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Nature and Nurture and Fools and Horses

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Have you ever actually sat down and read Leviticus, from start to finish? The other day I was thinking hard about how to carefully describe some of the serious problems of reason and compassion in the political correctness movement, and I realized that for all the arguments I have heard referring to Leviticus, I not only hadn’t read it, but also didn’t personally know any leftist who was familiar with it.

Criticism that begins without any attention paid to the thing itself is way too much like bad art criticism – nothing to do with advancing understanding, everything to do with promoting fashionable taste. We do still see an awful lot of it – but I don’t ever want to get that lazy, especially about book knowledge.

Just a note for my younger friends, books do not represent an allegiance or bias for obsolete tradition – they are instead a yearning to learn all possible lessons from previous strugglers throughout the ages, so that we may advance our understanding of others, our knowledge of technique and failed experiment, and therefore raise our horizons, our goals, and best of all, our chances!

So I sat down and read Leviticus from start to finish, and by the time I was done, I realized there were way too many isomorphisms with excesses on the left to be ignored. The content and language of dogma may change quite a bit over the years, but the way dogma functions in society and the risks of its misinterpretation and abuse by unsound individuals, remain profound down to this day.

The single best thing I got from reading Leviticus, but could not include in this episode?

The Scapegoat was one of two healthy excellent ‘pleasing’ goats selected for a sacred ritual, and upon the head of this goat were placed the sins of the entire tribe, after which the poor shamed creature was taken away into the wilderness by a young man, so far away from the community that he would never find his way back.

The ritual value of sending away collective sin in a living being of great food and trading value at the time was no doubt profound. That poor ostracized scapegoat would have to find new friends, pyjamas, trees to stand on mysteriously, etc.

Mind you, the other goat, the honoured and respected one? He was slaughtered.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

28 Comments

  1. So, what are we going to do about it? : o )
    (I’m thinking that it’s time to start the “common ground” wish list of which we’ve earlier spoken, as I’m not sure that I can imagine any other potentially fruitful way forward through the ignorance of all parties concerned.)

    • Absolutely spot-on, my friend!
      This was indeed my point here, and with the Emory Douglas post also. The interests which place war profit and greed ahead of simple humane decency and community in the broadest sense, do not fear any sort of factionalism (they love and even sponsor it), and no level of anger from any one group ever frightens them. With divide and conquer, legitimate claimants can be demonized and taken down, one by one – left or right. The only thing which actually does make “them” nervous is when we recognize that the factions we feel so passionately about are largely false, and the real divide is between people who care about making the world work, and people who care only about themselves. That last, is the only true fifty fifty left-right split I know of. Equal selfish idiots distributed everywhere now. Saddening on the one hand – on the other, that is itself a mutual base from which to built bridges! Also – my point isn’t about boomers creating the mess, but rather countering the obnoxious and omnipresent myth that they made culture cooler with their attitude, in ways far more powerful than the damage their collected capital did. May possibly be so – but cannot be easily assumed true, when the capital side is never ever discussed. You’re right selfish attitudes started earlier, but there were also social patterns that simulated order and cooperation better (even if moderns might sneer and call them compliance or even complicity). The trick is to get to a better compromise for all (compromise being the heart of democracy), by using more free will and less fury and compulsion – which makes this only a late-stage episode in a centuries long process (considering itself incredibly important, as do they all – even for all of our unprecedented thermal realies).
      Cheers man. Thanks so much for listening and writing back. I think a lot of people are disillusioned with hyperbolic foolishness. Popular fronts only begin with surprising alliances. (and as I’ve noted before, succeed only the day the police cross the barricades and join the rebels).

  2. Wading into the swamp of American-fueled identity politics, you seem to be doing a combination of politics and virtue ethics. It’s a highly engrossing mix, providing ample opportunity for historical examples and morality tales – but also a delicate balancing act. So much in the way of individual integrity, clarity of thought and of communication, and of course basic interpersonal respect that we typically give those in our immediate proximity, is lost in the fog of “politics”, leading to a level of toxicity in discourse that as a child I could never have imagined we’d be dealing with in 2020. How innocent, how privileged I was!

    People feel a justified in using overwhelming rhetoric (or force) partly because they’re so fired-up, about police brutality, income insecurity, tax cuts, etc., and partly because the terms of the discourse are, as you’ve pointed out, simplistic “us vs. them” caricatures that anyone can feel good about hating (or, if they’re deluded and frightened enough, giving inordinate, unearned allegiance to).
    It’s increasingly clear that social media is full of litigious, accusatory rhetoric and tribalism using sophomoric sociology concepts couched in grand narratives of liberation. Your description of this phenomenon is apt: “gross theoretical overreach”. I concur, although sometimes the point is trivial. It’s about the scope of the statements, not their logic or the emotional, often very earnest, urgency with which they are uttered. So I try to put my most empathic foot forward when stepping into the swampy waters. Humans are both emotional and abstract creatures, and we often mix business with (dis-)pleasure. You rightly lament the anger that can cripple our judgement, as well as our relationships; but that anger may also be why we bother joining a conversation in the first place. That’s why your way of framing these issues is important at this time of grand conspiracy theories and petty sniping from perches of anonymity: we need to distinguish serious from unserious actors and dialogue.

    Attributions of “privilege” are a case in point, because privilege is such an ambiguous concept, so rhetorically satisfying to some and disconcerting to others. Like casting a magic spell, the utterer seems immune to immediate rebuke or questioning, not because of its truth but because of its ambiguity. (Ironic that they are conducting our modern witch-hunts. But I digress.) We must consider this attributed privilege, because the issue is the validity of any such attribution. Otherwise “privilege” only functions as a term of disapprobation, and any arguments to justify its application assume their own conclusion. This circular logic has become standard, as in the work of Robin DiAngelo, a deplorable, unrepentant racist who also happens to be a leader of contemporary American “anti-racist” thought. We can inquire into the culpability of “the privileged” for any oppression – and anyone interested in justice should, recalling the old dictum cui bono? – but the substance of the concept deserves scrutiny. Whether it be white privilege, male privilege, class privilege, the privilege of the young, the healthy, the able-bodied, the well-educated or what have you, some crucial distinctions must be made concerning where such a concept can be usefully applied. At this point, it functions mainly as a distraction. And as you rightly point out, mindless pap for modern management personnel and their dutiful drones.

    One way to summarize the problem is to ask: does an instance of differential oppression bestow “privilege” on those not oppressed? At first, it seems the answer is yes; until we realize that oppression is not always overt, and manifests in various ways. The paradigm case for attributions of white privilege is racist policing and justice system policies. Opportunities for education, jobs, and housing are also prominent issues. As a white man, I stand to incur less obstacles – if not outright violence – in all these areas. In this limited sense, I am privileged. The statistical validity of this conclusion is general – it varies regionally, and in combination with other variables. It’s also hard to make the case that less of certain obstacles entails an absence of others.

    It would be wrong to say that I was “lucky” to be born white rather than black or hispanic or native American. A male, rather than a female. This speaks to your point about certain things being absolute rights, such as freedom from harassment or bodily harm. A corollary of raving about “white / male privilege” is a pity for those occupying less fortunate categories, or even cringeworthy celebrations of their resilience. This kind of tokenism tends to normalize, and ultimately reinforce people’s trust in, the status quo.

    For many, grievance claims are viewed skeptically, through a Protestant work ethic-type lens: if we don’t patiently wait our turn, keep our heads down and work, and be grateful, anarchy would soon break out. Not exactly empathic (or Christian), but also not exactly privileged.

    I mostly agree with your assertion that “you can’t guilt a fascist” as a general statement, but a distinction must be made between hard-core fascists and their less-committed adherents. The former are deaf to rational appeals; but we must believe that the latter can be reached and shown the error of their ways (or, the others’ ways). That means making a forceful case about systemic (or at least system-wide) injustice. Confrontational tactics can be one way to accomplish that. Surely, those actually serious about change, and committed to programs of messaging and implementation, will distinguish between necessary confrontation – done with empathy rather than animosity – and self-indulgent WWF Smackdown pitchfork politics, which might get media coverage but also elicits gag reactions from a wide swath of society. Including, as you say, would-be allies.

    It’s increasingly important to distinguish between serious participants in a discussion – those interested in real dialogue, including the sharing of their perspective and learning about others’ – and non-serious participants, who are only present to guard imaginary boundaries, or try to force their ill-formed views on others, without any desire to actually empathize. This is the old distinction between selfless and selfish listeners, the latter only listening for opportunities to “pounce”. They’re a complete waste of time, frequently motivated by a “higher” moral calling, and potentially quite dangerous. Crucially, they may become genuinely convinced – and convince others – that civilized discourse is false consciousness, reproducing systemic corruption. Their resentment is so total, their worldview so cynical, that the conversational norm of charity-in-interpretation is viewed as a weakness, and anyone espousing it is treated with suspicion.

    With these qualifications in mind, it’s still possible that even the flawed discourse of the contemporary left is enabling real progress. But much of that progress would be occurring anyway, via other cultural factors, advances in equality, integration and upward mobility. So we might ask how much of the apparent chaos of the “culture wars” is an inevitable, necessary byproduct of actual progress, and how much compensatory self-aggrandizement and narcissism.

    • Hi Ian – Thank you so much for that thoughtful feedback. I think you’ve caught something important I may not have adequately emphasized – it is when we begin to habitually leave out distinctions which make a crucial functional difference, that our ideas become detached from the world and serve cathartic-emotional rather than political or helpful purposes.
      Dumbing down messages means giving them to dummies – is this a good idea? The very first question I raised, when I heard about scientific socialism was “Dictatorship of the proletariat? But the proletariat are idiots!” I set aside this objection for years, out of respect for the speaker, but in time he actually changed his stance – and I have still not seen my point answered by any Marxist without recourse to obfuscating mystical pseudo-science BS (in order to understand my explanation, you have to start by believing my conclusion).

      Privilege is tricky – it can be attributed in a general statistical way, but our popular understanding of statistics is so low that people don’t even ask – “Do you mean Mean, Mode, or Median?) let alone about the standards and rigour of approach to sampling. We shouldn’t even be allowed to use the word AVERAGE in popular speech, because none of us know what that means.

      Remember how easily leftists laughed at the stupidity of the “War on Terror?” How can you have a war on a word, or a vague association of badness? Naturally some on the right misinterpreted this and said, “This proves they aren’t as determined as we are to oppose terrorism” and some lazy people believed that explanation. Fit the visuals satisfactorily.
      When leftists wield he phrase “Fight the patriarchy” we are being exactly as ridiculous, but we love the sentiment, and so suspend our critical thought. The right are not in favour of unfairness anymore than the left are in favour of terrorism – we just both attribute the worst possible motives to others, and the best to ourselves – hence our tribalist blindness (and the ruling classes raking it in by the ton – like never before in history, in fact – surely suggestive proof at very least, that we are all and have all been wrong!) What can be fought are bad acting individuals, and we use tools of law (and expand them by focussed and organized demands on our legislators) precisely because rule of law protects every minority (to some extent) and also individuals from that same stupid dictatorial proletariat which doesn’t look too hard at arguments, and really enjoys a public execution.

      Put another way – if one wants to invoke the hard core language of actual revolution, you had better be an actual revolutionary – which means your program is more important than your ego. No sign of that at all anymore. Nor is there any coherent program which can be advanced in common, even by those without special levels of imagination or initiative. The intellectual left have failed completely to provide any useful impetus toward unity or broad educational progress. Utterly betrayed the working class they claim to represent (which is no surprise – your profession shapes you – and they are almost all bourgeois-thinking tenured university professors – who prize not the people, but their own precious theory of the people – and are insulated from reality better than any class other than the inheriting wealthy.)

