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Strawprivilege

How many times ’round this particular bush must we beat? The latest spate of intentional misunderstandings about what privilege is and is not has spurred me finally to post my thoughts on this matter, though to be quite honest I’ve made a false start at this particular post about a dozen times now.

Privilege as a term used in social justice circles is fairly well understood. In fact, it strays not one whit from the dictionary definition, regardless of which dictionary you use:

noun

  • a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people

– Oxford English Dictionary

Definition of PRIVILEGE

: a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor : prerogative; especially : such a right or immunity attached specifically to a position or an office

- Merriam-Webster (presently 19th most popular word on online lookups!)

And even law dictionaries, referring to specific legal privileges, scan in plain english:

A particular and peculiar benefit or advantage enjoyed by a person, company, or class, beyond the common advantages of other citizens. An exceptional or extraordinary power or exemption. A right, power, franchise, or immunity held by a person or class, against or beyond the course of the law.

- Black’s Law Dictionary

The concept is a solid one in sociological circles, describing existing behaviour. There are books of essays by sociologists, books by sociologists exploring how privilege interacts with viewpoint, and books of theory by sociologists who are cited often in religious discussion — it’s not exactly fringe science, and it’s certainly better supported and better explored than the present state of evolutionary psychology. It involves no just-so stories, it describes reality as observed by impartial observers, and provides an explanatory framework for how these power imbalances aggregate and perpetuate themselves without any necessarily immoral behaviour by any individuals. It is a powerful framework and it is well evidenced by thousands of years of recorded history aggregated across all our cultures.

The objections to the use of the word “privilege” are once again coming from the same quarter of our community that regularly forestalls progress (and, honestly, even discussion) with regard to social justice causes. Once again, a “leader” of our respective movements has spoken up against the terrible feminists who are “silencing dissent” with our horrible bullying tactics like “blocking people on Twitter” or “disagreeing with them on their own blogs” or “asking them to kindly stop actively talking for just long enough to hear someone else’s perspective”. This leader, and the people rising up to support and defend said leader’s words, fight tooth and nail against these feminists. By attempting to poison the well for this concept, by attempting to sap away our ability to use the concept to describe reality as it exists, they are attacking by extension everyone who happens to think that women are in a disadvantaged position in our society as a whole, and therefore by extension every woman, whether they recognize or do not recognize same.

Some of this leader’s defenders are motivated reasoners; some have a skeptical blind spot when it comes to the possibility that our communities could reflect the same background levels of misogyny and bigotry. Some are Men’s Rights Activists, who run around attacking feminists under the guise of working for the same men’s disadvantages which feminism also addresses by undermining patriarchy (while, naturally, largely ignoring men’s disadvantages altogether). Still others are onlookers, fence-sitters, people who don’t care to attempt to sort out the competing claims, people who’d really rather we return to the very serious work of being rude only to Ray Comfort and Sylvia Browne.

You’ll note I haven’t stated exactly whom I’m talking about yet. There’s a reason for that.

In this case, it’s Ron Lindsay, and his insulting and patronizing talk opening the Women In Secularism 2 conference. But as I said, this post got a few false starts, and I could as easily have been talking about Michael Shermer and his decrying feminazis, Al Stefanelli’s heel turn predicated on his fear that people were trying to shut him up because penis, or Thunderf00t’s spectacular bridge-burning flameout, or The Amazing Atheist TJ Kincaid’s odious attempts at intentionally triggering people who’d been raped, or perhaps Richard Dawkins’ dismissiveness of any sort of sexism that doesn’t involve genital surgery or house arrest… and in every case, the attendant wagon-circling and emotional outrage that anyone would dare criticize these people for their intellectual indiscretions. La roue tourne.

The repercussions of this sort of internal dialogue with regard to feminism happens the same way on each turn of the wheel: measured disagreement from feminists mixed with some exasperation of being back at square one yet again, followed shortly by hyperbolic and frenzy-whipping rhetoric involving mention some sort of fascist dictatorship in Earth’s history from the people making the originally-decried arguments.

In so many of these cases, the crux of the matter is a failure of comprehending the language used by said feminists in their measured disagreement. Words are interpreted in the least charitable light; consequences are blown out of any sense of proportion. A common such misinterpreted piece of rhetoric is that feminists will often say “check your privilege”, or “your privilege is showing”, or in this most recent case, “shut up and listen”. The person on the receiving end of this horrible verbal tirade of abusive language (fetch my fainting couch!) hears instead, “shut up forever.” They hear “your opinion is unimportant because you’re privileged.” They hear “I don’t have to listen to you, ever.” They hear “you should feel guilty for being in your circumstances.” They hear “the ways you’re privileged are paramount and supercede those other axes on which you might be underprivileged.” They don’t hear the real meaning of the term, nor the real intent behind the phrase used. Which is a damn shame, because even on those rare occasions that someone is fed up with fighting the same ground for their basic human dignity and they spit it with angry insults, it doesn’t mean what the people who are most offended by it claim it to mean.

