An Ethic of Care

There’s an odd thing about privilege-checking as it has evolved into a shaming slogan, a sort of taunt. Shame only works if the target has an internal sense that the moral argument of the shamers is valid, or if the shamers reflect an overwhelmingly dominant social consensus such that it takes an iron will to refuse to be shamed.

But “privilege” as a concept essentially takes its cues from a deep body of pre-existing social theory and social history that dissects the origins and continuing maintenance of inequality. Much of that body of theory argues that in some fashion or another, inequality is functional to the individuals, groups and institutions that sustain it, that it is the product of self-interest. Part of the point behind that general argument is to aggressively dissent from other bodies of theory that see inequality as the natural outcome of meritocracy, competition, or intrinsic pre-existing differences between human beings, to argue instead that inequality has a history and is an active creation of social processes and institutional power.

It would be possible to argue that inequality is both a product of historical circumstances but not self-interested, e.g., that it is an emergent or unintended (if undesirable) outcome of processes and actions that were undertaken for other reasons. To the extent to which that is true, calling out privilege might be a genuinely educational gesture, and one where it’s plausible that the person named as privileged would have no vested desire to defend that status.

For the most part, this is not what progressive or left social theory would argue. The assumption is that the privileged benefit from their privilege, and therefore have every reason in the world to defend or maintain it. So what could possibly get them to do otherwise? Only one of two possibilities, broadly speaking. Either the mobilization of sufficient coercion or force by the victims of inequality such that they can compel the privileged to surrender some or all of their status, or the possibility of convincing the privileged that their status is either morally repugnant or is ultimately more of a risk to their long-term social existence than a more equal disposition would be.

If it’s about mobilization, the only benefit to privilege-checking is painting a bullseye on a target, of making a threat. At some point, making threats casually without the power to back them up is at the least futile, at the worst incredibly dangerous.

If it’s not–if there is some possibility of persuading a privileged person to assist in the abrasion or surrender of that privilege because that’s a thing they ought to do–it’s worth considering what that implies about the act of privilege-checking itself, and many other kinds of related communication.

If the “ought to do” is “because if you don’t eventually there’s going to be a revolution and you’ll be worse off than if you aimed for a soft landing from inequality”, then that’s just a deferred threat, to be taken seriously to the extent that the person making the argument can mobilize evidence about the inevitability of that outcome.

If the “ought to do” is because inequality is morally wrong and there is a hope that even its beneficiaries can see that, the question is: morally wrong how? Potentially for a range of reasons, some of them complementary. Morally wrong because perhaps a democratic society requires some form of rough equality to work, is premised on the notion that all people are created (and therefore should remain) equal. Such that anyone who professes to believe that a democratic society is preferable to any other ought to believe in the active maintenance of equality. But perhaps more because inequality’s consequences hurt people, both in absolute terms in terms of affordances and necessities they cannot access and relatively because they see others who have no greater merit or right enjoying vastly greater privileges.

E.g., privilege-checking arguably works only because or if it’s assumed that the person being called out is compassionate or can be morally moved to compassion.

Here we come to other problems. First, this doesn’t sit entirely well with the notion that the privileged are rationally self-interested in protecting their status. At the very least, to privilege-check as an invocation of shared morality implies that self-interest is never a sufficient explanation of social outcomes and even less of consciousness.

Second, the moral appeal only works if it is shared. It is undeniably true that members of marginalized groups cannot systematically discriminate against, that people of color cannot be racists or women be sexists, in the sense that this argument is typically made. Because to discriminate requires organized social power. It is not true, and is usually not claimed by activists to be true, that people cannot be cruel to one another as individuals. Power is no security against feeling personal and emotional pain, and relative powerlessness is no guarantee of interpersonal emotional virtue.

Early celebrations of online communication embraced it as a many-to-many medium, a wholesome democratizing alternative to the one-to-many structure of earlier forms of mass media. What that characterization obscured is that in some cases, the Internet functions as a many-to-one medium, magnifying and focusing the attention of crowds on individuals.

The problem is that such attention is often not compassionate in its imagination of that individual, even when it is coming from crowds who act in the name of a politics that requires a belief in the possibility of compassion even in those who have no necessary reason to feel it. If you call for people to worry about the injustice of inequality, to feel moved by the immorality of privilege, and believe that it is possible that this call will be heeded, then that requires an ethic of care. Anyone who worries about privilege has to be at least as compassionate as they hope the privileged might be.

In a many-to-one appeal, even if the many are just a handful of activists with little to no social power and the one is an intersectionally powerful person, it has to be possible to imagine that the awakening of compassion will be mingled with feelings of panic, sadness, and fear. The critique still has to be said, not the least because status, privilege and inequality are social facts that need to be spoken about with the same precision and clarity that we devote to talking about the chemistry of covalent bonds or measuring the absolute neutrino mass scale. But calling out privilege shouldn’t be an act that requires hardening the heart or relishing a hope for social exclusion. Which means also that it should be the exact opposite of a flip or easy rejoinder, never the progressive equivalent of a sneer or a call to silence.

