The Craziest Person in the Room: Reflections on How a Mediocre White Guy Can Try to Be Useful
By Robert Jensen
Published in Racism Review, June 7, 2013 · June, 2013
[Edited version of a talk at the National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education in New Orleans on June 1, 2013.]
I recognize that the title for this presentation—“The Craziest Person in the Room: Reflections on How a Mediocre White Guy Can Try to Be Useful”—is not particularly elegant or enticing, maybe not very clear or even coherent. So, let me begin by explaining what I mean by some of these terms.
First, the “white guy”: For some years now, I’ve begun talks on injustice and inequality by acknowledging my status: White, male, educated, comfortably middle class, and born in the United States—in short, a privileged citizen of a predatory imperial nation-state within a pathological capitalist economic system. Borrowing a line from a friend with the same profile, I observe that, “If I had been born good-looking, I would have had it all.” That approach communicates to people in this room who don’t occupy these categories that I recognize my unearned privilege and the unjust systems and structures of power from which that privilege flows. (It also indicates that I am not afraid to look in a mirror.)
But today I won’t offer much more of that reflexive white liberal/progressive/radical genuflecting, which while appropriate in many situations increasing feels to me like a highly choreographed dance that happens in what we might call “social-justice spaces.” In rooms such as this, such a performance feels like that—just a performance. So, yes, there are some things I don’t know and can’t know because I’m a white guy, and that demands real humility, a recognition that people on the other end of those hierarchies have different, and typically deeper, insights than mine. But after 25 years of work to understand the world in which I live, there are some things I am confident that I do know and that are more vitally important than ever.
This confidence flows from an awareness that I am mediocre. About “mediocre”: Don’t worry, I don’t have a self-esteem problem. I am a tenured full professor at a major state research university, a job that I work hard at with some success. This is not false modesty; I believe I’m an above-average teacher who is particularly good at expressing serious ideas in plain language. I describe myself as mediocre because I think that, whatever skills I have developed, I’m pretty ordinary and I think that most of us ordinary people are pretty mediocre—good enough to get by, but nothing special. If we put some effort into our work and catch a few breaks (and I’ve had more than my share of lucky breaks), we’ll do ok. Too many bad breaks, and things fall apart quickly. I think this is an honest, and healthy, way to understand ourselves.
So, for me, “coming out” as mediocre is a way of reminding myself of my limits, to help me use whatever abilities I do have as effectively as possible. I’ve spent a quarter-century in academic and political life, during which time I’ve met some really smart people, and I can tell the difference between them and me. I have never broken new theoretical ground in any field, and I never will. I probably have never had a truly original idea. I’m a competent, hard-working second-tier intellectual and organizer.
As a result, I’ve focused on trying to get clear about basic issues: Why is it so difficult for U.S. society to transcend the white-supremacist ideas of its founding, even decades after the end of the country’s formal apartheid system? Why do patriarchal ideas dominate everywhere, even in the face of the compelling arguments of feminists? Why do we continue to describe the United States as a democratic society when most ordinary people feel shut out of politics and the country operates on the world stage as a rogue state outside of international law? Why do we celebrate capitalism when it produces a world of unspeakable deprivation alongside indefensible affluence? And why, in the face of multiple cascading ecological crises, do we collectively pretend that prosperity is just around the corner when what seems more likely to be around the corner is the cliff that we are about to go over? Those are some really heavy questions, but people don’t have to pretend to be something special to deal with these challenges. We can be ordinary, average—mediocre, in the sense I mean it—and still do useful things to confront all this. Instead of trying to prove how special and smart we are, it’s fine to dig in and do the ordinary work of the world. But people like me—those of us with identities that come with all that unearned privilege—do have one opportunity to do at least one thing that can be special: We don’t have to pretend to be the smartest, but we can strive to be the craziest person in the room.
Third, and final, clarification, about “crazy”: In this context, I mean crazy not in a pejorative but in an aspirational sense. I want to be as crazy as I can, in the sense of being unafraid of the radical implications of the radical analysis necessary to understand the world. When such analysis is honest, the implications are challenging, even frightening. It is helpful to be a bit crazy, in this sense, to help us accept the responsibility of pushing as far and as hard as is possible and productive, in every space.