      The biggest problem with privilege is the tree not forest problem. How do you build your Venn diagram? If you put all the people in the western economies in it, you could say we are the force that is prepared to kill the world in the next few years, just so we don’t have to go through big inconvenience now.

      Seriously – this is the level of lethality our combined ignorance represents. Do I care about all of my diverse friends, their safety, their happiness and freedom to express themselves? Very very much. Do I care about people who I will never meet, but might be killed to supply me with something I don’t even really need? VERY VERY MUCH. I get crickets when I mention this stuff, (and also know you personally already know it) but seriously – western consumer demand for cellphones has paid for bullets to murder roughly six million in the Congo – and counting. When we say “Never again” do we mean for white people only? Please bear in mind, we could all have had cellphones anyhow, from other coltan sources – the difference that coltan from the Congo made was that it allowed cellphones to be cheap enough for us to throw them away, long before they were used up! We directly profited from a holocaust of black people – for our convenience and consumer pleasure – and we don’t even have the brains to feel bad about it. You tell me – have you ever heard of anyone organizing on the basis of those black lives mattering? I mean EVER?

      So – do I draw a diagram that says all people who went to university are privileged, and enjoy an unfair advantage I never had – therefore screw them the next time goodies are being distributed? Do shorter people get to claim redress for all the elbows in the face and bullying they’ve had to tolerate (not at all outrageous, since bullying absolutely does affect the immune system, and this has been proven to shorten lifespan measurably).

      Murder in the streets is disgusting and unacceptable – and so is all of the distributed international harm and murder done in our name – just for loot.

      Now please note here – just because I’m saying this whole anger festival is unproductive, even when it is entirely understandable emotionally, I’m not saying massive social changes aren’t needed. What I’m saying is that Malcolm X after he returned from the Haj was right – and so was Martin Luther King when he said we had to fight the evils of our own war and greed, just as determinedly as we had to fight poverty ignorance and discrimination.
      I will be standing at Fred Hampton’s barricade until the day I die. UNITY. That means getting past our childish ego and hormone-driven self and finally realizing, sustained anger without progress and motion is just unhappiness.
      Only self-mastery and compassion for others, opens and builds for real.

      Cheers man (and sorry if I got a bit ranty there – very much with, not at you)
      ¯_(ツ)_/¯

  3. [comment copied over from some horrible social media site or other]
    Hi Paul! Just recently discovered the podcast, becoming a fan real quick. Watch out, long comment ahead.

    I’ve had a somewhat critical response to this latest episode simmering in the back of my head since listening to it when it dropped. I haven’t re-listened, so it might be your response will be “you missed the important part, dummy”–but I figure reactions from a single listen might be useful feedback, and I can’t un-re-listen, so I’m just going to type this out now.

    So. I like the metaphor of someone with a nice pair of pliers (or was it a wrench?) trying their best to use it as a hammer, and blaming the nails for the failure. It’s not enough to have good tools, we have to be skilled at using them. And this is apt framing for criticism of the kind of people/interactions I imagine you had in mind when you were talking about political correctness etc.

    Here’s the critical comment. I think some of the message this episode came across as criticism of the tools when it should have been criticism of the way they can be misused. Maybe I was misunderstanding the message, but it sounded like you were criticizing the very concept of (white) privilege. (Dear internet public who might see this comment without listening to the episode: no, Paul wasn’t saying white folks have it tough; this was a criticism of a concept, not a claim about the facts. Concepts can be flawed in lots of ways: they can obscure rather than illuminate, they can make people bristle rather than listen, etc.) So I agree when you say we shouldn’t count as “privilege” things that are much more: say, the RIGHT to survive casual encounters with the police. And I agree that the idea white folks can’t be on the side of the Good and the Just is ludicrous. But these are pretty clear MISapplications of the concept of white privilege.

    Discourse about “white privilege” goes back pretty far, but the currently popular idea is probably shaped more than anything by Peggy McIntosh’s “Invisible Knapsack” framework. I’m going to quote some examples, not because I think you don’t know them, but just to illustrate:

    “1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time….
    “5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
    “6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is….
    “14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race….
    “15. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.”

    etc. I don’t think these are such weighty things that they must be called (say) “rights” rather than “privileges”. If there are other things that are more weighty, then the complaint should be about proper use of the concept, not about the concept itself. And if we characterize white privilege along these lines–good things that white folks in (say) America in the late 1980s can expect but Black folks in the same place and time can’t–I struggle to see why this would be a bad concept to organize around. You’re certainly right that variations within groups vastly outstrip variations between groups, but that doesn’t tell us about systematic differences in the experience of different groups. If we refuse to acknowledge that being white or being Black (etc) has consequences in our society, despite the fact that there’s great variation in how those consequences play out in any particular person’s life, we’re not going to get anywhere.

    A broader complaint about the concept of “white privilege”: it just gets well meaning white people’s backs up and turns them away from movements for justice. Response: I mean that’s gonna happen if you’re a jerk about it, yeah. But the idea that there are some things that are easier for me because I’m white is (a) totally compatible with me being on the side of the Good and the Just and (b) just hard to argue with. (Right?) So this still seems to me like it should be a criticism of the carpenter, not of the tool.

    The more this simmers, the more I think I was mishearing. (Important context: I listened while mopping a bathroom floor and trying to figure out where a leak was coming from. Probably didn’t put me in the most charitable frame of mind.) I think I HEARD criticism of “white privilege” as a concept, but what was ACTUALLY criticism of people using a wrench as a bludgeon. Then my objection is just: I don’t think I got a clear message about how to use the concept well. I think that either means I’m a poor listener (very possible!) or that your objections to “white privilege” were directed too much to its failings as a bludgeon and not enough to its proper use in tightening nuts. Am I way off?

    • Hi Roger – so great to hear from you! And thank you for both writing back intelligently and also qualifying your observations so helpfully, with your only partial attention and also correct understanding of the balance I’m really after.

      In a way, I sort of wish I could do five minutes on Korzybski in every episode, because most of what I am after is about taking a symbol for an actual thing – my problem is that just as I could never call myself a Marxist, because I could never stand to finish an entire volume, I never managed to get all the way through “Science and Sanity” either, and so can’t call myself an expert.

      Yes – my primary point is that angry people will use everything you give them as a bludgeon, and we humans all have a tendency to see things we approve of as being better than they are, and things we don’t like as worse.

      Flat out – leftists can be horrible horrible bullies and make people feel broken unloved hurt and left out to an extent every bit as damaging as the forms of bullying we are so fond of paying attention to. I oppose drone strikes not only because they are war crimes, but because every innocent who is killed, is likely to motivate many who were resigned, to instead hold vengeance in their hearts. You might think you win short-term, but the blowback is a b…problem.

      The left has been sneering for decades now, and in so doing, had a lot to do with building and motivating Trump’s furious base. We were supposed to be the big tent, not the bully pulpit. (Angry overgeneralizing feminist teachers who look at a ten year old boy and see a one-day rapist, are the precise equivalent of sadistic nuns in parochial schools of the fifties and sixties, who did far more than anyone cares to recognize, to unleash a wave of exuberant atheism, as a backlash).

      Sorry – I know a lot of the symmetries I identify are rude as can be, because it looks like I’m comparing a good thing with a bad one. My point is that it’s not usually that perfectly good a thing, or that maniacally bad a thing. Distinctions yes – not absolutes – and certainly not derived so lazily, along tribalist lines.

      My bigger point (and main theme) is in my answer to Ian above (and also partially in this recent piece – https://www.largeesssmallpress.com/2020/08/01/the-context-of-emory-douglas/ – about Black Panther history). Yes we should be much nicer fairer and more reasonable to one another and keep extending that in terms of social convention and law – but as long as we are in sum a death-force, that change has to be part of a bigger program and a wider struggle. Our comfort, lives and even our souls, are irrelevant when measured against our lethality to others.
      (I still like the ancient Greek wisdom benchmark “First, do no harm”)

      Cheers man. Again, so pleased to hear from you – and so delighted that you have fed and honed your brain so well, and now share its fruits with others! (You can ask Catherine, I was just about dancing around the house yesterday, thanks to your kind words).
      ¯_(ツ)_/¯

      • Aw, all the warm and fuzzies. Great to reconnect here. And I did read & appreciate your Emory Douglas post; that’s actually how I found the podcast, through Chris Harrison sharing that post on Facebook.

        I don’t want to belabour my original point too much, but let me take another try, in light of the connection with what you say in the Emory Douglas post. (Edit after writing the following: Oops, long post again. Reading this will be labour.)

        I think criticism of the concept of white privilege, as a tool for theorizing and organizing, is misplaced. I suspect we agree on the criteria to judge that sort of thing by, but disagree (if we even disagree) about how that concept is meant to work. That is, I agree the sorts of things that matter are: being accurate (got to understand what’s out there if we’re going to fix it); not being misleading (ditto–doesn’t matter if you’re technically right if you’re easily misheard); fostering togetherness (part of what we need to see is the boat we’re all in, not (just) the separateness of our seats); leading to constructive, well-defined action.

        I take it the charge against “white privilege” is that (a) it’s either inaccurate or misleading (because of the point about averages, the within-group differences among the allegedly privileged) and (b) it fosters divisiveness and either inaction or unproductive action. I want to say this rests on a misunderstanding of the concept. (Disclaimer: I still think I might be misinterpreting you as criticizing the concept itself; but if you’re aiming to criticize a misuse/misunderstanding of the concept, I think that needs to be corrected directly.)

        Against (a), part 1, re: accuracy. It is entirely compatible with your point about averages, about individual exceptions to group-level claims, that there are also group-level claims worth making, claims that capture important facts about how our society is organized. That, I think, is what the concept of (white) privilege aims to do: that “invisible knapsack” framing is quite intentionally, I think, framed as something one does for oneself. I, a white, might go through McIntosh’s list of things in her knapsack and say “I don’t have this one in mine. This claim is not true about me.” That’s fine! What about the others? The main point is not that the whites are on top and therefore need to be toppled–it’s that privilege is harder to see when you have it, that those of us who want a more egalitarian society need to listen to others to identify kinds of privilege we think we shouldn’t have (or: because we think everybody should have it, i.e., it shouldn’t be a privilege), and that race (and other things like physical ability, gender, etc) shape so much of our society.

        Here’s something you ask in your response to Ian: “So – do I draw a diagram that says all people who went to university are privileged, and enjoy an unfair advantage I never had – therefore screw them the next time goodies are being distributed?”

        That last clause looks like some suspicious slippery slopery to me. What about the first, “all people who went to university are privileged”? Well, first of all, I’d say if we’re using “privilege” like this as a way of dividing people into two classes of haves and have-nots, we’re already misusing the idea: asking whether someone is privileged, without further qualification, is like asking if they’re strong enough. (Strong enough for what? Privileged in what way, compared to whom?) And I think the “all people” is stronger than usual claims about privilege require; I think the right way to understand them is as generics. Here’s a claim that’s true on the most natural interpretation: “ducks can fly”. It’s false that all ducks can fly–hatchlings, injured ducks, etc. And there are problems with interpreting the claim as having to do with averages: suppose there’s a calamity and there are only 100 ducks left in the world, 99 of which have wing problems and can’t fly; I think it’s still true that “ducks can fly”. I don’t have the right semantic theory to give you about what determines the truth of generics, but I think that’s the right model to use for claims like “White people can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.”

        So, right, the (real and substantial!) trouble with drawing individual-level conclusions from group-level claims, the fact that any interesting group-level claim is bound to have plenty of exceptions, doesn’t mean we can’t ever draw those individual-level conclusions or that it isn’t important to do so.

