The real meaning of “privilege” in a nutshell…

Avatar

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

Related Post Roulette

126 Responses

  1. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    I’m with you on the use of privilege. As a liberal, its one of the least favorite rhetorical tricks that my side of the political spectrum uses. Its a way not to debate rather than to engage with somebody who might be making substantive points.Report

    • Avatar Philip H in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Perhaps its because I’m one of those wacky Liberals who has real, psychological, cognitive processing trouble with deeper, or “real” meanings in written and spoken word, but I wouldn’t call what the Vice President did an expression of privilege – I’d call it lacking empathy, I’d call it lacking emotional intelligence; most of all I’d call it dumb. IF, in that sense you want to call our side of the aisle out, that’s fine – we are, generally – analytical to a fault and unwilling to approach the emotional side of issues unless forced to at gun point. But I don’t se that as an issue of privilege.Report

  2. Avatar j r says:

    The Being Hostile v. Folks Being Folks version of privilege is probably the most common example I see day-to-day. In this particular case it has to do with being straight, but you see it all the time with every historically dominant group: Christians, males, caucasians, what have you.

    I agree, but I still really dislike the term privilege. It almost never adds anything meaningful to the conversation other than the mental note that I make to myself every time someone uses it.

    The real problem with this way of looking at the world isn’t really about privilege. It’s about lacking empathy and being ethically under-developed. Lots of people who occupy privileged positions within a society have these problems, but lots don’t. Likewise, lots of people who are not privileged have really crappy ethical beliefs.Report

    • Avatar morat20 in reply to j r says:

      Well, without the word ‘privilege’ how do you communicate the concept of “You’re assuming you’re the norm and projecting that on the world, even in cases when ‘your normal’ is manifestly NOT the same normal as the people you are talking about”.

      Which is the essence of the problem, and a common human logic trap in general.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch in reply to morat20 says:

        I agree with this. I just wonder if, like the word statist, the word privilege is actually serving that function. I’m not questioning whether that’s its intended function, or that it’s a valuable function, or whether that’s what it signals to liberals. But as with so many words like that I’m not sure it functions, in practice, to send that signal to the people you really want to hear it.

        Not that I have any suggestions for a more effective term. Sorry about that. I think I’m more sympathizing than criticizing.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to morat20 says:

        Particularly with issues relating to gender, sex, orientation, affinity, what have you, the English language turns out to suffer from a poverty of precision. “Privilege” may be an imperfect vehicle to convey this idea, but it may be the best word available short of a multi-paragraph description.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to morat20 says:

        “Privilege” may be an imperfect vehicle to convey this idea, but it may be the best word available short of a multi-paragraph description.

        Or words that will cause more confusion among most people, like “heteronormative.” “Heterowhatative?!?”Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to morat20 says:

        I will confess to sometimes tiring of the word’s (over-?)use in online debate.

        I will also confess that the underlying concept that it communicates has shaped my thinking for the better.

        I was witness to an online argument elsewhere the other day, in re: a documentary about Kathleen Hanna/riot grrl and the voice the movement provided to young girls.

        Commenter A snarked something to the effect of “I’m sure it was really difficult for a straight, hot white girl to get her voice heard out there”.

        To which Commenter B responded, explaining that Hanna started performing in response to her own hinted-at abuse, as well as the rape of a friend.

        What struck me was that the two primary combatants were in essence fighting about different kinds of privilege – Commenter A was basically complaining about Hanna’s white/hot privilege (and was accused then of being a misogynist MRA) while Commenter B was basically complaining about male privilege.

        (C’mon people, get it together! Remember your Sonic Youth! It’s all one thing: “male, white corporate oppression”!)

        Both commenters having a point, and both missing a point – that “privilege” is by definition relativistic, and almost everybody is getting the shit-end of the stick, when compared to somebody else or to some other situation.