I take that to be my job, to leverage that unearned privilege to create as much space as possible for the most radical analysis possible, precisely because in some settings I am taken more seriously than those without that status. If it’s true that white people tend to take me more seriously than a non-white person when talking about race, then I should be pushing those white folk. If I can get away with talking not just about the need for diversity but also about the enduring reality of racism—and in the process, explain why the United States remains a white-supremacist society—then I should talk “crazy” in that way, to make sure that analysis is part of the conversation, and to make it easier for non-white people to push in whatever direction they choose. Once I’ve used the term “white supremacy,” it’s on the table for others who might be dismissed as “angry” if they had introduced it into the conversation.
If it’s true that men tend to take me more seriously than a woman when talking about gender, then I should be pushing the envelope. If I can get away with talking not just about the importance of respecting women but also about the enduring reality of sexism, then I should talk “crazy” about how rape is not deviant but normalized in a patriarchal culture, about how the buying and selling of women’s bodies for the sexual pleasure of men in prostitution, pornography, and stripping is a predictable consequence of the eroticizing of domination and subordination.
I should talk about the violent reality of imperialism, not just questioning the wisdom of a particular war but critiquing the sick structure of U.S. militarism. I should talk not just about the destructive nature of the worst corporations but also about the fundamental depravity of capitalism itself.
As someone with status and protection, I should always be thinking: What is the most radical formulation of the relevant analysis that will be effective in a particular time and place? Then I should probably take a chance and push it a half-step past that. I should do all this without resorting to jargon, either from the diversity world or the dogmatic left. I should say it as clearly as possible, even when that clarity makes people—including me—uncomfortable. This isn’t always as difficult or risky as it seems. Outside of overtly reactionary political spaces, most people’s philosophical and theological systems are rooted in basic concepts of fairness, equality, and the inherent dignity of all people. Most of us endorse values that—if we took them seriously—should lead to an ethics and politics that reject the violence, exploitation, and oppression that defines the modern world. If only a small percentage of people in any given society are truly sociopaths—incapable of empathy, those who for some reason enjoy cruel and oppressive behavior—then a radical analysis should make sense to lots of people.
But it is not, of course, that easy, because of the rewards available to us when we are willing to subordinate our stated principles in service of oppressive systems. I think that process works something like this:
–The systems and structures in which we live are hierarchical.
–Hierarchical systems and structures deliver to those in the dominant class certain privileges, pleasures, and material benefits, and some limited number of people in subordinated classes will be allowed access to most of those same rewards.
–People are typically hesitant to give up privileges, pleasures, and benefits that make us feel good.
–But, those benefits clearly come at the expense of the vast majority of those in the subordinated classes.
–Given the widespread acceptance of basic notions of equality and human rights, the existence of hierarchy has to be justified in some way other than crass self-interest.
–One of the most persuasive arguments for systems of domination and subordination is that they are “natural” and therefore inevitable, immutable. There’s no point getting all worked up about this—it’s just the way things are.
If this analysis is accurate, that’s actually good news. I would rather believe that people take pains to rationalize a situation they understand to be morally problematic than to celebrate injustice. When people know they have to rationalize, it means they at least understand the problems of the systems, even if they won’t confront them.
So, our task is to take seriously that claim: Is this domination/subordination dynamic natural? Yes and no. Everything humans do is “natural,” in the tautological sense that since we do it, human nature obviously includes those particular characteristics. In that sense, a pacifist intentional community based on the collective good and a slave society based on exploitation are both natural. We all know from our own experience that our individual nature includes varied capacities; we are capable of greedy, self-interested behavior, and we also can act out of solidarity and compassion. We make choices—sometimes consciously, though more often without much deliberation—within systems that encourage some aspects of our nature and suppress other parts.
