Contradictions. Or Contradictions.

There are a limited number of basic and meaningful things that happen in a human being’s life. There is nothing in this world that we can name that is infinite. Excepting perhaps infinity. The only thing that makes life limitless is the fact that it is limited. A relationship can be concurrently both absolute and relative. Herein we will be discussing contradictions, seeming and otherwise, and what they mean to us.

As we mature we find that life is not so complicated as we may imagine it. We are all prone to experience any or all of existence’s aspects, regardless of our particular viewpoint or place in life. These experiences can be felt as individually unique and separate from other people’s perceptions and consciousness. Or they can be known to be individualized, but related, experiences of those finite and essential human flavors. These states of being have infinite permutations. Our first contradiction.

Although not so complicated, life is never totally clear, cut, and dried. In the words of Winston Churchill, people’s and nation’s intentions are often “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Life is full of these irreconcilable contradictions. What may be assumed to be an individual experience can subconsciously be informed by a group narrative and what may be thought of as mutual can in reality be simply an imagined commonality. Both of those points of view originate in obvious flaws, of thought, perceived reality, or ignorance. They can also come from the skewed views of normal unique to one’s family of origin.

A primary subconscious influence that distorts our perceived reality is the concept of privilege. Privilege is nearly always invisible to its owner. Its contradictory nature stems from the fact that it is a reality that distorts their perception of reality. The distortion, oblivious to the owner, all too often leads to the oppression of the unprivileged by the unaware, privileged soul.

People feel their privilege is normal because its subconscious nature is hidden. Its stark dividing of people from what should be shared humanity creates chasms unseen by the oppressor but painfully obvious to the oppressed. Sadly, there is nothing one can do to escape their privilege. And there are numerous kinds of privilege one carries, white, male, cisgender, and others, too many to name here.

Privilege is defined by what we are and not who we are. One cannot talk away or take away what someone is. But through love and education the privileged person can change who they are. There are many different types of ‘who’ that we can be, from artist to attorney, from republican to recluse, from self-conscious to self-aware. And there are many ‘whats’ as well, from British to blind to black to a baby. Anyone can be a ‘who’. An artist or CEO or homeowner can be black, Catholic, rich, poor, Danish. But only a white person can be white. That is a ‘what’. In essence ‘what’ is exclusive, and ‘who’ is inclusive.

Now, one might object, saying that an artist is a ‘what’, and thus exclusive. The taste test here is if others can profess to be artists. If there is the opportunity for inclusion, that is a ‘who’. If there is no opportunity for inclusion, that is a ‘what’. Only people with blue eyes can have blue eyes. It is an exclusive club. Regardless of who we are or profess to be the only ‘what’ that we all share is being human. Our only universally shared privilege is human privilege. We would do well to understand that human privilege does not guarantee that we will remain at the top of the food chain forever. We are not the end-all and be-all of existence.

As humans we all share many qualities. All humans are born with umbilical cords. Now that I think of it, all humans were born. All humans want to love and be loved. All humans want to be happy and have meaning in their lives. We all think and make decisions and worry and laugh. There are so many things we have in common. They are so basic as to be taken for granted and not considered as things that bind us together, small creatures on a small planet in a small galaxy in a vast multiverse. To awaken to these facts and embrace them is a step in the direction of successful human interaction.

Our differences color our world and allow for the precious contradiction of life itself. Christians tell us all humans are in the body of Christ, many into one. Hindus say that God multiplies himself infinitely, and every individual human is a part of God. We recognize the various colors on a TV screen as being different. But if the screen is entirely red we do not see any differences even though there are thousands of individual pixels. It’s easy to see differences and often difficult to see similarities. One thing for certain, when we are being born we are all the same and as we die we are all the same. What makes us think we are completely separate creatures while we are in between the two? We are all the same yet all different. A most sublime divine paradox. It is this contradiction that is the engine of a life that can contain both mystery and misery, both freedom and boredom. 

Life is not static. It moves. For life to move there must be different places. For there to be different places there must be different spaces and for each individual to exist they must occupy their own particular space. Two of us cannot occupy one physical space at once but any of us can occupy the same mental or spiritual space at any given time. Different and the same. How we can be one and many at the same time is a powerful contradiction, a mystical puzzle we can never solve. It is this paradox of time/space that we strive to answer all our lives, whether we know it or not. 

We all seek out differences to legitimize our own individuality but we also know in our deepest hearts that the things in life that truly matter are the things we all share, like family, and, hunger, and desire. I love being just like you. And I love being just me. Remember, there is a balance to life. If you won’t recognize me, I don’t have to recognize you. If you don’t respect me I won’t have to respect you. I grow weary of spending so much energy disliking people. I already love everybody, but if we are to like each other we must work together. We must love each other.

Love is the Alpha and Omega. If we can recognize and respect the love in each other it will go a long way toward making it acceptable to not like each other. And when it is acceptable to not like each other, because of the presence of divine contradiction, it is much easier to actually discover we do like each other. Regardless of what and who you are, when you occupy space in this world you create the boundaries for a place I can occupy. But it is all one space. And it is ours to enjoy.  

For this I am grateful.

On Each Side of the Equal Sign

It is important to consider the idea of equality as a contested concept with different meanings to different people. It’s just as important to learn the difference between equity and equality.

