As fish are unaware of the water

I’m reading Mistakes Were Made (but not by me). Long overdue. Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.

There’s a bit on the idea of anger and venting or catharsis that I recognize from Tavris’s book Anger, which has always spoken to me. That’s because I’ve sat through so many work meetings where people “got their issues out into the open” and everybody talked piously about how this would make things so much better, and I always noticed that it did no such thing, it made them worse. When people vent their anger they don’t then sigh and smoke a cigarette and feel all happy and relaxed. They get more angry.

More on that later. First there’s a part where they’re talking about what I think is the fundamental attribution error but they don’t call it that. My long involvement in issue X makes me an expert; your long involvement in issue X makes you prejudiced. (Aka irregular verbs – I’m committed, you’re prejudiced, she’s a zealot.)

Then there’s a branch of that – and what do we find…

All of us are as unaware of our blind spots as fish are unaware of the water they swim in, but those who swim in the waters of privilege have a particular motivation to remain oblivious.

The what?! The waters of what now?!! Privilege!? That’s crazy talk! That’s crazy dogmatic radfem talk. Send help.

When Marynia Farnham [discussed earlier in the book] achieved fame and fortune during the late 1940s and 1950s by advising women to stay at home and raise children, otherwise risking frigidity, neurosis, and a loss of femininity, she saw no inconsistency (or irony?) in the fact that she was privileged to be a physician who was not staying at home raising children, including her own two. When affluent people speak of the underprivileged, they rarely bless their lucky stars that they are privileged, let alone consider that they might be overprivileged. Privilege is their blind spot. It is invisible; they don’t think twice about it; they justify their social position as something they are entitled to. In one way or another, all of us are blind to whatever privileges life has handed to us, even if those privileges are temporary. [pp 43-4]

They even go on to talk about drivers having blind spots in their field of vision.

These are two pretty respected social psychologists, here. They’re not wild-eyed dogmatic MarxoStasio witch-hunting feminazis.


  1. A. Noyd says

    I’m surprised you’re only just now reading the book. I adored it, and it came in so helpful when I got arrested. Even though I was in the right, I didn’t bother trying to convince the cops of that and refused to speak with them without a lawyer present because I knew that even if some of the cops meant well they were biased against me.

  2. says

    I was reading this piece at the FAIR blog recently. I literally gasped when I read

    The results from a new poll commissioned by the British media watchdog group MediaLens exposed a startling disconnect between the realities of the Iraq War and public perceptions of it: Namely, what the Iraqi death toll was. When Britons were asked “how many Iraqis, both combatants and civilians, do you think have died as a consequence of the war that began in Iraq in 2003?,” 44 percent of respondents estimated that 5,000 or fewer deaths had occurred.

    I have to wonder, though, if almost half of the British public really believes this in good faith – if they’re genuinely completely unaware of the real numbers. I think it’s less a matter of privilege blinding people to the realities than of privilege (and participation in systems of oppression) providing, as they say, a “particular motivation to remain oblivious.” I think we’re often aware at some deep conscious level that we’re deluding ourselves by remaining aloof from the evidence, that it’s a form of self-deception.

  3. says

    I mean, I’m always surprised that I’m only just now reading X. Always. I have a huge list of books I should have read long ago. If I read them all tomorrow, then I’ll be surprised I haven’t re-read them yet.

  4. thephilosophicalprimate says

    @SC (comment #2): The Onion weighed in on Iraq just yesterday, with its traditional generous helping of devastating-satire-reveals-truth-better-than-just-stating-the-truth. I wonder if the writer was responding to that FAIR blog post.

  5. Stacy says

    Time for me to finally read it as well!

    I know that Tavris did one of the CalTech Skeptics lectures when the book came out; I was at one a month or so before she spoke and I remember Shermer promoting her upcoming talk. It was a popular book among skeptics at the time. So…yeah, “privilege” shouldn’t be such a gobsmacking threatening foreign notion.

