Being privileged is an uncomfortable position. People are made to feel like they are responsible for the victimization of other groups. Coupled with the fact that privilege is invisible, the privileged are made to feel guilty for something they believe does not really exist. This is a position which must elicit some response.
The most obvious response is to try to claim the higher ground of victimhood and project the violence of one’s privileged group onto the victimized group. Because this is a reaction mainly based on hatred, this is the reaction of more aggressive people. I have written about this in earlier entries, and I have nothing new to add about it.
The other response is to defend one’s own ego and deflect blame by adopting a “progressive” ideology or taking “progressive” actions, which “proves” that one cannot be blamed (“I’m not part of the problem, I’m helping!”) and that their privilege is no longer relevant. These ideologies have a great variety of theoretical purposes, and people who follow them do not explicitly believe that they are using a defense mechanism.
* Social justice movement and hashtag movements: These Internet movements have arisen recently, with seemingly good intentions. They give Internet users the feeling that they’re doing something, anything, to help resolve a social or international issue. In reality, such movements not only don’t actually accomplish anything except occupy space on the Internet, but they can also potentially be damageable.
Although it is not an ideology or a movement, I think the phenomenon of tone policing is in some way related to these. A lot of social justice on the Internet seems to consist of tone policing and reframings of very personal issues (like sexuality and gender), which makes it simultaneously profoundly offensive and silencing.
* Positive thinking movement, self-help movement, New Age movement: Superficially, again, these movements seem like they are powerful agents for change. They promise you the Moon (become the best you you can be! get the kind of life you want! evolve to a higher plane of existence!) and portray themselves as the ultimate solution to social problems.
But from a radical standpoint, there are fundamental problems with any “solution” which concentrates on individuality. Social problems cannot have individual solutions because individual action cannot change the institutions which (through various social constructs and their concrete implementation) are the cause of those problems.
Another fundamental problem is that such ideologies ultimately amount to blaming the victim, and institutional causes are ignored. If your life is not as good as you wish, it’s your fault for not being positive enough. The hardships in your life are the result of your lack of evolution. Got fired? Got raped? Got imprisoned? The institutions have nothing to do with it, you just need to learn from these events and become a better person. You are responsible for your own hardships.
At this point, the “solution” actually becomes part of the problem. The more we concentrate on ourselves, the less we are able to change the actual agents in society that harm and exploit people. Nourishing the ego in such an introverted fashion ultimately means hurting the world.
I would also include Buddhism in this category, if the practitioner becomes a Buddhist for selfish reasons.
* Charity: There is no easier recipe to feeling like you’re doing your part than to throw some money at a charity. But the emphasis on charity turns welfare into an individual endeavor, and diverts attention from political solutions. As Janet Poppendieck discusses in Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, charity is necessary to alleviate poverty in the absence of political engagement, but it is a time and energy trap for the providers and for the donors, making real solutions impossible to achieve:
There is a little of Wenceslas in most of us. We, too, “find blessing” in exerting ourselves on behalf of the poor, especially if we can simultaneously prevent waste. And we, too, have become distracted by these labors from challenges that urgently require our attention. This is what might be called the “Wenceslas syndrome,” the process by which the joys and demands of personal charity divert us from more fundamental solutions to the problems of deepening poverty and growing inequality, and the corresponding process by which the diversion of our efforts leaves the way wide open to those who want more inequality, not less. The Wenceslas syndrome is not just something that happens to individuals and groups that become deeply involved in charitable activity; it is a collective process that affects our entire society as charity replaces entitlements and charitable endeavor replaces politics.
* Liberal feminism, sex-positivity, trans genderism: Here I am talking mostly about men, since they are the ones with privilege where gender is concerned. Men call themselves “feminists” and “sex-positive” in order to show that they are on the side of women and that they oppose the objectification and exploitation of women, but these ideologies are individualistic, promote objectification, and exploit female bodies and “consent.”
It’s been proven by studies that men who insert themselves into female-dominated fields are given more attention, and I think this is also true of liberal feminism. In practice, many men adopt feminism as a way to attract women or as a rape blanket; by the latter, I mean an opportunity to rape a woman without losing the support of other women because they are ostensibly “feminists” and “one of the good guys” (a real “good guy” wouldn’t claim to be a “feminist” and wouldn’t talk over women’s voices in the first place).
