As a social progressive, I know that I benefit from all kinds of unearned privilege. So why is it so hard to recognize the role privilege has played in making me progressive in the first place?
So you weren’t a Trump supporter in the last election, and you won’t be in the next one. Same here. Well done us.
But the question stands: Why aren’t you a Trump supporter? You’re probably saying, “Because I’m not an idiot,” or “I’m not a racist,” or “I have a goddamn moral center.” I believe you. But even if each of those is true, there’s a larger question: Why are you this non-idiot, non-racist, non-immoral person? What got you there?
I think we often take too much credit for getting these things right.
For years I gave myself most of the credit for my progressive views. I had just reached down deep inside and thought my way out of ignorance, empathized my way out of hate.
But at some point, I started to wonder what the difference is between my claim of scrappy self-reliance and the conservative claim that the poor and people of color and women just need to bootstrap themselves up to all the good things enjoyed by rich white men.
Progressives recognize those as privilege issues. People don’t all enjoy the same advantages, and uneven outcomes have more to do with structural inequality than lack of effort or talent. My several overlapping privileges make things easier for me in a way that is mostly unearned. Part of being politically progressive is acknowledging that fact, recognizing what others are up against, and doing what we can to even the playing field.
But flip that over for a minute. Being progressive helps me recognize privilege—but what role has privilege played in making me progressive in the first place? What unearned advantages made it possible for me to resist this grotesque con artist who has so thoroughly snowed millions, including people I know and love? If we rolled back the film of my life, stripped me of those benefits, then replayed the last few years, what would be different for me?
It kills me to admit this, but upend a few of my circumstances, and I would almost certainly have voted for Trump.
Who we (still) are
Let’s start with the three-pound dog’s breakfast in our skulls.
We think of 21st-century humans as obviously smarter than we were 50,000 years ago, in the Paleolithic. Collectively that’s true. Individually, it’s bollocks. Not one of us is born knowing how to plant wheat, do heart surgery, play the piano, or understand calculus. In every case, we exhibit this intelligence only by reaping the benefits of millennia of cultural evolution. And every bit of the reaping happens after we are born.
As obvious as that should be, we still carry around this unarticulated sense that we’re born modern in some way—that the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment and whatever progress we’ve made in racial and gender equity are all somehow present at birth in a way they were not in a Stone Age newborn.
It’s not true. People 50,000 years ago were anatomically and behaviorally modern. They had brains functionally identical to ours. And we are as unmarked at birth by all that scientific and cultural progress as a Paleolithic child would have been.
We’re all essentially born in the Stone Age. Then we have about 7,000 days to catch up on 50,000 years of cultural evolution, becoming fully functional adults in the modern world—or failing to do so.
Picture cultural evolution, the amassing of knowledge and experience on which the modern world is built, as a line ascending gradually left to right over 50,000 years. It dips and rises, but the net direction over time is positive. Even today, each person is born at the Stone Age baseline of biological evolution, down below the rising line of culture. Then billions of individual lines arc up toward the collective culture line as it passes overhead, most of us topping off well below the line itself.
How far below is the question.
In childhood, we’re brought from the Stone Age into the modern world by education and experience. How it goes depends on countless other factors. The task is made more difficult by a set of tendencies, fears, and limitations forged by life on the African savanna. More than 120,000 hominid generations were spent at the edge of extinction before we began to settle into more stable agricultural communities 11,000 years ago. Only 500 generations have passed since then, and just 20 generations since the start of the Scientific Revolution. That’s too little evolutionary time to shape our brains in any significant way.
There are some benefits to entering the world through a 21st-century mother, like better pre-natal care. But as far as the functioning brain is concerned, the last 11,000 years haven’t even happened.
Our natural instincts aren’t meant to help us make good decisions traveling 70 miles per hour in a metal box surrounded by other great apes doing the same, or even while standing in front of an open refrigerator. Yet it’s those misplaced instincts we’re born with. Five hundred generations is an evolutionary whisper as the loudspeakers of the Paleolithic continue to play at 11.
That’s why it takes so little to push the Paleolithic buttons in our heads.
Most of what I know about opposing Trump I learned in kindergarten. Or didn’t have to learn at all
You and I can both list 100 reasons that supporting Trumpism is not only wrong but obviously, blindingly wrong. So why does anybody fail to see that?
Even when Trump supporters were in the political driver’s seat, I wouldn’t have traded places with them for the world. I have my own shortcomings, but this I got right. And by finding myself on the outside of the immoral, frightened, hateful, ill-informed, easily-manipulated mess Trump supporters are mired in, I’m in the privileged position, not them—and I didn’t bootstrap myself into it.
