Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.
Meditation XVII, John Donne
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
“Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes
For my first-year writing students, Roxane Gay’s “Peculiar Benefits” serves as a powerful mentor text and an effective entry point into a difficult topic, privilege.
“Privilege is a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor,” Gay explains, adding:
There is racial privilege, gender (and identity) privilege, heterosexual privilege, economic privilege, able-bodied privilege, educational privilege, religious privilege and the list goes on and on. At some point, you have to surrender to the kinds of privilege you hold because everyone has something someone else doesn’t.
While her essay demonstrates the effectiveness of grounding an argument in personal narrative—her own Haitian heritage and trips to Haiti that confronted her with that country in contrast to the US—Gay also acknowledges the inherent struggle to address privilege in meaningful ways:
The problem is, we talk about privilege with such alarming frequency and in such empty ways, we have diluted the word’s meaning. When people wield the word privilege it tends to fall on deaf ears because we hear that word so damn much the word it has become white noise.
From #BlackLIvesMatter to #MeToo, I have begun to wonder if a growing rumble approaches, a rising toll that will someday no longer be only “white noise.”
Many in the US strongly resist discussions of or acknowledging privilege, as Gay notes, and part of that resistance is grounded, I think, in the cultural narrative created and perpetuated by the power elites—mostly white men: Political and economic status in the US has been earned through merit, and not privilege.
That cultural narrative is mostly a lie since the original power grabs were almost all at the expense of others (slavery and denying women equal status with men, for examples) and then those advantages—privilege—have been accumulated over many, many generations. That historical expanse has helped reduce privilege to “white noise,” it seems.
The recently stalled appointment of Brett Kavanaugh represents both the entrenched refusal of privilege and the potential eroding of the merit-cloak shrouding the truly disturbing underbelly of life-long privilege.
Kavanaugh’s interview to defend himself and proclaim both his innocence and determination to continue the appointment process has some telling features:
“I’ve always treated women with dignity and respect,” Kavanaugh insisted. “Listen to the people who’ve known me best my whole life.” Did he commit sexual assault? He “never saw any such thing.” Did he engage in lurid sexual encounters? He “never participated in any such thing.” Rather, he was focused on “trying to be No. 1 in my class” and “captain of the varsity basketball team” while working on “service projects” and “going to church.” Also, he did not have “anything close to sexual intercourse in high school or for many years thereafter.”
The denial extends beyond claiming not to have committed sexual assault to never hearing of misconduct at his school or by classmates, punctuated with his own choir-boy self-description.
This picture is the merit-veneer narrative common among the privileged who have created and maintained a network of privilege. Kavanaugh’s appointment is a blueprint for circling the wagons among the connected to protect each other regardless of who or why.
Kavanaugh’s assertions stretch credibility, however, not just for those attending elite private school but for anyone who has ever attended any high school in the US. Teens drinking and sexual misbehavior are all too common parts of adolescence, but even more damning are artifacts from Kavanaugh’s own high school experience and published accounts by his peers and friends, notably Mark Judge:
Judge, 54, has chronicled the debauchery of his 1980s high school years as a student at Georgetown Prep, where he and Kavanaugh were self-proclaimed members of the “100 Kegs or Bust” club.
In his 1997 memoir, “Wasted: Tales of a Gen X Drunk,” he wrote of high school “masturbation class,” said he “lusted after girls” at Catholic schools and referenced a passed-out “Bart O’Kavanaugh,” who drank too much and once threw up in a car.
This Kavanaugh debacle is a slightly more polished but perfectly aligned part of the larger Trump phenomenon grounded in lies and denying evidence. While Trump plays the cartoonish buffoon, Kavanaugh is sprung from the refined elites who, as this unmasking is exposing, have very ugly lives under the cover of privilege—the ruling vampire class of the US.
As the perverse and contradictory claims reveal about the cavalry forming to defend Kavanaugh—including women—somehow Kavanaugh is both innocent of sexual assault (because he was a virgin and attended church) and the poster boy for “all boys have sexual assault in their pasts” and “we cannot allow boyhood indiscretions to ruin the promising futures of some men.”
And beyond the specific Kavanaugh controversy and the subsequent defenses, even more disturbing is the rise of concerns about all men now being afraid of #MeToo consequences joined by garbled memes about mothers fretting over their sons’ futures (see this Twitter thread dismantling that narrative).
Ultimately, the US is now poised to make an important decision about continuing to ignore the white noise of privilege or hearing the rising rumble that tolls for the abusive and corrupt privileged elites.
The Kavanaugh accusations sit against the merit-veneer narrative orchestrated by Kavanaugh (and echoed by Trump and his ilk) as well as the often-ignored weight of evidence:
“Sexual assault is likely the most under-reported crime in the United States. About two-thirds of female sexual assault victims do not report to the police, and many victims do not tell anyone. Sexual assault is a terrifying and humiliating experience. Women choose not to report for a variety of reasons — fear for their safety, being in shock, fear of not being believed, feeling embarrassed or ashamed, or expecting to be blamed.
“A lack of reporting does not mean an assault or attempted assault did not happen or is exaggerated. Research demonstrates that false claims of sexual assault are very low — between 2 and 7 percent. This tells us that far more women are assaulted and don’t report than women who make false claims.” (Statement of APA President Regarding the Science Behind Why Women May Not Report Sexual Assault)
A people disgusted by the sordid underbelly of privilege must reject the merit-veneer narrative and choose the greater path to not only truth but also equity.
#MeToo is a reckoning about sexual assault and the silencing of women.
Everything about the Kavanaugh narrative rings false, and we are far past time to silence the lies of privilege.