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Privilege and humiliation

The American people are getting some excellent — and I suspect lasting — new insights into the ugliness of unearned privilege. But unearned privilege is only half of the problem that requires fixing. The flip side of that coin is undeserved humiliation. The two things together — the increasing humiliation of the many and the also-increasing privilege of the few — are tearing the country apart.

Paul Krugman’s column today shines a light on privilege: “The Angry White Male Caucus: Trumpism is all about the fear of losing traditional privilege.” Krugman writes: “And nothing makes a man accustomed to privilege angrier than the prospect of losing some of that privilege, especially if it comes with the suggestion that people like him are subject to the same rules as the rest of us.”

In thinking about this issue, I need to return once again to the “moral foundations” theory of Jonathan Haidt and how the world looks very different to liberals than it does to conservatives. The high value that conservatives place on authority, hierarchy and in-group values blinds conservatives to the humiliation of others while inflaming conservative rage when their privilege, their authority, and their place in the hierarchy are challenged. Whereas, to liberals, with their emphasis on fairness and caring, undeserved humiliation begs for succor, and unearned privilege cries out to be taken down a notch.

Twenty million people, I believe, watched Brett Kavanaugh’s horrifying performance on television last week. Conservatives saw a dangerous assault on their highest values of in-group power, authority, and hierarchy by a threatening rabble of inferior out-group people such as Democrats. Liberals saw how privilege responds with rage and disbelief at the notion that fairness, caring, and justice matter enough to stand in the way of entitled elite power.

It has been sickening to watch the mainstream media, because of the notion of “balance,” trapped into reporting on this spectacle as though what conservatives see is somehow just as legitimate as what liberals see. The real story is the increasing depravity of a conservative minority driven to the last ditch, struggling to use entrenched power to preserve the status quo. The Supreme Court is their last hope to preserve their world a little longer, as the political backlash against right-wing overreach — and an increasing awareness of the ugliness of right-wing intentions — builds.

If you do a little reading on the psychology of humiliation, you’ll soon come across the word revenge. When people are humiliated, they long for revenge.

But there are two kinds of humiliation. There is undeserved humiliation, such as being made to sit at the back of the bus. And there is deserved humiliation (which unfortunately is much more rare), such as the Trumpian thrashing of Brett Kavanaugh’s humiliation as he discovered that there are limits to his entitlements and that questions relating to justice (as with Trump) are questions that (at least in a nation of laws) must be answered. Kavanaugh has earned humiliation, not the revenge he wants. Justice does not contribute to the happiness of the unjust.

Once upon a time in America, humiliation was for the most part a minority experience. Humiliation was reserved for those with dark skin, and for those on the lowest rungs of the economic and social ladder, and for those who would not or could not play their assigned “normal” roles. But, as far as I can tell, humiliation in the workplace is now the rule, almost regardless of the type of work or the level of income. Friends with Ph.D.’s in high-paying jobs sometimes tell me shocking stories of humiliation, powerlessness, and abuse by employers. This workplace humiliation, of course, started with those with more modest educations in more modest jobs. But the culture of humiliation has steadily worked its way upward and outward. Merely being white and playing by the rules is no longer enough to guarantee meaningful work and a life of dignity.

But the humiliation of the newly humiliated — many of them white people who supported Trump — contains an element of justice. If you tolerate (or, worse, participated in) the humiliation of those whom you consider beneath you, then don’t be surprised if the rising tide of humiliation spreads and eventually sucks you in, too. As the truly elite know, there’s not a thing in the world that’s special about white church people, though a great many white church people are having a hard time figuring that out. If the arc of justice does not bend toward justice, then it will bend toward injustice. Or the arc may stall, blocked by those who feel threatened by anything other than the status quo, or by those who believe that any improvement in the lives of out-groups necessarily comes at the expense of in-groups.

Therein is a lesson that conservative minds just can’t seem to learn. The conservative mind always wants to assume that anything threatening comes from beneath them in the hierarchy, or from an out-group. The idea that the very in-group authority they glorify is the source of the threat is unthinkable. The right-wing propaganda machine — always demonizing them and always glorifying us — works constantly to reinforce these ideas. This pattern of delusion in the conservative mind is the key to the power of the Republican Party.

I confess that watching Brett Kavanaugh squirm last week was a beautiful thing, insofar as I could bear to watch it. It felt as good as revenge, but it actually was fairness and justice at work. Still, bringing down the Trumps and Kavanaughs of the world is only a small part of the job, and probably even the easy part. That’s because the wholesale humiliation of the American people will continue — until we have a politics that can do something about it. Look at how long black people have been waiting. If white people insist on clinging to a world view that is exactly ass-backwards, then they may have to wait even longer.


  1. MHK wrote:

    Bravo! Beautifully said.

    Tuesday, October 2, 2018 at 7:07 pm | Permalink
  2. DCS wrote:

    This is very keenly observed, and I thank you for the articulation of the humiliation idea here because you know I have felt in the past exactly what you’re talking about. It is helpful to have someone else articulate it.

    The idea that in-groups use humiliation as a ruthlessly wielded tool to enforce the boundary keeping out-groups out is worthy of more thought and elaboration. The idea that long dis-empowered out-groups could take up the same tool to tear down the in-group boundary is intriguing and worth thinking about as a conceptual framework or vocabulary with which to talk about these escalating conflicts.

    The trick, I suppose, is to figure out how to talk about this without falling back on feminist theory by creating a conceptual framework that captures these ideas without basing it on gender — something broader, more universal and less specific. That’s what I’m waiting for because I get tired of its always being framed in jargon-laden feminist theory.

    I know I’m a misogynist for say that, but there it is.


    Thursday, October 4, 2018 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

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