Wait, Do I Have Economic Privilege?

Economic privilege is not having to *think* so much.

 

Economic privilege is a funny thing, in that everyone wants to be rich, but no one wants to admit that they have economic privilege. If you tell someone who is lower-middle class up through to the 1% that they have economic privilege, they will find fifteen different ways to “prove” to you that they don’t. Usually this proof consists of what they can and cannot buy. And while purchasing power is certainly an aspect of economic privilege, it is not the most important sign. Economic privilege is about the ability to avoid thinking. It takes an intense amount of mental and emotional energy to be poor.

I know this because I recently joined (or rejoined, depending on your definition) the ranks of the economically privileged. (Caveat: I am aware that as a white woman who was able to attend graduate school, has never been evicted from my housing, and has consistent access to things like clean drinking water, I have likely always enjoyed a certain level of economic privilege. That being said, without going into the entire sordid tale of my poverty bona fides, let’s just say that I’m well-acquainted with the experience of having various utilities turned off, and of sacrificing my opportunities for economic security so that family members could avoid being evicted.) It was not until I recently began making enough money to put me in the realm of what I would call “economically comfortable” that I realized exactly how much of my daily processing power I was using in order to navigate my economic situation.

It started, as many things do, with my gas tank. Rather than a luxury, a car is basically a necessity in Wyoming. Our public transportation system blows, and our large square mileage means that basically everyone decided to build out instead of up. Our largest city, Cheyenne, has about 64,000 people and a halfhearted thing that might be called a bus route if you are feeling kindly towards it, and is actually two square miles larger than the island of Manhattan, home to 1.66 million people and a large supply of buses and subways. Even the poorest in Wyoming often require a car if they want to become anything other than the poorest. Which means that many, many people in Wyoming are exquisitely aware of the gas stations in their area.

For most of my adult life, I have kept an encyclopedic knowledge of the gas stations in my surrounding town. I know which ones are liable to be 2-10 cents per gallon more expensive than some of their counterparts. I know which ones regularly overcharge by as much as 15-30 cents per gallon more expensive because they are a “last chance” gas station before you hit nothing but hundreds of miles of prairie, or because they are rare commodities in mostly-residential areas. I know which ones appear to be more expensive, but are actually a better deal because they provide discounts associated with a grocery store rewards card. I know which gas stations update their prices the fastest when oil prices go up. In short, I have devoted incalculable amounts of mental energy to the tracking of gas stations and their prices over the past two decades.

There is, in fact, a gas station only a few blocks from my house. It’s one of those “residential area markup” gas stations, and is usually at least 3-8 cents per gallon more expensive than some of my other options in town. I normally refuse to use it for that reason, though there have been a few times that I have let my “tank almost empty” light shine for an alarming amount of time and I sulkily put half a gallon of gas from that station into my car because I’m not 100% sure that it’s going to make it to the next station. I was having one of those moments a couple of months ago, and was keeping an eagle eye on the counter to make sure I could stop it at half a gallon. While I did so, I contemplated the pain in the ass that it would be to finish up there, close up my tank, exit with a left turn onto a busy street, drive to the next gas station with lower prices, force the machine to acknowledge my card as real currency, start filling my tank again, exit with a left turn onto yet another busy street, and finally make my way to work. And then I had a thought that I’d never really had before. “I don’t have to do that.” I did some quick calculations. At the very most, I’d be saving $1.50 by leaving the gas station I was at and going to another one. In days past, that had meant the difference between putting gas in the tank and not doing so. It had meant the difference between making my budget for the month and not doing so. And now it could very easily be seen as a convenience fee. It was now suddenly within my power to decide that $1.50 was a convenience fee. I could just finish filling my tank, and think no more about it.

It was revolutionary. I stopped paying as much attention to gas prices. I’d glance at them as I drove by, but more to keep a sense of gas overall, and no longer to obsessively catalog each price. When I started running low, I would just go to the nearest station, without worrying about whether or not it was one of the cheaper ones. I stopped having to devote as much brain power to saving money.

The other signs started piling up. Not automatically reaching for the generic brand of everything. Not studiously poring over the “per ounce” cost of every product to decide which size of something was truly the better deal. Offering to pay for friends’ lunches more. Letting myself impulse buy things on Amazon. They were all fairly small acts, but they all had something in common: I didn’t have to think as much. Every financial transaction took much less of my brain power. Purchasing was reduced to “Want—should I?—yes—buy.” When before it was “Want—should I?—can I?—really?—are there better uses?—maybe… buy?” I wasn’t going crazy. I wasn’t being absolutely foolish with my money. But I was relaxing. I was thinking less.

