Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Friday, January 2, 2015

True Will and Privilege

The term “privilege” is often used to designate the social advantages arbitrarily given to members of particular groups in a particular society, advantages that are largely invisible to members of the groups in question.

While the concept of privilege can certainly be abused and misapplied (often by people with good intentions but poor thinking skills), it also is useful for thinking about certain social issues. More important for the subject of Thelema and Skepticism, the concept of privilege can be useful in helping us see the unarticulated assumptions that underpin our rational judgments. If the work of discovering the True Will is, as I have argued on this blog, the work of identifying the ways in which the mind veils reality from an individual, one of the most difficult veils to pierce are the assumptions that often do not register themselves as conscious thoughts.

Read on for a discussion of privilege and its application in Thelemic practice.


For an illustration of the concept of privilege, we might imagine two young people in their twenties, one male and one female. Sit them down and ask them to write out a list of all the things they do on a regular basis to lessen the chance that they will be sexually assaulted or raped.

It is likely that the young woman will be able to produce a fairly long list. The young man will be lucky if he’s able to think of a single thing. And that’s privilege: one of the privileges of being male in this society is not having to spend any time at all worrying about being sexually harassed or raped. As a group, women don’t have such an advantage, and our imaginary young man’s inability to answer the question nicely illustrates the invisibility of privilege: since – in this case – the privilege consists of something that he doesn’t have to spend any time thinking about, the chances that the average male will, on his own, even realize that he has such a privilege is rather low.

Different groups have different privileges in different situations. It would appear that everyone has at least some privilege, at least some of the time (and, for many groups, probably all of the time), and it can be an interesting exercise to determine what privileges that one enjoys, advantages that one fails to consider because they are taken to be the status quo or pass entirely unnoticed in the normal course of events.

But an even more useful exercise is to detect the way that one’s privilege forms unconscious assumptions that structure one’s thinking – and even perception – of the world and the self. Here, the concept of privilege intersects well with Thelemic practice. I’ve discussed before on this blog how rational thought – while an exceedingly useful tool – can also veil the True Will from an individual: since the True Will is not rational, one cannot discover it by paying attention to the thoughts. But thought is an incredibly subtle phenomenon, and the obstacles to discovering the Will consist not only of conscious thought (and conscious emotion and conscious “intuition” etc.) but the action of the unconscious mind, including implicit assumptions that exert powerful effects on one’s snap judgments.

An interesting example came up on several years ago, and I was re-reading the thread recently. A poster named “Mika” – who was once a regular on alt.magick during its golden age – responded to an example offered by another poster. In this example, an acquaintance of this other poster (an acquaintance described as a “Thelemite,” ugh) was in the habit of cursing at beggars on the street: his “response to[,] say[,] homeless people begging for change or what-not, was to push them away, or down, tell them to ‘get a job’, and walk on.” These are, evidently, the kinds of lovely people attracted to Thelema. They must sure be fun at parties, eh?

Anyway, Mika’s response is instructive. The poster in question asks, “Is it necessarily ‘un-ethical’ or ‘immoral’ to act this way?” and she replies with some insightful thoughts on the nature of the privilege that is coloring the acquaintance’s perception of reality:

No, but it is necessarily ignorant.  He is judging these people based on the assumption that they could get jobs if they wanted to.  Many cannot, due to 1) Lack of proper healthcare, both physical and mental, 2) Lack of a physical mailing address which is usually necessary for the job seeking process, and 3) Lack of access to shower/bathing and laundering facilities which are needed to be clean and presentable for job interviews.

Anyway!  I would argue that ignorance (in particular the willful ignorance of people with privilege) is most definitely un-Thelemic.  Acting according to one's will requires understanding of actual reality, which requires facing one's ignorance head-on.  Your friend's "get a job" comment is based on assumptions, not reality, and for that reason imo can be considered un-Thelemic.  One might argue "But, but, he's 'doing what thou wilt!'"  I'd argue back that one cannot act according to one's will while ignorant, by definition.

Besides which, "it may be that yonder beggar is a king".  Your friend may want to meditate on the meaning of that passage until it actually sinks in.


I have a few quibbles with Mika’s post, and I’ll dispense with those first: her statement that “one cannot act according to one’s will while ignorant” is too broad. Everyone is always ignorant in thousands of ways, so it’s not practically effective to define “doing one’s will” in terms of a total lack of ignorance.

