This election has exposed an aspect of the psychology of many Americans, an aspect of psychology that is common across the world whenever one group secures some kind of power or esteem.
It’s what I call the “privilege coupon”.
I started seeing it and discussing it in a discussion about the unfortunate amount of misogyny, racial slurs and bad behavior in the video game community. There, I argued that many men often think that women’s equality in this society is conditional. Sure, you’re here, able to play games and go to work and what not, but you really should be in the kitchen, so while we’ll tolerate you here, don’t get too uppity!
Now it’s everywhere. We can see it in politicians in Congress talking openly about what “sub-groups” contributed to society; specifically, an Iowan Representative who conveniently ignored that one of his state’s chief agricultural products, corn, was very much something made by a non-white subgroup. We see it in O’Reilly’s horrific attempt to pretend that slavery was somehow blunted by the fact that slaves had good lodging when they built the White House. We see it in poll after poll and study after study that shows that substantial pluralities of Americans just don’t think very highly of the work ethic or intelligence or decency of other groups of people.
And, of course, it is inherent to the core message of Trump: Make America Great Again. Take the country back. Or, as Scott Baio said, Make America America Again.
At this point, it’s time to trot out the obvious provisos that shouldn’t need to be said. Yes, most people of any group are basically decent. Yes, most Americans, white and black, poor and rich, reject bigotry and racism. Yes, we’ve made huge strides in equity across the board. Everything I am going to say is only true of some people at some times. And, as I will explain, this idea is not the fault of the people who inherited it: it is a toxic lie that they were told that has to be driven out of the body politic.
Jon Stewart identified the core of this idea when he took the chair one more time at Stephen Colbert’s show. He loudly told Sean Hannity and his ilk (after reviewing the hypocrisy of right-wingers who called Obama an elitist divisive narcissist who read from a teleprompter now defending a bigoted billionaire narcissist who read from a teleprompter), “You just want [the thin-skinned tyrannical narcissist you like] to give you your country back. Because you feel that you’re this country’s rightful owners. There’s only one problem. This country isn’t yours. You don’t own it. It never was. There is no real America. You don’t own it. You don’t own patriotism, you don’t own Christianity, you sure as hell don’t own respect for the brave sacrifice of military, police and firefighters”.
Many Christians, whites, men, straight folks, cis-gender folks, etc. have had an idea taught to them, explicitly or implicitly (usually implicitly). Their citizenship is not conditional, but everyone else’s is.
The “privilege coupon” idea goes like this: “I have a coupon. It’s invisible. At any time, I get to trade it in for respect, or domination, or exclusion. Any time I’m frightened, any time I’m angry, I can turn it in and say you don’t belong”.
It makes sense. If you believe this is white civilization, then, well, sure, you acknowledge that as a matter of coincidental fact that there are people who don’t fit that mold in your civilization. And sure, the Constitution says they’re citizens, and the law does too. But that’s just sort of an allowance. At the end of the day, your belonging is guaranteed. Theirs isn’t.
And what’s crucial about this coupon is that you don’t have to turn it in. That’s why it can be so hard to identify sometimes. You can see it in the guy who tells racist jokes yet gets along just fine with the people he’s joking about. His implicit logic is, “I have this special right, to say the jokes I please and have no one be offended or tell me that it’s ugly and cruel. I may not always use it. I may be judicious. But I have it”.
And when push comes to shove, suddenly that coupon is incredibly tempting.
I know because I’ve felt it. Some little voice, a gross and sniveling little voice, would come in the back of my skull and say, “Hey, you can call her a bitch if you want. I mean, it really was a white male country, right?”
Even as an immigrant, even as a lifelong feminist, even as someone who knows better, that meme is still there.
If I didn’t have those advantages, those barriers, I could easily start laying in racist and sexist abuse in a video game. Why not? I normally don’t, but it’s always an option for me, and it’s okay, right?
How else can you explain a candidate who wants to ban Muslims from entering the country, without offering the proviso that if they’re an American citizen that of course they will be allowed back in? How else can you explain the support from so many Americans of actually expelling Muslims? How else can you explain the challenge in allowing atheists to serve in every state in the U.S.?
This infection is so deep that it informs even otherwise decent points.
