Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The end of YPIS?

As mentioned below, the trend of calling out others' "privilege" as a way of asserting one's own commitment to social justice, or of implying one's own relative hard-scrabble-ness, reached something of a low point yesterday, when a bunch of Jezebel commenters decided that a 22-year-old's privilege was showing. No matter that this 22-year-old had been written up for having just been killed in a car crash. Clichés such as "you can't take it with you" and "death is the great equalizer" convey why it's illogical to discuss the privilege of the no longer living; common sense indicates why hurling a your-privilege-is-showing in the general direction of those mourning Marina Keegan is in poor taste, if not outright cruel.

But this goes deeper into the heart of YPIS. The ostensible point of these YPIS-hurlers is that pretty, wealthy white girls' lives are valued more than others', and that it's wrong to call someone "promising" just because she went to Yale and were about to start her first post-college job at the New Yorker. But Keegan had actually made something of herself. Her myriad accomplishments were not exactly things handed to you as a reward for being the child of privilege (if indeed she was one! everyone is taking it for granted). That she almost without a doubt had more opportunities than a young person in war-torn Africa would (barring Kristofian intervention) doesn't diminish how much she would need to have done to thus distinguish herself from many, many other pretty white girls of equivalent privilege. Insofar as we as a society highlight the obituaries of the accomplished, Keegan's was an obvious one to highlight, and not really of the "missing white girl" mold.

One might speculate that in this case, the YPIS was in fact less about missing-white-girl or social justice and more about jealousy. This thread is basically a morbid version of the Tavi Gevinson one a while back. Gevinson, the tween-now-teen fashion prodigy, does not, by the usual fashion-world definition, come from privilege. Her father's a teacher, her mother an artist and not, from what we know, a rich and famous one. She grew up (technically is growing up) in a suburb of Chicago, not exactly a hotbed of glamor and connections. Which didn't stop the "Jezzies" from holding forth about how privileged Tavi must be, and how if we take this privilege into account, we see how slight her accomplishments are, considering.

Successful fashion-blogging, admission to Yale, a job at the New Yorker, these accomplishments are easy to envy, because it can feel as though they're all about luck, not talent or hard work. (There are not too many random Jezebel readers convinced that amorphous "privilege" is what keeps them from being Nobel-winning physicists, Williams-level tennis players, etc.) Anyone can write a sentence! Anyone can take a picture of an outfit! A natural, if less-than-admirable, response to achievements along these lines is, "Why not meeee?" But because it's petty if not socially-unacceptable to express that, those wishing to do so instead turn to how dreadfully unfair it is that a theoretical inner-city teen is not reaching these heights. With Gevinson, this was ridiculous. With Keegan, grotesque.

The coldness of this response gave the impression that many readers' commitment to calling out cluelessness had, paradoxically, rendered them out-of-touch with reality. Did they really think the unfairnesses of life that make some better-situated to become Yale grads or New Yorker editors are effectively addressed by claiming that it's not sad when a young person dies immediately after graduating from college?

What was remarkable in this thread - and what led me to this post title - was that other Jezebel commenters decided that enough was enough, that YPIS had gone too far, that the term "privilege" has been so mis- and overused as to have lost its power. It feels, if you read the thread, like the tide might be turning. YPIS just felt over.

And - to anticipate the counterargument - the answer isn't to chuck the concept of privilege. It's to chuck YPIS. It's to remember that privilege as a topic up for discussion is one that relates to populations, not individuals. All things equal, whiteness and wealth are privilege. The answer isn't to embrace some kind of arch-conservative, boot-straps, victim-blaming ideology that pretends we all begin life with equal opportunities, or to shrug our shoulders about systematic injustices in the name of life-isn't-fair. Instead, it's to acknowledge that when it comes to others as individuals, especially others you don't know personally, you can't say that they haven't had to overcome massive obstacles, albeit invisible or unannounced ones. It's to remember that certain individuals are unlucky as well as, by certain objective standards, "privileged." I believe this came up regarding Ann Romney, and I've seen it in even more absurd cases as well: if someone's seriously ill, the proper response isn't 'and think of how much worse that princess would have it if she didn't have health insurance.' It's best to save privilege-checking on the individual level for yourself, to count your own blessings, and to try your best not to be clueless, entitled, and so forth.


