity/rapacious capitalist greed/etc. Maybe going all the way to black lesbian would be tough–and maybe we ought to tip our hats to the bell hookses of the world. But I do think it would be a lot easier, for instance, to be a straight white female liberal.
Before you come back with statistics about how the top CEO jobs and such are disproportionately held by straight white men: yeah, that sucks–and I have said I want to see steeply increased progressive taxation. But I would never EVER want one of those kinds of jobs, even if someone would actually offer me one. No amount of money is worth that kind of stress and lack of work-life balance. Not to mention the guilt I’d feel if my company engaged in the kind of shady treatment of workers or the environment that is so common due to having to please the shareholders.
So that’s the point: if you’re just an inherently liberal/left kind of person, but you also happen to be a blue-eyed dude who is only sexually attracted to women, you have no real home. The Trumpistas are horrible people, but they get to have this whole tribe that fully embraces them. That’s a deep human need, and it feels unfair that those right wing jerks get to fulfill it but I don’t.
“Men, as compared to women, don’t generally have to worry about being constantly interrupted, talked down to, not being taken seriously, etc.”
Again, within the left I don’t think this is true at all.
“So, racism, classism, sexism, heteronormativity all exist (I hope you would agree).”
“What are you going to do about it? Nothing?”
Well, as I mentioned in my earlier comment, I did do this (among many other things I don’t have video evidence of): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cy5JoZ6pmdM
“Is there ever the ‘right’ amount of racism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity for the world? Not too much, but a little is okay? What’s the right proportion…what makes for a good balance of “naturalized” enmity? For me, my point of departure is that no amount of those things are okay…”
In one sense, this is hard to argue with. But again extending the logic: isn’t it really saying that everyone should be as kind and empathetic to everyone else in the world to the ultimate extent possible, at all times, or it’s “not okay”? I don’t think we are ever going to eliminate jerks, jerky attitudes, or people saying crappy things to or about each other. So this is where I often find myself as a traditional liberal (not traditional in the 19th century sense, but the 20th century sense) differing with the 21st century left. I think preserving freedom of speech is more important than “safe spaces” and eradicating every racist/sexist/classist/heteronormative utterance from the public sphere.
Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii says
I accidentally responded to this post as a free-standing comment below.
Please feel free to read and respond if you are so inclined. Thanks for the conversation.
As a perhaps dull aside — I totally get that the world is full of jerks and always will be…it’s part of human nature. I just think that we should try our best to dissuade the worst offenders.
Alan Thomas says
I wanted to emulate your eschewing of point-by-point responses, but you asked me a few direct questions–so I will quote and answer those before going on to a more general discussion:
“To make things simple and general, let’s just say that if you ARE a rich, white, straight male (RWSM or even a SWML), then you HAVE privilege plain and simple — right?”
“So, each aspect of being a RWSM is endowed with various unearned benefits — right? You’re just born into some combination of those identities, and then you get all of these bonuses that you yourself didn’t do anything to earn.”
This is where I think we’re talking past each other. If you want to lean into these “benefits”, if that life would suit your fancy just fine, then yes: you’ve got it made in the shade, all due to attributes you just happened to luck into. Specifically, if the concept of a “perfect day” would involve:
–a corporate power play of some kind that leaves many broken lives in its wake but nets you a huge bonus and a fast track to the top;
–a round of golf at the country club, followed by absurdly expensive dinner and bottles of champagne;
–taking a model or two home to your Park Avenue penthouse (basically, just picture Leo DiCaprio in Wolf of Wall Street)
then yes, of course: you can’t beat being the RWSM, even if it means you are a total douchebro.
But what if you don’t want that? What if you want to be an underground type artist or musician, or just work for the Sierra Club? Crucially, what if in your social life you want to hang out with liberals and progressives? What are all those “advantages” going to get you? Greater safety when walking home at night: yes, I grant you that one. And you’re not going to get pulled over for driving while black. I’ll grant that too. But the other advantages aren’t really advantages in that social scene any more, and may well be disadvantages. That’s my point. People shouldn’t face social disadvantages for things they can’t control.
Even within the white male demo, there are many examples one can cite of characteristics that give someone a leg up in the broad mainstream culture, among the majority of Americans, but which can be a disadvantage within certain subcultures. Let’s say you identify with what might be called “hipsters” who listen to indie music, watch indie films, eat locally sourced heirloom vegetables, etc. You want to be a hipster guy and find yourself a cool hipster girl to date. But your parents’ genes make you not small and skinny, but tall and muscular. And thanks to the summer job you worked at an organic farm, you’re also really tan. Hipster girl is going to look at this tall, muscular, tanned guy and think “Okay, Jersey Shore, keep moving” even if the majority of mainstream women your age would find you attractive.
Point being that context is crucial. If you don’t want the mainstream type of life, then characteristics that are only advantageous in that milieu lose their advantage.
“To the best that I can, I understand the way that you’re feeling in the sense that I’m hearing you say that RWSM/SWM(L) are being reviled for just being born/raised/acculturated a certain way.”
No, I feel this is a goalpost shift, or maybe just a genuine misunderstanding. “Born”, yes. “Raised/acculturated”, not so much. My beef is with being docked for being a straight white male, among the liberal cohort I want to hang out with and be accepted by. Straight, white, and male are all characteristics I was born with, not “raised/acculturated” as.
“In that sense, we can celebrate their financial support of progressive causes on the one hand, while being critical of the fact that they’re being a total rich jerk to people who work in janitorial services (or wherever)”
Yes, hypocrites suck. Stipulated. In my shorthand earlier (within a comment, like this one, that was plenty long enough anyway) I didn’t cover this possibility. What I meant was that if a SWML is actually a nice, sincere person and not a hypocrite or a jerk, I would defend them.
“[T]he people occupying the position of ‘abuser’ think that it’s not a problem if they just ignore the complaints of the abused…”
Whoa, hold up. Are you saying a SWML is inherently an “abuser” just by dint of the SWM part? The L doesn’t matter? This makes me feel we are further apart than I had thought.
“Should the solution really be that we need to make sure that the voices of (R)SWMLs continue to be centered in each and every conversation, especially ones about marginalization?”
No, this is a straw man, or maybe just the fallacy of the excluded middle. I am in no way, shape, or form arguing that SWMLs be accorded the right to always or usually run the show in progressive circles, or indeed given any special status due to their SWMness. Just let us hang as equal partners in the cause. We couldn’t control being born SWM, and we’re on the side of social justice. So let’s not pull an “Animal Farm” and upend everything to put us on the bottom. (You said earlier you weren’t out for that.) Let’s just try to have everyone get a fair shot at whatever role they are well suited for.
“Is the solution that we just need more (R)SWML voices in general?”
Sure, absolutely. And we need to make it a welcoming spot to land for SWMs who are coming of age and figuring out where they belong. The way things stand right now, the only SWMs who will launch into this headwind are the hardcore ones who see with crystal clarity that the Right is repugnant to them, and that other flavors like libertarianism aren’t much better. Shouldn’t we be trying to coax more SWMs, as long as they aren’t from deep in the “basket of deplorables”, to come to our side? Set aside the ethics of that question and just think about political strategy. Like I said, lots of SWMs out there, wielding lots of votes. And the current atmosphere is incredibly unwelcoming to them.
I want to close by sharing an excellent example of what I’m beefing about that I came across since my last comment, while catching up on last weekend’s NPR stories. If you stop and think about how this kind of comment would have come across just a very few years ago, it’s breathtaking how this kind of attitude has become normalized, even among NPR interviewers who are nominally nonpartisan. They have become so used to people they know, people they follow on Twitter, etc., talking this way that it doesn’t occur to them how actually strange it is to say something like this on a national radio show with millions of listeners:
MCEVERS: (Laughter) I want to talk about your latest show, “Crashing.” It’s coming out soon on HBO. And I want to be honest. When I first heard, I was like, a show about a white guy trying to make it as a comedian? And I’m not trying to be a jerk when I say that. I’m just – you know, I wanted to know…
You can’t hear tone when reading, but let me assure you, “a show about a white guy trying to make it as a comedian?” was just dripping with open derision. Like “seriously, dude?”.
But let’s back up a little bit for context. Who was she talking to, and what had he been saying to her to set her off like that?
Well, it was the writer and producer Judd Apatow, and McEvers was kind of grilling him on Trump, making sure he was doing his part to aid the anti-Trump cause (which in itself I don’t think is as outrageous as it might seem in a generic situation with a normal Republican president, because Trump is not normal):
APATOW: There’s no logic in how he thinks. I don’t want someone who’s the president who says 3 to 5 million people voted illegally when there’s zero proof. It’s a crazy person.
MCEVERS: You can say this stuff. But I guess the real impact – right? – is, like, a couple of things like how you spend your money and the kind of stuff you make, right? I mean, it’s how do you think about yourself in this moment and what you can do.
APATOW: As a Jewish man who has no interest in Judaism whatsoever, there’s something in me that says when bad things have happened in the past, people were supposed to get more active and speak up and prevent them. That’s what’s important to me is that everybody – and I don’t care what side you’re on. You can disagree with me, but everyone better get active. Everybody better vote and be thoughtful.
MCEVERS: Are you doing that? Are you like doing registration stuff? Are you doing activism like organizing? Are you…
APATOW: Well, I do benefits. I did a benefit for the ACLU a few weeks ago. We did a benefit for the USO last week in New York. I try to work with people like Rock the Vote, and it was effective. I think we were part of a campaign that got about a million and a half new people registered.
