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Does Anyone Deserve Anything?

image of ladder with multiple rungs affixed to Twitter cloud

Elon Musk buying Twitter displays the incredible power – economic, political, and social – wielded by the super-rich. Did they earn their place?

In 1998, Charles Kushner donated 2.5 million dollars to Harvard.  In 1999, his son Jared – apparently with mediocre grades and mediocre test scores – started college there. At 19, he served as a corporate vice president – within the umbrella of his father’s company. He is now worth several hundred million dollars. Jared Kushner, one might argue, did not achieve financial success based on merit but was largely the beneficiary of parental largesse. What about Jeffrey Bezos, the founder of Amazon? His family was less wealthy, his personal academic skills more apparent. Did he deserve to go to Princeton? Does he deserve his fortune of over 100 billion dollars? These are extreme examples. Take a studious college student who, when everyone else was drinking, would study. Do they deserve to go to medical school?

Meritocracy is a political and economic system that aims to award people based on personal merit (e.g., skill, talent, and diligence).

The United States is, ostensibly, meritocratic. One question to ask is whether this is a good way to organize society.

Merit has some obvious advantages. Given any societally important job – plumber, teacher, nurse, construction worker, artist – there are benefits to having people good at that job do that job. Similarly, internal to the logic of a market economy, companies should want capable, talented people fulfilling specific roles. Although we should not assume that compensation is a metric of the societal value of a position, nor that meritocracy automatically serves the public interest. The ethicist Michael Sandel contrasts the poorly compensated high school teacher with the successful meth dealer. Likewise, it is in the economic interest of ExxonMobil to hire excellent lawyers, but perhaps not in the public good.

There are then broader considerations of what kind of merit should be rewarded in a society. Is it purely about the capacity to deliver shareholder value, or do we want a society that awards moral virtues like kindness, justice, and compassion as well?  Meritocracy is also challenging to implement.

How does one construct an effective meritocracy that prevents the caprices and injustices of society from interfering in the assessment of effort and achievement?

The concern is especially acute as it is in the personal and family interest of those who succeed to attempt to warp and distort that system to secure further success. Many would deny the United States is a functioning meritocracy at all. Would Jared Kushner have achieved his level of personal financial success if he had been from a poor family in a hollowed-out mining town?

But there is a different question to ask about meritocracy, regardless of how well it happens to be functioning. Do those who succeed in a meritocratic system deserve their success? In a widely circulated tweet, political scientist Sarah Liu asserted: “Academics who announce their accomplishments should disclose their privileges. Do you come from an academic family? Are you white? Are you a man? Are you straight? Are you cis-gender? Are you able-bodied? Are you a citizen of where you work? All of the above?”

Liu is making at least one obvious mistake. As Elizabeth Williams recently argued here, privilege is not about some set of personal checkboxes, but about structural injustices.

We can accept that racism is a societal factor that, on average, benefits white people and harms those of other races without taking it to be the determining factor in the life of every white person and every black person.

But let’s follow Liu’s logic for the moment. If society eliminated problems of wealth inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ablism, would success then be earned? Presumably not, for we can always extend the list. Did people come from family money, go to a private school, have fortunate mentorship? Alternatively, do they struggle with mental health, family responsibilities, or just straight-up bad luck?

What about intelligence, hard work, and diligence? Can we claim credit for these? Hardly.

Our natural gifts are as arbitrary as parental wealth. One does not deserve to be smart, good-looking, or even hard working ­­– they simply are.

It does not matter whether or not these traits are genetic, or if they are a result of good schooling and parenting. In no case are they truly self-made. Iterated out, while choices may matter, everyone’s life is impacted by a thousand and one things that they had no control over. Ultimately, our success is not our own, but due to our family, our friends, our colleagues, institutional support, and just plain luck. If we accept such logic, what are the implications?

It does not tell us whether meritocracy is a good or bad system of political organization. Awarding merit may be instrumentally valuable, and far preferable to aristocracy or nepotism. One still can judge Kushner’s success a failure of meritocracy. What the above argument denies is that anyone “deserves” anything based on their merit, for ultimately that merit itself stems from good fortune. And if we deny the position that there is an inherent logic such that the successful deserve their success, we can think more clear-headedly about meritocracy and what we, as a society, want it to do for us. Do we want the studious college student to be able to attend medical school? Do we want billionaires to run Twitter?

​​You’re So Privileged, I Bet You Think This Article Is About You

photograph of high school students taking exam

Back in 2014, I remember coming across the Buzzfeed quiz “How Privileged are You?” and answering each question, line by line, to see what my privilege score would be. I remember feeling uncomfortable about the quiz then, but only now do I have the tools to articulate why.

