Being able to ignore certain inputs

From Jason’s megapost on privilege and strawprivilege.

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 laying 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.

It surprises me a little that this is even contentious. Isn’t everybody familiar with the way you don’t notice something and then once it’s drawn to your attention you do, and you wonder how you missed it for so long? Also with the way you don’t know things and then when you learn some of them, that changes the way you understand a lot of things? Doesn’t it happen all the time?

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.

It’s a blind spot. Like the one just over your shoulder when you’re driving. It’s not an insult or an attack, it’s just a blind spot. You can turn your head and look.


  1. says

    Isn’t everybody familiar with the way … you don’t know things and then when you learn some of them, that changes the way you understand a lot of things? Doesn’t it happen all the time?

    Not everybody is familiar with that. Certain strains of conservatives, for example, already “know” everything about everything. There are no new things to learn, only new rationalizations to invent to account for inconvenient new facts.

    You can turn your head and look.

    Not if you’re really, really invested in not seeing.

  2. Ysanne says

    Isn’t everybody familiar with the way you don’t notice something and then once it’s drawn to your attention you do, …

    Probably pretty much everybody is. Get preganant and suddenly all the other women in the world seem to be walking around with baby bumps too. Get a new car and you’ll notice how many of the same kind there are. Colour your hair blue-green and be disappointed at how non-unique you’ll find this to be. (Yep, tried it.)

    …and you wonder how you missed it for so long?

    Now THIS is the difficult step: Remembering and reflecting on past thoughts/actions and comparing them to new knowledge.

  3. psanity says

    Part of what you quoted from Jason’s post made me think of an exercise we use in teaching improv and beginning acting. What we want to do is get people to learn how to pay attention to people, and to the subtext of interactions.

    So, you number scraps of paper, say 1-15, and each student gets one; you only get to see your own number. Then you tell them the number they hold indicates their status level, and their job is to figure out if others are of higher or lower status. Let them mill around and interact for a few minutes, after which they show their numbers and discuss it a bit. They will usually have sorted themselves out pretty much according to the numbers they were given, although errors in sorting tend to be men behaving “above” their status, and women behaving “below” their status.

    Then, you pass out the papers again, but this time people don’t get to see their own papers; they have to hold the numbers facing out on their foreheads, so the others can see. Let them mill about and interact for a few minutes, with the object of discovering their status, and then have them line up according to what they think their numbers are. Again, the group will be very accurate. Sorting errors tend to be (not always) men perceiving themselves of higher status than their number, in spite of others lording it over them, and women perceiving themselves to be of lower status, in spite of others deferring to them.

    It’s a great exercise, and initiates great discussion about how power and status function, and how you have to put aside your own preconceptions in order to see more clearly. Actors have to learn this, because they have to take and release focus as needed. It’s one of those lessons you can take into everyday life, though: that status is situational, and that it’s smart to look past the status and see the situation. Like Jason said, noticing the road. Like you said, turning your head to look.

  4. says

    But, self-evidently, the problem is the politics of denying that there is anything wrong with claiming higher status than someone else. It’s all very well to say, “Look, buddy, sociology’s a Science, y’know, and it says that your claim of being superior to her is False and Wrong and really Just A Bit Rude, so think about it, huh?” But if the answer is “Fuck off, I AM superior to that stinky saggy woman-thing!” you aren’t getting very far.

    We take for granted far too much the notion that the argument for equality as an essential attribute of human individuals has been won, and won on the terms that progressives would prefer. Clearly, at the general level of political lip-service, it has been. In the hearts and minds of a substantial segment of the population, not so much. And calmly explaining to them that they are mistaken is talking to the wind…

  5. says

    One would think that it would be obvious. What’s so weird is that some the less savory atheists, especially those that have had to shed a god belief of some form, seem to just assume that this was their only blind spot. They leave the patriarchal, sexist notions lurking in the periphery without ever taking a good look at them. Self reflection can be a daunting task, especially if you don’t like what you find.