It would be so irresponsible not to speak up. I don’t know what I would do in my home and in my life if I didn’t rant a little bit and as thoughtfully as I can with some humor.
So even if we leave aside that this is all kind of weird because this is NPR’s All Things Considered and not the Rachel Maddow Show, Apatow should have proved his progressive anti-Trump bonafides with his answers, all delivered in a good-natured way. But then right after this, McEvers hits him with the expression of deep disappointment that his new show is the story of a white guy! Like, how dare he betray the liberal cause by making a white guy the protagonist? Gaahhh.
And this is just how it is in the pop culture criticism world (though I was a little surprised to see it leak over to an NPR interview like that). Any music, TV, or cinematic project with a prominent role for a (straight) white guy is going to get some serious shade or at least side-eyeing. Sorry if you happen to be a straight white male artist or writer of some kind in 2017: there were too many prominent such people over the past several hundred years in percentage terms (which is absolutely true but not the fault of someone who happens to be a SWML in 2017), so you’re just going to have to sit down and forego using your talents or going after your dreams, because you are the wrong skin shade/gender/sexuality for the tenor of the times these days.
Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii says
For some reason I wasn’t able to “reply” to your last post that begins —
“I wanted to emulate your eschewing of point-by-point responses, but you asked me a few direct questions…”
When you say that you think that we’re talking past each other, I think that you’re probably right. I appreciate trying to keep things coherently on topic and making efforts to ensure that we’re talking to each other.
I am having a little trouble understanding your conception of “privilege.” In some cases, I think we are in total agreement about what it means for there to be “unearned benefits,” “life bonuses,” “credibility excesses,” etc. At other times, I think we are talking about two completely different things, especially with regard to wealth and classism — perhaps it’s my fault in that I haven’t been sufficiently decisive in my distinction between and disambiguation of those two things.
To my mind, classism and being a classist are not strictly the same thing as simply being rich, wealthy, a “rich jerk,” etc. or even simply just occupying the position of the “capitalist/owning class.” There is of course a reasonable amount of overlap, but I don’t think of those things as being completely synonymous. Instead of the “R” in RWSM, maybe I should have used a “C” for classist/classism.
For example, you could currently be a poor person who was born into an upper class situation and who has upper class sensibilities, experiences, affectations, tastes, networks of friends/acquaintances, etc. If you’re brought up in an environment where you learn what those things are and how to navigate them, you can potentially get progressively greater access to a wider array of social goods just because you know how to play the part, and not because you’re more intelligent or because you work harder or because you have better ideas. Instead, it’s because you know how to leverage that sensibility and those networks to your own advantage (which anyone and everyone would naturally do given the opportunity). But, that person didn’t get to that spot through the dint of their own effort — they won one of the many “life lotteries” and were born into a situation that comes with a certain set of unearned benefits/life bonuses/credibility excesses.
On the other hand, you could currently be a rich person who was born into a lower class situation and who has lower class sensibilities, experiences, affectations, tastes, networks of friends/acquaintances, etc. However, to become rich and stay rich — barring any kind of unexpected windfall, you probably would have to work harder, longer, faster, smarter, and more intelligently than the other folks around you as you rose through the ranks — there’s no one there to catch you when you fall, no networks already in place that can springboard you way up from the bottom.
As I’m sure you know, you probably benefited educationally from having intellectually driven parents who were in positions to help you understand how to get into college and apply for grants/scholarships, etc. — maybe they paid for your university experience and/or footed the bill for your room and board while you held down a job…idk. Maybe they bought you your first car or explained to you how to go about getting one for yourself…idk. Maybe they helped explain to you the importance of retirement savings and/or how to invest your savings in the stock market and/or your 401k…idk. Maybe they didn’t do any of that and just fed you to the wolves when you turned 18, but you can still imagine how a little bit of class-based social know-how, if not a little wealth, goes a long way to smoothing the road up the socioeconomic mountain.
So, classism (for me) — as opposed to mere wealth or just being a “rich jerk,” is a set of unearned benefits that you get for knowing how to behave in certain ways and like certain things. Unfortunately, the opposite side of that coin is that sometimes folks who are raised at the top have blinders on about other people who didn’t have the same advantages that they had. They might have blinders on in terms of how those other people on or near the bottom deal with the hows and whys of the challenges that they face on a daily basis. Moreover, having grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle, the “upper class classist” can sometimes (though of course not always) act in a blindly entitled jerky way — as in, “Why shouldn’t I get my way…I always get my way because I’m ‘important/special’…My time is more important than everyone else’s…I don’t have to treat the help’ like a full human being, etc.”
— “People shouldn’t face social disadvantages for things they can’t control.”
I agree. Please excuse me though…I have a hard time understanding how this actually “cashes out” for (C)SWMLs in real life. Maybe it’s my lack of exposure to what exactly you’re talking about and/or experiencing, but personally I’ve seen plenty of friendly inclusion of SWMLs, especially if they’re able to laugh about all of it, make light of all of it, be “down” (if I can use what is probably an antiquated vernacular at this point) or whatever. If you feel uncomfortable about just being a SWML, that says to me that maybe there are some things that you need to reflect on. If you’re cool, if you’re “down,” if you feel good about yourself, and if you’re not a jerk, then people are just people — they get along, everyone makes jokes, and everyone does whatever dumb stuff we all do all the time.
That said, maybe I just sounded like a jerk there and was just talking past you. I have no idea what your experiences are, so if you’re out there participating in progressive organizing and literally getting maligned ONLY for being a SWML, I can understand your frustration.
That said, if you’re in a situation with “friends” that don’t respect you at all simply because you’re SWML, then maybe you need to talk to them and explain how you’re feeling…otherwise, maybe you just need some new friends who aren’t a bunch of jerks. If you’re in a setting where people are organizing, then as a SWML, I think it’s pretty important that you find ways that are supportive of letting other marginalized voices speak and quit being so uptight when people don’t want to hear from another SWML — others can’t speak if you don’t make room for them, right? Also, people will make room for you to make your point if it really is important — just don’t try to monopolize and control the discussion. In order to actually upend and disrupt oppressive practices, we have to actually practice creating more egalitarian environments, which means that as of right now, historically silenced voices need more room to speak.
Finally, I guess if you’re in a setting where people are organizing and they’re just blindly maligning all SWMLs who are courteous, “cool,/down,” and supportive of non-oppressive practices, then maybe you need to speak up and make your voice heard and start that conversation. Otherwise, just learn to “take a punch,” share ideas when they’re really important, and keep your eyes on the bigger picture. idk.
— “…context is crucial. If you don’t want the mainstream type of life, then characteristics that are only advantageous in that milieu lose their advantage.”
I guess. But again, if you’re not a jerk, if you can actually figure out how to be “cool” around people that aren’t like you in terms of IP, and if you actually share an interest in underground/indie culture with them, then I have to call BS on the context/advantage paradigm. From where I am at least, I really don’t get the sense that SWMLs are getting shut out or disadvantaged just because they’re SWMLs, especially among folks who are interested in underground/outsider/weirdo/indie culture (i.e., people who also don’t tend to think like schoolyard knuckleheads)…idk…maybe that’s just me. Yeah, maybe looking like a “jock” isn’t necessarily a distinct “advantage” in a general sense — especially within underground/outsider/weirdo/indie cultures, but neither is thinking like one. Sometimes being super “norm” is so outrageous that people think it’s fun and interesting, and sometimes people just don’t care at all what you look like, especially if you’re actually a fun, interesting person. idk. (I hope I’m not talking past you here).
In my experience, people in those crowds — the sincere oddballs, aren’t a bunch of shallow idiots hung up on how “jock-ish” someone looks or whether or not they’re too tan — moreover, the ones that are like that are pretty dull to begin with. Maybe I’m misguided, but I firmly believe that the same holds true for SWMLs as well, at least that’s been my experience.
If queer folks don’t want to hang out with a straight guy, that’s their prerogative — maybe they find that they regularly get harassed/maligned by straight guys. If they’re aggressively against it, you have to respect that.
If you’re cool — not an idiot jerk, and you’re friends with them, then they could probably care less if you’re hanging out with them. The same thing goes for non-white folks, women, and on and on. If people that don’t know you don’t want to let you in, then maybe you actually need to make connections with those people and actually be friends with them. Why would anyone just come up to some unknown group or even a group of strangers and then expect to get some kind of overwhelming hero’s welcome?
— “I feel this is a goalpost shift, or maybe just a genuine misunderstanding. ‘Born,’ yes. ‘Raised/acculturated,’ not so much.”
Maybe this is just a misunderstanding about “‘maleness” and “straightness.” I guess I just don’t draw such a hard line on (biological/anatomical) sex, gender, and sexual orientation. At the very least, I think that you would probably agree that culture/acculturation factors into how gender and sexual orientation manifest in a person. I would also like to propose that how we understand (biological/anatomical) sex is also affected by how we are acculturated. I tend to think of those things as being sometimes more of a sliding scale or somehow just more variable in general, as opposed to them being just rigid categories. At any rate, I don’t want to get sidetracked with these kind of discussions.
— “Are you saying a SWML is inherently an “abuser” just by dint of the SWM part? ”
No. But, I think that you would agree that SWMs “represent”/signify “abuser” for a lot of people, like it or not. That’s just a fact. I don’t like this analogy — it’s kind of crass to my ears, but it’s like a soldier having PTSD…not all loud sounds are bombs, but they remind one of those previous bombs that sounded just like that loud noise…and that’s scary.
