Belonging Again (Part 28)
Can “the circle of acceptance” only be entered by tearing it apart? Are the conditions which make “belonging” possible the very conditions which take it away?
Minorities generally live more existentially unstable than members of the majority: existential stability is a “Majority Privilege” (as discussed in “Discussing Racism” by O.G. Rose). Black Americans often walk into a room and are the only colored person there, which if we recall what Berger and Hunter wrote about the vital role of “social support” (existentially, psychologically, ideologically, etc.), this means Black Americans often must deal with situations which are sociologically considered some of the most challenging. They must deal with the feeling that everyone might be looking at them, the everyone might be wondering about what they are doing, and so on. White Americans, on the other hand, often walk into a room and don’t think anything about if people are looking at them, etc., precisely because they don’t “stand out.” This is mostly thanks to skin color, but skin color always “means,” and, not because they choose it (it just happens), Black Americans can often wonder what their skin “means” to those around them, the answer to which they can never know for sure. People could be thinking nothing; people could be thinking about how they are scum; people could be thinking about how Black Americans are more intellect than White Americans — the possibilities are endless. Everything is possible, which we have discussed throughout this essay as the state in which existential anxiety is at its worst. When we don’t think about what’s possible, we avoid this existential tension, but the Black American is “practically forced” to consider this precisely in “standing out.” To be part of the majority is to be part of “the thoughtless givenness” of the society, which suggests that Black Americans might be less likely of falling into “the banality of evil” but at an existentially heavy price (which White Americans will not be able to fully empathize with or understand, contributing to Black Americans feeling alone).
Black Americans cannot know what the people around them might be thinking, and they must live with “all the possibilities” feeling equally plausible all at the same time (“Schrödinger”-esq). Authoritarianism becomes appealing partially because of the existential anxiety of “too much possibility” and “the lack of givens,” which means Black Americans must perpetually live with the temptation of authoritarianism while White Americans perhaps discuss the dangers of authoritarianism without really paying the price for avoiding it. Worse yet, when Black Americans perhaps gain some degree of existential relief through the society adjusting its “givens,” White Americans might instantly turn to authoritarianism, fragile after years habituated to existential stability (again, as suggested in the last section, a characteristic of Majority Privilege might be the ability to genuinely claim that “givens” must be maintained “or else” the majority will rise up). It is never “given” what the people around us think, but White Americans can more easily avoid thinking about “what others are thinking” in being part of the majority: it’s generally easier to turn such thinking “off and on” at will. But for Black Americans, the very “external environment” basically forces the thought, and the Black American must make a choice (existentially unstable) to either fight the thought or consider it, aware that many Black Americans have been attacked and killed (a knowledge based on history which Black Americans didn’t ask to have to know). Everywhere Black Americans go, they can feel a need to make this choice, always aware that making “the right choice” a thousand times before doesn’t necessarily mean that they will make “the right choice” now. And if they make “the wrong choice,” life can be forever different and forever devastated. Sure, perhaps there is only an incredibly small chance that something terrible would happen, but that point itself is a thought that Black Americans must think and make decisions based on. Yes, perhaps with time the habit of making this decision, the familiarity of the community, and the like, Black Americans can make the decision with more ease, but to some degree it always must be made (all while Black Americans know that other people might be thinking about them, their decisions, and the like). All of this constitutes the “existential anxiety” that Black Americans deal with and suggests what we’ve meant throughout this work in discussing why “existential stability” is sought. If it is true that Liberals tend to be skeptical of the “freedom” Conservatives often discuss as superior to “social support,” and if it is true that Black Americans are generally more Liberal than Conservative, perhaps we can start to understand why: Black Americans are aware what lacking “social support” is really like. And perhaps this also hints at why Conservativism has generally turned Trumpian as “givens” have eroded: a world where people are free to be and do what they want — a celebration of differences, which is arguably the only environment in which freedom is “meaningful” — doesn’t feel like some people thought it might feel.
For Black Americans, it is never “given” what the people around them are thinking, and though that’s technically true for everyone, for White Americans it’s easier to believe and feel like people aren’t thinking about them at all — the “thoughtlessness” is more “given.” If you’re White and traveled, you might be familiar with being the only “White person” that some natives in far Western China have ever seen before (for example) — I think that feeling is like what minorities experience (though I don’t mean to say that’s all they feel). Lacking “givens,” Black Americans face an existential anxiety which White Americans can better avoid. Constantly. Randomly. Black American never know who will be in a room before they walk in: the existential anxiety could appear anytime, without warning. And Black Americans must live with this possibility. Yes, perhaps white artists must sometimes live with the feeling that nobody understands them, but when they walk into a room, their skin color doesn’t tell everyone, “I am an artist,” which is to say “invisibility” is possible for white artists. But Black Americans can never escape such “body language.”