 Equality does not mean the same thing to different people. I have found that this discrepancy can lead to conflict and confusion when discussing the rights, responsibilities, social standing, opportunities, abilities, etc. of various peoples, both individuals, and certain demographics.

For example, to some, equality means everybody starts at the same starting line and uses their knowledge, skills, talents, and abilities, etc. to move ahead in a ‘race’ toward ‘success’. This view of equality is somewhat myopic in that it does not consider the fact that race, religion, sexual orientation, and supremacies based on numerous types of privilege do not, in practice, allow for everyone to start at the same starting line. This effectively negates the idea that everyone has an equal chance to ‘win’ the race.

One might attempt to justify that particular definition by referencing the Declaration of Independence quote “all men are created equal”. However the Constitution made it clear that, in the words of George Orwell, “All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. According to our governing document blacks were only considered to be 3/5ths of a person and women were not allowed to vote or own property. Thus the reality of equality is and has always been dependent on evolution.

A different definition of equality allows for the fact that people have differing abilities, backgrounds, educations, etc. and it is reasonable to expect ‘the rat race’ does not lead to the same outcomes for everyone. This definition sees equality as equal opportunity, not with all other things being equal but with equity of opportunity based on accounting for the presence of societal roadblocks, many of which originate in privilege and supremacy. This gives us a hint at why equity is not the same as equality. But I digress.

This definition takes into consideration that while we are all equal in the sense that we are all born with umbilical cords we are not all born into situations that give us an equal chance to thrive. Poverty, racism, sexism, and other isms prevent many people from beginning at that hypothetical equal starting line. This definition sees us trying to balance these inequities (another hint) by making an effort to compensate for negative societal realities.

Both of these disparate definitions are based on a degree of wishful thinking. Certainly, when people start a discussion with different definitions of the same concept the situation is ripe for misunderstanding and argument. So when someone challenges your understanding of a concept, be it equality or freedom or security or any other, take a moment to listen to the other person’s arguments and see if you can determine if the disconnect originates in a contested concept with opposing definitions of terms. In formal debate, agreement on fundamental definitions of terms is very important. In informal debate perhaps even more so.

This brings us to the difference between equality and equity and the misunderstandings that can arise from it. These words are different in meaning, as much as some of us like to use them to mean the same thing. Words have power. Concepts that are in reality contested but assumed to have only one definition turn that power into power failure. Those false assumptions lead us into deep and murky waters in which agreement can easily drown. 

Simply put equality is about state of being and equity is about fairness. For example, equality is that the 100-yard dash is the same distance for anyone. Equity is the fact that there is a Paralympics that gives elite athletes with disabilities a fair chance to compete. Equality in golf is everyone teeing off from the same marker. Equity in golf is your handicap.

So when someone speaks about equity and someone else answers with a statement about equality they immediately are talking about two different things. The conversation then begins to deteriorate and an argument ensues where a discussion should live. These misunderstandings, based in language and syntax as they are, point to an almost desperate need for the pursuit of understanding among peoples, as a starting point toward good relationships, political or otherwise.

Understanding doesn’t require much more than calm patience, humble listening, and self-respect. That may be hard work but it doesn’t have to be difficult.

Oh, and one more thing, Privilege is about what you are and not who you are. Therefore you can’t talk away or take away one’s privilege but through understanding you can change who the privileged person is. That’s a conversation for another time.

Socialism: What Is It Really?

Socialism is almost a universally misunderstood term. To some it is a pejorative, an awful thing, and to others it is the wave of the future. For many Americans it is whatever their favorite politician says it is. Plenty of governments and political parties of all types have referred to themselves as socialist. Some of them never actually define the word or why they use it. This confusion of definition makes the term ‘Socialism’ what cognitive linguists refer to as a contested concept. A contested concept is one that appears to be clearly defined by a certain word but the word, in reality, means different things to different people. 

One definition of a word is often promoted by a group to advance their ideology or philosophy over another group’s definition. Words have power, so defining them can mean the acquisition of power. Some words or phrases naturally have a variety of definitions, for example ‘interesting’ or ‘love’. Other previously clear concepts, such as ‘equality’ and ‘news’ have been intentionally muddied by people with an ideological agenda. They want to create confusion in the public about the meaning of the word. There is fierce competition between groups to establish a universal definition of a word. Each group wants to lock it into a particular picture or frame, and point it to their meaning of the word over all others. The winner then acquires the power of that word. The word now points to what they want the public to hear.

Socialism is a word whose definition has been fought over for years. Conservatives and capitalists have been winning this battle. But most recently, changes have appeared in the picture they want you to see when you hear the word ‘Socialism’. Most scholars define Socialism as a type of government, usually related to Marxist/Leninist ideology. This is true in many cases, but not all. Conservatives use this definition in their framing of the word. However, it is my contention that Socialism is not really a form of government. It is actually a necessary but separate part of government. How else could we explain why both both extreme right wing and left wing governments have been described as socialist. My definition of Socialism is not universaly accepted. But I believe in it strongly. Socialism is always an economic part of government but it is not a government by itself.  