Is it surprising then that lots of non-white people sometimes just don’t trust white people, or that LGBTQ+ people sometimes just don’t trust straight people, or that women sometimes just don’t trust men? Just because a SWM is a liberal who’s wearing a “hipster/indie/’cool guy'” costume doesn’t automatically mean that he’s actually a trustworthy ally…right?
— “Just let us hang as equal partners in the cause.”
Maybe it’s just from where I’m sitting, with my own blinders on, but I just don’t see this problem. Personally, I’ve seen tons of SWMLs involved in the “cause,” showing up, leaning in, being trusted allies — as well as idiot jerks, and sometimes some of them wear pink pussy hats or whatever…it’s all fair game. And, their doing it in the best ways that they can…limping and rushing along like the rest of us while we try to figure out this mess called life. Also, no one is in charge — generally speaking, you don’t need permission to participate (although maybe sometimes you kind of do, but I’m sure that you know that).
Now, you want to “hang as equals.” On the one hand, I totally hear that and agree. And, if you’re not an idiot (which it really doesn’t sound like you are), then I don’t see why you wouldn’t be able to do just that.
On the other hand…just because a SWML showed up, do you think that their automatically entitled to be treated as equal and trustworthy by people that have been historically marginalized by SWMs? If that is true — if you do think that SWMLs are automatically entitled to be treated as equal and trustworthy in that type of situation, isn’t that kind of saying, “Hey, my feelings are more important than all of these other people?” Isn’t that precisely the privileged attitude that says that since I’ve never had to think about other people’s experiences, since I’ve never had to have my equality and trustworthiness questioned, then aren’t I still automatically entitled to being treated a certain way?
Isn’t the facticity of never really having had your equality and trustworthiness questioned precisely one of those privileges/unearned benefits/life bonuses/credibility excesses that SWMs have historically enjoyed? And now, SWMs are upset because that unearned benefit is being PERCEIVED as threatened/challenged. (Personally, I don’t think it’s actually being challenged in a seriously malicious way…just pushed on a little bit to try to get people to broaden their perspectives a little).
Moving on, asking to “hang as equals” suggests to me that you’re saying, “Why isn’t everyone like me — the fair-minded, equality-loving one?” Aren’t you just asking marginalized people to come over to where you are, to where you feel comfortable? Isn’t that exactly what so many SWMs do to marginalized people all the time — aren’t they always being asked to live in the SWM world? Why shouldn’t a SWML make some effort to go over to where marginalized people are and try to live in their world? — sometimes that means that you’re not automatically entitled to being equal and trustworthy…sometimes that means you have to put in the time, build relationships, learn about other people’s experiences/perspectives, and earn people’s trust before you can participate in each other’s lives on equal footing.
— “Let’s just try to have everyone get a fair shot at whatever role they are well suited for.”
Agreed. Barring the fact that life isn’t fair, I don’t see why they can’t (but I guess I’m just speaking from my own perspective).
— “Shouldn’t we be trying to coax more SWMs, as long as they aren’t from deep in the ‘basket of deplorables,’ to come to our side? Set aside the ethics of that question and just think about political strategy. Like I said, lots of SWMs out there, wielding lots of votes. And the current atmosphere is incredibly unwelcoming to them.”
I absolutely agree that more people are needed. I also understand that there are probably a good amount of SWMs out there that might be put off, confused by, uninterested in IP, and that’s fine. There are a ton of other ways for them to plug in…let’s not pretend like Identity Politics is the only voice in the Democratic Party or even on the left as a whole…Is it the loudest one? — I honestly don’t know. That said, it sounds really problematic to implicitly suggest that all of those marginalized voices need to “keep it down” so that the SWMs can feel “safe.” Should marginalized people just go back to being the passive screens for the projection of SWMs’ fantasies?
Believe me, I get your point, and I don’t think that there is an easy answer for how to simultaneously address 1) the very real problems that come from oppression/marginalization and 2) the creation of a space that feels inviting to everyone.
My personal inclination is to lean more towards a rhetoric of progressive political economy, but idk.
— “And this is just how it is in the pop culture criticism world (though I was a little surprised to see it leak over to an NPR interview like that). Any music, TV, or cinematic project with a prominent role for a (straight) white guy is going to get some serious shade or at least side-eyeing. Sorry if you happen to be a straight white male artist or writer of some kind in 2017: there were too many prominent such people over the past several hundred years in percentage terms (which is absolutely true but not the fault of someone who happens to be a SWML in 2017), so you’re just going to have to sit down and forego using your talents or going after your dreams, because you are the wrong skin shade/gender/sexuality for the tenor of the times these days.”
Unfortunately, the only sentiment that I can muster here is — I guess, I suppose, meh, etc..
I of course support artistic freedom, letting people do what they want, and letting the artistic merit of a piece stand on its own two feet. The other side of this is that there’s a larger conversation about oppression, marginalization, and SWM privilege that’s happening in the courts of culture right now. I think that the point of all of this is that the “cat is out of the bag” as it were. SWMs can’t just stick their collective heads in the sand and pretend like what they do, what they create, isn’t part of that larger conversation because it is, whether they like it or not. In that sense, their silence on that exact topic can speak volumes — right? There is always a subtext to any work of art — there’s the explicit assertion and the implicit assertions made through the subtext of the ideological background in which the work is situated…I’m sorry if that’s obvious to you, but it seems worth bringing up at this point. Moreover, this doesn’t mean that SWMs can’t tell more stories/create art about SWMs, it just means that if they do, they’re going to need to do it in a pretty self-conscious, intentional way, with the understanding that doing so is part of a larger conversation. At the very least, they can’t pretend to be “shocked” that someone else mentioned the fact that that conversation is happening.
Going back a bit, part of this larger conversation says that part of the problem from over the last 100+ years of popular culture was that SWMs got to uncritically center themselves and people like them all the time, which consequently meant that other folks didn’t get to be part of the conversation, have a voice — I think that you clearly understand that.
If we’re talking about the “plane” of (mostly) mainstream popular culture, then obviously it’s not an infinite plane. There are literally finite amounts of resources and opportunities within that space. If that limited space gets filled up with SWM voices, then that means other voices don’t get a chance…I think that you would agree with that fairly obvious sentiment. If people don’t speak up and say something like, “Hey, it’s important that other voices get heard,” why should we assume that SWMs are just going to naturally and automatically step aside and make room for them…they certainly haven’t really done so in the past. Respectability politics doesn’t always work…there are tons of folks who have politely waited in line for a long time for their “turn,” and are maybe still waiting there. Sometimes, you just have to “cause a fuss,” as it were.
If people keep asking SWMs to please make some room at the table and SWMs keep ignoring them and/or can’t hear them, then eventually people feel like they need to yell. And then, those same people who have been ignored and passed over time and again rightfully get upset when those same SWMs don’t have any trouble hearing other SWMs’ requests to “please make some room at the table” and then giving those other SWMs a seat at that table straightaway. You can certainly understand how that might feel to a lot of people, as in, “Oh, you couldn’t hear me, but you can hear him just fine…I see how it is.”
Aside from all of this, there sometimes feels like there’s a weird subtext coming from some of your comments…I could totally be off-base and talking past you since you’re obviously not some idiot jerk (so, my apologies if I’m just not hearing you and/or if I’m mischaracterizing you in any way). But, I question why it’s so important that SWMs just get a pass on everything. If Judd Apatow (or whoever) is really creating great content (which I would seriously have to question in his case), then why does he feel compelled to NOT put in different types of voices? There are tons of great actors, artists, comedians, etc. from a million different walks of life that do well with great content, and Apatow is in a position to have a greater degree of creative control over his projects at this point. If he’s really making “colorblind” content (which he obviously isn’t), then why shouldn’t someone like that put their money where their mouth is and actually diversify the people playing the roles that he has creative control over.
If the point is that the content is what’s really great and important, then why should it matter what kind of person plays the roles that tell the story of that content. I think that this is kind of the point that you’re trying to make, so I think that we are kind of in agreement in a way. However, choosing to center a bunch of SWMs over and over is not some kind of “colorblind” accident. It’s a choice. It’s a commitment to tell a certain kind of story over and over again. For me, that means that the content is precisely tied to the presentation in a fairly explicit way. Hence, I think it’s good for our society, culture to push back on that kind of monotone cultural presentation.
The other part of this that sounds “funny” to me is the kind of push back that I’m hearing from you, as in, “SWMs are entitled to uncritically be/operate at the center of (mainstream) popular culture.” Isn’t that precisely one of those privileges/unearned benefits that SWMs have enjoyed for generations (i.e., being able to look at popular culture and find people that look, sound, and act just like them). It seems like you’re upset because you feel like that privilege is being threatened and/or challenged…idk.
— “so you’re just going to have to sit down and forego using your talents or going after your dreams, because you are the wrong skin shade/gender/sexuality for the tenor of the times these days.”
I’m sorry…no offense, but I have to call total BS on this one.