Today, as I write this, I have done a number of things that are expressions of my privilege. I used electricity, all day long. I’m writing on a laptop computer, as I often do well into the night. I did groceries, and I did not go hungry. I ate very well. I did some chores around the house. I took a hot bath. I breathed clean air. I drank clean water. I took my omeprazole on time, reminded by my smartphone. Hell, I walked from point A to point B and didn’t get shot at, not even once. All of these things are little luxuries, so commonplace in my life that I am not conscious of them most of the time. They are all expressions of privilege.

That doesn’t mean I have to feel particularly guilty about being white, straight, male, middle-class, living in an area of the world that is not war- or gang-torn. Being conscious of these privileges, and working to reduce inequalities for others when I see ways to do so, is so integrated into my being now — after years of having my consciousness raised in such manners — that I consider it a moral imperative. As a person with a fully-functioning sense of empathy, I truly feel pained when I see people in circumstances that disadvantage them, even ones I don’t experience personally. I might never fully grasp the scope of their own pain, but that doesn’t exempt me from recognizing that pain and because I have a working sense of empathy, wanting to reduce it.

Privilege is in and of itself a nebulous thing. It is often completely organic — not granted by any special fiat by any special authority, not by a god, nor by a king. It can sometimes be granted by specific laws: if you pass a driver’s test, you earn a driver’s license, and thus have the privilege to drive. You could drive without said license, but if you were ever pulled over, you’d face consequences. There are some privileges that are a lot like that, and that are even enshrined in laws. For instance, if you’re gay, try getting married with your loved one. Depending on what jurisdiction you fall within, you may have no problem, you may be refused by a government that declares marriage for “one man and one woman”, or you might even be jailed for the criminal act of being born homosexual. But not every privilege comes from any sort of intentional bias. Some even come from the same systems that otherwise advantage one group over the other, with ripple effects that harm the privileged group in other distinct ways.

When I applied for the job that brought me to Minnesota, I did not have to worry about the colour of my skin when I was asked to have a Skype call for an interview. I did not have to worry about being dismissed out of hand for applying for a tech job because I present as female, because I don’t. I didn’t have to think of any of those things. I didn’t have to worry, even if nothing came of them. If I hadn’t gotten the position, I wouldn’t have had to consider the possibility that I hadn’t been hired because of those other factors. There would be no nagging voice in the back of my mind suggesting that any dismissiveness I met with might just mean that no matter how good I was at the job itself, I didn’t stand a chance because of my immutable differences.

Privilege is not even knowing what it’s like to be uncomfortable in a particular way. When faced with someone’s discomfort, without a frame of reference, you can’t internalize it. Imagine, if you will, trying to describe what “being cold” is like to someone who has lived their entire lives in a very narrow band of comfortable temperature. Imagine describing hunger to someone who’s never missed a meal in their lives, nor had any reason or notion to do it intentionally, and when you suggest it, they can’t even compute the idea of simply not eating a meal. It’s a lot like that — you have it so good, that you don’t even know how good you have it. You have the privilege of being entirely unaware of your privilege.

But that doesn’t even mean you have it good in every way. Our minds are notoriously buggy machines, being made of meat and all. We’ve evolved toward certain biases in daily living, one of the biggest of which is that we can filter out things as white noise. Normally this is a huge advantage — there is so much going on all the time that we would be immobilized by trying to process it all, since our brains — fast though they are — are pitifully underpowered. Evolution came up with the trick of being able to ignore certain inputs as unnecessary. Thus, you stop hearing rain on your window after lying in bed for a while. Thus, you stop noticing every tiny irrelevant movement on your periphery while driving down the road, focusing only on that which presents an immediate danger to you. You ignore the flock of birds flying overhead, the cloud that looks like a bunny, while you get on with your business of avoiding the child that just chased a ball into the street.

Privilege is interpreted as white noise. You don’t see the smooth, clean road as a piece of information you need to interpret while you’re driving it — you notice the potholes and obstacles, though. You filter out the clean smooth road. You sink into a daily routine and don’t notice all the ways in which you have it better than the next person, until that next person starts itemizing them. You might be tempted to consider it whining, or get angry when you’re asked to stop pontificating on those topics briefly enough to hear from the “other side”. If you’re a man and are not disadvantaged by disproportionate representation in media, disproportionate pay scale, disproportionate autonomy over your reproductive rights, you might be tempted to get very very angry at women in general if you have a court case for custody of your children, as though they’re the reason why courts have decreed that women are the caretakers of children in general and in your specific case. You’ve filtered out the ways patriarchy hurts women more than it’s hurting you right now.

This is why it might seem, to a privileged white male who has never experienced having his opinion be ill-received, who has never been silenced systematically, that being asked to “shut up and listen” for once before spouting off about how to fight for minority rights is the equivalent of being silenced by jackbooted thugs. It’s certainly new and novel for you to be asked to be silent, and I can understand how it can be jarring when asked to be silent by the people who’ve been silenced systematically in these conversations over and over.

