The last two posts here on The Archdruid Report, with their focus on America’s class system and the dysfunctional narratives that support it, fielded an intriguing response from readers. I expected a fair number to be uncomfortable with the subject I was discussing; I didn’t expect them to post comments and emails asking me, in so many words, to please talk about something else instead.
Straight talk about uncomfortable subjects has been this blog’s bread and butter since I first started posting just shy of ten years ago, so I’ve had some experience with the way that blog readers squirm. Normally, when I touch on a hot-button issue, readers who find that subject too uncomfortable go out of their way to act as though I haven’t mentioned it at all. I’m thinking here especially, but not only, of the times I’ve noted that the future of the internet depends on whether it can pay for itself, not on whether it’s technically feasible. Whenever I’ve done this, I’ve gotten comments that rabbited on endlessly about technical feasibility as a way to avoid talking about the economic reasons why the internet won’t be able to cover its own operating costs in the future of resource depletion and environmental blowback we’re busy making for ourselves.
It’s not just hard questions about the future of the internet that attracts that strategy of avoidance, mind you. I’ve learned to expect it whenever some post of mine touches on any topic that contradicts the conventional wisdom of our time. That’s why the different response I got to the last two posts was so fascinating. The fact that people who were made uncomfortable by a frank discussion of class privilege actually admitted that, rather than trying to pretend that no subject so shocking had been mentioned at all, says to me that we may be approaching a historical inflection point of some importance.
Mind you, frank discussion of class privilege still gets plenty of avoidance maneuvers outside the fringe territory where archdruids lurk. I’m thinking here, of course, of the way that affluent liberals right now are responding to Donald Trump’s straightforward talk about class issues by yelling that he and his followers must be motivated by racism and nothing else. That’s partly a standard bit of liberal rhetoric—I’ve discussed the way that the word “racist,” when uttered by the privileged, normally functions as a dog whistle for “wage class”—but it’s also an attempt to drag the conversation away from what policies that benefit the affluent have done to everyone else in this country.
In some parts of the current Neopagan community, that evasive maneuver has acquired a helpful moniker: “Starhawking.” With apologies to those of my readers who may find the behavior of one of America’s smaller minority religious communities uninteresting, I’d like to recount the story behind the label. Here as so often, a small example helps clarify things; the reduced scale of a social microcosm makes it easier to observe patterns that can be harder to see at a glance on the macrocosmic scale.
Those who haven’t had any contact with the Neopagan scene may not know that it isn’t one religion, or even a group of closely related religions; rather, it’s a grab-bag of profoundly diverse faiths, some of which have less in common with one another than Christianity has with Shinto. Their association in a common subculture comes not from shared beliefs or practices, but solely from a shared history of exclusion from the religious and cultural mainstream of American society. These days, something like half of American Neopagans participate in some flavor of eclectic Paganism, which emerged out of the older British traditional witchcraft in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Most of the rest fall into two broad categories: one consists of older initiatiory traditions such as the British traditional witchcraft just named, while the other consists of recently revived polytheist faiths worshipping the gods and goddesses of various historic pantheons—Norse, Greek, Egyptian, and so on.
There’s a great deal of talk about inclusiveness in the Neopagan scene, but those of my readers who know their way around small American subcultures will have no trouble figuring out that what this means is that eclectic Paganism is the default option almost everywhere, and people from other traditions are welcome to show up and participate, on terms defined by eclectic Paganism, so long as they don’t offend the sensibilities of the eclectic Pagan majority. For a variety of reasons, most of which are more relevant to my other blog than this one, those sensibilities seem to be getting more easily offended of late, and people from the minority traditions have responded in a variety of ways. Some have simply walked away from the Neopagan scene, while others have tried, in an assortment of forums, to start a conversation about what has been awkwardly termed “Wiccanate privilege.”
One such discussion was under way at a large San Francisco-area Neopagan event in 2014 when Starhawk put in a belated appearance. For those who aren’t familiar with her, she’s one of the few genuine celebrities to come out of the US Neopagan scene, the author of The Spiral Dance, one of the two books that basically launched eclectic Paganism—the other is Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon—and a notable political figure over on the leftward end of the spectrum. According to people I know who were there, she proceeded to insist that the conversation should not even be happening, because all Pagans need to unite to save the Earth.
Mind you, there were plenty of other conversations going on at that event that had nothing to do with saving the Earth, and neither she nor anyone else seemed to feel any need to try to silence those conversations—just the conversation about privilege. That’s Starhawking: the rhetorical tactic of insisting that some other issue is so important that the privilege of the speaker must not be discussed. To be fair to Starhawk, she didn’t invent it; it’s all over contemporary discourse in America, quite often in contexts where the stakes are considerably higher than they will ever be in the Neopagan scene.
