So Yesterday

Awhile back I received an email from a college teacher using one of my books, The Gender Knot, in her class. She mentioned a disagreement among her students about whether my account of male privilege still holds true. One of the students settled the argument by flipping to the front of the book where the copyright date is found and pointing out that, well, there it is, the thing is eight years old.

That was easy.

Apparently, there is a ‘believe until’ date on descriptions of reality, or at least ones we’d like to see go away. And social systems can change almost as fast as Apple puts out a new iPhone, except, unlike Apple, no one has to actually do anything to make it happen. I don’t know exactly how many years it takes for a book to lose its credibility, but for some readers it is shorter than the average length of time that people own a car.

Sometimes I hear from a student who wants me to know that however bad things may have been for my generation, things are different now. That was then and the new generation has left all that behind.

There is change, of course, and there is good research showing that most of it happens between generations, but the idea that we can go from up-to-your-necks to past-all-that in the space of a few decades, not to mention years, is something else.

What might account for such sudden and dramatic change the student does not say, as if it somehow explains itself. It’s not that I don’t get it. When I think back to being nineteen or so, I don’t think it occurred to me that my generation might have been a continuation of anything remotely connected to that of our parents. We didn’t have to do anything to be unlike them, to break from the past, to start all over, because something new is what we were in spite of all those years of going to school and reading books and watching tv and everything else that goes with being socialized to fit the world into which we are born.

And don’t adults give graduation speeches exhorting young people to go out and be the hope of the future by being different from them?

It speaks to the power of both individualism and wishful thinking that we can sustain what amounts to a myth of self-invention by which each generation starts out fresh and decides who they are without having to deal with any historical or emotional baggage that they didn’t pack themselves. If everything is all about my experience and I’m not aware of experiencing the thing myself, then it must not be there. “I have never been discriminated against as a woman,” she says. “I don’t see color,” says he. “If I can do what I want, then so can anyone else.”

The myth of self-invention is connected, in turn, to the idea that everyone is different from everyone else. I’ve never really known what that means, or, more precisely, why it matters so much. Why should we care that no one out there is an exact match for us when the thing that makes our lives possible is all the ways in which we are alike—presenting ourselves and behaving in ways that other people will understand and accept as familiar. So what if there are dead ringers for me somewhere in the world?

And if everyone is supposedly unique, then it follows that everyone must have their own opinions and perceptions. I suppose that’s true in the sense that everyone has their own underwear, but, again, what does that mean when those same opinions and perceptions (not to mention underwear) show up in millions of other people, there being only so many possibilities?

And yet, we persist in the idea that our experience and what we know are somehow both unique to us and independent of the world through which we come into being and exist. I think, therefore I am—not I belong, connect, relate, share, participate, or continue some form of what came before.

Which brings me back to expiration dates on reality and how easily unpleasant things get relegated to a ‘past’ where they supposedly no longer apply, as if we can give them up as we would a habit or a fashion. And if problems like race or gender or poverty persist, it must be because there are individuals who, for whatever reason, have decided to be different from the rest of ‘us.’

The thing is, though, that social systems, and systems of privilege in particular, do not continue from force of habit, inertia, or individual choice. They are more than a collection of self-conscious attitudes or beliefs or styles that come and go on their own or through individual self-improvement.

Systems continue because of powerful forces exerted across generations, including adaptations to new circumstances so as to preserve the underlying structure and effect while seeming to have changed. “Power does not yield except by demand,” wrote Frederick Douglass more than 100 years ago, and as far as I can tell, recent history shows precious little of that.

The illusion of change is on my mind because new editions of two of my books—The Gender Knot and The Forest and the Trees—have just been published. I spent months digging into the latest data, scouring books and journals. And has anything changed? Well, of course. We have a black president, for one, and same-sex marriage is gaining support, and words like ‘transgender’ have entered our vocabulary.

But the evidence is also overwhelming that the basic structures of male privilege and white privilege and class privilege and even heterosexual privilege remain solidly intact. The epidemic of rape everywhere from the military to college campuses, the almost complete lack of progress toward gender equity for more than 20 years, the devastation of people of color in the most recent economic collapse, increased racial segregation and discrimination in hiring and the criminal justice system, the dramatic surge of economic inequality, the almost complete dominance of state and national politics by corporations and the wealthy, the patriarchal capitalist juggernaut that continues its systematic destruction of the Earth . . . you get the idea.