And so these privileged folks, having filtered away all those microaggressions as someone else’s problem, or having never been exposed to them in the first place, see the only offense they see: the time where they were asked to be quiet about something. And that can seem like the greatest offense possible, to someone who prides themselves on rationality.

The funny thing about privilege is, it’s not rational, at least not any more than it is conscious. It’s a blind spot. It’s your inability to recognize the scope and depth of a problem because it is a cognitive bias.

In sociology (which is, in fact, a science, like it or not!), the term privilege has remarkable descriptive power with regard to the power dynamics we experience, because the term is in fact, definitionally, one pole on those power dynamics (the opposite being “underprivilege”). So when someone says, for instance, “check your privilege”, they mean to check your blind spot. They mean that you should be aware that you may not be equipped to recognize the scope and depth of a problem because of the cognitive biases that keep you from seeing the problem to begin with. They are describing a failure of empathy, where you either compensate for it consciously, or you go on standing on someone’s foot while they cry out asking that you please move.

The problem of understanding privilege can further spiral out of control when there are people whose vested interest is to spread misinformation about the concepts. Sometimes, someone who gets into an argument with a feminist later hears some of the people who mythologize these discussions, saying things like “you’d better watch out or they’ll call you a rapist”. In some cases, they start to internalize them. They start to imagine that they WERE called a rapist, when they definitely weren’t. There are rare cases where someone did say something like “why are you arguing with all these rape apologetics”, and those people become the Grima Wormtongues that pour that poison into the ears of anyone who feels they were wronged. The psychology behind all of this is baffling, but not completely incomprehensible. After all, they’ve just been told — for one of the first times in their lives — that their opinion on a particular subject actually matters less than the opinion on that same matter of someone for whom that matter is a lived experience. Why wouldn’t they be sympathetic to arguments like the ones they hear from those anti-social-justice propagandist quarters?

There are so many ways that privilege is misunderstood, and I honestly feel as though there are people who have a vested interest in sowing this disinformation and making sure that it is even less well understood. You’d think, given how little it strays from the dictionary definition, it would be difficult to disinform people, but as it turns out, it’s pretty easy. For instance, the meme that privilege is a Marxist post-modernist anti-science “way of knowing” structure

Oh, you hadn’t heard that one? Maybe I should save that for another post.

Comments

  1. MrFancyPants says

    Nicely written explanation! I’m going to bookmark this for the next round of the endless misunderstandings.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    I wish I could remember where I read this (I suspect Francine du Plessix Gray’s At Home with the Marquis de Sade, but can neither find it in the index nor locate a searchable online text), but some historian of the French Revolution wrote that “privilege” derives from “private law”, in that (usually for a [hefty] price) the King would issue a law for the benefit of an individual or family – exempting them from a particular tax, springing some naughty lad from the Bastille, etc.

    The accumulated distortions from centuries of such practices apparently had a lot to do with the resentments leading to the uproar of 1789 and afterwards. Fancy that.

  3. Steersman says

    Interesting essay, although it could have used a “TL;DR” section or an abstract.

    However, not to waste too many words considering the “shut-up and listen” policy of many FT blogs – particularly where I’m concerned, it seems that there’s a “just-so” element – if not a racist and sexist one – to your argument.

    While I’ll readily concede that there’s a spectrum of advantages we all possess – to a greater or lesser extent, my impression is still that this talk of privilege carries with it an intrinsic assumption that that privilege necessarily means that the arguments of those possessing such privilege is intrinsically of less value than that of those supposedly less privileged. Which looks like an a priori granting of privilege that supposedly trumps all other types of privilege. Like I say, something that looks rather racist and sexist right out of the chute.

  4. says

    Jason:
    Thank you for this.
    I have been educated on privilege by many of the bloggers and commenters during my few years at FtB, but even still, reading this post allowed me to understand privilege on another level (privilege allowing one to filter out white noise or the relationship between privilege and empathy are both new approaches to the term I hadn’t seen), as well as take a look inside the heads of those who oppose any mention of the word.

  5. says

    It’s racist to consider how race affects races other than the privileged ones! It’s sexist to consider how your sex might negatively impact how others with privilege view you!

    Another straw-something. Sigh. Good old Steersman.

  6. Silentbob says

    (pedant mode)

    [Privilege] can sometimes be granted by specific laws: if you pass a driver’s test, you earn a driver’s license, and thus have the privilege to drive. You could drive without said license, but if you were ever pulled over, you’d face consequences.

    That’s not privilege. Privilege is by definition unearned. If you passed a test to get it, it’s not privilege. Being in a position to take the test in the first place can certainly be the result of privilege. But a person who passes a driver’s licence test is not “privileged” with respect to a person of identical status who fails the test.

    (/pedant mode)

    Otherwise, good post. :-)

  7. Den cid says

    Sociology is not a science. It is a social science. It is about as much of a science as “political science”.