Madeleine Albright’s recent insistence that every woman in America should vote for Hillary Clinton or fry in hell comes out of exactly the same logic. Issue A in this case is the so-called “glass ceiling,” the habit of excluding women of the privileged classes from the upper reaches of power and wealth. Issue B in this case is the fact that putting Hillary Clinton into the White House will only benefit those women who belong to the top end of America’s class structure, since the policies Clinton has supported throughout her political life have brought impoverishment and immiseration to the vast majority of American women, i.e., those who belong to the wage class and the lower half or so of the salary class.
When Starhawking comes from the leftward end of the affluent class, it’s almost always framed in terms of another kind of bias—racism, sexism, or what have you—which can be used, along the lines detailed last week, to blame the sufferings of one underprivileged group on another underprivileged group. When it takes place on the other end of the political spectrum, as of course it does all the time, other issues are used to drown out any discussion of privilege; among the favorites are crime, Christian moral theology, and the alleged laziness and greed of people on public assistance. The excuse differs but the rhetorical gimmick is the same.
One of the things that makes that gimmick viable is the ambiguous nature of the language that’s used to talk about the various candidates for Issue A. “Crime,” for example, is a nice vague abstraction that everyone can agree to oppose. Once that agreement has been obtained, on the other hand, it descends from the airy realm of abstraction into some very questionable specifics—to note a relevant example, none of the politicians who boast about being “tough on crime” have shown any interest in locking up the kleptomaniacs of Wall Street, whose billion-dollar swindles have done far more damage to the nation than any number of muggings on the mean streets of our inner cities.
In the same way, words like “racism” and “sexism” are abstractions with a great deal of ambiguity built into them. There are at least three things conflated in labels of this kind. I’d like to unpack those for a moment, in the hope of getting a clearer view of the convoluted landscape of American inequality.
The things I want to pull out of these portmanteau words, and others like them, are privilege, prejudice, and acts of injustice. Let’s start with the last. Police officers in America, for example, routinely gun down black teenagers in response to actions that do not get white teenagers shot; a woman who gets hired for a job in the US today can expect to get, on average, roughly three-quarters the pay that a man can expect to get for doing exactly the same job; two people who love each other and want to get married have to run a gauntlet of difficulties if they happen to be the same gender that they would not face if they were different genders. Those are acts of injustice.
Prejudice is a matter of attitudes rather than actions. The word literally means pre-judgments, the judgments we all make about people and situations before we encounter them. Everybody has them, every culture teaches them, but some people are more prejudiced—more committed to their pre-judgments, and less willing to reassess them in the face of disconfirming evidence—and some are less so. Acts of injustice are usually motivated by prejudice, and prejudice very often results in acts of injustice, but neither of these equations are exact. I’ve known people who were profoundly prejudiced but refused to act on their prejudices because some other belief or commitment forbade that; I’ve also known people who participated repeatedly in acts of injustice, who were just following orders or going along with friends, and didn’t care in the least one way or the other.
Then there’s privilege. Where prejudice and acts of injustice are individual, privilege is collective; you have privilege, or don’t have it, because of the categories you belong to, not because of what you do or don’t do. I’ll use myself as a source of examples here. I can walk through the well-to-do neighborhoods of the town where I live, for instance, without being hassled by the police; black people don’t have that privilege. I can publish controversial essays like this one without being bombarded with rape and death threats by trolls; women don’t have that privilege. I can kiss my spouse in public without having some moron yell insults at me out of the window of a passing car; gay people don’t have that privilege.
I could fill the next ten posts on this blog with a listing of similar privileges I have, and not even come close to running out of examples. It’s important, though, to recognize that my condition of privilege isn’t assigned to me for any one reason. It’s not just that I’m white, or male, or heterosexual, or grew up in a family on the lower end of the salary class, or was born able-bodied, or what have you; it’s all of these things and a great many more, taken together, that assign me my place in the hierarchy of privilege. This is equally true of you, dear reader, and of everyone else. What differentiates my position from yours, and yours from everyone else’s, is that every station on the ladder has a different proportion between the number of people above it and the number of people below. There are, for example, plenty of people in today’s America who have more privilege than I do, but there are vastly more people who have much, much less.
Note also that I don’t have to do anything to get the privileges I have, nor can I get rid of them. As a white heterosexual man from a salary class background, and the rest of it, I got assigned nearly all of my privileges the moment I was born, and no matter what I do or don’t do, I’ll keep the vast majority of them until I die. Ths is also true of you, dear reader, and of everyone else: the vast majority of what places you on whatever rung you occupy in the long ladder of privilege is yours simply for being born. Thus you’re not responsible for the fact that you have whatever level of privilege you do—though you are responsible, of course, for what you choose to do with it.
