One of the fascinating aspects of privilege is the way in which it totally skews your perception of what ‘average’ is. I would think, for example, that things like street harassment or sexual assault or other forms of misogynistic abuse are fantastically rare. After all, I’m a guy who spends a lot of time with and around women, and I almost never see street harassment or hear stories of people getting assaulted. It wasn’t until I actually asked the women in my life about their experiences that I saw just how widespread and pervasive these behaviours are – they just don’t happen when guys like me are around to see them. My male privilege makes the ‘norm’ of a safe and fair society seem plausible, when the lived experience of my friends and family is anything but.
So when one is confronted about their privilege, or when their privilege is even simply discussed openly, an interesting thing happens. From the perspective of the privileged, the critics are attacking what is right and normal! Why on Earth would someone criticize a just world? There’s certainly no rational reason to do that. Nobody without a particular axe to grind, or maybe even an outright hatred of a particular group would level such accusations against the norm, right? And when those criticisms continue unabated, there’s only one possible way to see it: as demonization:
With the elections behind us and with the President having won a clear victory, the divisive language is behind us and there will be a close working relationship going forward. The demonisation of Wall Street has been hard to take. The financial industry is proud of its contribution; it’s an industry that has really powered America’s success as leader of the global economy. But the contributions of the industry have been forgotten during this period. They obviously made some mistakes but they feel they’re taking outsized responsibility for problems that should be more broadly shared. I think the rhetoric and demonisation have been a very sore point. Hopefully, we’re going to get beyond that.
Now to be sure, a lot of this is just political posturing and an attempt to re-cast the landscape as though Wall Street didn’t actively campaign against the President’s re-election. Still though, this feeling that the President brought it upon himself by “demonizing” Wall Street executives has been a constant rallying cry (or maybe “rallying whine” is more accurate) for the past several months. You may have heard of it in its alternative form – liberals “hate success”*, and therefore demonize those people who make money out of jealousy because they (we) couldn’t do it ourselves.
And here’s where we see the manifestation of the privilege of being a high-ranking wealthy executive in a country that mistakenly confuses wealth with business acumen: Wall Street CEOs don’t see themselves as being part of the problem. As far as they’re concerned, everything they did was fair. They applied to get laws changed, then obeyed those laws (for the most part – some ‘bad apples’ didn’t, but you can’t blame all Wall Street CEOs for the mistakes of a few, right?). It’s not their fault that bad things happened – the regulators should have done a better job of curbing abuse. Or maybe the lawmakers should have just not written the new laws that the Wall Street CEOs asked for. And hey, there were people out there taking bad loans – how come we don’t blame them for the economy tanking? Shouldn’t they accept some of the blame for being stupid enough to take advantage of the clearly risky products that the Wall Street CEOs sold them?
And now Wall Street CEOs are being targeted with such awful and abusive language! People are calling them “fat-cats”! That hurts their feelings! This harsh language is the real problem. That’s the reason that there’s been no progress! How can you expect anyone to want to participate in fixing an economy (and who really cares who caused the damage, right?) when people are saying such awful things? It’s divisive! Oh sure, people bring up the “47%” comments and a general attitude of dismissiveness toward people who aren’t wealthy as lazy parasites (thanks to policies created by Wall Street CEOs that make it much more difficult to alleviate debt, or make a successful business that competes with giant corporate entities, or to rise out of poverty if you weren’t born with wealth), but can’t we just agree that there’s wrong on both sides? Maybe if both sides just stop bandying about this kind of harsh language, we can start working on solutions.
And so what if Wall Street CEOs have had a long history of reaping out-sized benefits like undue political clout and prestige – many of which are given to them for the simple fact that they are Wall Street CEOs? So what if CEOs of other sectors are not accorded the same deference; nor are people who work on Wall Street but aren’t in that particular echelon of income? That doesn’t justify the kind of mean-spirited witch hunts and widespread hatred leveled against Wall Street CEOs! Most Wall Street CEOs are good people who would never defraud anyone or ruin their economy!
So how dare anyone say anything about Wall Street CEOs as though they are part of the problem! Wall Street CEOs have built immense wealth for the economy; and while mistakes were made, shouldn’t the blame be placed on some Wall Street CEOs rather than blaming them all? After all, this demonization and cruel language is simply dividing Americans, when what we need is unity to fix the economic issues. If Wall Street CEOs are going to be subjected to this kind of harsh and unwelcoming environment, well maybe they’ll just take their trillions in totally legitimately-obtained wealth and sequester it in offshore accounts even more! Why should they help if people are just going to hate them because they’re successful?
And of course that’s crazy, right? Almost nobody hates successful people for the mere fact of being successful. The attacks on, for example, Mitt Romney for his moneybags ways weren’t about “well he’s rich, so therefore he’s a bad person” – they were almost entirely focused on how he made his money. Most people recognize the merit in a capitalist system in which hard work and ingenuity is rewarded with profit; what they object to is when rules are circumvented or changed or simply ignored so that people can reap huge cash windfalls at the expense of those people who cannot afford high-priced lobbyists. The exploitative practices and preferential treatment of financial executives on Wall Street are the reason why they’re “demonized”, not the mere fact that they’re rich.
It’s the fact that Wall Street CEOs won’t do the necessary work to see past their own blinkered view of reality and deal with the actual reasons that people are criticizing them – seemingly preferring to invent a parallel universe of excuses so they don’t have to actually confront the way their own behaviour makes them complicit to a grotesquely unfair system that is deeply harmful – that is the reason why I can’t really take the feverish and beleaguered complaints of
white men Wall Street CEOs seriously.
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*Or that terrorists “hate our freedoms” – we must somehow learn to avoid the seductive temptation of substituting swaggering machismo for thoughtful responses. I’m not holding my breath though.