    I have an older book co-written by Elliot Aronson, The Age of Propaganda. It’s a slim and readable introduction to critical thinking.

  6. Bjarte Foshaug says

    This is definitely one of my all-time favorite books. I may be quite wrong, but the tsunami that’s been drowning what used to be the skeptical/atheist/secular/humanist “communities” in toxic waste for more than two years seems to me like the perfect example of the spiral of justification described by Tavris and Aronson:

    A prominent figure in the ex-movement makes an exceptionally stupid comment about “dear Muslima” and gets his ass handed to him by others, leaving the legions of worshippers to look for something – anything – to accuse his target of in order to make her deserve the attack. Demonizing the victim leads to further attacks, and each new attack increases the need for further justifications until finally there is no way to back off without implicitly admitting you’ve been a complete ass (I think we passed that point a little less than a week after “Elevatorgate”).

  7. Gretchen Robinson says

    Ophelia, we all have a long list of books we intend to read. Now I have to add this one to mine.
    Anyone read Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger. Yes, I know, a self-help book.

  8. Blondin says

    I’ve had this book on my wishlist for a couple of years now. I guess I’m just gonna have to buy it for myself.

  9. says

    Phyllis Schlafly used to start her lectures by thanking her husband for giving her permission to be there; in interviews, she said that she did it to peeve the feminists. But when asked by the press what she’d do if her husband told her to stay home, she said that he doesn’t tell her that, he *does* give her permission. At the time, I thought she was too stupid to understand a hypothetical question; now I think she was assuming that listeners were the stupid ones.

  10. Dave Ricks says

    Tonight I ordered a copy of Tavris and Aronson in paperback for my stack of Books Were Read (but not by me).

    On Gretchen’s recommendation I added Dance of Anger on audiobook, at least I’ll hear that in my car.

  11. sawells says

    Aristotle would have pointed out that “catharsis” (purging) comes from watching drama -fictions -which let you work through the emotions of pity, terror, anger etc. _without_ bringing up your own issues. The concept of “venting” your own anger by being angry about your own stuff is totally flawed from the get-go. Never works.

  12. says

    Stacy #6:

    I know that Tavris did one of the CalTech Skeptics lectures when the book came out; I was at one a month or so before she spoke and I remember Shermer promoting her upcoming talk. It was a popular book among skeptics at the time. So…yeah, “privilege” shouldn’t be such a gobsmacking threatening foreign notion.

    Oh wow. Shermer, devotee of the Randian Church of No Oppression Ever, No Sirree, recommending this? I need a new irony meter.

    I also notice what appears to be his face on the ad for Empowering Women Through Secularism. I bet it will be very nice for all the attendees to hear about how they need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and hire private security to chase off harassers.

  13. says

    I think there are many kinds of occasion when “getting things off your chest” can be very helpful – but situations where one has to continue to deal with people treating you badly for no good reason are not such.

  14. Brian Engler says

    This book is on my crowded shelf and, as others have implied, I have yet to read it because my to-read list is S-O-O long. Moving it to the top … now! Thanks, Ophelia.

  15. hypatiasdaughter says

    #15 Setár, genderqueer Elf-Sheriff of Atheism+
    That was my reaction when I first read Dawkins’ “Dear Muslima” letter. THIS from the guy who drones on and on and on about consciousness raising (learned from the feminist movement, no less!) in his books.
    And I can only chuckle at Shermer who wrote about how intelligent people are better at defending their irrational beliefs in “Why People Believe Weird Things”. Maybe he should re-read his own book.

    (I have to confess, I have never got past chapter three in any Dawkins book (I have 3 on my bookshelf). I find his writing a pedantic patronizing slog. I want to read about science – not a three chapter lecture on how to I should think, unless it is about thinking scientifically and rationally. Sagan did a much better job of that in his books, especially “Demon Haunted World”)

  16. Dave Ricks says

    “If this book doesn’t change the way we think about our mistakes, then we’re all doomed.” — from Michael Shermer’s blurb on the first page of Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *