Thursday, November 10, 2011

Our Love/Hate Relationship with Privilege

Living in DC among the educationally and monetarily privileged is often a disconcerting feeling. Friends and acquaintances hold degrees from reputable universities and colleges, frequently more than one. At times, I must admit I feel as though I missed out on something important. Often I believe that my own academic career was inferior. As is often the case in many situations, my self-admitted inferiority complex turns to resentment in a snap of the fingers. I recognize this is not an especially fair notion to hold, but instant emotional responses are not always rational. One might call it a particularly commonplace chip on the shoulder.

Until halfway through high school, I was on a track to win a scholarship to a prestigious school. Many who knew me back then assumed that outcome was all but assured. But I got sick, really sick. For the first time, I suffered with long-lasting and serious periods of depression. Because of the severity of the symptoms, frequent hospitalization became almost a way of life. My GPA plummeted and by the time I limped across the finish line, the only options available to me were in Alabama. I sensibly enrolled in a state school close to home, where I could be close to my doctors. It was a smart decision, but one that killed a little bit of my spirit.

I began my undergraduate career in a school with very few women’s studies classes and approximately one class in queer theory. We’ve often talked about the real world value of such majors and minors, when they are even available. That’s not exactly where I’m going with this post. Had there been more options to me, I know I would have deliberately left electives open specifically for the purpose. I am envious of the programs across the country that provide ample classes in women’s studies, gender studies, or queer studies. The anxious masculinity which often attempts to manifest itself had quite a hold on me in a younger year. I have pondered since then whether I might have reached conclusions earlier I only achieved relatively recently. I realize that I was struggling with my own concept of masculinity and it took years of self-examination to really begin to find some peace of mind.

At times I observe the behavior of certain men on feminist websites or on feminist topics, usually in the comment sections. There would have been a time where I would have conceded many a straw man argument. I might have even agreed with a particularly irrelevant hairsplitting point, feeling my own masculinity somehow under attack. The violently misogynist commenters are very different. The ones who use violent language to express their feelings of insecurity and rejection have never won anything but my contempt. They should probably win my eventual sympathy, but I’m afraid I’m not quite there yet. It is ones who are only a few degrees away from greater understanding who often linger in my thoughts.

I am speaking of class distinctions here to some extent. Simple economics are partially a result, though other factors dictate how any culture or sub-culture perceives that men ought to act or ought to present their feelings. There must be a group mentality in place that provides men the ability to be vulnerable and examine masculinity as a gender construct, not as irrefutable fact. As it stands now, the available educational resources are frustratingly limited in scope. As limited as they are for women and deconstructing gender, they are even more so for men. I don’t mean to talk about men as some singular entity. Men are different from each other, very different, even if gender roles insist to the contrary. Some men will naturally be inclined to look outside the gender box and others will not.

Often we express no small indignation when women’s reproductive rights are infringed, particularly by proposed legislation. I am, of course, referring to Mississippi’s recently failed ballot initiative here. While I am frustrated at those who wanted to define an embryo as a person, I do also understand their chip on the shoulder attitudes. It is an attitude of the unheard, the financially impoverished, and the automatically disqualified because of a lack of privilege. It is a perspective of those who went to Ole Miss, Mississippi State, or Southern Miss, not Columbia, Rutgers, or the University of Chicago. It is peculiar that while we may entertain anti-intellectual views, we still value higher education as a basic social value. We have a love/hate relationship with education in this country and we may always have.

And it isn’t until we seriously close a gap in basic economic inequality that these resentments will subside. I grew up eating fast food on a consistent basis, for example. Many of the people with whom I now associate find this disgusting. They were raised by exacting, exceptionally health conscious parents. But often lacking adequate economic resources and possessing a very different cultural mindset, no one finds anything wrong with a diet full of starch and saturated fat. It is this disconnect that does not create understanding, instead those who oppose us are mysterious. There is nothing quite as offensive as that which we cannot understand.

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