It wasn’t that I was relatively privileged with a well-to-do upbringing and white skin. It wasn’t even necessarily the oppression Olympics, though I did at the time wonder how I compared to others.

The problem was that a numerical score that adds up different experiences doesn’t actually track how privilege and oppression work.

Unfortunately, these kinds of numerical privilege tests have stuck around and periodically re-circulate when conversations about privilege re-enter mainstream discussion. You may have also encountered or participated in a privilege walk, which asks participants to stand in a line and take a step forward or backward in response to each statement instead of tallying a numerical score – those who move to the back are less privileged; those who move forward are more privileged.

What kinds of statements are included on these tests?

  •     “I am white.”
  •     “A stranger has never asked to touch my hair, or asked if it is real.”
  •     “I never had to ‘come out.’”
  •     “I have never been denied an opportunity because of my gender.”
  •     “I don’t have any student loans.”
  •     “My parents are still married.”
  •     “I have never been shamed for my body type.”

There are a number of other statements that target different identities and experiences. Most fall into broad categories like white experiences, class-relative experiences, Black experiences, trans experiences, non-Christian experiences, etc. These are all good experiences to be aware of.

But privilege doesn’t function in this piecemeal, additive way. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s term intersectionality points out that, for example, Black women’s oppression isn’t the combination of the oppression of Black men and the oppression of white women. Black women are a distinct social class with distinct experiences.

The combination of different axes of oppression is not reducible to the sum of its parts.

Our social categories that shape how we view and treat ourselves and others tend to be more specific than we sometimes think. We respond very differently to an attractive white trans woman than to a fat brown Hispanic trans man. Both are trans; both have very different experiences.

A second issue is that some of the items on these tests seem to relate to how well your life has gone rather than how much your life has been impacted by structural inequalities. Take the statement “my parents are still married.” While divorce is more common in some social groups than others due to structural features, it is not uncommon for highly privileged people to have divorced parents.

If we want to preserve the political function of privilege, it needs to remain a concept that tracks experiences with various structural advantages or disadvantages. The immensely privileged can still have terrible lives through bad luck. Those who lack privilege can live quite good lives as well.

Structural inequalities and interpersonal bigotry can and do make life harder in specific ways for marginalized people, and privilege (or lack thereof) does influence how your life goes for you. But lacking privilege is not the same as having a life full of hardship.

A third issue is that it’s unclear what to do with your score. People often compare themselves with others along axes of privilege in ways that are unhelpful. Sometimes this is done in self-aggrandizing and misleading ways to gain clout on social media (though most often, privileged users will bandy about the one marginalized person that agrees with them just to win a debate). Perhaps more often, people who score as more privileged might feel as if their problems don’t matter or don’t matter as much as those who score as less privileged. Sometimes this is right – when the problems are relatively trivial – but other times this isn’t true.

While we will need to make triage decisions at the level of which political projects to take up and which features of structural oppression are most pressing, comparison at the level of individuals can cause a number of problems. Trauma is still valid even if someone else has it worse.

An aggregate number also does not provide any actionable political guidance.

Scoring individualizes privilege instead of looking at the underlying social structures.

It can promote a kind of navel-gazing about our own experiences instead of group conversations about the problems that specifically affect us and what we can do about them. The way out of oppressive structures is not by finding the most marginalized person and placing the burden of liberation on them; it’s by working together.

Fourth, when we have conversations about privilege, there are a number of reactions that the privileged have when their relative structural advantage is pointed out: “Why are you trying to make me feel guilty?” “My life hasn’t been easy.” “I’ve experienced [insert unrelated hardship], so I know what oppression is like.” “But we’ve overcome [insert kind of oppression].” “I’ve never heard of that, so it can’t be real.” “The real problem is [insert unrelated issue].” “Well, [other marginalized group] also oppresses [marginalized group under discussion], so any oppression I participate in shouldn’t be called out.”

These various kinds of denial, outrage, and misdirection are often used by the privileged to recenter themselves in conversations. That tendency will not be affected by the kind of icebreaker you use to talk about privilege, whether it be the Buzzfeed quiz or a privilege walk.

However, some of these responses are (willful or otherwise) misunderstandings of what privilege is. It’s not personal virtue. It’s not how your life has gone on the whole. It’s a particular set of experiences that arise when people in well-specified social groups interact with social and structural advantages or disadvantages.