Maybe there is a pecking order to these various aspects of human beings—a ranking of the relative strength of these various parts of our nature—but if that is the case, we know virtually nothing about it, and aren’t likely to know anytime soon, given the limits of our ability to understand our own psychology. What we do understand is that the aspect of our nature that emerges as primary depends on the nature of the systems in which we live. Our focus should be on collective decisions we make about social structure, which is why it’s crucial to never let out of our sights the systems that do so much damage: white supremacy, patriarchy, imperialism, capitalism. There are serious implications to that statement. For example, I do not think that meaningful social justice is possible within capitalism. My employer, the University of Texas at Austin, doesn’t agree. In fact, some units of the university—most notably the departments of business, advertising, and economics—are dedicated to entrenching capitalism. That means I will always be in a state of tension with my employer, if I’m true to my own stated beliefs.
Education and organizing efforts that stray too far from this focus will never be able to do more than smooth the rough edges off of systems that will continue to produce violence, exploitation, and oppression—because that’s what those systems are designed to do. If we are serious about resisting injustice, that list of systems we must challenge is daunting enough. But it is incomplete, and perhaps irrelevant, if we don’t confront what in some ways is the ultimate hierarchy, the central domination/subordination dynamic: the human belief in our right to control the planet.
Let me put this in plain terms: We live in a dead world. Not a world that is dying, but a world that is dead—beyond repair, beyond reclamation, perhaps beyond redemption. The modern industrial high-energy/high-technology world is dead. I do not know how long life-as-we-know-it in the First World can continue, but the future of our so-called “lifestyle” likely will be measured in decades not centuries. Whatever the time frame for collapse, the contraction has begun. I was born in 1958 and grew up in a world that promised endless expansion of everything—of energy and material goods, of democracy and freedom. That bounty was never equitably distributed, of course, and those promises were mostly rhetorical cover for power. The good old days were never as good as we imagined, and they are now gone for good.
If that seems crazy, let me try again: The central illusion of the industrial world’s extractive economy—propped up by a technological fundamentalism that is as irrational as all fundamentalisms—is that we can maintain indefinitely a large-scale human presence on the earth at something like current First-World levels of consumption. The task for those with critical sensibilities is not just to resist oppressive social arrangements, but to speak a simple truth that almost no one wants to acknowledge: This high-energy/high-technology life of affluent societies is a dead end. We can’t predict with precision how resource competition and ecological degradation will play out in the coming decades, but it is ecocidal to treat the planet as nothing more than a mine from which we extract and a landfill into which we dump. We cannot know for sure what time the party will end, but the party’s over.
Does that still sound crazy? Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live—groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of dead zones in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species, and reduction of biodiversity—and ask a simple question: Where are we heading?
Remember also that we live in an oil-based world that is rapidly depleting the cheap and easily accessible oil, which means we face a major reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds daily life. Meanwhile, the desperation to avoid that reconfiguration has brought us to the era of “extreme energy,” using more dangerous and destructive technologies (hydrofracturing, deep-water drilling, mountaintop coal removal, tar sands extraction). Instead of gently putting our foot on the brakes and powering down, we are slamming into overdrive.
And there is the undeniable trajectory of global warming/global weirding, climate change/climate disruption—the end of a stable planet.
Scientists these days are talking about tipping points (June 7, 2012, issue of Nature) and planetary boundaries (September 23, 2009, issue of Nature), about how human activity is pushing Earth beyond its limits. Recently 22 top scientists warned that humans likely are forcing a planetary-scale critical transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience,” which means that “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.” (Anthony Barnosky, et al, “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere,” Nature, June 7, 2012).
That conclusion is the product of science and common sense, not supernatural beliefs or conspiracy theories. The political/social implications are clear: There are no solutions to our problems if we insist on maintaining the high-energy/high-technology existence lived in much of the industrialized world (and desired by many currently excluded from it). Many tough-minded folk who are willing to challenge other oppressive systems hold on tightly to this lifestyle. The critic Fredric Jameson wrote that, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” but that’s only part of the problem—for some, it may be easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of air conditioning.
I’m not moving into rapture talk, but we do live in end-times, of a sort. Not the end of the world—the planet will carry on with or without us—but the end of the human systems that structure our politics, economics, and social life.