But the moment I knew that I had “arrived” at economic privilege was when my dog got sick. I was told she’d need emergency surgery. I was told the likely eventual price range. I was told I’d need 80% of the lowest price up front. I flashed quickly to my bank account, to my credit cards, to what I was pretty sure I had in my wallet. And with barely a thought, I said yes.

It wasn’t until after I’d said yes that I even considered that it should take more thought. It was a sum of money with three zeroes. It should worry me to pay it. But I’d been told that her chances of surviving the surgery were good. I was told that her quality of life should return to normal. I knew I had the appropriate sum in my savings. I knew it would save my dog’s life. That was all the thinking I needed to do.

A year ago, that wouldn’t have been the case. I would have been with the 40% of Americans who couldn’t cover an unexpected expense of $400 without selling or borrowing something. I’d have been on the phone with every friend I could think of, begging for help and doing my best to patchwork together the amount I needed. I would have wasted valuable hours hunting down money—hours that could have significantly affected my dog’s chances of surviving the surgery. I’d have been thinking about all kinds of things—who to call, how much money to ask for, how I could get the money to where I was in order to pay the vet up front. I’d have been thinking about whether I could afford it even with help, if it would drain my account and leave me unable to return home, or to get through the next week, or until my next paycheck.

Or I would have been having even more terrible thoughts—I would have been thinking “Would it be kinder to euthanize my dog than to admit that I don’t have enough money to save her? Can I even afford the euthanasia drugs, or do I have to let her die slowly of ‘natural’ causes?”

I knew I had economic privilege because I didn’t have to think about the question, “Can I afford to keep my dog alive?”

A lot of economically privileged people act as if poor people are stupid. As if they don’t know that that they could save money if they buy in bulk, if they give up Starbucks, if they stop using payday loans, etc. That simply isn’t true. Poor people are some of the smartest motherfuckers I know. Poor people are thinking all the time. Poor people can tell who what grocery store has the cheapest produce, and what grocery store has the cheapest meat. Poor people can tell you when the stores start marking down clothing so they can make room for new stock. Poor people can tell you what cafes or coffee shops let you stay the longest to mooch their wifi while only buying a single plain coffee. Poor people can tell you when their bills are due, and how long the grace period is for each bill. Poor people can tell you which laundromat has the best quality of machines for the lowest price. Poor people can tell you exactly how much money they have in their bank account. I doubt Trump can even tell you exactly how much money he has paid to Cohen to hush up affairs.

To have economic privilege is to have freedom from thinking. You can use the nearest gas station without thinking about it. You can tip your server 25% instead of 20% just because the math is easier. You can buy the food that tastes better, or is better for you, or is just easier to put into your cart. You can keep yourself reasonably healthy. You can keep your animals alive. You can avoid thinking about every moment of every day.

Sure, even economically privileged people still have financial worries. Wages are down, healthcare costs are up. No one seems to have enough retirement savings, and Social Security isn’t going to exist by the time I’m old enough to retire. Health problems can crop up at any moment.

But poor people have all of those worries, and then everything else. Hell, it becomes a privilege to have enough spare brain power to worry about retirement. Being able to worry about the future means being certain you’re going to survive the present. And when you’re having to devote so much of your time, your energy, and your thoughts to day-to-day existence, that isn’t a certainty that is easy to have.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is of spare change on a table, is by Flickr user frankieleon, and is used under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Let’s Talk About “Societal Norms”

Because there are better ways to run a society.

 

I “godwinned” myself this weekend, at a national conference.

It was a conference focusing on scholarly publishing and blockchain technology, and I’d been invited to talk about citation indexing because the combination of the two (blockchain technology and citation indexes) is a personal hobby of mine. Yes, I’m great at parties, why do you ask? Anyway the talk went fine, and I got through the whole thing without, I think, horribly offending anyone.

But there was another talk, by a self-described “blockchain skeptic,” which did not go over quite so well with the crowd.

Now before I go any further, I want to point out that I am absolutely in favour of skepticism when it comes to the usefulness of blockchains. Here’s a handy flowchart to find out if you need one (hint: you probably don’t). The vast majority of things are not sufficiently improved by the added cost and complexity of a blockchain to warrant the use of one.

But that said, this presentation had a number of serious issues. There were some very strange claims. The claim was made that privately-delivered packages are stolen off America’s porches more than USPS-delivered letters because stealing letters is a “federal offense,” which is wrong because packages are simply more likely to contain things of value that can be fenced anonymously. The claim was also made that Bitcoin isn’t a currency because it’s a security, which, well, the SEC disagrees with, anyway. The claim was also made that we don’t need a self-sovereign identity (a government-free secure ID) because we have social security numbers, which was just a terrible argument because have you even looked at the costs of identity theft?

But the chief claim that made me twitch was the assumption that “societal norms” are a simpler, more reliable way to do most things.

And boy did that not sit well with me.

