Working through an engaging and challenging book is a great way to wrap up a year. At the close of 2013, Mary Elizabeth Hobgood’s Dismantling Privilege: An Ethics of Accountability has been a pleasure. Though there is plenty in the book that I will not mention here, three of its major themes are race, economics, and sexuality, and Hobgood left me thinking about all three more deeply.
For Hobsgood (who teaches theology at the College of the Holy Cross), whiteness is about far more than skin color. On a cultural level, it’s about denying our own relationality and our connectednesss to one another and to community. Hobgood says we who are white deny ourselves of these as the price of maintaining the competitive, efficient, and technologically advanced capitalist society that we have built for ourselves. Having bought into such a society, all of the unearned privileges that come with whiteness are, unconsciously, what we think we deserve for our willingness to forgo things that are so basic to being human. The unearned privileges of whiteness are our “emotional compensation for the suffering involved in being faithful to industrial morality” (49). And our fear and distrust of non-whites are rooted in our resentfulness that they have managed to hold onto those things better than we have.
The damage we’ve inflicted on non-white people through the social structures that support our whiteness is, of course, obvious, both in our history and in our present. But Hobgood points out that we have also hurt ourselves, through the emotional and moral damage that have come with all this self-denial. By forsaking relationships with the earth and the people around us, we have denied our own relational nature. “The system of white racial identity is constructed to diminish the relational capacity of whites” (61).
Hobgood also offers a compelling look at economic structures. With our concepts and systems of markets and money, we ignore the relational and historical aspects of our economy. We keep ourselves ignorant of our connections to the people who make our clothes and provide our food. We find ways to talk about poverty in terms of the failures or weaknesses or bad luck of people who are poor, ignoring history and social structures that, as contributing factors, loom high above such minor considerations. Hobgood points out that we rationalize shipping jobs overseas for the drastically lower costs involved, and congratulate ourselves at how appreciative these workers are for the jobs and the wages that are so much higher than they would be without us there, “never mind the centuries of colonial and neocolonial impoverishment by the West, which robbed them of control over their land, labor, and resources” (94).
All of this is profoundly non-Christian and anti-Christian. “Though largely ignored by First World Christians, biblical tradition is clear that poverty is not a mark of having sinned [or of personal failures], but a result of being sinned against” (68). She’s right that “beyond diffuse sentiment and generalized moral challenge … none of the official churches assists people in analyzing the roots of poverty and other forms of economic injustice” (70). As with whiteness, the damage done extends to the privileged elites whom the system supports, as well as to the poor who are hurt by it. “Everyone’s sense of virtue is degraded” (84). Capitalism robs us of our capacity to trust others, and “trust is essential for human flourishing and the development of empathy, cognition, and creativity” (100).
Less compelling and harder for me to agree with was Hobgood’s chapter on sexuality, which is so radical as to seem disconnected with reality. “Human beings,” she writes, “are socially constructed, not necessarily biologically constructed, as male or female” (108). There’s far more here than a call for greater respect and acceptance of gay people or acknowledgement by the churches of gay marriage. Hobgood argues, “‘Properly gendered’ (heterogendered) makes and females, heterosexuality, monogamy, or even biological maleness and femaleness is not a natural or universal human condition” (122). Following through on these principles, she advocates “freedom in gender and sexual expression” and “gender fluidity and fluidity in sexual practice” (124).
While I realize that these currents of thought exist out there, it’s hard to see how they are compatible with the Christian moral tradition and Catholic teaching. It’s one thing to criticize the patriarchal structures of the church or advocate opening the sacrament of marriage to gay couples; it’s a whole other thing to discard the value or normativity of monogamous marriage. I had a sense that Hobsgood’s positions here might sound fascinating in the context of academia, but would wreck havoc in real life. (Indeed, we’ve been inching closer to “gender fluidity and fluidity in sexual practice” for decades and are worse off for it.)
Also pushing Hobgood from the realms of credibility are seemingly wild-eyed assertions such as: “Catholic women have learned that without their intact hymens or multiple experiences of married motherhood, they have no right to exist” (132); and “This belief [that sexual desire is beyond the control of men] is supported by traditional moral theology that defined birth control as more sinful than rape because with rape procreation, the only legitimate purpose of sexual desire, was at least possible” (132-133). (I have a fairly thorough familiarity with “traditional moral theology” and have yet to stumble across even an obscure suggestion of this latter kind, much less its strong presence in anything close to formally endorsed doctrine or theology.)
In all of the above aspects of life, Hobsgood says, the solution is solidarity, and on this point she is surely right. By our rejection of solidarity and relationality, we have damaged people, society, and our very selves in myriad ways. Dismantling Privilege has challenged me in new ways to stand against this powerful cultural current and become more truly the person — and the person in community — that God created me to be.
[I should note that the copy I read is the first edition of the book, published in 2000. I see the publisher, Pilgrim Press, released a revised and updated edition in 2009, and I’m not sure what differences it may include.]