Some self-reflections

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I rarely use social media to talk about myself. I talk about my ideas and my work, but not about me as an individual and certainly not about my feelings. But a lot has happened to me since I left the Federal Court and went back momentarily to the school bench. The events of the past months have forced me to reflect on some aspects of my life and of myself; some of which are worth sharing.

Background

Before exposing my reflections I think it is useful to summarize the events that led me to them. In August 2011 I started working for the Federal Court. Shortly after, I moved in with my partner. I entered this new phase of my life (working full time and living with one’s partner) already exhausted from 5 years (for three different degrees) of law school and part time work to pay for my education. I’m not trying to attract anyone’s pity; after all I come from a progressive upper middle class white family. But such experiences are subjective and I felt exhausted. The smart thing to do would have been to take some time off to write and read until I could apply to a PhD program (I didn’t have time to apply during my tenure at the court) since there was no need for me to go back to school or work at a job I hated. But no, I had to enroll into another master program and manage a plethora of activities at the same time instead. The program ended up much less interesting than expected (partly because I am intellectually insecure and thus cannot admit that I could be intelligent without the schooling to prove it) and, instead of being enjoyable, fueled my stress and exhaustion further. It negatively affected my whole life. I reached the breaking point a few weeks ago and dropped everything. And now I feel great! But why did I go through all of this in the first place?

Social norms and expectations

In our society doing nothing is frown upon… unless you have a good reason for it, like a disease or an injury (even then …). Emotional reasons or mental health problems are usually not acceptable reasons. Doing “nothing” (not that people who are not on the labour market actually do nothing, but they might as well in the eyes of society) is certainly not one. Most of my friends are happy for me and some are even jealous of my prolonged “vacation”. But in nearly all cases one of the first question asked is what are you doing next, because you obviously can’t stay “unproductive” for a very long time. Productivity is the key word in that sentence. We live in a capitalist society after all. Producing goods and services is the purpose and even the duty of its members. Time off has to be earned; it’s often given to you by an employer as part of your salary. If you are doing nothing you are lazy or unworthy. Even when someone is productive but in an unexpected way, like a lawyer who is aiming for an academic career for example, that person can be seen as wasting their time. I am of course quite busy for someone doing “nothing”; I have unfinished business, personal projects and publication to work on. But I’m not in school or working for money. Society doesn’t like that and I felt it before I jumped off the band wagon.

Internalized norms and expectations

Social pressure is half the equation. Although making money is required for survival in our system, it is not my “survival instinct” that forced me to stay productive. Money wouldn’t have been a problem for at least a few months and therefore I had the luxury of choice; I could have not gone to school or to work right away. I could have taken a few moments for myself instead of doing what was expected of me. But I didn’t. At first I blamed it on some of my personality traits: workaholic with a touch of unnecessary pride. Although I’m sure these traits didn’t help, after some thoughts I think that the problem is broader. By that I mean that its source is not just the individual, in this case me, but the broader social structure. The social pressure is not only an external factor; it is also, in my view, often internalized and thus acts as an internal one. The key difference between the two is that the external factor is much easier to identify. The internal factor becomes part of the individual to the point that it is unquestioned and often remains invisible. It does not come easily to mind when one indulge in self-reflection. I was putting pressure on myself to stay productive because that’s what I was expecting of myself. It’s really when I started asking why it was one of my expectations – not a natural process, but a forced one – that I realized productivity (in its capitalist sense) was not part of my personal values and was a result of broader social pressure.

Broader reflection on privilege

This brought me to a better understanding of my own privileges. Let me explain myself. Privilege (in its broad social sense) is something nearly everyone has in some degree. I outlined some of mine at the beginning of this post: white, male, relatively wealthy, educated, etc. My understanding of the concept is that privileges are advantages (often not based on merit) given to you by society for the sole reason of belonging to a group that holds power. It is most often unchecked because it is internalized. It just seems normal and it becomes nearly invisible without an external factor provoking reflection (and open mindness). Some are easier to uncover than others. For me money was the easiest (although I think one is in perpetual reflection on these topics) while race was (is) probably the hardest. What I did not realize until now I think was how powerful the social forces embodying privileges can be; how illusory our self-determination can be. Being aware of our privileges is not just uncovering them but also realizing how they behave internally and externally. Unshackling ourselves from them – which I believe is the only way to achieve full and true equality – can only happened if one can completely comprehend their function, functioning, impacts, etc. I’m far from that level of enlightenment, but at least I’m progressing. At least I’m slowly realizing how deeply entrenched my privileges can be and how they interact in their social context. This hiatus seems to be “productive” in many ways.

Summary

External Factor

Internal Factor

Result

Capitalism (social norm): social pressure to produce

Feeding

Unconscious desire to do what is “right” (normality)

=

Absence of reflection on capitalist (normal) behaviour

Social structure underling a privilege; e.g. white supremacist society

Feeding

The fact of being part of the privileged (normalized) group; e.g. being white

=

Obliviousness to the oppressed (abnormal) group: Privilege

To be continued …

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