In America the conceptual battle over the term Socialism has centered on the right wing’s campaign to tarnish the reputation of the word. It has been effective. They have taken advantage of the ambiguity surrounding the word’s meaning. Their tactic has not been to design an alternative definition of the word because today it has no definite meaning. Instead they have constantly bombarded the public with the idea that Socialism is bad. Like their complaint about most things liberal they tie Socialism to the idea that government interferes with a person’s ability to decide for themselves how to live, it limits their freedom and liberty. They have succeeded, primarily through constant repetition, in making it a dirty word to a majority of Americans. Many people now fear that Socialists hate American and will do anything to hurt them, from poisoning their water to stealing their children. These fears were intentionally promoted by conservatives. When they call someone a socialist, or claim a thing is socialist, people are afraid and angry.

As well as tying it to big government, capitalists have implied that Socialism will destroy the free market. Their attacks on Socialism focus on it being big, suffocating government that oppresses people. But their examples are mostly about government stealing people’s hard earned tax money and giving it to people who don’t deserve it. They hate government spending on programs they don’t like and didn’t have a say in. They tell us that a socialist government will take away your freedom to choose your own healthcare coverage. They say that Socialism will choke business until it dies from unnecessary and cruel regulation. They tell us Socialism will discourage the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit that makes America great.

What do all these complaints have in common? They are all about money. They economic arguments. They aren’t about Socialism taking away our right to vote or abolishing the Bill of Rights. They are not about government itself. They are about what government does with our money. These complaints reveal what both the complainers and I consider to be the real definition of Socialism. Socialism is an economic system whose true opponent is not democracy but capitalism. The idea that Socialism represents big government versus the democratic will of the people is a smokescreen. The people who hate Socialism the most are capitalists.

The capitalists who play dirty to keep people thinking that Socialism a dirty word are aware that millennials and Gen Z see through their greedy tricks. Young Americans know that the rich use the poor’s desire to be wealthy to their advantage. They see how the oligarchy dangles the carrot of a nonexistent American dream in front of the poverty stricken, teasing them with the idea that they too can become rich if they just do what the 1% tell them to do. Our young citizens can tell that the system is corrupt and broken and there is no wizard who will give them everything they want. There are just some clever and frightened men behind a screen, pulling levers and manipulating the masses.

The coming political and economic power of people of color and young adults has the capitalists fearful. They have turned their attacks on Socialism up to 11. But in the last several years a new breed of young leaders have had the courage to declare themselves Socialists. They are challenging the capitalists directly. They see a future America where both Socialism and Capitalism have a role in our economy. They are confident history tells them they will prevail.

The American Civil War was based on the North opposing slavery. Yhat opposition was a direct threat to the South’s economy. The current growing political division in America is also based on racial and class struggles that are a direct threat to our wealthy rulers. Over 150 years since the emancipation of the slaves racism is still a major factor in American politics. The coming economic and political power of people of color and the young is bringing to a head this centuries long conflict. we are in a real war between white supremacy’s political and economic domination of our nation versus a new multicultural politics and economy that works for everyone. Socialism or more accurately socialist principles are in the trenches of this fight. The fight over what Socialism really means is intense and important.

An appreciation of what Socialism is and isn’t.

Socialism is a kind of system and philosophy that goverments use to run their economy. The standard dictionary definition of socialism states that it is a government that owns and/or controls the means of production. Significantly, that definition does not say what type of government that might be. A government that controls the means of production can be of any type, from democratic to authoritarian. Socialist economies, no matter what type of government uses them, work the same way every time.

Conservative capitalists continue to constantly tell us that Socialism is a threat to Anerica and a destructive type of government. This is not true. Socialism isn’t really a type of government at all. In fact, governments that feature a Socialist economy are widely diverse in nature. They can be, and have been, both right and left wing, conservative or liberal, with hybrid types in between. Here are some examples. 

Nazi was an abbreviation of National Socialist Party, the political party that ruled Germany during World War II. It featured a government dominated by the Nazi Party, which worked closely with all levels of business plus religious and cultural entities to form an authoritarian, nationalist government. Nazi Germany’s socialist economy was based on the power of the government to force business to follow its orders or face punishment. It was socialism used and controlled by a right wing government.

There also are and were many left wing governments who applied socialist principles to their economies, most of them based on a Marxist/Leninist philosophy. These socialist governments insist that capitalists are only concerned with profits and not the welfare of the people. Therefore it is the people who should rule, control the means of production, and direct the economy to the people’s benefit.

To establish governments with Socialist economies, the people, usually headed by a charismatic leader or leaders, will often overthrow what they feel is a corrupt government. The goal is to give or restore control of the economy to the people. Many of these sovereign nations refer to themselves as People’s Republics. As a Republic they are governed by representatives, usually limited by a constitution. But rather than holding democratic elections that feature two or more strong parties they hold elections where only members of the one ‘party of the people’ are elected.

In these ‘Republics’ the head of the party usually has more power than the head of state. It is also the party which dictates how the economy operates. This kind of socialist economy often works better in theory than in practice. Many of these governmental representatives are chosen more for their loyalty to the party rather than for their ability to govern. Their weakness lets the economy fail. Weak leaders can succumb to the lure of power. Power can corrupt even the most honest of politicians. ‘The people’ who overthrow corrupt governments can easily become corrupt themselves. Therefore, many of these nations are unstable, with one government after another becoming corrupt. The people rise up once again and that government is also overthrown. But the economy remains socialist.

An extreme form of Socialism is Communism. Communism is perhaps the purest form of Socialism in the sense that the government is the economy. In Communism the workers both own the means of production and elect the representatives that form the government. Again, there is only one party, the worker’s party. The two major Communist nations were and are Russia and China, both born of 20th century people’s revolutions.

