The good or bad faith with which power is exercised is irrelevant; raising the question on these terms will not be effective. Power cannot be shamed into limiting itself in this way. It seeks to limit us.

Jason Wilson,  “Moderation, speech and the strategy of silence”, Detritus

You know something’s happening/and it’s happening without you/yes it is/Mister Jones

Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”, this beautiful live version

I’ve been thinking a bit more about Steve Wheeler’s invitation to discuss whether jokes are a good way to promote discussion of serious topics, and I’m going to take him seriously for precisely one minute and add something to what I wrote yesterday.

Three reasons, all personal, why I wouldn’t make those jokes myself. First, since I’ve been writing about the relationship between illness and overwork, I’ve been contacted by people working in education from all over the map, all saying that they recognise in themselves or their colleagues some aspect of the neglect of self that this involves: the sense of panic, despair and exhaustion; the relationships stretched to snapping point; and sometimes full blown illness. They really do have their heads in their hands, like the photo Steve used of himself in his prank. And I have to say that those of us whose illness is physical, especially of the kind that scares the underpants off everyone around us, fare much better in terms of other people’s cheap jokes than those who are wrestling (often in secret) with mental health. Because mental health still fuels the metaphors of everyday life. It’s ground right into the language of joking around, and I really can’t imagine how it feels to have to navigate this.

Secondly, at the end of last year, when I was still flapping about like a bird that has flown into a plate glass window with “cancer” etched on it, I came across Francesca Milliken, who was just at that moment starting her own blog about her daily experience of living with clinical depression in its most depleting extreme.  I’ve followed her writing ever since, and I’m really a huge fan, because of the clarity and courage with which she lays out what she’s here to say. And that’s why jokes about clinical depression can’t sit well with me, because when you say it, I see this person. And this one. And this one.  And this one.

Thirdly, I’ve followed Audrey Watters since I first started writing online, for her frankly indispensable service to education blogging. Through her and many other women tech writers or activists, I’ve learned that joking about online threats to bloggers truly doesn’t work for me either. Because:

So for these three reasons, it just doesn’t seem to me that there’s a serious issue on the planet that’s worth trivialising what other people have to live with, when we have instead an opportunity to care for each other, and to speak without clutter about the fact that the things in Steve Wheeler’s post are serious.

Should this cramp Steve Wheeler’s style?  No, of course not. I’m not his mother.

But I now realise that what troubled me about his prank goes a bit deeper; it connects to the very odd political culture in Australia at the moment. So I’ve been thinking back to Jason Wilson’s beautiful essay on the proposed repeal of the 18C provisions in Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act. These provisions set out that we have a high standard in Australia that makes it an offence to offend, insult or humiliate others on the basis of race. And now, with the considerable hubris of its thumping political majority, our new conservative Government is proposing that these amount to a sanction against “hurt feelings”—even though this suggestion has been robustly tested in law and found to be as daft as it sounds.

When I first read Jason’s essay last year, the bit that really stayed with me was this simple advice: power cannot be shamed into limiting itself.

It came back to me yesterday because it’s such a solid and intelligent caution against letting frustration be the compass to your reactions when dealing with conservative thought.  That’s one compass that will always be spinning, because it is in the very nature of privilege to be able to maintain a dizzying range of positions all at once.

And that’s exactly why privilege also cannot be shamed into recognising itself.

This is the painful lesson played out again and again in coordinated Twitter activism, for example. #notyourAsiansidekick, #CancelColbert, #destroythejoint: these campaigns build solidarity among the exhausted and frustrated, but rarely achieve reflection or change in the expression of privilege itself. In fact, mostly the opposite: they trigger a doubling down on the original whatever, often in the form of a patronising explanation of what was intended and how life woks, in case the sophisticated nature of privilege has somehow slipped by those who criticise its operation.

None of this is new, or personal. It’s the well established set of routines that continuously polish the dance floors on which privilege performs. When I read yesterday that Steve Wheeler, oddly enough choosing Bon Stewart’s own words from her comment on this blog, is prepared to “own the post and be accountable for it”, I found myself humming Bob Dylan.  And then suddenly I remembered a very old article by film theorist Laura Mulvey. In “You Don’t Know What You’re Doing, Do You, Mr Jones?” (1973), Mulvey riffed on the lyrics of “Ballad of a Thin Man” to rebuke a complicated pop art joke based on making the bodies of women into furniture — a joke that as it happens was recently reprised as some kind of racial satire, and then defended all over again. Because, you know, joke.

So none of this is new. It’s the platform from which conservative thought launches its banal, recurrent manifesto: the double-back-flip vision of privilege as victim. It’s how people for whom the dice of privilege have been loaded to win every game get to advise others to stay hopeful that this is not actually how things are. And this is how privilege continually serves up to others, as Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it in her outstanding essay on hope as the ruse of progressive thought, “the cornbread that turns to shit in your mouth.”

