In the wake of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, I find myself very much at a loss for words. I’m not surprised by the decision, but I had hoped that the jurors would make a different choice. As the testimony and evidence are made public and we see how the prosecutor elected to present the evidence to the grand jury, I am even more angry. This post isn’t really about the killing of Michael Brown, and it’s not about the grand jury’s decision either, but those events provide the context for where I’m coming from today.
I’ve seen a lot of conversation lately about privilege in general, and white privilege in particular. Certainly this isn’t a new topic of discussion, and it’s also not surprising that it would be discussed more openly now. I think that’s a good thing, because it’s incredibly valuable to examine our understanding of how the world works through the lens of that privilege. My experience of the world is, to an immense degree, shaped by things outside of my control. And it’s not just my experience of the world – it’s my understanding of how the world works. My story of What Is isn’t objective. It can’t be, because my world is a product of where I am, who I am surrounded by, what resources I have, what I look like, who I’m attracted to…any number of things.
And, of course, my choices and my actions do play a significant role in my experience of the world, too. To be clear, I have never met a person who would argue that personal choice and action aren’t important and that they don’t shape one’s experience. The point is, they don’t tell the whole story. There are a huge number of variables that built the weight and momentum of my life before I made a single conscious choice. To argue that those variables simply don’t matter is hopelessly naive at best.
Look, I’m a white man in America. I’m functionally heterosexual. I’m married. My family struggled financially when I was a kid, but I never worried about being able to eat. These days, I’m solidly middle class. I own my home (well, I actually own an almost imperceptible percentage of my home, but you see my point.) I have been fond of saying, of late, that I am very bullish on the future of white males in America.
Now, do these facts about me tell the whole story of who I am? Of course they don’t. But they lead to a number of assumptions that I can make about the world – about MY world.
- In my world, race doesn’t really matter a whole lot, because I am the sum of my actions, not my background.
- In my world, gender doesn’t matter much either, because there are basically no jobs where someone like me would seem out of place.
- In my world, there are jobs to be had if you look hard enough. Unemployment is a temporary thing – scary, sure, but not a permanent state of being.
- In my world, most people look like me and speak my preferred language, and when I’m in a situation where they don’t, it stands out as being a notable experience.
- In my world, the police will show up pretty quickly if I call 911.
- In my world, the experience of being photographed and fingerprinted is the precursor to starting a new job.
- In my world, the neighborhood I live in is a choice I get to make.
- In my world, it’s silly to worry about being harassed when walking down the street. Sure, it’s POSSIBLE that someone will approach me with an unwanted sexual advance, but if it happens it will be so completely out of the ordinary that I’ll be talking about it for weeks.
The vast majority of these truths about my world don’t have a whole lot to do with ME as an individual. They have a lot to do with what I look like, where I come from, what gender I am, what resources I have access to.
A lot of folks are expressing what I think is best described as “privilege fatigue.” The argument, essentially, goes like this: “It’s unfair to reduce me to nothing but these facts about me. I’m an individual, not a collection of these characteristics. Aren’t these generalizations what we’re supposed to be getting away from? And besides, there are OTHER things about me that work against me, so it’s not quite as simple as you’re making it out to be.”
And you know, I can see part of that argument, particularly the last bit. I mentioned a number of advantages before, but there are a few things on the other side of the ledger, too. For one, I’m of below-average height. That makes a difference in how I’m seen and treated in the world. For another, while I’m married, I’m not monogamous. That makes a lot of things more complicated, and not just in my personal life. And as far as religion is concerned, I identify as Pagan, or at least Pagan-leaning agnostic. That’s a pretty invisible place to be, and there are a lot of advantages that people who identify with a religion that is more culturally recognized have. So for sure, I resonate with the idea that it’s not as simple as “White, straight dudes have it made.” But surely we can agree that white, straight dudes MOSTLY have it made, right? Life’s a lot easier for me in the here and now because of that status. I’m accorded the benefit of the doubt in ways that are so pervasive that I have to actively look for them in order to see them at all. And while there are a few ways in which I come from a less privileged position, those are largely not visible unless I choose for them to be. My relationship orientation, my religion, my politics…all of these can be kept as close to the vest as I like. And because I’m a white, straight dude in America, I can choose to be a little more free with those other aspects of who I am without worrying too much – precisely because I have the weight of all of that other privilege.
Think about that for a moment. I have sufficient comfort and advantage that I can actively choose to make my life harder, and it doesn’t really matter.
As far as the other parts of the privilege fatigue argument are concerned…well, sure. We’re “supposed to be” beyond making generalizations about people based on certain characteristics. But let’s not kid ourselves here – I’m not being victimized by these generalizations that are made about me. I’m…inconvenienced by them. I find them annoying. Tedious. They make me decidedly uncomfortable. In other words, I think it’s safe to say “boo fucking hoo.” The day that the sort of discomfort that I experience is in the top, like, 500 things that are wrong in our society, then I’ll accept that argument. Until then, I think I’ll shut the fuck up about how I wish people would engage with me as the unique individual I am.