If anything, there’s been an overwhelming flowering and proliferation of creative opportunities over the last 30 years, despite the fact that sometimes it’s hard to get paid for doing it. In 2017, even high schoolers and early 20-somethings can purchase (without too much trouble) audio/video editing software, computers, and equipment that would have cost thousands and thousands of dollars a generation ago. Even a basic smart phone offers a ton of creative opportunities — photo/video/audio recording and editing, etc. It’s pretty easy to create/figure out how to make a website these days (you don’t even need to know how to code anything anymore). You can communicate and network with other artists across the globe instantaneously, set up collaborations, and share content without ever having to meet in person. The internet allows you to see/hear a polyphonic multitude of other people’s creative output that no other generation has ever had access to. It’s free (more or less in most industrialized nations) to learn how to do almost anything you want over the internet. You don’t need a parent company that vets and promotes your content anymore, and you don’t even need to go through more traditional, legitimized channels of culture making training to get recognized (for better and for worse)…you just need “followers” that are into and interested in what you’re doing. So, I’m pretty sure that SWM(L)s are doing just fine and haven’t lost any opportunities to actually be creative. Aside from this, if you just look around (at least from where I am), there are a ton of SWMLs making and creating art and not getting discluded from the progressive cultural community just because they’re SWMs. In other words, the progressive cultural landscape and the underground are still alive and well, and they’re blurring the lines of what it means to operate in that kind of space.
So, I’m sorry if I’m just not that sympathetic to the fact that more “mainstream” popular culture gets called out for producing the same dull slag that it’s been making for years and which continues to uncritically, un-self-consciously center SWMs.
When you’re in that kind of “mainstream” popular cultural space, with that kind of megaphone, then that means you’re operating within our broad cultural commons where different voices finally have a chance to say something different. And, if what you’re making is boring to a lot of folks (or even kind of offensive in a way), people are going to let you know.
Now, I take your broader point that some SWMs are turned away by discussions of difference and IP, and that progressive movements need more supporters/allies and not less. I don’t have a decisive answer for how to make that space “feel” more inviting…I also don’t really think it serves progressive causes/orientations to suggest that marginalized voices should “keep it down.” Maybe SWMLs can be the bridge to those other SWMs who might be sympathetic to progressive ideals, but who are scared off by discussions about difference. There are tons of different ways for everyone to plug in. That said, the discussions surrounding difference, marginalization, and oppression are important discussions that we need to have with each other so that we can learn how to actually BE together.
It’s like being in a family, right? Sometimes one person gets upset, and then the other person gets upset, and then everyone is upset and yelling at each other, but sweeping the problem under the rug is a pretty short-sighted solution. We have to actually engage in the discussion and with what other people are feeling if we’re actually ever going to come to any kind of meaningful resolution. And yeah, it’s going to hurt — we’re going to hurt each other in the process. But, let’s stiffen our resolve, take our hits, and work on this.
Alan Thomas says
I didn’t graduate from college, and I don’t have any money in the stock market. But I dig what you are talking about. Sociologists call it “social capital”, and I definitely have more of that than most people in my socioeconomic bracket.
“But, I think that you would agree that SWMs ‘represent’/signify ‘abuser’ for a lot of people, like it or not. That’s just a fact.”
It is, but I feel like you are being too sanguine about it. I don’t believe that “reverse racism” is as bad as regular racism, not nearly as bad, but it’s still not great. Even if reversing this makes it ten times worse (“But, I think that you would agree that [young] SBMs ‘represent’/signify ‘gangbanger/thug’ for a lot of people, like it or not. That’s just a fact”), the original 10% strength is still not morally tenable IMO. And it’s certainly not the way down the path to a united left (including the center-left and persuadable centrists) that can beat the right.
“I think that the point of all of this is that the ‘cat is out of the bag’ as it were.”
Yes, I think that’s true. And I’d imagine that for someone like you, it is exciting or refreshing to see someone like an NPR host take that tack. It means that IP has really come a long way in the past few years–as I assume you would agree that 10 years ago people would have been shocked to hear an NPR host say something like that, and there would have been repercussions. But I not only believe that’s not fair to creators and artists who happen to be SWM, but that this kind of “progress” has come at a real cost strategically. I think potential Democratic voters like middle-aged white union guys or married suburban white women see this kind of stuff in the culture, and are turned off/angered/frightened by it and end up voting for Trump. Is that worth it to you?
“But, I question why it’s so important that SWMs just get a pass on everything.”
Wow, loaded question. I can assure you that I’m not giving SWMs like Duck Dynasty Phil a pass on anything. I do like Judd Apatow, though, and I’m particularly a huge fan of his show “Girls” with Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner. I also BTW like the show “This is Us”. I mention that because the most recent episode, which is being widely acclaimed one of the greatest episodes of broadcast TV in many a moon, featured only black actors–from the central characters to those with only one line, or no lines at all. I did not consciously notice that while watching, but having it pointed out afterward, I thought that was very cool.
“The other part of this that sounds ‘funny’ to me is the kind of push back that I’m hearing from you, as in, ‘SWMs are entitled to uncritically be/operate at the center of (mainstream) popular culture.’ ”
Whoa, you are really putting words in my mouth there. I’ve complained about a falsely excluded middle before. Here it is again. They shouldn’t be in the center or getting more than their fair share, but they also shouldn’t just be expected to sit in the penalty box because people before them were unfairly dominating the field.
But I have also noticed that many IP liberals have an excessive idea of what diversity/equity would represent/involve. For instance I like the show “Survivor”, and I actively participate in message board discussions about it. There are sub-boards dedicated to social/political issues around the show. And any time they have a cast which includes one black woman and one black man out of 16 contestants, you are guaranteed to get a flurry of complaints that this is too small a representation for African Americans. But if you took a purely representative sample of the American population, that is exactly the number of black men and women you would get in 16 people! So if the idea is that black people should get as much representation on TV as white people do, I disagree. There are five times as many white people as there are black people in this country. So white people should get roughly 5 times more representation. If instead it is 10x, that is a problem. But seeking actual parity is asking too much.
“I’m sorry if I’m just not that sympathetic to the fact that more ‘mainstream’ popular culture gets called out for producing the same dull slag that it’s been making for years”
Whoa. There is VERY broad critical consensus that we are in a “Golden Age” of premium, “auteur” TV now (and for the past few years). This is a consensus with which I agree. Apparently you do not?
Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii says
For some reason I wasn’t able to “reply” to your last post that begins —
“I didn’t graduate from college, and I don’t have any money in the stock market.”
— “Sociologists call it ‘social capital,’ and I definitely have more of that than most people in my socioeconomic bracket.”
I get your point, and I don’t really want to quibble, but I don’t completely see a 1-to-1 relationship between “social/cultural capital” and classism/class privilege. I think that adding/emphasizing social and cultural capital as aspects of classism is a helpful way to understand class privilege in general. However, neither one of those ideas really capture the sense in which I was trying to identify “privilege” as being manifest within the frame of “class.”
Hence, class privilege in particular — while including ideas like social/cultural capital, is used to emphasize the “unearned benefits,” “life bonuses,” etc. that give individuals a credibility excess that allows them greater access to social. economic, etc. goods. It can also be used to explain/emphasize why those same individuals with class privilege have blinders on which then prevent them from understanding the credibility deficits (i.e., lack of access to these privileges) that people who have a lower class position experience (e.g., lower status vis-a-vis their social and cultural capital, etc.).
So, while I stand by my explanation in my previous post, we could add notions about how wealth, upper/middle class sensibilities and types of social/cultural capital, etc. are GENERALLY valorized within our culture. Hence, if one occupies certain upper and middle class echelons of society, the types of conspicuous consumption, moral values, etc. that appeal to those sensibilities get valorized, while lower class consumption practices, moral orientations, culture, etc. are often derided, ridiculed, and/or patronizingly tolerated — additionally, there is sometimes a disavowed pleasure taken in observing the “obscene” practices of the “lower class” which is solicited from culture consumers by culture makers. Moreover, anti-upper/middle class values and anti-conspicuous consumption values, etc. are rarely if ever venerated. Thus, an unearned benefit of having upper/middle class privilege is that one gets to see one’s own worldview/social position popularly celebrated and/or popularly desired (in a general sense). Conversely, it is fairly unusual to find popular/mainstream cultural expressions (i.e., outside of lower class contexts) that actually celebrate and universalize “lower class” cultural practices/orientations.
You might counter that things like SOME mainstream rap, SOME blue collar comedy, SOME sporting events, etc. popularly celebrate perspectives from people who didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in their mouths…you would be right. I would counter that perspective with the notion that many of those voices are saturated with a desire to “have/own/be” some of the things associated with occupying a class position within the upper class (e.g., wealth, power, being the boss, having control over others and one’s own environment, expensive consumer goods, etc.). In other words, even when we hear from people in popular culture who weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouth, we often hear them wanting the things that the “rich” have (or even just wanting some version of “the American Dream” — which is just another version of a type of class valorization). (As an aside, I want to add that we should all be careful — myself included, in being too critical of people’s desire to have access to wealth and privilege when they have been historically prevented and/or generally discluded from having access to it). It is on this basis that I make the claim that the class privileges associated with wealth, upper/middle class sensibilities and types of social/cultural capital, etc. are GENERALLY valorized within our culture.
— “I don’t believe that ‘reverse racism’ is as bad as regular racism, not nearly as bad, but it’s still not great.”
No offense, but I REALLY don’t know what to make of this statement. It’s hard for me to tell just from reading this if you’re making a joke or being serious. I kind of get the sense that you’re being serious.
If you’re making a joke, then please ignore my response to this.
If you are in fact serious, I would like to suggest that “reverse racism” and “regular racism” are NOT real things. “Racism” is a thing by itself, and everyone can be a racist — white people can be racists, non-white people can be racists against white people and other non-white people, everyone can be a racist. Probably, most people are racists to greater and lesser degrees (e.g., implicit racial bias), but hopefully we’re all doing our best to address those “fucked up” perspectives that we sometimes find within ourselves.