All this matters for anyone concerned not only about the larger living world but also the state of the human family. Ecological sustainability and social justice are not separate projects. One obvious reason is that ecological crises do not affect everyone equally—as those in the environmental justice movement say, the poor and oppressed of the planet tend to be hit “first and worst, hardest and longest” by ecological degradation. These ecological realities also affect the landscape on which we organize, and progressive and radical movements on the whole have not spent enough time thinking about this.
First, let me be clear, even though there is no guarantee we can change the disastrous course of contemporary society, we should affirm the value of our work for justice and sustainability. We take on projects that we realize may fail because it’s the right thing to do, and by doing so we create new possibilities for ourselves and the world. Just as we all know that someday we will die and yet still get out of bed every day, an honest account of planetary reality need not paralyze us.
Then let’s abandon worn-out clichés such as, “The American people will do the right thing if they know the truth,” or “Past social movements prove the impossible can happen.” There is no evidence that awareness of injustice will automatically lead U.S. citizens, or anyone else, to correct it. When people believe injustice is necessary to maintain their material comfort, some accept those conditions without complaint.
Social movements around race, gender, and sexuality have been successful in changing oppressive laws and practices, and to a lesser degree in shifting deeply held beliefs. But the movements we most often celebrate, such as the post-World War II civil rights struggle, operated in a culture that assumed continuing economic expansion. We now live in a time of permanent contraction—there will be less, not more, of everything. Pressuring a dominant group to surrender some privileges when there is an expectation of endless bounty is a very different project than when there is intensified competition for increasingly scarce resources. That doesn’t mean nothing can be done to advance justice and sustainability, only that we should not be glib about the inevitability of it.
If all this seems like more than one can bear, it’s because it is. We are facing new, more expansive challenges. Never in human history have potential catastrophes been so global; never have social and ecological crises of this scale threatened at the same time; never have we had so much information about the threats we must come to terms with.
It’s easy to cover up our inability to face this by projecting it onto others. When someone tells me “I agree with your assessment, but people can’t handle it,” I assume what that person really means is, “I can’t handle it.” But handling it is, in the end, the only sensible choice. To handle it is to be a moral agent, responsible for oneself and one’s place in a community.
Mainstream politicians will continue to protect existing systems of power, corporate executives will continue to maximize profit without concern, and the majority of people will continue to avoid these questions. It’s the job of people with critical sensibilities—those who consistently speak out for justice and sustainability, even when it’s difficult—not to back away just because the world has grown more ominous.
Facing this doesn’t demand that we separate from mainstream society or give up ongoing projects that seek a more just world within existing systems. I am a professor at a university that does not share my values or analysis, yet I continue to teach. In my community, I am part of a group that helps people create worker-cooperatives that will operate within a capitalist system that I believe to be a dead end. I belong to a congregation that struggles to radicalize Christianity while remaining part of a cautious, often cowardly, denomination. We do what we can, where we can, based on our best assessment of what will move us forward.
That may not be compelling to everyone. So, just in case I have dug myself in a hole with some people, I’ll deploy a strategy well known to white people talking about social justice: When you get in trouble, quote an icon from the civil-rights movement. In this case, I’ll choose James Baldwin, from a 1962 essay about the struggles of artists to help a society, such as white-supremacist America, face the depth of its pathology.
On this question of dealing honestly with hard truths, Baldwin reminds us,
Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” In that essay, titled “As Much Truth as One Can Bear,” Baldwin suggested that a great writer attempts “to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then a little more. (James Baldwin, “As Much Truth As One Can Bear,” in Randall Kenan, ed., The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (New York: Pantheon, 2010), pp. 28-34.)
He was speaking about the struggle for justice within the human family, but if we extend that spirit to the state of the larger living world, the necessary formulation today would be “to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then all the rest of the truth, whether we can bear it or not.”
By avoiding the stark reality of our moment in history we don’t make ourselves safe. All we do is undermine the potential of struggles for justice and sustainability and guarantee the end of the human evolutionary experiment will be ugly beyond our imagination. We must remember, as Baldwin said, “that life is the only touchstone and that life is dangerous, and that without the joyful acceptance of this danger, there can never be any safety for anyone, ever, anywhere.”