Saturday, July 16, 2011


The Modulor, Marseilles, 2011

Privilege has broken into the mainstream. Until now, it's been confined to the margins. It's something that pops up in specific corners, among groups that have coalesced specifically around questions of privilege. Feminists. Gay rights activists. Race activists. The rest of us have been able to happily ignore it.

That, in fact, is one of the things that define privilege—the ability of the privileged to be unaware of it. That it is now being shoved in our faces is, in itself, an indication that it is eroding.

I've been following three unrelated but concurrent discussions of privilege lately. One was sparked by the True Finn electoral victory in Finland. Another is the Elevatorgate flap in the atheist blogosphere. A third is the firestorm in the Buddhoblogosphere started by the response to a post by one Tassja, describing how she—a Sinhalese Buddhist born to the identity—perceives Buddhists in the West.

National privilege. Male privilege. White privilege. Religious privilege. Straight privilege. Good.

Neuroses are bastards. They're so powerful because we're not aware of them. They're invisible puppeteers pulling our strings. I just discovered one of mine the other day. Interestingly, once I acknowledged it, it immediately loosened its grip somewhat. Damn things don't like daylight.

Privilege is a lot like neurosis, only meaner. That's because neurosis is mostly just you, but privilege is collective. It's a shared neurosis. Everybody acting weird in the same way, so only the people with the fuzzy end of the lollipop even notice it, and sometimes not even them. The house nigger isn't just a rhetorical device. Everybody gets locked into the neurotic system.

It drove Karl Marx nuts. That's what all the stuff about the opiate of the people and class consciousness and workers of the world unite was all about. Getting the proletariat to stop buying into the very system that upheld—upholds!—the privilege of the class screwing them. Marx was also very well aware that members of the privileged classes were just as completely locked into the system as the oppressed classes, only their conditions of detention were much nicer.

If you're doing something like Buddhism, I think you'll eventually have to shake hands with your neuroses. Attempting to avoid them is just running around in circles. That includes the social ones, like privilege. Denying it is a dead end, and not a very pleasant one at that. It's an angry and frustrated kind of place.

Acknowledging privilege doesn't mean feeling guilty about it, or apologizing for it, or rejecting it, or pretending not to be white/straight/male/able/rich/etc. That's just another kind of neurotic behavior. You can't get rid of privilege just by wanting to. You can, however, be aware of it. If you can hear the privilege talking, you can sometimes shut it up instead of dancing to its tune. That gives a measure of freedom, and makes you less of an asshole into the bargain.

It might not be possible to be entirely free of neurosis, but it is possible not to be a marionette, jumping on its strings. Sometimes. That's pretty worthy, as goals go.

About that picture: it's the Modulor, the architectural scale of proportions invented by incredibly influential Swiss-French architect, Le Corbusier. It's based on the golden ratio and the proportions of the human body. By "human," he meant "English male." The big projects he did in India are based on it.

He was one of the progressive ones.

Further reading


  1. Thanks for the link. Glad you brought up the Atheist controversy too. I was going to do a blog post on it but got well into something else. It would have been similar to the linked post anyways so would have felt repetative to write.

    I note in all of these situations, while some got the vapors and sputtered incoherently at being put on the spot, the majority of the privilege reactions favored status quo positions such as "Forget about it", "Just let it go", "This is a non-issue", "You're making a mountain out of a molehill". These are all about silencing people who challenge privilege.

    Then there were the tone trolls. "I don't like how you said that","You're being judgmental bringing this up", "You're tone is out of line." [presumably with some expectations of the commenter to be treated in a gentle comforting fashion] Again all about silencing discourse and not even acknowledging content of the argument.

    All have a "Let them eat cake" ring.

  2. Few things are quite as irritating as from-the-marrow condescension.

  3. I like the way you tie neuroses into a social context. Being constructs of the minds of men, societies are every bit as prone to become neurotic, and the more tribal and threatened, the more the pressure (see Lord of the Flies.) I also found your Elevatorgate link interesting when you tweeted it the other day. So many of our prejudices, also neuroses perhaps, are invisible till something makes us dance. I was heartened by the author's statement that at least the person initiating the incident had been able to admit his fault and repudiate it, even if his partisans were egregiously clinging to it.

    We are such odd animals.