        The core issue to me is when “privilege” (or for that matter, “race”, or “gender”, or etc.) is utilized not as a flashlight or a lens, to hopefully illuminate aspects of a scenario that may not be obvious to a person because of where they sit; but as a cudgel with which to beat them (generally counterproductively, IMO).Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to morat20 says:

        “The core issue to me is when “privilege” (or for that matter, “race”, or “gender”, or etc.) is utilized not as a flashlight or a lens, to hopefully illuminate aspects of a scenario that may not be obvious to a person because of where they sit; but as a cudgel with which to beat them (generally counterproductively, IMO).”
        @glyph

        I agree with this. But this seems to be a “how” issue — one which might be more frequent with a term like “privilege” but is certainly not unique to it — than a “what” issue. If people are using “privilege” to bludgeon rather than shed light, they should be criticized just as other folks who seek to silence debate rather than engage it.

        However, the other side of this coin is people who reflexively tune out when they hear the word “privilege” or seek to make every conversation about the term itself rather than the issue itself.Report

    • Avatar Philip H in reply to j r says:

      @Morat20: Well, without the word ‘privilege’ how do you communicate the concept of “You’re assuming you’re the norm and projecting that on the world, even in cases when ‘your normal’ is manifestly NOT the same normal as the people you are talking about”.

      Which is the essence of the problem, and a common human logic trap in general.

      @Burt Likko: Particularly with issues relating to gender, sex, orientation, affinity, what have you, the English language turns out to suffer from a poverty of precision. “Privilege” may be an imperfect vehicle to convey this idea, but it may be the best word available short of a multi-paragraph description.

      As a scientist, whose stock in trade is largely precision in human language applied to written communication, I severely disagree. See my comment above, which echos @j-r:

      The real problem with this way of looking at the world isn’t really about privilege. It’s about lacking empathy and being ethically under-developed. Lots of people who occupy privileged positions within a society have these problems, but lots don’t. Likewise, lots of people who are not privileged have really crappy ethical beliefs.

      If we all start calling spades spades, then we won’t have to worry about the misuse of words.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Philip H says:

        I appreciate the insight that science imposes a rigor of precision associated with communicating scientific concepts.

        As a lawyer, trained and experienced in dissecting the meaning of inexact, ambiguous use of the language by people of all levels of education and sophistication, allow me to suggest for your consideration that laypeople, who are frequently neither scientists nor lawyers, do not use language with the calculation, forethought, and precision that scientists do. Call this “laziness” if you want, although I am inclined to be rather less judgmental than this: I would call it “human nature.”

        The “lack of empathy” issue appears to me to be a prominent facet, but not the exclusive defining characteristic, facet of what is meant by “privilege.” There is a good discussion below about presumptions of normalcy and burdens of communication, for instance, illustrating another facet of the issue. We can play games to try and fold that back into the concept of “lack of empathy.” But at such a point, the task of defining terms comes very close to playing a meaningless semantic game.Report

      • Avatar Philip H in reply to Philip H says:

        I agree that defining the terms is a meaningless semantic game. I disagree however that your dissections of language in court settings are probably not the best universe to draw from for looking at how people construct language. Having spent a great deal of time working in and with the legal system on personal civil matters and natural resource regulation matters I have first hand experience that people in courts tend to speak non-specifically in order to avoid negative sanctions – which leads to all the parsing that you speak of. in ordinary conversation, I find a lot of people who speak very well and precisely across a whole set of socio-educational conditions and experiences.Report

  3. Avatar veronica dire says:

    If I had a dollar for every time I read some yutz saying, in effect, “I can’t believe these darn ‘transgenders’ want me to use the ‘wrong’ pronoun.”

    But more, I sometimes I hear, “I cannot believe these damn trannies expect me to look at them,” or “expect my kids to look at them,” or “expect to use the restroom,” on and on.

    As if the burden ought to be on us to convince bigots.

    Privilege is an imperfect concept, but the described behaviors are real and pernicious.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to veronica dire says:

      The burden usually falls on the persecuted group because the privileged group tends to have the advantage of numbers. Jews know this, the LBGT community knows this, and African-Americans know this. There is no special moral magic that requires the privileged group to start thinking and acting in the right way when there privilege is called out. Calling out privilege tends to get people on the defensive and can easily lead to increased punishment and persecution for the non-privileged.Report

    • Avatar j r in reply to veronica dire says:

      This is a good example of the idea of privilege used to gloss over an area of legitimate disagreement. Personally, I don’t care who uses what restroom. Having unisex washrooms with individual stalls would probably be the optimal solution for a whole range of situations (eg parents with small children of a different sex and transgendered folks).

