Note: This is not a picture of the author, who is much, much older, and inclined to see this younger fellow as something of a stunt-double. Image found here.
Writing as a heterosexual, college-degreed white man of middle class upbringing, and thus a primary target of privilege-shaming, I hope it won’t shock you to learn that I feel quite ambivalent about the practice.
But I do have enough insight to know that much of this ambivalence follows from the fact that, yes, it is effective, which is to say that it makes me feel ashamed of myself. Whenever somebody implies or asks me outright to do a privilege-check, that is pretty much exactly what I do, and quite obediently, I should say. I find the experience profoundly humbling — even humiliating. It’s definitely not a pleasant way to feel.
And as I clarified in my first post on this topic, it does not make me feel ashamed for having gotten lucky in the ways that I have — who could blame (even) a (heterosexual, college-degreed, middle class backgrounded and let’s not forget white) guy for that? But rather, I feel ashamed because I know that I have hoarded that luck, for the most part — exploited it selfishly to my own advantage, rather than share it with those less fortunate than I. So, yes, I wholeheartedly agree that although luck per se is no cause for shame; on the other hand I think luck-hoarding is definitely grounds for embarrassment.
But even though I don’t enjoy feeling ashamed of myself, I also understand that I am a “work in progress”, so to speak, and in various ways, not the least of which is morally. And so however uncomfortable shame may feel while I’m feeling it, whenever I do feel it I try not to panic or overreact to it or to fight it; but rather I try to remain calm and to see it as a signal that I may have some moral growing to do, and to allow the shame to nudge me further along in the direction of moral maturity. I try to let my encounters with shame make me a better person.
So, on the one hand, shame feels unpleasant, yes, but on the other hand, I believe it can also lead to moral growth, so I see it as the sort of discomfort one must endure for good reasons.
Be that as it may, and after baking the topic quite thoroughly in my autistic “thought-furnace” for awhile, it also seems to me that privilege-shaming, like anything, can be done more or less effectively. And I would like to offer here a few observations and/or suggestions possibly (hopefully) leading to more effective privilege-shaming by practitioners:
- As I pointed out previously (above and in this first post on the topic), I think it’s critical to distinguish between luck-shaming, in which one person tries to make another person feel ashamed for having gotten lucky, and actual privilege-shaming, in which one person tries to make another feel ashamed for having selfishly hoarded some fundamentally lucky windfall for his or her own advantage.
- Make no mistake, privilege-shaming is effective. This is a potent word-weapon, and like any good weapon, it should probably be used with care, thought and maybe even some training.
- One aspect to point #2 is ethical, and much of ethics has to do with what one’s goals are. In particular, are they ultimately pro-social, or anti-social? When we privilege-shame somebody, we may do well to wonder whether are we sincerely offering the target the opportunity to grow morally, or whether we just trying to hurt the person. Goals matter in any ethical decision, and the same is true for the practice of privilege-shaming.
- It seems to me that privilege itself is always relative and contextual, and in various ways. There are white men, for example, who were born with Spina Bifida, and there are women of color who win enormous sums of money in lotteries. Also, some women of color have Spina Bifida, and some white men win enormous sums of money in lotteries.
- I suspect that those most needing to be privilege-shamed are also those least likely to benefit from it and grow morally. To the extent that this is true it suggests that much privilege-shaming is just wasted effort, and a perhaps an opportunity to find more effective techniques.
- Although I think shame can lead to moral growth, it appears that it doesn’t always do so. Shame is not an easy emotion for people to process, and for every one person who can benefit from its ability to stimulate moral growth, there are probably many who will go the opposite direction — who will just “double down” on their bad behavior and become even bigger moral rejects. Some of these might go to extreme lengths in this regard. For example, it really looks to me as though Donald Trump became President for no deeper reason than to avenge himself against the (hilarious, I believe) mocking he endured by former President Barack Obama during the 2011 correspondent’s dinner (see video below, starting shortly after minute 9:16), as evidenced by President Trump’s relentless attempts to undo all of the policies Obama implemented during his 8 years in office. Mr. Trump might have allowed his embarrassment to transform him into a better person, but instead, he became President, armed himself with nuclear weaponry, and now appears to be recklessly brandishing his power like a chimpanzee with a big stick.
- Regarding points #3 and #6, it occurs to me that the real objective of privilege-shaming may have nothing to do with moral growth. Rather it might be some sort of values test, or maybe an initiation ritual. If, for example, a woman of color privilege-shames me and I refuse to do any sort of privilege-check, if I become defensive and irate, then she knows it’s probably not a good idea to trust me. On the other hand, if I don’t react that way, if rather I accept the opportunity to check my privilege, then the woman may see me as a potential ally. To the extent that this is true, then it reveals a serious defect with privilege shaming, because it leaves the woman vulnerable to at least short-term deception by the target. Although it would probably be difficult for, say, an angry, white male white-supremacist to hide his true values in the long run, at least temporarily he might only pretend to privilege-check in order to trick the woman into trusting him.
I hope that’s all at least interesting and possibly useful in some way! Please let me know what you think.
And now, check out this C-SPAN video of the 2011 Correspondent’s Dinner, where President Obama mocked our current President Trump, giving him the opportunity to grow morally, which he seems to have rejected (the mocking starts shortly after minute 9:15):