Category Archive 'Privilege'

15 Jul 2018

“Diversity”

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In Hedgehog Review, Matthew B. Crawford explains precisely why “Diversity” is essential to the contemporary meritocratic Haute Bourgeois community of fashion.

[B]ourgeois society is fundamentally competitive. One has to enact one’s social value anew each day. …

The competition inherent in bourgeois society is responsible for its unprecedented ability to create wealth. But there is a problem. Furet writes that “the idea of the universality and equality of man, which [bourgeois society] claims as its foundation and is its primary innovation, is constantly negated by the inequality of property and wealth produced by the competition of its members. Its development belies its principle, and its dynamic undercuts its legitimacy. The bourgeoisie did not invent the division of society into classes, but by cloaking that division in an ideology that renders it illegitimate, they tinged it with suffering.”

The suffering is not confined to those who find themselves on the bottom. Furet is especially perceptive on the psychological effect of this contradiction on those who rise to the top: a kind of bourgeois self-hatred. He suggests that this sentiment is the secret source of the revolutionary passion (and in milder form, we might add, of liberal guilt).

The ongoing ferment on campus reveals the university as the site where the paradox of bourgeois society is most acute. As gatekeeper to the upper middle class, the elite university has as its primary social function the sorting of the population. (And it seeks rents commensurate with occupying such a choice position.) It detects existing inequalities, exacerbates them, and certifies them. And whatever else it does, it serves as a finishing school where the select learn to recognize one another, forging a class consciousness that has lately hardened into a de facto caste system. But for that very reason, by the logic Furet identifies, it is also the place where the sentiment that every inequality is illegitimate must be performed most strenuously.

In times of broadly shared upward mobility, this contradiction was perhaps less keenly felt. But for reasons that are only now coming to be broadly understood, once the Cold War ended, the economy increasingly took on the shape of a winner-take-all competition. The self-applied, legitimizing balm of campus progressivism became more necessary than ever.

But simply becoming more noisy about equality wouldn’t do the trick. Some conceptual innovation was needed, one that would shift the terms in such a way as to ease the contradiction. Enter “diversity.”

This concept claims descent from a lineage of shining democratic moments in the struggle for equal rights that we rightly celebrate: John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the statesmanship by which Nelson Mandela averted civil war in South Africa. But the family resemblance turns out to be superficial when one grasps the function “diversity” serves as a principle of administration in today’s political economy.

As Michael Lind has written, “Neoliberalism—the hegemonic ideology of the transatlantic elite—pretends that class has disappeared in societies that are purely meritocratic, with the exception of barriers to individual upward mobility that still exist because of racism, misogyny, and homophobia.” Marking out the corresponding classes of persons for special solicitude is thus key to sustaining the democratic legitimacy of our major institutions. Or, rather, the point is to shift the basis of that legitimacy away from democratic considerations toward “moral” ones. These have the advantage that they can be managed through the control of language, which has become a central feature of institutional life.

The concept of diversity first germinated in the corporate world, and was quickly seized upon by academia in the 1990s. It arrived just in the nick of time. The previous two decades had seen the traditional mission of the university undermined, if not abandoned, under pressure from a highly politicized turn in the humanities that made its case in epistemic terms, essentially debunking the very idea of knowledge. The role that the upper-tier university soon discovered for itself, upon the collapse of ideals of liberal learning, was no longer that of training citizens for humane self-government, but rather that of supplying a cadre to staff the corporations, the NGOs, and the foundations. That is, the main function of elite schools is to supply the personnel required to run things in an economy that has become more managerial than entrepreneurial.

The institutional desideratum—the political antipode to hated “privilege”—is no longer equality, but diversity. This greatly eases the contradiction Furet identified, shielding the system from democratic pressure. It also protects the self-conception of our meritocrats as agents of historical progress. As was the case with the Soviet nomenklatura, and the leading Jacobins as well, it is precisely our elite that searches out instances of lingering privilege, now understood as obstacles to fulfillment of the moral imperative of diversity. Under this dispensation, the figure of the “straight white male” (abstracted from class distinctions) has been made to do a lot of symbolic work, the heavy lifting of legitimation (in his own hapless way, as sacrificial goat). We eventually reached a point where this was more weight than our electoral system could take, as the election of 2016 revealed. Whether one regards that event as a catastrophe or as a rupture that promises the possibility of glasnost, its immediate effect has been panic in every precinct where the new class accommodations have been functioning smoothly, and a doubling down on the moralizing that previously secured them against popular anger. We’ll see how that goes.