* Cultural relativism: Of all the ideologies I list here, relativism is perhaps the one that’s closest to the “hate” side of the scale. Certainly there is something very hateful to posit that an individual who’s victimized by a cultural practice is not “really” a victim and that we (meaning, Westerners) should just accept all cultural practices, including those who entail harm or death to innocent people.
But I think that in some way relativism does bolster their ego as well. There is something attractively self-righteous in the notion that we should just accept the practices of other cultures and stop criticizing. It feels respectful and right, and makes the person appear as if they support the self-determination of other cultures against imperialist conceits.
The problem comes when we actually look at real acts happening in the world. Acts are not done on cultures, they are done on individuals. And when we look at the fact that cultural relativism is telling us that the suffering of actual people is irrelevant because their culture has authorized it, then we can see how much hatred is hidden behind the self-righteousness.
So unlike the other ideologies on this list, the problem with cultural relativism is not its vulgar individualism but rather its complete inability to confront individuality. It does not propose absurdly individualistic solutions; rather, it proposes doing absolutely nothing because it refuses to acknowledge that there is any problem. In this, again, it is more similar to the hate ideologies than the ego ideologies.
Since I am now mentioning hate ideologies, let me talk about a few of them. Most of the ideologies on this list has a “hateful” counterpart (I can’t think of any specific counterpart for the social justice movement):
* Conservatism (hardships are your fault, you deserve no help) for positive thinking/self-help (hardships can be alleviated by thinking right, you can help yourself).
* Capitalism (social problems will either be solved by the free market or should not be solved) for charity (poverty can be alleviated by you giving money or time).
* MRAs and anti-feminism in general (it is in the natural order of things for women to be oppressed) for liberal feminism and sex-positivity (choosing to be oppressed is freedom).
* Imperialism (we must impose our culture on others) for cultural relativism (we cannot criticize any culture).
You may note that, except for the last point, there appears to be few differences between my comparative descriptions. Indeed, one of my points here is that while these hate and ego ideologies may superficially be seen as opposites, they really are complementary.
So you’ve got positive thinking coming straight off American religious conservatism (see the book Bright Sided for the history of this). You’ve got charity being used by a wide range of (money-raking) religions, businesses, and umbrella organizations to justify their existence. You’ve got the genderists from the right and the genderists from the left basically playing from the same pro-pornography, pro-prostitution, pro-gender roles, pro-rape playbook (in both cases the objective is the protection of male privilege, but for different reasons). And finally, the belief that there is no right or wrong can only lead to the rule of force (because who’s to say that force is bad?).
I am not saying that these ideologies are always used as defense mechanisms. I am also not saying that people can’t hold to one without the other. Obviously you can be into positive thinking or self-help without being a conservative, or a sex-positive advocate without being explicitly anti-feminist. My point is not that these things are the same, but that from a general radicalist standpoint they are adjacent and self-reinforcing pieces of the same puzzle.
If you look again at the three stages of reasoning, I think “hate” ideologies align with the reactionary stage, “ego” ideologies with the libertarian stage, and radicalism with the liberationist stage. And this makes a lot of sense: reactionary ideologies generate hatred for people who don’t keep the party line and hierarchical inferiors, while libertarian individualism massages the ego.
Individualistic ideologies have two facets to their individualism. First, which I’ve discussed extensively as regards to voluntaryism, is the evaluations of actions as if they exist in a vacuum (divorced from any social context, historical context, class theory, or consequences). Second is that the individual is sold on the idea that his or her personal actions are powerful and that individual action can affect social problems (and by extension that failure to resolve one’s problems is the result of individual failure). The latter is what interests us here.
As always, the radicalist response is, as in the three stages of reasoning, that the evil principled stance of the reactionaries and the mindless individualism of the libertarians are the equally incorrect thesis and antithesis which provide a springboard for integrated, systemic reasoning. The radicalist position is both principled and freedom-seeking, but unlike both alternatives it states that social problems cannot be resolved without seeking knowledge about the facts of the matter. The typical reactionary stance is that there are no facts of the matter, only allegiances and inter-subjective truths, and the typical libertarian stance is that facts are irrelevant: both are mired in the subjectivist viewpoint (either that belief creates reality, or a complete refusal to confront reality).
In this entry I did not mention much of religion or politics, although they are an important part of bourgeois defense mechanisms as well. Perhaps this will be a topic for a future entry.