      However, as long as we do have separate women’s and men’s rooms, is it really appropriate to call someone a bigot solely because they don’t want a MtF transgendered person using the women’s room? Some people who object are, in fact, bigots, but their being bigots and their feelings on this issue are not necessarily the same thing.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to j r says:

        But the question becomes why should one group’s discomfort (“people who don’t want to share a bathroom with a transgendered person”) necessarily outweigh another group’s discomfort (“transgendered people who want to use the bathroom used by others who identify as the same gender”). So long as we have gender-specific bathrooms, it is likely going to be the case that someone is going to be made uncomfortable. So why is it assumed that the transgendered person will always be the uncomfortable one and that their mere existence is the cause of the discomfort?Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to j r says:

        If the mere existence of someone causes you discomfort, you’re probably a bigot. If you’re a woman who is uncomfortable by someone with a penis using the ladies room, well, that’s a bit more complicated.Report

  4. Avatar veronica dire says:

    “I hate the term ‘privilege’ ” ~ says the white cishet dude.Report

    • Is “cishet” a term of disparagement used within the trans community, @veronica-dire ? I can see the appeal.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to veronica dire says:

      I was similarly thinking about the irony of a bunch of primarily straight white cis guys talking about how over the term “privilege” we all are.Report

    • Funny, incisive and on-point. A perfect comment.

      (I know the intent isn’t necessarily humour, but that’s how it reads, and it gives it a lot of punch.)Report

    • Avatar j r in reply to veronica dire says:

      I am going to dissent from the above comments and say that this is exactly why I do not like the term privilege. It is lazy.

      Identifying the demographics of someone making an argument is simply not an effective rebuttal of that argument.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to j r says:

        @j-r

        So that would be an issue of HOW it is used, but not the word itself.

        On a recent post by David, I asked (asked!!!) to what extent his race and racial privilege might be a factor in him offering the advice he offered and, were he to find that it was a factor, would he reconsider offering the advice as broadly as he did. This got me called boorish. That seemed unfair. The backlash against the term “privilege” seems as much about disarming legitimate criticism as criticizing poor usage of the term.

        It’s like “race card” in that way. People tend to cite the “race card” when they don’t actually want to engage an argument. People tend to cite “privilege fatigue” when they don’t actually want to engage an argument. Which is not to say that race or privilege aren’t sometimes unfairly used, but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to j r says:

        Eh, I think everyone, including you, understood what Veronica was saying: a member of the group with the most privilege arguing that privilege isn’t a useful or effective concept is pretty ironic. While she spelled it out in pithy form here, the rebuttal goes pretty far. In a sense, it is Tod’s privilege that makes it so easy for him to be over the term privilege, but as Morato notes upthread, what do you replace it with? This is less of an issue for Tod, because he has the privilege, and therefore doesn’t really need to replace it with anything. If Veronica or someone on the other end of the privilege spectrum from Tod were to say that privilege wasn’t useful, they’d probably feel the need to come up with a pretty damn good alternative.Report

      • Avatar Jonathan McLeod in reply to j r says:

        As @glyph notes up-thread:

        “The core issue to me is when “privilege” (or for that matter, “race”, or “gender”, or etc.) is utilized not as a flashlight or a lens, to hopefully illuminate aspects of a scenario that may not be obvious to a person because of where they sit; but as a cudgel with which to beat them (generally counterproductively, IMO).”

        I like this formulation, and I took Veronica’s comment to be more flashlight than cudgel… even if there was an aspect of cudgel to it. Yes, it was biting, but I thought it served as an invitation for Tod and/or others to examine what allows them to be over the use of the word privilege.Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to j r says:

        Sure. I don’t like how the word is often used. I don’t see the importance in that distinction. I can’t think of too many words that the word itself upsets me.

        The way that Tod talks about privilege in this post does not bother me at all. It’s a good piece. However, more often that not, this is not how I see the term being used. I see it being used in one of two ways:

        – People who possess very obvious privileges bragging to one another about just how privileged they are, while simultaneously signaling their progressive bona fides.