This is not to say that we don’t have the potential to reinvent ourselves, both as individuals and as a society. After all, that is what much of my work, both public and private, is about. But such invention comes only from our active engagement with the reality of what has been and how it continues into the present, however much it may shape-shift into forms that give the appearance of change. And however much we might wish it otherwise.

“The past,” wrote William Faulkner, “is never dead. It’s not even past.”


If you liked this post, you might also want to read “Letting Go of Despair and Hope.”

7 responses to “So Yesterday

  1. Gathering Dust Friday, November 7, 2014 at 1:52 pm

    People who claim ‘that was then, this is now’ are often equally ignorant of how things actually were back then and how things are currently. And these are less empirical claims as they are preferential and ideological. On top of that I think a lot of students react to sociological matters along the lines Al Franken discussed years ago – Mommy love. Observations that aren’t completely praiseworthy of things American are regarded as if they’re attacks on Mommy. And who wouldn’t want to defend Mommy?

    On the other hand, textbooks and anthologies are often citing or using articles that can feel dated because even if they have a recent pub date, their references are ten to twenty plus years old. If the goal is to connect with a skeptical audience then fighting over the continuing relevance of 20 year citation is a distraction.

    Yes, Privilege Power and Difference needs a new edition.

    • Allan Johnson Friday, November 7, 2014 at 4:26 pm

      About the need for a new edition of Privilege, Power, and Difference, I agree, but the timing is up to the publisher, McGraw-Hill, and so far they have shown no interest.

      • Gatherdust Sunday, November 16, 2014 at 8:03 pm

        Well Kimmel & Ferber, Rothenberg, and others seem to be able to move into new editions though I would guess that the publishers would prefer to pass off twitter length readings at premium prices. Your book’s value lies in its usefulness for a skeptical audience. You might want to pass along that a new edition might be just the thing to help explain “getting shot dead while black” to a trigger happy white America.

  2. Dawn Saturday, November 8, 2014 at 6:59 am

    The “myth of self-invention” could be an entire book. I just want to say that I really enjoy your posts. Thank you for keeping the conversation going and relevant.

  3. Anne Batterson Saturday, November 8, 2014 at 10:07 am

    You make an important point in this post: the core issues of gender and privilege never really disappear, they go underground. That why those battles must be fought by every generation, something women who came of age in the 60’s and 70’s have been surprised and discouraged to find out. Only the surface, often politicized, issues appear to achieve resolution now and then, but the power of these so called solutions seems to dissipate over the course of the next generation. I’d be interested to know the gender of the students who dismissed the concept of male privilege.

  4. hmalapanis Saturday, November 8, 2014 at 9:13 pm

    I’m always baffled how people apply their own experience to the other 7 billion people in the world. “I got the flu shot last year and I still got sick. The flu shot is pointless.” “My wife is black and she votes without any problems. There’s no such thing as racist voting laws.” And of course, “I’ve never noticed women being paid less than me. Gender inequity doesn’t exist.”

  5. vherrick Saturday, February 7, 2015 at 1:45 am

    I recently read “Mad Men: Inside the Men’s Rights Movement and the Army of Misogynists and Trolls it Spawned” in the current Mother Jones magazine. While the article certainly provided plenty of information about the linkages between angry academic men and violent criminal men, what struck me was the comments after the article. They rapidly devolved into a “Yeah, but YOU …” blame game between men and women who are all, clearly, suffering immensely in the current culture. The fear and pain is palpable. It reminded me of the many, many historical instances of scapegoating. “It’s MEN’s fault we are oppressed. Men’s rights activists are misogynist, violent rapists.” “It’s WOMEN’s fault we are oppressed, feel unloved and emotionally crushed. Feminists are sadistic, man-hating bitches.” I was truly shocked at the lack of understanding and empathy among these people. Yes, men are privileged. So are educated women (and men), people born to wealth, and white people. I am well aware of the areas in which my white privilege, despite being female, will trump a black man’s male privilege — and the times and places where it won’t. So … are black men my enemy? NO. They are, at least potentially, my allies. Oppressed people will never win change by attacking one another. To set men and women — who both are suffering and afraid — against one another is a perfect recipe for continuing a battle for dominance that can only bring more pain. I happen to be undergoing Alternatives to Violence training (with a mixed group of men and women), and can’t help wondering, what if we could get “Men’s Rights” and “Women’s Rights” leaders to consider “alternatives to violence”?

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