  8. leftwingfox says

    Privilege is by definition unearned.

    I don’t think that’s an important distinction. The two affect each other: Being born into the middle class is unearned. Remaining in the middle class into adulthood is earned, even if the bar to earning that is much lower than for someone born into poverty or a disadvantaged group.

    My career does offer me privileges that people in many jobs don’t have: higher wages, steady hours and predictable paycheques, benefits and holidays. Even though I earned that position through hard work, long hours and near-bankruptcy, I feel people would be justified in pointing out my privilege if i started lecturing part-time retail workers about the importance of regular dental appointments, buying real estate, or saving for retirement.

  9. Steersman says

    Jason said (#9):

    It’s racist to consider how race affects races other than the privileged ones! It’s sexist to consider how your sex might negatively impact how others with privilege view you!

    I wonder how that addresses what I said. And I wonder whether those statements of yours are some sort of rhetorical question or not, and what you meant by them. But I certainly was not arguing or even suggesting that it is racist or sexist to consider how one’s race or sex “might negatively impact” others’ views of oneself. What I was trying to suggest or argue was that your position – and that of others – is or seems tantamount to an intrinsic, a priori weighting, if not pre-judging (prejudicing), of the experiences of all parties in favour of the supposedly “under-privileged” – at least relatively speaking – that is an essential stereotyping of the “over-privileged”. Which is part of the basic definitions for both sexism (1) and racism.

    And while you commendably acknowledge that “[the privileged] may not be equipped to recognize the scope and depth of a problem because of the cognitive biases that keep [them] from seeing the problem to begin with”, I’m really not sure that you are even prepared to consider, much less have been able to understand, that that “may not” does not necessarily mean “can not”. While the “lived experiences” of the “under-privileged” are certainly a factor to consider, I very much doubt that it is the only factor, or even the most important one, at least in all cases.

    For example, consider the “lived experiences” of religious fundamentalists who have “seen Jehovah in all his glory”. Or of those who think that they’ve been abducted by aliens. You want to try arguing that their experiences are likely to be closer to the real, unvarnished “truth” than those outside those experiences?

    And that bias is what makes that pile of schlock known as “privilege”, potentially at least, the manifestation of some rather egregious racism and sexism.

    Another straw-something. Sigh. Good old Steersman.

    Maybe you’re not able to separate the wheat from the chaff. Or not allow your biases to colour what I said. But isn’t “old” age-ist? You’re not trying to “appropriate or ignore [my] lived experiences”, are you? Trying to tell me to “shut-up and listen”? Trying to tell me that “feminist women [and their allies] in the secular community don’t want to hear any ideas about feminism from men”? (2)

    —-
    1) “_http://www.thefreedictionary.com/sexism”;
    2) “_http://freethoughtblogs.com/almostdiamonds/2013/06/03/women-in-secularism-speakers-letter-to-cfi-board/”;

  10. says

    @11:
    Sociology isn’t science?

    What is science?

    Science is the concerted human effort to understand, or to understand better, the history of the natural world and how the natural world works, with observable physical evidence as the basis of that understanding 1 . It is done through observation of natural phenomena, and/or through experimentation that tries to simulate natural processes under controlled conditions.

    http://www.gly.uga.edu/railsback/1122science2.html#WHATISSCIENCE

    Under this definition sociology certainly qualifies as a science. Different from physics, chemistry or astronomy, but still a concerted effort to understand how the natural world works.

  11. penn says

    Privilege is by definition unearned.

    Where do you get that? Jason posted three definitions of privilege, and none of them say anything about being unearned or undeserved. Like having a driver’s license, being employed is a privilege that is earned.

  12. Klangos says

    intrinsic assumption that that privilege necessarily means that the arguments of those possessing such privilege is intrinsically of less value than that of those supposedly less privilege

    Except that it is not just arguments in general. It’s not ‘you’re white therefore you don’t know anything about chess/Mozart/cheese/pokemon’

    It’s ‘you’re white, so you probably know very little about experiencing racism, so on the subject of combating racism maybe you could listen rather than talk for a bit’

    If you find that terribly objectionable then I really don’t know what hope there is for you as an empathic human being

  13. says

    I wonder how that addresses what I said.

    It doesn’t. It mocks in direct reply your assertion that the concept of privilege (and/or how I presented it here) is sexist and racist.

    There is nothing here about an intrinsic a priori weighting of experiences here. There is, however, a demand that someone listen to all the evidence before deciding that macroaggressions exist and should be combatted, but microevolution– err — microaggressions — can’t exist or do no cumulative damage and therefore are “just trolls on the internet” or “zero bad” or what-have-you. This is about people who have not experienced a phenomenon that we know to exist, prejudice, being best equipped to recognize the scope of the damage that that prejudice causes. You’re intentionally throwing chaff. I’m doing my damnedest to separate it from the reality of the word, but you keep coming along and making specious arguments.

