Perspective and riches

Sometimes working in the arts can be quite disorienting, especially in terms of what comes out of the mouths of colleagues. For example, a close friend was in rehearsal and an ensemble member, having spent the first hour staring at her, suddenly demanded: 

“Are those real diamonds [pointing at a simple crystal strand bought at H&M]?” 

“What?! These?! No.”

“Oh, okay. I was trying to figure out how rich you are.” 

There were so many things wrong with this actual exchange that it is hard to know where to start. The main, collective reaction was: “Who openly admits to sitting there thinking things like that?” The episode embarrassed everyone except the person who asked the offensive question. Aside from the immediate disruptive effect it had, the incident was indicative of a greater socio-cultural problem, a shameless voyeurism that, while not new, has reached a fevered pitch today.

While one could easily say that reality TV and Instagram are primary causes, there are plenty of examples which predate these media, most memorably Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and its prescient view of tabloid and celebrity culture. What is new, though, is the idea that the envious and their curiosity have any legitimacy. We have come from Flaubert’s view that Emma Bovary was a colossal idiot to articles published by the BBC lamenting “invisible poverty.” The BBC writer’s examples of “invisible poverty” were an inability to afford “posh coffee,” a qualifier which he declined to define, and neighbors wondering if a “nice car” was bought on auto loan or owned outright. Like the question about diamonds, not only should such matters be outside the concern of others, to think that they are appropriate, or even a valid source of social strife, is disgusting and disturbing. 

In his book Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell complained about being sent to Eton, where he spent his school years feeling as though everyone around him had more material wealth. The essence of his lament was that he wished his parents had sent him to a small grammar school where he could have been the richest student. He also claimed, in a wild generalization, that his feelings on the matter were universal through the British upper-middle class. Further, he said that it was his time in secondary school, not as commonly claimed his time as a civil servant, which fueled his turn toward Marxism, following the traditional logic of grabbers – “they have so much and therefore can spare some for me.” 

The most baffling part for Orwell was the way that the upper-middle class, which included his family, was willing to move to far-flung corners of the globe and live in conditions the lowest British laborer would not accept in exchange for educational opportunity for their children and a high-status, reasonably wealthy retirement for themselves. For a comprehensive analysis of the phenomenon of self-sacrifice, its role in the development of capitalism, and why only the century upper- and upper-middle classes were the ones willing to make such exchanges, see Niall Ferguson’s Colossus

It is important today for us to become more critical regarding complaints about society and anecdotes that are presented as proof regarding unfair societal mechanisms that prevent social mobility. An example of the reason we must be careful is art recent article published by written by a Cambridge undergraduate for The Guardian, who identifying as working class and having many problems along those lines, cited as her biggest complaint the Cambridge Winter Ball. Her problem was not that she hasn’t been able to attend, but that she had had to work for an hour in order to get into the Ball for free. This is a questionable example of social immobility. Her complaint about the Ball was that there were others who could pay the £100 entrance fee upfront. From this, she assumed a level of privilege that might not necessarily exist, i.e. “the other students could part with 100 pounds.” 

Another example of failure to understand the availability of resources and extrapolating a false conclusion of social immobility is the Columbia University FLiP (First-generation, Low-income People) Facebook page, which was, through 2018, their primary platform. In response to Columbia University’s study on their first-generation low-income population, many of the complaints related to books and the libraries. FLiP students didn’t know that books were available in the library, and so they had purchased study materials while their “wealthier” peers simply borrowed the library copy or spent the necessary number of hours in the library working. Ironically, this complaint is not valid if you also consider that Columbia does an immersive orientation in which new students are taken into the libraries and are shown the basics of the book search system, card operations, checkout procedure, etc. In response to the publicity surround the FLiP drive[1] the university opened a special library for these people where there is no official checkout; all loans are on the honor system. On a hilarious side note, in the middle ages libraries would chain books to lecterns to keep the students from walking away with them.

While we may have moved away from a society that encouraged living modestly to avoid arousing the envy of one’s neighbors, we now live in a culture in which our neighbors’ jealousy is too easily aroused. Chaos is the natural resting state of existence, but people have lost the ability to construct order for themselves out of it. It is possible to argue that modern people have not been taught to do so; after all, no one comes into the world knowing the underlying skills that are the foundation of the “invisible poor” complaints, e.g. social interactions, sartorial taste, self-sacrifice, etc. To tell the truth, mankind’s natural state is closer to the savages of the middle ages whose covetous inclinations necessitated the chaining of library books. On the one hand, we have progressed tremendously past such behavior and in doing so created order from chaos; but on the other hand, the external signs of progress are now under fire as symbols of privilege. Chillingly, the anti-civilization narrative, because that is ultimately what it is, is being incorporated into an anti-capitalist agenda through the conflation of “civilized” with “privileged,” which in turn is conflated with “rich.” 