I would also like to draw your attention to how white privilege is implicitly operative in phrases like “reverse racism” and “regular racism.” Those phrases suggest that “Racism” itself is ONLY uni-directional, ONLY emanates from white people, and is ONLY directed at non-white people BY white people — in other words, those phrases unequivocally center “Whiteness” as THE normative benchmark against which all other values and forms of racism are compared against. We could reimagine the implicit subtext of those phrases as — “non-white racism” and “white racism;” OR “Racism” MEANS “(White) Racism;” OR “Reverse” MEANS “non-White;” OR “Regular” MEANS “White.”
It makes white people the “normal,” epistemic centers of our ideological world and non-white people the “others” whose epistemic value is dependent on and made meaningful because of white people/”Whiteness.” It suggests that non-white people lack agency and inherent meaning in the absence of “Whiteness” as an ideological center, master-signifier. It further suggests that non-white people can’t just be “Racists,” which is ridiculous — there are plenty of non-white folks who are or have been racists.
…As an aside, those phrases (“reverse” & “regular” racism) also conjure up notions about Hegel’s model of Lordship and Bondsman — “the Lord depends upon the Bondsman for his very being as Lord…without the Bondsman’s recognition of the Lord’s mastery, the Lord is nothing.” — but that’s a “different can of worms.”
…Long story short — phrases like “reverse racism” and “regular racism” sound kind of racist. That doesn’t mean the PC police are going to come after people that use those phrases and say, “Those terms are Illegal…You’re not allowed to say that!!” it just means that those phrases sound kind of “fucked up” from a different sort of orientation, and that you shouldn’t be surprised if you get some sideways looks when you use them.
Maybe this is all obvious to you. If it is, my apologies for the digression — I just have a hard time hearing you say those things in a way that makes me think that you’re joking about them. Of course, I’m totally open to being wrong.
— “…the original 10% strength is still not morally tenable IMO.”
I’m just a little confused here…I’m not trying to sound like a jerk, I just literally don’t understand the point that you’re making.
If you’re saying that the fact that SWMs ‘represent’/signify ‘abuser’ for a lot of people is “still not morally tenable,” then I really don’t understand. As I think that you understand, there’s a HUGE…MASSIVE difference between people who are victims of oppression and people who generally aren’t…HUGE.
We can’t pretend like their experiences are equal in any kind of meaningful way whatsoever, or that victims of oppression somehow “owe” it to people who generally aren’t victims of oppression to reach across the divide to make amends so that they can work together. We also can’t say that victims of oppression somehow “owe” it to people who are generally the ones doing the oppressing to reach across that divide either.
There is NOTHING evenly remotely comparable between a SBM actually, literally experiencing racism and getting “shit on”/oppressed/marginalized on a daily basis by SWMs who ONLY think of him in terms of being a “thug,” and a SWMs insular, solipsistic
fear of SBM because of what they saw on television or heard in a “rap song.”
Speaking as a self-identified “nerd” or “dork” or whatever — when I got bullied, “shit on,” discluded (or whatever) in school and other social settings (as I got older) for being weird, I never once thought that I owed anything to the people who bullied, “shit on,” and discluded me, or who were cool laughing at me, or who were cool with not standing up for me and were cool with just letting some jerk behavior “go down” without saying something. Please don’t think that I’m looking for any kind of pity because who cares…everyone has their trials, it’s nothing special. That said, I want to use my experience as an example of how the dynamic of racism/oppression plays out in a (hopefully) less loaded context.
So, if folks were cool with just letting me be a punching bag and not saying anything about it, or who felt like I wasn’t “cool” enough to include in social events, then why would I feel the need to reach out to them…they and/or their silence let me know everything that I needed to about how they felt about me.
In the same way, passing some kind of fictionalized judgement on a person who gets oppressed without actually knowing them and their experience is totally idiotic…I’m sure you understand that.
…That said, sometimes down the road I might bump into someone, and things are different somehow, and we find a new kind of common ground…so it goes.
The bottom line is that oppressed/marginalized people don’t owe anything to SWM/oppressors. If SWMs want a bigger coalition, then they need stand up, lean in, and actually make an effort to connect with people from marginalized communities.
Aside from this, I’m just curious what it looks like to you for a progressive/leftist popular front to come into being?
…Does it mean that you want left leaning non-SWMs to just stop talking about oppression/marginalization/IP?
…Does it mean that it’s the responsibility of oppressed/marginalized people to make sure that SWMs feel comfortable, and that non-SWM leftists prioritize accommodating the needs of SWMLs?
…Does it mean that non-SWM leftists should just keep quiet when Republicans practice IPs through voter redistricting, restriction of women’s access to women’s health care, the green-lighting of racial profiling police practices, the land grab of First Nation property for private corporations, the rollback of LGBTQ+ rights, the practice of soft holocaust denialism, the de facto ban of Muslims, the removal of white supremacist groups from the domestic terror watchlist, etc.?
…Does it mean that leftists can only talk about and take action on the types of problems that SWMs face, since that would be the lowest, “safest” common denominator?
I just don’t understand what it is you expect of non-SWM leftists.
Why is it on them to make SWMs feel included and not the other way around? Why is it okay for SWMs to never really show up for other folks, but then want non-SWM folks to show up for them?
Should SWMs get surprised when non-SWM leftists aren’t lining up around the block to pamper them with “good vibes” about how we’re all in this together?
Where were all these SWMs before?
…I know that you have/do show up, but I’m still curious what this rhetoric of commonality is that makes SWMs feel included and that also deals with the actual oppression and marginalization of non-SWM people, especially as perpetuated through the IPs of the Right.
Personally, I think SWMs need to step up, join in, and make some efforts on their own, and not the other way around. If they believe in leftist and/or liberal values, there are tons of opportunities for SWMs to plug in that might not directly touch on IP in any kind of “frightening” way. Moreover, if they are interested in learning about those things, they can do so in the “safety” of their house by watching YouTube videos, reading online, etc. There are also plenty of non-SWM folks out there who are doing precisely what you seem to want — they are going out of their way to reach out to groups of interested white people, straight people, and men, etc. to help them understand the dynamics of oppression and how that plays out politically, etc.
That said, as I’ve mentioned before, I think that pushing for a new kind of progressive political economy might be one of the best bets. But, it can’t be done in such a way that ignores the challenges that marginalized people face, or that ignores the kinds IPs that people on the Right promote.
— “I think potential Democratic voters like middle-aged white union guys or married suburban white women see this kind of stuff in the culture, and are turned off/angered/frightened by it and end up voting for Trump. Is that worth it to you?”
Very fair question, and I take your point. I suppose some of my answer to this can be discerned somewhat from my last screed just above.
Nonetheless, you pose a very real and difficult question (and I think that we are both coming at this problem from opposite ends). The short answer to this as I see it is that IP is a train that has left the station. Marginalized people aren’t going to just stand by anymore and let people “put them in the corner” just because they don’t like what they’re saying or how they’re saying it. Moreover, people aren’t prepared to act like the Right doesn’t have their own IP agenda, because clearly they do. That said, I do seriously take your point that it is a completely worthy goal to bring more people on board for progressive causes/values…I think a lot of those conversations are already happening and people are trying to figure out ways to make that happen.
In part, this is why I make my appeal to a new vision of progressive political economy. I think that such a rhetoric stands a chance of feeling inviting to working class folks, union members, white women, and others who might feel uncomfortable with discussions of IP, but who can readily appreciate the idea of better opportunities/making more money. At the very least, it acknowledges one of the narratives about why people voted for Trump in the first place — lots of people from the Trump block seem to feel economically “left behind.” I also think that the left needs to figure out a way to counter the Right’s narrative of “The Takers” — possibly shifting the focus from “blaming” non-straight white “outsiders” to identifying the “capitalist/owning class” as the original “Takers.” Of course, that comes with its own sets of dangers and might not really be a philosophically well grounded orientation to begin with — a real rhetoric of commonality shouldn’t put us at odds with one another, we all need each other to survive.
Also, let’s not forget that a lot of what propelled Trump into the White House was precisely some pretty explicit appeals to racial animus. In other words, Trump let it be known that if you weren’t a (straight) white Christian man, then you were “on notice.”
— “Whoa, you are really putting words in my mouth there. I’ve complained about a falsely excluded middle before. Here it is again. They shouldn’t be in the center or getting more than their fair share, but they also shouldn’t just be expected to sit in the penalty box because people before them were unfairly dominating the field.”
Again, I sincerely take your point.
I would like to emphasize that no one that I’ve ever met who was sincere about IP has been interested in putting SWMs in “the penalty box.” Like I said before, if you’re not a jerk, then criticisms of SWMs are not about you and whatever level of white guilt you might be experiencing. Moreover, who cares about white guilt…white folks are the ones who are so obsessed with it. They’re the ones who feel the need to indulge in it. Again, if you’re not a jerk, then no one is asking you to indulge in some solipsistic display of narcissistic self-flagellating guilt…you were born a certain “way,” in a certain “context” — there’s no reason to feel guilty about the way you were born and the context into which you find yourself. You are what you are, it is what it is…and on and on, blah, blah, blah.
Moreover, it also doesn’t mean that every critical comment about a SWM is necessarily warranted, but you can certainly understand where people are coming from and why they have an interest in pushing back against narratives about straightness, whiteness, and masculinity, etc. as being normative benchmarks.