    *wanders over the mirror for the daily Stuart Smalley affirmation*

  6. Adam says

    If you guys, don’t mind I have a couple of questions regarding the privilege “shoulder-check” (love that analogy by the way). It’s something I’ve been wondering as a someone who has just started to get a grip on the idea after by-passing my instinctive ,”white-male,” knee-jerk defensiveness (for which I would like to thank Ophelia, Crommunist and FTB in general.).

    I get that privilege can make it hard for the those not affected by race/class/gender to truly understand and appreciate the depth and breadth of such issues. This of course undermines the privileged persons ability to make a useful, intelligent comment on these issues without first taking a moment to think about how they are removed from the problem and to listen to the voices of those more directly affected.

    However, if someone still wanted to participate in the discussion (even informally such as on a comments thread): How much “privilege-checking” is enough? And how would you go about proving that you had done your “shoulder-check”?

    Is it necessary to provide a bibliography of scholarly literature? Would you need a sociology degree? I guess it would depend on how seriously you wish to be taken.

    I have been thinking about this since becoming a little bit more involved in these forums and reading various back and forths between writers on issues like “Islamophobia” and others. The question seems (to me) to be particularly relevant in issues, where even after a privilege-check, a person might still disagree with an argument or a suggested course of action pertaining to an issue or political problem. In such a situation how does one convince their “opponents” that their disagreement is due to sincere/honest dissent and not be dismissed as “blinded by privilege” at best or of outright bigotry at worst. Surely such disagreements are possible (even if uncommon).

    In case I’m not being clear, I will add the following (hypothetical) thought-problem.

    Let’s say you are a white, middle-classed, professional. You read a blog-post/article about Affirmative Action on your favorite site. You decide to add your opinion in the comments i,e. you skeptical/against Affirmative action in the context of the story for reasons X,Y and Z.

    Other posters suggest that you’re “privilege” prevents you from really understanding the problem and the challenges faced by young African-Americans.

    You take this on board and go read some articles on the subject by a variety of black writers (Ta-nehisi Coates, Michael Eric Dyson and/or several others). On reflection, you decide your reason X did stem from your limited, privileged viewpoint and discard it. However, you still think reasons Y and Z are valid and so are still against Affirmative Action.

    Is there a way you could show you have “shoulder-checked” and express this opinion as a good-faith disagreement and get into a rigorous discussion about it, without being dismissed as privilege-blind/racist.

    Apologies for length post, but this has been mulling in my head for a couple of days and I thought I should just put it out there.

  7. daniellavine says


    However, if someone still wanted to participate in the discussion (even informally such as on a comments thread): How much “privilege-checking” is enough? And how would you go about proving that you had done your “shoulder-check”? Is it necessary to provide a bibliography of scholarly literature? Would you need a sociology degree? I guess it would depend on how seriously you wish to be taken.

    You mostly just need to avoid telling (for example) people of color that they’re making up the ways in which they experience prejudice. That’s most of the problem with privilege I think.

    You also need to assess whether the venue in which you’re presenting your arguments is appropriate to those arguments. Bringing up “pro-life” argument in a venue in which, say, rape prevention is the current subject is not a great idea. In your example, challenging affirmative action policies in a venue in which the discussion centered around sentencing disparities would be seen (rightly) as derailing and would not be a great idea. Otherwise if your arguments are relevant to the issue being discussed and you can explain why your arguments are not based on your privilege but are real, legitimate differences of opinion then I don’t think there’s a problem.

    HOWEVER there may still be some commenters who simply want to shut down your argument and perhaps use privilege-based non-arguments to do so. Ignore them and don’t hold other commenters responsible for what those people are doing.

    Finally, engage with rebuttals to your position. What I see in most cases when someone decides to disagree with the majority position in a discussion is that they will incessantly repeat the same arguments without paying any attention to the counterarguments offered. You should expect to be hounded out of the discussion if you do that sort of thing.

    It’s hard to use your hypothetical as an example because you use variable placeholders instead of actual arguments. People might still disagree with you that Y and Z are not informed by your privilege — with concrete examples it might be possible to show you how that could be but not with placeholders.