Russian Communism also featured only one party, the Communist Party. The nation was divided into integrated social, economic, and political units called communes. Thus the name ‘Communism’. The workers elected a committee, called a Soviet, that ran the commune out of those workers who were party members. Central government representatives were elected out of the Soviets. Again, party leaders had more power than the elected representatives. The Russian ‘empire’ or sphere of influence was the called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. 

The USSR was a Union because it united a number of previously sovereign nations such as Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, etc. into one functioning government. It was Soviet because its basic political unit was the Soviet. Theese nations were Socialist Republics because they were sovereign states that were dominated by Russia. Russia allowed them to elect and send party representatives to a central government, called a Politburo, that controlled their government, and individual lives, through controlling the communes

In the Soviet economy each commune was given a specified task and was told by government what production goals they were to reach. There was a strict hierarchy of rulers who handed down these orders from the level above them, much like a military hierarchy. More and more pressure was placed on communes to produce more and more to keep pace with western capitalist economies. The economy began to lag behind the capialist nations. Although the USSR had a large amount of resources the Soviet model was not able to take advantage of them. Also, the Communist hierarchy easily became corrupt as opportunites for bribery and lies were numerous. Eventually, over about 75 years of Communist rule, it became clear that communist economics were failing and in the late 20th Century the USSR broke into it’s separate staes, most of whom returned to democracy and capitalism.

Communist China saw the Soviet Union begin to fail as the Soviet form of economics and worker operated government was unable to compete against the challenge of Capitalism. Economically, they realized that some capitalist principles had to be used to compete with the West. The government remained “communist” because they remained a one party government with representatives selected only from within the Communist party. However, they began to downplay their communisy nature and started to call themselves simply ‘China’. Businesses and corporations were allowed to compete in international markets using certain capitalist principles. Still, because government permission and guidance was required for companies to use capital, their economic system became something of a hybrid. This socialist/capitalist hybrid economy has seen greater success than Soviet style economics ever did.

There is another hybrid form of Socialism, one which has had a measure of success. It originated not in authoritarian, one party goverbments but mostly in parliamentary onarhies, where the monarch are primarily figureheads and government is democratly elected from a number of parties. Its appeal is growing in America. It is gathering support from many younger Americans and even some old school American socialists. This American Socialism, often called Democratic Socialism, is modeled after what is known as Scandinavian Social Democracy or the Nordic Model.

I don’t know a great deal about the inner workings of Scandinavian style social democracy. What I do know is the government is democratic, elected by the people. The power of the government and its economy originates in the will of the people. Nordic people have a tradition of working together and sacrificing personal gain to make sure all citizens have security in their quality of life. The Socialist nature of the economy comes from this strong social welfare tradition. While Nordic economies still feature a large amount of capitalist free-market activity, this strong social welfare policy dominates. It is another type of hybrid economy, one whose government is very different from China, but with a similar economic philosophy.

The citizens of Nordic social democracies pay a high percentage of their income in taxes. For this they get such social benefits as publicly financed (not free) healthcare, higher education without fees or tuition, generous parental leave for all parents, nearly unlimited unemployment benefits, and other generous social welfare programs. The Nordic spirit of community motivates Scandinavians to pay more taxes in order to insure meaningful and secure lives for everyone regardless of status. It is largely this strong social safety net which appeals to many young Americans.

We should expect more of these hybrid economies in the future, as it has become clear that neither pure, unrestrained capitalism nor strict and limiting Socialism have succeeded to any great degree. These new ideas have been largely ignored by the leaders of both the capitalist and socialist forms of economics. They still see the world from a 20th Century viewpoint. The failure of these old economic theories stems from the constant economic growth needed by Capitalism and the harshnesss of government control of the economy that defines Socialism. Both are impossibly and/or functionally unsustainable. 

Much to the irritation of America’s conservative capitalists there has been a recent increase of interest in and support of Democratic Socialism. They can no longer avoid the challenge of hybrid economies. Young people are not accepting the conservative definition of Socialism as being a dirty word. They see the hypocrisy of conservatives who claim Nazism and Communism are the same thing and say that Socialism is a government that is desperate to destroy America and Democracy. 

Millennials and many precocious Generation Z youth see through this effort to define Socialism as a threat to everything American. They see that a well thought out social democracy that both respects individual liberty and social welfare is not only desirable but necessary. They want a government and economic system with the honest competition and entrepreneurial spirit of Capitalism and the wise regulation of capitalists and efficient social services found in Socialism.

Americans don’t realize that we have many hybrid Socialist programs already in place and succeeding. Local services such as police and fire services, water treatment and snow removal are paid for through taxes but produced and controlled by government. That’s Socialism. Every time we hear of a “public/private cooperative project” we are dealing with a hybrid of Socialism and Capitalism. Government and private business working together is a growing means of doing large public projects such as road building and bridge construction.

Neither Keynes’ nor Friedman’s economic theories work in the 21st Century. This is something all politicians must learn and embrace. Strictly adopting either demand driven or supply side economic principles by themselves in today’s information and service world is not wise. America no longer has the industrial, manufacturing economy of the past. Hybrid economies featuring modified principles of both Capitalism and Socialism, or perhaps a totally new economic theory are the future.

Until then the battle rages on.