For example, maybe calling out Judd Apatow was overboard in that particular NPR interview, maybe it wasn’t…idk. In any case, I’m not really interested in picking apart the granular details surrounding comments made by the interviewer about Apatow.
I would like to refer back to a previous comment that I made where I quoted John (last name unknown).
For context — On the one hand, I kind of hear you trying to “tone police” marginalized voices, by suggesting that they need to keep it down for the greater good. In response, some folks might say that you NEVER have a right to “tone police” anyone.
And, in response to that, John said —
“[Calling out] tone policing as a defense is no longer a desire to have parity of voice with the oppressor, but a desire to allow one’s voice to have the same kind of oppressive power as one’s oppressor. Tone policing as a defense becomes a means whereby we can use our voices to inflict the same kind of, or similar kinds of oppression upon other people that we have experienced.”
In other words, calling out straightness, whiteness, and masculinity, etc. should never be about making other people feel bad — it’s about trying to “raise consciousness.” Calling those things out is not about trying to put people in a “penalty box.” It also doesn’t mean that non-SWMs have carte blanche to be unrepentantly ugly and mean (and I don’t think that most folks are since they have a sincere interest in everyone being better to one another). That said, sometimes people that live through really ugly parts of being a human where they get marginalized, oppressed, sidelined, disrespected, crushed, and killed by a thousand little cuts are rightfully really hurt, angry, and filled with rage and pain. Sometimes that means that it’s really, really hard for people to speak about that pain and that when they do, they are overwhelmed by the pain of their emotions (just like any of us would be). When someone is that upset, you give them room to express themselves, and you don’t escalate things by getting “pissy” just because they said something that hurt your feelings — if you do, you’re missing the larger point, not hearing them, and derailing the larger conversation.
So again, absolutely no one who is sincere about IP is trying to put SWMs in the penalty box.
If anything, they are just trying to tell the SWMs who are still “in the center or getting more than their fair share” that they need to make some room and let other people play because there are a lot of other folks on the field.
In other words, to all the “ball hogs” who don’t know that they’re being ball hogs — quit being a ball hog! To all the non-ball hogs who think they’re getting yelled at for being a ball hog — no one is yelling at you about being a ball hog because you’re not one!! This is not to say that sometimes it’s not okay for the ball hogs of the world to score some points…go for it, especially if it helps further the cause. We just need them to stop pretending like they’re the only ones on the field.
— “But I have also noticed that many IP liberals have an excessive idea of what diversity/equity would represent/involve.”
Just like you, I guess everyone is entitled to their opinions,,,
Some people feel that some kind of statistically accurate representation of difference that is based on the general demographics of the population is the most fair, most reasonable. Some people think that tilting things more in favor of difference is more reasonable.
For me, I think that both of those orientations are kind of problematic. They both reify categories of difference without really dissipating their malignant qualities.
Personally, I think a better solution is one that regularly mixes up categorical alignments and which promotes notions about everyone occupying a thousand different categories of difference simultaneously, thereby obliterating any kind of essentializing ideas about identity and what it means to be this or that. Sometimes that might mean that the whole cast of Survivor is all SWMs, sometimes it’s maybe all non-SWMs, and other times it’s just a weird mash-up of everything in between. We can’t meaningfully move past categories of difference if we continue to cling them (although sometimes we need to bear them in mind as we try to awkwardly move towards a more equitable reality).
This is a larger discussion that has a lot of fruit to bear, but perhaps too many corridors to explore at the moment.
— “There is VERY broad critical consensus that we are in a “Golden Age” of premium, “auteur” TV now (and for the past few years).”
I agree. TV is better now than it ever has been, and it’s made huge strides.
That said, it’s still overwhelmingly common for the most popular programs to have (middle/upper class) straight, white men as their central protagonists — in which case, to the extent that this is a strategic and/or uncritical decision on the part of culture makers, I don’t think that we can reasonably argue that the content is actually divorced from the presentation in any kind of meaningful way.
As a final note, I also find it “curious” that it’s usually white folks, especially older white folks that take issue with IP. This is not to say that there aren’t non-white folks and/or young folks that don’t take issue with it, because they certainly do. This is also not to say that there aren’t real criticisms of IP to be made, because surely there are.
However, whenever a whole bunch of white/straight/(male) voices get upset about how non-white/non-straight/(non-male) voices sound, something just kind of smells “funny” to me. Again, it’s a little weird when “Identity Politics” is only something that oppressed/marginalized people do, but it’s not identity politics when white people, straight people, and/or men are limiting marginalized people’s access to social goods…call me crazy.
This long exchange between you and Alan Thomas has been very enlightening, and I tend to agree more with you than with Alan Thomas, although he makes some good points too.
Alan Thomas has told us a lot about himself, which at least for me make his case stronger than if he had only used abstract arguments to support his position.
I know nothing about you except that you were bullied at some point in your life, although I suspect that you are not a rich, white, straight male. I can understand that for professional or personal reasons you cannot share your name with us, but surely, you can tell us a bit more about yourself in general terms. I think that might make your case stronger for many people. Thanks.
Alan Thomas says
S. Wallerstein, I appreciate the “props” there, especially given that you’re more on the other side of this issue (these issues).
“Moreover, anti-upper/middle class values and anti-conspicuous consumption values, etc. are rarely if ever venerated.”
I don’t know if this is in support or disagreement with your point, but I find it interesting in any event that what I find myself the most appalled by is conspicuous consumption in a “low class” manner. Our current president is an exemplar of this combo: many have noted the tacky gilded decor of his plane and apartment, but what just nauseated me to read yesterday on social media was that on his first visit to a DC-area restaurant, he (of course) went to one of his hotels and ate a $54 dry-aged steak. As the WaPo food critic put it: “Trump ordered a strip steak, which he ate per his preference, well done and with ketchup, as if the entree would be accompanied by a sippy cup.” This irks me as much as anything I hear about his actual policies, which I know is a moral failing on my part.
“I kind of get the sense that you’re being serious.”
Yes, I was.
“Long story short — phrases like ‘reverse racism’ and ‘regular racism’ sound kind of racist.”
“Speaking as a self-identified ‘nerd’ or ‘dork’ or whatever — when I got bullied, ‘shit on,’ discluded (or whatever) in school and other social settings (as I got older) for being weird, I never once thought that I owed anything to the people who bullied, ‘shit on,’ and discluded me, or who were cool laughing at me, or who were cool with not standing up for me and were cool with just letting some jerk behavior ‘go down’ without saying something.”
The more I interact with you, the more I see a very clear and egregious tendency toward building straw men. You are talking about the actual people who were your oppressors; I was talking about the people who happen to share congenital traits (race, sex, and sexual orientation) with a visible group of oppressors. Your example is akin to condemning someone who voluntarily wears a swastika armband; mine is about lumping anyone with blond hair and blue eyes into that group.
“Some people feel that some kind of statistically accurate representation of difference that is based on the general demographics of the population is the most fair, most reasonable. Some people think that tilting things more in favor of difference is more reasonable.”
What’s the argument for the latter being more reasonable? Genuinely curious.
“As a final note, I also find it ‘curious’ that it’s usually white folks, especially older white folks that take issue with IP.”
I don’t find that “curious”, any more than it’s “curious” that atheists like me are far more likely than anyone else to take issue with the commingling of church and state.
I agree with much of what you say above, but you say that men do not have to worry about being constantly interrupted, talked down to, not being taken seriously.
In my experience, much of all male conversation is struggle for dominance in which the “winners” constantly interrupt, talk down to and do not take seriously the “losers”. That is, interrupting, talking down to and not taking others seriously is not just a way that a certain type of male excludes women: they exclude other males, for a number of reasons, with the same strategy also. By the way, in my experience, this strategy is used by non-white males with probably the same frequency as by white males.
I’m not claiming that all males use this strategy or even that most males use it, but it is used frequently enough in all male conversations that some of us, like myself, carefully and consciously seek out as friends those males who do not use such strategies nor who cheer on
and adulate those males who do.
Trump is certainly an egregious example of a male who interrupts, talks down to and does not consider seriously others. If you look at his last press conference where he interrupted several male reporters and at the debates where he interrupted Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush as frequently and gleefully as he did Hillary Clinton, you can see that there are many equal opportunity interrupters around.
Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii says
Again, really excellent point and well said. Thank you for all of your participation in this discussion!
I completely agree, though I would just add that that hill might be a little steeper for women, and that many more men might (unconsciously) put up barriers that prevent women — as opposed to other men, from reaching any kind of parity at the top of that hill. In other words, let’s not pretend that all struggles are the same — women face different and more challenging sets of barriers when trying to achieve parity of voice with men, than men do with other men (generally speaking of course).
The basic point is that everyone, to greater and lesser degrees, gets caught up — at one point or another, in trying to establish dominance and sort the world into “winners” and “losers.” Women oppress women, LGBTQ+ people oppress other LGBTQ+ people, rich oppress rich, white people oppress white people, poor oppress poor, non-white people oppress other non-white people, and on and on and on. To my own chagrin and strictly speaking for myself, perhaps I too am caught up in just such an asinine dynamic of struggle for dominance here in the PEL comment section…
All the same, oppression, oppressive practices, domination, etc. all exist in various ways and permutations. This is at least one essential kernel of truth in identity politics, at least as I see it. And yes, the prisms of truth all look a little different at different levels of analysis…push too hard on one point and the bottom may very well fall out to reveal something altogether different. And yes again, the world is full of jerks and it always will be.