    Unless you really want to argue that prejudice is like Jehovah or grey aliens?

  14. B-Lar says

    …an intrinsic assumption that privilege necessarily means that the arguments of those possessing such privilege is intrinsically of less value than that of those supposedly less privileged.

    kinda like an intrinsic assumption that experience necessarily means that the arguments of those possessing such experience is intrinsically of greater value than that of those who are less experienced. Hmmm…

  15. embraceyourinnercrone says

    I don’t get why this is so hard for people to understand? I have a high school/some tech school education and its not that hard. You know what woke me up to the concept of privilege? (for the record I am white, born in a first world nation, cis, straight, born into a middle class family and female, so I am privileged on quite a few axes) Two things: the entry into my middle class , white suburban school of the only Black child in the area. The reaction to her going to my public school, by both some students and some teachers opened my eyes to the fact that sometimes other kids my age had to deal with things I was not even aware of in my safe little bubble.

    the second thing that opened my eyes to just how much privilege(luck, whatever you want to call it) I had, that I had never previously acknowledged was talking to (and listening to!) all the other women in my class at boot camp. Many of my fellow recruits came from disadvantaged circumstances and had dealt with difficulties in their lives because of the race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender presentation,economic circumstances they were born into. For many of them the military was their only way out of where they were but even that did not change the fact that who they were would affect how people (officers, etc) treated them.

    So when I want to change the why society treats people, even a small local part of society it behooves me to LISTEN to the lived experiences of people, and their sense of how I might work for them in changing things. NOT charging in and exclaiming about what the situation is and what everyone needs to do because I am going to fix their little problems.

  16. Anthony K says

    Aww, how cute. Steersman thinks he’s original in his “talking about racism and sexism in a useful way is the REAL racism and sexism.”

  17. smhll says

    And while you commendably acknowledge that “[the privileged] may not be equipped to recognize the scope and depth of a problem because of the cognitive biases that keep [them] from seeing the problem to begin with”, I’m really not sure that you are even prepared to consider, much less have been able to understand, that that “may not” does not necessarily mean “can not”.

    I think people are saying (or implying) something like “most likely not” or “as a general rule” rather than may not or cannot. Social Sciences are less absolute than, say, Physics. (The “rules” are more like guidelines or rules of thumb, generalities).

    People who are uncomfortable with the word “privilege”, or who like to believe they have deep wisdom and few biases are hollering about being told “can not”. (I think this is much like people who claim to have been banned from FtB “merely for disagreeing”. For both of these claims, I would like to see a link to the actual argument that took place so that I can see if the summary explanation uttered by the pissed-off person is close to accurate. Inaccuracy seems to happen quite often, possibly because of a natural desire to improve one’s own position and make the other person look foolish.)

    A discussion of what has really been said would be more fruitful, I think, if we looked at quotes of real dialog that has taken place in the year between the two Women in Secularism conferences. I’m looking at Ron Lindsay, wishing he would back up his claim about “SUAL”, but if you can lay hands on some quotable quotes (esp w. a context link) it might be possible to examine what’s really been said and whether there are misunderstandings.

  18. leftwingfox says

    I think people are saying (or implying) something like “most likely not” or “as a general rule” rather than may not or cannot.

    In the case of “Check you privilege” I think the issue is more “did not recognize the scope and depth of a problem” rather than “can not” or “may not”. Often we’re dealing with folks who have already put their foot in their mouth through the dismissal of the lived experiences of others, and the bruised egos of people who refuse to accept they might actually be in the wrong.

  19. says

    You know… we mostly “get” the idea of correctly weighting viewpoints in other areas. We understand that when our doctor is talking, we should “shut up and listen” rather than interrupt to share the deep medical knowledge we got from watching “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” We shut up and listen to the car mechanic rather than insist that “Top Gear” and NASCAR makes up an expert too. When our friends are telling us about a meal they had or a movie they watched that we weren’t there for, we don’t stop them to insist that they are getting it wrong.

    The only times that there seem to be a problem is when a rich/straight/white/male person wants to have their understanding of issues affecting poor/non-hetero/non-white/female people BE HELD AS EQUALLY OR MORE VALID than the understanding of the people who actually experience it, research it, and/or are activists on those issues. And when these privileged assholes are told that no, their viewpoint doesn’t automatically carry equal weight, they claim discrimination! They might as well claim bigotry because the doctor and the mechanic don’t defer to their ignorance.

  20. John Horstman says

    @Steersman: Jason really already addressed this when he described privilege as a blindness, a lack of the experiences of other groups and no reason to ever have been exposed to them. Unchecked privilege does make one’s opinions on a topic intrinsically less valuable, in the same way that someone who can’t distinguish between red and green is going to have a less valuable opinion about the content of an image with lots of contrasting red and green: the colorblind person can’t see the full scope of the image, and the privilege-blind person can’t see the full scope of the issue being discussed. Once you check your privilege/blind spot – usually by shutting up and listening to the experiences of other, marginalized people who are willing to do you the favor of letting you know what you’re missing – you may be able to offer great insight, but you can’t do that without really understanding the problem/issue/whatever. It’s not that men can’t comment intelligently and usefully on feminism, it’s that in order to be able to do so, men tend to have to put in more work than women in otherwise-similar positionalities in order to inform themselves about aspects of the issues under discussion that they are unlikely to understand already. It’s not being a man that’s the issue, it’s that far more women gain the relevant background knowledge simply through their daily experiences than do men (though not all women do and not all men don’t).

