The abstraction of privilege

By Adolfo Aranjuez
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20 minute read

An academic friend of mine once mentioned in passing that he feared “privilege-checking” had become a “secular religion”. Granted, he’s a white cisgender man – one employed, on salary, as an “intellectual” – so, depending on who you ask, his assertion is perhaps unsurprising. But he’s also queer, so that must count for something when weighing up his credibility in this debate. I proceeded to defend privilege analysis as a critical tool for making sense of society’s matrix of favour and disadvantage – for coming at life with an awareness of your and others’ possible impediments. But, despite the impassioned thrust of my retort, the intellectual damage had been done: was he right?

I had myself grown wary of the direction identity politics (IdPol) had taken of late. I’d first arrived at this position last year, sometime during my tenure as a Right Now columnist; ostensibly covering social-justice issues in the arts and media, what I eventually found myself doing was expounding on issues relating to IdPol – the school of thought that anchors action and analysis on societal labels relating to race, class, gender, sexuality and psychology, among others. I was constantly immersed in the discursive world of such labels, so it was inevitable that I began questioning the bases of my own position. I was even spurred to write a cautionary piece on the destructive tendencies of what’s been called the “Oppression Olympics” among progressives.

Today, my position is more crystallised than ever. IdPol has indeed become less like “a ‘road’ that facilitates the direction of discourse”, as I’d written back then, and “more like a ‘fence’ that cordons off certain people and ideas”. There is, echoing my friend’s foreboding, something incredibly proscriptive about IdPol – not unlike the rigidity of the Ten Commandments – and many of its “devotees” have become evangelical in their approach and dogmatic in their beliefs.

I’m not alone in thinking this, either. New York Magazine’s Andrew Sullivan has written that, in the IdPol schema, privilege is reminiscent of Judeo-Christianity’s “original sin”, positioning minorities – as the chosen ones free of this sin – as unassailable bearers of virtue and moral authority. There’s an unhealthy all-or-nothing bent to IdPol’s modus operandi, too; as Thembani Mdluli writes, there’s a tendency for one “wrong” move to tarnish a person’s entire reputation. This was demonstrated by the recent attacks on Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who (indeed damagingly) argued that trans women enjoyed some male privilege and are therefore less oppressed than women assigned female at birth.

IdPol is, like religion, a theoretical system that has, at best, iffy implications when put in practice.

In a now-infamous long-read for The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt go so far as to allege that IdPol – in this case, as expressed through advocacy for trigger warnings in university course material – is characterised by a “vindictive protectiveness”. While in theory, they argue, IdPol’s staunchest adherents are driven by inclusiveness, in reality they end up spending more effort punishing those who stand in the way of their war against oppression. And, instead of confronting stances and actions they deem destructive, these people opt for demonising opponents wholesale and encouraging avoidance.

Certainly, their essay is not without its detractors. But they do raise a valid point: if problematic views aren’t challenged – if they’re merely silenced or ignored – they find more impetus to, in Mdluli’s words, “fester and spread”.

Admittedly, it’s never prudent to employ broad brushstrokes. IdPol is an effective framework for diagnosing what’s wrong with society. The many ills it brings to light – hate-based language, continued colonial violence, inequity based on sociopolitical marker – require redress. But it’s not a viable methodology; it is, like religion, a theoretical system that has, at best, iffy implications when put in practice.

I’m interested in interrogating IdPol’s pervasive but problematic essentialism. The argument goes that inequality exists as a result of unjust, but not unchangeable, structures built into society: racialisation is relative to a white centre; sexuality and gender are performative. Put another way, as Michel Foucault outlined in “The Subject and Power”, each person is a subject possessing agency – the main “protagonist” in the “stories” of our lives, so to speak – but is also subject to external factors like ideology, culture and other people. If the society is changed, therefore, constructed identities, and any marginalisation that arises from them, are likewise changed.

But by designating a person an irrevocable identity label and making immediate judgments about their political viability, their ethical worth, based on such a taxonomy – as IdPol’s devotees do – IdPol undermines its own core motivation to counteract destructive societal forces.

 

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I’ve always been interested in the way the brain works – and in the way the brain works on, with and through ideas. So it’s no wonder that I’ve found myself enamoured of IdPol: it provides a vibrant battleground for pitting ideas against one another, as it’s through terminology that we formulate our identities. The frequent online tussles about the “right” gender and sexuality labels, and whether someone from the “wrong” ethnic group can deploy a piece of slang, are micro-arenas for identity expression, with individuals imbuing words and concepts with political potency.

