Class Anxiety of Privilege Denied

There were yet more outraged upper middle class people at work last night. It’s not an isolated incident, working as I have in a parking ramp for the past two decades. I see all types and it’s not as if working class and minority people never get upset, but never quite so often or to the same degree.

This particular couple was so angry that, if it were a cartoon, steam would have been blowing out their ears. They were screaming and honking their horn. They got out of their car a couple of times. I was starting to fear violence and made sure the doors were locked to my booth. It goes without saying that I don’t normally fear for my life while cashiering.

Fortunately, several large muscular police (all of them white) showed up and set these people straight. It’s nice when the police have your back, as a fellow city government employee. It might help that I’m a white guy and so, even as working class, I get some amount of privilege. I’d probably be more worried if I wasn’t white, as there is a history of systemic racism in this town (one of the highest racial disparities of drug arrests in the country; not to mention the last time a well off white guy started a fight with a poor black guy, it was the poor black guy defending himself that the police shot — see below*).

This couple was yelling at me not just because of some abstract notion of privilege, as so much about our society promotes that sense of privilege with concrete results. No doubt they are used to telling people what to do and getting their way. It’s at such times that I’m glad I’m unionized because I have no doubt they will contact my boss and try to get me fired (this is why every worker should be a union member and every workplace should be unionized). What they don’t understand, in their privilege, is that I don’t back down from rich assholes. Then again, neither do I treat anyone differently no matter their socioeconomic class. If someone is nice to me, I’ll do my best to be nice to them. I didn’t care that they have privilege in our society, not in and of itself or not anymore than privilege in general bothers me, but I do care that they flaunted their privilege in trying to intimidate me into submission.

After the incident, I was thinking about why they were so angry. I hadn’t seen anyone that angry in a long time. Even most upper middle class white people are perfectly fine. I rarely have trouble with any customers. Still, why is it that when there is conflict it disproportionately involves those with privilege? What does privilege mean in a high inequality society such as the United States? People like this are among the few who are socially, economically, and politically secure in American society. They have few worries. Paying the 23 bucks for a lost ticket is nothing to them (filling the gas tank of their SUV would cost far more than that). But being treated like a normal person felt like a threat to their entire sense of reality. And indeed it was a threat because without entitlement their identity of superiority can’t be maintained. Probably at stake, in their minds, was the very social order and their place within it.

Few poor minorities would dare to escalate a situation to that level. That is because they have proper respect for the police showing up. This couple, however, had no concept that any and all authority figures wouldn’t automatically take their side no matter what. And they knew that no matter how much trouble they caused the police were unlikely to shoot them or arrest them, as they might do to a poor minority. I intellectually understand that. Yet what really is at the bottom of that fuming outrage? It’s such a strange thing to observe. And I don’t even take it personally. From my view, they really are no different than any other customer. As a unionized government employee, I take it all in stride because I’ve seen it all before. It’s just another day on the job.

I considered the possibility that they had a really bad day for a thousand different possible reasons. Or maybe they had been drinking. But that doesn’t really explain anything. Unhappy drunks and unhappy people in general are as common as they come. Most people, no matter what is going on in their life and no matter their state of mind, don’t have public tantrums that lead to altercations with the police. It was plain weird. I could sense how shocked, flabbergasted they were that they couldn’t get me to do what they told me to do. I do what my employer tells me to do, not what a rich asshole tells me to do. That is how capitalism works. Now if my employer were a rich asshole, that would be a different situation.

This reminds me of Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder. He explains how high inequality stresses out everyone, including the rich. It creates a social condition of pervasive anxiety, divisiveness, conflict, aggressiveness, short-term thinking, etc. That last one applies here, since it wasn’t only anger but an inability to think of consequences. That couple was completely lost in the all-consuming moment of blind rage to the point of an apoplectic fit. I’d argue that their behavior was morally wrong, at least according to standards of basic humanity, but more than anything their behavior was supremely stupid. That is a point Payne makes, how as inequality worsens so does decision-making ability.