        – People calling out other people’s supposed privilege as a means of trying to short-circuit a legitimate debate without having to actually deal with the points being made.*

        Here is another way to think about it. There is a distinction between talking about particular privileges that individuals possess and the use of privilege as a blanket term. I certainly think that every person ought to spend some time thinking about their privileges in life and how that shapes who they are. That and developing empathy for others is a vital part of growing up and developing ones moral ethical faculties. When someone fails to develop those faculties, it may be because of their privileges or may be for entirely different reasons.

        Why focus on privilege, when it is bigotry that we are after? Going after privilege is going to lead you to a lot of false positives. So instead, why not go directly after bigotry?

        *I will point out that I am talking about cases of legitimate disagreement, not mere bigotry. I don’t expect that anyone should have to give a reasoned rebuttal to those who actively hate and seek to disenfranchise them. In those cases, however, privilege is not the issue; hate and bigotry are.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to j r says:

        @j-r

        Here is the comment of mine I am referring to: https://ordinary-times.com/blog/2013/11/27/and-now-for-something-complete-different#comment-660614

        I’m curious which category you would put it into.

        I’ll concede that later comments of mine might have become boorish, but I thought my initial attempt at engaging the conversation was pretty obviously an attempt to shed light. Or — more accurately — allow David to enlighten me on his own circumstances.Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to j r says:

        I’m curious which category you would put it into.

        Asking someone to consider how their demographics shapes their views is fine. It’s reducing people to their demographics that bothers me.

        You brought up the race card and I think that is the perfect analogy. White people often use the race card argument when black people start saying things that make them uncomfortable or that would cause them to question their beliefs. People misuse the term privilege in exactly the same way.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to j r says:

        @j-r

        I agree. Though I would say that the term “race card” has never been employed — in my experience — as a means to thoughtfully broaden conversation. Privilege often — but not always — is.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer in reply to veronica dire says:

      @veronica-dire

      What about people whose minority traits are hidden?

      I’m 100 percent Jewish and 3/4 Eastern European, 1/4 Mediterranean. To most Americans, I probably just look like a white dude. However, people can usually tell I am Jewish because they think I look like Seinfeld or Adam Sandler or some other famous Jewish person in TV and the movies.

      Jews talk about how we have “passing privilege”. This generally means we are either white or not-white depending on what is ideologically convenient for the person deciding at the time. There are left-wing and right-wing variants of this ideological convenience.

      Modern anti-Semitism was not about religious views but was specifically racist. The idea emerged in the late 19th century that Jews were an “other” race that could never fully assimilate into European-North American civic society. It was a backlash against Napoleon’s emancipation efforts during the early 19th century. Jews would always be clannish and different. Shoah was the natural conclusion for the idea that Jews were an inferior “other” in Europe. Most Jews are keenly aware of this and then there many Jews who are not white to begin with like Ethopian Jews, the Chinese Jews from Kefeng, and a small community of Indian Jews plus Jews.

      http://popchassid.com/10-photos-to-remind-you-that-jews-dont-fit-into-a-stereotype-and-never-have/

      So am I white? Or am I Jewish? Do I get to declare it on my own? Or is it for others to declare for me?

      I consider myself ethically and culturally Jewish. Some people of an arch-athetist view have dissented on this issue to me.Report

    • ““I hate the term ‘privilege’ ” ~ says the white cishet dude.””

      Except that I don’t hate the term “privilege,” and pretty explicitly said so — and actually pointed out an example of it.

      I don’t like it being misused, and I don’t like it being a substitute for thought or analysis — like in the particular comment I just quoted, for example. (As opposed to your comment here, where I think it’s used as it should be, to excellent effect.)Report

    • Avatar Just Me in reply to veronica dire says:

      I find it interesting that human nature is such that all self identified groups come up with a term to describe those who are “others”, not like them. I think that is why the word privilege, at least the way I see if being used lately, makes me roll my eyes. I roll my eyes because I think “well yeah, duh!”, none of us can truly understand the life experiences another has and to pretend that we can is ridiculous. We can talk to another, listen to them, hear their stories, but no matter how hard we try we can never have lived their life nor experienced what they have in the way the did.Report

  5. Avatar Kazzy says:

    I disagree. If a man can rise to the second highest office in the land and still be woefully ignorant of his own privilege, it seems to me we aren’t talking about it enough.