It’s worth noting that abstractions such as these – concepts, definitions and labels used to “map” the world – are, on a more fundamental level, central to cognition: this is how the brain makes our environment digestible. It’s well established in the psychological institution that, as part of the process of comprehension, the brain inevitably breaks down the world’s complexity into simpler components and “weeds out” less-important information – if at least momentarily. This is also highlighted by what’s known as “Bloom’s Taxonomy” in pedagogical circles, with conventional teaching practice presupposing that “lower-order” learning (such as basic rules and definitions) must precede more complicated cognitive tasks (such as analysis, evaluation and creation).

From a socio-philosophical standpoint, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan analysed how children’s acquisition of language – their entry into what he calls the Symbolic realm – imposes more and more boundaries on the otherwise-boundless Real (external reality) and gives shape to the amorphous, prelinguistic Imaginary sphere (instinct, fantasy, desire). We see, then, how the world is given “order” through arbitrary parameters grounded in language – toys are just generic “things” until we designate them as being “for children’s play”, and all toys are for all children unless we impose a distinction between “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys”.

But this cognitive process is a mere step towards the ultimate goal of understanding; after we have grasped seemingly disparate concepts, we must link them back together into a larger epistemic system. Yet staunch identity-politicians fall prey to what philosopher William James has termed “vicious abstractionism”: the problematic tendency to treat abstractions of something as the thing-in-itself. We forget that we ourselves came up with the notions of “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys”. Worse, we begin to think that this distinction is inexorable – the way it’s always been.

IdPol appears to have taken the second-wave feminist mantra “the personal is political” to a perilous extreme: whereas once it was a slogan for solidarity, foregrounding the shared struggle of marginalised individuals, it now seems to presuppose that a single person’s lived experience of disadvantage can conceptually represent those of an entire minority group. As I’d argued in “Oppression Olympics”, the logical extension of this contentious idea is that a lack of firsthand experience of the struggle-in-question means an outsider is unable to contribute to discourse or action, or to ever authentically depict that point-of-view.

Another outcome of this idea are appeals to “diversity”, channelled into conflicts over representation in art and media. Representation matters – it is a powerful way to normalise and validate lived realities. We learn about the world from cultural products; they prompt us on what and how to think. And under- or non-representation in art and media, known as “symbolic annihilation”, has a demonstrable correlation with low self-esteem among minorities.

But these works of art and media are also vehicles for ideology. They can be insidiously fashioned to depict certain forms of life as more legitimate or valuable than others – and, more significantly, can be geared towards capitalist consumption, with advertising becoming ever more influential in exploiting desire. The mere fact of being represented is not inherently good; being reduced to stereotypes or clichés can be even more damaging than absence.

And, as we of the left especially fall prey to vicious abstractionism, we find ourselves focusing more of our energies on “little wins” within this ideational battleground. We associate individual empowerment, as in “choice feminism”, with liberation on a broad scale. We celebrate breadcrumbs of diverse representation, as when characters are identified as queer. We assume that clicktivism – via Change.org boycotts against blackface and comment-thread debates where a person is “publicly shamed” for a single terminology misstep – is an effective substitute for real-world action. We advocate for quotas and parity in workplaces and witness the rise of diversity officers and pluralist “streams” in organisations and events that remain largely homogenous.

Professor Dafina-Lazarus Stewart, who identifies as nonbinary, describes such motions for diversity as embodying the politics of appeasement. Here, inclusion is targeted via superficially progressive measures while also ensuring that the broader institution remains unchanged. Researcher Tania Canas puts forward a similar perspective, arguing that the notion of “authenticity” in diversity discourse – whereby an individual from a marginalised group is framed as representative of that entire group – is, in fact, hindering, as it fallaciously presumes a unified experience among the marginalised.

Moreover, such “authentic” perspectives tend to be understood as existing counter to those of the dominant group; notions such as “person of colour” (which implies “white” as neutral) and “culturally and linguistically diverse” (as code for “non-Anglo” and “non-English-speaking”) immediately come to mind. In this way, IdPol’s fight for diversity inadvertently allies itself with subjugation, forever defining minority experiences and values in opposition to those in power; as negation, they affirm the existence of that which they negate.

 

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As part of my recently published interview for Liminal magazine, I spoke about my practice as an emerging dancer and my love for hip-hop/urban dance. The interviewer asked me what my thoughts were on cultural appreciation versus appropriation, particularly in light of the genre’s origins in the African-American community. I sidestepped the question because I worried I couldn’t do it justice; moreover, I didn’t feel I had skin in the game to make a judgment call, given I wasn’t from the “right” cultural group, nor was I responsible for initiating the artistic exchange. I was merely a participant.

