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