So this is how privilege gets to feel responsible, heroic, misunderstood, and sorry for itself, all at once.

And at the moment, for some quite weird reasons, we’re seeing this dredged up conservative woundedness all over the place—in politics, in corporate leadership, in entertainment, and online.

To me, both Jason Wilson and Tressie McMillan Cottom are right about the practical mechanics of it. Jason Wilson talks about the strengthening of power through “pantomimes of accountability”, in a way that matches up to Tressie McMillan Cottom’s description of the “solicitors of hopefulness” policing the same agenda. Never having to say you’re sorry means that the privileged continually get to define just how much they’re willing to share, how much accountability is just enough, how much hope will do.

But even though Mister Jones is all around us, in recurring multiples like Agent Smith, there are signs of change happening without him. There are people everywhere writing back, stepping up, and giving their own human time to indicate that they care for each other, and will risk their own convenience to make a stand. (Looking at you, Bill Ryan.) And of course, these include all the people who wrote in good faith to express concern about Steve Wheeler’s apparent disclosures of trouble, those who missed his joke, to whom I just want to say: don’t change a thing because you really are part of something good, and we’re all here with you.

So there’s every reason this morning for optimism because there are so many of us ready to say: enough, we’re done with this. The serious fault lines of privilege aren’t between one online writer and another, one educated blogger and another. They’re the daylight between all of us and the people whose lives are being trashed by the global economy, by environmental damage, by incarceration, by the staggering cruelty of refugee camps, by preventable disease, by both underemployment and overwork, and by the sense that there is nothing the powerful are prepared to do about this beyond snarking at each other for the win.

And the repeal of our Racial Discrimination Act is now actively in the public consultation phase. Australian readers, you can write in and say what you think.

13 Responses

  • Wow Kate. Thanks so much for verbalizing many of the feelings I experienced when Steve announced that he took us all for a ride. For many of us struggling with making sense of our professional and personal lives (in so many different ways) – I felt cheated and angry. In his April Fool’s day post, Steve temporarily joined a circle of authors, bloggers, and faculty who are really battling to make sense of our “speechlessness” and silence – however (im)permanent – just to pull out his April Fools’ hat and shout “I fooled you!” It was not funny.

    Thanks so much for your beautiful writing and sharing – from one wounded storyteller to another.

  • To say to someone – ‘can’t you take/get the joke’ is a great indicator of privilege. Not one of ‘us’, eh? And from the other’s position it feels, to quote Evelyn Waugh, ‘like a blow upon a bruise’. It’s these little blows that remind us how small that ‘us’ really is.

    • Yes, you’re so right. The privileged “us” is small; it just casts a big shadow. Is that because of the light we’re prepared to give it? Thinking.

  • When Dave Cormier originally reacted to this, he said that he was concerned about people who might have been dealing with some of the issues that were raised in the post, but in a general way. Reading your comment, I realise that for me the precise problem is that those people with most experience in those things would have been most likely to fall for it, and so that’s really where the risk of harm lay. Which seems like a pretty big risk to me.

    And at the same time I think that’s what also made it all defensible — because if you haven’t had any of those experiences, then the clues to the joke are obvious, and kind of smart and funny (I’m guessing here), and from that perspective the people who didn’t see them are kind of unfunny and operating in bad faith.

    There’s a kids show my daughter loves, Prank Patrol, which uses the same kind of set-up, and the thing that really saddens me about it is the way it sets up the kid who’s going to be fooled according to something that they care about, something they’re most likely to fall for.

    Lovely to see you here.

  • Thank you for using this issue to raise a broader issue, one that as I understand it is about speaking truth to power.
    “They’re the daylight between all of us and the people whose lives are being trashed by the global economy, by environmental damage, by incarceration, by the staggering cruelty of refugee camps, by preventable disease, by both underemployment and overwork, and by the sense that there is nothing the powerful are prepared to do about this beyond snarking at each other for the win.”
    In South Africa at present, the shape of this speaking truth to power is intertwined with profound disillusion and dreams failed. So those with power and privilege are those who only a few decades ago were in resistance mode. This the tone of the disussion here now – see for example
    Through you and others I am learning how these issues and interests are being fought over in different contexts. Thank you for writing, I hope you will always have time and space in your life to keep doing so.

  • I think what blogging has taught me is that the process is really about reading, reading, reading, and then suddenly there’s a moment where it’s also about writing a bit, sometimes quite suddenly (sometimes twice in a week!). Higher education has managed to reverse this with its strong focus on output, output, output that sometimes draws on desperate and snatched bits of reading.