Privilege tests can sometimes feed into these misconceptions about privilege by obscuring intersectionality, making it sound as if privilege = how well your life has gone, and encouraging unhelpful comparisons. For these and other reasons, some people have already moved away from the privilege quiz/privilege walk model.

I don’t think that getting rid of privilege tests will solve the problems we have in discussing oppression. But we don’t need to aggravate these problems with a teaching resource that could be easily replaced with better materials. Conversations about privilege will always be hard, because people who are privileged do not directly experience what it’s like to live under structural oppression, and people who are oppressed often internalize oppressive narratives.

I hope that we can all replace these petty blame games and denials of privilege with solidarity and community. The fight isn’t between the privileged and the marginalized; it’s between the people who support systems of oppression and the people who want to dismantle them.

If you’re privileged, use that privilege to help.

Scarce Goods and Rationalization

photograph of crowded waiting room

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook asking for insight into “the ethics of (1) getting vaccinated as quickly as possible for the common good and (2) not using privilege to be vaccinated ahead of vulnerable people.”

Many responded with arguments along the lines of, “by getting a vaccine you are contributing to herd immunity, so it is a good thing to do.” Others linked to this New York Times ethics column in which Dr. Appiah argues that the advantage of easy management means that people should get vaccines when they can get them (and not worry too much about whether others might need them more), and further that by getting the vaccine “you are contributing not just to your own well-being but to the health of the community.”

Another friend recently mentioned in a group chat how she was able to get a vaccine that, technically, she did not yet legally qualify for (since Florida is only officially vaccinating K-12 educators, and not college instructors). I demurred, saying it’s important as healthy youngish people to wait our turn, and a third friend argued that even if you are not the ideal person to get the vaccine, you should still get it if you can since more vaccines are better than fewer and you can help protect others by getting vaccinated.

Assessing the Arguments

The Herd Immunity Argument — The thing that unites all these replies is the thought that by getting the vaccine you are helping to protect others. But in these cases, that is probably wrong. I want to be clear. I am not denying that more people being vaccinated contributes to herd immunity. What I am denying is that my friends getting a vaccine contributes to more people being vaccinated.

Right now the vaccines are a scarce good. If I do not get a vaccine, someone else will get that particular injection. As such, in getting a vaccine I have not actually done anything to increase the percentage of the population that is vaccinated, I have simply made sure that I, rather than someone else, am part of that vaccinated percentage.

The Waste Rejoinder — Some commenters on Facebook mentioned that some vaccines go to waste. But for the most part the vaccine distribution process has sorted itself out. While a good number of vaccines were being wasted in January, we are now in mid-March and the number wasted is utterly tiny in comparison to the number used. The odds that if you do not get a vaccine that the vaccine will end up in the trash is extraordinarily small.

So sure, if you happen to be in a situation where the alternative to not getting a vaccine is throwing it away, then get the vaccine. But unless you know that to be the alternative, you should not think that in getting the vaccine you are heroically contributing to solving the problem.

Speed of Distribution — While no one in the threads mentioned this argument, there is something that could be said for skipping the line. Even if someone else would have gotten that same vaccine, it’s possible it would have taken longer for the vaccine to get in someone’s arm. Now, it’s true that at this point the states are not sitting on nearly as large a vaccine stockpile as they were originally. But it is still the case that some vaccines, while they are not being wasted, are taking longer than ideal to end up in someone’ arm. Indeed, this seems to be happening where I am in Tallahassee.

But the problem is, this was not the situation either of my friends were in. Sure, this situation might be more common than the wasted vaccine situation. But it will still be rare (and indeed, markets are such that this waste usually does not last very long; soon after that article about Tallahassee was published demand at the site increased).

The Lesson

Now, I don’t want to argue that it is wrong to get the vaccine if you have the chance to do so. Probably sometimes it’s right and sometimes it’s wrong. As is often the case, it all depends on the details.

Instead, I want to suggest that we need to be careful to not convince ourselves that our selfish acts serve an altruistic motive. I think it’s probably ok to be somewhat selfish. It’s reasonable to care more about saving your own life than  the lives of a stranger (even Aquinas agreed as much). But I think when you are prioritizing your own good over the good of others, it’s important to recognize that that is what you are doing.

So if I get the vaccine perhaps that is ok. But I should recognize that if I get the vaccine someone else will not. I should also recognize that since I am young and healthy, that other person probably would have gotten more value from the protection than I did. The question, as far as altruism goes, is how do I compare to the average person getting a vaccine these days? Am I younger than the average person who would get the vaccine instead of me? Then probably it is better that the other person gets it. Am I healthier than the average person who would get the vaccine instead of me? Then probably it is better that the other person gets it.