For example: Rush Limbaugh, hypocritical windbag though he is, had a point recently in response to the same speech that Michelle Obama made. He was attempting to claim, just as O’Reilly was, that Ms. Obama was somehow being divisive by noting the history of slavery, even though in fact Obama’s point was precisely how much further we had moved past it. Limbaugh argued, “[I]magine that your wife has an affair, and it causes all kinds of acrimony, you almost lose your marriage. It’s really a rocky period of time. But you and your wife get together, and you decide that you’re going to forgive her, you’re going to look past it for the sake of the marriage and kids, and you move forward. He said okay. Now imagine, sir, every argument you have, you continue to remind her that she’s to blame for everything because she’s the one that had the affair. I said, your relationship hasn’t a prayer if you can’t let it go. If all you can do is continue to remind her what you’ve already forgiven her for then the days of your relationship are over.”
Rush makes a fair point. We as a society have to move forward. Holding a grudge does no good. We should be able to forgive, share with each other, and find a way of improving things.
Only, as anyone who has ever done marriage counseling knows, it isn’t just about the wife in this scenario to forgive. It’s about the husband to make amends and earn back trust. Rush, as always, wants those who his preferred groups have aggrieved, robbed, betrayed and harmed to just shut up and take it. He wants them to move on for the sake of our unity, in exchange for nothing. He wants people of color, women, gay people, the native population, immigrants, Muslims, atheists, and dozens of other groups to bear the burden of supporting our society, because of the needs of upper-class white cis-gender straight men.
So, has America done this? Has it earned back trust of groups? Has it made amends?
It hasn’t given reparations to African-Americans for slavery and Jim Crow. Indeed, the very idea that the government, the same institution as it was in the 19th century, may need to discharge a debt arouses hysteria.
And anyone who wants to bring up the gender wage gap, or racial inequities in hiring, or any other salient issue, is going to have to deal with a torrent of abuse, excuses and irrelevant arguments. (Indeed, the gender wage gap will likely see a later editorial here, because the issues have been so improperly reported by mainstream outlets that basic logic and sociological reason has been replaced by silly ideas, even as the proof of the existence of the glass ceiling or the mommy track or inequities in access to social networks and the ongoing relevance of the “old boy’s network” or the pink-collar ghetto is incredibly easy to come by).
So the correct analogy is that the husband, in this case the dominant group, is still sleeping around. They insist that we should move on while they keep on philandering. Sure, they’re doing it less. Maybe the sex has improved at home too. But it’s not even done being a problem.
That is an abusive relationship. Anyone can identify that, instantly. And that relationship, as Rush argues, will fail. But let’s not pretend it’s because of the long-suffering wife.
The “privilege coupon” leads people like Rush to think that they really can be in such a relationship, one based in inequity, one where one partner has to be abused and swallow it for the sake of the other. On some level, Rush and his ilk really believe they deserve more patience than they give to others. Rush is able to say, without any sense of irony, that his opponents are in the “grievance industry”: see, they have grievances, because they don’t really belong, and they should just be glad that they’re here. “But I do belong”, someone like Rush thinks! “I do deserve the job more than the Hispanic guy!”
After the 2008 recession, a lot of people got angry that they couldn’t turn in that coupon. It led many people to resent minorities, to resent those talking about “white privilege”. They thought that they had done everything right, played by the rules, and now they were being deprived.
Other people didn’t have that illusion. They never could afford to think that the mere fact that they went to school and got a job meant that they would be immune from any harm or tragedy. Their worldview wasn’t shattered.
Tragically, the Trump phenomenon has shown that a lot of individuals then reacted to this by thinking that, well, this time the coupon really should count!
So it is incumbent, upon us, to care about our neighbors.
I often find myself doing soul-searching. I question if I am being objective, if I would think the same if the shoe was on the other foot.
And I realized that, if I had been possessed by an insidious lie, I would want someone to tell me. I would want them to patiently but sternly correct me.
We owe that to our fellow countrymen. As hard as it can be sometimes, we owe them that patience and that stridency. We have an urgent need to take away the lie that an unjust society told them.
There is no privilege coupon. This is everyone’s country. No one should ever have or want the power to exclude anyone else, or dominate them, or deny them their voice. No one should ever want to be a gatekeeper to a little club, whether it be for enjoying Ghostbusters or playing Overwatch. There is no special belonging aside from being here.
We have to defend a country that says that, if you open your eyes here first, this is your home, and it is your home exactly to the same degree as anyone else who did the same.
We have to defend the idea that freedom, dignity, equity, and justice are not contingent for anyone.
They got told a lie. Let’s save them from it before it consumes everyone.
This article was written by Frederic Christie, a writer for dusk magazine.