The term shibboleth is interesting. Its definitions include “a peculiarity of pronunciation, behavior, mode of dress, etc., that distinguishes a particular class or set of persons” and “a common saying or belief with little current meaning or truth.” It is a random Hebrew word that acquired its present meaning when it was used by the Gileadites as a test to identify members of an enemy tribe, the Ephraimites, as they attempted to flee across the Jordan River. Ephraimites could not pronounce the sound sh (Judges 12:4–6). I think it is fair to say that one’s ability to pronounce the word diversity with a straight face, indeed with sincerity made scrupulously evident, serves as a shibboleth in this original sense. It answers the question of whether one wants to continue as a member in good standing of those institutions that secure one’s position in the upper middle class.

RTWT

01 Aug 2016

Recommended Reading

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StPauls
St. Paul’s

What with the rebellion of the low-information voter and the ascent of Donald Trump, the white working class is in the news a lot these days and everyone is reading J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (previously mentioned here), a personal eulogy from an upwardly-mobile ex-Marine to his rust-bucket hometown and left-behind family and friends.

The perfect counterpoint book to read, I think, is Shamus Rahman Khan’s Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School.

J.D. Vance describes how History and Culture have failed our society’s losers.

Shamus Rahman Khan describes, with a mixture of astonishment and congratulatory applause, just how one of the absolutely snobbiest and most expensive secondary boarding schools in America (the place that educated John Kerry and Doonesbury’s Gary Trudeau) educates future winners in a combination of graceful personal ease, the ability to fake your way through anything you don’t actually know, and a nihilistic belief in the complete equality of all things (excluding only your own special elite status).

St. Paul’s often touts its academic program as the best in the nation. In its advertising literature, the school boasts that it has “the highest level of scholarship” and that its “students stand at the top of their peer group in terms of academic preparation.” And according to eager administrators and lackadaisical adolescents alike, the centerpiece of St. Paul’s academic program is undoubtedly the humanities. The humanities program introduces students to the history, literature, and thoughts of different moments in world history. The humanities division describes in some project is an interdisciplinary, multi-vocal investigation of “great questions.” …

This program, significantly, does not teach students to know “things.” The emphasis is not on memorizing historical events, for example. Instead it is on cultivating “habits of mind,” which encourage a particular way of relating both to the world and to each other. …

The enormity of this program is both thrilling and terrifying. The thought of knowing all of that, being swept up and carried through the tide of history, is tantalizing. It is also the product of St. Paul’s hubris. How can any one person possibly teach everything..? As I prepared to teach my own class at the school, I soon found out that I was asking the wrong question. Of course the expectations were ridiculous. No high schooler could ever learn all that the course offers. The more important question, I eventually realized, is much harder to answer: what this mean to present material in this way to teenagers?

Perhaps the point is not really to know anything. The advantage the St. Paul’s installs instills in its students is not a hierarchy of knowledge. As we have seen, knowledge is no longer the exclusive domain of the elite. And these days, information flows so freely that to use it to exclude others is increasingly challenging. By contrast, the important decisions required for those who lead are not based on knowing more but instead are founded in habits of mind. St. Paul’s teaches that everything can be accomplished through these habits, even while still in high school. What strikes me as presumptuous, even shocking, about this vision of the world is taken for granted by pretty much every teenager at St. Paul’s.

Though I marveled at how impossible it seemed to teach students all these things, the school itself seems largely unconcerned about this. Indeed, St. Paul’s approach seems closer to Plato’s outline of education in Republic. Building upon his famous cave metaphor, Plato tells us, “Education isn’t what some people declare it to be, namely putting knowledge of the souls that lack it, like putting sight into blind eyes …” ..In short, education is not teaching students things they don’t know. Rather it is teaching them to think their way through the world. …

“I don’t actually know much,” an alumnus told me after he finished his freshman year at Harvard. “I mean, well, I don’t know how to put it. When I’m in classes all these kids next to me know a lot more than I do. Like about what actually happened in the Civil War. Or what France did in World War II. I don’t know any of that stuff. But I know something they don’t. It’s not facts or anything. It’s how to think. That’s what I learned in humanities.”

“What do you mean how to think?” I asked.

“I mean I learned how to think bigger. Like everyone else at Harvard knew about the Civil War. I didn’t. But I knew how to make sense of what they knew about the Civil War and apply it. So they knew a lot about particular things. I knew how to think about everything.”

