Do You Masturbate?

Rachel Sherman writes about a complex taboo: talking about wealth.

She conducted interviews that, predictably, produced some funny quotes.

The stigma of wealth showed up in my interviews first in literal silences about money. When I asked one very wealthy stay-at-home mother what her family’s assets were, she was taken aback. “No one’s ever asked me that, honestly,” she said. “No one asks that question. It’s up there with, like, ‘Do you masturbate?’”

She argues that this anxiety of affluence is socially noxious.

By not mentioning money, my interviewees follow a seemingly neutral social norm that frowns on such talk. But this norm is one of the ways in which privileged people can obscure both their advantages and their conflicts about these advantages.

It encourages a moving of the moral goal posts.

When we evaluate people’s moral worth on the basis of where and how they live and work, we reinforce the idea that what matters is what people do, not what they have. With every such judgment, we reproduce a system in which being astronomically wealthy is acceptable as long as wealthy people are morally good.

She suggests that we should move the stadium.

We should talk not about the moral worth of individuals but about the moral worth of particular social arrangements. Is the society we want one in which it is acceptable for some people to have tens of millions or billions of dollars as long as they are hardworking, generous, not materialistic and down to earth? Or should there be some other moral rubric, that would strive for a society in which such high levels of inequality were morally unacceptable, regardless of how nice or moderate its beneficiaries are?