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Thu Sep 29, 2016, 05:52 PM

Explaining stupidity: "isms" and Loss Aversion

"How can 'they' be SO STUPID?"

"How can 'they' vote against their own interests?"

"Why do 'they' support something so manifestly destructive- to 'them'?"

I've lost track of the versions of this fundamental question- they are myriad. The question is asked over and over, but particularly in relation to people who are clearly not at the top of the income distribution, lacking powerful educational/family connections, often struggling with challenges to the health, well-being, and future of themselves and/or their families.

Writing them off as "stupid," or even "delusional" may feel good, but it does nothing to promote the understanding needed to build positive connections and promote change.

Identifying the "ism" driving their oppositional orientation (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) is a start, but focusing on something as big as an "ism" won't help you communicate with them, either. Often the reverse- identifying them as an "-ist" or a "-phobe" simply widens the gap.

As a wise elder of my acquaintance puts it "turn the pocket inside out."

Almost all forms of "ism" relate to the assumption of, and benefit from, a specific kind of privilege.

White people- no matter how economically, educationally, or otherwise disadvantaged- still retain the advantages of our white privilege. We may not be conscious of it, we may even deny its existence, but it's there all the same. We have a much higher chance of surviving a traffic stop. We don't have to think twice, while shopping, about picking up an object and moving along to see it in a better light before putting it our basket or taking it to the register. Thousands of daily, subtle things we benefit from, stresses we don't experience, worries we don't have, assumptions we can unthinkingly make, whether we're aware of them or not- these are our privilege as white people in a racist culture.

Male people retain the privilege their "Y" chromosome conveys in in a patriarchal culture.

Cisgendered people, able-bodied folk, members of ANY group that enjoys privilege in a culture that bestows it, may be unaware of, or even in denial of, that privilege and the advantages it bestows, but they react with immediate, even instinctive, opposition to any kind of change that threatens its loss.

And when those intangible but very real privileges are practically the only advantages you enjoy in a wealth-worshipping, power-driven, hierarchical, profoundly inequitable society?

They are exponentially more precious. Realized or not, the holders thereof will cling to them with grim determination intensified all the more by the fading hopes of ever achieving the economic or social success to which that privilege "should" entitle them.

The more we suffer from the effects of inequity, the greater our aversion to giving up the few tangible or intangible advantages our privilege conveys.

Examining things from the status of loss aversion- however intangible or even imaginary those losses may be (how manyof those people longing for a return to the imagined paradise of an orderly Leave-It-To-Beaver past would really have been any better off than they are now..?) helps me understand the grim obstinacy their self-defeating choices.

Loss aversion is almost always more powerful, as a psychological motivation, than hope of benefit.

The upsurge in overt racism after Obama's election is a pretty clear indicator that we can expect something just as- maybe more- virulent, pervasive, and obstinately vicious from those who fear the loss of the privilege that comes with their "Y" chromosome.

I'm not looking forward to it.


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