  8. Funny Diva says

    Adam @7
    This might be something to ask at Pharyngula in the Lounge thread as well. A lot of the regulars there have a lot of experience of/with social justice and privilege issues and have the links “on tap” for a lot of things, and in the Lounge you won’t get flamed first comment out of the box.
    If they think you’re off base, they’ll send you to Thunderdome where you’ll have to take your lumps.

    My seat-of-the-pants observations
    (all “you”s and “one”s are generic. any behaviors critiqued are ones I’ve observed elsewhere and not intended as direct criticism of Adam @7, who I don’t yet know, well, from Adam, as it were)

    Be _sure_ that by “rigorous discussion” you do NOT mean any of the following:
    Just Asking Questions
    Requesting personal, remedial 101-level education in the subject.
    Playing Devil’s Advocate (he doesn’t need the help)
    Being a Vulcan about Everything (these issues represent real damage to real people in real life, so, yeah, you are going to get emotional responses).

    good faith takes some time and a lot of listening to establish in any group. Always best to lurk and learn first. And, yes, I mean the kind of listening that means NOT talking or thinking up one’s response simultaneously.

    genuine humility in attitude will help a lot. If there are certain key blog posts/discussions or key 101-level (or advanced Social Justice) studies, go ahead and cite them (accurately, specifically and with comprehension!) when you ask for clarification of whatever point you’d like addressed.

    We all get flamed unjustly or in a knee-jerk way sometimes, even by usually reasonable and helpful people. Make the best apology and clarification you can and then let it go. ALSO no pre-emptive martyrdom: “you’ll probably flame me, but…”. That’s a really bad idea.

    It kind of boils down to planning to be part of a long-term conversation and planning to get to know the people involved in a given forum and let them get to know you (generic you). And be really, really clear in one’s own mind that you’re not unintentionally asking “what about me (or the members of a more privileged group)?”. That one isn’t asking for individual reassurance because a discussion has made one feel criticized or hurt one’s feelings.

    I don’t think there’s a quick way to establish credibility and trust in discussions of privilege. One certainly cannot confer them upon oneself and then demand that everyone else defer to that.

  9. Funny Diva says

    tl;dr of me @9

    No, no sociology degree. Just an established track record (credibility and trust) of being an HONEST interlocutor. Daniellavine @8 makes some very good, concrete suggestions as to how to do that.

  10. daniellavine says

    Also, when you do engage with counterarguments try to be charitable. Instead of looking for reasons to dismiss those counterarguments make an honest effort to see how they might be valid. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen good rebuttals dismissed because of an issue that’s actually irrelevant to the discussion. It’s infuriating.

  11. says


    Three things that I think are paramount to remember:

    1) Not all spaces are for all people. That’s a hard lesson for privileged people to internalize, since until recently pretty much all spaces WERE for privileged folks, and they would allow others or not according to their whim. You would almost certainly respect the right of people to have conversations on their terms about trivial things, like Batman, and for their conversations to shut out people who really don’t know much about Batman and are better versed in Spider-Man. This shit is WAY MORE IMPORTANT THAN COMIC BOOKS, so why is it harder to understand?

    2) You are asking about how best to “participate in the discussion”… keep it foremost in your mind that it is a DISCUSSION, which means back and forth and not you just repeating that you’re right and you know that you’re right for whatever reasons, sourced or otherwise. Respect that the discussion didn’t start when you got interested in it, and won’t end when you get tired or pissed off or bored and you walk away. If you’re input or presence is unwanted, be respectful of the discussion and walk away politely before it becomes an argument or a fight.

    3) This is a DISCUSSION, and not a DEBATE. This might be really interesting for you, but this is literally life and death for a lot of people. Even for those who aren’t at risk of violence, we’re still talking about things that affect their lives directly on a daily basis. The one goal you should never have is “winning the debate” at the cost of other people’s emotional well-being. If you value demonstrating that you’re correct on some academic point in the face of someone’s personal experience to the contrary, you’re being an asshole and you should stop. Any discussion that that values abstract ideas and academic/philosophical points-scoring over the real people you’re engaging with is dehumanizing and unethical. Don’t be that person.