        Against (a), part 2, re: misleadingness. Let’s put the question about accuracy to one side–does talking about white privilege make it too easy to frame us as wanting to divide folks along racial lines? Too easy for people to think we should be divided along racial lines? I can’t see it. Or rather: I can’t see a way to do it better. There is no way to talk about the differences race makes in a society and the fact that those differences advantage white people without allowing that kind of framing and that kind of misunderstanding. I don’t think your position is that we just shouldn’t talk about race at all (but people who manage to cast Robin DiAngelo as a deplorable, unrepentant racist might think so), in which case the problem is how the concept of white privilege facilitates that sort of talking. It looks to me like the concept is designed to do precisely what you want: let’s not just say one group is better off, let’s not just say one group is a bunch of oppressors, let’s not even generalize over whole groups. Let’s each (together) do the work of identifying the benefits we have that we wouldn’t have if we were in the other group. (Maybe I’d still have those benefits if I were in the other group AND had a billion dollars, but that’s answering the wrong question.) Let’s identify the privileges (in this sense) we have and how we can use them to benefit us all: e.g., here’s this hard thing that needs to be done and it’s safer for me because of my racial category.

        That is: if I’m right that the concept of (white) privilege in popular circulation today largely descends from the way that term is used in the “Invisible Knapsack” paper, then I think it was designed to do exactly what you and I would want a framework for thinking about racial difference in our social reality to do. It may well have been misapplied and misunderstood; maybe there’s just a shelf-life on things like this (give the mudslingers enough time to work and they’ll make some of it stick, so we need moving targets), but I don’t think there’s anything specific to this concept that makes it liable to bemudding. So I don’t think criticism of the concept is apt; rather we should be fighting for it to be properly understood.

        Against (b). I think this gets to the heart of things. (Screaming in editor voice: “then why didn’t you start here?!”) You say: “The left has been sneering for decades now, and in so doing, had a lot to do with building and motivating Trump’s furious base.” I want to make three claims in response to this. I won’t defend them much preemptively, but let me know if you think some need further defence.

        The concept of white privilege is not part of any such sneering. That’s what I’m arguing in my responses to (a) above.
        There is no way for the left to behave such that it will not be framed by the right as sneering. That’s not to deny that there are substantial parts of the left who are sneering, and they should cut it the $%&! out. But look for example at the notorious “basket of deplorables” incident–I hate defending Hillary Clinton (who’s now Chancellor of my university, for some bizarre reason) but the point she was making is precisely the opposite of the sort of sneering that was successfully framed as.
        Your point about variation within populations has to apply also to something as huge as “the left”. There is no concept so perfect it won’t be misapplied. There is no wrench so pure of soul it won’t be used as a bludgeon by some. The way to handle that is by dealing specifically with the people misusing it, addressing the ways they misuse it–not by decrying the concept itself.

        • (This is a test to see if three hypens—get turned into an em-dash. And to disown the en-dashes in my previous comments.)

          • LOL and then some! Seeting up two new books right now, and figuring out where each piece of software one encounters hides the really cool characters is always frustrating. Anti intellectual bias built in by those demented digital anarchist first ones! ;o)

        • Thank you Roger – you are helping me to clarify my points and rhetoric considerably. Greatly appreciate this.
          I actually think we agree about the substance(s) of the matter, but have grabbed on to different ends of the thing.
          I know only one teensy bit of Wittgenstein, but I love it out of all proportion – his famous margin note:
          “Don’t think of the meaning, think of the USE.”

          White privilege does exist – and can be established soundly on the same statistical basis as a lot of things, including damaging simplifications like black criminality. When sophisticated urbanites talk about that, we make sure to add distinctions – it is wrong to consider any one individual to be described by the general statistics (and wronger still to treat them as if they are the worst among the characterized group), there are very good and understandable reasons for these patterns, and the group described is in no way a homogenous or unified team. When a poor screwed-over rural white person hears “White privilege” from an almost always university educated city kid who has better opportunities than they do, they are hearing “Screw you” every single time without exception. They may be failing to consider context, accuracy of model and appropriateness of application – but the functional result is turning a needed and natural ally into a motivated enemy. That person’s screwed-overness is more important than their colour.

          My point about various other sorts of privilege is just that statistical models show many things to have demonstrated advantage in measurable terms. Naturally, not all terms are measured (how do we never include happiness, but always feature money?) and not all factors are studied. Whenever we construct a model, we are framing, and we usually do this to achieve a result we want. White liberal guilt is in fact an incredibly important historical force – most of our modern ideas about directed social policy which helps lift the poor originated with the guilt of the pious and suddenly over-rich Dutch middle class of a few centuries ago. But revolutions – that is, useful changes in control of means of production – don’t carry the day, until they have the majority of the people behind them. White privilege is one of many concepts with intellectual validity within a specific model, which is often used by angry city people to sneer at country people they know nothing at all about. This makes it functionally COUNTERREVOLUTIONARY. Simpatico as can be, as dry philosophy for an intellectual conference or kaffe klatsch – treason to the cause, in sloppy street-practise.

          Yes, wealthy people of colour still experience insane racism – but it is on the basis of CLASS where we assemble an absolute majority of striving people, against a small number who corrupt government and industry to divide, exploit and also cause war for shareholder profit around the world. If we think big (like my heroes, the old IWW wobblies) the teams are seven point seven nine billion against a few hundred thousand – globally, that is. This is a tent big enough for no recounts required – ever!

          Town mouse versus country mouse just ain’t going to cut it (and this is the actual fight underlying most of the rhetoric we self congratulatory city folk adopt and distort, because this, so far, is our level of seriousness as democratic citizens). We might as well be warring nomads and agriculturalists – it is that ancient, and that unresolvable (entirely arbitrary) a bigotry lies at it’s root

          Our duty is not to push vast numbers into change against their will with a slim electoral margin and force (which in an almost Newtonian way, inevitably gives rise to an equal and opposite force on the next cycle) but to persuade them by our creative demonstration and good work to help topple the Praetorian guard with us, so that we can (finally, please) move on to the real adult level problems of governance and responsibility, instead of bitching about the Caesar our immaturity ultimately demands. The extent to which panicked leftists ran to the CIA and FBI for help was SHAMEFUL. Cointelpro anyone? Memory of any kind?

          The dumbest popular idea on the left is that the state is a mean dad, and if only we could convince him to relent, it would all be nice. Nope – we either demonstrate that we can be trusted to a solid majority, then take power and use it responsibly, or we aren’t actually change-agents or citizens, just the infantile consumers that most of the rest of the world already see us as – and nothing more.
          Citizens can be a lot of things – but the empowered customer (consumer) is actually absolutely always WRONG! ;o)

          To show our capacity for willful moral blindness in cruder terms, all of us westerners with any level of privilege can walk into any gas station and demand a fraction of a cluster bombing in Yemen, for our convenience – and do this as if it was our right. Who gets what and how much is a valid and important question, but the fact that our consumerist addiction kills many now and will soon kill all of us when the environment hits a brick wall at a thousand miles an hour is of utmost urgency. No candidate in 40 years has dared even to try running on ending war crimes. No constituency for it. Sheesh! And we are supposed to take this as a fight between serious Progressives and serious Christians?

          You make the assertion that the right would twist anything to be seen as sneering, which is a common but also arbitrary and hostile assumption, unworthy of the rest of your arguments. There are definitely some loud idiots on the right who misrepresent things greatly for dramatic effect – and as you recognize, some on the left also do this (how does Maddow still have a show – seriously?)

          To skip to another frame within the same range – gay people are not what hostile straight people think they are – but straight people are not what hostile gay people think they are, either. The hostility itself is a distortion, and our sanctimony makes us blind to this.

          This presumption of knowledge IS the exact sort of sneering I’m talking about – we speak as if we can easily judge the motives of a large group we dislike vaguely without understanding or empathy, to be substantially different from our own – and this is so deeply built into our partisan modes of speech now that it has become invisible. Also just plain wrong in principle and conclusion. Fox and MSNBC both amuse a lot more people on the right and left than they accurately represent. More cheerleading than journalism anyhow. When outrage is used as an organizing force, stupidity bigotry and willful blindness are baked right into the foundations. Like so many utopias and unbuilt architectural fancies, it feels nifty, but has no demonstrated load-bearing capability.

          If the tent was big enough, we would be winning – we aren’t so it isn’t. Simplest way I can put it. (Workbench politics) ;o)

          Oh – and Hillary – my god! Anyone who ever called her a leftist, REALLY doesn’t know what that means. We often talk as if people on the right agree with all the worst things Trump says and does – do we assume everyone who voted for Hillary agreed with her speech against gay marriage, or that enlightening super-predator talk? How about the still active mass-murderous Albright doctrine?
          Impassioned hallucinations about her are so useful a lever to pry open ruinous self-deceptions on left AND right, she’s a big part of my next podcast. We cannot hope to reduce human cruelty ignorance and anger by adding to them. No warmongers, please!

          Love ya, man – and I really appreciate the thought you put into this. Cheers for joining in, eh? (and apologies for high-elbows, most definitely not meant as personal attack – I’ve just been waiting so damn long for revolutionary fire to return – that this impassioned but confused and divisive mess we’re all living through now is breaking my heart in slow-motion).

          So glad you caught the Emory piece. Huey was and remains right “If only we could organize all of this passion effectively…”
          ¯_(ツ)_/¯

          • Totally agree with this: “I actually think we agree about the substance(s) of the matter, but have grabbed on to different ends of the thing.”

            Just gonna comment on a few points here.

            Most important first, following on from my em-dash experiment: a trick I learned from a patronizing Reddit bot. I think we can get your shruggy’s left arm back by escaping the backslash: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (<– that’s the result of a triple backslash, which should be a figure skating move). (It might be presumptuous of me to assume you’d want the arm back. I can imagine a poetic-political point to be made by leaving it out.)
            Maybe it would be helpful to say that part of my point is: there are other methods than statistical ones. The methods relied on for the kind of invisible knapsack I’ve been appealing to are qualitative, not quantitative.
            You write: ‘When a poor screwed-over rural white person hears “White privilege” from an almost always university educated city kid who has better opportunities than they do, they are hearing “Screw you” every single time without exception. They may be failing to consider context, accuracy of model and appropriateness of application – but the functional result is turning a needed and natural ally into a motivated enemy. That person’s screwed-overness is more important than their colour.’

            I get that—I do!—but I don’t think the problem is with the words “white privilege” or with the underlying idea. We can’t fix that problem by fixing the conceptual framework. There are, as far as I can see, exactly two ways to avoid this: (a) stop talking about race at all or (b) holy hell work as hard as we can on communicating as well, as clearly, in as many different ways as possible what we’re actually talking about.

            Analogy: there are people who understood “Black lives matter” to mean “only Black lives matter”. But the problem wasn’t with the words, and changing the words wouldn’t make resistance to the movement go away. At all![citation needed]

            You write: “You make the assertion that the right would twist anything to be seen as sneering, which is a common but also arbitrary and hostile assumption, unworthy of the rest of your arguments.”

            I think I wasn’t clear enough here about exactly what I’m claiming, but for starters I think the thing I said is true of the right and true of the left too. (Mutatis mutandis—there is some sneering at “coastal elites” on the right, but there isn’t much to be gained by manufacturing it where it isn’t). The multibillion-dollar sportsball team in the next town will absolutely cheat if they can get away with it, but so would my favourite team.