The most useful definition of “doing one’s will” is acting with as little mental restriction as possible in a given situation. The “as possible” there is contingent on the skill and experience of the individual in question. Someone who’s just learning to do his or her will might only be capable of seeing through a little bit of the mental restriction: as an individual gets better at piercing that restriction, one gets better and better at doing the True Will.

The other quibble I have with her post is that I don’t think terms like “un-Thelemic” (or “unethical” or “immoral”) are terribly useful (though it may have been appropriate in the context of the discussion on that thread). Labeling actions “Thelemic” or “un-Thelemic” potentially carries with it implications of “good” or “bad,” and those are precisely the kinds of judgments that we’re trying to overcome in learning to see reality as clearly as possible.

But on the whole, Mika’s response nicely provides an example of how privilege colors an individual’s judgments and perceptions. The acquaintance has all sorts of privileges, and he takes it for granted that all other people have similar privileges (or, at least, he fails to consider that others might not have the same privilege that he does). As a result, his thinking begins from the assumption – almost certainly unarticulated to himself – that others could relatively easily get a job (or could land a job if they just “work harder, dammit! Errgh, these lazy poor people always want handouts from us hardworking folks!”).

As Mika’s post points out, this assumption – driven by privilege-blindness – is naïve in the extreme, and is causing this individual to misjudge and even misperceive his environment. In Qabalistic terms, the mental structures that he’s built up about the world (Hod – Sephirah 8) are influencing the mental image he’s built up of the world around him (Yesod – Sephirah 9), and both his mental structures/assumptions and mental image are together influencing his perception of the world (Malkuth – Sephirah 10). This perception in turn influence his emotional reaction (Netzach – Sephirah 7), and his disgust and hatred for the beggar feed back into both his mental structure (8) and perception (10). The Tree of Life diagram shows us how these misguided assumptions create a distorted feedback loop between Sephiroth 7-10 and the paths that connect them. This loop is the primary structure of the “Khu,” the illusion that prevents the individual from seeing reality and the self clearly [technically, the illusion is created by the Khu, and calling the illusions themselves the “Khu” is a kind of shorthand]. It is only by shifting attention away from these false mental constructs that the individual can allow the “light” of the higher Sephiroth to flow through the Khu and restore balance. In order to do this, however, the individual must learn to pay attention to reality without the distorting lenses of the mind.

While this example nicely illustrates the kind of misperception and general stupidity caused by an ignorance of one’s privilege, readers might object that it’s not a terribly good example of privilege blindness interfering with the acquaintance’s True Will. After all, if he curses some beggar or whatever, so what? One might argue that his Will is unlikely to have very much to do with some random guy he encounters on the street anyway, so whether or not he can see through his privilege and whether or not he can see someone else’s situation more accurately is largely irrelevant to Thelema.

There is some merit to this objection: this isn’t really an example of privilege interfering with someone’s True Will necessarily. But there are two important points to make here: first, someone whose perception of reality is so obviously distorted in this one area is very likely to be equally distorted in other areas more relevant to that individual’s True Will. If the acquaintance were to use this encounter as an opportunity to train himself to see through the distorting lenses of his mind, it would serve him well in other areas, especially when he begins observing the self. Second, while it is true that it’s highly unlikely that the acquaintance’s True Will has much to do with some random homeless person, the acquaintance cannot use that judgment to determine the True Will: the True Will must be observed in the moment, and that observation cannot be colored by any judgment, including any judgment about what the Will is “likely” to be. One has to train oneself to see *through* these overlays on top of perception (that is, to see through the ways that surrounding Sephiroth impose themselves onto Malkuth) in order to pay attention to the True Will.

Privilege can subtly structure one’s mental picture of the world so as to distort one’s perception of self. For example, middle-class privilege combined with white privilege can easily contribute to a self-image of oneself as “better” than people of lower classes and other races: even aspirants who are attempting to recognize judgments of the mind and the influence of self-image (judgments such as “good” and “bad,” and “better” and “worse”) can easily miss the judgments driven by privilege, since they can underlie ideas that appear quite different. For example, someone might simply think that he “works harder” than the poor and that he has therefore “earned” a higher quality of life than others (with the subtle, unspoken assumption that it is “better” to “work hard” in life). Such a person might try to live up to a self-image as a “hard worker,” perhaps to justify to himself the many social advantages that he has received ultimately by accident of birth. In the act of living up to that self-image, the individual may entirely miss the True Will.