  21. John Horstman says

    Also, privilege can be earned or unearned. We’re mostly, though not exclusively, concerned with the unearned (and thus intrinsically unfair/inequitable) kinds of privilege when we’re talking social justice. Licensing for driving, for example, is an earned privilege and is thus fair. Age restrictions on when someone can be licensed to drive (remember, we still have to prove – or at least should have to do so, though enforcement isn’t always great – we can drive well to be licensed) privileges those above the cut-off over those below on the sole basis of how long one has existed; this is an unearned privilege and thus unfair.

    Privileges based on merit are usually not even considered/described as privileges (though they technically are), as demonstration of the ability to (safely, accurately, whatever) engage in some behavior is what allows one the privilege to do so, usually making such privileges self-justifying. That said, it’s possible for merit-privileges to be inequitable in effect, usually as a function of the metric for merit not actually relating to the privileged behavior (or not relating to a sufficient degree, such as literacy or educational or IQ tests for voting).

  22. CaitieCat says

    I did not have to worry about being dismissed out of hand for applying for a tech job because I present as female, because I don’t. (emphasis mine)

    Just as a diversion from the usual-thread-commanding trollery, I wanted to show my appreciation for this tiny nuance in your writing; the simple recognition that “presents-as” is the important criterion, not “has markers that might make me think the presentation isn’t biologically determinist enough” or “hasn’t yet achieved official government recognition of reality”.

    These are the little tiny ways in which the person with the privilege – in this case “cis” privilege – makes an effort to fight against the underprivileging of someone else (trans* people, in this case).

    But of course, in order to know that, one would have to shut up and listen for a minute, so I can’t really expect that lesson to sink in very easily.

    Thank you, Jason.

  23. smhll says

    Handy translator card: If a white woman says to a white man “check your privilege” (which, honestly, I don’t run around saying often), I believe it roughly translates to “I’m skeptical that you know more about this topic (of women’s experiences) than I do. Show me your credentials.” (And if I hear this hypothetical man tell me that he has 9 sisters or 5 wives or has done a significant amount of reading in a field, I will give his opinion more weight.

    Let’s bear in mind than in much of the gender wars on the internet, people are battling opinion against opinion. Since when do I have to listen patiently, and over and over, to un-evidenced opinions? Men are rarely silent/silenced in my culture, I’ve heard the commonly held male opinion on most topics. (Sometimes men grab the microphone/platform and won’t let it go, even when their scheduled time is up.)

  24. kayden says

    @Alethea (#6). Thanks for the link. Very well written post by someone who “gets it”. I was actually expecting something else (i.e., there is no racism or some such nonsense).

  25. Steersman says

    Klangos said (#16):

    It’s ‘you’re white, so you probably know very little about experiencing racism, so on the subject of combating racism maybe you could listen rather than talk for a bit’

    If you find that terribly objectionable then I really don’t know what hope there is for you as an empathic human being.

    No, I don’t find that – or rather the principle behind that – “terribly objectionable”. What I very much object to is the implication that the interpretations of those “experiencing racism” necessarily hold all that much water.

    And what I also object to is the rather selective application of the principle, that it applies only to those “others” but not to “us”. For instance, I didn’t notice all that many of you “social-justice warriors” leaping to Richard Dawkins’ defense when he was the target of this egregious bit of sexism and racism (1), when he described his “experiencing of racism and sexism”. Sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander in this benighted neck of the woods?

    —–
    1) “_http://freethoughtblogs.com/brutereason/2013/05/24/on-useful-and-not-so-useful-definitions-of-racism”;

  26. says

    Yes, won’t someone think of the poor embattled white man? How could we be so racist as to point out that racism has a power dynamic aspect that makes it all too difficult for the white folks in power to actually experience it the way minorities do?

    Won’t someone PLEASE just think of the plight of the white man?!

  27. Adam says

    @smhill

    Handy translator card: If a white woman says to a white man “check your privilege” (which, honestly, I don’t run around saying often), I believe it roughly translates to “I’m skeptical that you know more about this topic (of women’s experiences) than I do. Show me your credentials.”

    If you don’t mind me asking: Why do you not say “check your privilege” often? I noticed Ophelia Benson said something similar in her related post.

    Is it that you personally have no use for the term? Do you feel that is it prone to misinterpretation or judgement, or is it a strategic thing (i.e. a term that requires a translation card may not be the best one to address the issue at hand).