            That’s against “hostile”. And against “arbitrary”: I think that’s off target too, given what we know about (both sides!) taking on the tactics and literal people from the world of advertising. This stuff is all very high stakes, and there are extremely well financed people doing whatever it takes to win. Some of them I’m sure are purely cynical, willing to outright lie—but I don’t think that’s most of what goes on when things from one side are misrepresented on the other.

            We all see things through a lens; we amplify things that confirm our expectations. You get a short clip of Hillary saying “people who vote for Trump are racists, call them the basket of deplorables”, you think “I knew it!” and you get mad and explain why this is bad and wrong, because apparently some people need it explained to them or she wouldn’t have said it! And plenty of folks on the left (add scarequotes if you like) reply in kind because they DO actually think the other side is entirely a basket of deplorables! Nobody’s trying to lie to anybody, but the actual line, which was saying it would be a mistake to treat all Trump voters as belonging in the “basket of deplorables”—the very thing the backlash insists on—is distorted into sneering.

            There is important research in social epistemology to be done on how this sort of thing happens: what happens to opinions & the search for truth when we fragment in various ways, what sort of distortions we can be vulnerable to even when every individual is perfectly rational.

            For the record, I have absolutely nothing positive to say about Hillary Clinton. She’s just a character in an illustrative example.
            You write: “White privilege is one of many concepts with intellectual validity within a specific model, which is often used by angry city people to sneer at country people they know nothing at all about. This makes it functionally COUNTERREVOLUTIONARY.”

            I think the inference here is just wrong. I think it’s wrong in two ways.

            First, because of the parallel to my assertion about the right: just as the stakes are too high for folks on one side not to distort what’s being said by folks on the other (so you can’t fix the problem by fixing this concept), angry/contemptuous city people are not going to stop sneering at country people unless we address the resentment (so you can’t make it stop by changing the words by which they sneer). Taking away the knife doesn’t help much when there are breakable bottles all around. (And I agree 100% with your point that this axis of division underlies so very much right now, and makes no sense.)

            Second, because some bad uses of a concept does not mean it has no good uses. Putting the two reasons together, I’ll say either of the following two conditions would make me agree that a concept is functionally counterrevolutionary: (1) there is a better replacement that would do the same job (help us understand the same parts of social reality) better (less divisively, more accurately, less liably to being misunderstood, etc.); or (2) it can’t be, or is only rarely, used to revolutionary effect. Condition (2) is compatible with the concept’s being used (often, even) to counterrevolutionary effect.

            I’ve partly been trying to argue that, in fact, the framework of privilege can be useful on the ground. The sort of use I’ve been advocating is grounded in particular, contextual, embodied, cooperative observation. Seeking out and acknowledging privilege (not: apologizing for, decrying, feeling guilty about, renouncing) is necessary for (re)organizing on level-ish ground.

            Using the concept effectively and productively most definitely takes a whole lot of hard work. Delicate work. Patient work. It takes a lot of skill and care and empathy to speak to someone who’s lived a life very different from your own about the differences between you in a way that brings you together instead of driving you apart. If you mishandle it, you make things worse. What I’m claiming is that the concept of (white) privilege does not itself make that work harder, and on the contrary it can be & often is an effective tool for that work.

            And coming back to point 2 above, I’d agree that if we look for privilege through statistics we aren’t going to find that sort of thing. But I also think that’s a straw privilege.

            For what it’s worth, I think the only sensible approach to electoral politics, the state, the major parties is harm reduction: as much as possible, stop them killing people while the real work happens on the ground. Nobody should confuse the Democrats (or Labour or the NDP) with the kind of left politics we need (but I also agree we need a bigger tent, not a purer one).

            Nevermind the elbows! They’re a professional courtesy as far as I’m concerned. (Take that as a comment on how my own elbows are intended, too.) Despite what we’ve both said about probably agreeing on the substance: hey thanks for being someone it’s safe and worthwhile disagreeing with! It’s rare to be able to be sure that (a) you’re someone I can learn something from (and, I hope, vice versa), (b) you might change your mind in response to what I have to say (and, I hope, vice versa), and (c) you won’t take disagreement personally. The corresponding combination of (a) knowledge and/or intelligence, (b) ability and willingness to listen, and (c) enough heartfelt and believable goodwill.

            And to end on a bit of a hopeful note, because I understand the heartbreak: I really think the kids are all right. Not when I’m marking essays, of course, but at a population level, I think they’re going to be better, not worse. As long as they don’t drown in polar meltwater. Oops, this was almost hopeful!

  4. Hey Roger. Let me start by saying that although I disagree in a few ways with your conclusions and arguments, your perspective is valid. I mean it – it’s valid in the sense of not-wrong, given the right modality or context. I’ll express mine and you might come to a similar conclusion about it. Note: there is one thing I would say is true in all possible universes, however: and that’s that Robin DiAngelo is racist. And I do find it odd that an entire discussion goes by about racism, and then when an actual identifiable racist pops up, you can’t see her. But this speaks to a certain credulity shared by many, one that I try in vain to disabuse them of.

    Although my criticisms of the usefulness of the concept of white privilege are pretty damning, I’m not among those who think the concept is intrinsically bad. As I said in my earlier post, there’s a narrow sense in which the term can be reasonably applied, i.e. applied in a way that a reasonable speaker’s meaning won’t be misconstrued by a reasonable listener. But the “concept itself” is hard to separate from its application and its consequences. Hence the discussion about the proper scope of a term’s use, the way it actually operates in the world, and the counter-productive consequences resulting from its misapplication.

    Anyone capable of learning a bit of history can get a sense of how someone of European stock “like me” enjoys benefits growing up and living in this part of the world in my lifetime. It’s also evident to me that that assumption has shortcomings. Perhaps for that very reason, it seems people want to reveal a deeper truth: the racism lingering in every micro-level interaction. But we have failed to educate the young (as well as the not-so-young) about the historical antecedents, causes, and ideological roots of oppression, as well as the current manifestations of it. Introducing blame, insults, labels, demonization and de-humanization, does not and cannot make up for that – but it can feel like it does. Especially to younger people.

    When I find myself having a conversation with a young person who assumes the existence of white / male privilege, I’m always a bit torn. On the one hand, I want to keep listening – want to accept their line of thinking without objection or challenge. (This always seems too abrupt.) On the other hand, I want to say, “Your heart is in the right place – your motives are good, but the term “privilege” is too narrow, it assigns blame / culpability / responsibility in an overly general way (which doesn’t tend to increase accountability), and functions best when used in certain conditions / qualifications. Moreover, when used without appropriate qualifications, it may not function as intended at all – it may be counterproductive.” Obviously, this will put your interlocutor to sleep by about the second sentence. It amounts to giving an impromptu lesson on communication.

    But speaking of such lessons, let’s be more explicit about how “____ privilege” functions in discourse: it is a means of public shaming. It is not a history lesson. Statements like the one above advising qualification are often rejected outright. They are considered humanizing the enemy, giving the oppressor undue charity, or taken as evidence of complicity with the oppressive system.
    The public shaming ritual continues. The “privileged” prostrate themselves before the “oppressed”. It’s a symbolic payment of a debt – an historical debt, about which much genuine contrition is felt. My concern is not that people are being overly emotional, living in the past, or “overdoing it” – I am regularly all those things; my concern is that those who take a different approach (or are openly critical about those approaches) will be vilified and shunned as enemies. This makes an unpayable debt binding.

    I can’t help thinking of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals when looking at this issue. Public shaming has a prescribed use – it’s a pressure tactic, a sometimes necessary one that should be used with proper contextualization and mindfulness. It can be effective in making necessary changes and raising awareness. What we see today is a perhaps compensatory overuse of that tactic, to a degree that is counterproductive. Is the tactic itself counterproductive? – I wanna say …no?

    There’s an old dictum that “less is more”. There’s an equally old assumption that that dictum doesn’t apply in matters of urgency – that you should apply as much muscle as you can, and bend the world to your will. Nothing could go wrong, because you’ve got justice on your side. It’s singularly amusing how justice bestows this privilege on us. But that’s a transactional form of justice – one whose “algebra” restores a prior state. Another form of justice is the realization of higher unity, and mutual recognition of dignity. It isn’t seen as rectifying an injustice, but simply recognizing our highest selves, or doing justice to them.

    Over the past 30-40 years, the vast majority of racial and gender integration has resulted from ordinary peer-group socialization. (No citation needed.) Pressure campaigns targeted at specific institutions have been significant, but much smaller in their effect. (True, I am referring to the post-Civil Rights era. Don’t take this as dismissive of ongoing Civil Rights struggles.) What some contemporary self-styled theorists of race believe is that “whiteness” itself is an institution: roughly, that whites have institutional completeness or closure. This is the central conceit of the concept of white privilege, and it entails the appropriateness of pressure tactics even in interpersonal contexts – which are, of course, largely incommensurate with macro contexts.

    Some have concluded that institutional change has been insubstantial, particularly given the paucity of representation in some institutions, along with (possibly even worse) tokenism. And that this translates directly to social injustice and inequality. The importance of this issue, of visibility, representation, and tokenism cannot be overstated, because it forces us to look critically at how institutions are constructed and regarded as relevant in the first place. Socially relevant, I mean, not just relevant to themselves – their workers and shareholders, or indeed to some cliquey, self-congratulatory mythology believed by many throughout the wider society but which works to undermine efforts at positive, sometimes foundational change. Institutional inertia, in other words, is partly based on the explicit priorities of those working within it (they administer it), and partly on the implicit assumptions held by outsiders. A thing that is not a thing, but is treated as a thing, can come to seem like a thing. Its inertia and its legitimacy are one.

    I believe the hard-line neo-Marxist premise here is: the context of our interaction is also the context of resource distribution. Those with “more” inevitably shun any interaction as equals with those who have “less”. This has the paradoxical result that equality is never achieved. It is conceived only as the answer to a calculation, not as a starting point. And we never get there.

    This sort of addresses the “context” I refer to. How do we construct our standards of equality? The trappings of western middle class life have come to serve as the baseline for the standard of a dignified and good life. The only way that can work is if we’re willing to adjust our individual-level habits of, and assumptions about, consumption. We also need to consider the role that class resentment plays in perpetuating these habits and assumptions. Indeed, our entitlement, our privilege as westerners. This might be why Paul is so down on boomers sometimes. They set a standard of postwar wealth, acquisition and upward mobility (“success”, “prosperity”) that is not just unrealistic today, but actually irresponsible. The only way anyone gets away with it, is by an act of denial that is partly baked-in to that very lifestyle.

    But the destructive myth of pure meritocracy persists, perpetuating a great amount of insecurity and further atomization among us. I have nothing against ambition, aspiration and acquisitiveness. Even competition, if healthy. I feel blessed to live in the land of opportunity. Even if that’s the opportunity to fail – if the failure is part of growth rather than of a crude Darwinian lottery that puts systemic failure on the individual, apparently assuming this will elicit greater effort. It’s the opposite – it creates resignation and apathy. That’s how people are controlled. Kept down.

    We should inquire more deeply – yes, even us enlightened, liberal westerners – into the imbalance in power, wealth and access between our societies and others around the world. That’s partly why certain concepts of privilege have such resonance. We feel guilty. Access to opportunities need to be claimed viciously, and hoarded jealously. It’s the corollary of western colonialism. The major dualism being “unrepentant laissez-faire libertarian asshole capitalist” and “self-loathing, apologetic, nanny state liberal busybody”.
    So am I just reiterating a call for inspiration rather than desperation, fumbling for some motivational message in a world where so many motives seem to be at odds with one another? Yes, partly; but I’m also considering the practical implications of anyone being expected to be less than honest in their speech and conduct. Because then unity of motive – the intersection, the interaction of personal motives (perspectives, values, modes of communication), and the macro-level, interpersonal motive that is given the name truth – will be buried under a mountain of bullshit.

