Posts tagged political beliefs
Answering the question, “What can we do about privilege?”
Discussions of privilege.png

 

“Where do we go from here?”

My friend posted this excellent, approachable primer on privilege and intersectionality on her Facebook page recently. One of her friends responded by saying, “Can I ask an honest question - where do we go from here?”

My friend didn’t answer the question. I’m guessing she felt tired and frustrated when she read it.

Variations on this question—“where do we go from here?”—are an extremely common response to discussions about privilege. They are so natural and knee-jerk that, to me, they suggest a global, psychological pattern, like tiny identical spores flowing from overwhelmed minds. In privilege discussions, they are the verbal equivalent of wrinkling your nose instinctively at a strange smell.

I didn’t feel irritated when I saw the question. I was just struck, suddenly, by how many times I’d read it before. And I found myself wanting to provide answers that might address the real psychological mechanism deploying this meme.

“Where do we go from here?”

The answers that come to mind are:

“Nowhere—at first.”

And: “Eventually to places that are difficult for us to fathom, given the world we currently live in.”

And: “Towards allowing the truth to change your mind and heart.”

And: “Towards wherever your awakened conscience and more informed worldview lead you.”

 

What drives the question

Now, the answers I listed aren’t simple, step-by-step instructions for addressing the legacy of privilege and “making things right.” Anybody who really confronts the realities of history understands that the path forward can’t be found through quick fixes or concise to-do lists. Are the questioners hoping for answers along these lines? They won’t be gratified. Still, their desire for a simple, immediate way forward is perfectly understandable and definitely predictable. Alarmed people often want to know what exactly they can do about things, right now.

But what if the questioners aren’t sincerely hoping for digestible action steps? Does their question come from a place of avoidance and deflection? If the answer is what they suspect it might be—that “nothing can be done”—they can lay the problem aside as unsolvable and therefore irrelevant.

Whether the question is motivated by a naïve desire for instruction or a cynical attempt at avoidance, I believe there is a deeper, more elemental force at work. What unites both categories of questioners is an emotional response. 

What feelings does facing the profoundly ugly forms of privilege—like discovering a corpse in the basement—arouse? Horror, guilt, fear, denial, helplessness?

In 2016, researchers at the University of Southern California published their findings on the rigidity of belief in Nature. They conducted MRI scans of 40 people to observe how challenges to their beliefs impacted brain activity. Their findings were two-fold:

  1. Political beliefs are more inflexible than other types of belief
  2. The subjects who were more resistant to changing their beliefs, even in the face of clear evidence, had relatively higher levels of activity in their insular cortex and amygdala

The amygdala, of course, is one of the regions of the brain that regulates emotions, including perceptions of threat. This research suggests that avoiding challenges to our paradigms—especially political ones—is a function of our ingrained fear management systems.

Terror

Personally, with my western mind, I think the notion that I am not in total control of my socioeconomic destiny is terrifying. Part of that loss of control extends to facing a brutal history driving contemporary injustice that I can’t retroactively change. This history utterly defines the world as I know it, including the bundle of privileges and disadvantages that constitutes my very socio-political being. This terrible history has created me. Horrifying. 

So I believe the terror of the challenged paradigm is what really drives the question, “where do we go from here?” Whether that terror manifests as naiveté or cynicism, fear is what we’re talking about.

Answers

So…where do we go from here? Whether it’s a good, fair, or rationally composed question doesn’t matter. It will continue to be asked, because the truth of historical privilege shatters deep paradigms.

I circle back to the answers I found myself wanting to give my friend’s friend:

“Nowhere—at first.”

And: “Eventually to places that are difficult for us to fathom, given the world we currently live in.”

And: “Towards allowing the truth to change your mind and heart.”

And: “Towards wherever your awakened conscience and more informed worldview lead you.”

This is what I believe: if we can sit with the fear that the truth of privilege arouses in us, we will eventually find pathways forward. But this may take time.

How profoundly do paradigm shifts impact human history? How reforming and disruptive was the revelation of a heliocentric universe or the evolution of the species? Understanding the mechanics of privilege is no less revolutionary.

When such deep paradigms go about rearranging our collective sense of what’s real, true, or possible, they take their time. They have to flow slowly through the congestion of fearful minds, like water through dense bedrock. But once that occurs, what is the outcome? Generally: a proliferation of new possibilities. Specifically, in the case of privilege, we could see:

An increase in compassion for self and others.

And: A general acceptance that control over our own destinies is not absolute; a proposition that leads to an inestimable number of social changes.

And: Creativity for driving new socio-political systems that reflect a more nuanced understanding of justice.

But all of that lies on the other side of fear. So to my friend of a friend, and questioners everywhere, I want to say that I believe the answers to the question, “where do we go from here?” might be:

“Feel your fear. Don’t try to avoid it.”

And: “Have faith that you and everybody else will better understand what to do once your fear passes, as fear always does, given enough time and space.”

And: “Nowhere. Don’t try to be anywhere other than here, sitting with this startling information and exploring how it could change you.”