[1] It is also revealing that the sign off for these people while the drive lasted was FLiP [school name]. Yes, one must wonder if even the acronym was picked for its stunning vulgarity. 

Bourgeois III: Values in real-life

Today, there is a rising commercialization, a commodification of the character traits of the bourgeois. This in turn is leading toward a worldview in which bourgeois behavior is a “privilege,” instead of simply being an expectation of a civilized society. As part of such a change, the bourgeois, the real middle-class as exemplified by a set of genuine values and behaviors, not just income or the terrible Marxist clichés from authors such as Christina Stead (The Man Who Loved Children), have moved from being the group of idealized role-models to being portrayed as a slightly deviant clique. Now, words such as “censorious,” “sanctimonious,” “privileged [again],” “hectoring,” and “judgmental” are routinely thrown around concerning those of bourgeois persuasion by pundits and the commentariat on both sides of the political aisle.  

In 1960, psychologist Dr. Walter Mischel led the famous (or infamous depending on social leanings) marshmallow experiment. A young child, observed by researchers and parent(s), was left alone in a room deliberately devoid of stimulation outside of a candy marshmallow. The researcher who took the child into the room would tell the child he/she could eat the marshmallow but would promise a gift of two marshmallows if upon the adult’s return two minutes later, the original piece of candy was uneaten. Needless to say, once the researcher left the room, the majority of children promptly ate the thing. 

Mischel checked on them when they were teenagers and then located a smaller segment when they were almost 50 – those who had displayed deferred gratification had more successful lives than those who had gobbled the first marshmallow. Starting in 1990, when Mischel published the results of both the original test and the teenage checkup and revealed that those with self-control had achieved higher SAT scores and therefore received admission into the best universities, his work came under fire from the social justice coterie. The reason was that the results were an indictment of the difference in the parenting style of the majority, i.e. the single marshmallow gobblers, and the disciplined minority. In a logical world, the results should be cause for celebration because the two-marshmallow children came neither from a racially homogenous group nor from elite backgrounds, though the fact that the majority had one professional parent has formed a large part of “but the experiment is socially discriminatory” argument. 

The crux of the rejection is the evidence that the two-marshmallow children entered the experiment room having already learned self-control from their parents, while the candy wolfers had not. In an attempt to debunk Mischel’s study, a group of psychological researchers redid the experiment, publishing the results in 2018, with a larger sample and a thorough study of the home environments of the subjects. Instead discrediting Mischel, the second study upheld the macro principles of his work; those who did best on the “new and improved” version were children who came from homes with large numbers of books and had very attentive, responsive parents. In other words, two-marshmallow children came from a different type of family than was, or is, standard. Crucially, the study found that the culturally impoverished, those with money and possibly advanced degrees but no books, did not do significantly better than those from financial poverty, with both groups producing marshmallow snatchers. On an interesting side note on the book divide, parental attention did not seem to make much of a difference, though it is possible that this is because the book-readers were also the better parents – the language is a little ambiguous on this point. 

The Atlantic, for example, more or less gloated that Mischel and co.’s unconscious snobbishness had finally been unmasked to the world:

There’s plenty of other research that sheds further light on the class dimension of the marshmallow test. The Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and the Princeton behavioral scientist Eldar Shafir wrote a book in 2013, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, that detailed how poverty can lead people to opt for short-term rather than long-term rewards; the state of not having enough can change the way people think about what’s available now. In other words, a second marshmallow seems irrelevant when a child has reason to believe that the first one might vanish. [….]

These findings point to the idea that poorer parents try to indulge their kids when they can, while more-affluent parents tend to make their kids wait for bigger rewards. Hair dye and sweet treats might seem frivolous, but purchases like these are often the only indulgences poor families can afford. And for poor children, indulging in a small bit of joy today can make life feel more bearable, especially when there’s no guarantee of more joy tomorrow.

It is important to note that Mischel’s critics completely distorted his findings. At no point did he claim one group was superior to the other in any sense. Nor, did he claim, as is often misrepresented, that “character was everything.” These were all things impugned to him by opponents. All he did was prove that patience and self-restraint at age five (the approximate age of his subjects) tended to translate into disciplined, high-achieving high school students.[1]

The real rub of the marshmallow test is that it forced recognition of the fact that different child-rearing methods convey value sets, and that these values can be a determining factor in success or failure. They have the potential to translate into material, cultural, and social capital, or to reveal the lack of these things to the world. To make things worse, from a social justice standpoint, the experiments appear to demonstrate that values of the upper echelons are better because they have consistently produced the same results. 