Perhaps that means “check your privilege” is a phrase to retire because it invites that kind of ease, a lack of awareness about what that statement hopes for and requires. If it’s not an expression of an ethic of care, trying to radar-ping the world around it to find out who else shares or might share in that ethic, and not a threat with power behind it, then what it usually leads to is the moral evacuation of a conversation and the production of a sort of performative austerity, of everyone in a community pretending to virtue they do not authentically embrace and avoiding the positive or generative use of the forms of social power they might actually have genuinely privileged access to.

A part of Grasping the Nettle.

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13 Responses to An Ethic of Care

  1. Pat says:

    I also wonder about the use of ‘privilege’ to describe advantages that should really be rights for everyone. Surely nobody should be ashamed, for instance, of having lived in a safe neighborhood or gone to a good school? When accused of privilege, people often end up apologizing for having the very things they should be working to make available to more people, which to me is a mixed message.

    But rather than pointing out the privilege discourse doesn’t do what I think we ought to be doing, it might make more sense to study it from the ground up, looking at what it *does* and realizing that that is what it’s really meant to do.

  2. CarlD says:

    Agreed on all points. I wonder if it’s also worth considering other ways checking ‘works’, if only to rule them out as what you’re getting at. People who receive the check often feel like it’s about silencing them, and while that’s a narrow and self-serving reflex, it may not be entirely wrong. Which then points to how the checking gesture may be empowering in itself, a taking of social space and initiative, perhaps bootstrapping a self, and perhaps regardless of other outcomes. It also seems to me to perform important functions of community formation – the radar ping may also find the similarly-aggrieved, and call them to assembly and action. And dragonslaying also has old and well-known status implications. Of course insofar as each of these functions uses another human being as a tool for one’s own purposes, we’re back to the ethic of care, or its absence.

  3. Foster Boondoggle says:

    I think you underestimate the power of the threat of excommunication. “Check your privilege” only works on those who are part of a fairly cohesive “progressive” community (usually one well trained in postmodern discourse, I suspect). The demand, then, is one of compliance with the rules of the group, and the threat is to be forced out of the charmed circle.

    The problem, of course, is that progressive lefties who practice this sort of thing are a much less powerful and influential group than, say, scientologists or mormons. So the threat is rather weak, or at least can’t be deployed against very many people.

    The academic left and its penumbra have been remarkably succesful at squandering potential influence through the sort of circular firing squad in which CYP is one of the bullets. Viz the contrast in outcomes between the Occupy movement and the Tea Party.

  4. Pat says:

    CarlD, those are excellent points which make me think that calling out will be with us as long as young people need to establish their identities and practice standing up to authority. And I wonder now how much the online social justice climate would change if we could see the ages of the participants. After all, you don’t see serious complaints about the very common social justice controversies on tumblr, probably because we all assume those are young people trying things out.

    I also agree with Foster’s point, but think it doesn’t explain the difference between the tea party and leftist politics as much as I wish it did. After all, the right has also done the ‘circular firing squad’ thing – RINOs, for instance – without it affecting their popularity very much. I fear that conservatism is just plain more popular than left-wing politics, for reasons that I don’t even notice – and probably should, if I’m really interested in understanding other people’s experiences.

    The facts that left-wing activism is focusing on self-purification, that I feel safer talking politics anywhere else, and that many of us have come to believe that ‘social justice’ = scolding people on the internet, while disturbing to those of us who are already lefties, probably don’t even register with most of the people who write the left wing off.

    And may I add that I am appreciating this series very much. When I read the first post in it I thought ‘YES!’ because I, too, have been wondering what the point was of having a blog when I didn’t dare say what I really thought in it. I’m very glad you decided to grasp the nettle.

  5. Mogden says:

    > It is undeniably true that members of marginalized groups cannot systematically discriminate against, that people of color cannot be racists or women be sexists, in the sense that this argument is typically made.

    Sentence that immediately rendered the rest of the post suspect. “undeniably?”

  6. sniffy says:

    All very rational, but overlooks the simple, self-serving explanation: “check your privilege” is meant less to achieve any change in the object of the utterance, than it is meant to publicly signal the speaker as morally superior.

    The goal is not so much to actually change anything, but to self-identify as an authority over what should be changed.

  7. I really appreciate what you say, and I agree with you that shaming is a tactic that can very easily backfire, because it not only requires that the shamee be available to the shaming messages — but also that the shamee knows how to deal with shame at all. Many people simply don’t have any capacity to work with shame, and it’s slowing down the progress of all of us.

    There is another approach, which I wrote about when I saw the 100th head-on comment thread collision about privilege-checking:

  8. Mark S. says:

    Good stuff so far on this theme. These four posts have given me a lot to think about and I would say that this is the strongest one yet (for instance, I think the increment made a lot more sense after you posted the ‘soft target’).

