Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Monday, January 2, 2017

Re-examine privilege: Not the concept, the word. And its usage.

The concept of "privilege", the idea that some people don't have to deal with shit that other people have to deal with, is an important one with great relevance to many aspects of life.  As I have said before, if I were pulled over by the cops I'd rather be a poor white person than a rich black person.  I think we can pretty much take it as a given that--all else being equal--in America it's better to be white than non-white.

Many educated people use the word "privilege" to describe this relative advantage.  I've said before that I'm not much interested in telling sociologists what sort of jargon they should use when sociologizing.  If "privilege" is the technical term, so be it.  But this word has escaped beyond the confines of sociology and ethnic studies, and into the wider world of the scribbling classes, of think-pieces and op-eds and essays written and read by many educated and managerial professionals.  It's in the zeitgeist.  I doubt that your average swing voter in rural Ohio read the full catalog of privilege think-pieces at Slate, Huffpo, and Medium, but I suspect that many have been made at least somewhat aware that there's a cottage industry of educated desk-workers who think that lower-middle-class white men doing manual labor are "privileged" by dint of their gender and color.

That is so stupid that it verges on being a hanging offense.  In colloquial usage, "privileged" is a word for kids whose parents have money and/or connections.  The white kid whose father lost his job at the steel mill and now works at Wal-Mart is NOT privileged in the conventional usage of the term.  Yes, yes, that kid is privileged in the sense of sociological jargon, but who the fuck gave you the idea that ordinary conversation should be conducted in sociological jargon?  What made you think that the jargon of a social science field would work constructively in the wider political arena?

If the chattering classes describe enough lower-middle-class whites with a word for rich kids, eventually word is going to get out and there will be a backlash.  I believe that the timing of that backlash can be pinpointed to November 8, 2016.

And my complaint here is about more than just connotations and jargon.  Describing the same concept with some word less hackle-raising than "privileged" would be an improvement, but not by much.  Why are liberals spending so much time talking about the advantages of the lower-middle class?  On what planet does that make sense?  It makes sense for conservatives to say "See, the lower-middle class doesn't have it so bad" when arguing against redistribution, but on what planet does it make sense for liberals to talk about the advantages of the lower-middle class?

Finally, even if liberals stopped using the word privilege, and stopped dissecting the alleged advantages of lower-middle-class white people, there's an additional problem with all of the discussion about lower-middle-class Trump voters:  The fact that everyone trying to understand "what went wrong" is mostly talking about lower-middle-class Trump voters.  The lower-middle-class wasn't the only group that voted for Trump--in fact, Trump's strongest support was in the upper-middle class (although I suspect that numbers would look very different if I could find exit polls disaggregated by race and income).  Nonetheless, regardless of how things would look on a finer-grained scale, the undeniable fact is that Trump got support from many different sectors of American society, yet almost all of the post-election analysis has been focused on either blaming or excusing the lower-middle class.  The clear message is that the lower-middle class is some mixture of culpable for what went wrong and pitiable victims who made excusable errors.  Not much dignity in that picture.  People higher on the socioeconomic ladder are spared the indignity of post-election dissection.

I never thought I'd say this, but I kind of want the Marxists back.  I mean, say what you want about the tenets of revolutionary socialism, dude; at least they don't describe unemployed factory workers as "privileged."  In light of everything that's happening right now, I'd give anything for academics to abandon their tedious dissection of intersections of race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc., and go back to tedious dissections of class.  A left that cares about class can build solidarity between lower-middle-class whites and the rest of their coalition; a left that cares about identity will splinter.  (I should emphasize that I'm not much of a leftist, but I'm even less of a Trumpista.)

There's a lot of blame to go around here, but certainly much of it belongs in academia. We need to ask ourselves what our implicit assumptions are when socioeconomic diversity gets far less attention than race, gender, etc.

Social vs. Natural Science: The cumulative difference

I've been reading other things, things that I simply haven't had the inclination to blog, but whilst reading about some controversies in social science I realized that one of the things that Snow used to demarcate the line between science and humanities can also demarcate a line between social and natural science:  The cumulative nature of knowledge.

I should state at the outset that I do, in fact, acknowledge that social scientists have cumulative knowledge, that they do, over time, develop and refine a body of generalizable knowledge about human beings.  That's not to say that every theory or every finding turns out to have wide applicability (or even replicability), but the process of social science can indeed select, filter, and refine the body of knowledge, just as natural scientists do.

In the sense that social science can produce a refined, tested body of cumulative knowledge, social science is akin to natural science, and distinct from arts and humanities in the sense that Snow articulated.

On the other hand, because social scientists study humans they have to confront human prejudices and cultural inertia, and thus they have to re-fight certain battles in every generation. Topics like, say, gender differences, get re-fought in each generation, and the cumulative weight of data will not dampen the appeal of gender essentialism as a way of legitimizing inequality. (One could easily come up with other perennial battles; I simply picked that one for the sake of easy illustration.) In that sense, there is a human limit on the extent to which social sciences can, in practice, be as cumulative as natural science, or at least a limit to the rate of accumulation, because of the need to re-fight battles in each generation.  There is much less of that in natural science.  OK, evolutionary biologists have to re-fight battles in the public sphere, but not within academia.  And biologists studying development, cognition, and gender will have to join social scientists in re-fighting gender battles in each generation, but that reflects their position at the intersection of natural and social science.  Closer to (my) home, we physicists have to help each cohort of freshmen overcome Aristotelian intuitions about motion, but that battle really only takes a semester.  By the end of the semester they know that they ought to be Newtonians; they might still have Aristotelian impulses, but they know that they're supposed to check those impulses.

So, if we take the cumulative nature of natural science as a line of demarcation between Snow's "Two Cultures" then I think a tri-partite division of liberal arts is appropriate:  The humanists can generate new works of art and inspiration and analysis in each generation of a changing world, without the constraints of the past, the natural scientists develop a cumulative understanding of nature, and the social scientists seek to build a cumulative understanding of people but do so while re-fighting perennial battles of human culture and prejudice.