I’m not sure I have the skills or knowledge to turn this into a decent blog post, but I keep finding myself mulling over these ideas so I figured I’d write them down, trying to clarify my thinking.
During the summer of 2015 I was reading the news about the attempts by various activists to get the Confederate battle flag removed from official government locations, including from in front of the statehouse in South Carolina, where I live. The conversations on social media during that time also frequently included a message along the lines of “check your privilege.”
A Twitter poster whom I generally enjoy reading posted several angry comments, saying that he didn’t want people to yell at him any longer about “privilege” because it was a concept that included no path for taking action. He said that he didn’t mind being told that he needed to treat people more fairly, or stop doing something that caused distress …whatever… but that there seemed to be nothing that he could do about privilege. If we white men are privileged in America just by accident of birth, he said, then there’s nothing he could do to change it. He wasn’t going to stop being male nor white, so everyone should just shut up already…
I knew right away that I disagreed with him, while also sympathizing with him to some extent. After all, being blamed for something you aren’t even aware of benefiting from isn’t much fun for anyone.
My problem was that I couldn’t figure out — any more than he could — what to do with this concept of privilege.
A few days later, it occurred to me that a great use of being aware of social privilege is in checking assumptions for things like… oh… the idea that police treat everyone fairly. I saw posts this summer that were variations of the old “hey, if you don’t like being mistreated by the police, maybe you shouldn’t do any crimes, then the police won’t have an opportunity to mistreat you.” This can only be spoken by someone who has never had to fear that they’ll be pulled over while driving just because of how they look, stopped and searched just because of how they’re dressed while walking through a neighborhood. If you know that privilege exists, then you can, perhaps, pause while reading a news story about someone being arrested and not automatically assume that the person deserved to be arrested. You might start realizing that there are people who ‘do the time,’ even if they haven’t ‘done the crime.’ There is value in this not only in the sense of your being a more discerning consumer of news, but even in a larger sense of perhaps supporting changes to some future legislative efforts to bring about police reforms.
I think that one of the reasons privilege is so hard to think about when you’re a beneficiary of it is that it spoils you, and no one likes to give up comfort. It’s like someone who is sound asleep in a warm bed on a cold night, and their partner steals the blanket. Without even waking up they grab the edge of the blanket and grumpily pull it back into place. Feeling the cold air outside your cocoon is uncomfortable.
Here’s a real-world example. I know mature, responsible adults; upstanding members of their communities; valued employees; parents… who did drugs in their 20s. It would strike them as completely absurd if you tried to explain to them that the world would somehow be a better place if they’d spent the last 20 years in jail for their indiscretions. It’s obvious that punishing them for something that hurt no one would not have helped the world. Their current lives clearly enrich the world, and strengthen the fabric of society. But somehow they manage to ignore the fact that our prisons are chock full of people who committed no worse crime. People who will have no chance to ever turn their lives around, because very few businesses are willing (or even able; it’s often against the law) to hire anyone with a felony conviction. These people don’t see that having an entire underclass of people who can never hope to contribute to society weakens the country. Some of these prisoners didn’t even commit the crimes they are in jail for.
You don’t even want to get me started on the subject of the way that prisons have systematically removed proven programs for educating and reforming prisoners over the last few decades, essentially ensuring the profit structure of the prison industry (all in the name of being tough on crime).
Then, just this morning, several more pieces fell into place in my mind.
I recently listened to a podcast profile of the “father of PR,” Edward Bernays. The podcasters described how Bernays helped create the consumer culture we live in today, but they also touched on his forays into politics, including his involvement in the overthrow of legitimate governments in Latin America. This clicked with a complaint that was popular a few years ago among right-wing columnists; the idea of “historical revisionists” who were re-writing the history of the US and, for that matter, all the history of western civilization. I doubt that any real historian would use the term revisionism, because the practice of history involves (or should involve) going back and checking assumptions, checking the work of other historians, making sure that we try to describe what really happened.