(More Than) A Few Words About Privilege

A topic of great interest for me has been the concept of privilege. From conversations and commentary I’ve been involved in there appears to be nearly as many ideas of what privilege is and what it means as there are comments. It is out of character for me to be simple in any way but how I understand privilege seems simple compared to other explanations I have heard.

I have tried to keep myself out of this discussion, from the standpoint of my own privilege. My demographic is fraught with privilege to the degree that I may never get to the bottom of it. I am white, male, middle class, heterosexual, cisgender, protestant, college educated, a senior, with a mental disorder. All of those things are prime examples of things that are associated with some form of privilege or another.

One might ask what having a mental disorder has to do with privilege but I assure you that one has access to certain things much easier when one is “disabled”. Regardless, that litany of things about me are all subject to privilege for a very good reason. Things. They are not character traits. They are actual things. They are ‘whats’ and not ‘whos’.

This is the basis for my appreciation of what privilege is and perhaps more importantly, what it isn’t. Privilege is about things. Depending on what sort of thing we are talking about the thing a person is is either subject to privilege or not. The primary indicator is that privilege is not about who we are but about what we are. And privilege is about choice. It is about what we choose to do about the privileges we have.

I can see that this explanation is vague so let’s look into it a little closer. The criterion I use to determine if a thing has privilege is how many people can be that thing. Who you are can be anyone, and anyone can be who you are. For example, a doctor can be anyone and anyone can be a doctor. That is a who. When someone asks us who we are we normally answer with a who answer, an answer that could apply to anyone. We might say we are a doctor. That’s a who. That’s because anyone can be a doctor.

When asked who we are we likely wouldn’t say we are male. Why? Because male is not a who answer. It is a what answer. Male is a logical answer to the question what are you. That is because not everyone can be a ‘what’. We don’t ask who nationality are you. Or who colored eyes do you have. Of course ‘what’ questions can sometimes have who answers. One might ask what kind of car do you drive. But the answer there is a subset of a who answer. Anyone can potentially drive a car. So anyone could drive the same kind of car you drive.

And herein we have the criterion for the difference between who and what, between privilege and not privilege. Sure it can get confusing. If the difference between a ‘who’ and a ‘what eludes you remember the prime indicator. The proof for a ‘who’ or a ‘what’ is in the number of people that can do or be a thing. Anyone can be a doctor. Not everyone can be male. All males have privilege. Doctors do not.

Some caveats here. First, one might say that doctors have privilege. They get better seats at the theatre and restaurants, better service from just about any mechanic or cashier than other people. But that is a function of earned merit. It is not something they just are. It is something they chose to earn. Anyone can study for years to become a doctor, but no one can study to be Irish.

It is also obvious that many people have a lesser chance to be a doctor than others. But once again that is a function of choice as well, just in a different direction. People who want to be doctors are often not chosen for the opportunity to become doctors based on factors such as race and class or education. Or, people with privilege are thought to be more qualified to become doctors are chosen by others with privilege, in positions of power.

Earned privilege is not the same as ‘what’ privilege. Earned privilege doesn’t always apply to a given situation. Whereas someone who identifies as male is always male, a doctor’s earned privilege is dependent on someone else granting it to him. The mechanic can always say, ‘I don’t care if you are a doctor you aren’t getting your car done earlier than anybody else’.

Here is where we start getting into what privilege really is. It’s people getting advantages or disadvantages simply because of what they are. You’re black and you can’t buy a house in a certain neighborhood but if you are white you can. That is white privilege. It is also racism. The racism is the realtor’s and not so much the two competing parties. Racism and white privilege are not the same thing. Anyone can be a racist. That is a who. Only certain people can be white. That is a what. Now of course a person can be both white with privilege and racist. That is a dangerous state of being we will touch on later.

Another way of determining if a person is privileged is to use what I call the Aldi criterion. When a person walks into Aldi pushing a cart you can sometimes tell by looking at them that they belong to a specific group of people. They are ‘whats’who have some sort of privilege. Or sometimes you can’t tell at allThose people are usually “who’s’. Using the Aldi criterion when a doctor walks into Aldi unless they are wearing scrubs no one can tell they are a doctor. But if a woman wearing a hijab pushes her cart in she is immediately known to be a Muslim woman with traditionally little privilege.

It is interesting that unless they otherwise reveal themselves, like the doctor in scrubs, it’s impossible to know a person’s ‘who’ by observing their ‘what’. Any black, asian, native, latin, or white person, man or woman, could be a doctor. This is another way we can understand that anyone can be a who but only certain people are whats. One can see that this criteria applies consistently, at least for observations based on visible physicality.

When a Muslim or white person enters Aldi one knows immediately. As soon as a white person pushes their cart through the door you know they probably won’t be watched on the camera feeds like a young black male would be. Unless of course they are dirty and unkempt like a homeless person, who is another persecuted group with lesser societal privilege. That white person is likely viewed with the same suspicion as the black male.

There exists a hierarchy of privilege that dictates whose privilege is greater. For example a white man’s privilege is greater than a white woman’s whose privilege is greater than a black man’s. And, frankly, an elderly black man has more privilege that a young black male. A hetero white family is more likely to get a mortgage than a white lesbian family but the lesbian family would still get one over a Muslim family And neither the hetero or lesbian white family would be raided by ICE at their workplace like a Latina.

