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Privilege as Neutrality

December 11, 2012 by and tagged

In the British press, headlines were all over their new census and especially the decline in established religions, a development similar to what is happening in the US. In this context, it is interesting to read headlines like these:

“No longer the default religion: is being a Christian now a political statement?”

And in the article:

“Today’s results from the 2011 Census suggest that the number of those self-identifying as “Christian” in England and Wales – the religion question wasn’t broken down by denomination – has declined substantially from ten years previously. Then it was 72 per cent. The latest figure is 59 per cent. There has been an almost equivalent rise of 10 per cent in those ticking the “No religion” box, but it’s still only a quarter of the population.

(…)

Christianity has also become much more political. Debates about education, about the status of marriage, about abortion and medical ethics have became heavily dominated by questions of religion, and the dominant voices have often been religious ones (or, for that matter, anti-religious ones).”

This claim is absurd. Christianity has always been political. Religious organizations of various kinds have always thrown themselves in the political battles of the day. The main difference is that, for countries like the US or the UK, Christianity occupied a position of privilege while doing so and therefore could claim to not be political, and therefore above the fray, speaking only from a moral perspective, etc.

It is one marker of privilege to have one’s position seen as the default setting, the neutral center, the objective point of view. That is how whites are opposed to “people of color”, that is how we think LGBTs when we hear “sexual orientation”, that is how white males were seen as the only legitimate voting group in the last US presidential election and all the other groups were ideological and biased in their votes.

And it is also a marker of privilege to have one’s privilege never questioned and one’s supremacy never challenged. And we know that bad things can happen when such a perceived challenge arises.

But all privilege ends up being questioned or directly challenged through social movements or through softer nudges, micro-push-backs against the privileged position, whether is the removal of a nativity scene from public spaces or getting pummeled in social media when one asserts one dominance and supremacy as a given.

It is also interesting that privileged individuals are so used to their position to be silently accepted as the neutral, objective, non-biased setting that any push-back is perceived as an ideological aggression and having to share becomes a form of oppression. One can see that when, for the first times, religious people got pushed around a bit by the so-called “new” atheists. The cries of Christian oppression are based simply on the fact of having a few people listening to their religious discourse and going “really?”… and that’s all it takes. Or to simply be called to account for one’s dogma has been so unheard of that its occurrence is seen as aggression, followed by retreat to relativism (interestingly and ironically enough), that is, that everyone is entitled to their views and should not be questioned for them.

In other cases, take gay marriage, for instance, the claim is that, by getting married, gays are taking something away from straight marriage (“damaging the sanctity of marriage” or some such similar formulation).

What this all boils down to is privilege = exclusive access. What privileged individuals may be complaining about, in all cases, is potentially losing exclusive access to cultural dominance, or institutionally-based rights (marriage), treating all such as zero-sum games: if Christians have to share public spaces with other religions (as opposed to exclusive access for their nativity scenes), it is a loss to them, if straight people have to share the institution of marriage with LGBTs, it is a loss to them. From this view, culture and institutions are defined social spaces that cannot be expanded, so, sharing, when one had 100% of said social space, does mean a loss.

There is no conception of the possibility of increasing these social spaces. After all, the ability for LGBTs to get married does not reduce the ability of straight people to get married as social and institutional space can be expanded. The only possible expansion, for them, is the slippery slope one (LGBT marriage → bestiality). In this sense, privileged people are not only the potential losers of the deal, but because they also see themselves as the guardians of these social spaces – not for themselves, but for civilization, mind you – it is a double loss. Look back at the discourses of the opponents of the Civil Rights in the 60s and you will find these themes.

So, privileged individuals find themselves in the position to (1) see their privileges questioned, (2) having to now loudly claiming their privilege (which they didn’t have to do before, hegemony will do that for you), (3) having such loud claims ignored, shouted down or (worse) mocked, and as the article notes (4) being reduced to being just another interest group like the others (decentering). No wonder they get shrill (about gays, immigrants, women, abortion, contraception… anything to try to keep the moral center of a culture whose control is escaping them).

This is why social media have not been the preferred formats of privileged groups. By definition, these groups were already massively overrepresented in the traditional media (TV, radio), so, when new media spaces opened, they initially did not feel the need to go after them. And so, new media got populated by the non-privileged and became a source of alternative everything (news, sociability, entertainment, discourse, etc.). Hence the early cries against the outrages of bloggers, then the outrages of Twitter, etc.

A privileged position means you don’t need to shout because you’re the only one with a megaphone. When everybody can get their own and they’re making as much noise as you, it does feel like an aggression (free speech, for everyone else), and it does mean that your speech is no longer taken as the moral center nor does it command the same respect it used to (because you could have it backed up by the state). So, no, Christians have not become more political. They always were. It’s just that their old megaphone is losing battery power and everyone else’s megaphone is running on solar power and 4G wifi.

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