Miss Self-Important said...

I think "It's easy to write a sentence!" should be the title of an article, or failing that and for different reasons, the subject line of my next email to my students.

This came up w/r/t Joan Didion's dead daughter last time--at least her mother was wealthy and famous; think of all the underprivileged dead! I don't, however, think that the weird construction of privilege is going away due to this appalling Jezebel thing. It's pervasive in the rhetoric of Occupy and the "student debt crisis" writing, and seems to be effective there as a way of turning seeming privilege (college degree) into underprivilege (crushing debt), which legitimates resentment of yet other privilege (debt-free or debt-paid credentials)--basically, it gets parts of the middle class on board. The internship controversies you're interested in also partake of these tropes. They seem tied to certain ways of thinking about the economy that are very deeply ingrained in our age demographic, the under-30s or so.

Anonymous said...

I continue to admire your willingness to undertake the thankless task of wading into these intractable public brawls.

Phoebe said...


Right! The Didion YPIS. Re-skimming that post, I see that I certainly repeat myself. But yes, this is very much the same idea - as though enough money-and-whiteness privilege can bring about immortality.

Re: unpaid internships, I agree that YPIS enters into it, although I'm not sure if it's for the same reasons you'd say it does. As I see it, the unpaid intern - the post-college one, esp. - is the ultimate recipient of YPIS accusations, even though unless you're independently wealthy as in have a trust fund, you're thus 25-give-or-take, working and not in school, and yet living off your parents, which probably isn't so great, and are probably not exempt from having to get paying work eventually, which you might or might not be on track to receive.

As for the staying power of YPIS, you may be right. It's definitely part of the rhetoric of Occupy, thus the liberal-arts-grad offspring of the 1%'s cringe-inducing self-flagellation.

But it's also just built into meritocracy - if you want others to be impressed by your achievements, it can't hurt to emphasize (or invent!) the discrepancy between what you come from and what you've amounted to. One easy way to do that - one that avoids getting into where you're situated, privilege-wise, overall - is to latch onto someone else's relative privilege in some area. The anonymity of the Internet certainly facilitates this.

So it's not even - as OWS might suggest - just a new incarnation of populist rage. It's about pretending to be an underdog, whatever your reality, or pretending to fight for the underdog when your real agenda is something less savory.

(Pardon all the links back to WWPD - just trying to keep all these thoughts in one place...)

Phoebe said...

Also: see this thread.

PG said...

Excellent post, especially the last several sentences, and extra-especially the final one. I hope you'll kind of gather up the analyses you've been doing on this topic and publish it in another forum, maybe one about the new politics of class among the under-30 crowd or something. I think there are manifestations of this in the "tell your own story" aspect of OWS (and what seems like anything with a large "progressive" population), but much as I don't care for OWS, I think they are fighting about something larger. After all, there are fairly underprivileged people -- more underprivileged than the average OWS protester -- who scramble up the Wall Street ladder. Certain aspects of finance actually reward the brassy pushers more than the Yale alumni; I think it was traditionally the floor traders vs. the analysts. But to object to the systemic problems that accumulate wealth for people who aren't clearly contributing much to society, but instead skimming off the cream of our country's overall productivity, is not to assume that Wall Street folks shouldn't have quite so much money because they have privileged backgrounds.

(I wonder where finance fits on the "writing a sentence --> playing tennis like a Williams sister" spectrum.)

It's sad that what once would have been inevitably weak thoughts we all have*, that we would feel guilty about having and forget, are now the fodder for anonymous internet comments where you can find the ugliest parts of other people's human nature to commune with your own.