Or, as another example, male privilege carries with it notions of being “tough” or of being the “natural provider” or “breadwinner” or of having to “win” a mate by some kind of “competition.” These ideas feed into the self-image, and chasing them will lead an individual away from the True Will, not towards it.

It’s also important to note that lacking privilege in some areas can equally feed into a distorted self-image. The so-called “social justice warrior” is one who becomes obsessed with the ideas of social justice and who makes a cause out of “righting” (whatever that means) those inequities that they perceive as injustice and oppression. Such individuals do not merely strive to perceive how privilege operates in society and in their own mental processes, but they actively feel an obligation to combat privilege. Certainly, it may be part of someone’s True Will to fight for social justice, but it also might not be. Feeling that one has an obligation to do so, however, is always a veil over the True Will. Related to this kind of self-image is the case of the perpetual victim, who wallows in a self-image as one who is “oppressed” at all times (often, it seems, by imaginary oppressors, like the imagined opinions of others).

As transversegirl put it in a blog post on this subject a few years ago:

Thelemites are under no obligations to confront, fight against or to dismantle structures of privilege and oppression. However, if a person’s True Will leads them into such challenges then they have no choice but to face them squarely. In cases of philanthropy, again, the Thelemite is under no obligations. But, if they do act then they should act in accordance with their True Will, from a place of authenticity, as one star greets another.

There’s a balance that needs to be struck between avoiding being, on the one hand, a privilege-blind ignorant asshole and, on the other hand, a whiny victim who does nothing but complain about how “unfair” life is.

Thelema is about action: learning to see through one’s own privilege (and, more broadly, the way that privilege operates in society) is part of the training to perceive reality and the self more clearly…but all of this perceiving has as its goal action. Your thoughts and feelings and hopes and dreams and even your ideas about your True Will are nice and all, but the only thing that counts at the end of the day is what people do.

But one cannot “do” one’s will intelligently if one is ignorant, and to choose to be ignorant – especially in today’s world, with the easy accessibility through the internet (for those privileged enough to have it, anyway) of vast amounts of information and the opinions and perspectives of many different people from all walks of life from all over the world – to choose ignorance in such an environment is to choose to be a slave.

I could do worse than quote the end of Mika’s post, where she reflects on this idea of slavery and the related implications contained in The Book of the Law when it tells us that “the slaves shall serve”:

The "wretched and weak" that Crowley/Aiwass refers to are, from my perspective, the willfully ignorant people I mentioned above.  The people who already 'know better' or are smart enough to learn, who are presented with blatant reality, yet are too afraid to deal with it or too attached to their current beliefs or status or whatever or for whatever reason deny reality and the path laid out before them.

The "slaves" are the ignorant populace, the sheep, the 'domesticated primates' of RA Wilson, and they do serve. These robots go about their daily lives based on cultural, religious, family programming and never question their purpose or their place.  They are the inhabitants of Malkuth who not only never crossed the first veil into Yesod, they aren't even aware of an existence beyond their current state of being. That doesn't mean they should be mistreated or looked down upon.  It is not a moral judgment, just a shockingly blatant description.  "The slaves shall serve" in the sense that when people do not question reality, they do not become aware that they have choices in life, so they blindly "serve" whoever and whatever systems "programmed" them.  One can look at them with derision or compassion - that's up to you - but in the Thelemic context I interpret the word "slave" as a plain description not a moral judgment.

Now when you start talking about people who are actually aware of the first veil and beyond, who peered into the worlds of their minds and the subjectivity of perceptions, these people are no longer slaves.  These are the people who have the potential to become fully-realized "stars" through discipline and courageous commitment to their Work, or to become "the wretched and the weak" through denial and avoidance.  One way to interpret "stamp down the wretched and the weak" is to "call bullsht on the BS artists" or "ignore the claims of people too afraid to walk the talk" or similar response.  The 'weakness' refers to their character, the (lack of) strength or committment to their work, not their physical state or job status or other personal judgment.  Ignorance is forgivable, willful ignorance is wretched.

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