    It might still be that the way certain folks talk about it is unconstructive, but privilege is far from an obsolete term.Report

    • Avatar Philip H in reply to Kazzy says:

      Like many things about the Vice President, he’s not ignorant. Read his quotes again. Yes, he doesn’t get why one daughter is mad at the other – probably because he views them both as successful in the ways that matter to him, but he knows from a political operative standpoint that having that disagreement be PUBLIC will cause problems for his family. He may never run for office again, but he still wants to puppet master elections as he always has. From his perspective, if the aggrieved daughter had slung mashed potatoes at the other over the Christmas dinner table that would have been fine – and probably an appropriate display of anger.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Philip H says:

        Do you think Dick would have been OK with Mary’s reaction if, instead of criticizing Liz, she’d merely reiterated her support for gay marriage and her reasons for that support, in the same or a similar form to the one in which Liz aired her opinions?Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Philip H says:

        Actually, looking at their exchange, my question above is irrelevant. Here is the exchange, from the TPM article:

        “I love Mary very much. I love her family very much,” Liz Cheney said during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.” “This is just an issue on which we disagree.”

        The remark rankled Mary Cheney, who responded on her Facebook page.

        “Liz — this isn’t just an issue on which we disagree you’re just wrong — and on the wrong side of history,” Mary Cheney wrote, according to the New York Times.

        In other words, Liz brought her sister into it, but that’s not why Cheney is mad. Cheney is mad because Mary responded after Liz brought her into it. If this isn’t privilege, then it is certainly bias.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Philip H says:

        Did Liz bring Mary into it? That sounds very much like the answer to a question about her sister.

        Anyway, I don’t think it’s privilege or bias. One daughter is trying to get elected to something, and the other isn’t helping. If Mary were running for Congress and Liz publicly criticized her, I’d expect the same response.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Kazzy says:

      I’d also be curious about your thoughts on my response to Veronica.Report

  6. Avatar Maribou says:

    This is so baffling to me that I initially assumed you must have it backward. No, Cheney has it backward.

    OY.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Maribou says:

      I got a bit confused too, because I failed to parse the quoted bit in such a way that I recognized Liz as the daughter who was criticizing gay marriage, and Mary as the daughter in a gay marriage and criticizing Liz. I just stuck Mary into both places, which made the quote incomprehensible.Report

  7. Avatar veronica dire says:

    There is a concept closely related to privilege, which I find more descriptive and more useful; namely, the concept of a marked identity. A marked identity is more or less any identity that stands out against a normative background. Thus women are marked; queers are marked; sex workers are marked — not to mention minorities. On the other hand, white male software engineers are not marked.

    In general. It’s complicated.

    The thing about being marked is others feel entitled to comment on you and judge you without any corresponding responsibility to learn the true facts of your lived experience. If you are marked, you are more susceptible to stereotypes; they stick to you.

    For example, if I were to say “heterosexuality is a form of mental illness,” people would find me daft. However, if I say “homosexuality is a mental illness,” people will listen.

    (Less these days, but still…)

    (For example, here is a question I fielded on Quora: https://www.quora.com/Risk-and-Chance/Security-arent-transsexuals-a-high-take-risk-group-therefore-they-are-to-be-monitored-As-they-are-likely-to-take-huge-risks)

    However, that is not all. Another principle combines with being marked, which is social status. Some marked identities are in practice high status identities. These have social tools to mitigate being marked. Contrasted with these are low status identities, which lack such tools.

    For instance, it is probably true that politicians and Hollywood stars are marked. However, they have an easier time of it than, for example, survival sex workers.

    Here is the thing: we marked people lack the privilege of individuality, as we will be judged as a class.Report

  8. Avatar greginak says:

    I agree privilege is among many overused terms. But i think the problem is more that people use that word, or others like racism or political correctness, assuming they completely explain the issue when they actually don’t. It needs to be more of ” i think that statement shows privilege because of ( then explain what the heck you mean)” People tend to say “Wow that statement really showed your privilege.” ( then waits for rousing applause). In Tod’s example he showed why Cheney was displaying his privilege, so that makes the usage clear.

