29.1.15

IRRELEVANT HOTHOUSES.

Swarthmore's Timothy Burke has recently embarked on a series of posts (sailing under the banner of grasping the nettle) attempting to deal with his "perplexity and unease about online discourse, about academia, and about the political moment."  One of the posts deals with privilege-checking.
There’s an odd thing about privilege-checking as it has evolved into a shaming slogan, a sort of taunt. Shame only works if the target has an internal sense that the moral argument of the shamers is valid, or if the shamers reflect an overwhelmingly dominant social consensus such that it takes an iron will to refuse to be shamed.
Would that it were so simple.  Jessica Valenti, responding to a gripe by Jonathan Chait about being hectored for aggrieving the Perpetually Aggrieved, offers a bon mot.  "If the worst thing ‘PCness’ does is make people occasionally feel uncomfortable when they do and say terrible things, we can all live with that."  Or, more simply, that the mannerly thing to do might be to recognize that others experience reality differently, and generalizing from your own experience handicaps your thinking.

Professor Burke, however, in grasping one nettle, grafts on a bramble.
But “privilege” as a concept essentially takes its cues from a deep body of pre-existing social theory and social history that dissects the origins and continuing maintenance of inequality. Much of that body of theory argues that in some fashion or another, inequality is functional to the individuals, groups and institutions that sustain it, that it is the product of self-interest. Part of the point behind that general argument is to aggressively dissent from other bodies of theory that see inequality as the natural outcome of meritocracy, competition, or intrinsic pre-existing differences between human beings, to argue instead that inequality has a history and is an active creation of social processes and institutional power.
Yes, and the framework from which inequality of condition emerges might be distinct from the framework from which privilege of a mode of thinking or of a way of doing things emerges.  The processes of emergence, however, are probably not orthogonal.
It would be possible to argue that inequality is both a product of historical circumstances but not self-interested, e.g., that it is an emergent or unintended (if undesirable) outcome of processes and actions that were undertaken for other reasons. To the extent to which that is true, calling out privilege might be a genuinely educational gesture, and one where it’s plausible that the person named as privileged would have no vested desire to defend that status.
Sorry, forty years of thinking like an economist makes me reluctant to accept any emergent phenomenon in which self-interest isn't involved.  Put simply: privilege might accrue to expertise (otherwise, why not pick the anonymous referees for The Review of Economics and Statistics out of the Boston telephone directory) or it might be reputational capital.  Here, however, is an opportunity to contest the status of privilege (more precisely, of prior performance).
Such strong relationships are echoed in Japan's tightly knit firms, some of which are clannish to their roots. Mitsubishi, for instance, started life in 1870 running the ships of the Tosa clan from an island in southern Japan. Though it is now one of the world's biggest trading companies, it still displays signs spelling out the founding family's core principles everywhere. Its employees are encouraged to drink Kirin beer because its makers are part of the Mitsubishi family. The companies think this tribalism is a source of strength. Innovators generally bring dedication, fame and fortune to their firms rather than striking out on their own.

Like many tribes, however, companies have a strict pecking order based on age. When Howard Stringer, the Welsh-born boss of Sony, last year promoted four promising Japanese middle managers to senior positions over the heads of their bosses, the chosen ones were initially nervous about accepting.

There are also lots of rules. These are useful for encouraging the attention to detail and relentless improvement that are the hallmarks of Japan's high-precision manufacturing, but they can be less helpful in the more free-spirited knowledge economy. Nor is clannishness best suited to a depopulating country. To find new markets, Japan needs to have a vibrant exchange of information with the outside world, which it has not been good at lately. It also needs to attract talented workers with adaptable skills.
And thus, Japan, Inc. became just another failed management fad.  And the diversiphiles in North American higher education might have a point.
Japanese firms' hiring practices remain inward-looking, which means their workforce may lack a global perspective. The big firms take on as many students as they can from top Japanese universities, irrespective of their skills or outside interests. They hire almost exclusively upon graduation, so studying abroad during the recruitment period is bad for applicants' job prospects. Even Japanese graduates with PhDs from foreign universities despair of getting jobs at big Japanese firms because they will be seen as overqualified. By and large Japan remains a “one-shot society”: those who fail to get a good job upon graduation can be frozen out for life.
Higher education, properly viewed, ought admit to the possibility of second chances. Or that the other fellow might know something you don't.  Here's a high-concept view of what happens to the insufficiently open-minded observer.
If inner life and insider status is framed in the context of ‘belief’ as the contention around which the possibility of access presides, then we run the risk of always encountering religions from a Christian/Euro-centric perspective.
Many kinds of insiders and outsiders, many modes of emergence, many sources of privilege.
One objective of this activity is to ensure that all students realize that everyone has experienced being both an "insider" and being an "outsider." Another objective is to encourage students to take the perspective of those who are excluded and to consider how those negative feelings affect others’ behavior in social situations. This activity can be completed in small or large groups and can be used as an icebreaker at the beginning of the semester or as a way to generate discussion about ingroups and outgroups when that topic is addressed in a course.
The harder challenge: identify circumstances in which the emergence of insiders is productive. (Hint: salaries of football coaches would be much higher if general managers or athletic directors fired one whenever the fans demanded it.)