The emphasis of the St. Paul’s curriculum is not on “what you know” but on “how you know it.” Teaching ways of knowing rather than teaching the facts themselves, St. Paul’s is able to endow its students with marks of the elite –ways of thinking or relating to the world– that ultimately help make up privilege. As the exclusionary practices of old the become unsustainable, something new has emerged from within the elite. …

[S]tudents learn to consume from an enormous variety of sources. They learn to work and “interact” with art, literature, history, from the popular to the scholarly, and have a huge range of materials their disposal. For example, one of the major assignments in Humanities III is to compare “Beowulf” to Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.” Students are asked to think about the ways in which Beowulf is a monster [Beowulf is the hero. Grendel is the monster. –JDZ] that man must confront, just as “Jaws”‘s monster prowls the waters of humanity (and perhaps even our own internal waters [And the BS keeps on flowing. –JDZ]). The goal is not to endow the students with a kind of highbrow elite knowledge. Rather, they are taught to move with ease to the broad range of culture, to move with felicity from the elite to the popular. They learn to be cultural egalitarians. The lesson to students is that you can talk about “Jaws” in the same way you can talk about “Beowulf.” Both become cultural resources to draw upon. And most important, the world is available to you –from high literature to horror films. They’re not things that are “off-limits” –limits are not structured by the relations of the world around you; they are in you. Students are not to stand above the mundane, perhaps lowbrow horror flick. Instead they are taught the importance of engaging with all aspects of culture, of treating the high and low with respect and serious engagement. As our future elite, the students are taught not to create fences and moats but instead to relentlessly engage with the varied world around them.

The consequences of St. Paul’s philosophy can be seen all over campus, evident even in how students carry themselves. Students have the sense that they could do it. The world is a space to be navigated and renegotiated, not a set of arrangements or a list of rules that are imposed upon you. The students are taught that they are special, and they begin to realize this specialness. This is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy –thinking everything is possible just might make it so.

21 Jun 2016

Travel and Social Privilege

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TravelPrvilege

We learned yesterday that parks are for white people. Today, Katherine DM Clover explains that travel is a privilege and that talking about travel is classist.

When the topic of travel comes up amongst friends or acquaintances, I either try to change the subject, or I try to convince everyone (myself included) that I don’t travel more because I’m just a homebody, OK?

I’m just more focused on trying to make this place the sanctuary of my dreams, rather than going other places.

Friends, if I have ever tried to sell you on that idea, hear me now: That is a lie.

I don’t travel much because I’m poor.

I’m more only “more focused on my home” in the sense that, well, my money has to be focused toward paying my rent so I don’t get evicted. My money also ends up getting focused toward buying groceries because I like eating food, and also, as a mammal, need it to survive.

Being able to travel great distances, just for the sheer joy of it, is actually an enormous privilege, one that has been out of most people’s reach, historically.

Air travel has made it somewhat more accessible, but the modern travel obsession still requires advanced technology, leisure time, and — critically — the expendable income to pay for it.

And while technology has certainly made it easier to get from place to place, in some ways things, haven’t changed much.

While the middle and upper classes may celebrate the many advantages of a life filled with travel (“It’s educational! It makes you a more well rounded person!”), on the other end of the spectrum, there are still plenty of low-income people who rarely have the chance to leave their neighborhood, let alone their city.

And what does that look like for the global poor? I don’t have the stats on this, but I have a hard time imagining people who live on $2 a day taking vacations.

Aside from money, being able to travel safely and easily is still often dependent on privilege. For people with disabilities, any form of travel can pose myriad potential problems. For folks who aren’t white or are visibly LGBTQIA, travel can mean opening oneself up to harassment and even the very real risk of violence.

I’m not saying travel can’t be lovely and educational; it certainly can be. I’m also not claiming there aren’t less expensive ways to get from place to place; there undoubtedly are.

What I am saying, though, is that travel is complicated and it is often dependent on a certain amount of privilege.

I don’t get out much — and it’s not because I’m boring or don’t have a sense of adventure or don’t care about learning about the larger world: It’s because I’m broke.

And when you hold travel up on some kind of pedestal, you sound classist as hell, and I wish you would stop that.

Whole thing.

In the final analysis, isn’t being currently alive and not a member of “the great majority” the biggest “privilege” of all? And, yet, we can rely upon perfect equality being achieved eventually for all of us.


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