Maybe I’m part of the problem. The debate surrounding cultural appropriation is founded on tricky notions of cultural ownership, which is understandable considering the history of theft and exploitation suffered by minorities as a result of colonialism.

In a YouTube video about black hair and culture, African-American actor Amandla Stenberg addresses cultural appropriation, explaining that it’s harmful to pillage artefacts from a marginalised group, without giving due respect to the people of that group, because it magnifies disadvantage and exclusion. Beyond the adoption of black hairstyles, another salient example is white musician Macklemore’s winning Best Rap Album at the 2014 Grammys, after which he admitted to feeling as though he’d “robbed” contender Kendrick Lamar of the accolade.

Yet, as Cultural Appropriation and the Arts author James O. Young writes, the issue also hinges on the notion of permissions; if an authoritative member of the group “signs off” on a particular instance of cultural exchange, then all is well. But this hardly broaches the difficulty of establishing who can rightfully occupy such a position of authority. It’s a multifarious debate to wade into, with no definitive answers but lots of diverging opinions. Nevertheless, the idea that cultural appropriation is always immediately contemptible retains currency in IdPol circles.

In a New Yorker article, Elizabeth Kolbert argues that impressions, once formed, are difficult to dislodge, even in the face of counterarguments and even when individuals wish to. She cites cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, whose 2017 book The Enigma of Reason examines how rationality evolved in humans to ensure our species’ survival via enforced diplomacy: there’s safety in numbers, so we all had to get along by whatever means necessary. As a result, humans accept ideas – even when they aren’t the most sound or valid – if they have traction among the collective.

This idea isn’t entirely new. In the mid-twentieth century, George Herbert Mead studied how the cyclical relationship between language and our perceptions of reality are underpinned by the human drive to belong: group identity is pivotal to how we form and employ concepts. Ultimately, he contends, the way we use reason – the way we think, how we express what we think – betrays what group/s we (believe we) belong to. The more ardently we assert and adhere to group beliefs, the more deeply rooted our professed membership becomes.

The flipside of this form of “social rationalising” is the increasing difficulty of entertaining views that deviate from the group’s, for fear of becoming a pariah. Kolbert recounts how it became pragmatic for humans to implement a “division of cognitive labour”. As populations became larger, and societies more complex, it became less and less important to fully understand the mechanics of daily life. But, while this is prudent when it comes to toilets or trains or painkillers (we don’t need to know how these work to be able to properly use them), a lack of understanding is poisonous when it comes to civic participation: evaluating ethical ideas requires a grasp on how these ideas came about, how they impact on others, and how they themselves can be fallible.

When the desire for group belonging combines with the division of cognitive labour in the political arena, then, what we can end up with are group-enforced “truths” of varying cogency – not unlike religious dogma.

I don’t think many would question the orthodoxy that we must protect minorities from any harm or exploitation that cultural appropriation may wreak. In the case of black culture, some permissions have been given: speaking to Bullett, rapper Mykki Blanco responds to the mainstream-isation of hip-hop by celebrating the melding of cultural aesthetics; in the same article, artist/writer Juliana Huxtable expresses weariness regarding “conversations that ricochet between angry accusation and dismissive arrogance”, championing the role of education and earnest cultural appreciation. In IdPol circles, an oft-bandied catchcry is that “intent is less important than impact” – but, considering the complexity of the debate and the voices that have contributed to it, why should intent’s significance be downplayed? And how is impact credibly measured?

And as Conor Friedersdorf challenges, when an outsider engages with the history of an artefact, educates themselves deeply, seeks permissions, and contributes positively to the examination and discussion of that culture, surely they are not deserving of censure.

Without a deeper understanding of the whys and wherewithals of such “rules”, conflicts between opposing factions inevitably become difficult to resolve. Without a handle on the larger whole of which these abstracted ideas are part, group-based thinking can easily devolve into groupthink, fuelled by the very potent fear of being ostracised for failing to display allegiance to our comrades.

 

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The 2017 live-action Hollywood remake of Japanese manga Ghost in Shell bombed at the US box office, following the backlash surrounding its “whitewashed” casting (something Paramount itself has partly owned up to). This has been touted as evidence of IdPol’s viability as a tool for social change. Certainly, the speed and sheer volume of articles calling out the issue, compounded by the voraciousness of social media outrage against the casting of Scarlett Johansson as lead, attest to how extensively digital technologies possess the potential to empower the otherwise-marginalised.