That alternative is missing from Professor Burke's musings.
For the most part, this is not what progressive or left social theory would argue. The assumption is that the privileged benefit from their privilege, and therefore have every reason in the world to defend or maintain it. So what could possibly get them to do otherwise? Only one of two possibilities, broadly speaking. Either the mobilization of sufficient coercion or force by the victims of inequality such that they can compel the privileged to surrender some or all of their status, or the possibility of convincing the privileged that their status is either morally repugnant or is ultimately more of a risk to their long-term social existence than a more equal disposition would be.

If it’s about mobilization, the only benefit to privilege-checking is painting a bullseye on a target, of making a threat. At some point, making threats casually without the power to back them up is at the least futile, at the worst incredibly dangerous.

If it’s not–if there is some possibility of persuading a privileged person to assist in the abrasion or surrender of that privilege because that’s a thing they ought to do–it’s worth considering what that implies about the act of privilege-checking itself, and many other kinds of related communication.
Yes, and perhaps the Perpetually Aggrieved ought be careful about what they wish for, particularly if what they view as "privilege" is an emergent and productive phenomenon.
In society at large, however, privileging occurs regularly and often unintentionally. The voices and structures that are privileged, sociologically speaking, create bias and inequality.

This privileging may not have been a conscious decision, but the bias becomes a fact of life, and there are repercussions for the people who have not been privileged. There is inequality built into social structures because privilege (and hierarchy) exists in social structures.

This definition of the word privilege is what’s so often missing in discussions of privilege — because the big secret about privilege is that if it’s working as it should, no one who has it will be aware of it!

If people were openly aware of their privilege, then it wouldn’t be structural, and it wouldn’t be hidden, and it wouldn’t be privilege in the sociological sense.

Privilege in the sociological sense isn’t something you earn through compliance, and isn’t something you get by being greedy or bigoted. Privilege is structural and invisible, and you should be completely unaware of it until you become enlightened about it.
I used to suggest to beginning economics students that getting them to think about the working of markets was a lot like getting fish to think about water.  I used simpler words than "structural and invisible."  I also taught a lot about tradeoffs.  Bias toward competent engineers or imaginative sociologists: Good Thing.  Some contractors get more contracts to build bridges, and some professors get more pages in American Sociological Review: presumption in favor of a desirable outcome, in the absence of evidence to the contrary.  That's not, however, where the Perpetually Aggrieved go with it.  Back, as I must, to Ms Valenti.
We are finally approaching a critical mass of interest in ending racism, misogyny and transphobia and the ways they are ingrained into our institutions. Instead of rolling our eyes at the intensity of the feelings people have over these issues, we should be grateful that they care so much, because racism, misogyny and transphobia can and do kill people. If the price we all pay for progress for the less privileged is that someone who is more privileged gets their feelings hurt sometimes – or that they might have to think twice before opening their mouths or putting their fingers to keyboards – that’s a small damn price to pay. That’s not stopping free speech; it’s making our speech better.
No, it's creating Freakazoid Privilege.

AZZA ONE-EYED BEARDED RED-HAIRED TRANSGENDERED LESBIAN WITH A LIMP I AM OFFENDED.

Deal with it.

But perhaps that's the ethos at Swarthmore.
One of the dirty secrets of Swarthmore is that we both stigmatize and undervalue the professional world. There is a certain disdain we hold towards those who come to college for not-so-idealistic reasons; coming to Swarthmore to increase your prospects of financial security, maybe even a six-figure income in the future, is not something you tell people here.
Time for introspection, or perhaps a different sort of privilege-checking.
Academia is a wonderful career to pursue and I don’t want it to seem like I am knocking academia. But perhaps it is time we thought about how our orientation towards learning for learning’s sake, as unifying as we may find it, can also secretly be an alienating force. And this does a disservice to all of our students, not only to future career-seekers.
The two are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps a consensus that thirty years of interrogating power and deconstructing institutions and checking privilege becomes an intellectual dead end will emerge.

SECOND SECTION.  My perspective goes beyond the same 200 people who write the entire Cool Kid Progressive Media.  Read and understand.

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