    I don’t have a lot to say on this post in particular but I wanted to see if my general impression so far is correct. It seems that in each post you think that there are people doing the ‘problem action’ (for lack of a better phrase) in a non-problematic way but that in each case the use of this action is stretched and because a go-to pattern. Always use the increment. Always attack the soft target. Always police. Always ask for privilege to be checked. When this happens a major problem arises. I wonder if you have any idea how or why such actions (tactics?) move from careful, successful use to widespread problems? Is it just the nature of successful movement to be copied in ways that are unproductive? Is it frustration? Larger structual problem in American democracy and life that lead us with few percieved alternatives? Lack of ideas/imagination on the part of those wanting to change things?

    Though I guess I could ask if that is even the right question or if the pattern I sketch out is even useful.

    Anyways, thanks for so, looking forward to the rest!

  9. Fritz Anderson says:

    (I’m doing this on an iPad, so my ability to edit is limited; the last paragraph should be first, because it is of first importance.)

    The suggestion that it is self-evident that out-groups are incapable of discrimination in any useful sense of that word is not well-considered. It assumes that privilege in a society is monolithic, that out-groups are never, anywhere empowered, and that what might be bullying or coercive in the in-group could never possibly have such effects, but must be judged as no worse than want of politesse.

    You can see why I could doubt it, and suggest that real life is less supportive of advocacy. (Real life rarely is, of any advocacy.)

    To take an example that I hope is easier to discuss because it is trivial: I live in a neighborhood with a highly-valued professional class, but which is home to black people (the race is historically significant) who do most of the blue collar work.

    The service I get at the local McDonald’s is often surly, from people who are cordial to black customers. When my family was on the point of bankruptcy, the manager made clear there was no question of my daughter’s getting a job there. The restaurant was built as a political service to the black community. For excellent historical reasons, many of the staff are not happy to be of service to white people. I get it. And it’s not everybody.

    These are people who are generally discriminated against in the larger society. But _in that building,_ they did have the power to discriminate — to deny customary service and badly-needed employment opportunities — against the stereotypical privileged class. They had cultural support, and political power.

    You may say it’s minor; in the long run, it is. I’m sure some readers will insist that 18-year-old girls are fit objects of exemplary justice — we have no common ground for discussion. But even if the situation pleases you, it is absurd to say that it is not a socially-supported use of power against a class that in that moment has less. It is too pat to say that privilege is a monolith, and minorities incapable of responsibility for exercising it. Not only does it patronize, it refutes the objectivity that claims to put the question beyond discussion.

    This article has been a help to me in my thoughts about the privilege I’ve encountered against my own disabilities. I get privilege. (yeahyeahyeah) I take it seriously. I am working hard on what it means in my life. This post has been eye-opening. Truly, thank you. But I find this one thing to be against my experience, on a point where clarity is crucial.

  10. JT says:

    I was unaware that CYP was ever anything but a smug rejoinder intended to silence outsiders and signal insiders. One does wonder what turn-of-phrase will come next from the mean spirited depths of the mobs.

  11. V Ricks says:

    Happy 2015 Gregorian to you… I’m a fan of your blog generally, and was happy to see that you have decided to try “rebooting” it because that means there’ll be more of it for me to enjoy!

    Is it being unfair/unkind of me to say that so far, as far as I can tell, what unites your nettle-grasping posts boils down to something like this?

    “Here is a possibly legitimate, possibly important way of talking and of having discussions, but I’m really worried that too many of the people talking and discussing in those ways aren’t doing so from the right motives, or with the right frame of mind, or for (a) good (set of) reasons” ?

  12. George Purcell says:

    I think you’re overthinking this.

    Let’s examine how the phrase is actually used in discourse. Overwhelmingly the purpose is simple: an ad hominem rejoinder to an expression of belief or (even more troublingly) a statement of fact that the speaker does not wish to engage with. It is communicating one of two messages: 1) “You, because of your personal characteristics, cannot have a valid thing to say nor do you know anything about this subject”; 2) “The argument you are making/about to make has been made by other people who have your personal characteristics, therefore I do not need to hear it again and may dismiss it without comment.” Both are profoundly anti-intellectual positions to take.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    George: I think one of the fundamentally difficult parts of remaining an intellectual is to learn to make intellectual responses to anti-intellectual interventions. Much as one of the hardest things about pluralism is retaining a commitment to it even in the face of anti-pluralism. So an intellectual response to an anti-intellectual dismissal requires, in my view, taking it more seriously than it takes itself. It is not as if the statement, “You are privileged and should recognize that your comment or intervention requires privilege as its necessary predicate” cannot be an intellectual statement. In fact, there’s a huge, formidable, profoundly scholarly and/or intellectual literature that makes that statement in very serious ways. So even when that statement is not offered in that spirit, an intellectual engagement ought to substitute the best possible arguments for it in order to think about how to respond.

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