What stands out is that such relatively wealthy people would argue over such a small sum of money, as if they were poor people and I was trying to take away their last dollar. Payne explains this, in demonstrating how people feel poor and act poorly in a high inequality society, even when no poor person is involved in any given situation. The sense of class conflict and status insecurity is a shadow that looms over the lives of us all, rich and poor alike.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to inequality or rather not only to socioeconomic inequality, as there are many forms of disparity between individuals and groups. Any stressor will have similar consequences, but few stressors are likely to have much impact without one kind of inequality or another already being present. It is the differences and divides of inequality that transforms an individual stressor into large-scale and pervasive social stress. This among much else, as Payne explains, leads to the clinging of social identity — from race to politics, but often class. And that is how we come to see our neighbors and fellow citizens as potential threats, as enemy others to be fought and defeated or to go down trying.

In such a state of anxiety and fear, every incident can become a perceived existential threat. But the seeming point of contention focused upon, whether a ramp charge or a political argument, is rarely if ever the real issue. What matters most is how this cuts to the heart of identity and, in these reactionary times, turns the mind toward the reactionary — it not being all that relevant what is being reacted to. Lots of heat, little light.

* * *

The Broken Ladder
by Keith Payne
pp. 2-4 (see earlier post)

As they discovered, the odds of an air rage incident were almost four times higher in the coach section of a plane with a first-class cabin than in a plane that did not have one. Other factors mattered, too, like flight delays. But the presence of a first-class section raised the chances of a disturbance by the same amount as a nine-and-a-half-hour delay.

To test the idea another way, the researchers looked at how the boarding process highlights status differences. Most planes with a first-class cabin board at the front, which forces the coach passengers to trudge down the aisle, dragging their baggage past the well-heeled and the already comfortably seated. But about 15 percent of flights board in the middle or at the back of the plane, which spares the coach passengers this gauntlet. As predicted, air rage was about twice as likely on flights that boarded at the front, raising the chances of an incident by the same amount as waiting out a six-hour delay.

This air rage study is revealing, but not just because it illustrates how inequality drives wedges between the haves and the have-nots. What makes it fascinating to me is that incidents of rage take place even when there are no true have-nots on a flightSince an average economy-class ticket costs several hundred dollars, few genuinely poor people can afford to travel on a modern commercial airplane. Yet even relative differences among the respectable middle-class people flying coach can create conflict and chaos. In fact, the chaos is not limited to coach: First-class flyers in the study were several times more likely to erupt in air rage when they were brought up close and personal with the rabble on front-loading planes. As Ivana Trump’s behavior can attest, when the level of inequality becomes too large to ignore, everyone starts acting strange.

But they do not act strange in just any old way. Inequality affects our actions and our feelings in the same systematic, predictable fashion again and again. It makes us shortsighted and prone to risky behavior, willing to sacrifice a secure future for immediate gratification. It makes us more inclined to make self-defeating decisions. It makes us believe weird things, superstitiously clinging to the world as we want it to be rather than as it is. Inequality divides us, cleaving us into camps not only of income but also of ideology and race, eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all less healthy and less happy.

Picture a neighborhood full of people like the ones I’ve described above: shortsighted, irresponsible people making bad choices; mistrustful people segregated by race and by ideology; superstitious people who won’t listen to reason; people who turn to self-destructive habits as they cope with the stress and anxieties of their daily lives. These are the classic tropes of poverty and could serve as a stereotypical description of the population of any poor inner-city neighborhood or depressed rural trailer park. But as we will see in the chapters ahead, inequality can produce these tendencies even among the middle class and wealthy individuals.

What is also notable about the air rage study is that it illustrates that inequality is not the same as poverty, although it can feel an awful lot like it. That phenomenon is the subject of this book. Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not. Inequality so mimics poverty in our minds that the United States of America, the richest and most unequal of countries, has a lot of features that better resemble a developing nation than a superpower.

* * *

*Let me note one thing, for sake of fairness.