    • Ian, I love you, I absolutely do, but I just don’t think there’s a productive discussion for us to have here. I’ll give you a couple of quick questions, though, in the hope that focussed, limited exchange might actually get somewhere.

      I actually tried to look for other people calling Robin DiAngelo racist. Haven’t found it. Not that “other people” need to agree for you to be right, but you haven’t given reasons, just asserted it as if it’s obvious. And more or less said it’s obvious in this reply. So here’s the question: why should I think Robin DiAngelo is racist? Extra challenge: do it without using the word “reverse”.
      I have not argued that the way to use the concept of privilege fruitfully is to include lots of caveats. I have tried to argue (a) that if the problem is about how to use the concept well, then we should be giving advice about how to use it well rather than condemning the concept, (b) that if there is a better framework for describing and addressing the same social ills, we should hear about that alternative rather than condemning this one, (c) that in fact there are fruitful uses of the actual concept. So here are the questions: (b) if you think there’s a better framework for talking about race, what is it? (c) what do you think is wrong or bad about the use of the concept I’ve described—namely people reflecting together on what in their specific lives is shaped by their race (or whatever other kind of category we’re applying “privilege” to) in order to identify what we can and can’t assume about our fellows’ lives? (I’m skipping (a) because I doubt you think the concept of privilege is fine-but-misused.)
      As I pretty explicitly said in my last comment, I deny that identifying privilege entails or requires or involves “prostration” or “public shaming”. We are all agreed that public shaming is not helpful. So here’s the question: why is it useful to decry that sort of thing to me? Or, if you prefer: where did I defend public shaming, invoke “oppression”, etc.?
      Last question: do you really think it’s a good idea to get into a conversation with someone who’s already preemptively described you as “raving”, treated it as obvious that anyone who agrees with you is obviously racist? Would you expect to be listened to?

      If you reply and I don’t, please believe that it’s because I don’t expect we’ll learn much from each other in this kind of forum (extended typed comments, not in person out loud actual conversation), not because I think ill of you or of your intelligence. Love ya.

      • I see we’ve arrived at the “I don’t think we can have a productive discussion here, Ian…” part of the conversation. But you have indeed missed my points – which I thought I made very coherently. (Are you reading too many academic papers?)

        One of my main premises is that “identifying” privilege does in fact entail pubic shaming, because I see the concept applied that way all the time. That’s how it functions, out in the real world. It doesn’t need to, which is why I also acknowledge its validity with appropriate historical and psychological contextualization.

        To address your ABCs:

        a) I have no objection to the framework per se. The concept of privilege (in the somewhat neologistic form under discussion) is fine as social commentary, but can’t be separated from its meaning in use or implications in practice. We’re now discussing its proper applicability, and that’s great. The issue is that certain people’s notion of it assumes its own conclusion, and puts people in a box, so that there IS no discussion. Our respective estimations of the degree of misunderstanding and confusion the concept’s use introduces into discourse probably vary widely.

        b) This gets into the indispensability of the framework. Asking if it’s dispensable might seem like condemning it sometimes (and by extension, eschewing “any discussion about race”). Most people don’t treat frameworks with as much ease as philosophers, who inevitably are adept at qualifying and explicating the logical implications of various assumptions. So sometimes no framework is better – if, as I said, history is properly taught. The case could easily be made that “white privilege” functions as an A-historical concept, and that’s a big part of why it’s often dispensable. In others’ view, it’s a primary means of teaching history. I find that very telling.

        c) I fully endorse reflection, coming together, and sharing perspectives.

        As for DiAngelo, I assumed a level of familiarity because she’s a bestselling author and lecturer on this “subject”. Her fundamental premise is that white people are racist. That’s racist. Recall what I said about institutional closure. Advancing the argument that “she’s not racist because she’s actually trying to fight racism” implies that public shaming of whites, en masse or as individuals, is a fruitful, forgivable tactic to fight racism. The ends justify the means. Some people will whine about it, but it’s all for the best. But I don’t buy that. You might take this as an unfair caricature of her or her supporters, but in broad strokes that’s my point. Take it or leave it.

        And no, most don’t consider her racist or even “racially insensitive”. But all things considered, that tends to reinforce my point about the consequences of dissenting from the lock-step view on white privilege. If shaming is not helpful, what’s your view on the removal or “cancellation” of critics? More collateral damage?

        In case you think I have a flippant attitude about this, or haven’t given it much Actual Thought. As you know I’ve been in several social science courses, and even programs. A couple years ago, I joined a social work program (actually community worker, but same idea), wherein this concept was taught and discussed. It was the perfect environment in which to treat it soberly and with due care and consideration, but it wasn’t. It was used in dehumanizing ways, and the dehumanization was considered acceptable or allowable, ostensibly on the basis of solving the problem of racism. That’s not “anti-oppressive” or empathic. It’s also an abuse of the professor’s privilege / power. I exited the program, making much fuss on the way. So no, there are a whole class of contemporary racists who do not openly acknowledge their racism, and they spread it daily.

        If your point is that we can’t have a productive discussion because we’re both just confirming our own premises – that may indeed be true. At this point, I think enough has been said. It’s up to you to read it again, until it makes sense. At your leisure, of course.

  5. Sorry for another comment before a reply—don’t mean to dominate the conversation—but I think I’ve let myself get away from my central point. Let me try again to nutshell it:

    There are people misusing their tools, trying to hammer nails using a pair of pliers. They blame the nails. I claim we shouldn’t blame the pliers, but the people. So I’ve tried to describe the purpose those pliers are for, which is not hammering nails. I claim there are enough people using the pliers correctly that we shouldn’t take them away, but instead work with the hammerers, both to show them that pliers are the wrong tool, and that hammering nails isn’t helpful for the job we’re trying to do. (“We’re making circuit boards, not cabinets!”)

    pliers = “(white) privilege”
    proper use of those pliers = among people ready and willing to acknowledge differences in our experiences, to identify and address those differences
    using pliers as a bludgeon = public shaming, prostration, etc.

    We need a tool for that proper use, and I don’t see a better one. We don’t need a tool for that bludgeoning job, which means the problem is with people who see nails to be hit, not with the inapt tool for the job.

    I agree, though, that IF there aren’t (m)any people using the pliers properly, IF they’re only being used as bludgeons, THEN we should get them out of the workshop, regardless of their suitability for their intended purpose. But pointing to examples of people using them as a bludgeon =/= showing that they aren’t widely being used properly. I do also think we should be pointing to specific examples of people using them as a bludgeon, precisely because I think the problem is those people and the way they use the tool, not with the tool itself.

  6. Hi Roger and Ian – thank you both so much for your thoughtful and wonderfully reasoned engagement.

    First off – YES YES Roger, on two counts. Working as a model in art school I too have come to have deep faith in and great hope for the fantastic empathy and qualities of this young generation just coming up. My concern is that they have seen so little integrity demonstrated by their elders, that they don’t have a common grasp of exactly where and how firmly to stand, even when they are fantastically well motivated to do so. This seems to me to be one part of our duty – passing on some of the stuff that works, and some of the wisdom of enduring humane value, while we can. (That is, before the inevitable crop failure which starves millions of people who thought they were invulnerable – after which – all bets are yikes!)

    Secondly – oh wow double yes. To put ideas in contention without even fear of ad hominem nonsense is DELUXE in the extreme! Cheers for that to both of you guys. Even just modeling this sort of debate nowadays, is of genuine positive value.

    Ian – so beautifully put. I too have personally observed so many examples of the bullying and movement undermining abuse of the concept, I question its utility altogether – even if not it’s validity as a theory on paper. Also I have only had a sketchy scan, but DiAngelo absolutely gives me the creeps. Almost a protection racket – worth millions, too. Cui Bono? Your point about accusations characterizing an entire race is simple and clear. Content of their character, folks. Heard that once, stuck with me rather well.
    Also – the basic point about raising all boats advancing all rights is fundamental and widely misunderstood. Factionalism inevitably empowers oppressors. Individuals with jobs and dignity make social change happen with their energy and surpius cash – reliably. We have just been locked into so long a cycle of implosion of dignity and work for the lower classes, we don’t know what that’s like anymore, and have come to think fighting over table scraps is normalcy (again, the Dutch middle classes come to mind – generosities of spirit come from a sense of surplus, as much as an actual material plenty – our ecological ethical challenge, in a way – how to make the feeling of hope and plenty massless – a high bar, but a real social advance if we can manage to evolve a way).

    My temptation in answering both of you is to get into so many big ideas, that I know I’d better serve if I just made them an entire podcast (still have some pressing deadline chores to do first, but there is plenty to be discussed, to be sure). That doesn’t mean your ideas aren’t all stimulating me – quite the opposite, I think they deserve a better answer than in point-note form. That being said….

    Parts of some big points. The main falsehood behind the left-right dichotomy is their entirely complementary national function (best represented by the South Park episode which pointed out that without the right, the left would be too poor to dream so optimistically, and without the left, the world would hate America way too much for them to get away with their level of economic exploitation). ;o)

    There is also something essentially Orwellian about obsessing over micro aggressions in nations which are almost without comment preparing to enter the third straight decade of war against people who seem similar to, but were not actually aggressors against them.

    The question of whether academic theories (this one is straight up codified white liberal guilt) are more useful for snobbery or education is a complex one, but the class angle is important. People who have no power, who are accused of abusing their power, are people who are being bullied. It isn’t just that that doesn’t feel right – it absolutely isn’t right, nor moral – nor any sort of redress.

    Sensitivity is the stated aim of so many theories nowadays – but sensitivity comes from a well developed sense of principle, and enough character to act as you understand is right, and not take advantages which contravene your own beliefs. Every good thing about sensitivity can be derived from first principles and a bit of lived patience.

    Again, skipping gears to add colour to the point – when I first saw the phrase, “Yoga accessories” I threw up in my mouth!
    We didn’t embrace and learn from this near infinite wellspring – and become well attuned beings in staggering numbers. Mostly we desecrated it and turned it into a beach booty routine – vanity and boasting! The antithesis of the useful spirit within.
    AAAAARG! (I swear if you’d told me thirty years ago it would be this popular, I would assume you meant we had at last achieved peace, sanity, and were rounding the corner on some decent sliver of general happiness). ;o)

    I even hate the idea of depending on a Yoga class, as good and useful as teachers are in various stages, the money association is itself a pollution. The way I figure it, Yoga (like compassion) is something you can always learn about and extend with help – but won’t ever do the full mind body and soul work of which it is capable, unless you cultivate the will and practise within yourself.
    Reciting the catechism is inadequate – you have to be able to source it and regenerate it. That alone is the real thing.

    This also points to the invisible classist and exclusionary insult built into many popular academic theories of original sin – post modernist style. The critique overwhelms the thing itself, and logical operations on the model and language obfuscate plain hard truths and experience.

    Plus, I have the creepiest feeling about so many of these theories that their real point is narcissism. They so often read as attacks on the whole idea of general compassion, because it can be shown to be imperfect. Where I think general human compassion almost the only thing we have left to stand on, society-wise, and that it must be demonstrated and reinforced actively, every chance we get.

    Not modeling perfection, nor obedience to code – but instead the ability to dance spontaneously and beautifully!
    (one of those very few and precious things that humans will be better at than robots, for quite some time to come) ;o)

    Thank you guys. Sorry for not being more specific and detailed. Hope you see more of your fuel reflected in the next episode in a way that makes you laugh, cheer, or think even harder about why exactly I am so gosh-darned wrong!