As is pretty obvious, I am in no way a race or class scholar. I’m nothing close to an expert in any of the issues that are the foundation of these issues. I don’t have the first goddamn clue how to make some of those truths about my world that I mentioned above into things that everyone can assume to be true in their world, too. What I CAN do, for starters, is acknowledge that the world my experiences have led me to believe in is true for ME, but it’s not true for many other people. I can seek out more of my unexamined truths and shed some light on the potentially harmful assumptions that are underneath them. And most of all, I can listen more carefully, learn from others, and accept that the discomfort I feel doesn’t harm me.
The other day, I posted something to Facebook along the lines of, “Lately, I don’t give a damn about any virtue other than generosity.” I wouldn’t say that that’s literally true, but it’s pretty darn close. Certainly, calling someone generous is one of the highest forms of praise in my book, and it’s a characteristic that I challenge myself with pretty regularly.
Of course, to be generous can mean any number of things. There’s generosity of “stuff” – that is, giving gifts, sharing tangible resources and wealth, that sort of thing. That’s an important aspect, though certainly not the only one. There’s also, I think, generosity of spirit. To me, this can look like a lot of different things, but one of the most important manifestations is thinking well of another person, of giving them the benefit of the doubt. There’s generosity, I believe, in facing a situation where I can just as easily think ill of someone as I can think well of them, and to make the conscious choice to think well.
In my world, there’s also generosity of time. When my partner offers to go to the grocery store while I am working so the ingredients I need to bake cookies are available when I get home, her generosity of time allows me to be generous in turn – because then it is possible for me to spend my time baking cookies for friends. Also, there are sometimes extra cookies, and this is no bad thing.
At the end of the day, my working definition of generosity is “Looking for ways to say yes.” Because you know, I can’t always do it. Nobody can. Even when we’re feeling flush or are otherwise in a place of abundance, resources are limited. Even when the right answer is Yes, sometimes the only answer I can offer in good conscience is Not Right Now. But I do try, at least a good amount of the time, to find that place of Yes as a default position – even when the question isn’t asked directly. Perhaps a better definition is to look for a way to live “Yes” rather than just to say “Yes”.
Clearly, my thoughts on the subject aren’t as well formed as I would like. I want to be more generous, and I want to surround myself with people who embrace generosity as a way of moving through the world. I know that much, at least…but this evening I find myself curious about what I might see in a random draw on the subject. So after dusting off my long-neglected deck, I pulled one card.
Question: What do the cards have to tell me about generosity tonight?
Card: The Seven of Pentacles
First impressions: Huh. That seems oddly direct.
About the card: Well, we have a guy in simple clothing – a tunic, leggings and boots – leaning on a scythe or other harvesting tool in what looks like a garden, looking very very serious. On the left side of the image, there’s a bush that is bearing fruit. Or, you know, pentacles. In any case, he’s got seven of them, one of which seems to have been harvested while the other six are awaiting his attention.
The story without words: I can’t help but be drawn to his expression. Dude looks tired to me. His shoulders are a little slumped, and he is looking at the bush like, “Oh, come on. I’ve got six more of those freaking things to harvest? Are you freaking kidding me?” At the same time, though, there are resources there, and they didn’t arrive out of nowhere. This guy looks like a farmer, a peasant – not someone who had a great deal to start with. It seems to me that he’s catching his breath and wondering if maybe tomorrow would be a better day to tackle the next part of the task.
But what does it mean?: It’s interesting. If I ignored the person in the card, I would say, “Hey, this thing is obviously about abundance. Look, the resources are literally falling off the bush. On the other hand, if I looked only at the person and ignored everything else, I would say, “Oh, geez. This guy is just done with this shit.” The person and the surrounding image seem a little bit at odds with each other.
Of course, the one fruit that is on the ground didn’t fall there. The bush was planted, and tended, and it grew, and then the fruit was harvested. This looks like a successful growing cycle to me – the bush is full of fruit, after all. But even in the midst of that success, our hero is tired and seems to be wishing that he could have outsourced the “harvesting” part of this operation.
So what about the generosity thing? Well…our farmer can’t share what he hasn’t harvested, right? Likewise, I don’t know that any of us can share what we haven’t yet manifested in our lives. It’s often tempting for me to say, “Hey, look, I just yanked this one bit of extra energy (or extra time, or extra money, or whatever) into being. Of course I can share it.” The problem, often, is that when I offer that up too quickly, later I’m angry with myself, or resentful of the other person, because I realize just how much work is before me to get the next fruit from the tree, as it were. At the same time, recognizing the resources I have access to (even if it will take a great deal of effort to manifest it) can serve as a good reminder that abundance does exist, sometimes.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the winter season this year – call it Yule, or Christmas, or the Solistice, or Agnostica, or whatever you like. I’m not referring to any specific holiday or label, just the season in general. One of the common complaints – one that I often share, mind you – this time of year focuses on the combination of commercialization and consumption that seems to be an inevitable part of our culture. At a time when many people are lacking in resources, it seems like the height of foolishness to overspend on gifts…and yet this seems to be the norm. I find myself often among those decrying this trend each year, even as I also find myself to be a *part* of the trend to some extent. This inconsistency is probably something I should explore as part of my effort to improve myself, but that’s a different topic entirely.