The columnists, of course, were upset because their cherished mental images of glorious, flawless founding fathers were being shown as the figments of imagination that they actually are. Great men and women are never flawless (which is not to say that they were not great).
Where does public relations and marketing come in? All of this hinges on the old idea that history is written by the winners. I’d take it further; I’d say that history, perhaps particularly so in the US, has been written by marketing experts, often in the guise of the writers of heroic stories and songs, but just as often by patriotic textbook authors and newspaper columnists. It’s very easy to buy their product’s authenticity when their stories are providing the warm blanket that reassures you that all is well with your world. That the USA is a glorious bastion of freedom, that your religious leaders are moral paragons, our soldiers clean and upright young patriots, and our police firm- and fair-minded defenders of justice.
This is why the argument by poor, disenfranchised white men — that since they are poor and disenfranchised that they clearly are not privileged — doesn’t hold water. Privilege doesn’t imply that you have all good things in life. It implies that you’re able to continue to believe the comforting stories that you’ve grown up with. That the police only arrest bad people (of, if they make a mistake, our justice system will correct the problem), that our military only serves to protect our shores from evil men, and our leaders have our best interests in mind. I’ll grant you that the fabric of this mythology starts looking more than a little thin when you’re poor.
Becoming aware of the layers of unreality you live behind… in other words, becoming aware of your privilege… won’t, in fact, directly change anything. You can’t stop benefiting from it. But becoming aware of it might help you see through some of the illusions and, if nothing else, help you make decisions based on something closer to reality. Who knows, perhaps you’ll even help someone struggling under an unjust system somewhere.
(First draft dashed off without edits on Dec. 20, 2015… I reserve the right to edit for content (as I learn more), clarity, grammar, wording, or anything else…)
“The history of a nation is, unfortunately, too easily written as the history of its dominant class.”
– Kwame Nkrumah
Possible essay topic I’m mulling over.
I’m not gradually moving left on the American political spectrum because I have some love for governmental intervention (rather the opposite, I suspect).
No, I’m moving left because most of the kindest people I know seem to be on that end of the spectrum.
I have, with a little luck, a few decades left alive. I’d rather spend them working toward solutions to problems than being told that I need to be afraid of other humans who are also dealing with really bad problems.
I can’t ignore the legacy of political maneuvering and disastrous political experiments of the last 100+ years, but if you can hold that legacy to one side and look at the people involved, I keep finding the bravest and kindest ones (the people I want to hang with) seem not to be on the far right.
I know this isn’t much of a basis for making decisions on, but it feels… at least honest to the person I want to be.
The assignment for this, my fifth Toastmasters speech and with the project name “Your Body Speaks” was to express myself physically as I gave the speech, so I walked when I described walking, bowed when I described myself bowing, etc.
My uniform is a simple pair of trousers, the legs of which reach barely below my knees; a heavy cotton jacket; and a simple white belt.
As I change into my uniform, I can start feeling the cares of my day — even the stress of the drive to the dojo — fade away. Like traffic sounds fading as I go deeper into a forest, I may not notice it right away, but the hurry and bustle is less, then less again. I’m often the first person to arrive and I have the changing room to myself.
Once I’m dressed, I gather the bag of wooden weapons and leave the changing room, then walk down the flagstone path to the dojo itself. This is a simple wooden building on the edge of the woods, with a high roof, windows all the way around, and a porch across the front. The flagstones of the path are irregularly spaced, requiring me to slow down even more as I approach the porch.
I step onto the porch and leave my sandals by the bench. I slide the door open and bow. I enter the dojo and place the weapons in their proper corner, then get the broom and clean the dojo. As I do each task carefully and in its proper order, the external stillness starts settling deeper and deeper into my mind, and my body further slows. I’ve gradually learned that taking time to do something carefully and well holds value in and of itself.
Sweeping done, I enter the dojo again, bowing more deeply as I do so. Bowing slows me down, makes me pay attention. Bowing breaks the rush that I go through most of my life in. Bowing reminds me of why I’m here. It shows my respect for my teacher, and the teachers who went before him, and shows my respect for this space, for my fellow students, and even for myself.