It is hard for me to imagine how anyone could feel accepted or like they “belong” without existential stability and periods of “just feeling part of everything” (“invisible”). With “givens” being lost today, the majority increasingly feels “homeless” and “restless,” and yet not having to deal with such feelings until now is evidence of “Majority Privilege”: what can be interpreted as evidence that something has gone wrong is actually evidence that the world is freer and more “open.” Unfortunately, we have been taught our whole lives to associate “good feelings” with increased freedom, and as a result we are “emotionally unintelligent,” and yet we believe we are emotionally rational when we conclude from the anxiety that freedom causes that freedom and society as a whole are being lost. We as a society have trained people to hold the wrong “emotional expectations” for what it’s like to be free, and so equipped with an assumption that freedom “feels good,” it is only rational for people to oppose the decline or loss of “givens,” even if that decline is decreasing injustice (after all, doesn’t freedom feel lost?). The loss of freedom can feel terrible, but so can the increase of it: it depends on “the dialectical balance” at play at the time (suggesting that perhaps ultimately the choice for freedom or loss of it is just a “raw choice”). For the very problem of “belonging again” to not be a problem discussed by the majority until now is itself a Majority Privilege, and arguably the biggest Majority Privilege is that the majority can’t lose “belonging” (and corresponding “givens”) without it causing a “practically inevitable” authoritarian backlash. To be the majority is to have your way of life and interests be protected by deterrence.
In the Jim Crow South, it was a “given” that White Americans ate here and Black Americans ate there; in the Confederate South, it was a “given” that slavery was acceptable; in hard patriarchal societies, it was a “given” that women served men; and so on. “Givens” are arguably the main way oppression occurs, and yet “givens” are necessary for “belonging” to be possible. Where there is existential uncertainty, not only does authoritarianism become appealing, but also “belonging” becomes impossible. Hence, what oppresses is also what makes possible home, which would suggest that seeking “belonging again” can, unintentionally, constitute seeking “oppression again.” And this is us.
Minorities want to feel at home just like the majority and are unquestionable justified to want this — it would be immoral to think otherwise. In order for minorities to achieve this sense of home though, they must oppose the “givens” which keep them out. But here we begin to glimpse “the tragedy of us”: as minorities justly work against “givens” to feel accepted, “rest,” and at home, they can simultaneously destroy the conditions and “givens” necessarily for them to feel accepted, “rest,” and at home. Minorities are kept out of a circle that justly trying to enter can make the circle disappear. Could there be a crueler joke? Does this mean the only answer is us for us all to become “Deleuzian individuals,” comfortable with the utter loss of “givens” (a world without any “circle” at all), a state which perhaps only a minority could ever become?
To be a minority is to be deprived of the social structures and “givens” that support the privileged majority, and to want that same and equal support is the act of which can lead to there being no support at all for anyone. It is hard to imagine a more unfair and immoral circumstance. When minorities fail to find the equality and existential stability they have (in their human dignity) always had a right to, consequence perhaps of removing the conditions which oppressed them and made “belonging” possible, there is likely to be justified backlash. Against that backlash, there is likely to be backlash from the majority and/or Conservatives, increasing existential instability all the while for everyone. As this intensifies, authoritarianism can become increasingly appealing for both groups for different reasons, but ultimately for the same reason of wanting “givens” and acceptance. The only way to stop all this might be to remove “justice” as a value from society entirely, but wouldn’t that be precisely when injustice and oppression prevailed? Yes, and perhaps that’s the horror of this situation.
Minorities oppressed by “givens” are justified to oppose those “givens” and want the “belonging” the majority is privileged with, but without “givens,” “belonging” isn’t possible for anyone. There cannot be “rest” where there is existential anxiety, but outside the “givens” of the majority, minorities cannot find “rest.” Minorities suffer existential anxiety and are compelled by this anxiety to oppose social “givens” for the same reason the majority is compelled to defend them: to live “existentially stable,” to have “belonging.” Perhaps we focus on stopping “racists” and “bigots,” people who are immoral and who can change or be justly dismissed (precisely because they can change), because if we start saying “givens” cause our alienation, then what makes possible “belonging” is also what removes “belonging.” This is a hard reality to take.