* I can think of one I've had myself: "Oh, of course she had an easier time getting into law school, her dad's a big deal lawyer" -- then discovering this person was living with a debilitating illness and struggled just to make it to class each day.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, I think you're precisely right that it's built into the meritocracy, which is why it's likely to travel with us for a while, for we are the fortunate (no, sorry, unfortunate!) children of the meritocracy. But the question is why this is true: "if you want others to be impressed by your achievements, it can't hurt to emphasize (or invent!) the discrepancy between what you come from and what you've amounted to."

There is no necessary connection b/w "overcoming obstacles" in the college admissions parlance and achieving impressive things, especially since what counts as impressive achievement is pretty static (productions of critically acclaimed works, foundings of successful firms or institutions, etc.) and we don't often employ a sliding scale--equal praise poor people for writing mediocre books as for rich people for writing good ones. We just praise good books, mostly.

But we do employ a sliding scale in college admissions and in certain kinds of job recruitment b/c of something that you've blogged about before--the opaqueness of qualification and dessert in the meritocracy due to things like "holistic evaluation" in admissions, which makes it difficult for people to know why they did or didn't qualify for something, and which makes all talents and personal qualities magically commensurable (being a good football player is as valuable as being from a farm is as valuable as being a math prodigy, etc). This seems to create ambiguities about what achievement actually is and whether different people should be held to different standards of it, as well as a substantial anxiety about where one stands relative to others and a desire to hedge that standing with claims of setbacks and obstacles, which simultaneously preserve our pride in our own achievement and assuage our fear that others are getting ahead of us. This connects up with the belief that not only can anyone write a sentence, but that moreover, I could've written that sentence had I not been a woman and a Midwesterner and so short! Life is harder for me!

So, uh, very long story short, I wonder whether our deep agreement with the principle of holistic evaluation as the correct means of stocking the upper echelons of the meritocracy makes us very poor (and even vindictive) judges of achievement in the world. We're afraid for ourselves and our own positions, and we don't know how anyone else earned theirs, so why would we be inclined to praise other people?

Phoebe said...


If you can think of a forum that might want a version of this not typed quickly and furiously on NJ Transit, do tell.

Re: OWS, MSI and I were discussing its rhetoric, not its platform-such-as-it-is. But it's an interesting point, what the relative privilege is of an underemployed Oberlin (or Harvard?) grad from an UMC family, as versus a less prestigiously-educated banker. Is "privilege" just about your life up to age 18 or 21, and who your parents are? If you have a great deal of intangible (social, cultural) "capital" on paper, but no economic capital, no marketable skills... OWS is almost the reverse of YPIS, because YPIS is generally someone who's worked his own way up rolling his eyes at those who had everything handed to them. OWS is, to a limited but significant extent, people who've had a great deal handed to them, but found that what was handed to them isn't worth what they thought.

But "'tell your own story'" is definitely key. From that perspective, a progressive movement (OWS, but also Jezebel and the like) dominated by youngish people with an overshare (or in more neutral terms, autobiographical) mentality lends itself to YPIS accusations. I mean, it's "your privilege is showing," not, "there is systematic privilege and that's a bad thing." Which is why one huge problem with YPIS is that it penalizes those who faced obstacles that they don't wish to discuss publicly. Disadvantage only "counts" if it's announced at every possible interval. When, with the exception of visible disadvantage, those who've dealt with greater challenges tend to be precisely the ones not constantly announcing it. You'll hear far more about the scrappy upbringing of a classmate who grew up wealthy but whose parents did not, or didn't go to one of those fancy prep schools, or who went to a fancy prep school but not in one of those fancy coastal states, etc., than you will about the scrappy upbringing of a classmate who actually grew up poor. The same goes for kids who faced other, non-financial obstacles (physical/mental illness, abuse at home, etc.), who may just want to put the past behind them.