I begin my warm-up, and while I’m stretching and rolling and swinging my arms, other students begin to arrive, each quietly bowing in and greeting me. Finally, our teacher shows up and we pause in our warm-ups to welcome him.
Soon the class begins, and we always start by bowing again, very formally this time, once to the front of the dojo as a symbol of respect to the teachers who have created, preserved, and strengthened this art, and once to our teacher; he bows to us as well; the respect goes both ways.
Then the class is in full swing, and we are practicing with sticks or wooden swords; throwing each other across the room (and being thrown!); learning new skills or practicing familiar motions.
On the inside I’m feeling a swirl of emotions. I’m gleeful when I execute a front roll correctly and at high speed; I’m frustrated at not being able to do a pin or a kata correctly which I thought I’d perfected. I’m embarrassed when I forget something my teacher just taught me a few days ago.
In the brief interludes of rest I sometimes think about the fact that I’ve spent so much of my life avoiding anything that might embarrass me, anything that I wouldn’t be able to excel at doing, and I wonder how many good things I’ve missed. At the dojo there’s certainly no danger of my excelling! I’m no natural athlete, and even those who are athletes may have to start studying when they’re in their teens to be considered experts… but that matters less here than anywhere else I’ve been. Experts don’t spend any time strutting around on the mat; they spend their time teaching and learning and practicing. The teachers and my fellow students are incredibly helpful to me, because we can’t have fun on the mat unless everyone is as capable as possible. It’s an art with no competition and no conflict.
Every time I make a mistake, forget a move, or mix up my Japanese vocabulary, I start to sink into my usual self-pity and self-accusation, but none of that comes from my teacher or my fellow students, and I’ve gradually learned the difference between humility and humiliation, between being humble and being humbled. My pride, which has stopped me so many times, in fear of being hurt… I’m finally learning how to set it aside and not be ruled by it. To learn, with no expectation of perfection, an art that seems to get bigger the further into it I go.
I’m starting to discover that there’s something to learn that’s not only in my head, things to learn that you can’t cram for, that take years to discover, and that that discovery is both inside and outside. It’s how to be physically present so that I can roll out of a throw without being hurt, and how to be with other students with respect and attention. There’s something in the process that is changing me in subtle ways. I can tell that a change is happening, but I can’t tell where I’m going yet.
Finally, the class ends, and once again we bow to the front of the dojo, then to our teacher, and last to each other, quietly gather our wooden weapons and bow a last time as we leave the mat.
Just a reminder: posting heart-wrenching meme images and videos can raise awareness of your social concerns, but without a clear set of goals, a plan, hard work (like years of effort), money, compatriots, people with political savvy, more hard work, and (quite possibly) essentially dedicating your life to the issue, it’s unlikely you’ll see any changes in your lifetime. If you want to fight for women’s rights, gun control, the reduction of influence of big money in politics, the environment, minority rights, health care, domestic violence… I say more power to you. If all you do is share memes on Facebook, though, I’m not going to be particularly impressed with your commitment.
Not that I expect anyone’s particularly trying to impress me, nor should they. But you should know that I think that there’s a real difference between feeling deep emotional pangs about an issue and doing something about that issue.
Nothing that’s been achieved in the last 200 years that has helped open up our society and bring greater freedom and equality has happened because people shared slogans. People worked really, really hard, and in many cases risked their lives to cause change for issues like a woman’s right to vote, for the end of legal Jim Crow discrimination, for the rights of workers to not be treated like chattel, improved health care, rights for poor people (you’re aware that people used to be imprisoned just for being poor?), universal education, religious liberty, freedom of speech, child labor, repression of sexual minorities, protection of the environment, rights of privacy in the digital age… the list is very long.