    Love to you both!

    Paul

    Oh and cheers about my software-amputated shruggie. I accidentally discovered and forgot that trick, but I do love the dude!
    ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    • I really wanted my previous comment to be my last word here, but just for the record, I actually agree with this: “DiAngelo absolutely gives me the creeps. Almost a protection racket – worth millions, too.”

      Same deal as with Hillary: I’m not defending the person altogether, I’m disputing one specific criticism—or, rather, I was asking for receipts. But I’ll wait (eagerly!) for the next podcast to say anything more.

  7. If my recent posts seem to be insensitive or a self-indulgent diatribe, I certainly apologize. One reason they might have come across as such is that I view Roger and Paul as teachers – in different senses of the word perhaps, but teachers nonetheless. If Paul’s podcast isn’t meant to ruffle our feathers a bit and challenge our biases (including the good ones, to help us better understand and refine them), then what’s the point? Point blank, I wouldn’t bother to share criticisms or relate my own experience, if I didn’t think you occupy positions of influence, and take ideas and discussion seriously. That said, I realize I’m using broad strokes for some of my analysis, and that can be frustrating. Don’t doubt that I’m trying to refine these concepts in my own understanding, partly by the act of writing. But also don’t doubt that I’m writing for you guys.

    This reminds me that there are two senses in which ideas are taken seriously. One sense is by considering the idea’s intended use, something which tends to overlap with its dictionary definition. The other is to pay due regard to the consequences of the idea, or how “it” is used in practice to accomplish different aims. (And if it’s used in different ways, is it really the same thing / same “tool”?) The latter “pragmatist” treatment also corresponds roughly to linguistic prescriptivism, or considering how a term should be used to accomplish something, and evaluating its efficacy. The former perspective is analogous to linguistic descriptivism, explaining how the term actually functions. These aren’t really opposites, just different scopes for analysis which are in tension – and this creates ample opportunity for misunderstanding. But they’re also complementary.

    The pragmatist view might seem to make a concept / term / idea work in ways that are too constrained – too exclusive, without a firm reference point to establish meaning. Less utilitarian, and less welcoming of other perspectives. People look askance at it because it tends to emphasize “narratives”, and narratives are too spooky, seemingly turning modern, living humans into historically contingent ghosts that float in the air and go through walls.

    Humans are indeed tool users, and a ghost can’t grasp a tool (at least not that I’m aware of). Having said that, these conceptual tools at our disposal are abstract, and their function (as in, their purpose AND their efficacy) is not as obvious, their misuse not as ridiculous, as that of other, equally common implements. This speaks to the fundamental ambiguity of “culture”: that all create, and are created by it.

    A key point I wish to make with the tool metaphor is that when anyone feels attacked by someone wielding a tool, that tool “is” a weapon. But weapons are only a certain small class of tool (one that I daresay is not small enough). The natural, fully justified impulse is to disarm the attacker. Maybe even undertake the disarmament of many other would-be attackers, based on some ascribed motive. It doesn’t necessarily cross our mind that the attacker is actually defending themselves.

    Many non-whites are victims of “racialization” – the imposition of racial categories proscribing access to resources and opportunities. This practice attempts to render them a mere subset (if that) of a human reality most effectively embodied by whites. Those categories are themselves tools. But instead of being mere descriptors of one of the most obvious traits humans possess, they became more than that – something signifying the in-group, “Us”. To victimized groups, they also become a basis of solidarity and, as it were, counterattack. But the kicker is that “the victimized group” is a gloriously multi-ethnic tapestry. That categorization made it a convenient weapon, a tool to enforce and legitimize exploitation (dehumanization is the legitimization of exploitation) – and channel interpersonal aggression in ways that continue to enable exploitation.

  8. I post the articles below because they are germane to the previous discussion. (Both from Quillette – if I had any hope of being cool, it’s gone now.)

    It’s important to recognize two things when considering debates of this kind. 1) It’s tempting to get into the gotcha-ism of showing how woke leftists are using bad reasoning, or are juvenile or immoral. This feeds a certain contrarian appetite that I know well – although not by manifesting it myself, of course. It’s well to remember that such an appetite exists as an unhealthy smugness that detracts from broader analysis, and genuine appeals for justice. In other words, arguments for greater rigor, even when impassioned, shouldn’t diminish the importance of genuine respect and the principle of interpretive charity. 2) Nevertheless, because I take “the left” to hold the most potential for advancing meaningful dialogue and change, their public treatment of identity issues has to be held to a high standard, and revealed to be the self-indulgent posturing that it sometimes is. I should add 3), that the term “woke” is used by a variety of people, but especially conservatives who often don’t bother with the nuances of leftist arguments anyway – or even reality itself – and use it as a smear. Despite this detestable usage, I support using it because I think it credibly refers to actual cultural phenomena (if not a perspective or ideology per se).

    I bring this up because the posturing in question is not simply that. It represents an enormous obstacle to the discussions we must be having – about how to enable truly empowering macro-level change, change that helps us prioritize just distribution and sustainability. Lately we’ve been stuck at the intersection of “blame” and “waste”, with many westerners concluding that their society’s overconsumption is justified on the basis of their superior institutions or enlightenment values or what-have-you. When the word “progressive” is said with disgust, how are we to credibly advocate for large-scale change?

    I also can’t emphasize enough that woke ideology is now mainstream – it’s not just “radical leftists”, although they may be pushing it hardest. It’s given wide validation by academics, media figures, celebrities, human resource departments, etc. My sobering conclusion is that we can expect a constant stream of woke analysis and talking points, all throughout society, unless and until the left shows real leadership and puts a stop to it, by clearly declaring it to be a misrepresentation of its core humanist values. As things stand, the right is mostly incapable of articulating good faith arguments.

    https://quillette.com/2018/05/08/illiberal-logic-intersectionality/

    https://quillette.com/2020/09/19/down-the-1619-projects-memory-hole/

    https://quillette.com/2020/12/09/what-is-disrupttexts/

  9. I post the articles below because they are germane to the previous discussion. (All from Quillette – if I had any hope of being cool, it’s gone now.)

    It’s important to recognize two things when considering debates of this kind. 1) It’s tempting to get into the gotcha-ism of showing how woke leftists are using bad reasoning, or are juvenile or immoral. This feeds a certain contrarian appetite that I know well – although not by manifesting it myself, of course. It’s well to remember that such an appetite exists as an unhealthy smugness that detracts from the broader analysis, and genuine appeals for justice. In other words, arguments for greater rigor, even when impassioned, shouldn’t diminish the importance of genuine respect and the principle of interpretive charity. 2) Nevertheless, because I take “the left” to hold the most potential for advancing meaningful dialogue and change, their public treatment of identity issues has to be held to a high standard, and revealed to be the self-indulgent posturing that it sometimes is. I should add 3), that the term “woke” is used by a variety of people, but especially conservatives who often don’t bother with the nuances of leftist arguments anyway – or even reality itself – and use it as a smear. In this case, despite this detestable usage, I support using it because I think it credibly refers to actual cultural phenomena (if not a perspective or ideology per se).

    I bring this up because the posturing in question is not simply that. It represents an enormous obstacle to the discussions we must be having – about how to enable truly empowering macro-level change, change that helps us prioritize just distribution and sustainability. Lately we’ve been stuck at the intersection of “blame” and “waste”, with many westerners concluding that their society’s overconsumption is justified on the basis of their superior institutions or enlightenment values or what-have-you. When the word “progressive” is said with disgust, how are we to credibly advocate for large-scale change?

    I can’t emphasize enough that woke ideology is now mainstream – it’s not just “radical leftists”, although they may be pushing it hardest. It’s given wide validation by academics, media figures, celebrities, etc. My sobering conclusion is that we can expect a constant stream of woke analysis and talking points, all throughout society, unless and until the left shows real leadership and puts a stop to it, by clearly declaring it to be a misrepresentation of its core humanist values. As things stand, the right is mostly incapable of articulating good faith arguments.

    https://quillette.com/2018/05/08/illiberal-logic-intersectionality/

    https://quillette.com/2020/09/19/down-the-1619-projects-memory-hole/

    https://quillette.com/2020/12/09/what-is-disrupttexts/

  10. Hi Ian

    Very sorry I missed your previous note, and failed to acknowledge it. Wasn’t a snub, I promise! ;o) Also hilarious point about coolness being discarded by lowbrow reference (Quilette) – the online equivalent of once-embarrassing “Readers Digest”.

    No offensive diatribary as far as I’m concerned – rock on, dude! Point about reducing things to functional evaluations only (or any other single lens reductionist approach) is really important, and applies incredibly generally. Platonic types need to add some Aristotle – Aristotelians need to add some Plato – and people who think they are just dumb old white men need to stop teaching! You know I’m a mister-curious of longstanding. While I was involved with education (not just Delta, but also stints at George Brown and the Harris Institute) I made a point of asking every teacher I could, what future they were training their students for. CRICKETS. Velocity of change is high now – this is why adaptability, flexibility and BALANCE are certain to be (the only?) key and crucial skills.

    Thank you for those articles – I am always up for some homework, especially recommended in good spirit. That intersectionality piece was especially good – finally explained what happened to Lilla (who I saw interviewed by Paikin, then got FB yelled-at for liking, since all he was talking about was being practical about the available tools within democracy – a no brainer, if you’re using an argument centred around the capabilities of your brain, rather than basing things on your endocrine system).

    Let me state it really clearly, intersectionality isn’t just shit, it is treason against the left. One of a great many reductio ad absurdum consequences of Post-modernism, which has always been problematic for pretending a critique is more important than the thing being criticized (surely among the most narcissistic ideas which ever called itself scholarly). Intersectionality isn’t a form of reasoning, but a nouveau form of hateful celebratory bigotry. With apologies to Lucas (and Cheney, its most recent proponent) this shit is pure dark side of the force. Trying to make use of evil tools in the name of good. Legitimizing very very bad approaches. As I have asked before – what is the leftist equivalent of Prayer in Schools? The thing they want, but acknowledge others don’t, and so withhold out of respect for the belonging of everyone – fundamental democratic civics (again, a thousand times more important than critique).

    That it is treason in practical terms is self evident – right when we in the rich west should be behaving responsibly and finally doing something effective about our mindless consumerist planet-scale murder complex, we’ve decided the big justice question is vague theories about who here doesn’t get to have equal shares of blood of the foreign poor on their hands. Utterly disgusting shite. Some academics embarrass the academy itself (and one wonders at the quality of any who would anoint them so). Mind you, Dworkin taught for decades also. Room for nutters is a part of it (come to think of it, Leary taught for many years too) ;o) But when they lead aggressive betrayal of principle and inject poison into the heart of a hope-movement they must be challenged firmly and often.

    The fact that what now loudly calls itself the left has infinite contempt for the actual living breathing working class tells you a lot about who they really are, and how hollow their claims of leadership and understanding are also. That crap doesn’t fly on the factory floor.

    Korzybski really should be taught to every first year university class – at least the basics. The word IS is almost never appropriate. SEEMS TO ME has much more objective quality, but also changes what sound like absolute descriptions into observations only. Hilariously, it actually feels rhetorically weaker, because you are discarding such an easy manipulative lie, for accuracy!

    The idea that some academic theorist can make a grand sweeping assertion about huge populations (again – that problem of “What people I don’t like are like”) really does take one back to Marx. Not necessarily directly, as the article suggests, but at very least because the obvious problem with dogmatic Marxism (as opposed to forms of leftist thought which have kept learning and becoming more humane) is lack of understanding of human beings and differences in character – probably the most common professional deformation of the academe and intellectuals in general. Grand ideas can begin to seem so important, that the people they are meant to serve, or at very least reflect usefully, end up being completely obfuscated. (I love libraries, full of possibility and inspiration – but I always learned more that I could actually use, from face-to-face experience in the shop).

