On my 31st birthday, I’ve learned to refrain from the temptation of feigning earnestness. I want to talk about compromise. Specifically, I want to talk about the compromise that is living better than other people live, despite knowing that other people are living in worse conditions. I want to talk about the relationship of that compromise to the accountability of adulthood.
I am a petty person, which means I take small things very seriously. I take small things very seriously because they feel very serious to me. The good news is that since I have a lot of experience blowing things out of proportion, I have a good handle on what the experience of white male privilege is like; I know what it’s like to feel that something is very unfair despite it really being absolutely nothing compared to larger injustices. I also know the rhetorical response to this backwards and forwards, and I know why it doesn’t work. I know why shaming Neo-Nazis and Nazism doesn’t get rid of Neo-Nazis or Nazism. It doesn’t work because the experience of something being very unfair is real, regardless of whether or not you think it should be. That’s not a moral position, that’s a recognition of a central truth about being in the world, namely that being for us is entirely inside our own experience, and thus experience is the shape of our own reality. I talk about Kant a lot, because he’s my go-to example about the kind of slow, meticulous thought that we’re losing. But he comes to mind now in the middle of this Heideggerian gobblygook because Kant’s critiques taught me how to think about various phenomena in terms of their limits. What are the limits of experience?
Today, every internet article is supposed to be read as a come to Jesus moment, revealing some great organizing truth. And I don’t object to these articles because I think I’m more right or better than their writers. I object to them because they’re boring, masturbatory performances that stink of the overestimation of their own moral jurisdiction. The judgment of the Left is meaningless in the face of experience; it doesn’t matter that you think that white guy doesn’t get to feel lonely. He’s going to feel lonely anyway and the deeper down he hides it, the more likely it is to turn into something that explodes, something that can’t be ignored. The greatest limit of experience is its limit on what you can be. Any belief that you have transcended your own experience is an illusion inside your own experience. There is no you outside of your experience, but there also is no world, there also is no anybody else. The limits of your experience are the same as the limits of your reality. That’s why the experience of white dudes that seems so blown out of proportion from the outside can radicalize from the inside – it’s proportional, just not to the reality you experience.
I am laying this out starkly, but none of this is news. You already knew that telling someone their feelings don’t matter isn’t going to stop them from having those feelings. You already knew that shaming them for their feelings wasn’t going to end white supremacy. And you already knew that experience was relative, that the alienation white dudes feel might consume them even though a God’s eye view may not grant them the right to get consumed. No amount of articulating the fact that we know these things, or feeling bad about them, or performing our guilt about it, will do anything except try public patience. It’s simply and utterly childish. And you know that we can’t simply decide to discard our privilege. We have to use it on behalf of people with less privilege. That’s the accountability of American adulthood. What does it mean to use our privilege well? What does it mean to be an American grownup?
It means blowing up the false dichotomy of there being a central dichotomy. The world is complicated, people are complicated, and there are many sides to every issue. By many, I mean way more than two. The in crowd and the out crowd was a high school idea, at the latest. Time to put that one to bed.
It means differentiating between experience and perspective. You can have enough perspective to know that yours is not the only experience, but there will never be enough perspective to let you make someone else’s experience take the place of your own in guiding you. Let that ship sail.
It means recognizing the supremacy of primacy. That is to say, you will experience a “normal” that will not be shared by everyone that will provide you with default functionality. All things are not equal, you will unconsciously give more weight to certain ides and behaviors than others, because they support the structures of your “normal.” The primacy of a “normal” cannot be avoided without absolute dysfunction.
It means constructing without shame. Your life will be guided by a series of social constructs that you contribute to and help maintain. You cannot exist merely in the rubble of social construct, because social construction is what enables functionality in a social society. Yet no social construct is entirely inclusive; you will contribute to the alienation of others and so will they.
It means owning that no kind of political identity category that you or anyone else belong(s) to can substitute for actual identity, which has at its heart is your personality, which persists. The things that make you an individual matter. The straight, white, rich dude who is spreading his legs when he sits on the bus and insisting on the existence of his own alienation is more than the cis-het-patriarchy because he is less than it, too. Political identity categories don’t shoot up churches, or march in Charlottesville, or hide their emotions because they’ve been shamed; people, individuals with individual personalities, do. Political identity categories don’t live in high crime neighborhoods, or get murdered by police, or get paid less for the same job, or have a harder time getting health coverage; people, individuals with individual personalities, do. That is to say: the fact of a a true condition of society does not itself give you permission to stop acknowledging that you are bringing the individuality of personality to bear on what is happening, and it does not give you permission to forget that you are showing up for people, not just categories of people.
It means showing up anyway. Despite the fact that you can’t center someone else’s experience, despite the fact you’re not going to make social change by having the right views, despite the fact that your sorrow or guilt over your own privilege is actually meaningless, despite the fact that showing up has absolutely nothing to do with you or your identity in any way, despite the fact that the struggle of being an individual would continue even if the struggle of being part of a group were to cease, you have to show up. You have to speak up for the rights of others so that they’ll be there to speak up when it’s your turn. It’s not a moral act, it doesn’t really speak to your character, except to reveal whether or not you’ve grown up. Unfortunately, the world and the people in it are far too messy to make human rights or civil rights a question of morals or a question of identity. They are neither of those things. They’re a question of process, a commitment to show up over and over and over again. That’s it. There’s nothing else there. In the face of this, it is often tempting to turn that process into a moral endeavor but all that does is make the process less accessible. In other words, turning the process of showing up into a question of morals is itself immoral. It does not matter one little bit what you believe. If you’re a grownup, you’ll show up.