I’ve experienced less fear and insecurity than most people, especially when I was young, which helped my Paleolithic buttons stay unpushed. That’s one reason I’m not a social conservative, one thing that made it easy for me to value and accept diversity instead of being threatened by it.
I got a broad critical education and was allowed to think freely, encouraged to explore the world around me and to find it wonderful, all of which made me less vulnerable to manipulation by demagogues.
College isn’t necessary or sufficient for this. The right teacher in eighth grade can help you see how motivated reasoning gets in the way of seeing the world clearly, then get you asking the right questions for the rest of your life. Some people never had that teacher. And I’m a blind and dumb progressive if I can’t acknowledge that many others missed out on that education for reasons out of their control, and recognize that education itself strongly pushes in one direction politically.
I didn’t have a disempowering life crisis before I developed the personal resources to manage such a thing, so I never had to retreat too far into the cave of my innate fears.
Then there’s empathy. Most of the reasons I opposed that administration had nothing to do with its effects on me or my family. It’s empathy for more vulnerable people that makes me sick and angry and motivated to get us to the other side of this. And I didn’t just will myself into that empathy—I had help.
I felt safe growing up. My parents were not authoritarian, my economic and racial bubbles were permeable, and I never attended a dogmatic church that spent Sundays and Wednesdays replacing my curiosity and empathy with tribalism and fear. I was never frightened with hell or made to question my own worth. Some people had these deficits but still found their way out by drawing on other privileges. Others had too steep a climb.
There’s also the temperamental or even genetic predisposition toward anxiety and a high startle reflex, measurable as early as age four, that the longitudinal Block and Block study found to correlate highly with political conservatism later in life. Current estimates put the genetic component of temperament between 20 and 60 percent—yet another driver of political conviction that is significantly out of our control.
If I swapped my genes, my temperament, my upbringing, my education, and my experiences for those of the most die-hard Trump supporter in my family, I would have supported Trump.
The fact that many people I know and love were largely robbed by circumstance of the ability to function in a world in which comfortable categories are disrupted, once easy moral answers are seen as immoral, and humans are paradoxically both cosmically unimportant and capable of killing the planet—that fact complicates my response to the cultural bonfire they’ve set. Even as I work like hell to contain the spread of that fire, I find it hard to simply yell “Racist!” or “Idiot!” as if we all had the same shot and they just made worse choices.
Yes, it’s hard to grant all this when they are standing on the necks of the most vulnerable, claiming persecution while ignoring their own rampant privilege, hooting and grinning and lying without a trace of shame, and doing their level best to turn back the clock on the very things that have lifted us out of the muck. They are hardly sympathetic victims here.
That doesn’t make the privilege gap any less real.
We can argue by exceptions (“I was in a terrible school/church/family and I turned out fine,” etc.), but the bottom line is this: Somewhere, at some level, I had advantages that made it not just possible but easy and obvious for me to reject what Trump and Co. are selling. It wasn’t all my doing. Many others lacked at least some unearned privilege that I have had, and as a result have found themselves in thrall to a madness that I was never at any real risk of falling into myself.
So even if we accept this idea…what do we do with it?
I think it’s like any newly-discovered privilege. In the long run, you work to level the playing field. That doesn’t stop me from opposing toxic ideas and actions right now, but recognizing the un-level playing field has changed my approach. A world that had been not only infuriating but baffling to me for years started coming into focus. I started talking to and about people differently and looking at the culture war in a new way.
The idea of fixing this kind of culture split is incredibly daunting. It’s probably too late to do much for those over a certain age, other than restrain their thrashing arms with the most compassion we can manage, gently but firmly prying Congress and the nuclear codes out of their grip whenever they manage to latch on. The next generations are where the real hope is, helping our kids and grandkids fully join the 21st century. And it’s not just about knowledge—to keep those buttons unpushed, they also need confidence, empathy, and security.
As it turns out, we know from child development research just how to give them those things—by pursuing an authoritative rather than authoritarian style of parenting.
You start with a responsive and stable home life. Build a strong attachment with parents and other significant adults. Don’t hit or humiliate them or let others do so. Encourage them to challenge authority, including your own. Make them comfortable with difference. Use knowledge to drive out fear. Build a sense of curiosity and wonder that will keep them self-educating for life. Let them know that your love and support are unconditional. Teach and expect responsibility and maturity. Encourage self-reliance. Help them find and develop “flow” activities and lose themselves in them. Paleolithic buttons stay unpushed, and future Trumps sink deep in their pillows, remotes bouncing on bellies as they shout impotently at glowing screens in their various Mar-a-Lagos.
With any luck, a generation so raised will spread their confidence and security to others more effectively than we have done, and our own generation can take our jittery Paleo-arsonist tendencies with us to the void.