The excuse-seeking used by The Atlantic author, such as hair dye and sweets, is recognizable to anyone who has read George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier because the logic’s template is his chapter on the dietary habits of the northern English working-class in the 1930s. What isn’t shown is Orwell’s own honesty. While he gave his subjects a pass on spending eight pounds[2] on sugar, as the only affordable indulgence, he excoriated them for spending on tinned corn beef and dried milk when fresh meat and dairy was both readily available and were much, much cheaper. For him, it was one of the little ironies in the social fabric that the middle-class, who preferred fresh products, lived cheaper and better than the working-class, whom he suspected bought canned meat and desiccated milk out of some misplaced notion that this was what the middle-class ate exactly because cans and boxes were more expensive.     

In his book The Wealth of Humans: Work and Its Absence in the Twenty-First Century, journalist-economist Ryan Avent wrote on the subject of social capital:

Wealth has always been sociable. The long process of cultural development that eventually yielded the industrial revolution was in many ways the process by which humanity learned ever better ways of structuring society in order to foster the emergence of complex economic activity. Wealth creation in rich economies is nurtured by a complex system of legal institutions (such as property rights and the courts that uphold them), economic networks (such as fast and efficient transportation and access to scientific communities and capital markets) and culture (such as conceptions of the ‘good life’, respect for the law, and the status accorded to those who work hard and become rich). No individual can take credit for this system; it was built and is maintained by society.

Avent is absolutely correct, especially in terms of this as the essence of a capitalist society. To return to the marshmallow test and its subjects, if one divides society into snatchers and waiters and then looks at Avent’s behavioral traits, such as “respect for the law,” or values – “property rights” – one immediately sees that one of the two groups is going to fare much better than the other. This is not because one group is inherently superior to the other; no, the difference is that one group received the value system, and therefore social capital, necessary to function acceptably in a capitalist system. The other did not. 

Training the values to be functional in a capitalist system has nothing to do with society at large, and everything to do with the family. That said, society does play a role in terms of upholding bourgeois values, but modern American society has, as previously indicated, not only disincentivized such values but has come to stigmatize them as unacceptable. Up next: examples of the bourgeois family!  


[1]Officially, he has not directly published the results of his check up with the available subjects at age 49; however, the APA report, hyperlinked above, indicates that the two-marshmallow children honored their potential and became successful, fulfilled adults. 

[2]He either observed that they spent eight pounds money, or that they bought eight pounds in weight; he was not clear in his wording.

Nightcap

  1. Anti-communism as bad faith Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  2. Thinking about privilege Arnold Kling, askblog
  3. The dancing plague of 1518 Ned Pennant-Rea, Public Domain Review
  4. Are things getting better or worse? Branko Milanovic (interview), New Yorker

An Alternative to the Presiding Theory of Privilege

Recently, debate about systemic privilege has been omnipresent, as fodder for political campaigning and millennial-dominated critique of culture. Peggy McIntosh first wrote about white privilege in a checklist that ultimately offered representation as privilege, e.g., if you can open a newspaper and see your race, if you learn about your civilization in the history books, etc. This classification has mostly been lost to simplifications that pervert its sensible message. Everydayfeminism, one source of modern dogma in line with women’s studies courses, defines privilege as a “set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group.” This transliteration is still an interesting exercise in understanding social dynamics and has general applicability; however, when applied to issues such as the gender pay gap (whether the figure is the oft-cited 79%, 93%, lower or higher), often for a privilege of this categorization to be genuinely manifested every single individual involved has to be knowingly sexist, including the victim of the unlevel playing field.

For an example: Joanna is a secretary at a large business firm. She discovers her coworker Jim gets a larger paycheck for the exact same job, and they both take equal days off. She learns she is making $.79 to his one dollar. The federal Equal Pay Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act make this illegal. Now, for Jim’s male privilege (the unearned benefit of larger pay) to continue:

  1. Joanna has to not report it to her boss or the authorities
  2. Jim has to not report it to his boss or the authorities
  3. Her boss has to stay intentionally sexist and not correct the disparity

Only if all of these conditions are met will the situation remain unrectified. This workplace privilege, built by a narrative that pay is different for the exact same job, relies on intentional sexism or surrender of all parties — it loses sight of subtlety completely. The current privilege hypothesis is also not very useful because different groups receive de facto and de jure benefits in different circumstances — no single sexual, racial or gendered group dominates every aspect of hierarchy, though certainly a specific Caucasian demographic dominates most of it. The hypothesis is primitive in this sense, and it is also imprecise in that, because of political correctness, it entirely misses a vital part of the nature of “privilege,” more on that later.

