Many are the theories surrounding the straight, white, male backlash that manifested itself in the outcome of the 2016 American presidential election. But, for me, I think this backlash has its origins in two things: epistemology and envy.
Let’s take those identity markers in reverse, starting with–
From Carol Gilligan’s The Birth of Pleasure:
“Elizabeth Debold, a researcher exploring this terrain, considers the implication of boys’ and girls’ taking on the attributes of manhood and womanhood at very different points in their development. At age five, children are learning about the world as it is; it is the era of the naturalist. At adolescence, they are learning to know the world as it is said to be; it is the era of the hypothetical, the ability to envision possibility. Debold notes that boys at five take on the attributes of masculinity as a matter of fact, whereas girls at adolescence are more likely to notice a gap between the way things are and the way things are said to be. The good-guy/bad-guy play of four- and five-year-old boys sets the stage for the division of girls at adolescence into the good and bad girls; but by stepping into the river at a later point in time, and also because in some ways it is not their river, girls who stop and ask themselves what they are seeing will often record their sense of shock.” (p. 91)
That is, boys are socialized to be men from the get-go. A five-year-old child will be told that “boys don’t cry,” that certain behaviors are expected of boys–namely, that they don’t “act like girls.” Girls, by contrast, are allowed greater freedom in the realm of emotional expression, and even a certain tomboyishness can be permitted up until the age of adolescence. The later emotional socialization of girls–the fact that was “girls don’t do” is not spelled out until later–means that they have memories of the before and after and so are more likely to possess a greater sense of the artificiality of these constructs. But do you remember anything really, truly, before the age of five? Probably not, and so a boy never really remembers a prelapsarian time before masculinity was the primary expectation for his behavior and bearing. (In my own opinion, this is why women make more socially insightful writers than their male counterparts. I’ll take a Mary Anne Evans, a.k.a. George Eliot, or Rebecca West over Ernest Hemingway or Phillip Roth any day of the week. Sometimes, all men can write about is how the loss of masculine power essentially constitutes a dissolution of identity itself, while women have a much greater appreciation of broader social tapestries.)
In other respects do women develop a realization of the divide between expectation and a deeper reality. In a recent episode of Netflix Explained on the female orgasm, a number of women commented upon the fact that female sexual pleasure does not function in reality the way it does in popular media, the orgasm dependent upon sufficiently thorough thrusts by the man. Many women who thought their partners or themselves the problem later discovered that their whole penis-in-vagina approach to coitus had been the issue, that orgasm depended upon them taking their own pleasure in hand, taking their own pleasure seriously and recognizing themselves as responsible for it. Discovering one’s sexual potential as a woman is somewhat comparable to exploring one’s sexuality (more on that later), a journey of discovery with some bit of meaning at the end.
So female epistemology (very loosely) can be predicated upon memories of a past that lies outside those strict gender binaries and a future in which the most basic functions of biology constitute a journey of discovery. In their place, men have a rigid gender training, begun since the moment of their birth and thus viewed as “natural,” so that other possibilities are precluded, and a physiological sexual function that pretty well accords with those gendered expectations–a few thrusts and you come.
Does this offer a potential for envy? Well, there are more ways to be a woman than to be a man. Emphasizing your manly virtues on the campaign trail means praising soldiers and being photographed going duck hunting. A woman on the campaign trail can play the manhood game (a la Margaret Thatcher) or emphasize her role as a mother, an educator, an activist, a business woman. Easier for a woman to get elected to higher office wearing pants than for a man to get elected wearing a dress. Men are raised to think of masculinity as “natural” and not socially encoded and so police each other’s behavior all the more, feel constrained by the very people we seek out as companions. And then when it comes to sex, well, in this modern age, women (at least in our “liberated” narratives) seem to have before them this adventure of sexual discovery that both brings them closer to other women while testing their inner resolve. For straight men, the narrative is that of the instruction manual–insert tab A into slot B.
So yeah, I think there is the potential of envy here. It may seem strange or counter-intuitive for envy to be delivered in the direction of a subjected population, but this would not be the first time. Maya Angelou, in Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, tells the anecdote of a rich, white family whose elders listened closely to the nighttime goings-on of their black servants, living upon their joy and vivaciousness vicariously.
From Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract:
“Finally, the Racial Contract requires its own peculiar moral and empirical epistemology, its norms and procedures for determining what counts as moral and factual knowledge of the world… [T]hrough our natural faculties, we come to know reality in both its factual and valuational aspects, the way things objectively are and what is objectively good or bad about them. I suggest that we can think of this as an idealized consensus about cognitive norms and, in this respect, an agreement or ‘contract’ of sorts. There is an understanding about what counts as a correct, objective interpretation of the world, and for agreeing to this view, one is (‘contractually’) granted full cognitive standing in the polity, the official epistemic community.
“But for the Racial Contract things are necessarily more complicated. The requirement of ‘objective’ cognition, factual and moral, in a racial polity are in a sense more demanding in that officially sanctioned reality is divergent from actual reality. So here, it could be said, one has an agreement to misinterpret the world. One has to learn to see the world wrongly, but with the assurance that this set of mistaken perceptions will be validated by white epistemic authority, whether religious or secular.
“Thus, in effect, on matters related to race, the Racial Contract prescribes for its signatories an inverted epistemology, an epistemology of ignorance, a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made.” (pp. 17-18)
You can see this failure to understand the world in the reaction of slave-owning whites during and immediately after the Civil War. Before Emancipation, slave owners assured themselves of the loyalty of their chattel (even with the threat of violence always at hand). There was a whole science of slavery, too, with doctors ascribing to runaway slaves the medical condition of draeptomania, because even as the institution, as noted, depended upon the ubiquitous and immediately available tools of violence, slave-owners still could not conceive that their human property might desire their liberty. No, they had a medical condition that made them want to run away.
What W. E. B. DuBois called “double consciousness,” or the fact that a black person has to view himself according to how white society understands him and how he knows himself, is a matter of epistemology. White consciousness is not afflicted with such discourse because whites are socialized to be adherents to the Lie.
I’d say that the rule generally is that only the oppressed understand the real nature of oppression. But sometimes, oppressors can be bracingly honest when not faced with the need of doing PR. The Nazis, after all, never claimed that their actions were, in fact, helping the Jews of Europe, while slave-owners in antebellum American said just that–that slavery was a necessary transitional stage to prepare the Seed of Ham for entrance into civilization, and if one happens to make a buck off this act of monumental charity, so much the better. Whiteness as a system of oppression is starkly dishonest, and so this means that only its victims, only those marked as lying beyond the pale of paleness, know the full and unspeakable truth about its machinations.
Can black epistemology be a source of white envy? After all, the source of white power is an epistemology based upon ignorance, as philosopher Mills has noted. But again, that ignorance is collectively policed, just as it is with men and how masculinity is defined and expressed. Whites collectively had to proclaim that they were kind and superior and civilized even as whites individually could see evidence to the contrary. Individual slave owners could see the pain they were inflicting, and even after the era of slavery, individual whites had evidence that the system was misaligned with reality. One of the interviews in Studs Terkel’s book Race is of a white man who was, decades ago, trained by the black man above whom he was promoted–above whom many whites had been promoted. In such social interactions, individual whites had access to the truth.
But blacks collectively knew the contours of reality. And such knowledge can easily generate envy. Or maybe you always thought kindly about your older compadres who held secret certain truths about Santa Claus or sex, but I doubt it.
One of the assignments I give students in my fall course, “Power, Privilege, and Oppression,” is to take what they know of one framework for oppression–and we focus much of the class upon race–and apply it to another, be it gender or class or sexuality. Difference-creation is the fundamental mechanism of oppression, and its tools show up all over the place. For example, the “Other” is typically ascribed a greater relation to the body–women are “hormonal,” blacks are hyper-sexual, and homosexuals are subject to base desires–and thus a greater distance from the mental faculties necessary for civilization. So rather than offering a long quotation here, let’s see what similarities can be drawn to our above discourses on gender and race.
- A shift of roles at adolescence. Like girls, people who are not straight find themselves around adolescence being socialized one way while knowing themselves something else.
- Double consciousness. Most queer people, in those times and places were visible expressions of such are/were dangerous, developed a double consciousness of their inner truths versus how they acted and behaved with those around them. I know someone raised in a fundamentalist household who once said, “I do believe that God made me gay and that I’m going to hell for it.” (Heavy Presbyterian background there.)
- Self-discovery. Being gay, in our society, has historically been a matter of self-discovery, as children are overwhelmingly socialized with the assumption of heterosexuality. Physical intimacy is tied to a community of those who have all experienced the same thing.