This year, though…I don’t know. I’ve been thinking a bit more about the origin of our seasonal celebrations, and it occurs to me that this trend of consumption isn’t all that far off from those origins. Consider: At the winter solstice, a celebration has long been the custom. A time to celebrate being alive, and to hail the too-slow return of the light. Feasting at this time of year served a purpose both practical and symbolic. Practically, the livestock couldn’t all be fed through the winter months, and meat that had been brought in from the hunt would of course spoil, so it needed to be eaten. There’s also something to be said for ensuring that everyone was as well fed and healthy as possible as the winter months truly began. For the symbolic side, I think it’s pretty simple. There is a need to *feel* like there is plenty to go around, even when – or especially when – that feeling is so fleeting. I tend to believe that the feast at the solstice was both a celebration for the clan and a sort of wake for those who would not survive the winter.
Today, of course, the practical reasons aren’t exactly germane. At least in our culture, we have these useful things like refrigeration and food preservation. It’s not as though one of my housemates happened to come home with a turkey that we absolutely had to eat before it spoiled (though to be fair, I certainly ate last weekend as though there was some danger of that happening). And of course, today’s version of overconsumption in the winter season (at least in our culture) often takes the form of overspending as much as anything else. I think, though, that this overspending fulfills a symbolic role similar to long-standing seasonal celebrations and feasts. There is still a need to feel as though our resources – whether in the form of food, or money, or time – are abundant. To celebrate for the sake of celebration, even when we know that we might lament our choices when we look back at them in just a few weeks.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting that this is a particularly healthy pattern. But this year I’m finding that I have a little more sympathy for the instinct that’s underneath that pattern. At the very least, I think I’ll be less likely to dismiss that overconsumption as being somehow contrary to the “true meaning” of this season.
For those of you eagerly anticipating my next round of ill-conceived thoughts about the Tarot, fear not. I will be demonstrating even more of my ignorance in that area soon enough. For now, though, I fear I must subject you to some other rambling instead.
This afternoon, an acquaintance who I quite like posted something on Facebook that I desperately wanted to respond to, and damn the inevitable invoking of Godwin’s law that would eventually follow. Despite my efforts, though, I was unable to formulate a coherent response that I was happy with. The problem (other than the fact that I was seething with frustration and no small amount of anger at what I sincerely hope is ignorance on his part) is simply that I couldn’t find a clear place where I knew our worldviews to intersect. Without being able to establish that bit of common ground, I couldn’t point to a place where those views began to diverge. Ultimately I think any useful conversation between us would have had to start with, “In the beginning,” and let’s be honest – a Facebook comment thread is probably not the best place for that sort of discussion.
I’m still left with that irrational desire to list all of the reasons my acquaintance’s beliefs are misguided, but instead of that I am going to try something marginally more positive. So. In response to no demand whatsoever, popular or otherwise, here’s a partial list, in no particular order, of things I believe about the world. After much consideration, I’m giving it the title, “Things Jason Believes About The World (A Partial List, Arranged In No Particular Order).” Catchy, isn’t it?
- All full-time jobs should provide a living wage for the person working.
- Medical care is a human right. Sick people ought to be able to go to the doctor.
- A world-class education should be incredibly expensive to the government and completely free to students. If you’re smart enough and motivated enough to get into a school, and you make the grade while you’re there, it should be covered.
- If marriage must be a state institution (and it shouldn’t, by the way) then any configuration of consenting adults should be afforded the same access to it as heterosexual partners currently do. There are legal and financial benefits associated with state-sanctioned marriage, and to deny those benefits to any adult member of society is a violation of their civil rights.
- Food is not a privilege, it is a human right. So is medical care. So is shelter.
- My taxes are too low. So are yours. Food isn’t cheap, shelter is expensive, and medical care is astronomical. Education is incredibly pricey. If my tax dollars go to feed, house, clothe and care for my sisters and brothers, and if they are earmarked for education, then I say this: Raise. My. Taxes.
- Many drugs probably aren’t as bad for you as large amounts of alcohol.
- Collaboration is way more fun than competition.
- Any system designed to help people will be imperfect. These systems should be studied, improvements should be made. The imperfections in the systems are not an excuse for not helping people.
- Americans ought to stop fetishizing bootstraps.
- I think it’d be a nice idea if the government listened to its constituents with legitimate complaints rather than sending the authorities in with pepper spray.
- Some crimes are abominations. Capital punishment is one, too.
- Success takes many forms. I won’t mock yours if you don’t mock mine. As the man said, “Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” (Related mental note: I should probably stop making jokes about people driving big SUVs compensating for other shortcomings.)