Even with the proven history of racial bias around here, I have to admit that in my personal experience the Iowa City Police are quite professional. Blacks living here very well might have different experience than my own, of course. All I can say is that I’ve observed no police bias, racial or class, in my years as a city employee. Maybe the police are more careful these days about biases, as it does seem they’ve sought to increase diversity of officers.

They dealt with this white upper middle class couple with a calm but firm authority, effectively de-escalating the situation. But I’ve seen them do the exact same thing with a black guy in my cashier lane some years ago. In neither case, did they threaten the customer nor did they have to resort to arresting them. The police here don’t seem to look for trouble, even when the problematic individual is looking for trouble.

I wanted to give credit where it is due. The police handled the situation well. Of the times police have showed up when I was dealing with a customer, I can only think of one time where the officer in question was less than helpful. It’s nice to be able to expect a professional response from the police, considering that evidence implies that isn’t always the case with police departments in some other cities.

Inequality Divides, Privilege Disconnects

Privilege is a tough subject. For most people, there are always plenty of others who are both more privileged and less privileged. Still, nuance and complexity isn’t how we tend to think about such things. It depends, as always, on what we focus upon and what we ignore—this typically being shaped by unconscious biases.

We don’t objectively compare ourselves to the larger social reality. And we don’t base our perceptions on intricate demographic data and comprehensive surveys. What we usually do is create a sense of our place in the world through personal anecdotes and vague media-filtered experience, through narrative frames and political rhetoric. This causes us to compare ourselves to the distorted and often fictionalized narratives portrayed in MSM news reporting and Hollywood movies—not to mention the influence of now near endless political campaigning and the subtle class war rhetoric that is drilled into our psyches. Besides that, it is human nature to focus on and, when possible, aspire toward what is above us. Even the wealthy will look with envy at the even wealthier. This is exaggerated in a high inequality society, where the gap between the rich and super-rich is as vast as the gap between the upper classes and all the rest, and such gaps continue to grow ever more vast. Only those near the bottom might bother to spend much time looking down upon those below them in the social pecking order, whether the differences are real (class) or perceived (race).

I’ve pointed out how this plays out for liberals—the privilege of the liberal class, the bias and benefits inherent to greater wealth and status, opportunities and resources. The liberal demographic is among the most economically well off and well educated. And, related to this, the wealthier of any demographic (race, ideology, etc) the more liberal people tend to be, often both in terms of social liberalism and classical liberal economics. It’s not only about those who self-identify as liberals. A similar pattern is found among libertarians and other right-wingers, from objectivists to anarcho-capitalists. It’s true of the Republican political elite and activists, the conservative pundits and think tank intellectuals, the business managerial class and inherited old wealth. But it’s also true of most people on the far political left: Marxists, anarcho-syndicalists, feminists, etc. Even the typical minority activist and politician is going to be far above average in wealth and education. To hold and defend any particular ideology or identity politics largely depends on a privileged status in society. It takes a lot of time, energy, and resources to commit to such activities—especially if one makes a career out of it. The poor, whether working or unemployed, whether white or minority, don’t have this kind of luxury.

There is an odd dynamic here. The middle-to-upper class are more ‘liberal’ in many ways, including for those on the political right. Those far down the economic scale are less concerned about defending liberalism in any of its forms, whether leftist standard liberalism or right-wing classical liberalism. In Western countries, even radical left-wingers who often are critical of ‘liberalism’ are more culturally liberal than the poor. On the other hand, the lower classes (i.e., the majority of the population) are more liberal/leftist in concrete ways than the political elite that claims to represent them—supporting: higher taxation of the rich and corporations, stronger social safety net, more effective regulations, less wars of aggression and military adventurism, etc. The supposed conservatism of the lower class majority is primarily symbolic, not necessarily based on specific political principles and policies. But it could be seen as genuinely conservative in the lower class’ demand for more emphasis on social capital and culture of trust, family and community—the very things that are undermined by upper class politics and economics, especially neoliberalism. Anyway, it’s a class divide more than an ideological divide, as the differences between partisan/ideological elites is negligible in terms of practical politics and actual results.

