Saturday, September 10, 2016

Rotten All Around

A friend of mine from Google+ pointed me to an interesting article in Current Affairs: The Pathologies of Privilege. It’s subtitled “Everyone knows privilege is a rotten thing. But should it be excised or democratized?” Leaving aside for a moment the false dichotomy of that question (and why on Earth one would want to democratize something rotten), it’s interesting and thought provoking. But like a lot of things that are thought provoking, it does a better job of prompting thought than withstanding it. (Let’s see if I do any better, shall we?)

At its core, this article makes a simple point - a variation on one I made on my blog back in 2012, and that I’m sure that any number of other people have made.

If by “privilege” we mean “having the good fortune to do better than a life characterized by want, disease, poverty, corruption and the occasional wild animal attack,” then I guess I must accept the label, despite my misgivings about it - the world’s desperately poor should be considered deprived and straited, not the baseline that only injustice allows us to exceed.
Nobody In Particular. Privilege Monday, 3 Sept. 2012
But the way the article makes this point comes across as a case of “hard cases make bad law,” in that the focus on nationally publicized cases where uninformed opinions are thick on the ground skews the results. If you label everyone who thinks that Brock Turner got away with something unjustly as a “progressive” it’s easy to find instances of the institutional hypocrisy of “progressives[...] voicing sentiments somewhat contrary to the ordinary progressive position on punishment.” Especially when one doesn’t bother to define “progressive” or establish the progressive bone-fides of the speaker. After all, who cares what “one internet commentator” has to say about anything? Unless they can be demonstrated to be some sort of political “thought leader,” rather than some random troll, so what?

While less strident than The Daily Wire article that calls out “Brienne of Snarth,” the general intent is the same - use references to “white privilege” to mark the speaker as “progressive/leftist” and then be shocked, shocked that they don’t live up to the high-minded straitjacket of being the second coming of Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and Teresa of Kolkata.

I understand the general critique of the language of privilege. Somewhere, it seems, there is a person with no privilege whatsoever. And I really, really do not want to be that person. Because “privilege” is neither a formal political nor philosophical concept in the minds of most people, it’s meaning has gradually shaded into “unearned ways in which one person’s life is less crappy than someone who is just as, if not more, deserving.” And the winner of that particular World Series of Misery Poker has to be leading an absolutely pathetic existence.

But this article operates under an expectation that the entirely of the American public who consider themselves to be “Left of Center” are, by virtue of that fact, required to live up to an understanding of what the American Left should be like that is held by someone who is not themselves a member, and apparently sees little room for nuance, disagreement or the simple emotionality of life. “[E]mpathy and a belief in people’s common humanity,” may be a characteristic of all of the people, some of the time or some of the people all of the time. But even those two scenarios are so unlikely that it being a characteristic of all of the people, all of the time, is simply a pipe dream. And the expectation that any group of people large enough to have entered the public consciousness (and membership in which is self-determined) will have all of its members demonstrate “empathy and a belief in people’s common humanity” is every public utterance they make seems like a setup.

If you’re going to imagine a system in which two, or maybe three, sizes literally fit every single person in a nation of hundreds of millions of adults who sees fit to have an opinion about something, you’re going to wind up with some truly remarkable fashion disasters along the way. Especially when for many people on the both the Left and the Right, their main driver in the camp that they’ve chosen is simply not being a member of the opposite camp. Big tents almost always wind up having enough room for people who are otherwise as cross purposes with one another.

But there is another piece to the puzzle that is unspoken of, and I find it curious. The article’s author “Z.W. Rochefort” (who appears to have written nothing else for Current Affairs and to have a remarkably blank online presence) says:
Yet many of the social assets classified as “white privilege” are actually good things, to which human beings ought to be entitled. That which is granted to white people as a “privilege” should not be treated as a “privilege” at all, but as part of the basic dignity of all human-to-human interaction and taken-for-granted courtesy.
So answer me this: Were the “extremely generous terms of [Ethan Couch’s] probation” or Brock Turner’s six-month sentence something “to which human beings ought to be entitled” and “as part of the basic dignity of all human-to-human interaction and taken-for-granted courtesy?” Even “the granting of a hamburger” to Dylann Roof, while it seems trivial in the grand scheme of things, can be considered suspect - because when Rochefort makes the case that “the injustice committed was [...] the denial of hamburgers to others” that would seem to indicate that part of the basic dignity of all human-to-human interaction and taken-for-granted courtesy to which human beings ought to be entitled includes having the arresting officer buy food for them, rather than allowing the jail to take care of that function. Do jails not feed their inmates any longer?

I will freely admit that we often conflate the salving of our feelings of importance and worth through trading pain for pain with “justice.” And I’ll freely admit that prisons can be remarkably unpleasant places out of all proportion with the function that we wish them to serve. But I am uncertain that it follows from that “extremely generous” terms of probation should be considered the standard that we consistently aspire to.

The fact that I see injustice in extremes does not mean that either extreme, harshness or generosity, should become the new normal. Rochefort seems to believe that a sentence of greater than six months in prison for someone literally caught in the act of remorselessly sexually assaulting an unconscious woman (which is, from what I understand, putting it mildly) somehow violates the idea that prison time “should be meted out only sparingly and with extreme restraint, if at all.” While I will admit to not having done the research on this, I am fairly confident that if the only people in our prisons for longer than six months today were those who were apprehended during or in the immediate aftermath of crimes as serious or more serious than rape, the American prison population would be vanishingly small.

One last thing. I’ve only briefly touched on the reaction of “one internet commentator” to the death of Lane Graves. Mainly because it’s only tangential to the point that I was making above. But it is worth talking about. “Brienne of Snarth’s” comment: “I’m so finished with white men’s entitlement lately that I’m really not sad about a 2yo being eaten by a gator [because] his daddy ignored signs,” the the partisan nature of the reaction to same, reminded me of the story of Shirley Chambers. She made the news back in 2013 when the last of her four children was murdered in Chicago. NPR has since deleted all of their comment sections, but suffice it to say that there were some fairly judgmental comments about Ms. Chambers. Which is unsurprising, after all “Parents’ judginess of other parents” has been fairly well established. And if you believe that the same social factors play into general understandings of proper parenting to a similar degree to whether or not someone is arrested for drug use, it becomes easy to see how the broader societal choice - or the choice of “one internet commentator” to blame or absolve parents in the death of a child becomes a proxy for the broader debate around privilege. And in the ongoing (if ever shifting) Culture Wars, a common battlefield tactic is to withhold “empathy and a belief in people’s common humanity,” from those the other side appears to support, as a punishment for their own withholding of the same from those people the Culture Warrior supports.

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