Privilege: when turnabout isn’t fair play

There is an age-old adage when it comes to argument – “turnabout is fair play”. Basically, the idea is that if an argument is reasonable in one direction, then it’s entirely reasonable when turned around and used the other way. When a homeopath demands 100% positive proof that homeopathy doesn’t work, it is an entirely fair argument to ask them to provide 100% proof that gremlins and faeries don’t exist. Because neither argument is reasonable, they can be scrapped. Similarly, when religious people invoke scripture to prove that something or other is ordained or banned by God, it is reasonable to turn that same argument around and show where the scripture ordains or bans something that contradicts the believer’s position.

Turnabout is entirely fair play in most cases, save one – when privilege is in play. Regular readers of this blog will probably remember my previous discussions of how privilege manifests itself in religious people, in discussions of racism, and even in the atheist movement itself. Privilege, for those unfamiliar with the term, is what happens when belonging to a particular group gives you an automatic advantage over those who are not in that group. The characteristic of this advantage is that it is not inherent to real differences between the groups (it is not, for example, an example of “tall privilege” that tall people can reach high shelves easier than short people), but due to some undeserved social assumption or historical advantage (the fact that tall people are considered more trustworthy and attractive than short people would be perhaps an example of “tall privilege”).

Members of a privileged group are doubly-cursed (or blessed, depending on your perspective) since the usual kind of  advantages that accompany privilege are completely invisible to those inside the group. White folks will angrily rant until they are blue in the face (as only they can be) about how they earned everything they ever had, and how life wasn’t handed to them on a silver platter, and how the real racists are the ones who think that white people enjoy privilege at all! Men will insist that men are the truly oppressed sex, since they are no longer allowed to use sexual banter in the office, and that feminists are neutering their manful impulses. Meanwhile, those of us not in the in-group will patiently wait until they run out of steam and point out that the phrase “mighty white of you” exists for a reason, as does “crying like a little bitch.”

It is in cases like this, where privilege is in play, that turnabout doesn’t function as a reasonable argument. For example, imagine this (not so) fictitious exchange between two people:

Boy: I don’t understand why you’re mad
Girl: That guy just slapped my ass!
Boy: So?
Girl: So it’s degrading and basically sexual assault!
Boy: I would love it if girls came up to me and slapped my ass. I don’t see why you’re making such a big deal out of it – you should take it as a compliment.

I doubt that anyone would find this sample conversation bizarrely unrealistic. Boy is trying to set up a bit of “turnaround is fair play” to illustrate that Girl’s position is unreasonable – being sexually objectified is a compliment and Girl should not be offended. Boy is doing this by showing that when the situation is reversed, there is no offense felt by the objectified party – indeed there is a positive reaction to the same stimulus. Any feeling of offense must therefore be purely in Girl’s mind, and all she has to do is adjust her bad attitude.

And of course this would be a completely reasonable position to take but for the existence of male privilege. Boy exists in a world where women are not sexually aggressive in the way that men are. As a result, he has rarely (if not never) had cause to feel as though his merits are judged solely on his physical appearance. He is not constantly bombarded by messages that make his sexuality the sine qua non of his entire existence. He is not meant to feel stupid for simply being born a man. Perhaps most frustratingly (to Girl, at least), nobody ever condescendingly tries to “woman-splain” to him that his totally reasonable objection to being physically and sexually assaulted is just because of his bad attitude.

Boy is not necessarily a bad person, he has simply not taken the time to consider the real differences between his default position in any social situation and the position of Girl. There are a great number of other forces at work on Girl that Boy doesn’t even have to think about. By assuming that those forces, because he can’t see them, simply don’t exist, Boy is preserving the conditions that creates those forces in the first place.

This isn’t an abstract concept for me – I’ve been Boy more than my fair share of times. It’s a tempting trap to fall into, because then problems become everyone else’s fault and you can sit back and pass judgment on the rest of humanity. This type of thinking definitely runs outside of sexism, to be sure. Anyone who has ever said that black people need to just “get over” something are operating from that exact same position of privilege – racism is someone else’s problem! Anyone who has ever said “this is a Christian country, and if you don’t like it you can leave” is, in addition to being sorely deluded about their facts, operating from another position of majority privilege – civil rights are someone else’s problem!

This is why I harp on about privilege so much – failing to recognize its presence forces us to spend a lot of valuable time pointing it out. There will always be those who stalwartly refuse to recognize that it exists, being much happier to mischaracterize it as a device used by bleeding hearts to make white Christian men feel guilty (which is a crock), but there are others who are genuinely ignorant and are willing to put in the work to see how things might look from another perspective.

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  1. Autumn says

    “But women pay lower car insurance rates AND men pay for dates!

    The gender thing is similar to the racism thing but even less of a problem.

    As women make up 51% of the population and that means society as a whole can’t stop or impede them from doing anything without their consent.”

  2. says

    Awwww. Now I’m dissapointed.

    Here I was thinking that a Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia procedure manual would have something to do with the procedures for preparing homeopathic pharmaceutic medicines .

    I could’ve had fun tearing that to pieces.

    From the looks of it, it’s just organizational stuff about licensing and whatnot.

    Mind you, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that a homeopathy procedures manual doesn’t actually have any homeopathy in it. 😛

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