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Reading 9.5: Johnson and Society

November 30, 2011

What’s the challenge of discussing individualism when it comes to accounting for the role of privilege in community engagement? How does acknowledging our role in social systems move us away from this context of individualism?

What does the path of least resistance mean in this context? How do we move beyond it?

What are your thoughts, reactions, and ideas as you read this article?

The trouble with discussing individualism is that it’s too narrow a focus for the problem of privilege. You can’t look at a single person in isolation and say if they are privileged or not, because privilege is something you get from the society you’re in. Similarly, we can’t point to a single person and say “He’s a bad guy! He’s oppressing others and taking privilege for himself!” Privilege is subtle and built on the actions of many people; one memorable example Johnson gives is “Whites can succeed without other people being surprised.” Not an impressive privilege, but it’s a privilege blacks don’t have. The good news is that now that we know the nature of privilege, we can consciously point it out in our lives and think of ways to fix it. However, despite rejecting individualism, we have to be willing to act as individuals. Johnson calls this “Gandhi’s paradox” – a single individual makes no difference, but we won’t get anywhere unless a lot of individuals take action. In some ways, this is a twist on Kant’s categorical imperative – act the way you would want everyone to act.

The “path of least resistance” is connected to this problem. Since privilege isn’t an individual problem, a single individual can’t see the relation between their own actions and their status in society. It’s hard to say that something is wrong with your situation when you, personally, haven’t done anything wrong. This, like many psychology problems, requires us to constantly second-guess ourselves. We need to notice all the subtle details in our thinking that guide us into giving privilege to others or oppressing them. In general, take a moment to think whenever we make an instinctive decision, because those decisions are probably the path of least resistance.

The main thing that kept catching my attention as I read this article was the concept that society only works because we’re willing to accept it, a concept I’ve seen repeated in several forums. One of the first assignments in AP Psych at my school was to break a social norm and see what happens. Realistically, nothing ever happens besides a few awkward moments, but it never fails to surprise and entertain people taking that class. Once we become aware that we don’t have to make decisions based on what we think is “normal” or “weird”, we have the ability to change a great deal.

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One Comment
  1. Jessica permalink

    Very thoughtful comments, Ben. Thanks for capturing these reactions!

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