So, envy much? Sure, because if there is anything true about the above, it is that maleness, whiteness, and straight-ness all offer implicit communities, but because those conditions are taken as the background radiation of our universe, taken as “natural” and given, the “communities” they foster are inherently weak, the stuff of political mobilization, maybe, but not of friendship and companionship. But divergent communities tend to be much more vibrant and intimate. And if you don’t believe that, you don’t remember what happened when someone tried to organize a Heterosexual Pride Parade. And has anyone ever made a movie about a young protagonist coming of age and coming out as a straight person in America?
SO WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
According to the thesis I have advanced, a recognition of variant epistemologies produces envy in those who identify as straight, white, and male. But does this envy produce acts of evil? According to Melanie Klein, in Envy and Gratitude and Other Works, 1946-1963:
“There are very pertinent psychological reasons why envy ranks among the second ‘deadly sins’. I would even suggest that it is unconsciously felt to be the greatest sin of all, because it spoils and harms the good object which is the source of life. This view is consistent with the view described by Chaucer in The Parson’s Tale: ‘It is certain that envy is the worst sin there is; for all other sins are sins only against one virtue, whereas envy is against all virtue and all goodness.” (p. 189)
Klein describes envy as the desire to destroy what is perceived as good due to the intolerability of that goodness existing outside the self. As Arne Johan Vetlesen writes in Evil and Human Agency: Understanding Collective Evildoing:
“…The type of evil that most typically springs from envy entails devaluing, denigrating, and ridiculing the features in the other which arose envy in the first place. This may happen in four ways, progressively serious in moral terms: either the features in question are silenced in the sense that they are ignored; or one acts as if they are non-existent; or they are ridiculed, humiliated, or condemned (think of children bullying someone); or they are subject to a more or less overt attempt to remove them, making them disappear altogether, even denying that they ever existed. As a result, the targeted person [or group]… emerges as someone who has nothing positive, admirable, and worthwhile to show for himself or herself, in short, nothing that would merit the affirmation of others and so justify the existence of the otherness in question.” (pp. 124-125)
Such envy can lead to the sort of behavior that creates, in the other, the imagined character necessary to counter the envy–bringing the other into a degraded condition designed to expose his “real” character. Evildoing as self-fulfilling prophecy, Vetlesen calls it: “The aim is to deny everything about the victim that would serve to falsify the ideological assertions about him or her. Every trait, down to the very last remnant, in the victims that would be a reminder, a proof, of what is worthy of recognition in them, such as to highlight their partaking in a common humanity, must be removed.” (p. 125) Slave plantations and concentration camps aimed for just this thing. Dehumanization is a process.
According to Vetlesen, it’s not accident that Naziism arose in the wake of the Weimar Republic, the postwar period in which Europeans, now distrustful of nationalisms, experimented with identities like never before. When identity becomes optional, those whose identities had previously marked the accepted norm, the standard against which everything was judged, found the meanings of the norms they represented watered down. You are no longer a representative of timeless and holy truths–you are merely the background against which others’ stories take place. White Pride parades, Heterosexual Pride parades–these don’t make sense because these identities were never constituted as part of a broader tapestry but as the universal laws that gird reality. And so when other identities make themselves heard, the constitute a threat even if they are not directly threatening you. No gay people are out to convert straights, but their open and unchallenged existence renders straightness the option it was never meant to be, and so fundamentalist straights insist that conversion is the plan.
Straightness, whiteness, maleness–these don’t have narratives because they were never meant to, while deviations from these are, in fact, narratives of individual discovery and community belonging. And so the political backlash is a function of narrative envy. On the conservative side of things, this backlash manifests itself in the desire to reinstitute those old fundamental laws and so make deviation from the norm universally objectionable again. But there is a backlash, too, within progressive circles, typically lead by straight, white, men–the sort of men who insist that they are fine with women in roles of leadership but who just happen to find each individual woman advanced for such leadership… unlikable. They don’t assert that only whites should be in charge, but they do feel more comfortable when that just happens to be the case. And like Ralph Nader in 1996, they don’t really want to talk about “gonadal politics” even if they fully acknowledge that the gay community should be accorded basic human rights.
Whiteness, maleness, straightness–these lack narratives. And so those individuals representing those imagined communities lack a positive story to underwrite their involvement in the politics of liberation. Well, there is a narrative of reparation, but that’s not exactly a fiery motivation; moreover, the idea of working towards reparations can lead to some fiercely pessimistic nihilism. If I might misquote an Ani DiFranco song: “Might as well just go ahead and turn off the sun, because we’ll never live long enough to undo everything we’ve done to you….”
As to where we go from here…. That’s something for another post.