I invite you; if you post something about any of these or 80 other topics I could come up with, then consider writing a paragraph or two about exactly what your goals are, what steps you think would move us in that direction, and why you think they’d help. Tell us what you’re doing to convince a congressperson or senator to get behind this issue, how you’re planning to apply political and popular pressure to them if they don’t comply, what money you’re raising, and why we should consider donating….
In other words, show the world what you’re doing, not just that you’re horribly, horribly unhappy about it.
I complain. Okay, I complain a lot.
But I’m not in a bad mood all the time. Today I thought I’d list a few things I’m happy about this week. It’s been a stressful week, so it’s good to look at some good things, too.
First: my arms actually aren’t hurting for the first time in ages. So there’s that!
Today is a Friday, and I’d normally be preparing for our weekly Toastmasters meeting, but with the holiday we’re taking a week off. Our corporate club has been incredibly welcoming and encouraging over the last three months. I’ve learned so much from all of you!
This afternoon is the start of our autumn Aikido seminar with Donovan Waite Sensei; he’s an awesome teacher, and I get to spend time with everyone at my dojo, all of whom have graciously welcomed me and helped me learn over the last year. September 2 was my first anniversary.
September 2 was also my 17-year anniversary with Wells Fargo. That’s pretty amazing for me; it’s more than three times longer than my longest previous job. I had a couple of difficult days this week at work, but my manager and my team backed me up and helped it get better.
Somewhere in September will mark my 20-year anniversary of when I first got sick. Cancer isn’t something to celebrate, but surviving cancer for 20 years certainly is. I was fortunate that I had an excellent surgeon who kept working on my case when the early test results were confusing. I suspect that I would have died without his determination and skill. I’m also thankful for the friends who supported us during that time, and my lovely wife, who worked, cared for our animals, and spent every spare moment at the hospital with me. Thanks!
I appreciate everyone who has helped me be a better person.
Below is my third Toastmasters speech, given as my entry in a humor contest on August 28. I was made ineligible for the contest because I went over the time limit of seven minutes, but I count it as a success because people did laugh, and I did manage to get up and do a speech without checking any notes while I was speaking.
Massachusetts is not only more rural than people think; it’s more rural than most people would believe. Massachusetts is very rural, even though it’s about 1/5 the size of North Carolina while having two-thirds the number of people. The reason for this is that nearly everyone in Massachusetts lives either within a 45 mile circle of Boston, or in a series of other towns and cities that stretch, like pearls on a string, in a long, east-west line of population along old Route 9.
Route 9 goes from Boston through Framingham, Worcester, and Springfield, and out to the western border with New York. Route 2, along the northern edge of the state, stretches just as far, but there are fewer big towns, and thus it is very isolated in places.
Charged with patrolling these highways are the troopers of the Massachusetts State Police. The State Police are one of the oldest highway patrol forces in the US, and I suspect that they were the model for many other states when they started up their highway patrols.
Years ago, before equal opportunity became a concept, the patrol only hired big guys, I think there was a minimum height of 5′ 10″, and many of them were much taller than that. They wore knee-high boots, bloused trousers with a stripe down the side, Smokey Bear hats, Sam Browne belts… you know, the kind with the strap that holds up your service revolver? Overall, they were some very serious and impressive-looking dudes.
These guys are simultaneously the driver’s biggest fear (because they are constantly lurking behind overpasses) and biggest friend, because they’ll stop and help you if you’re broken down.
Back in the late 1980s, I was unemployed and working as a carpenter for hire. My van had gotten wrecked, and I ended up with a two-door car, a 1970s vehicle that seemed to be about the size of one of today’s sport utility vehicles. I think I paid $75 for it. The driver’s door wouldn’t open, the odometer was broken (which meant I never knew how far I’d driven), and the gas gauge was broken (which meant that I ran out of gas rather often). Being broke, I didn’t try to get the gas gauge fixed; I just bought a five-gallon gas can and kept it in the trunk. When I would run out of gas I would just glide to the side of the road and put in enough gas to get me to the next station.