These are the effects of the victimhood of ‘the other’ by those with privilege of a higher heirarchic status. The negative effects on those with little or no privilege are many and varied. A major issue in society today is that unless the person with privilege has accepted their privilege and are sensitive to it’s damage they do not see that these negative effects are doubly invisible. They do not know they have privilege in the first place. And second, they do not see that they have done any damage. That’s some big negative karma.

The white grocery shopper above didn’t do anything to deserve that mortgage or avoiding that visit from ICE. They could be a good person or a bad person. It doesn’t matter. They just happened to be born white. When they walk into the store you don’t know them at all. But you know when they leave they are less likely to be stopped for a burnt out tail light than a black judge on his way home from court. Privilege has nothing to do with who you are. You can’t tell what sort of privilege a person has by their whos. You can only know from their whats.

I think a large part of the misunderstanding about the concept of privilege is that it gets tangled up with other concepts. Sometimes people are both a racist and have privilege and other times they are not. In the example above the white families got the houses simply because they were white. Chances were they weren’t racist. And the black family may have been just as much or more financially capable of paying their mortgage as any of the families.

Once again, all white people have white privilege. Because they are what? They are white. You don’t have to be a racist to have white privilege. You might be a racist or you might not. But you absolutely have to be white. Being white affords you a laundry list of privilege you hold over other races. You did nothing to earn it. This is where the conversation about white privilege in particular usually goes south. A person will be told they have white privilege and immediately they become angry and say “But I’m not a racist”.

And maybe they aren’t a racist. But they do have white privilege. Why? Because everyone can be a racist but not everyone can be white. Being racist is a who and being white is a what. You have privilege when what you are is higher on the heirarchy totem than other people. There then is a set of advantages available to you based solely on that particular what. Sometimes people get confused with whos and whats. One big confusion that creates problems with people understanding white privilege stems from the fact that people are often both white and racist.

This is truly a big problem. Not only in local sociopolitical discourse but also as a national issue that is crippling American society. As individuals we must separate the conversation about race from the issue of whether or not somebody has privilege. People will try to mix up the two to muddy the waters. The issues of racism and white privilege are just two of many intertwined and complicated issues we face as a society. It’s vitally important to be clear about the universe to which our conversations apply.

For me the number one thing people can do to break through the anger and misinformation out there is to put a wedge between the concepts of ‘what’ with it’s privilege and ‘who’ states of being. Only then can productive dialogue take place. Let’s say you are talking to a male about discrepancies in pay for the USWNT, even as they have won the World Cup 4 times out of 8. You say that male privilege is largely responsible for women not getting equal pay. The man says ‘But my company gives women equal pay’.

If you aren’t clear about what to say in a situation like that always ask yourself the who vs. what question before you rattle off an answer. A good reply is not always very clear and an answer is expected immediately. So practice arming yourself with the question, internally. In this instance not all companies pay women equally. His company is more who than what privilege has a lower hierarchy than male privilege. Therefore his claim doesn’t hold water. This is a subtle distinction.

Companies themselves don’t have privilege so much as power and influence. The same with politicians and others with power. Their power can often circumvent privilege. They are higher on the heirarchy pyramid. However, classic privilege still functions in many situations, such as the black judge getting pulled over for a minor infraction or ludicrous suspicion. There are exceptions to the who versus what criterion.

In our equal pay example the man is a ‘what’ and has male privilege. Armed with this knowledge you can respectfully inform him of the difference between a what and a who. And how that relates to their conversation. It isn’t hard to understand these things when you keep them clear and basic. And without judgement.

If he isn’t hardcore and is simply confused or under the spell of propaganda you are much more likely to continue with a meaningful conversation. It may even inspire him to reevaluate his position on privilege and start looking into himself. This will be because he now knows he himself is not responsible for his privilege. It is because from birth he has been part of a specific group. He is now aware he has no control over his privilege, and never had.

One thing people should understand is that everyone has some sort of privilege. Everyone can have or do something that others can’t, simply because of what they are. People of color have privilege too. Men have privilege. Tall people have privilege. Attractive women get into night clubs while others can’t. English speakers also have privilege. Why? Because it is a what answerr to the question ‘What language do you speak’. In our culture some of these ‘what’ groups have significantly more privilege and others have significantly less. It’s that heirarchy pyramid at work.

Privilege can also be reversed. If you are a white person, try going into certain restaurants or night clubs in certain ethnic or religious neighborhoods and see how comfortable you feel. In that select environment black people have privilege. The heirarchy is reversed. Stepping out of your universe of privilege like that is actually a great way to experience the anguish of being a victim of privilege. It can change your perspective rather quickly. Most white people have rarely, if ever, experienced even five minutes of the abject discomfort that people of color feel everyday all day, often as the only POC in the room. This is not always easy for white people. In these situations they are prone to freaking out.

Sadly, and actually I should use a stronger word here than sadly, the fear that POC will soon have the privilege of being the majority leads white supremacists to desperation. It fuels their attempts to create an American apartheid. They are frightened and angry. They are desperate to maintain political power even as they become a minority race in America.

This desperation stems from the fact they have had privilege in this nation for hundreds of years. They have never known anything else. Just the opposite, POC in the USA have been the victims of white privilege and supremacy for just as long. They are determined to gain the equity in political and social power they have deserved for hundreds of years. White people in America are as afraid of losing their power as POC are determined to have power. This struggle is also a crisis in the USA, one that continues to grow.