But they also birth insularity. In their provocation for The Channel’s “LGBTQIA+ in Australia” panel earlier this year, which I also spoke at, trans commentator Fury counselled against the ageism and classism of contemporary IdPol, which presupposes that everyone should already know the “right” terms of discourse and is up to speed with the minutiae of every social-justice debate – immediately condemning those who do not. Fury also quoted trans activist Starlady, who is “saddened by the exponential growth of ‘call-out culture’” and warns that “we are using the politics of privilege as a means to engage in lateral violence”. Gay rights advocate Dennis Altman expressed similar sentiments in a 2016 Meanjin essay, writing that, as a member of the older generation, he has felt alienated by the overwhelming pace at which IdPol evolves today.

Certainly, keeping abreast of the changes to IdPol discourse rests on the expectation that we possess not only access to the internet, but also the time, energy and ability to wade through the various Tumblrs and other online sources in which these discussions are playing out. But beyond this, it’s important to recognise how new media themselves have altered the way we engage with and evaluate information in the first place.

The Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner argues that, in the age of online and social media, “truth” has become tied to what each person feels is true. This has arisen largely because new media have made it easier for a multitude of perspectives to disseminate – the contemporary landscape is burdened with anti-intellectualism, tempered by the ability of anyone, expert or otherwise, to publish on a topic online. This gives rise to what she calls an “information cascade”, whereby people share information that they agree with (no matter the veracity) to feel societally involved and in-the-know.

Social media platforms such as Facebook can analyse these patterns of behaviour using algorithms, which keep track of what types of content users do, and don’t, like to engage with. Due to the commercial imperative to retain users on the platform, to maximise advertising revenue, Facebook will feed users content similar to what they’ve already “liked”, inadvertently reinforcing their extant beliefs. As information cascades grow, the drive to share and feel belonging becomes ever more powerful.

And, as communications professor Joshua Meyrowitz has proposed, such online engagement creates “glocalities” that allow us to perceive our immediate, subjective realities as integral parts of a more encompassing world. This, arguably, is “the personal is political” in its most abstracted form: everyone is “entitled to an opinion” – so goes the oft-cited defence of freedom of expression – and now, with new media, they have populist platforms with which to reach others in the global community who share this opinion.

In his 1982 book Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong examined how the brain was altered by the transition from oral-based societies to ones predominated by print. He proposed that the “closed-ness” and permanence of written and printed texts distanced “knower” from “known”, endowing human consciousness with the ability to reflect on itself and the world. This externalisation was not present in the age of “orality” – before print allowed the world to be pinned down into hierarchies and definitions, it was impossible to abstract knowledge, transmitted through speech, from its use in the immediate context. Print-based technologies enabled humanity to comprehend how we are always tied to a particular time and place, and thus gave us the ability to momentarily “step outside” that time and place in order to analyse it. Abstraction, therefore, is fundamentally tied to the written word.

If print facilitated our “drawing away” from the world by capturing otherwise-ephemeral, organic phenomena into static, organised prose, what changes to our cognitive processes have digital media – now our prevailing technology for communication – brought? Today we are doubly abstracted: after having lost the primacy of our aural faculties, we’re now growing apart from the tactility of print, too. And we’ve forgone with restrictive textual linearity: hypertext theorists writing in the 1990s, such as George Landow and Jay David Bolter, focused their attention on the networked, interactive and always-editable nature of the web, which ostensibly paves the way for a more democratised media landscape.

Almost three decades on, we can conjecture that this democratisation has (at least partly) been co-opted by a cunning neoliberalism: encouraged by the highly user-centric functionality of new media, we are seemingly less willing to engage with ideas we find unpalatable. Unlike a print text, which we have to slog through from start to finish, digital technologies allow us to click away on whim. We are also faced, more than ever, with manifold options for format, medium, bias and tenor, so much so that we can gravitate towards particular online outlets that tap into our existing values – stimulating our reward centres for confirmation bias – and find sanctuary in non-threatening echo chambers.

Returning to Ghost in the Shell, I do discern a significantly short-sighted aspect of the whitewashing debate, which is symptomatic of IdPol-based call-outs like it. Despite the scale of the uproar against Johansson’s casting and the movie’s depiction of cultural identities more generally, it’s worth noting that a substantial portion of the furore ensued in the West. Yet, as Japanese-American writer Emily Yoshida clarifies, the casting was not as controversial in the manga’s country of origin because race is understood differently and is embedded in completely distinct power dynamics there; the very notion of “whitewashing” was difficult to translate. Mamoru Oshii, who directed the 1995 Ghost in the Shell anime, even defended the decision to hire Johansson, and upon its release the Hollywood movie was generally well received by Japanese audiences.