The thing is, we have strong biases in favor of rationalizing our own selfish acts. Thus, we often look for reasons to think doing the thing we want is also good in general. This is a very dangerous tendency. People often accept really bad arguments, if those really bad arguments help them think well of their own selfish activity. This should scare us, and make us all a little more self-critical about our moral reasoning anytime we come up with plausible reasons for thinking the thing we want to do is also the best thing for the world as a whole. Remember, we all have a tendency to think that way, even when the act is merely selfish.

The Ethics of Vaccination Passports

photograph of couple presenting passport

The light at the end of the tunnel appears to finally be approaching after a year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that multiple vaccines are available in most countries and roll-out plans are ongoing, albeit at a slow pace in the United States, questions about getting back to “normal” are starting to be asked. Chief among these are ones regarding the most restricted activity with COVID-19, as well as the most sought after: international travel. After many countries restricted their borders with the United States due to COVID-19, it seems that Americans are itching to fly across oceans to enjoy the vacations that were cancelled in 2020. Now, countries must ask how travel can occur safely, or at least how the risk of spreading the coronavirus across international borders, which started the pandemic in the first place, might be limited. One possible solution being considered by multiple countries is a “vaccination passport.” Providing certification for those having received full vaccination would streamline things so that those inoculated against the virus might have privileged access to enter countries, ride on airplanes, and potentially even use gyms or enter bars.

The concept of only allowing entrance of persons with certain vaccines is not foreign. The World Health Organization issues the Yellow Card for people who have been vaccinated against certain deadly diseases in order to prevent the outbreak of those diseases in certain countries. The Yellow Card, then, is very similar to the suggested vaccine passport, except that COVID-19 raises a number of pressing questions concerning accessibility. Throughout this pandemic, minorities have been disproportionately affected by the virus. Facing systemic racism in the U.S., minorities have been less likely to receive adequate healthcare, to possess the necessary housing needed for quarantining, and to enjoy employment opportunities that might offer work-from-home options. Now that vaccines have been rolling out, it is the same situation: neighborhoods that faced the worst consequences of the coronavirus are now being the last to be vaccinated. While some countries might have very strong vaccine roll-out programs, the United States quickly fell behind the Trump administration’s goal of 20 million vaccines by the end of 2020 by about 17 million. Now, the Biden administration has committed to 100 million vaccinations in the first 100 days. Unfortunately, he first has to patch together a tremendous nation-wide effort in a country that has a very complex and privatized healthcare system — a system which has created many issues for Americans trying to get the vaccine.

It is, however, not only a question of access and who can get the vaccine, but also about considering the situation of those who can’t. At the very beginning of vaccine roll-out, it appeared that some Americans with allergies would simply not be able to get the vaccine because of the risk of anaphylactic shock, which can be deadly. If vaccine passports were required to enter some countries, then some people would simply be unable to enter them for an uncertain amount of time. It could take years before countries loosen restrictions or vaccine providers provide an alternative with different ingredients than those that currently make up the dose. There is also the question of what form the vaccine passport would take. Many countries are interested in a digital card that people could access through their phones. While many people may have access to a smart phone capable of holding documentation of a vaccination, plenty of people still do not have access to that technology, either out of choice or because it is not an affordable option. Technology then becomes just another barrier to international travel.

The main motivation behind these passports is an understandable desire to return to the feeling of living in a “normal” society, where people can move fairly freely throughout the world. Just the desire to travel is one that many people across the world share as it allows them to form meaningful relationships and connections with people both different and similar to themselves — a good the pandemic has stripped from us. Before we can get back to a sense of “normal,”  however, it is important to remember that this pandemic is far from over, especially in the United States. It would make sense, therefore, to have some sort of system set up to prevent people from spreading the virus across countries and continents. These passports raise important concerns about equality in access to medical, technological, and human goods. Many people would be left behind if these passports were to be implemented without addressing the fact that different populations do not have the same access to goods. Vaccine passports would effectively create a 2-tier citizenship hierarchy with those who have been lucky enough to receive full vaccination the freedom to move about in the world and take advantage of unique offerings that would even include public facilities. A great many people, and more importantly those already vulnerable and marginalized, will continue to be restricted in their movements and will lack access to the same opportunities that those with the vaccine would enjoy. This pandemic has already aggravated many inequalities and injustices between populations in the world, and a vaccine passport threatens to further codify this unjustified unequal treatment.

Under Discussion: Platforms of Power and Privilege

image of megaphone amplifying certains rays from an array of color bands

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: The Harper’s Letter.

