My post of a couple of days ago, Why I Write What I Write, was my autodidact‘s first stab at tackling the concept of cultural hegemony. I know that’s a big, complicated idea, but I think it’s pretty key, and have ever since my brief and tortured attempt at college in my early 20s helped me name the experience.
Webster defines hegemony in a couple of ways, the more useful to my mind being, the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group. But cultural hegemony is more than just influence. The lazy man’s guide to knowledge, Wikipedia, describes cultural hegemony as,
the domination of a culturally diverse society by the ruling class, who manipulate the culture of the society – the beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values, and mores – so that their ruling-class [worldview] becomes the worldview that is imposed and accepted as the cultural norm; as the universally valid dominant ideology that justifies the social, political, and economic status quo as natural and inevitable, perpetual and beneficial for everyone, rather than as artificial social constructs that benefit only the ruling class.
I don’t generally rely on Wikipedia for my philosophy and social science, but I think this definition actually works pretty well. And as a mostly self-taught person, I love that it’s succinct.
Our experiences of life are complex and diverse, shaped as they are by many things, not least our proximity to power. If you’re a poor person with small children, living on welfare is rough. They don’t call it Temporary Aid for Needy Families for nothing. Your situation is far from secure. And if you break the rules, even inadvertently, you can get permanently thrown off the rolls.
But, if you’re a major banking institution, corporate welfare is pretty easy to get, comes with little or no stigma, and amounts to something like a permanent free-ride. And if you break the rules, well, for the sake of brevity I’ll just say “2008” and leave it at that.
You’d think that these differences in experience would lead to very different, deeply oppositional worldviews; maybe even a major revolt or two rising up. But hegemony flattens out our understandings of our diverse experiences by imposing an overarching worldview, in this case that America is a land of opportunity where we all get what we deserve, that serves the interests of the hegemon (the guy or guys in charge).
Now, this is no James Bond fantasy. There’s no evil mastermind making plans and deploying minions to do their dirty work. But certain interests have always controlled our society. The American colonists who, through slavery, the slave trade, and genocide, capitalized an economic system that would allow European Americans to avoid wage labor until the mid-late 19th century, consolidated massive wealth and power that has been passed down through a pretty much closed system for generations. And because they’ve basically always been in charge and able to assert their interests through a political system of their own making (remember those slave-holding founders who framed the Constitution?) their interests read like common sense, and not like what Wikipedia described as “artificial social constructs that benefit only the ruling class.”
The closer we are to power, the fewer are the cracks allowing us to see through hegemony. Take racism for example. One of the reasons it’s so durable and adaptable, surviving through generations of change, is that we internalize it, integrating it into how we think. Once it’s integrated, it naturalizes. And for white people, it naturalizes so completely that it becomes integral to their identities, which explains why they get so touchy when called out for racism. When you talk about racism, they don’t hear you talking about something they’re doing. They, rightly or wrongly, hear you talking about their identities.
Racism might have been imposed upon us through the brutality of genocide and slavery, but once power was organized by these original acts, it was enforced through time by less spectacular means that we eventually came to see as normal, or at least as permanent and unchangeable.
Over time, we become what we do. The longer we accommodate injustice, the better we become at accommodation. This allows those closest to the hegemon to dictate the terms of our resistance in relations contained within concentric circles spreading away from the center of power. Even those of us who are negatively affected by this history mostly fight inside the lines, accepting, for example, that the Constitution represents a reasonable standard of fairness, even when the racially neutral and ahistorical understanding of equality therein makes programs specifically designed to make those damaged by history whole mostly illegal. You feeling me on this one?
That’s why in my first stab at tackling hegemony I talked about what it was like to be a person of color in almost all-white 1980s-90s Portland, Oregon. Whites were so dominant they defined the racial consensus even among racial justice advocates, deciding for their non-white colleagues what was an acceptable level of racism. After all, in a nearly all-white community you can’t win political struggles without the help of white people, so whites dictate the pace of change.
While that pace was painfully slow and required us to accommodate a lot of racism, people of color went along. We had to in order to make progress at all. But by going along, we inadvertently reinforced the notion among whites that the pace they dictated was fair to everyone and the racism we accommodated along the way wasn’t racism at all.
In a nutshell, that’s my street-level view of hegemony.