I was working as a carpenter, so I needed to be able to carry lumber. I looked at the car and thought… “I can build a roof rack to carry lumber!” But the trunk lid was in the way. So I did what any maker would do; I took a wrench and removed the trunk lid. Now the hinges holding the lid were standing upright, so I bolted some 2×6 boards to them, and ran other 2x6s across the roof and tied them to the front bumper. I was in business!
Also in the late 1980s, my wife and I had just gotten married, and for some reason we were totally in love with the idea of homesteading. We poured over every issue of The Mother Earth News, she read seed catalogs, we planted a garden, we raised chickens for eggs, built a fancy compost heap, and raised geese; big, gray geese.
When we got a chance to buy a cabin on five wooded acres in central Mass, we thought we had our homestead! We were very excited. We got the place in the winter and over the next few months we gradually cleaned up the cabin and started moving our stuff. We spent every weekend there and started looking for work.
Finally, in August, came the last step; moving the chickens and geese out to their new home. The chickens were easy. Put them into large boxes and close the lids. Chickens tend to get very quiet when it’s dark. Geese are another matter.
Our geese were big. They had really large wing spans and could be ferocious when they were agitated. We consulted Mother Earth News and learned the trick for transporting geese. You gather some old feed bags snip off the bottom corner. You take a goose, fold its wings, and carefully put it head-first into the bag until its head emerges from the corner. With their wings restrained they sit quietly. Except that when geese are stressed, they pant rapidly, with their tongues sticking out. Geese in bags are very stressed.
When the big day came, I got off work, got home, got the feed bags, carefully cut a corner off each one, and bagged up geese, setting each one on the back seat of my car. I headed out on the 75 mile drive from the coast to the hills of central Massachusetts.
Around ten PM, driving up a long, empty stretch of Route 2, the car ran out of gas. No panic, this was something I knew how to do. I glided to the breakdown lane, put on my emergency lights, and got out to fill up the car. The moon was out, and it was a beautiful evening. Suddenly a police car arrived and pulled up behind me, blue flashing lights adding to the overall effect of the moonlight and my car’s hazard lights.
The trooper got out of his car…
Trooper: “Good evening, everything okay?”
Me: “Yes, officer. I ran out of gas, but I’ll be on my way shortly.”
Trooper: “Good, good.”
He clicked on his flashlight and shined it on me; long hair, jeans with the knees ripped out. He examined the car’s trunk, with the lid missing and the 2×6 Beverly Hillbillies roof rack. He strolled up next to the car and pointed his light into the back seat.
He stood there for a long while, not moving.
Then he clicked off his flashlight, did a smart military turn and marched back to his patrol car — never looking my way — got into his cruiser, turned off the lights, and sped away.
I’ve been seeing posts and articles claiming that “everyone is offended these days,” with the implication, at least, that everyone should just get over themselves. I agree to a point, but I also think that some of this is a passive-aggressive way of saying “stop pointing out that I’m a bigot.”
Here’s my take on the ‘plague of offense’ that we’re apparently suffering through. Subject to revision/refinement as I think this through…
I don’t expect to get through the day without being offended
(I’ll try not to whine about it beyond posting a snarky comment).
I don’t expect to get through the day without offending anyone, but I don’t go out of my way to do so. I think people who do are just showing that they’re jerks. If I cross the line from expressing an opinion to being deliberately offensive, call me out on it.
My “being offended” is different from pointing out discrimination and bullying behavior. If you think that you can silence me by telling me to quit being easily offended, you’re wrong.
There are problems that won’t go away by being ignored; if someone points out racism, sexism, or any other social issue that they think is a problem, don’t imagine you can shut them up by claiming that they just need to grow a thick skin.
Below is my second Toastmasters speech, built on the requirement that I had to organize my speech properly; with a clear beginning, middle, and end. This is still in the form of the notes I spoke to during the speech. I’m planning to re-write it to fill in the blanks, similar to how I delivered it during the meeting. I got feedback after my speech that the portion where I talked about everyday heroes could use some expansion, and my transitions between ideas could use some smoothing out, so I’ll probably buff up the full-text version a bit.