    General internet-debate disclaimer: This is not a rhetorical point. I am new to this debate and am genuinely curious if/why some may avoid such terms and others may not.

  28. says

    Adam, I rarely use it either. There are three reasons for that. The first is that, as you note, it’s jargon. The meaning isn’t easily accessible to everyone. Beyond that, once it’s used enough to be considered a slogan, the idea has pretty much reached everyone it’s going to reach in that fashion. It needs to be reworded for other ears sometimes. Finally, I’m a writer. I like using my own words. :)

  29. Pitchguest says

    Using the dictionary definition of words, are you, Justin?

    Then how about the dictionary definition of “racism”?

    noun
    1.
    a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.
    2.
    a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
    3.
    hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.

    Seems power dynamic isn’t necessary to be racist.

    Oh, and I would love for you to tell those other “white” people in the world suffering from poverty, disease, famine, that no matter how harsh their situation is, that you think it’s probably worse for “black” people, or any other minority. Yeah, they’re struggling to make ends meet, and they might have to juggle between starving or paying their medical bills, but because they’re white, well, they have it better than everyone else. So tell you what, Jason, walk up to a homeless man who happens to be “white”, wearing a cardboard box because he can’t afford to buy clothes, with a plastic mug busking with a piece of string to get some change for food and say, “Hey, look on the bright side: at least you’re a white man. Check your privilege.”

    You fucking clownshoe.

  30. Adam says

    Thanks for the reply, Stephanie.

    As a further point might there, if not for you personally, a more strategic/political reason for avoiding such terms.

    I’m not advocating tone policing, there are many men (myself included) that need to be told to “shut up and listen” from time to time. Shock is often a good catalyst to change and reevaluation of one’s biases, especially when you’re not used to it.

    However, I am curious if there is any feeling among feminists, that since such terms to seem to provoke such knee-jerk defensiveness (usually in those who need it the most) there may be other ways to get across the same message whilst by-passing the “white-male priviledge battlements”?

  31. says

    For example, consider the “lived experiences” of religious fundamentalists who have “seen Jehovah in all his glory”. Or of those who think that they’ve been abducted by aliens. You want to try arguing that their experiences are likely to be closer to the real, unvarnished “truth” than those outside those experiences?

    Ok, this is an asshole thing to say. Firstly this: http://pastebin.com/J6X6kCB5

    Finally, whether my mind created that through seizures/delusions or I was abducted by an actual sub-terrestrial drone/djinn, those were horrifically traumatic experiences. Please don’t ever compare those experiences to people who feel the warm and fuzzies for Jesus in their heart, ever again in fact. It does a disservice to me and the other witches that have historically suffered from demonic possessions/alien abductions (same phenomena) which was ruthlessly traumatic for them, didn’t involve warm and fuzzy bearded old white dude, and DID involve TONS of trauma, driving many of them totally insane in the process, whatever the origin of that phenomena. You owe those who are victims of trauma, be it from their own mind or other sources, more respect.

    Thank you.

  32. says

    What a lovely inversion of literally everything in the entire post, Pitchguest. Thank you for my first laugh of the day.

    Is “you fucking clownshoe” what passes for a rational argument in your world?

  33. smhll says

    However, I am curious if there is any feeling among feminists, that since such terms to seem to provoke such knee-jerk defensiveness (usually in those who need it the most) there may be other ways to get across the same message whilst by-passing the “white-male priviledge battlements”?

    Politeness mostly gets ignored, or at least prompts very few replies. Rudeness seems to provoke very strong pushback. If you find an ideal tone that works for you, great.

    I have not seen people here saying “shut up and listen” much at all. Yes, PZ did a short post on the topic. However, it’s interesting to follow Ron Lindsay’s links in support of the idea that feminists say it too much. (The link to Scalzi’s blog is particularly illuminating.)

  34. says

    Re: dictionary definitions and why Pitchguest is either lying or dumb

    Jason, in this post, noted that unlike many terms of art in sociology, the definition of “privilege” as applied to sociological investigations of systemic social inequities actually does not differ very much from the definition found in the dictionary.

    One of the bits of sociological jargon that does differ from its vernacular and dictionary definition is “racism.” In the dictionary, and in common usage, racism requires no element of power. In sociological studies, among sociologists and people who pay attention to the scholarship on race issues, “racism” does require an element of power combined with prejudice.

    So then Pitchguest comes along and quotes the dictionary definition of racism. Apparently he thinks this is making some sort of point. Unfortunately for him, the only point it’s making is that he’s another social-science-denying semi-illiterate whose opinion can be summarily dismissed.

  35. Stevarious, Public Health Problem says

    Yeah, they’re struggling to make ends meet, and they might have to juggle between starving or paying their medical bills, but because they’re white, well, they have it better than everyone else.

    I do believe that Pitchguest has staked his entire ego on refusing to grasp this concept. He has married the strawman and the prenup is ruinous. He’s made a whole bunch of little strawchildren and he’s putting away for their college fund. In 15 years one of the strawchildren will come out as strawgay and Pitch will fall to his knees and thank the strawgod that at least the kid didn’t grow up to be a fakey fake social strawscientist.

