13 June 2020

Mistaken privilege

This privilege language going around is in material error for two reasons.

The first reason is that it's in the passive voice; "shots were fired".  You can legitimately use the passive voice for the works of indifferent natural forces; that's not what's going on in a human society.  It might be a diffuse network of choices, there might be a lot of coercion involved in producing the particular choices observed, but it's choices.[1]

The second reason is that there's not such thing; it's like blaming an outcome on someone else's invisible friend.  The real thing is power; in specific, the kind of social power which threatens or delivers harm in response to deviations from a prescriptive norm.

It's possible to point out that power based on defining a presumptive social norm and punishing (to death, if necessary) deviations from that norm is not the best way to construct a society.  It's possible to point out how white supremacy works by bribing a large class of "not frustrate your purposes" people into tolerating public power being used to advance the purposes of a small class of oligarchs.  And how this necessarily creates a class of people whose assigned place in the prescriptive norm is to have their purposes frustrated, to be sure the people whose purposes aren't frustrated know they're special.

Lots of people have done that, at great and scholarly length.  That's not (for this particular rant) the point.

The point is that the minimum useful change can be framed as "remove enforcing a prescriptive norm as a social ordering principle".  You can't do that with morals because nobody ever agrees about morals; any time you need collective action or a strong public sphere, you can't use morals.  (If you use morals, you get nigh-infinite splitting, inability to produce consensus, and a narrative that pig-headed obstinacy is laudable conduct.)  You especially can't do it with morals because the folks who derive the majority of their power from defining the norm, all the way up from the determined person at the PTA meeting and the folks on the volunteer board all the way up to noted churchmen and opinion columnists, are already there; they've got every advantage, starting with early childhood conditioning.

If you want to do that, you need to have a measurable material outcome as an objective; you need some kind of political consensus around it (e.g., the observation that absolutely everyone is better off if they don't need to worry about being shot by the cops[2]); you need to identify who benefits from things being that way right now -- material, economic benefits -- and you need to remove those benefits by the least sufficient means.

No amount of self-awareness produces systemic change. [3] You get systemic change from changing the economy, which includes the definitions of licit forms of social organisation.

[1] guilt is a silly bourgeoisie emotion that doesn't pay for anything.  I feel guilty, so the moral order is restored! is, at best, delusional.  (At worst it's cynical.)   Just as you cannot apologise for something you intend to keep doing, you cannot substitute guilt for action.  (Action which makes matters worse is not excused by I meant well or I was trying!.)

So, yes, it does look a lot like terminology around privilege was being used inside American Black communities, where there really are things they can't say directly without getting killed.  I expect it made sense with that full context; it has been torn out of that context and used as a tool to create a moral hierarchy in wider activist circles, where is is wildly unhelpful, as you would expect both any moral hierarchy and any act of cultural appropriation to be.

[2] "not frustrate their purposes" is supposed to keep white people from being shot by the cops.  The general belief that this is reliable unless you're known to be Mammonite White is breaking down and empathy has happened.  So the best way to actually guarantee "not getting shot" for anybody is to keep the cops from being able to shoot anyone.

[3] virtue is only virtue in the judgement of history, and what was not exercised is invisible to history.


Anonymous said...

Sadly, like many other polemicists in the past century, you confuse a grammatical construct (the passive voice) with a semantic construct (clauses that are unspecific about agency). The one does not entail the other; plenty of passive clauses are precise about agency (in English, we say "PATIENT was V-ed by AGENT") and plenty of active clauses leave the causative agent out entirely ("PATIENT died while in custody"). The choice between active and passive voice is a matter of pragmatics -- which entity does the speaker wish to foreground?

Graydon said...

The exercise of power is inherently not passive, on the one hand, and privilege does not materially exist, on the other, though power certainly does. (Privilege does not break bones, and yet bones are certainly getting broken.)

I don't think I'm doing too badly here.

Peter T said...

Not sure what you mean about not basing political choices on morals. "Looting is bad and will not be tolerated" is a moral prescription (one that Eric Bloodaxe and Napoleon would both agree that looting [others] is good and should be practiced wherever possible].

Graydon said...

+Peter T Morals don't scale to policy because there's no dispute resolution mechanism.

If you do fact-based decision making, you have to give up your cherished notions from time to time, but you've got a mechanism whereby public figures can change their minds. (and thus public policy can change.) That's critically important if you don't want to be ground under the treads of some autocratic form of government.

Any kind of moral system is rooted in personal beliefs; there's no way to resolve a conflict in personal beliefs short of murder. Once you get Abrahamic monotheism mixed into it, the idea that the personal beliefs are absolutely good, right, etc. gets involved. Trying to resolve moral differences on that basis gives you the Thirty Year's War.

The current political disaster in the Anglosphere comes down to a rigid rejection of facts in favour of Mammonite white supremacy as a moral system. From a factual basis, it's a mad idea[1]. From a consent-of-the-governed angle, it's not what people want. But you can't get rid of it short of murder because its adherents have wedged it into the moral frame of the will of almighty god. (That's kinda what moral frames and moral polices are for, in systemic terms. Making change unbearably expensive.)

[1] "let's cause human extinction in preference to admitting that being easily sunburned doesn't make us automatically morally superior" has no ready utilitarian defence.

Peter T said...

Utilitarianism is itself a moral choice. Fact-based decisions are good, but leave unresolved the question of ends. The dispute resolution rests either on shared values or on agreement not to resolve disputes (toleration) in some areas. The latter can only apply in limited areas.

Graydon said...

+Peter T

Let me try to put it this way.

Moral judgements are inherently contained in someone's mental state. If we note that biology is not chemistry (or physics) because of having history, we can note that morals are not biology because of having personality; you don't get to morals without an emergent capacity for symbol manipulation, and if there's a way to be certain what is rational and what is rationalisation it has not been widely announced. Not only is the map not the territory, the means of producing the map is indifferent to and independent from the territory.

Advancing morals as grounds for disputes is effectively an act of conquest; it requires you, not to prefer how you feel about something to the actual matter of the world, but to be insisting that other people do that, too.