Nonetheless, the question remains for me — how are we going to deal with the fact that oppressive practices exist, and how are we going to deal with the very real fact that the worst forms of them quite literally put people’s lives at risk?
It’s been a pleasure conversing with you. I haven’t run into you before, probably because I don’t often frequent this blog. I’m neither a philosopher nor a current or ex-philosophy student.
As I said in the beginning of this conversation, I believe that it’s good that there are people like Wes, who question everything (or almost everything), including the core values of leftism 101.
That being said, I think that it’s equally positive that there are people like you who defend the core values of leftism 101 with patience, with tolerance, recognizing their own errors, without screaming at those whose faith is lukewarm, without coming on like a political commissar, without self-righteousness or phariseeism. If you keep on like that as you do, you’ll be making a real contribution to the struggle against oppressive practices.
Marxist philosopher Robert Paul Wolff in his blog always points out that the struggle against oppression is a long march and thus, if one decides to participate in that march, one should figure out what one does best and what one feels comfortable about doing within the context of the skills needed for that march/struggle. That is, if you don’t feel comfortable in crowds and you don’t like to scream slogans, don’t go to demonstrations, but, say, phone and write your congresspeople, etc. Anyway, the lengthy reasoned arguments without shrillness or a “holier than thou” tone which you have posted here indicate one area where you can no doubt contribute to that long struggle.
Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii says
Thank you for your full-throated response and for your willingness to share some of your personal histories — both written and in video format, it certainly helps ground any responses that I might have to your comments.
That said, I am torn in terms of how to respond — I am naturally inclined to take the tedious route of addressing claims, points, and arguments one by one, but it may be a more useful tact to ignore those things altogether and try to just look at your central claim, as well as the kind of sense that I’m getting from you about “privilege” generally.
I’ll try the second, less tedious approach, and we’ll see how successful it is.
Also, I like using dumb, obvious examples (when I’m able to pull them off) in arguments because they tend to illustrate whatever point I’m trying to make in a fairly succinct manner and they personally help me with the process of developing my larger argument(s) — please don’t take my fondness for using obvious examples and tedious explanations as some kind of insult to your intelligence.
As a forewarning, as an admission that I don’t totally know where you’re coming from or what you know and understand about IP and everything else, I am again going to try to describe how some of the things that you say sound to me. So again, my apologies for any sentiments, etc. that I attribute to you, but which you find to be patently obvious and/or untrue.
The way that you say some things still leaves me with the impression that you think that there is a kind of 1-to-1-to-1 equivalence between 1) being rich/white/straight/male, 2) having privilege, and 3) blindly acting with/in a privileged way; that they are all somehow mutually inclusive with one another. If I’m wrong, if I’m stating the obvious…again, please correct me.
To make things simple and general, let’s just say that if you ARE a rich, white, straight male (RWSM or even a SWML), then you HAVE privilege plain and simple — right?
If you’re rich (or were brought up in a wealthy family), you have access to better opportunities, education, neighborhoods, health, food, etc. — right? If you’re white, then the history books and Western culture and civilization is all about how great you are, how trustworthy and good you are — right? If you’re straight, you again get popularly valorized and can go almost anywhere in the world without fearing that your sexual orientation might be an invitation for people to hate and hurt you — right? If you’re a man, history and cultures around the world celebrate you as a leader and protector, as being endowed with power and authority; in the popular imagination, your promiscuity can be celebrated and you don’t have to live with the fear (generally speaking) of being sexually assaulted — right?
So, each aspect of being a RWSM is endowed with various unearned benefits — right? You’re just born into some combination of those identities, and then you get all of these bonuses that you yourself didn’t do anything to earn. And, in some general sense, you can’t really change those identities that you were born into — they’re sort of beyond your control in a general kind of a way. You are who you are (mostly).
I’m sure that you already know all of this, recognize it, etc. Maybe you’re thinking that this sort of sentiment is exactly why my last long post was so frustrating. I understand…it just takes me a while to build up to the points that I’m trying to make.
So, 1) BEING privileged and 2) HAVING privilege are kind of synonymous, they’re kind of mutually inclusive…if one of them exists, then the other one also necessarily exists — right?
Moreover, while I recognize that for some folks calling out the fact that someone IS privileged and therefore HAS privilege(s) counts as a superficial kind of “critique,” I am hesitant to think that that is the core of what other, more serious folks are calling out (of course I could be wrong).
To the best that I can, I understand the way that you’re feeling in the sense that I’m hearing you say that RWSM/SWM(L) are being reviled for just being born/raised/acculturated a certain way. I’ll admit that that is probably true; but again, I don’t think that that is the full picture. Again, I don’t even know if that is the picture that you have in your head.
So then, what are we leaving out?
We are leaving out number 3 — blindly acting with/in a privileged way.
I’m sure that you understand what that means as well. Nonetheless, excuse me while I proceed to take the long road to make my point.
For example, if you’re rich, you have all these bonuses that you blindly assume that everyone has and/or don’t understand why people get upset when they don’t have them, or why people get upset when you unknowingly and inconsiderately flaunt those bonuses in front of them, or why people get upset when you behave as if you’re entitled to some kind of deference from the “peasants,” etc. This sort of sentiment holds true across lines of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, etc. I’m sure that you get this kind of point too.
So, when you say things like, “if [rich white men] are giving lots of money to Democrats and support progressive taxation then I *would* defend them,” then I feel a little confused about how you’re understanding all of this and/or where you’re coming down on things.
To me, identity politics isn’t about just calling someone out because they are rich (although that certainly can be part of a structural analysis of wealth inequality, etc.). To me, IP is kind of about recognizing that you have blinders on and that it would be better if you took them off.
For example, you could be a rich Republican who whole-heartedly celebrates capitalism and wealth, and who participates via their business in generating an ever-widening gap between the haves and the have nots, but who nonetheless doesn’t blindly behave in interpersonal exchanges as if they’re entitled to treat other people like they’re “less than,” who doesn’t assume that everyone’s access to “life bonuses” is just like theirs, who doesn’t treat the janitor like “the janitor,” and who maybe carries their own luggage, instead of indignantly waiting around for “the help” to come pick it up for them, etc. Conversely, you could be a RWSM who gives “lots of money to Democrats and support[s] progressive taxation [and causes],” but who nonetheless still feels entitled to treat other people like they’re “less than” just because they don’t occupy the “right” station in life.
In that sense, we can celebrate their financial support of progressive causes on the one hand, while being critical of the fact that they’re being a total rich jerk to people who work in janitorial services (or wherever) — a rich jerk who still doesn’t get why treating people without the “right” pedigree like there’s something “wrong” with them is still a self-inflicted wound that is supportive of the interpersonal and structural mechanisms of oppression. We need big policy changes and interpersonal changes — as they say, it’s not an either/or situation, but a both/and situation.
I’m sure that you get that, but sometimes some of your sentiments leave me a little confused.
2. Central Claim(s)
I’ll do my best to identify what I think are some of your main points. As I understand it, you’re claiming that —
A. (R)SWMLs are the undeserving target of abuse within IP circles.
B. The ideas and thoughts of (R)SWMLs are unfairly discounted on the mere basis that those ideas were spoken by (R)SWMLs.
C. (R)SWMLs support progressive causes and are a needed constituency in pushing for progressive change, but feel discluded/excommunicated from the progressive body politic simply because of the way that they were “born” (i.e., as (R)SWMs).
If that is what you’re saying, then I hear it. (R)SWMLs probably are targets of abuse in some circles, their ideas probably are discounted simply because of their source, and IP is definitely a fractious endeavor at a time when finding commonalities is really important. I am also totally willing to concede/accept that some of it might be overblown, might be undeserved, and might even be some kind of activism fad/fetishism and/or a stand-in for deep political change.
However, when there is a large constituency of folks who feel deeply marginalized and abused by (R)SWMs generally, and maybe by (R)SWMLs in particular, it seems like a really hard ask — if not totally problematic, to insist that the abused start doing the legwork to “willy nilly” start accommodating all those who are signifiers of the abuser. To me, it’s pretty messed up to put the onus on the victim to rectify the situation (or even to just implicitly suggest as much). To do so suggests to me that the abuse that marginalized people experience isn’t being taken seriously and that the people occupying the position of “abuser” think that it’s not a problem if they just ignore the complaints of the abused — isn’t this precisely the reenactment of the privileged position…”I don’t have to consider/respect your pain because your pain isn’t something that I have to experience.”
By doing that, aren’t we just putting all the blame on marginalized people for speaking up? Are we just thinking — “It’s ‘their’ problem?” or “What’s wrong with ‘them’ that they think they have a right to have a problem with me…I haven’t done anything wrong?” or “Why are ‘they’ so angry all the time?” I don’t know if this is how you are, but to the extent that it is true, I think that it’s important to recognize that (R)SWMLs are always already implicated in the problem. Hence, it’s not a problem for “them” over there, but a problem for everyone…especially (R)SWMLs. In other words, what are (R)SWMLs going to do to help make things better?
Consequently, when we make arguments along these lines, are we really saying that marginalized people who are upset are the “problem people?”
When we make claims that suggest that everyone should just get along so that we can freely exchange ideas, what is the implicit subtext of that notion? — Are we suggesting that we should all just pretend to be (R)SWMLs who all have the same sets of problems, as in everyone should just “act like me?” Should marginalized people just pretend to be (R)SWMLs so that they can be considered “the right kind of progressive?” Are we suggesting that (R)SWMLs and “the right kind of progressive” are synonymous?
