Higher Education IS Privilege

I was listening to a podcast the other day, and one of the hosts is a woman working toward a PhD in women’s studies. She’s a white woman, though that really doesn’t matter. If you have a collegegradPhD it doesn’t matter if you are white, black, brown, yellow, green, or orange (though if you are orange you might want to get your liver checked). I would also guess she is around thirty-something years old.

Anyway, I was listening to this podcast and the subject of women working in the sex industry came up. With all the zeal of a DKS*, this woman proclaimed that this was bad, bad, bad, always bad and always destructive. The other hosts raised the issue of women who had reported working in the sex industry to pay their tuition at college or because it was the only job they could find to feed their children. Almost predictably, this woman responded that no, no, no; bad, bad, bad, this was a terribly destructive thing. Then it hit me. She doesn’t have the first clue about how privileged she is!

queen-red-dress-sitting-throne-symbol-power-queen-red-dress-sitting-throne-symbol-power-wealth-146335691If you are lucky enough to be skating through college and graduate school in one continuous period of immersion in the academy, good for you. You should recognize that you have had a series of advantages that most people don’t have, including but not limited to financial advantages, class advantages, support of family and friends along your educational path, personal wealth or access to financial aid to pay for your education, and a host of others. You likely don’t know the first thing about worrying where your next meal is coming from, finding a job that will cover your housing expenses, or trying to find a way to feed and care for a child or children as a single parent. You are clueless. Worse yet, you are clueless that you are clueless.

You may ask, “how can she be clueless, she is educated?” The truth is that the academy is full of professors who have never set foot in a working class neighborhood, much less an economically disadvantaged neighborhood. Even if they have studied the lives of the average person, the odds are very good that they have not lived that life. They think that economic distress is having to eat Ramen noodles during college, but in truth there was never any danger of them not having a roof over their heads and they could always call home for a quick $100 to tide them over.

Before we pass judgment on what people do to survive, we should be very sure we understand the challenges they are facing. We should get off our thrones and talk to people who have had these experiences. We should recognize how lucky we are to not have been faced with similar challenges and choices, and we should refrain from offering our “wisdom” until we have lived a bit.

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*DKS is a term I coined for new graduates from seminary – and higher education in general. These folks tend to think they know everything, but in reality their knowledge is only theoretical and hasn’t been tested in the waters of reality. Therefore, they Don’t Know Shit. 

Sex Secret

I don’t think women do this, but I could be wrong. Women hardly ever invite me to eavesdrop on their conversations about sex. Dammit. Some men do this, however, and it’s them I would like to discuss today. You women can listen in, I don’t mind.

two men whisperingThere are two versions of this practice that break down along sexual orientation lines. Gay and bisexual men will tend to tell stories about straight, or at least publicly straight, men who tried to have sex with them, but they declined. Straight men will claim that they had sex with a woman known to those present for discussion. Perhaps Dice Clay parodied this nonsense best when he joked, “Mother Goose? I fucked her!”

Whether any of these claims are true, and I suspect most of them are not, doesn’t make adice clay bit of difference. The very fact that the claims are made reveals quite a bit about the claimant, and the revelation is not flattering. There is no healthy, mature motivation for one person to share stories of sexual conquest or continence with another. It’s even worse when the story telling occurs in a group context.

In a day in which American sexual understanding and ethics have never been worse, and it seems there is no shortage of people looking to blow up the reputations of select others on rumor alone (e.g. Rep. Katie Hill), we need to see those who recklessly share self serving accounts of their own sexual behavior for the irresponsible, immature people they are. We also need to steer clear lest we become the subject of their next set of fictions.

Blind Spots

We all have blind spots. Some of us have physical blind spots, but almost all of us have metaphorical blind spots. Part of the spiritual life is searching out those blind spots and working to heal them. We may well never eliminate them all, because they can pop up throughout our life. When teachers we respect suddenly reveal (most often whyblindspotsunintentionally) a blind spot, we may find ourselves making a difficult choice. It may seem we are stuck between two choices, but there are always at least three choices.