Perhaps in recognition of the failures of this undeveloped adaptation, some modern feminist writers have employed the 1990’s idea of kyriarchy that more adequately describes the modality of experience through position in stratified society. Elisabeth Schüssler Florenza’s kyriarchal system sought to analyze layers of objective privilege overlapped in social milieu. Yet although all feminists cite privilege as an everyday occurrence, the few social justice warriors that have heard of kyriarchy can rarely be relied on to understand its nuanced applicability, and fewer still can appreciate the algorithmic complexity to determine actual systems of privilege. It has been simplified, again, into white, black, male, female, cis- and transgender, and so on. Intersectional feminism — a linguistic attempt to avoid the egalitarian label — still alleges an all-encompassing subordination, and then seeks to recognize exchanges throughout other identity types that further enforce the oppression. This ideological branch could have been one of legitimate merit, except that again its white- and androcentric view of privilege, though broadly qualifiable, disallows universal theorizing. (Producing wildly contingent knowledge.) The system lacks usefulness because its analysis, as interpreted by modern feminists, is embedded into its definition. Abstract discussion of privilege is unachievable.

Talking about privilege with intent to reach further conclusions is not only impossible, but it also feels like a competition just because of self-loathing and thoroughly brainwashed contributions from both sides of the debate. Moving past the caricatures of race, gender, sex or wealth: the only group that suffers on every single front is the physically or mentally disabled, and their representation is horribly lacking, their image pitied, and advocates are few and far compared to organizations for other identities. However, if you want to be completely astute, the only group of people not privileged is those that are not customarily good-looking. It’s the conventionally attractive or wealthy people that harness power, when its not built on pure work, inheritance or entrepreneurialism. Charisma is a part of this. People that are typically thought of as ugly never get the advantage and people of orthodox beauty standards often dominate the masses.  This conclusion can be arrived at from pure observance, and holds more empirical strength than the speculative nature of current privilege theory that consistently ignores the concept of individual cases.

Privilege is underdetermined by beauty and humans, per contemporary psychological knowledge, divine facial attractiveness from symmetry. Plato thought that we find things beautiful when we infer virtues from gazing upon them: bridges can summon feelings of strength; sunsets, of harmony; our souls recognize our own need for these stabilities. It isn’t remarkable that humans find symmetry beautiful and then ergonomically categorize faces into attractive and unattractive. (Nor does it mean, however, that asymmetric faces are not beautiful. Aesthetics would reveal more truths in this topic.) Applying this idea collapses the perceived white hegemony, as beautiful people from any walk of life are flocked to from the average-looking majority. Beauty is power like sex is power. When privilege is observed it will be rarely be in the hands of the unattractive.

To extrapolate with the question of the largest burden of oppression and privilege: Where does racism actually come from? It’s irrational, typically xenophobic, and ubiquitous across the continents, as well as millennia old. This theory could be interpreted to suggest that racists hold unreasonable views about other skin colors and ethnicities because of a lack of physical attraction, which coincides with an inability to relate familially and romantically. Systematic racial disparity and racist paradigms would then be caused by hyper-localized, non-diverse beauty standards. It could also be deducted that those of the natural default (without racist tendencies) are capable of nondiscriminatory and cosmopolitan attraction. Now here we see a definite connection between sexuality and bigotry, two contingents only meaninglessly juxtaposed by the mainstream privilege theory.

In conclusion, instead of challenging the conjecture of authoritative gendered dominion, progressives and activists could more benefit from challenging society’s standard of beauty. The standard that tells equally men and women what is and isn’t desirable. The advantages of injecting truth into the politics of self-worth are critical for a society concerned with honest evaluation and individual progress. The individual’s own conception of self-beauty is usually either bolstered by inflated confidence or hampered by poor self-image and has no overlap with how objectively beautiful they are, beauty that is uninvolved from ethnicity, sex or gender.

A note: I imagine myself to be, and from my life opportunities it would seem I am, decently attractive, so in either conviction of privilege I’m decently privileged, as a young white male or as a decently attractive person. Hopefully this grants more credibility to my writing, as if I was unattractive, it would probably come off as tormented and envious. Fortunately I have the chutzpah to stand on the line and propound these ideas regardless. Measures should be taken to highlight the identity group that will forever go without privilege or authority: the ugly people.

What is social justice?

Since only individuals act, only individual actions can be judged.  Groups, governments, corporations, etc. are not acting entities and therefore cannot be judged.  The individuals who act under the aegis of such groups can, of course, be judged.  So what could social justice possibly mean?

Along comes the redoubtable Wendy McElroy with an answer.  It is “forced distribution of ‘privileges’ across society with an emphasis on providing wealth and opportunity to classes of people who are considered to be disadvantaged.”  It matters not whether a particular set of circumstances is the result of voluntary interactions.  Individuals who are female, have dark skin, low income, etc. qualify automatically as victims.  Examples of redress include affirmative action and progressive taxation.

Enough from me.  Please go read Wendy’s post.