Understanding your own privilege and acting to neutralize it is vitally important for our ability to see it in others. All the things I mentioned as my demographic are ‘whats’. White, male, middle class etc. are all whats. Those ‘whats’ show me my privileges. But, I don’t have musicians privilege or history degree privilege. Because those are whos. Your whats and whos shape you as you relate to the world. As white people the work we must do is to constantly assess and reassess not only what biases and prejudices we have, but also accessing our ‘whats’ and the privilege that accompanies them. By knowing ourselves and looking deep inside us we discover how our own privilege affects us and those around us.

We need meaningful dialogue in our country at rural breakfast counters to urban cocktail parties and everywhere in between. Our knowledge of self and awareness of the advantages we have simply because of what we are, whether male or white or any other ‘what’ are vital tools. We can use them to diffuse the anger and the misunderstandings about privilege these honest conversations reveal. It is a good first step toward having those respectful conversations. To take that step means being clear about your own privilege and how it affects others.

This is where those tools we’ve discussed come into play. I have experienced these sorts of encounters first hand. I have had several ‘I’m not a racist’ discussions. The conversation often centers on choice. I explain that they had no choice in being white but they did have a choice to be a racist. And they chose not to be one. Nor did they choose to have white privilege because they didn’t choose to be white. In my experience this sort of open and honest dialogue has often calmed people down enough to civilly talk about our privilege and what we can do to work on it.

Most people want to get along with each other and any tools we can use to help people learn to live better together are valuable. White people having honest conversations with other white people is very important to our understanding of privilege. We need to work hard to refine techniques of communication that are based more on the shared values of our ‘whats’ and less on the often divisive ideas of our ‘whos’. Using these tools will give us a better chance of breaking through resistance than simply bludgeoning people with facts.

There are many positive results we can take away from productive conversations about privilege. But it takes work, fortitude, patience, and mostly love. We mustn’t forget that there are as many types of privilege as there are human ‘what’s’. Developing self reflection, humility and good listening skills as habitual will be invaluable to our relationships on all levels. Exploring the ‘whats’ in our own lives gives us great insight into how our privileges affect the people in our lives in so many ways. It also gives us a peek into the privileges of others, how they affect us, and significantly, how they also affect them.

I have always found it valuable to look at situations like these through the lens of who vs. what relationships. I remember that women don’t walk across the street when they see me walking towards them, not because I’m a musician but because I’m white. I can’t change the fact that I’m white. I have to accept that and thus I have to accept the consequences of that. I have to accept my white privilege. This means I must look deep inside myself to find the privillege imprinted there, often since I was a child.

Also important is that I ask myself why that women who doesn’t cross to the other side of the street when I approach will cross over when a black man approaches. Then I need to think about how that black man feels when, every day, white people avoid him and stare at him like he is a criminal. And then I must stop looking at him like that myself, because he deserves to have a happy and fulfilling life as much as I or anyone else does. He is not a black who just happens to be a man but a man who just happens to be black. It’s a subtle difference but significant.

So, let’s remember. Privilege is a sociocultural, economic, political, or physical advantage you have when you belong to a group that not everyone can belong to. Something that only the limited number of people in that group can have or do. Privilege is about what you are. If you make it about who you are, if it’s about who you have made yourself or who you chose to be, that’s not about privilege. But don’t ignore or discount the ‘whos’. Often whats and whos can come together, such as male privilege and toxic masculinity, to create powerful sociopolitical gangs that are damaging to society and difficult to contend with. Be wary of such combinations.

I have to say here that I am not an authority on privilege. Far from it. My observations can likely be shot full of holes by most anyone. In fact, with the litany of privileges I have I could easily spend the rest of my life discovering and working on them. That being said, I believe in my observations and these tools as limited as they may be. I need to do more work and listen and learn. I must humble myself before those who know more.

We know that I have plenty of privilege to work on, much of it deeply buried in my unconscious. Sometimes it comes out at bad times. I get embarrassed and angry with myself. I feel I have failed in moving into the 21st century, where human evolution is outstripping efforts to blunt it. Luckily, I have a good support system of loving comrades who remind me that I am working hard on my shortcomings and thus worthy of a few mulligans. I am grateful for their succor and love.

If this post helps just one person open up, make their privileges conscious, and find the strength to work on neutralizing there effects out in the world I will have succeeded.

Perhaps I am that one person.

And in the Red Corner, Liberty​

It has come to my attention, evidently moving from one side of my brain to the other, that the words freedom and liberty, used both often and liberally, have many different perceived meanings; which are then debated, argued and fought over. To a more conservative minded person, freedom and liberty may have very different meanings than to a liberal minded person. Not to mention the fact that there is also significant disagreement inside both conservative and liberal circles over what these words mean. (I hate the term “not to mention” because invariably, directly after saying it one mentions what is allegedly not to be mentioned.)  Not to mention the fact that these terms are constantly used to describe and define essential elements of American democracy. Sad.

When people use these words, freedom and liberty, they assume they are universal concepts universally understood; they feel certain everybody knows what they mean. But in reality, it’s only what that particular person thinks they mean. It’s the “everybody knows” mistake. Everybody does not know. Not everybody sees liberty and freedom just like you do. It is contradictions like this that gets us into loads of trouble from a societal standpoint. Misinterpretations lead to misgivings.