You can, after all, convince yourself that you deserve your privilege, and the people who don’t share your privilege deserve their inferior status—that is to say, you can choose to be prejudiced. You can exploit your privilege to benefit yourself at the expense of the less privileged—that is to say, you can engage in acts of injustice. The more privilege you have, the more your prejudices affect other people’s lives and the more powerful your acts of injustice become. Thus advocates for the less privileged are quite correct to point out that the prejudices and injustices of the privileged matter more than those of the unprivileged.
On the other hand, privilege does not automatically equate to prejudice, or to acts of injustice. It’s entirely possible for the privileged—who, as already noted, did not choose their privilege and can’t get rid of it—to refuse to exploit their privilege in this way. It’s even possible, crashingly unfashionable as the concept is these days, for them to take up the old principle of noblesse oblige: the concept, widely accepted (though not always acted on) in eras where privilege was more openly recognized, that those who are born to privilege also inherit definite responsibilities toward the less privileged. I suppose it’s even possible that they might do this and not expect lavish praise for it, though that’s kind of a stretch, American culture today being what it is.
These days, though, most white heterosexual men from salary class backgrounds don’t think of themselves as privileged, and don’t see the things I enumerated earlier as privileges. This is one of the most crucial points about privilege in today’s America: to the privileged, privilege is invisible. That’s not just a matter of personal cluelessness, or of personal isolation from the less privileged, though these can of course be involved. It’s a matter of enculturation. The mass media and every other aspect of mainstream American culture constantly present the experience of privileged people as normal, and just as constantly feed any departure from that experience through an utterly predictable set of filters.
First, of course, the experience of the unprivileged is erased—“That sort of thing doesn’t actually happen.” When that fails, it’s dismissed as unimportant—”Well, maybe it does happen, but it’s no big deal.” When it becomes clear that it is a big deal to those who have to cope with it, it’s treated as an occasional anomaly—“You can’t generalize from one or two bad examples.” When that breaks down, finally, the experience of the unprivileged is blamed on the unprivileged—“It’s their own fault that they get treated like that.” If you know your way around America’s collective nonconversation about privilege, in the mass media or in everyday conversation, you’ve seen each one of these filters deployed a thousand times or more.
What makes this interesting is that the invisibility of privilege in modern America isn’t shared by that many other human societies. There are plenty of cultures, past and present, in which privilege is right out there in the open, written into laws, and openly discussed by the privileged as well as the unprivileged. The United States used to be like that as recently as the 1950s. It wasn’t just that there were Jim Crow laws in those days formally assigning black Americans the status of second-class citizens, and laws in many states that gave women second-class status when it came to a galaxy of legal and financial rights; it was all over the media and popular culture, too. Open any daily newspaper, and the society pages splashed around the difference in privilege between those people who belonged to the elite and those who didn’t.
For a complex series of reasons rooted in the cultural convulsions of the Sixties, though, frank talk about privilege stopped being socially acceptable in America over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. That didn’t make privilege go away, of course. It did mean that certain formal expressions of privilege, such as the Jim Crow laws just mentioned, had to be scrapped, and in that process, some real injustices did get fixed. The downside was the rise of a culture of doubletalk in which the very real disparities in privilege in American society got fed repeatedly through the filters described above, and one of the most important sources of those disparities—class differences—were shoved completely out of the collective conversation of our time.
The habit of Starhawking is one of the major rhetorical tools by which open discussion of privilege, and above all of class privilege, got thrust out of sight. It’s been used with equal verve at all points along the political spectrum from the far left straight across to the far right. Whether it’s affluent liberals insisting that everyone else has to ignore their privilege in order to get on with the task of saving the Earth, affluent conservatives insisting that everyone else has to ignore their privilege in order to get on with the task of returning America to its Christian roots, or—and this is increasingly the standard line—affluent people on both sides insisting that everyone else has to ignore their privilege because fighting those horrible people on the other side of the political spectrum is the only thing that matters, what all these utterances mean in practice is “don’t talk about my privilege.”
That sort of evasion is what I expected to field from readers when I started talking about issues surrounding class privilege earlier this year. I got a certain amount of it, to be sure, but as already mentioned, I also got comments by people who acknowledged that they were uncomfortable with the discussion and wanted me to stop. What this says to me is that the wall of denial and doubletalk that has closed down open discussion of privilege in today’s America—and especially of class privilege—may be cracking at last. Granted, The Archdruid Report is well out there on the cultural fringes of American society, but it’s very often the fringes that show signs of major social changes well before the mainstream ever hears about them.
If it’s true that the suppression of talk about privilege in general, and class privilege in particular, is in the process of breaking down, it’s not a minute too soon. The United States just now stands in the path of a tidal wave of drastic change, and current patterns of privilege are among the many things that bid fair to be upended once it hits. We’ll talk about that next week.