Many individuals in the public sphere have signed an open letter referred to as the Harper’s Letter. The gist of the letter is that the free discourse of ideas is currently being hampered by what has been called “cancel culture” — the sudden and wide-ranging criticism that individuals in the public eye are subject to when private citizens find their speech or behavior unacceptable. The undersigned of this letter represent all manner of points across the political spectrum and a variety of professions.

The letter itself tends to fixate on contributors who occupy a privileged position in public debate: editors, authors, journalists, professors. In focusing on the figures with high-impact voices in public dialog, the letter misses important features of open discourse. As participants in dialog, there are responsibilities we have to one another as speakers, as contributors to our public discourse. We do not voice opinions, or indeed act, in a vacuum. We speak and operate in contexts where a great deal of our meaning is determined by our intended audience and the conversations we are entering into. In short, what we say and do depend on the world around us for its meaning and impact.

The public figures that signed the Harper’s letter have received public sanction for their speech and behavior, and the letter comes off as a complaint about the public consequences of their own behavior as it does their characterization of public discourse in general. When speaking as a public figure, or occupying a privileged position in public discourse in general, your voice has a context that is open to criticism by a broad audience, and, unfortunately for some, that audience finds their voices wanting.

No one deserves to occupy a particular space in the public sphere in our society, or to be above criticism. No one deserves to be in a privileged position, such as editors, authors, and other media figures who speak to the public. Such figures are open to criticism and bear the consequences for their behavior according to public judgment and standards just as private members of the community do, but at the scale of their privileged position. No one has to listen to them or subject them to “exposure, argument, or persuasion” (as the Harper’s Letter seems to demand of immoral and toxic, misinformed behavior and speech that is particularly damaging to society when amplified by these privileged voices).

We have categories that limit harmful speech, such as “harassment,” “libel,” and “slander” that handle those instances where criticism becomes out of line, but the Harper’s Letter equates publicly criticizing speech or figures being de-platformed with being “silenced.” If one’s livelihood depends on public opinion, then part of their professional expertise is managing their public image, and they have not performed it adequately when they are subject to the amount of public criticism that the undersigned describe.

However, it may be more or less appropriate to take public criticism as the standard by which the speech of individuals should be judged. As public figures, we can, for instance, consider what the standards are for your position as a public figure? Depending on the grounds for the attention and status you have, public criticism may be more or less warranted, or perhaps should have more or less of a degree of impact on your life and career.

An example from the letter regards issues with faculty in universities. On occasion, professors’ scheduled talks at other universities have been met with student protests, making them unable to present their speech. These cases are complicated, as faculty aren’t exactly public figures, but when they are asked to speak, they are being given a voice above other possible speakers — it is not part of their explicit job, and the inviting institution had options for which voices to promote. In that sense, criticism by the audience can be appropriate regarding the speech. Audiences are constituent members of acts of speech, and speakers don’t inherently deserve one. On the wider professional level in academia, your research is judged by your peers, and you are not a privileged speaker or public figure. When your peers find your scholarship wanting, your speech is silenced according to some loose standard. Such an incident happened recently with Daniel Feller, the historian who gave the Plenary Address at the 2020 Shear Conference. Professor Feller drew criticism when his speech diminished the atrocities committed by Andrew Jackson against Native Americans, with many of his peers submitting scholarly evidence countering the points in his speech.

There are further examples where individuals draw criticism for their speech and behavior that are in line with the undersigned’s personal grievances. With individual figures whose careers are primarily in the public sphere, the standards for criticisms can be more amorphous. Whether they should have a career, or whether their place in the public eye should be actively discouraged, could depend on a number of things.

For instance, one complicated example of publicity and criticism concerns businesses and the sudden, large outcry policies and statements can provoke. Large numbers regularly criticize business leaders in and the direction of their profits, calling for their removal from their positions or boycotting their companies’ goods. Chik-fil-A, Soul Cycle, and LaCroix are just a few recent examples. These leaders have a very privileged position; economic realities influence the political reality in an extreme way in the United States. As of 2015, corporations spend more money lobbying Congress than taxpayers spend funding Congress.

It might be helpful to consider other comparisons. Civil servants, for instance, depend on their constituents for their legitimacy. If their voters disagree with anything about their lives, conduct, opinions, or personality, it is sufficient for them to lose their justification for having that position. The grey area here is the connection between celebrity and political role. Often in order to remove someone from their role in politics, public messaging plays a large part and this involves open criticism that damages reputations and employs strategies that are frequently controversial. This is also the feature that makes public criticism and campaigning to remove individuals from the public roles they occupy difficult to parse.