    There is no one in North America who can opt-out of doing disproportional harm to the foreign poor. No victim here, who isn’t also the indirect victimizer of someone even more helpless. And we are talking about indirect statistical victimization here (their frame). If we actually cared about helping the weakest, we’d stop buying cellphones and cars until conflicts in the middle east and the Congo were ended and repairs to their infrastructure and societies were well advanced. Thing is, we don’t actually care about the principle, the way these theories suggest – what we care about is our emotional identification with the idea that we have been treated unfairly. (And OMG is it ever a red flag when your theory makes you feel like the hero, standing up against the evil mindless hordes – this is in fact exactly the sort of thing so many speakers on the right are reviled and even silenced for). PRINCIPLE I mean seriously, WTF?

    That identification is fine – and may even feel objectively true in all kinds of ways (none of which require a theory to be made true or valid). Problem is, this emotional perception is also – despite all groupthink extremist attempts to suggest otherwise – entirely subjective. Planning anything political on the basis of people’s subjective emotionality is how you organize for a riot or a sustained racist crusade – NOT how you plan to convince the middle, advance universally advantaging policy, then take and hold power peacefully for a flowering of good sense planning and broader self-expression.

    I know you know I can also run the critique against them in the other direction – about how pathetically non-serious they are as revolutionaries (even the idea of getting over ego for program gets people whining), but the arbitrary self-serving subjective and emotional character of their drivel is actually quite enough on its own to make people who are serious and principled, nauseous.

    Tools! Yes – so important (and “territory” is another strong emotional-association-complex we now add to many abstract ideas, without clearly noting it for others – or sometimes even to ourselves). What I love about discussing things with folks like you and Roger is precisely that we all know we come by our arguments honestly, by hard thinking and weird experience – and meet with good intention. Tools might be sharp, but still not meant as weapons! Of course there are areas where we’ll never agree – and also things to which each of us have borne witness, which we will never be able to communicate the importance of to others (an area where many misunderstandings start, I think – because it is frustrating to know something in a concrete way, and be taken for someone merely theorizing lightly). But we’re all trying and good-hearted – which is a great baseline for any discussion – even better that our ideas about the world vary widely. Debate should not lead to groupthink – but to new challenge and inspiration for all involved.

    The 1619 piece was actually kind of funny (for longstanding Orwell fans, anyhow). The DisruptText thing is outright frightening. My point about the right deriving so much of its energy from leftist overreach comes from my own experience with such mania and irresponsibility. A LENS can be helpful. A COMPREHENSIVE SYSTEM OF DOGMA which leads those holding it to feel miserable, unfairly persecuted, resentful – and may very well cause them to presume doors closed, before they even train-up and try them, is completely and in every way damaging to anyone so indoctrinated. I come from a cult background, I’m not just guessing here.

    I do very strongly think a wide range of personalities and ideas should be involved in teaching – because students vary a lot too – and the ones who are most in danger, can often be saved by a Shor-Dur-Per-Sav (short duration personal saviour – to borrow from the brilliant Church of the Subgenius) who can appreciate how they are trying, even if often misunderstood by others. But the idea of a teaching text protection racket with extreme allegations against anyone questioning the righteous? That’s Spanish inquisition stuff. Beyond ignorant – outright evil. Nothing could do more damage to the leftist brand for centrists (and the actual and much put-upon working class of every colour), than starting your theory from the grossly arbitrary and racist axiom “all (fill in the group) are evil”.

    Which reminds me – one small point about your own feedback. Somehow we don’t talk about this anymore, but plenty of people with white skin have faced and continue to face racism also. Other harmful forms of bias too (though as the article said, recommending general compassion over the precious uniqueness of each tiny sub-group’s suffering will get you into trouble with some – sigh). Common purpose (and consensus, and eventually balance of power) come from common understanding, not angry ego driven feelings taught as facts, or any other sort of unhappiness-fostering division. This stuff stays with people and changes their experience (as I said in my new podcast – no one needs to be taught any new ideas in favour of suicide at University – they’ve actually have enough of their own before they arrive!) ;o)

    Cheers man – love and hugs. Sincerely sorry to keep you hanging – and thanks for the great reading material!
    ¯_(ツ)_/¯

    PS – this is also relevant. I respect teachers with many styles and approaches, and always do my very best to enable their lessons. With some, I have a nice back and forth on breaks like a comedy routine, where I can help make cautionary points about the life of a freelancer, which might encourage the slackers to buckle down, teach them the sort of industry that will help them pay their rent after graduation. Only once have I actually got in a fight with a teacher in front of his students, because of the grotesque irresponsibility of his ham-fisted message to them – (they needed the doubts I could see on their faces affirmed). I had worked with him as a model many times, and already understood he was a fundamentally melancholy person as an individual for all sorts of good reasons – but no one ever went to school to study his bleak personal philosophy, let alone learn his depression! I did apologize to him for the breach in proper class order, in a letter afterward – and acknowledged that I understood the bowl of fruit (model) was really not supposed to talk back – certainly not out of turn. But I also referenced the freshly announced suicide stats for the school in which he was teaching (highest in the entire country at the time) and challenged him in good spirit to do better.

    It has to be for them, not for us. (perhaps the simplest test by which intersectionality fails utterly)

  11. (Hey – sorry about the double post. The technology was being coy, and therefore asking for it.)

    Thank you as always for your sensitive reading of my unhinged diatribes, and constructive, hinge-installing feedback. The often simplistically framed question of “what young people should do with their lives” is facing its most important reckoning yet, because we now see the long-term consequences of the skills and aptitudes they so quickly internalize and apply, integrating them into their lives and worldviews. I recently read someone make a point about the benefits to society if the Capitol hill rioters had better access to humanities education. Critical, deep thinking about intangibles like how to steer your culture in more positive directions (and constructively criticize it) is under-valued – especially by capitalism’s more boldly materialistic proponents, who want to measure the world into marketable units. A big part of why I bother especially with folks like you and Roger. (And I say that as someone who dropped out of two humanities programs, only to graduate from a business program.)

    A critique per se is not more important than the thing criticized, but this applies only as a general statement. To illustrate what I mean, I’ve been playing with an abstract distinction (which is very broad and, I try to remind myself, doesn’t necessarily entail opposition) between two “orientations”: a problem orientation and a solution orientation. We are overly problem-oriented when, as with physical pain, focusing on it can make it worse. It has a kind of gravity of its own, pulling our attention toward it. Problems multiply, because of the initial problematic (no pun intended?) identification of such-and-such phenomena as a problem. We might usefully consider your point above about the rhetorical force of “is” rather than the more honest (but weaker) “seems”. Conversely, a solution orientation looks at how a proposed solution fits with what is desirable overall. What would be the limit of acceptable sacrifices / allocations of resources to a perceived problem? It should be obvious that the solution orientation is itself problematic, potentially upholding the status quo (which to postmodernism is anathema). Whereas the problem orientation, prima facie, entails rectification of a well-identified injustice (a way the world “is”, with our disgust being essential for mobilizing to change it). Is it fair to say many are convinced that the latter is essential to survival in our heavily Twittered discursive landscape?

    So when you say democratic civics is more important than critique, you’re forgetting that the very social institutions that enshrine those civics have been deemed evil a priori. The critiques advanced are the “new” civics, and yes they are exclusionary. (But again, no more than the previous / hegemonically ascendant civics.) I’m suggesting that in a sense the critique is important, we just need to be rigorous (yet… un-disciplined so to speak) in our treatment of it and never get bogged down in reified ideological boundaries. There are no easy answers to this, but we can keep foremost in our minds the way that people’s day-to-day engagement with the world informs their choices.

    Hence the importance of young people’s diet. When you mention dogmatic Marxism (or more accurately, dogmatic Marxist tendencies) as a common intellectual debasement in academia, I think you’re hitting on what Jordan Peterson is getting at when he stews about “cultural Marxism”. And here the leftists who malign Peterson aren’t giving him enough credit. The man has studied totalitarianism extensively and gladly gives Marxism its due, but clearly he feels it has been perverted. And when he’s presented with regular confirmation of that, he becomes more prone to slippery-slope reasoning, much of it fallacious. (i.e. concluding that people displaying some views are part of a grand conspiracy to make us all transvestites.) And that sucks because he then has nothing to say about class, capitalism, imperialism or other forms of social injustice, other than “the world is a wicked place! So smarten up!” Deep stuff.
    This aligns with your point about exaggerated heroism too – although I think Peterson’s paranoia has rational antecedents (don’t they all?).

    What Donald Trump has contributed to public life is that he has normalized having someone in a position of prominence airing his psychological disorders and idiosyncratic, not to say petty, grievances, and having the support of his peers. Actually, I think his shamelessness is part of his appeal (to the “common folk” especially, who acutely feel their alienation from falsely polite bourgeois society – but also to more sophisticated liberals, who find him edgy and alleviating of their ennui). This is more what politics will look like going forward, not less. Trump is a 74 year-old millennial. And our responsibility is to distinguish the signal from the noise – the truth from the tantrums. So, as with discussions of suicide in university, the topic may seem redundant or distasteful, but in an oblique way might also be affirming. (I recall a whole month unpacking Kierkegaard’s discussion of despair – although this was of course highly rich. Kind of maps onto the problem / solution orientation stuff.)

    What will liberals do without the titillating appeal of Donald Trump? The human mind can’t seem to resist the vulgar, and scat-flinging conflict never ceases to draw a crowd – who always think they can stay safely out of range. But mature adults (and others who value inspiration over desperation) can choose to press on. Maybe pack an umbrella. The rioters who stormed the Capitol building didn’t look like most groups of today’s millennials. They don’t represent of the future – just ignorance of the past. And while they may have reeked of many things, privilege wasn’t one of them.

    Our species is addicted to oppositional politics and exclusionary frames of discourse. If it came down to a battle between the two “sides”, I know who I would be fighting for – and with, if they’d have me. But I don’t find it encouraging that we’re still headed for mutually assured destruction. Preventing that will always be the bigger fight.

  12. I keep thinking about this paragraph from my comments on this post:

    [quote]
    It’s rare to be able to be sure that (a) you’re someone I can learn something from (and, I hope, vice versa), (b) you might change your mind in response to what I have to say (and, I hope, vice versa), and (c) you won’t take disagreement personally. The corresponding combination of (a) knowledge and/or intelligence, (b) ability and willingness to listen, and (c) enough heartfelt and believable goodwill.
    [/quote]

    It breaks my heart how wrong I was to think I’d found that here, with you.

    I believe you mean well, but if you only spend your efforts thinking about how to make me understand you and not on trying to understand me, you aren’t going to get anywhere.

    Listening is every bit as important as speaking. I sincerely hope this is something you can learn.

    • When you point out that someone is exhibiting immaturity, you can expect one of two responses. One – a chuckle, which tells you that you were wrong, or at worst, it was just a bad moment. The other is a tantrum, which tells you that you were absolutely spot-on right, but also foolish.

      Foolish, because people who respond with hostility when you try to help them make progress, are people who don’t actually want to make progress – you are wasting your effort, and your helper-self gets dinged for nothing.

      My starting point, upon learning you had invested the extraordinary effort to become a professor of philosophy was outright excitement. I also assumed that you were, like the vast majority of professors, completely bourgeois and in absolute denial about this (this is the precise cohort whose narcissism has turned the left against the interests of and respect for the working class over the last five decades, after all). My excitement was nonetheless genuine, because accomplishments of intellect are important and often outright beautiful, even though they do not often come with the sort of developed and diversified reality awareness which you will often find in say, a highly experienced waiter.