Re: literature, YPIS has made its mark there as well. I'm thinking, for example, of the recent controversy when Jonathan Franzen wrote a New Yorker rebuked for his male privilege by Meg Clark, who insists, "wealth and privilege interfering with a writer's sympathies is not a critique I believe women are (or ought to be) immune to; such a critique is at the root of my vague discomfort with Jennifer Egan and Elizabeth Gilbert." Point being, even without entering CCOA territory and discussing whether an African poet plucked from obscurity does or does not belong on a freshman's syllabus, we can see that YPIS has infiltrated how we talk about literature.

But think also of the way we now discuss the emergence of new literary talent when that talent just happens to manifest itself as a straight, white, middle-class, neurotic (Jewish?) novelist who lives in Brooklyn. Male desire is overrepresented, New York City is overrepresented, etc. This, in turn, impacts how seriously we take these writers' works. If we assume that they had a boost for some reason we deem artificial ("privilege"), we're assuming the theoretical existence of other, much better books that are never reaching us. The YPIS impulse, which comes, as you say, from holistic assessment of us, isn't something we turn off in judging others' achievements. In other words, I completely agree with you.

Phoebe said...

OK, link issues, but the Franzen take-down is here:

Britta said...

I think occupy is about the not-poor or downtrodden realizing that living in a country with a third-world style wealth distribution is not optimal for anyone (except for those at the very top, i.e., the 1%), and that we should do something about it to be more like other industrialized countries before we end up like Nigeria.

In fact, I feel like the conservative flip side of YPIS is that if you care about something, you must be immediately affected by it. So, if you're a feminist, it's because you're ugly and can't get a date. If you're against racism, you must be a person of color. If you're for more wealth inequality, it must be because you can't get a job, or you're suffering materially, or you're jealous you don't own a big yacht. Being directly affected is a legitimate reason to care about something, but it's not the only or even the best reason. By framing it as such, then the idea that people believe in abstract principles such as justice or fairness or equality etc. that the will fight for no matter what is moot.

Britta said...

*they will fight for

Phoebe said...


It's interesting to consider the right-wing counterpart. It would be things like thinking a judge can't be impartial because he's gay, or that a black woman can't study race and gender because she has an inherent bias against racism and misogyny.

But it's also worth considering whether YPIS is entirely left-wing in its regular form. The hurler of YPIS is essentially boasting about how she has pulled herself up by the bootstraps, how she never experienced any kind of safety net, and how she is a superior person for it. So even if YPIS is ostensibly pro-social-justice progressive, it also effectively depends on an unequal society. I have to think about this all a bit more...

Re: OWS, as I said before, I think the fact that the protestors would seem 'privileged' but, upon reaching adulthood, have learned that an amorphous 'privilege' doesn't pay the bills complicates the YPIS narrative. The way I see the two relating is that the pervasiveness of YPIS prevents us from seeing that it's a problem when someone who's 25 and went to college can't get a paying job.

Britta said...


Yeah, I agree. I think YPIS uses the language of the left, but it's actually very conservative and supportive of the status quo. I suppose it originated as contra that, i.e., 'if you think someone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps then YPIS," but now it's used to prove that you've done this very thing. I think we've talked about this before, that it's also predicated on the idea that one is either born in a cardboard box to homeless illiterate people OR is handed everything and them some on a silver platter. (And this is reinforced on many mainstream progressive blogs.) People who aren't unprivileged but also work to get where they are then feel defensive, and try to prove that they don't just lie around and get handed stuff like good jobs or scholarships, or that, in fact, being the child of a dentist is not a free ticket to Harvard and partner at a top law firm, or whatever. I think there's a point to realizing that yes, on certain levels, being born to someone not heavily malnourished during pregnancy already gives you a leg up over about 2 billion people in the world, but that in terms of our daily lives and the choices we have to make, it's not all that useful a realization, and it's counterproductive when someone mentions it as "you should be grateful, entitled person" when you use it to point out that something like an offshore tax haven isn't a good or fair thing.