  12. leni says

    @ Adam – I think genuine empathy is also helpful. And in order to do that you have to be willing to put your guard down and hear what people are saying to you without interpreting as a debate point.

    You have to be able to connect with other people on a basic, human level. And when you have done that your chances of getting across points Y and Z will be better. Or maybe you’ll have changed how you think about them and have points Q and P instead.

    I know that’s fuzzy, so here’s a real life example. I play online games a lot. One of the people I regularly group with is a black man in his early 50’s. Sometimes late at night, while we are killing shit, we just talk politics, or just chat about whatever it’s not always heavy. But sometimes he’ll tell me a little bit about how things are for him, or just black people in general. And after I hear this I’m not thinking “Oh yeah like that time I got arrested and a cop was really mean to me.”

    I’m imagining myself in his shoes. I’m imagining what it feels like to be him, or anyone really, in that situation. And by the time I have done that there just is no “Oh yeah like that time that cop was mean to me.” For me it was a bug, for him it is a feature. By the time I have put myself in his shoes there is just nothing much to say but “Dude, that fucking sucks.”

    If I didn’t acknowledge that and instead launched into my injustice experience, which was an aberration in my lifetime experience with police officers, I would be shitting on everything he had just trusted me enough to disclose. I’m not censoring myself, or denying my negative experience, I’m just acknowledging his without making it about me.

    I don’t know, it’s hard to put in words, but I’d suggest taking things down a notch from college debate and just try being a decent human being who connects with other people in basic, human ways. We all have things we can agree on, maybe look for those things first as opposed to things you disagree on. Worry about the fine points later when you know someone well enough that you at least have a baseline.

    Probably that makes internet debates way less lively, but I think it could maybe make your life better.

    PS I often fail at my own advice, but I am getting better at it and I think I’m a better person for it.

  13. says

    I admit that I have privilege: I lucked into enough education to know the difference between lie and lay. In terms of grammar, then, I’m privileged above Jason, as I would not say that I was “laying in bed” unless I was writing some kind of experimental fiction from the point of view of a hen that lived in a bizarrely furnished henhouse.

  14. says

    Is there a rhetorical term for “argument from grammar”? I realize that someone’s argument isn’t nullified by being presented with poor grammar, and that it doesn’t help debate about a serious issue to point out infelicitous constructions in someone’s post. But then again, clear presentation of ideas surely matters, doesn’t it? And grammar must come into that somewhere, yes?

  15. says

    If the presence of one word — which happens to be incorrect, but prevalent as a regional dialect — did in fact provide enough stumbling block that you had to point it out, that’s a service to the author, to avoid tripping up the next person.

    In this case, though, I think you’re just kinda being mean for no readily apparent reason.

  16. leni says

    Adam, see what MEFoley just did there?

    Don’t do that.

    Although thank you, MEFoley, for providing us with that well timed example of technicality mongering.

  17. smhll says

    Let’s say you are a white, middle-classed, professional. You read a blog-post/article about Affirmative Action on your favorite site. You decide to add your opinion in the comments i,e. you skeptical/against Affirmative action in the context of the story for reasons X,Y and Z.

    You probably need to brace yourself for the assumption from the people talking back to you that you are personally opposed to affirmative action because it slightly disadvanges you. And that may seem very unfair. But that’s likely a conclusion that people are going to draw (or jump to).

    Look at it from my disadvantaged historical perspective. One hundred years ago, most colleges in the US didn’t admit ANY women or ANY African-American students. And most all of the white men of that time period looked at this huge unfairness and accepted it without complaint. A gross, gross unfairness was allowed to pass, but now fairly small degrees of compensatory unfairness are a big issue. (I won’t call you a hypocrite, because I’m sure you weren’t alive 100 years ago, but the inconsistency bothers me.)

    Now, in the present, if college admissions committees give people of color a small bonus when evaluating their applications, some white people want to make an issue because things are not perfectly fair or exactly 50-50. (Women generally aren’t being given affirmative points in college admissions now.)

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