      You later indicated to me that you spent considerable time as a political radical – which made me even more excited, because I thought perhaps you were that extremely rare person who was both academically accomplished, and also over themselves. I’m sorry to simplify to that degree, but honestly, it is that simple. People who want to change the world but aren’t honest or courageous enough to face themselves first, are (and have always been) hobbyists, bourgeois posers, users, egotists, power gamers, fakers and destroyers – not serious radicals, let far alone effective revolutionary change agents.

      Ian made an excellent point, which you, by completely misunderstanding me, have failed to recognize. I am indeed capable of hurting feelings, (and I both remember and still greatly regret a few occasions when I hurt him, and at other times Chris). First of all – I’m no paragon, I behave unusually, with unusually consistency – but I am also a living testimony to that old saying “Beware the wrath of a patient man”. It is sweet that you once admired me, but that has not ever been my goal. The reason I had a salutary effect on all three of you (and dozens of other curious youth and working class intellectuals over the years, in every role and workplace I have attended) is that I offer people full, and in some cases excessive respect.

      Had you not claimed to be politically serious, we would still be talking about the rarefied pleasantries of philosophy, and having a grand old time doing it. But when you told me you were serious, I BELIEVED YOU. On the subject of philosophy, I cannot imagine you being less informed or clever than I. But on the subject of child abuse through mass indoctrination, you are completely (and infuriatingly) ignorant, while I have direct experience and also many years of invested study on this topic precisely. Why did I not answer each of your points in detail? Because I was trying to do you a favour, spare your feelings, and not call you out in a way which I knew you would find personal hurtful and embarrassing.

      I did in fact incorporate and answer the substance of your valid arguments repeatedly in long form, in several articles and episodes. I suppose you might best understand me by remembering that I am an artist who leads with compassion – so my essays are not logic puzzles, but have the express aim of increasing understanding where it may be lacking, and also learning from and/or answering new perspectives and challenges creatively, as they come in. Exploring the different angles with a fresh eye, seeking ever more relevant insight.

      Were I to answer you in detail, at full Brunswick House Trotskyist strength – the way I mistook your “serious political” experience – you would be metaphorically missing your metaphorical front teeth by now. Yes, I get it, you feel your white liberal guilt deeply and intensely, so it must be important, but you are not the centre of the world or even reference-normal for white people, and no, we cannot do serious harm to children of all social classes and races, because people like you so easily fall for this grotesque appeal to bourgeois self-indulgence.

      What made me angry is that you keep circling back around to justifying child abuse. The fact that some republican politicians are also saying things like this (usually in so hilariously stupid and tribalist a manner as to actually bolster the con’s reach, greatly) is actually irrelevant. I ain’t with them, I’m just thinking for myself, instead of turning off my compassion and nodding like a proper Milgramite.

      I am currently working on yet another more thorough long-form answer (and hope to treat it in enough detail that I will not have to address the subject any further) – and I apologize for making this for everyone (no your name will not be in it), instead of spending days of effort crafting a careful answer for you and you only, but these are questions of great societal importance. We all have a duty to share our efforts and even our failed experiments, so that we can actually make some damned progress, instead of going around and around in eternal circles.

      I do not have contempt for you as a person, quite the opposite, but if you are so fond of identity as consciousness determinant, I really wish you would ask yourself seriously, how you have the gall to call yourself a leftist. Can you honestly tell me you have more and closer working class than university chums? Is that really your class in any way whatsoever, or are you, like so many entitled comfy middle-classers, using empty (sacrifice-less) leftist protestations as a papal indulgence to buy-off your youthful idealist self?

      To me, an excellent definition of white privilege is the idea that people like you who are comfortable and established (at the state-taxed expense of workers, no less) think you get to define what real black intellectualism is. And who do you choose? A white chick, a Disney writer, and an angry hack.

      Not because any of them have anything serious, scientific, perceptive, revelatory, energizing, inspiring or in any way useful to add to the greater discourse (more on this in the long piece to come) but because they all go straight to the heart of ever so precious white liberal guilt.

      I will stick with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, Stokeley and company. Anyone who has read and studied these courageous thinkers and leaders recognizes that the current fad for critical race theory has everything to do with white neurosis, and nothing whatsoever to do with strengthening black people, or advancing the broad political causes of any of society’s ruinously feuding underdogs.

      Cheers man. Salute for the intellect, all the same. Try to feel better.

      And honestly, my rebuke was not on the subject of rocket science (even though it can indeed present this way, when one spends too much time talking with the legions of glassy-eyed true believers on the left or right).

      Billions of humans – good parents, caregivers, spouses, friends and comrades, live their lives on the far side of this bridge of fools – I wasn’t looking for some rare high transcendence, just the basic mark one awareness which comes equally to the high and low, from finding learning and building honour, and taking care of and taking on, responsibility for others.

      Absent this – all of our thinking, no matter how nifty or elaborate, is masturbatory.
      ¯_(ツ)_/¯

      • You’re right about tantrums.

        You must be in a lot of pain. I hope things get better for you, and I hope you never go back to read over our exchanges and see how you’ve behaved. Goodbye, Paul.

        • Just an observation. Paul took 5 days to read and think about what Roger said before he replied. Roger rook enough time (maybe) to just read the words. No time was taken for thought and consideration. Yes Roger he was right about tantrums!

  13. I’ve been ruminating a bit on this conversation, and thought I’d throw a couple more thoughts in. I should say that, in any dialogue this long, it’s almost inevitable that something will escape someone’s notice (or memory), and this oversight will lead things in an unexpected direction. I would like to pre-empt any offense I might cause by doing that myself. So when I say I’m responding to something so-and-so said earlier, I am almost certainly also failing to respond to some of their qualifications of that statement. This is one of the limitations of language, and of relationships. Even when I’m right, I’m wrong. (And you’ll likely agree, when I’m wrong, I’m really wrong.)

    I’ve been thinking about Roger’s use of “concept” – as in, “are you criticizing the concept itself or how it’s being misused?” A concept is an abstraction. If it’s meant to be functional in an explicitly persuasive way, it can have various types of validity. But “ideally”, it should have a good correspondence to reality, i.e. be “true” or truthful, or plausible, and having some explanatory fit with lived experience. The paradox of abstraction is that it is reifying – detachment from the world, that seems to bestow great and magical powers of transcendence upon us, to act in the world. And of course, to pursue solutions (including justice) – to address problems which are themselves partly products of abstraction.

    We can get into a bit of trouble reifying freedom – taking what the concept refers to and confusing it with the concept “itself” in a much narrower sense. There’s freedom in a general, metaphysical sense (meaning complete capacity or absence of obstacles), and there’s freedom in a more particular sense, as in a “freedom from” this or that obstacle. I like both of these meanings, but I also suspect that there’s a fair bit of equivocation – even if only implicit.

    I forget where I heard it, but someone said: Without freedom, rights are just privileges. This is referring to so-called positive, enabling freedoms – “freedom to” – but also freedom itself. This is where we start confusing freedom of “being”, as it were, with the properties of, or manifested by, that being. Without acknowledging the freedom at a fundamental level, the access enjoyed by the entity in question is an exceptional state.

    No one denies (or should deny) the urgency of addressing injustice. Nor is there any question in my mind that inequality is a fundamental justice issue. Notice that I don’t say it is necessarily an injustice, because that’s the rub. Some people might specify “material inequality” to indicate inequality that is, well, material, and that is about access to material goods, and to distinguish this from difference – along the lines of this or that category.

    Bearing in mind what I said about material inequality (unjust), there’s also simple difference, which should not be regarded as unjust if we are being rational and honest. I don’t like essentialism in any sense. It is unnecessary as a basis for unity. Unity (/ community) can be seen as necessarily displaying, at some level, an absence of differentiation, or as unity of differentiated parts – wholes, actually – freely associating, and never denying their differentiation. Interdependence is cool too, but I prefer relational to transactional.

    Along various categories, differential access was (and is today) manifested. But measuring the material inequality depends on how “material goods” is defined, which itself depends on uniformity of conditions, obligation, and expectation. Put simply, past a certain point (access to material goods), it’s downright silly to desire equality among different people, because you would eventually be erasing difference to achieve it. Rights are enjoyed by individuals. Differences are manifested by individuals. Individuals can be treated differently on the basis of their differences, and still be free and have their rights. Difference of experience doesn’t entail discrimination. To think otherwise suggests a lack of insight about our true freedom as individuals.

    To be honest, my sense right now is that many (perhaps Roger included) decide to emphasize CRT / white privilege despite many shortcomings, because they sense that the urgency of the injustice being addressed warrants it. They see the shortcomings not as shortcomings of CRT, but as fallout from the confrontation with the status quo elicited by CRT taking the fight to the oppressors. Ergo, the duty of de-escalation rests not with those allegedly responding disproportionately to felt harm, but to those who don’t appreciate the urgency of the injustice, and who, if they did, would surely forgive any felt harm.

    Looking back at McIntosh’s Knapsack – differences here need not be considered sites of injustice. Cruelty is unjust – is misunderstanding? This is where we go down the microaggression rabbit hole. Some will argue that cruelty is experienced – has nothing to do with intent – and therefore any plausible grounds for establishing deep offense / harm establishes cruelty. But we can’t establish felt harm any more easily than we can intent. So we look at differences. Some of McIntosh’s points are spot-on, and can be – albeit confusingly and unnecessarily – considered to pertain to “privilege”. But others are naive and specious, and make an injustice out of difference. Not about privilege at all. Unless you want to say that blacks enjoy “black privilege” because I, a man who presents as white, am likely to be treated differently (and worse) in some predominantly black social contexts.

    It is strange how Roger will seem to separate consequences from concept. I mean, no one really knows what comes first, the chicken or the egg. But to respond to an assertion that Z follows X, by saying “What about Y?” seems to miss the point. Intention is less relevant than consequence, even if we are asserting the consequence in question to be a consequence of a certain intention*. Intention can only be rehabilitated by attending to consequences.

    (*Why? – Because my assertion is itself intention-contingent. We must look, together, at the consequences. We can’t really look at intentions.)

    The concept will never really be separated from those using it. Heck, if all racism is eliminated today and we still want to argue about CRT, we’ll be really glad we have its concepts. I mean, it will all be entirely academic then – no one could plausibly point to any harm coming from it (although I suppose there would still be potential harm). But for purposes of intellectual hedonism, we can continue debating whether your or my grasp of the concepts and their ramifications is superior. As things stand, we must try seeing through the eyes of those being exposed to these framings.

    And that’s why I rather dislike the concepts. If a concept’s functionality (ostensible goal) requires extensive contextualization and qualification, it’s less likely to be fit for purpose. Part of the definition of “utility” is that a tool’s applicability is close to self-evident. By the same token, if its customary use is different from its originally intended use, the customary use is that much more to be considered its function.

    (However, I am given to wonder: what if someone wanted to cause trouble, to make things more difficult for some people, because they thought they had it too good? Those holding this condescending view would introduce concepts with little utility, requiring much “education” to fully “understand”. They might even think that this game was empowering of those who they saw as being deprived. Messed-up, yes – but history is full of examples of this sort of psychosis.)

    Not calling anyone here a psycho – but compensation is a common coping strategy. It may even seem to work. But it usually involves some form of denial / self-deception, and without addressing root causes, only adds to the cognitive dissonance, and thus is doomed to fail in its stated aims.

    If you made it this far, thank you for humouring me.

I am always curious about what you are thinking

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