    Your broader point is really important, and I didn’t really have this clearly sorted out in my own mind until I read your commend: privilege is a state, not a type, and it’s a state that can only be entered with a sense of temporality. So this is a really interesting aspect: privilege also has to be felt as insecurity. The South African case shows this really clearly, but now I realise also we see it in many aspects of left politics. And of course, universities are really adept at inducting academics into this manoeuvre, because of the way privilege is reframed as merit.

    So much to think about

  • mikecaulfield

    Great version of that song! I had it years ago, when you got bootlegs from cassette people who made the tours of college’s. The tape said it was Royal Albert Hall, although I’ve understood since that that many of those bootlegs were actually composites of that show and one in Manchester.

    Anyway, rambling thoughts. I sympathize with Mr. Jones. People think Mr. Jones is a dullard in that song, but he’s not. He’s in the middle of everything. He’s noticing it, which is more than most people. But he wants to be seperate and to understand it at the same time, and that’s the problem. Dylan’s pretty firmly anti-anthropologist here, which is how the press was treating the subculture. And Dylan destroys that project here. Observing cannot be knowing. The song is rife with the symbolism of detachment — the borrowed throat, detachable eyes and nose. Etc. And it’s that detachment which forms the bizarre center of the song.

    But as a songwriter myself, I can’t help but think how later in life you come to relaize every song you write is really about you in some sense, like every character in a dream you have is speaking your lines. And I think about Dylan sitting in that Don’t Look Back hotel room with Baez trying to get his attention as he peck Tarantula or whatever out on the typewriter. And of course Mr. Jones is him too — Baez is so effortlessly of the scene, and here he is, always the watcher, never able to connect or live comfortably in a crowd.

    You flip over that record after Mr. Jones, and what is it on the other side? It’s Queen Jane Approximately. It’s the polar opposite critique, against a person that is so swallowed by a scene or an identity that they can no longer relate as human. The two black holes of existence, separated by 120 grams of vinyl.

    And ultimately, I get uneasy with this whole discussion — Suey Park to Steve Wheeler — because although I know I’m privileged on the days I’m not Mr. Jones I have a nagging feeling I’m Queen Jane, and on the days I’m not Queen Jane I have a nagging feeling I’m Mr. Jones. I’m always isolated from one side of that equation. Somewhere in that is an insider joke I suppose that you can play both sides of Highway 61 Revisited and believe them fully, but never both at once.

    I miss being 17 and driving around town in my Chevy Citation blaring that album, yelling the lyrics, for the last time unaware that both songs were about me and about not me. I’d love to get that back, just for a day. Or get it back without using alcohol, at any rate. That’d be the trick.

    But it’s not to be.

    I probably should have thought out this comment a little more carefully, but what I thought I was winding up to was a point about identity and power and ambiguity. But I guess it’s just too ambiguous even for me, and it’s looking like it’s pretty tangential to your point as well. I suppose it comes down to that we’re all envious of people who can live in their skin just looking out, but maybe we overestimate the number of people for whom that’s a permanent condition. Or something. Beautiful song though, takes me back.

    • This is such a big set of thoughts, Mike. I hope it’s all right that I back in from the end, because I don’t think it’s tangential at all, or at least it takes all this on a tangent that I think is really helpful, possibly the destination all along. You’re right: Mr Jones is all around us precisely because we are all Mr Jones at least some of the time.

      To be honest, I’m not sure that Laura Mulvey was at all ready to embrace this ambivalence in her own piece (which is actually very hard to find now), so for me she embodies that risk of stridency, although I think in 1973 it would have been pretty easy to find Allen Jones’ work exasperating.

      But it’s too easy for all this to descend into name-calling, to mistake privileged position for the privileged person. And conservative ways of thinking—they’re not in short supply. So this is really all about ways of thinking, and I think that’s why individuals are almost always the wrong target of activism—of any kind. Structural power doesn’t issue uniquely, abruptly, from someone with a platform, but from the broad thinkability of the ideas they themselves find persuasive.

      And we all keep moving, remembering former selves, aspiring to something, all at once. I love your idea about the me and the not me; interestingly that’s the title of Francesca Milliken’s blog. I don’t think we play both sides at once, but neither does one disappear just because the other is currently playing. You always know with vinyl that it could go either way.

      Thanks for this huge comment. So much to think through.

  • The idea of projection via writing is an important one, as self expression is something which is important to everyone. When the form of that, to those of us for whom it is much more important is co-opted for “humour” seems to be nothing more than forcing people back further and further into corners.

    And from elearning experts….

  • Wow. Oustanding powt, Kate!

  • Thank you for sharing another thought-provoking post. Many things you said made me think about them all day day, but especially this: “privilege also cannot be shamed into recognising itself.” I’m thinking that privilege can even be beyond our control. It serves us even in ways that we may intellectually resist, want to disown, feel uncomfortable about. And, esp. in the US, we’re now witnessing a lot of weird whining by the privileged as being the real victims. Your post helped me understand that absurdity to a great extent. Thanks again.

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