Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Privilege and Collective Guilt

There is nothing like trying to engage someone whose morals are guided by collective guilt to really bring out the main features of that particular social regulator.

One of the main elements of collective guilt is that it is completely unprincipled. It is anti-foundational to the extreme, not even finding a foundation in our evolved psychologies (which they ultimately deny to even exist). Being unprincipled, such people do not engage in arguments, but rather move the goalposts around to make sure that you, their opponent, are in whatever is an oppressive, "privileged" group relative to themselves. Then they don't have to actually take your arguments seriously. You are just a mouthpiece for privilege and oppression.

This tactic goes back to the foundational philosophers of collective guilt -- Rousseau and Marx. Rousseau divided us into civilized (corrupt) and noble savage (uncorrupt). Marx of course divided us into bourgeoisie (corrupt) and proletariat (uncorrupt). If you could not see the truth of Rousseau's philosophy, it was because civilization had corrupted you. If you could not see the truth of Marx's philosophy, it was because you were bourgeoisie or were pacified by the opiate of religion. Of course, with Marx we also get the idea of a privileged class, and the egalitarian psychology has really run with that one of late.

What this has eventually turned into is the pantheon of privileged/unprivileged categories: bourgeoisie/proletariat, white/minority, men/women, 1%/99%, straight/GLBT, etc. Attempts to break down these categories are seen as the privileged attempting to enforce their privilege. Rather, inverting the categories is what's important. The "discovery" of "The White Racial Slur We've All Been Looking For" is prime evidence of this. It's less important to get people to stop using racial slurs than it is to find one for the privileged. This allows one to invert the categories, to declare what was "inferior" as "superior," and vice versa.

Except, we still end up with the idea that there is inferior and superior. We still end up with the idea of privilege. Rather than privileging the unprivileged, and vice versa, shouldn't we be trying to undermine the idea of privilege itself? To declare that you are not privileged simply because of your group membership, nor unprivileged (or underprivileged) because of some other group membership?

And consider the complete mess this makes of things? Am I privileged? I have a Ph.D. (privileged) and I'm "white" (privileged) and I'm male (privileged) and I'm heterosexual (privileged). But I was raised working class (unprivileged), I'm a member of the 99% (unprivileged) and I have Asperger's (unprivileged). And I have extreme minority political and social viewpoints (unprivileged). Also, my support for women's rights, gay rights, the elimination of political privileges for the wealthy, etc. should also make me an honorary member of the unprivileged. Except that my extreme minority political viewpoints -- not being postmodern leftist -- preclude that. Thus, I get accused of speaking from a position of privilege. Which would be a huge surprise to pretty much everyone who actually knows me.

My rejection of this perspective lies neither in thinking that there is no such thing as privilege, nor in declaring that white, heterosexual males are themselves a victim class -- victimized by postmodern leftist ideology, the dominant ideology of the day. Classifying white, heterosexual males as victims is absurd on the face of it. Thinking of them as a coherent group is also absurd, though. Many are privileged -- and many are privileged precisely because they are wealthy, white, and male. But many other people are privileged for a variety of other reasons. Is the President of the United States not privileged because he's not white? Give me a break! Declaring the most powerful man in the world a victim is absurdity upon absurdity.

What we need to realize is that privileges are primarily granted and reinforced by our political institutions. And by many of our social institutions, whose structures are intimately influenced by our political institutions. The bureaucratization of our institutions is downright harmful to many people -- especially those of us on the autism spectrum, who find active discrimination against us by those institutions. We do horribly in situations calling for endless meetings and communal gatherings, wanting rather to just be left alone to work. Outside of Silicon Valley, there are few employment opportunities in which work is actually placed above socializing. These are social institutions that privilege neurotypicals over those on the autism spectrum. I have experienced it repeatedly. In this particular case, it is not necessarily direct government influence (direct granting of privilege to particular individuals or groups), but influence on the structures of other institutions in the creation of more, larger bureaucracies.

The problem ultimately lies in people treating others as members of groups rather than as individuals. I find it hard to believe that reinforcing group-based thinking is the way to get out of group-based thinking; it is as absurd as thinking that finding a racial slur for privileged whites is the solution to eliminating racism.

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