The first option is to say that the blind spot we have discovered renders everything the person may have said or offered null and void. We see people choose this option all the time, but if I am correct in asserting that we all have blind spots then this choice means that none of us have anything to offer. We will run around covering up our blind spots and other flaws for fear they will eventually render us irrelevant. In truth, those flaws render us human, not irrelevant.

The second option is to say that since we all have blind spots we will ignore the blind spots that we discover in others. We will pretend they aren’t present, and if anyone points them out we will vigorously defend our heroes by insisting they are perfect. This, too, dehumanizes them by rendering them a caricature of themselves and forcing them to run about claiming to be some distortion of a messiah figure. Denying the truth is never a healthy was forward.

The third option is to recognize that we all have blind spots. From a spiritual perspective, all people have inherent worth and value. We each have to make a decision about whether or not it is possible to have a blind spot that is so large that it destroys that inherent worth and value. I choose to take the position that there is nothing we can do to destroy that worth and value, even though there are things we can do that may necessitate our being isolated from society at large for a time. If a spiritual teacher has a long history of mistreating his or her students, we may decide that we will no longer be their student or support their organization. On the other hand, we may see that the issue at hand is a blind spot but not large enough for us to separate ourselves from them.

Can we see that if we belong to or are influenced by a tradition that says all life has intrinsic valuevalue, then we simply cannot say there are people who no longer have their basic needs met – needs for food, clothing, shelter, companionship, fresh air, and mental stimulation. A colleague I greatly respect took me to task recently when I suggested that a certain political figure had the right to have friends and human contact. In my friend’s mind, the politician in question had committed war crimes and therefore wasn’t entitled to companionship. That’s contrary to the traditions from which both of us have emerged. So how does this happen?

Emotions often cloud and complicated our decision making process. In the heat of the moment, our own blind spots may show – even in response to the blind spots of others! One of the bigger benefits of spiritual practice is that practice affords us the opportunity to work through these issues in a methodical way and at a reasonable pace – even if, in our western impatience, we want everything resolved now! Rushing to judgment is always problematic, so let’s all take our time as we assess what we can and cannot accept!

Separating Person and Behavior

Many of us have a problem – maybe even most of us have this problem. We confuse the value of a person with their behavior. For example, we know that someone plays for the Chicago Bears football team, and we cannot even begin to understand the abysmally bad judgment that would lead anyone to consider, even for the briefest moment, playing for the Chicago Bears. We decide, therefore, that anyone who plays for the Chicago Bears must be an awful person with whom we could never be friends – and likely never even bring ourselves to be kind towards. This is a classic, if someone silly, example of confusing person and behavior.

Step it up a notch or ten, and consider someone you meet who is a member of the other political party. Now it’s a bit more serious, although as a Green Bay Packers fan I might argue that my first example is much more serious. We could certainly never be friends with a person who belongs to that party. Anyone who belongs to that party must have serious character flaws, and they probably eat babies for breakfast. Maybe a person has a different ethnic background, or went to a different school, or once committed a crime, and we find that we can no longer fairly evaluate their humanity. If this is the the case, the problem is inside us and not in the other person.

If we are going to live anything even remotely resembling an ethical and/or spiritual life, we have to believe that all people have inherent value. In fact, every major religious tradition teaches precisely that. There is nothing any one of us can do to erase that inherent value, though many of us do a pretty good job of covering it up with our poor choices. The task of a spiritual life is to uncover that inherent value by stripping away the detritus we have splattered on it. Going about declaring others to be of no value does nothing but pile more obscurations on our own inherent value. In truth it does nothing to the other person.

Today, before you set out to round up a posse to hunt down the imagined unacceptable other, you would do well to find a mirror and look into it. If you are honest, you will realize you have some work to do in your own house. We all do.