When we talk about freedom or liberty, and we assume we are all talking about the same thing, we go a little crazy when the other guy says something that clearly shows we are not talking about the same thing. We either think they are stupid idiots or they are trying to subvert and undermine what we are saying. Neither of those things is likely to be true and neither do they lead to anything good.

It’s hella frustrating.

So, in discussions about freedom and liberty, I think it wise to start off by explaining our definition of terms. Rather than creating discord and argument on the backside, it’s a good idea to define terms on the front side, as in a formal debate. When you talk about freedom and liberty, tell people upfront what you mean by these words. For example, don’t say:

“I think people need to be free, but when xyz does abc they are preventing 123 from being 456 and that takes away their freedom”

What does being 456 have to do with freedom exactly? Depends on what you think freedom is.

instead, you could say:

“Freedom means 789 to me and when xyz does abc it stops 123 from having 789 and that takes away their freedom to be 456”

Then at least you know they think 789 has something to do with being 456 and to them that has something to do with freedom.

You may need to read that bit over again.

Anyway, starting a conversation about freedom or liberty with what you mean by freedom or liberty gives the other person a reference point to engage in a respectful, meaningful discussion, rather than reacting negatively to something they think they heard that they think they know which may or may not be true or at all relevant. Unfortunately, when definitions aren’t made clear, contested concepts like liberty and freedom can spark the kind of needless arguments that plague civil discourse and turn a legitimate debate into angry violence, emotional and/or physical.

The contested nature of many contested concepts is not always naturally occurring. Entities with agendas actively foment misunderstanding and will intentionally muddy the waters by promoting their opposing definitions of certain terms. If they feel the use of a certain word doesn’t serve their agenda they will work to subvert the meaning of that word by constantly repeating their alternate definition, constantly repeating it in as many ways as they can to as many people as possible. They will constantly repeat it over and over, by constantly repeating it, over and over. When constantly repeated, over and over, over time their definition will come to be accepted by enough people so that in a discussion there will be contention over the meaning of terms. A strong contention that can engender anger and fighting, spiritual, emotional, mental and often physical.

Therefore, it is crucial that we listen closely to how people use words and to hear their words contextually. We can then discover what they really mean when they use a word, especially when it means something different to us.

We need to listen for agendas. We can’t live in a bubble. If we accept and understand conflicting meanings and find where they originate, then knowing why people define their terms as they do we have a much better chance of reconciling our contentious, gridlocked issues.

Words and their meanings are so important.

I can’t emphasize that enough.

OK, I need to get back to freedom and liberty.

I believe in working with these words it can be valuable to recognize the subtle differences in their natures. I would say that a majority of people use them interchangeably. But freedom and liberty are not quite the same things. If you look closely at the concepts these words describe you will see that freedom is about what, and liberty is about who. Freedom is about being, and liberty is about doing. That is, what is being versus who is doing.

For example, looking at slavery in America, emancipation made slaves FREE to no longer BE slaves, but as things turned out they did not always have the LIBERTY to DO what they wanted. This was the essence of issues faced by freed slaves in the Jim Crow era. They were freed by law from being owned, but the dominant white power structure took away their liberty to do as they desired. Freedom gives us the opportunity to BE a banker if we so choose. But it is in the choice to DO so where the liberty lives. When people talk about freedom, look for WHAT they want to BE FREE from. And when they talk about liberty, look for WHO claims they have the LIBERTY to DO something.

We should remember that freedom is a more concrete word than liberty. Not having a freedom is a clearer concept than not having liberty. It could be why freedom normally trumps liberty in contested situations. And why there is nearly always indignation arising out of those victories.

Looking at it from the standpoint of rights, freedom relates more to a constitutional right and liberty to an inalienable right. Freedom is an earned right and liberty is a birthright. We have freedom from something but have the liberty to do something. Freedom is granted by government and liberty is granted by God. Frankly, although the words mean nearly the same exact thing, the difference is substantial enough that there will always be a battle between that which is given by Caesar and that which is given by God.

A good example of this esoteric struggle is the clash between Cliven Bundy and the Federal Bureau of Land Management. Essentially Bundy claimed that he had the God-given right, the liberty, to graze his cattle on federal land, simply because he could. And the BLM said no, that’s the government’s land and your cattle aren’t free to graze there.  The disagreement originated in a clash between claims of liberty and assignments of freedom. And in the end government and its bestowed freedom triumphed over Bundy and his claimed liberty. And much indignation arose out of the government’s victory.

As an aside, but relevant, I also see the irony inherent in this relationship of freedom juxtaposed with liberty as the basis for a meaningful contradiction of spirit. It is a contradiction displayed by people who want to supplant civil law with biblical laws, all the while fearing that sharia law will supplant civil law.

As we see, the differences between the concepts of freedom and liberty are subtle and do nothing to help us avoid contention. In this time, sadly, the words are used interchangeably but are understood to mean many and often vastly different things. Yet in a disagreement, yea an argument, understanding those differences just might give you the subtle edge that allows you to establish your definitions, create some movement of hearts, and perhaps change a mind or two. At the very least, understanding that freedom and liberty are contested concepts and the guy on the next barstool over might not hear them the same way you do gives us all a better understanding of how difficult it will be to bridge the gulf of partisanship we now so sadly live with.

Words make a difference.

A big difference.