Here, we see a plurality of viewpoints throwing into question what is a purportedly unified front. And, here, we are reminded of the troubles of speaking for others and assuming that we do, and can, know others’ wishes and motivations. To avoid vicious abstractionism, we must endeavour to see situations holistically, from various perspectives; only in doing so can we engage in transformative discourse. The film’s protagonist, Major Kusanagi, does get a non-human robot body; Kusanagi does have a Japanese name; anime characters are somewhat de-racialised; Johansson is a talented actor; whitewashing is a systemic problem in Hollywood. None of these statements are mutually exclusive. But, depending on which corner of the internet you choose to restrict yourself to, you may be led to believe – often as a result of well-meaning politicking – that they are.

 

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Humility is key; we’re all still learning, and no-one is above criticism

Researchers Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach have found that, while existing beliefs are hard to dislodge, convincing people they lack deep understanding of an issue does work in inspiring them to modify their views. Their suggestion for those of us fighting for change is to focus less on asserting our own beliefs and more on delving into the nuances and implications of those beliefs, and on engaging with those who have divergent opinions. We must be wary of our penchant for directing advocacy towards one another and patting ourselves on the back about “little wins”. Instead of resting on laurels, we need to reach out to those who don’t already agree with us, rather than shaming them and expecting this will catalyse changes in their ethical position.

As new media continue to take ascendancy in our lives and, in turn, modify our cognitive processes, it’s imperative that we fight the urge to disconnect from – to “block”, “unfollow”, “mute” – those whose perspectives we don’t agree with. I recognise that respectability politics – agitating for change in ways that don’t “ruffle too many feathers” – may seem defeatist; I agree that educating others is exhausting, and that self-preservatory safe spaces can be generative. But if we don’t take this task upon ourselves – and if those who don’t already share our views merely hold fast to their existing beliefs, because reason is a stubborn mental beast – then how do we rebuild our societies founded on oppression?

Taking our cues from William James, and accepting that all abstractions must be used in context, acknowledging their history and for a specific purpose, to what end are we truly deploying IdPol? Is it merely for self-congratulatory empowerment, or part of a larger emancipatory struggle?

Dennis Altman says that true liberation lies not in concessionary gestures within the prevailing society (he mentions, by way of example, contemporary pride marches), but rather in an overhaul of the system as a whole. Tania Canas advocates for a similar gambit: dispensing with appeals to diversity, which often just lead to tokenism, and aiming instead for initiatives that target equity from the get-go. But, as I see it, the most strategic way to achieve all of this is through chipping away at the larger system of oppression from within. If not respectability, then we can at least accommodate respect; if not education, then empathy.

Instead of seeking sanctuary from those who challenge us – presuming ill will on their part, casting them away as bearers of privilege-based sin – I entreat us all to seek middle ground and aim for deeper understanding, lest we alienate those who are already our allies and fail to “recruit” those who could be. And lest we ourselves stagnate because we have become ruled by our abstractions and duped into just toeing the party line, forever encased in our ideational bubbles.

Much like cognitive-behavioural therapy on a personal scale, actionable change on a societal level must begin with changes in perception and definition. Despite the separatism based on essentialist notions of identity that IdPol, in its extreme forms, seemingly takes as its starting point, political participation is inherently intersubjective. All knowledge – as feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins has pointed out – is partial, both biased and incomplete; this means individual understanding is finite and fallible. We must therefore bolster it with others’ input and rely on one another’s cumulative expertise.

The dangers of proscription – of letting destructive ideas “fester and spread” – are more pressing than ever in this age of Trumpism, Hansonism, Islamophobia and the alt-right. Humility is key; we’re all still learning, and no-one is above criticism, no matter how few or many their “disadvantage points” are.

We must remember that privilege, like any other abstraction, is a concept we conceived of – a tool – for discussing a particular phenomenon. If we are going to be truly intersectional in our politics, truly accounting for the various matrices of fortune and disadvantage in our societies, then we need to go beyond resorting to identity labels as shorthand for authority, worth and cogency. Just like our language, our perspectives need to keep evolving to better serve the political ends we hope to achieve. And, if we’re going to worship at the IdPol altar, I’d rather we look our god in the face while we do.

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