So every fall, I teach a graduate course titled “Power, Privilege, and Oppression.” No, I did not come up with the title, fan of alliteration though I am, and I rather don’t care for the excessive wokeness connoted by such a string of words. If I had come up with the name, I would have called it something like “Rethinking Identity and Exploitation,” for what I want students most to do is re-conceptualize their view of identity (both individual and collective) and rethink how identity perpetuates, facilitates, generates the mechanisms of exploitation.
This year, my students read Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity, Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, Karen and Barbara Field’s Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, Jeff Spinner-Halev’s Enduring Industice, and Chris Gilligan’s Northern Ireland and the Crisis of Anti-Racism: Rethinking Racism and Sectarianism. It’s been a heady semester, with plenty of good discussion and (always the meat upon which teachers live) an acknowledgement by many that this class had really changed their perspectives. However, especially as we neared the end of the semester, I kept hearing from more and more students something along the lines of: This is all good theory and everything, but how do we fix these problems? What is the solution to all of this?
And I wanted to say, “Don’t you think if we had the solution to all of this that we would be implementing it right now instead of conducting a philosophical, sociological, and historical survey of these issues for you students?” Students reported being challenged and excited by the material but also depressed because it didn’t impart to them the knowledge they needed to go out and solve all of these problems, because it didn’t shorten that horizon to utopia. At the end of each semester, I bring in some folks who have done public service and activism in the state, across racial and class boundaries, to discuss their work. My students usually like this, at least more than they like hearing me ramble yet again. However, they still seemed disappointed that my activist friends had no “solution” for them but, instead, rather heartily endorsed the idea that public service and social justice were lifelong pursuits.
My students, they just want a way to “fix things.” And I’ve been struggling, wondering where this expectation even came from. Is this a generational divide? A consequence of a culture of slacktivism? Reaction to the trauma of the Trump regime?
The answer may relate to how we misinterpret Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
According to Rebecca West, in The Court and the Castle: A Study of the Interactions of Political and Religious Ideas in Imaginative Literature, we do great injury to the original meaning of Hamlet when we regard its eponymous hero as tormented by indecision and emotion. Hamlet’s not incapable of making quick decisions. Hell, the moment he discovers that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are bearing a letter demanding his execution he swaps it for one that gets them killed, despite their innocence in this scheme. And he’s apparently not too emotional, for they were, after all, apparently friends of his.
We misread Hamlet because we lack Shakespeare’s conception of the nature of authority, especially royal authority. As Rebecca West writes:
“To Shakespeare, a king was a man who had been appointed by fate, by a force half within him and half outside him, to be the custodian of an idea, and to exercise this function in the midst of a mob of barons who were rarely if ever entirely loyal to him or the idea, because some part of even the justest among them must regret the old days of feudalism when they would riot and thieve unchecked.”
“We know from the historical plays that Shakespeare recognized danger as the climate of the courts, and it follows that he saw the palace at Elsinore as a place of tension, where it might well be that Hamlet was much less tense than the people around him. He was above all the onlooker, who is detached and preserves his detachment even when he is involved in action. He was in fact detached from the Danish royal situation; because the electors had passed over his candidature he was not sitting on the throne, he was standing beside it, he was not involved in the struggle between the Danish people and their nascent institutions. He was also the new-born Renaissance man, whose liberated intelligence had given him a form of self-awareness differing from the earlier forms of introspection, because it had no tinge of the confessional about it. When Hamlet soliloquised, he was really talking to himself, and taking pleasure in a recently acquired accomplishment. There could be no greater mistake than to see Hamlet as the only troubled figure in a court that was otherwise wax-work calm in the arrogant composure of an imaginary absolutism. Readers who see him thus must mistake the theme of the play, and see it as the failure of a weak human being to restore a pleasant status quo. But Shakespeare was writing about the failure of a strong and gifted man to alter a repellent situation, for the reason that he is tainted with the same guilt which had caused others to produce that situation.”
To restore a pleasant status quo–that, I suspect, is what my students want, because even if they devote themselves to studying the long history of othering and exploitation in this nation and beyond, they cannot yet relate to that history at a personal level. They came of age politically during the presidency of Barack Obama, and knowing intellectually the history of the United States but being privileged to live during the administration of the first black president, well, it has to lend a somewhat Panglossian (or at least Pelagian) patina to one’s political perspectives. And then along comes the vulgar talking yam, imported straight from Russia, and it feels rather like a usurpation. If we could just get the right king on the throne, all would be right again. But even at my modest middle age, I have seen war criminals in the White House, monsters such as Reagan, who helped to fund genocide in Central America and did everything he could to let gay men die of AIDS without remorse, as well as George W. Bush, architect of the Iraq War and its related body of memos justifying the crushing of a small boy’s testicles. All in the name of freedom. Trump, from this perspective, is no aberration.