Here’s one example: the presenter said that speed limits are governed by societal norms, and that’s fine. If a speed limit is (say) 30 miles per hour, you can probably go 40 miles per hour. The police generally don’t mind, he said, until you get to 41 or 42, and then they really get you. It’s a societal norm that certain rules can be bent. On the surface this seems like it gels with my experience, except I’m white, and, well.

Have you ever heard of “driving while black”?

See, societal norms are not just. They are not fair. They are privy to racism, sexism, and bigotry of all stripes. Societal norms automatically privilege those in power. There are a lot of places in America where it’s generally agreed that you can break a law with impunity, but only if you’re white. Waiting for a friend at Starbucks before you buy anything? Fine. But if you’re black that’s “loitering.” Having a loud party on your lawn? Fine. But if you’re black that’s “disturbing the peace.” You see where I’m going with this?

Societal norms replicate our worst biases.

So I godwinned myself and pointed out that societal norms are both powerful and often dangerous, in that they also gave us the Holocaust. The societal norms in 1930s Germany gave Jewish, queer, and white people different speed limits—if you replace “speed limits” with “rights to even exist.”

Societal norms are almost always a terrible thing to rely on, because society is made of people, and people can’t be relied upon to be fair and just to one another. It’s not that we don’t ever get it right, but all you have to do is look at the rise in actual Nazis in America, or at the rate of white Evangelical support for the lying, self-aborbed, racist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist president of the United States, to see that “norms” are easily made worse with only the slightest of nudges.

Frankly, given with how much ease they privilege the powerful at the expense of the dispossessed, it’s probably a moral imperative to get away from reliance on societal norms.

So does that mean we should use blockchains to help govern society more? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe they’d just help us, as members of society, to replicate the problems of societal norms in more high-tech ways. But what it does mean is that “societal norms work” is a bad argument against looking into whether new technologies might be able to help.

Because god knows we need all the help we can get.

Signed: The Remixologist

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Featured image is of a speed limit sign reading “Speed Limit 25 Miles,” by Eric Fischer, CC BY 2.0 

When Silence Is Supportive

Greetings, fellow male and male-adjacent (i.e. living with a greater or lesser amount of male privilege) westerners. This post is addressed to us, not to anyone else. Everyone is, of course, free to read it, but this is more about keeping our own house in order than anything else. It’s a post about a piece of advice.

This is not a revolutionary piece of advice. This is not “woke.” This is very explicitly old advice that I keep seeing us not taking, and often see myself not taking, which is why I’m bringing it up. Here’s the advice:

Give underprivileged voices space.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do is shut up and listen.

Here’s what I mean.

***

CUE SCENE

Woman 1, tweeting about her day: Ugh men are such trash.

Woman 2, sympathizing: God, I know, what now?

Woman 1: Dick pic. Again.

Woman 2: Don’t they know that it’s repulsive?

Man: [says literally anything]

Woman 1 and 2, simultaneously: *hit block button*

END SCENE

***

In this scene, there were two women having a conversation about a shared negative experience at the hands of a demographic (in this case, men) that you, a man, belong to. There is very little you can say in this instance that is helpful. You could #NotAllMen them, which is highly inadvisable for reasons that ought to be pretty clear to anyone who can use google at this point. You could also try to be supportive, something like “I’m so sorry that you had an awful experience (Again. At the hands of people like me.),” instead. This isn’t the worst response, but does insert yourself into a conversation where your presence isn’t required.

Instead, sometimes the best thing you can do is stay out of the way. That’s what I’d advise.

Is it hard when you want to be helpful and reassuring to sit on your hands and say nothing? Sure. It’s so tempting to insert yourself into a conversation with even the best of intentions. I screw up a lot, too, because I was raised to think that everyone wanted and/or needed to hear my opinion, and I’m still trying to undo the way that arises out of my own privilege. Also, Twitter flattens social hierarchies and makes you feel close to people who you’re not, and that’s a challenge, too.

And I get the irony, I do. I’m saying this in a blog post that I want people to read. I’ll probably tweet about it, too. On the other hand I made this space and set it out from the beginning of this post to not be up in someone else’s mentions about it.

What can you do, then? Well, you can listen and learn. You can make a separate conversation with other people about how you can change the cultural norms that have led to these women’s shared negative experience. You can boost their voices, too (with their permission), seeking out and sharing pieces written by those like them who have put their thoughts into words.

But all of this relies on, first, you backing away a little and asking yourself “is my input really required here?” and “will my input replace the voice of someone else?” and “would my silence be more beneficial than my speech in this instance?”

Because while sometimes silence is complicity—not speaking out against oppression, for instance—at other times it’s actively supportive.

Sometimes giving people the space to have a conversation without you is the best thing you can do. So think about it, I guess. And try to be good.