News anchors and other media figures explicitly depend on their behaviors and speech to be understood in particular ways and to meet societal standards where sufficient amounts of their audience approve of their speech and behavior. When their speech and behavior elicits sudden and large public outcry, this is a professional rather than a personal issue, more similar to civil servants than academics.

For artists, the connection between creating art and the celebrity it can bring is more complicated than for civil servants and media figures. If artists take on the mantle of public figure, they also take on the potential for public criticism and blame.

There are two identifiable threads that people find alarming when sudden and marked criticism targets public figures. First, it can seem undeserved, or an overreaction, in which case the outcry seems unjust, or unfairly backing someone into a corner or painting one with too broad a brush. This leads to a defensive response by the object of criticism, and a vulnerable and defensive reaction by some of the audience of the events. The response this engenders denies that the wrongdoing was “all that bad.” It suggests that we should be more tolerant to the behavior that is being called out.

When the defensive reaction elicits a denial of the misstep or outright wrong of the public figure, this can obviously be very problematic. Everyone goes wrong at multiple times in their life be it through behavior, speech, or intention. Public figures *do* go wrong, just as private members of society do. We need to not only acknowledge that, but also take seriously the over-sized impact that public figures have in our society: they influence our communities more than private members do. The increased impact brings with it more responsibility for critical reflection.

It is *wrong* for J.K. Rowling to promote transphobic and hateful positions, just as it is *wrong* for Louis C.K. to commit sexual misconduct. It was similarly wrong for Chik-fil-A to promote damaging and hateful treatment of LGBT+ people. Al Franken lost his political position over allegations of sexual misconduct, and Matt Lauer was removed from the “Today” show due to allegations of rape and sexual misconduct. These examples are of entities that exist in the public sphere, and who faced backlash and criticism based on their expressed views or behavior. Just as there’s not a justification for them to be in the public sphere in the first place, there is not a justification for them to be exempt from losing their place after enough people take issue with their behavior.

Second, it can seem as though there is no possible way to behave in such a way to avoid the strong backlash that some public figures have received. This amplifies the vulnerable, threatened feelings not just among the public figures, but also private members of society who might identify with those behaviors. It may seem that there is no getting away from some types of criticism, of going wrong in some sort of way. And this kind of condemnation cuts off further conversation about repair and progress.

Consider the months in 2019 when many public figures were exposed for having worn blackface in the past. Unfortunately, few who were revealed to have taken part in this obviously offensive and unacceptable behavior took responsibility for their actions. Few admitted to having done something wrong, expressed regret having since learned what made their actions unacceptable, or indicated that they were grateful to those who helped them grow and reflect on their former understanding, etc. The idea that there is no way to respond to criticism or wrong-doing does not help progress or understanding. Again, people will make mistakes. While nearly everyone will not make the mistakes listed here, it could be earnest dialog rather than defensiveness that is the focus when communal moral standards are not met. When private members of society see public figures being castigated, it is an important step past the fear of “cancel culture” to realize that they themselves are not under threat and that most likely they would not do what these figures did in the first place. It is also important to keep in mind that our moral missteps be approached with an attitude geared toward growth and repair.

Adopting such an attitude can be an extremely difficult task. As the Harper’s Letter attests, the criticism that occurs on social media — and that criticism’s real-life consequences — encourage defensive reactions. The threat wielded by such sudden and effective criticism evokes feelings of vulnerability and insecurity. But it is important to remember that it is the place in the public eye, or one’s professional reputation that is under threat, not the person’s safety or even freedom of speech. Further, threatening their place in the public sphere is frequently warranted, especially when their profession confers public status, as with politicians, news anchors, celebrities, etc.

In the end, the discussion of freedom of speech is a red herring that distracts us from our principal target. We should instead be focusing on why individuals receive the attention that they do, and whether the appropriate form of moral engagement when they fail to meet moral standards is to criticize their place in the public sphere. This can result in mutual progress, as opposed to mere removal.

“OK Boomer” and the Generational Divide

photograph of unsmiling girl giving thumbs up

Millennials and members of Generation Z, fed up with condemnatory think-pieces (which deride everything about young people, from their taste for expensive brunch food to their role in the death of the napkin industry), have a new retort to combat dismissive baby boomers. “OK boomer,” a pithy and dismissive response to any patronizing or out-of-touch statement made by an older person, has become common parlance both online and off. The meme started on Twitter sometime in 2018, but it recently garnered attention from mainstream news sources when nineteen year-old college student Peter Kuli released a remix of Jonathan William’s song “OK Boomer,” which mainly consists of Williams repeating the song’s title interspersed with a few lines poking fun at baby boomers, on the social media app Tik Tok. The song includes lyrics like, “You’re all old and racist / All about that fakeness / I’m tryna pay my bills / But I’m all on the waitlist,” and “The way you wear that MAGA hat / Lookin’ like a facist.”