    And there is STILL less straw in this comment than in Pitchguest’s! I will have to try harder next time.

  36. maudell says

    As displayed in some of the comments, many who claim that the concept of privilege means [insert evil dictatorial action here] already know the real definition. Their argument is that deep down inside, feminists don’t actually believe the definition they claim to believe. No, feminists secretly mean “white men don’t matter”, even the homeless ones, because obviously we also don’t really believe that class is an axis of intersectionality. It’s all a subterfuge to oppress white American men. Thankfully, some people are able to read feminists’ minds.

    And of course, the “if you take race/gender/class/physical conditions, etc. into account, you are a bigot racist, sexist (obviously). For more racism, think of the “colourblind” way to see race, mostly espoused by white people. It must mean that people not categorized as white are racists oppressing whites, since they aren’t colourblind! Unless you look into academic research, where you find that self-described “racially colourblind” people have more pervasive racist behaviours. Not the caricature racist, but the kind of racism which, um, is also privilege blind. Which results, incidentally, in repeated microaggressions and systematic exclusion. (Oh right, in that world, inclusion is ‘divisive’).

    (these are not academic papers, but look up the footnotes for the research on the topic: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/colorblind/201112/colorblind-ideology-is-form-racism
    http://freethoughtblogs.com/crommunist/2013/01/30/another-stake-in-the-heart-of-colour-blindness/)

    Still, good post Jason. It can always be useful for those who are keen on thinking of the actual words written instead of trusting their supernatural mind-reading gift.

  37. says

    Advice to PitchGuest… He recently outed himself as someone who argues in bad faith – post on my blog. Rather than define what he believes and lay out the principles he holds dear his tactic is to pretend to know what “FfTB” principles are then try and “expose” the hypocrisy… Trouble is the little dear is constantly railing against his own straw interpretations of what “we” believe rather than asking, listening and understanding.

    So PitchGuest why not head off and think about what you believe, what are your principles? What is the best way of fighting bigotry in your opinion? Do you even think misogyny exists! If not why not… Examine your own assumptions and conclusions rather than constantly fighting your own interpretation of what you think others believe. You might get somewhere then. You’d certainly get laughed at less in comment sections on blogs all over the internet.

  38. says

    I wonder if there are other examples of privilege that Steersman and Pitchguest might understand…
    Ex 1:
    I’m a gay man living in Florida. Currently, because I am gay, I cannot get married to another man, nor could I adopt a child.
    If you are a heterosexual living in Florida, the law allows you to marry a member of the opposite sex and you may adopt.
    The latter group possesses the privilege. They have benefits accorded to them by virtue if belonging to a particular group.

    Ex. 2
    I am a PoC. When I was younger, my mother worked at several department stores. She would tell me about unofficial store policies like racial profiling by managers or security guards. If you were black you stood a greater chance of being followed around the department store. If you were white, you were immune to this.
    The white people had the unearned privilege of moving around without being considered a possible thief.

    Ex. 3
    Living in Florida is a constant reminder of religious privilege. Specifically christian privilege. They can rest assured that they can express their beliefs at a job interview and not face repercussions. Atheists…? Not so much. Atheists often choose to hide their non belief for fear of job loss. Christians…not so much.

    So with these fairly simple, uncontroversial examples of privilege perhaps we can move onto privileges I enjoy by virtue of being a man.

    I don’t have to worry about my opinions being dismissed because of my gender.
    I can go an entire day and not have any comments from strangers about how fuckable I am.
    I don’t have to hear ‘you should smile more’.
    Bad days are just bad days for me. They aren’t indicative of my monthly cycle.
    When job searching, I don’t have to worry about my appearance being the most important factor in the hiring process.
    Contraception is available in the aisles of pretty much any grocery or convenience store. But only male condoms. Acquiring them for free is easy. Many gay bars have them available for free by the entrance.

    Those are just tiny blips on the male privilege radar. Is this enough 101 level stuff? Time to move on?

  39. Hunt says

    I think some, and perhaps much, of the push-back against the privilege concept is due to its inherent probabilistic nature. It postulates probabilities, often high to extreme, of social outcomes but not certainties, so privilege exists ontologically as a probabilistic abstraction. Because of its probabilistic causality, there will always be those who are not only blind to it, as the proverbial fish in water, but actually experience a reality that contradicts it. For instance, there will be the white guy who just happens to get a string of bad bosses, or at the extreme, Pitchguest’s homeless man. However, I suggest there are enough people like this who are actually engaged in this debate to perhaps explain the numbers resisting it. These people have “fallen through the cracks” of privilege, so to speak. And to make matters worse for them, not only have they had a string of “bad luck,” but since they were initially expected to do better, privilege actually begins to work against them both psychologically and socially. As you can imagine, this is distressing. Something to consider.

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