But there is another factor here. If Hamlet exercised a form of self-awareness different from previous forms of introspection, so, too, do today’s inhabitants exercise a form of self-awareness radically different from Hamlet’s, with their soliloquizing constituting a discourse with the wider world through social media. (And yes, you can still call it a soliloquy if it’s a discourse because all soliloquies in theater are performed for the sake of the audience. We are just all performers now.) As Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell write in the December 2019 issue of The Atlantic:
“The social psychologist Mark Leary coined the term sociometer to describe the mental gauge that tells us, moment by moment, how we’re doing in the eyes of others. We don’t really need self-esteem, Leary argued; rather, the evolutionary imperative is to get others to see us as desirable partners for various kinds of relationships. Social media, with its displays of likes, friends, followers, and retweets, has pulled our sociometers out of our private thoughts and posted them for all to see. If you constantly express your anger in private conversations, your friends will likely find you tiresome, but when there’s an audience, the payoffs are different–outrage can boost your status.”
But this critique of social media, as valid as it be, misses some of the larger, structural reasons why struggles for justice invariably find their way onto various social media platforms. Namely, it has to do with a historic loss of rights. As Bruce P. Frohnen writes in his essay, “Individual and Group Rights: Self-Government and Claims of Right in Historical Practice” (part of the anthology Rethinking Rights: Historical, Political, and Philosophical Perspectives), an “insistence on seeing rights in purely individualistic terms has resulted not just in the erosion of group rights, but also in the erosion of individual rights–particularly those individual rights aimed at meaningful participation in social, political, and economic life.” He tracks this erosion from the Middle Ages onward, examining how medieval Europe was home to a variety of institutions that jealously guarded their group rights–the Church, guilds, boroughs, kingdom, and more–and thus protected the individual rights of their members. However, over the centuries, these sometimes overlapping, sometimes competing organizations have largely withered away in the advance of the modern state, so much so that philosopher Hannah Arendt in the twentieth century ultimately defined citizenship as “the right to have rights,” the state being the only institution that could guarantee individual rights for a person by this point in time. One of the only organizations that could feasibly compete with the state, the corporation, is not as corporate as its name implies, with the role of shareholder being stripped of decision-making potentiality and essentially reduced to a fictive personage assumed to be interested solely in profit.
The result of these dramatic changes, writes Frohnen, “is a loss of individual as well as group rights. It has become extremely difficult for the individual person to influence the institutions in which he or she makes a livelihood, in which he or she works and lives. Not only can one not fight city hall, but even influencing it increasingly requires influencing the statehouse, courthouse, or even the White House. And influencing corporate headquarters? Well, it is no wonder that Americans increasingly look to methods of mass publicity and litigation where once their membership in the body of a corporate group afforded them the right to be heard.”
My students seem to believe that they live in a time of exception with Donald Trump (piss be upon him) in the White House, but they don’t. Instead, they live during an era when individual and group rights have been so eroded that Americans turn toward mass publicity and the potential for ideological purity it brings, and they are rewarded for this vaporous online pseudo-life. But nothing really changes, and they want to know why, they want to know what will make things better again without understanding the necessity of a full and complete commitment to this world and all of its flaws, and all of its dangers. If you want to be king, you must understand that the various dukes and barons will be plotting constantly to restore the localized anarchy of feudalism, or will undertake conspiracies to take your throne for themselves, because those who have had a taste of power only want more. And if you want to undertake the work of social justice and public service, you must understand that there is no magical formula you can incant in order to get people to “see reason.” Millionaires won’t be satisfied until they are billionaires, and billionaires dream of being trillionaires, and that is the only goal that matters to them no matter how much human suffering it causes other people.
In other words, the solution is fully engaging at a personal level with that might theologically be termed “original sin,” or a recognition of certain inherent flaws in human beings and the societies they create. You cannot detach yourself from this reality without causing still more damage to those you aim to help in this world. Or as Rebecca West put it:
“We are members of an imperfect society, and when we cooperate with it, we are committed to imperfection, because we are all imperfect beings and cannot conceive a perfect thought or act. The peculiar force of Hamlet lies in its contention that there is no escape from this guilt. Our imperfection cannot be sweetened by our acts or limited in its effect by our caution. Hamlet is exquisitely accomplished, but it does not aid his moral power. He is an egoist and annuls his natural affections so that he achieves no valid human relationship: he is a disobedient son to his father, he mauls his mother, he is a querulous and fugitive lover, he is not a husband and not a father, and he treats Horatio as a listening ear rather than as a friend. Yet in this detachment he is responsible for the perpetuation and extension of evil. When the play opens, the crime which stains the court is the theft of the throne by the fratricide and regicide Claudius; but when the last curtain falls the state as spread. Hamlet has killed Polonius and Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, Ophelia is drowned, and Claudius has dipped himself in other crimes and has made an assassin of Laertes. These things have happened as the result of Hamlet’s refusal to bind himself by the same ties of flesh which have, through the ages, been generally blamed as the sources of sin. To our species all gates to innocence are barred.”