Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The bondage of habit.

This video is all over Facebook.  It shows in animated form some research into what Americans really believe about the distribution of wealth (not income) in our economy.


A statistic not in this video, but in a similar presentation of the same data, showed that Americans have a mental picture in which the United States is more egalitarian in wealth right now than Sweden is in reality.  Most people don't understand real poverty, overestimate their own wealth, and seriously underestimate the wealth of the elites in the United States.

Why?

I think that white privilege is a big factor.  Or let me be more precise: white identity.

Our understanding of the economy that we live in is based on our observation of reality, either directly, or through the distorting lens of the media.  We also look at it through our own lens of identity.  A white person who stands at the exact mid-point of wealth in the country looks up the wealth curve and most of the people he or she sees are also white.  Looking down the wealth curve, not so much.   White identity is an optical illusion that makes other white people seem closer than they really are.

Conversely, poverty among people of color is a politically charged issue.  White identity often leads those white people on the 50 yard line to defend themselves against true knowledge of it.  Many believe that the poor are not really that poor.  Some believe that government programs allow the poor to actually live a middle-class lifestyle, free from the inconvenience of work.

Because white people at the midpoint over-identity with people up the wealth curve, they also under-identify with people down the curve.  Their mental picture shifts to an imaginary world in which wealth  is more evenly distributed than it is.

William Ellery Channing
 To the right is William Ellery Channing, the early 19th century Boston minister who was one of the first to imagine a liberal faith in the United States.  He came from a politically prominent family; his father was a politically active attorney in Rhode Island.  His wife was wealthy, and Channing served a wealthy Boston church.  He was not a populist or a labor organizer. He was not a fiery preacher. He did, however, have great influence in the entire country, because he was respected for his "spirituality".  One pillar of his spiritual life was his belief in the benevolence of God.  Another was his belief in the capacity of people to do good.  And another was his thoughtfulness and deep introspection.  He showed an awareness of how we think.

In one of his most famous sermons, he said "I call that mind free which resists the bondage of habit, which does not mechanically copy the past, nor live on its past virtues." 

White Identity is a mental habit that comes from the past.  It seriously limits our ability to see our present situation clearly.  It makes it harder to live out our values in the present moment.  How can we when the "bondage of habit" keeps us in a fantasy world?


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