The main thing, anyway, is that there are these fundamental divides in our society. They lead to endless disconnections and conflicts. Our thoughts are distorted and our vision narrowed, causing endless confusion and misunderstanding. This is why privilege is so hard to see and understand. We rarely ever get the sense of the full context of our lives. This has worsened because of the segregation of not just ghettos, housing projects, and rural isolation but also of suburbs, walled communities, and gentrified neighborhoods. Physical distance leads to psychological distance.

Obviously, it’s not just about the hypocrisy of self-identified liberals living comfortable lives, even though their example is egregious based on the politics they outwardly support. This is a collective failure, not just of the dominant liberal order of post-Enlightenment society, or rather at this point we are all liberals complicit in this failure, even those who spend their lives complaining about liberalism and blaming liberals. Hypocritical liberals simply make explicit what is implicit to the world we live in. Even poor Westerners are part of the problems involved in a long history of imperialism, colonialism, genocide, slavery, exploitation, etc. Living in the West, we are all legacy beneficiaries of immense crimes against humanity in the past but also continuing into the present. This is particularly true of a country like the US, for being a subject of an empire has its advantages even for the poorest of subjects, not that it’s all that great of a fate even though there are worst fates.

As a liberal, much of my focus has been on other liberals. But I want to clarify this. There is a reason I identify as a liberal. It’s because of, not in spite of, my criticisms. According to my most utopian ideals and futuristic visions, I could identify as a left-libertarian, anarcho-syndicalist, democratic-socialist, etc. I could grab hold of some ideology as a way of distancing myself from liberalism. I don’t want to do that. Instead, I want to emphasize that I’m complicit in all that goes on in this society. I don’t want to merely stand back from it all or worse still pretend I’m above it all. That is what irritates me about many left-wingers. It’s true that left-wing politics has little overt power in the world today, certainly not in the United States. But I think it’s a cop-out for left-wingers to play intellectual games with detached righteousness, lost in their highfalutin abstruse historical and economic analyses, as if they aren’t stuck down in the sewers covered with shit like the rest of us.

Joe Bageant was a Marxist and considered himself far left of the far left, but he never forgot his roots in poor white Appalachia. He complained about liberalism and yet at times admitted he was a liberal of sorts—worse still, an educated liberal and an old hippie at that. He was trying to make his voice heard from within the belly of the beast, not observing the beast’s behavior as if a zoologist studying from afar. From the opposite end of the class spectrum, there was someone like Theodore Roosevelt. His class solidarity apparently was a bit lacking, as he didn’t espouse an ideology for the wealthy and business interests. He took socialists seriously, in that he argued they made some valid points. Unlike many mainstream partisans today reacting to the supporters of Sanders and Trump, TR didn’t just dismiss the perceived radicals as loud-mouthed rabble-rousers and malcontents. He argued that many socialists were simply social reformers, not utopian ideologues, and that the issues they brought up should be taken seriously—it being better to allow genuine reform if it prevents violent revolution. Both Bageant and Roosevelt were making the simple point that we should listen to those making complaints and try to understand where they are coming from—i.e., don’t shoot the messenger.

Here is what has been on my mind, a specific demographic that is some combination of middle-to-upper class, well educated, professional, and mostly white. Out of this demographic comes the politicians and activists, community organizers and social workers, intellectuals and academics, writers and artists, musicians and actors, journalists and reporters, etc. Despite being a minority of the population, they have greater power to be heard and influence than all of the rest of the population combined. They are, of course, more economically secure and comfortable than most of the population, along with greater opportunity for economic mobility. They particularly dominate the political and media spheres and so they determine the terms of public debate and controlling the framing of issues and narratives. These are the people who are most invested in the system and likewise benefit the most from the system, but they aren’t the people who experience the greatest harm from and costs of the system.

These are the privileged. These are the people who have the most insulated lives. They either don’t see or don’t understand many of the divides in our society. Certainly, they have little experience of those who live on the other side of those divides. They argue among themselves within a narrow frame of interests and ideas. Even the supposed radicals among them are safely contained within the dominant paradigm. Yet fissures are beginning to form in their walled reality. And the voices from outside are beginning to be heard. This disturbs their comfortable lives and puts them in an irritable mood. They realize their position in the social order is being threatened.