I don’t know if any of that applies in your situation, but that’s how it sometimes sounds to me — I don’t mean any disrespect, I’m just being honest.
Moreover, I get that you don’t like the fractious noise of IP, or that you find it annoying, but what is your solution?
As I’m sure you know, part of the problem is that marginalized people don’t and have not historically gotten a seat at the table, their voices and ideas have literally been sidelined and de-centered — the good ideas and the bad ones. Oppression is a obviously a problem, and one that is quite clearly nested within a rhetoric of difference.
Should the solution really be that we need to make sure that the voices of (R)SWMLs continue to be centered in each and every conversation, especially ones about marginalization?
Is the solution that we just need more (R)SWML voices in general?
I think that it’s pretty obvious that it’s long overdue that marginalized people have a voice…their own voice at the center of the their own experience at the center of our collective cultural plane.
What is the fallout from this?
There are tons of (R)SWMLs in the US, and they are absolutely potential allies that are needed for progressive causes, but lots of people are tired of listening to everything in the key of (R)SWML# and want to change the station and listen to something different for a while.
This means that (R)SWM(L)s might not get as much screen time, they don’t get to be the center of the conversation, they don’t get to be the center of attention, they don’t get to set the tone and the agenda — even when they have good intentions and better ideas. That’s okay — right? Part of letting others speak is getting out of the way so that they can, especially when they feel like they previously weren’t allowed to or couldn’t speak. There’s no reason why (R)SWMLs can’t find other ways to participate and be supportive and build community and share ideas, and no reason why they can’t do it in a way utilizes the assets of (R)SWMLs-ness to support others, while simultaneously de-centering (R)SWML-ness in a way that gives others the chance to find their voice and be heard and which sets up a situation for all of us to have more parity of voice.
Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii says
This is just a side conversation that I wrote as a follow up to my last comment and before I saw your most recent response. I’m not trying to get bogged down in side conversations…we are already talking about quite a lot, so please take this aside with a grain of salt…
I just reread some of your post and noticed your line, “How about if we judge people by their ideology instead of their identity?”
Great idea and I totally agree, except that that never occurs in a vacuum, as I’m sure you know. Consequently, I don’t know what that means to you or how you make sense of it.
How are we going to create a stronger progressive “movement,” or (hopefully) a stronger, better progressive philosophical orientation, or even just a better philosophical tradition — in other words, how are we going to upend structures and practices of marginalization if we continue to be okay with centering (R)WSM(L)s who already have the unearned benefit of being the loudest voice in the room.
Does uncritically allowing those voices that already have a leg up to continue to be centered really help create a more inclusive environment, a more richly textured ecosystem of ideas? Does it deter marginalization only in word, but not in practice? Does it actually further the world of ideas?
I of course fully understand that a proliferation of voices and diversity of perspectives is not the same thing as having ideas be evaluated simply on their own terms.
However, let’s be honest, even if the most well-intentioned (R)WSMLs continue to maintain a privileged position at the center of “whatever it is,” then they have a de facto concentration of power and bias that may tend to tilt towards people that are most like them, people that they identify with, and ideas that they are most familiar with, etc. At least, this seems to be how history has unsurprisingly played out. Why should we assume that things would change just because we make the virtuous appeal that the “best ideas” should and will rise to the top in a magical value-neutral context where we can all evaluate them in a state of perfectly unbiased equanimity? — (though I’m willing to grant that “philosophy” is probably one of the most well-equipped traditions to do just that). As I’m sure you know, ideas and the material reality from which they spring never arise in an identity-neutral context, so why should we assume that their subsequent evaluation would?
Even in IP circles, how inclusive is that situation when it just consists of a bunch of (R)WSMLs self-flagellating and lamenting their privileges to attempt to “atone” for their “sins” — whatever that means.
It seems totally idiotic for a bunch (R)WSMLs to get together and talk about how they all need to come together, but aren’t willing to do the hard work of actually reaching out to people who are different from themselves. (I say this recognizing that you yourself don’t sit on the sidelines).
If we’re going to come together, then we have to actually reach out and make room for each other to come together, and part of that means not having to constantly be at the center of the action, part of that means letting others speak who haven’t had a turn or who have been afraid to speak. That said, if people are shutting you down, shutting you out, and discounting your ideas all the time ONLY because you are a (R)WSML, then you should either address that with them or maybe find a different group that you can work with because those folks sound like a bunch of jerks. idk.
I get that IP is full of problems (e.g., perhaps awkward 20-somethings trying to make sense of the world and/or a frighteningly censorial policing of language), but IP has something to say, especially about the factors that play into people’s identities that — as you know, put their lives at risk. I don’t think it’s wise to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and at the very least I have yet to hear a good argument as to why we should — if you have one, then I’m ready to get “blown away.”
Difference is part of our reality — we need to talk about it, understand it, etc. so that we actually create a sincere and reconciled unity, so that we can make that rhetoric of commonality true in deed and not just word. As painfully dumb and obvious as it is — and as something that I’m pretty sure that you know from firsthand experience, difference doesn’t disappear just because we don’t talk about it or pretend like it’s not a factor.
I don’t know what solution there is that simultaneously deals with the problems that arise from racism, sexism, classism, and heteronormativity, etc. on the one hand, without actually ever addressing the existence of those things and how they actually affect people’s lives and interpersonal interactions on the other hand. I’m not saying that we all have to get along in some kind of idiotic Kumbaya circle, but I also don’t think it’s totally healthy if we all continue to just live in our own balkanized realities right next to each other while pretending like those balkanized realities don’t carry the weight of oppressive practices. Whatever rhetoric of commonality is found, I really feel that it also has to do something to seriously subvert each and every rhetoric of difference that allows for the proliferation of marginalizing practices — otherwise, that commonality is just some more of that same superficial, hollow garbage — “Hope. Change;” “I’m with Her;” etc.
Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii says
As an addendum and much like a dog who enjoys the sound of its own howl, I feel compelled to add a few more comments…
I feel like you may find the first comment at least a little interesting, and the second one perhaps a real bore and a little off topic, but I just wanted to throw these ideas into the mix to hopefully keep things a little more nuanced.
1. Manners vs. Political Correctness
This comment from Nick Burbidge in the PEL blog post, “The Fate of Slavoj Zizek,” by Douglas Lain seems pertinent here. There, Burbidge notes:
“The demands of certain strands of political correctness, ISIS, Trump, Brexit, and the anxiety-inducing jargonising of business and politics all have at least one thing in common: they are an appeal to the superego.
Good manners are different from political correctness. The first thinks of the other person. The second is [a] set of courtly rules, and woe betide you if you are on the wrong side. The Breitbart Nazi boys understand this perfectly and, in the most cynical move, set themselves up as freedom fighters.”
2. The Limits of Tolerance
I’d also like to introduce ideas about the limits of tolerance — while noting that these ideas cut both ways (i.e., the intolerance of bigots vs. the intolerance of identity politics & the intolerance of intolerance vis-a-vis identity politics), I’d like to suggest that they cut one way much more heavily than the other. Moreover, I don’t know enough about these types of arguments to have a firm understanding of them one way or the other, but these two quotes from Karl Popper and John Rawls — aside from being an appeal to authority, are certainly “food for thought” in that regard. Both quotes are from a Salon article called, “Milo, Donald Trump and the outer limits of hate speech: When does absolute freedom of speech endanger democracy?” To that end…
A — Popper is quoted as saying about a maximally tolerant society, “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”
2 — To echo that, Rawls is quoted as saying that, “While an intolerant sect does not itself have title to complain of intolerance, its freedom should be restricted only when the tolerant sincerely and with reason believe that their own security and that of the institutions of liberty are in danger.”
Alan Thomas says
Synchronicity: this comment delves into something I was thinking about bringing up with you anyway. This NPR interview with a representative of the ACLU nicely illustrates what kind of liberal I am (because I am first and foremost an ACLU liberal) vs what a lot of their new members apparently misunderstood the ACLU to be:
I have always been inspired by the Skokie case. Anyone else who might be disgusted rather than inspired, there’s actually a pretty significant ideological chasm between us, and I’m really not sure how to bridge that.
Athena Sophia Speculi Ustorii says
Thanks for the link…synchronicity indeed.
Also, I just wanted to apologize if my tone gets a little harsh, obnoxious, tedious, etc. in my other response to you that I posted today. I have a hard time telling how it all comes across sometimes, and I also know that I can get (unnecessarily) “fired up” behind the keyboard sometimes. At any rate, If I come across as a jerk, my apologies. I’m enjoying our discussion.
Alan Thomas says
Agreed. I’m enjoying it too. I sometimes find myself frustrated by some of your viewpoints, but then I remind myself that the main thrust of my argument is that we need to avoid being too fractious on the left and try to assemble a broad coalition that admits of and tolerates disagreement (within reason).
nothing’s more interesting than somebody else’s business.
the French say to cherche la femme when there is inter-human discord. but following Abe Marlow’s hierarchy of needs, i think money is at the root of social discord today.
has anyone tried to analyze IP in light of Rene Girard’s mimetic desire? in particular, there is a world of hurt emanating from $20,000,000,000 debt, and it falls right in the laps of gen-Xers and millennials. $, and not politics, is what is at issue when identity class-A rubs up against class-B. each of us wanting is the problem.
(note: $20,000,000,000 is more money than God can scratch up)
for liberals, Trump or Fox News is not the best scapegoat and Marx a-la Bernie is no salve. and Trump sure ain’t God.