Baby boomers are generally taking the meme as an ageist attack against their generation. The language they use to describe the meme is violent and martial; economist Tyler Cowen called it “the latest linguistic weapon of generational warfare,” and Meghan Gerhardt, the founder of a movement aimed at promoting harmony between generations in the workplace called Gentelligence, called it “a pre-emptive strike against baby boomers [launched] using the most powerful weapons in [Generation X’s] arsenal—social messaging platforms TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram.” Some have taken their resentment to almost cartoonish extremes. Bob Lonsberry, a conservative radio show host, called it “the n-word of ageism” on Twitter. He received a significant amount of backlash, and, of course, many people responded to the original (and now deleted) Tweet with “OK boomer.”

Many think pieces about “OK boomer” (because this meme, of course, has become yet another source for countless condescending think pieces about the follies of young people) have elevated what might have been laughed off as a harmless joke to a serious issue with moral weight. It’s worth considering whether or not young people are actually fostering generational divide by propagating this meme, and if so, what the moral ramifications of that could be. While the notion that strict demarcations divide us into “generations” has been called into question, the idea that a shared set of values, or the memory of a transformative cultural event, binds us to other people in our age group persists. Whether or not it actually exists in a quantifiable sense, many of us still perceive a difference between the young and the old.

The controversy around this meme is based in large part on a question of privilege. Baby boomers who dislike the meme argue that young people who use the meme are truly the ones who are privileged, or have at the very least inherited privileges from their parents that they are incapable of acknowledging. In an article for The Guardian, Bhaskar Sunkara implies that young people ought to turn their attention towards the truly privileged, the “capitalists, [and] the politicians who serve them,” rather than their parents. This statement, however, implies that there is no overlap between the two groups, that capitalists cannot be baby boomers or that those born in the post-World War II era have not in large part created our current economic situation.

At the same time, many argue that this meme attacks those from the baby boomer generation who were marginalized or underprivileged. This becomes evident when the idea of discrimination in the workplace enters the picture. Gerhardt writes about the harm that ageist sentiments can inflict in the workplace, claiming that,

“Generational difference is one of the final frontiers where identity-based stereotypes, prejudice and putdowns are allowed to not only run rampant […] As a new generation comes of age, it’s an ideal time for all of us to become aware of the harm this does—and the potential to be found in generations respecting and learning from each other instead.”

She argues we should value generational difference and the new perspectives it gives us, both in and out of the workplace. This criticism, that we gain more from solidarity between generations than division, is certainly valuable.

Another criticism of this meme claims that it relies too heavily on a white middle-class perspective; children of the poor and people of color, as some on Twitter have pointed out, can hardly subscribe to the idea that their parents have it easy or are in possession of socioeconomic advantages that their children lack. “Okay Boomer,” in other words, is a meme that primarily speaks to the anger of white teenagers that feel locked out from privileges and economic prosperity their parents enjoyed. However, as evident in the song that made this meme so popular, “Okay Boomer” is not a putdown for baby boomers in general. Rather, it attacks the most vocal and powerful group within that demographic; the wealthy, the white, and the conservative. It is within this context that the meme is most often used, and its older critics almost invariably come from this demographic.

Even more central to this story than privilege is the idea of voice; whose voices are valued in our society, who is allowed a platform, who is allowed to criticize whom. Both sides feel dismissed and undervalued, and both perceive the other as holding the power to speak and be heard. “OK boomer” is, in its most common and widely proliferated use, a way of dismissing a privileged voice from an assumed non-privileged position, but we should still be aware of how our assumptions and how voice can shape the way we perceive generational difference.

Privilege, Punishment and Cultural Relativism: The Case of Otto Warmbier

Even after his passing, Otto Warmbier continues to make headlines. Over 17 months ago, Warmbier, an American college student, was detained while attempting to leave North Korea after a trip with Young Pioneer Tours. According to The Daily Beast, Warmbier was accused and found guilty of stealing a propaganda sign from his hotel, and was sentenced to remain in the country for 15 years of hard labor. A few weeks ago, Warmbier was returned home under mysterious circumstances and in a comatose state, before eventually dying.

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Should Americans Hope for a President Pence?