Even so, I don’t get the sense that most of these middle-to-upper class gentlefolk realize how bad it’s gotten for the majority of the population. Some do get it, but many more don’t. When I hear the criticisms of the supporters of Sanders and Trump, it becomes obvious that these critics are oblivious to the point of utter cluelessness. It’s not just economic problems getting worse: increasing poverty among the disadvantaged and growing inequality across society, higher rates of unemployment and underemployment (permanent unemployment no longer even being measured), the falling behind other developed countries in economic mobility along with the size and wealth of the middle class, stagnating or falling real wages and buying power, etc. It’s also a worsening of rates of mental health issues, suicide and other mortality causes, delayed marriage and divorce—and the destruction of all that held the social fabric together: deteriorating tight-knit farming communities and factory towns based on strong local economies, loss of high membership rates in labor unions and civic organizations, undermining of culture of trust and civic participation, weakening of democratic process and representation, disempowerment and disenfranchisement and demoralization of the lower classes, economic segregation and isolation, underfunding of schools and libraries and infrastructure and public services, and so much else.

This isn’t directly impacting most of the people the comfortable middle-to-upper classes. They usually don’t even see it’s impact on others, except occasional reports about it in the news media and occasional portrayals of it in the entertainment media. But even then, no real sense of what it means for those suffering and struggling. When they dismiss demands for reform from those below them, what they don’t understand is that these aren’t unreasonable requests. Those at the bottom of society don’t have the luxury to wait for slowly implemented moderate reforms. The system is broken. For the worst off, this at times can be a life or death situation. Some people are barely hanging on, at the end of their rope. As the economy worsens and the divides widen, desperation gets pushed to the breaking point with the inevitable result of soaring rates of mental health issues and suicides. Push it far enough and you will see even far worse consequences for all of society. The presently comfortable might find themselves increasingly uncomfortable, if they continue to ignore the victims of these oppressive problems. It’s not wise, much less moral and compassionate, to dismiss the pleas of the desperate.

* * *

The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness

The Desperate Acting Desperately

Trends in Depression and Suicide Rates

From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations

Republicans: Party of Despair

Rate And Duration of Despair

To Not Feel, To Not Care, To Not Know

This relationship of racism and lack of empathy is sad beyond comprehension. Talk about empathy isn’t just a philosophical debate or an academic exercise. White privilege is a very real thing with real impact on real people in the real world.

One of the benefits for whites of white privilege is that people, both whites and blacks, not only take your pain more seriously but they perceive it as being greater and more real than the pain felt by blacks. Racial prejudice is internalized and becomes unconscious. It’s just there, hidden and below the surface, but the effects are real and the consequences are great

This probably relates to why jurors, both white and black, punish blacks more harshly than whites for the exact same crimes. To say someone doesn’t feel pain strongly is to imply that they are less human, less worthy. Scientists used to do dissect living and conscious animals because they believed animals didn’t feel pain.

Empathy and the lack thereof is the core issue upon which so much else pivots.

Here is the article that brought so much sadness to my thoughts:

I Don’t Feel Your Pain
A failure of empathy perpetuates racial disparities.
By Jason Silverstein
From Slate.com

Read that article and then read a post I wrote last year:

Republicans: Party of Despair

Considering conservatives have been shown to have a less inclusive sense of empathy, is it surprising what results from when they gain political power? Or to return to the issue of white privilege, which party in recent generations has fought against civil rights and racial equality? Also, might empathy inequality be at the core of economic inequality?

It reminds me of something said by Tim Wise (see the video at the end of my post, Knowledge Doesn’t Matter). What white privilege ultimately allows is for one to be ignorant of privilege itself. It isn’t just about not feeling and not caring. It is about not even knowing, ignorance of even one’s ignorance. Complete blindness and numbness, no voice to be heard, as if the uncomfortable reality didn’t exist. Like the three monkeys with hands over ears, eyes and mouth.