Surely then we cannot say minorities act unjustly if they oppose “givens”: if the roles were switched, the majority would likely do just the same. And arguably people should act that way, for humans ought never accept injustice. And perhaps the existential anxiety that the majority faced without (their) “givens” wouldn’t be as bad as the anxiety minorities have constantly faced. And perhaps the loss of these “givens” significantly improves the anxiety faced by minorities, at the cost of making the majority suffer only slightly, and if this is the case then surely we should favor the minorities and tell the majority to “deal with it.” But what if the existential anxiety caused by the loss of “givens” is “the worst of all possible” existential tensions? What if losing “givens” is for everyone to lose the “belonging” which everyone seeks? But minorities are justified to fight to deconstruct “givens,” and perhaps a world with no “givens” at all would be better than one with “givens” (for at least then people wouldn’t be tortured by the idea of missing out on something). Does this mean everyone must become “Deleuzian individuals” or something “nonrational?” Should people stop trying to make the world make sense and instead learn to live with more senselessness (as Daniel Fraga put it)? Beings of Absolute Knowing? Nietzschean Overmen? Antifragile? But what if something like that is “practically impossible” for the majority? Would that make the only option mass conformity? Are we saying that justice and “belonging” naturally conflict? What are we suggesting is the answer? Answer? My concern is figuring out why “history repeats.” And that is an “answer” we might be starting to glimpse.
Expanding to whom a society extends “belonging” requires “opening up” and/or tearing down “givens” (as expanding equality requires expanding what is considered moral, as discussed in “Equality and Its Immoral Limits” by O.G. Rose). As the “circle of acceptance” expands, it must bump against “givens,” and arguably many “givens” should be deconstructed against this circle. Minorities are often deeply justified to oppose the “givens” keeping them out the circle, and yet the cruel joke is that those “givens” simultaneously make the circle possible. Without any “givens,” there would be no circle; if “givens” were removed so that people could enter the circle, when the “givens” vanished, people very well might not find any circle at all, like opening a door expecting to find what you’ve always wanted in life and finding an empty room.¹ But as minorities justly oppose the “givens” excluding them and this causes existential instability, the feeling of anxiety will likely function as evidence to the majority that the actions of the minorities are unjustified, leading the majority to conclude that it is “justified” to oppose the minorities, a response which will lead the minorities to feel “justified” to oppose the majority — and so history will repeat. Society might be inherently tragic, and we might tragically need society. We are not gods, and if the thought enters our mind to become animals (as in Kafka), it’s too late.
¹Humans require discomfort to grow, and considering this, where there is existential anxiety, there is a chance for development. In “justly” challenging the “givens” of a society, Progressives cause discomfort to Conservatives, which is to provide Conservatives with an invitation to develop. And yet in doing this, Progressives make authoritarianism appealing to Conservatives, as authoritarianism can be appealing to Progressives due to the anxiety that results from marginalization.
Discomfort is hard, and humans will do just about anything to preserve the lives and world with which they are familiar (one could perhaps say that humans are dramatically orientated to preserve and “be” comfortable). And yet where there is comfort (such as confirmation bias, “bubbles,” etc.), there can be a failure to grow: as Bill Eckstrom warns, comfort can ruin our lives. Considering this, what Progressives are perhaps guilty of is making Conservatives uncomfortable, and for inviting Conservatives into this opportunity to grow, Progressives are blamed for making authoritarianism appealing. For valuable invitation, Progressives are reviled.
Where there is too little structure, there is chaos; too much structure, stagnation. Where a proper balance is struck, there is what Eckstorm calls “complexity,” and it is in this state personal development can occur. Perhaps Progressives should introduce complexity to the lives of Conservatives, but at the same time they should be careful not to introduce chaos. The appeal of authoritarianism is that it removes complexity and restores order — the very order in which stagnation and existential anxiety occurs. Progressives in threatening “givens” indeed increase the desirability of totalitarianism, but this is because they arguably increase the amount of opportunity for growth: the possibility for growth and the desirability of authoritarianism develop in the same space.
Should Progressives stop causing the uncertainty which can inspire development? Should Conservatives really be catered to because they want to cling to comfort? Perhaps not, but if the majority will give into the temptation of totalitarianism, then we should avoid the possibility as much as possible, if not in our efforts to increase justice, then in the size of our State, which perhaps increases the likelihood of totalitarianism. For if someone can come to power by catering to people’s worst natures and offering appealing authoritarianism, it is likely someone will, hence the importance of keeping this possibility impossible.
(As a closing note, recognize that what constitutes “discomforting” is relative: blue collar work can discomfort academics, blue collar workers can be discomforted by academics.)