I’m a white, straight, tall, athletic middle-upper class male living in the United States. I think it was about 3 years ago that I first heard the term “privilege” used in the way it is used in our multicultural discourse but it fit neatly into place with my understanding of multiculturalism I had gleaned studying literature and with my observations of the world around me. I realize my privilege allows me to not need to worry about how my race, gender, or sexuality affects my daily interactions. I realize that I cannot know exactly what it is like to exist in a way where my race or gender is a constant concern regarding how others interact with me. I realize that I had the privilege to go to good elementary and high schools and that my race, gender and height were part of what conditioned me to believe I could do well. While the accomplishments of my education are my own, my privilege had a profound effect on my access to education and the perceptions others held about me throughout my education, which in turn affects my perceptions about my own abilities (eg. as a white male, others anticipated my good math skills; as a tall, white male, others anticipated I was an articulate, insightful speaker).
I have identified as a feminist since I was a teenager because I believe cultural expectations regarding gender are largely harmful and destructive (while I see them as harmful and destructive for men, I openly acknowledge that they are far more harmful and destructive to women and others who do not identify as men). I use the term “largely” rather than “entirely” because some find guidance from gender expectations. But for those who do not fit into the narrow confines of gender constructs (and I believe the vast majority do not fit into those narrow confines), gender constructs are destructive and harmful.
I have addressed multicultural issues with almost all of my clients. I typically navigate it with some mild, self-deprecating humor. In session, I’ve said, “how do you think our differences will affect our work together? I mean, you’re a gay black man who grew up in the South and I’m a white kid from the suburbs here. How can I understand your experience?” I’m not entirely sure I’ve been navigating it correctly – maybe being self-deprecating is the wrong approach. My clients’ response has typically been to reassure me, “oh, I’m sure it will be fine” and “yes, if you miss anything, I’ll let you know.”
I try to be an ally. Elements of Culture in Counseling highlights that as a white man, other white men assume I hold the same misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, and racist beliefs they do. I try to call them out and counter it when I hear it (hell, I called out a stranger the other day for making racist remarks about Mexican-Americans while watching the State of the Union address). As a wrestling coach, my students understood that some foul language wasn’t a problem but using racist, sexist, or homophobic slurs was. I’m proud that there is a girl on my wrestling team who is held to the same high standards that I hold all my wrestlers to. She regularly outworks the boys and I’m grateful that she’s an example for the boys on the team. I don’t expect a special pat on the back for being a white male into feminism and multiculturalism (the book calls this observance of “causes that [white men] could remain oblivious to”), but I will reserve the right to be proud of being an ally.
I mentioned last week that in the study of Victorian literature I was exposed to the antithesis of multiculturalism. That is, the Victorian-era belief that there is a clear cultural hierarchy with the upper-class Brits at the top and aboriginal tribes at the bottom. The postmodern, multicultural hypothesis is that cultures cannot be ranked and that there is no one truth, no best, no absolute way of looking at things. I see these as two extremes. One is the extreme that there is a clear hierarchy while the other denies that cultures can be critiqued. Sam Harris’ concept of the moral landscape is a philosophy I identify with and I believe it falls somewhere between these two extremes. Just as we do not have a precise medical definition of what physical “health” is – we know it has something to do with not vomiting all the time and not being in constant, excruciating pain – we still have the concept of health. So, just as we do not have a precise definition of what a healthy society is we can still know that it has something to do with particular conditions that allow for maximum human flourishing. The concept of the moral landscape is the idea that there are a multitude of conditions that lead to human flourishing and that we can observe where the high and low points of human flourishing lie on that landscape of conditions.
The framework of the moral landscape moves away from the postmodern belief that truth is an untenable construct and yet I do not see it as going so far as saying that there is a clear cultural hierarchy. I see the framework as allowing us to critique discrete cultural beliefs and practices that detract from greater human wellness. I believe there are clear examples of this like gender discrimination, racism, homophobia, and sectarian violence. We are already critiquing specific cultural beliefs and practices with good effect. We already address moral concepts like “slavery is wrong,” “beating your children is wrong,” and “attacking someone because you hate them for their race or sexuality is wrong” with legislation that affects material conditions. And society is better for it. Even though with a morally relativistic standpoint I may not be able to get at an absolute truth like “denying the agency and rights of others is wrong,” I can use good ideas like that as guiding principles to be able to make moral decisions, weighing conditions that lead to human flourishing.
And perhaps there are flaws of this argument that I am blinded to by my privilege. Sam Harris is, after all, a straight white man living in the US so he may be blind to these spots as well. But ideas stand apart from individuals. I anticipate the argument that judging societal conditions will lead to a slippery slope of cultural hierarchies but I’m not certain that I accept that as more than a slippery slope fallacy. I see continued cultural critique and alteration of societal conditions as necessary for improvement of the human condition into the next century.