A little over a month into Donald Trump’s presidency, chaos continues to swirl around even the most basic of the administration’s operations. High profile controversies – most notably, the emerging details about Trump surrogates’ contact with members of the Russian government during the campaign – continue to roil the nascent administration. From within, leaks to the press abound, painting a portrait of a chaotic White House even more defined by power struggles and botched policy rollouts than usual. And all the while, Trump continues to make inflammatory statements, most recently asserting without evidence that then-President Barack Obama ordered wiretapping of Trump Tower during the 2016 election.

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Shared Grief Does Not Always Unite

The past few weeks have been hard for those who are fervently anti-Trump. On the weekend after the election, I was playing with my baby daughter, and made a comment about how empathetic I am.

My partner, who was lying on the couch next to me, muttered sarcastically: “Why don’t you go empathize with the white working class.”

My reaction was immediate, unreflective, and dramatic: I started shouting at him. That comment was uncalled for, utterly gratuitous! I was on the same side as his! I in no way thought that white men were more deserving of empathy than others, as I took him to imply. Finally, I started using expletives, and told him to f*ck off.

Yes, I told my beloved partner, a man of color who has been grieving the electoral result and has found it hard to get out of bed since then, that he could f*ck off.

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Has Your Newsfeed Hurt Your Mental Health?

Within the past few years, it has become even easier to put up videos on social media instantaneously. So many of those that go viral depict something violent, such as the many horrible instances of police brutality that have made the news this year alone. Though often shocking, disturbing, and tragic, these videos do serve as evidence in cases of violence, and sharing them on Facebook can help spread awareness against the crimes committed in them.

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An Expectation of White Allies

Hello, White Allies.

I honestly do not expect every white person to know when they are offending me, but when I say that you are offensive, just accept and apologize. When you do not accept it, you are silencing my experience. My experience is important as it highlights the inequalities in America. It allows for other people from different backgrounds to interpret and understand that certain racial injustices do exist. As people began to understand these injustices, they are able to find proper ways to fight against them. This battle is bigger than any single person on this campus. My point in addressing Kappa Alpha Theta’s decision to wear Afros was not to shame them, but use them as an example of why the perpetuation of Black dehumanization still exists. The importance of highlighting this fact is to draw to all of your attention to the meaning of dehumanization: “the psychological process of demonizing the enemy, making them seem less than human and hence not worthy of humane treatment.” Perpetuating dehumanization normalizes issues such as police brutality, structural racism, and other injustices in America. If this continues to be normalized, then how do you expect our race to make progress?

I understand that some of the women apart of this fraternity may indeed fight for Black lives and claim themselves to be allies, but unfortunately, sometimes white allies make mistakes. You all do not know the complete history of Black culture. You are not able to identify things that you do not see on a daily basis. So, when I am telling you that Black Afros and White Afros are two different textures – just as curly is to coily; when I am telling you that the texture I witnessed on white women’s head at Greek God and Goddess dance was too close to Black texture, believe me. One would not know the difference unless one is Black and being oppressed for having this hair type every single day — so I forgive your ignorance.

A real ally would take full responsibility, apologize, and raise awareness that appropriation is real. White allies are important because they are the ones who hold privileges that I do not have. You all can easily sway the opinions of this university simply because you make up the majority. You all can easily change the laws that were created to oppress me because you have the same skin color as the group that is empower. But, in order to make changes and fight with me, you have to humble yourself. White allies must admit to being wrong when wrong, do some research, and stand behind Blacks. As you can witness from the rebuttal I received from my last article, Blacks’ experiences are easily silenced and swept under the rug. So, instead of saying things such as “I helped fight for you before,” say “I apologize” and support me as I decide what is best for me and my community. I should not have to challenge my white allies to make you understand that you are hurting me.

This Op-Ed is about current events at DePauw University. For more context, check out Ms. Jones’ Op-Ed from the previous week and the Op-Ed written in response. 


Are You Your Avatar?

The online world has always been one of seemingly endless possibilities. In this space, it has been said, anything can happen and anything can be changed, including one’s own identity. And while this has been the case with many games, others have upended this model entirely. One of them, the online survival game Rust, is doing so to provoke debate about a topic rarely considered: race in the online world.

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#DearDePauw: What’s it All About?

For those in the DePauw community, the hashtag, “#DearDepauw” has been appearing everywhere. Some may have seen lengthy testimonials being posted to social media under the hashtag, while others have participated in the heated Facebook and Twitter debates associated with the posts. So what are the motivations behind this hashtag and the students contributing to it?

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