Green skin! Stretchy arms! Invulnerability to bullets! They can fly! Woohoo!
- In movies and comic books, this is how heroes are presented. But this isn’t a new thing.
- Hero stories are some of the oldest stories we have.
- The story of Gilgamesh, the King of Sumer, was first written down about 4,000 years ago.
- Achilles was a hero of the Greek story of the battle of Troy
- Bellerophon was the hero who captured the winged horse, Pegasus
- In fact, if you look at their abilities, the heroes of ancient myth look a lot like our modern comic-book superheroes, or maybe the other way around, who knows…
- When I was a child, I was fascinated by heroes.
- I watched The Amazing Spiderman every Saturday morning; I knew about Sampson, and David & Goliath
- I wasn’t much of a comics reader, but boy did I love Aragorn and Faramir in The Lord of the Rings
- When I was a little older, I devoured the stories in the Reader’s Digest magazines my mom got. There was a column called “Drama in Real Life,” filled with heart-wrenching stories of people saving their families, co-workers, and complete strangers.
- I still love stories like that! We have featured some of them on Wells Fargo Stories, such as the one about the mortgage consultant who rescued two people from their car, stuck on a train track.
- When I was growing up, I wanted to be one of those heroes. I had daydreams of saving people, but growing up in the suburbs doesn’t give you many opportunities like that.
- As I got older, I started to collect heroes of my own, such as the surgeon who diagnosed my cancer and saved my life.
- There are some pretty clear trends here.
- In the ancient stories, the heroes are mostly demigods or the children of demigods,
- In the comic books, most heroes have had some extreme thing happen that changed them from being “merely human” to being a superman.
- Even my surgeon has a bit of the superhuman about him… years of training, decades of experience
- Over time, I started to recognize another kind of hero
- People with no superhuman skills; people who aren’t descended from gods, who haven’t been bitten by radioactive spiders, and who haven’t even had years of training to be surgeons, firemen, or rescue helicopter pilots.
- People like my night nurse when I was recovering from my surgery. Whenever I woke up, there she was, with the most amazing patience and kindness.
- I started realizing that I had known many heroic people,
- Like my mom, who raised five kids at home with another in college; she woke up at 4 every morning to get the day started for her family; she worked part-time jobs to make ends meet.
- Like my dad, who worked 50-60 hours a week, and when he came home grew food for us in a large garden next to the house.
- These heroic people are not superhuman, they’re not flawless, and they don’t have extraordinary gifts.
- What they do have is grit. They get up, show up, do what’s in front of them, and care deeply about the people in their lives.
- They’re not only the unsung heroes, they’re often totally invisible to most everyone around them
- I still love heroes, and will always love hearing the stories of the heroes of newspaper stories, who rush into burning buildings to save children or jump into rivers to save drowning people.
- I certainly don’t mean to take anything away from people who do these things, but I want to suggest to you that, while not everyone is a hero, there are more heroes around us than we may be used to thinking of.
- There are probably heroes right here in this room.
- The person in the next chair might be a hero.
- The person in your chair might be a hero.
I was reading this thread on Quora, and one of the comments included the observation that we teach American schoolchildren scientific facts (if even this), but rarely teach the scientific method, which would better enable them to figure things out for themselves.
I have thought about this off and on, and my conclusion is that there are many institutions, not just religious ones, that benefit from a population that doesn’t think critically about the world. I’m not saying there’s a coherent strategy to keep people uneducated (there’s no need to imagine a plot), but there’s no push to make it happen, so it doesn’t happen. Here are a few such organizations or institutions that I thought of off the top of my head:
- Marketing: you would prefer it to be easy to convince people to buy your stuff
- Politics: easier to get people to vote for you if you can use emotion and not logic
- Military: people with good critical thinking skills might see that military action is usually not your best first option (probably a sub-category of politics)
- Religion (of course)
- Professional team sports (probably a sub-category of marketing)
- Parents who want their kids to grow up believing in the same things they do