Signed: The Remixologist.

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Featured image of a cosplayer making the finger to lips “shh” gesture: Jennie Park, CC BY 2.0

Voltaire Didn’t Say It And You Shouldn’t Do It

Not all speech deserves “defending to the death.”

 

In a common misconception, people often “quote” Voltaire with the phrase “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This was not, in point of fact, written at any time by Voltaire, but rather by his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall.

And anyway, it’s a damned foolish statement to begin with, mostly because it’s almost universally a lie.

No country on Earth pays such slavish devotion to the idea of completely unregulated, unrestricted speech as America. You can picket a soldier’s funeral with “god hates f***s* signs, credibly threaten a country with nuclear annihilation, and support a political candidate with unlimited sums of money, all in the name of “freedom of speech.”

But despite this, there are many kinds of speech that US law does not protect, and if you think about it for even a moment, you don’t even want it to.

Perjury—that is, lying under oath—is not protected. If it were, witnesses could just lie with impunity on the stand and it would deal a major blow to the rule of law. Defamation isn’t protected, either, in both the written (libel) and spoken (slander) forms, on the premise that if you’re going around lying about someone else in an effort to ruin their character, that too is bad for society. Blackmail is speech, too, but again, of the unprotected variety. Once again, this is because if it were legal it would be bad for society—are you getting the connection yet? Solicitations to commit crimes, incitement to “imminent lawless action” (whose definition is still up for debate), “fighting words” (again, it’s weirdly undefined), and “true threats” all make the unprotected list in this country. America does not protect a lot of harmful kinds of speech, and for damned good reasons.

So why do people keep using this fake quote? Why would you defend someone’s right to say literally anything “to the death”?

Well, many countries have problems with censorship, so in part there’s a fear of that. But a large part of it is something else. Something I talk about a *lot*. Are you with me yet? If you read my tweets you’re probably there by now. You got it: social hierarchies of power, otherwise known as “privilege.”

When someone quotes Hall (thinking they’re quoting Voltaire) what they’re mostly saying is that they’ll even defend speech that offends them. They’re not (usually) saying they’ll defend speech that harms them—I haven’t seen any perjury legalization rallies lately, but you let me know if you do—they’re just saying that “people shouldn’t get so offended.”

And here’s the thing: mistaking harm for offense is all about power.

If you’re white and male and straight and all the majority demographic categories in this country at once, it is almost impossible to use protected speech to harm you. You have, at this moment in 2018, so much social capital that, say, if you’re a man who gropes women and who thinks he can get away with it because he’s rich (say), and people go tell everyone about it, you can still be elected president of the entire goddamned country. Remember, it’s not libel or slander if it’s a real true thing you yourself have been caught on tape bragging about. Telling everyone “hey that guy grabs women by their genitalia without their consent” is protected speech, and no matter how egregious, it doesn’t seem to do harm. Because that’s the privilege of power.

Now think of hate speech. Not the kind that explicitly endorses violence, which many legal experts do consider unprotected (but which is still up for debate because people are terrible), but the kind that doesn’t. The kind that gradually dehumanizes a minority group, the kind that calls for legal but unjust actions, that has a cumulative effect of diminishing the social capital of an already marginalized group.

To someone from a group with a lot of social capital, this might be offensive, but to someone from a group struggling to achieve equal rights, it is actively harmful. Until a majority of the population considers a marginalized group worth standing up for, change does not happen. Gay marriage didn’t happen until a majority of the American population came on side. And that kind of achievement was held up for decades by legally-supported anti-queer speech.

So if you’re straight and some noxious human windbag says queer people are subhuman and don’t deserve the right to marry, and you’re not a completely unforgivable bigot, you’re offended by that speech. But if you’re queer and gay marriage isn’t legal yet? Especially if there’s an ongoing debate as to whether you should have rights? That speech harms you.

And now’s the point where I have to say “no, I don’t think being a completely reprehensible human being should be illegal, per se,” because someone’s going to come along and interpret my explanation of power, speech, offense, and harm as a call for the criminalization of being Ricky Gervais on any given Tuesday night in public. No.

What I’m here to do is to point out that if you say “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” you’re probably lying to yourself. There are plenty of kinds of speech you wouldn’t defend to the death, because those kinds of speech would cause you yourself harm rather than simple offense.

What I’m here to do is to ask you, the next time you think about saying that, to instead ask yourself exactly how much harm you think speech should be allowed to do, to whom it should be allowed to do that harm, and what your justifications are for where you draw that line.

Because all societies have to draw a line, and all individuals have to draw a line, and nobody draws that line without reference to their own positions of privilege and power.

Signed: The Remixologist.

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Featured image of a statue of Voltaire is CC0 (Public Domain).