    As far as people not liking the word, well there really isn’t much that can be done. I think about 99% of the uses of the phrase “political correctness” are dumb as a post. However the phrase is out there in common usage so if i don’t like it, i just need to cope, listen and try to figure out what the person means.Report

    • Avatar veronica dire in reply to greginak says:

      But is this not a demand that the victim do a better job communicating to their oppressor?

      I mean, sure, I value good communication and put a fair amount of effort into it. But why is the burden on me?

      If someone is being a privileged jackass, then they are the jackass. I might explain why. I might not.

      And yes, there are many practicalities here. I assure you I am aware of them. But when people consistently take the side of the oppressor and encourage and increase the burdens on the victim — well the pattern is clear.

      Oh, and playing the objective observer is itself an expression of privilege.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to veronica dire says:

        Veronica- I think its more about clearly communicating what people mean when they speak. Not every conversation has a victim and oppressor even though one person can be from a marginalized group and the other not. If some one wants to tell off an oppressive jerk then just calling him a jerk is the way to do it. Using language like “privilege” isn’t a good substitute for ” piss off jerk wad”. But if the intent is to have a conversation where people exchange ideas or the person with the Marked Identity communicates and teaches the other person about something they have missed then clear communication is what is called for. Clear communication is a burden for all us if we want to be understood and be listened to.

        Being from a marginalized group does not in any way mean people will understand the terms you use or make you more understood as i’m sure you know. In fact, obviously, its the opposite. People won’t get the terms you use or understand where you are coming from because you are from a group that isn’t generally understood or accepted. So the question seems to me, and i ask myself this when i enter conversations, is what do i want to achieve here? Am i looking to teach, learn, vent, tell off, mock or listen? Each requires different strategies and skills.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to veronica dire says:

        To add on stuff i didn’t say. If some from an oppressed group just wants to ignore or not explain themselves to someone else i’m fine with that. You don’t have any obligation to explain yourself.

        Nobody is an objective observer. I’m certainly not but then again nobody is.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to veronica dire says:

        @greginak

        While I don’t doubt that you accurately describe reality as it currently exists, do you see how that reality can serve to further entrench existing privileges and power dynamics/imbalances?

        If the onus is on the oppressed/marginalized/marked identity person to A) initiate the conversation B) in a clearly communicated way C) using terms amenable to the person they are engaging while D) also being mindful of how their tone, body language, manner of dress, etc. are being interpreted and if at any point any of those criteria do not meet the satisfaction of the privileged/empowered/unmarked identity person, that person can disengage… you’ve created quite an uphill battle for someone forced to wear roller skates.Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to veronica dire says:

        The fundamental problem with this way of looking at this world is that it rests on logic that is self-contained, circular, and whole. There is no point at which it can be falsified, so it is essentially a tautology. In other words, it’s fine if you buy into the priors, but if you don’t then there is no meaningful way to engage.

        As Greg points out the terms privileged and oppressor are not synonyms. I get that some people want them to be, but they are not. If you want to make an ethical evaluation of a conversation between a black persona and a white person, you actually have to listen to the conversation. It’s not enough to just point out their demographic characteristics.Report

      • @kazzy And how exactly do you expect to change that reality if the oppressed cannot communicate their problems to the privileged in a clear and effective manner?Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to veronica dire says:

        @mark-thompson

        I recognize it is probably sound strategy for folks seeking to effect change (be they the oppressed or their allies) to be as clear and amenable as possible. But when that takes the leap to being an obligation, thereby alleviating others from any obligation to create a more just society… that is when I start to get feisty.

        It is one thing to advise someone like Veronica that it is probably in her best interests to be as clear as possible with her communications. It is another to say that the reason the world is as hostile as it is towards her is because she has failed to communicate clearly.

        And, for the record, I don’t think anyone here is saying the latter. But I know that the latter is often said and pushback against it is often met with the former and then two different conversations are really happening.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to veronica dire says:

        Kazzy- I didn’t say much of any of that. If a person, anybody me, you, that weird guy over on teh corner, wants to be understood or express themselves then they need to package their message so they are understood. It shouldn’t be on the oppressed person to bend and shape themselves to make others comfortable, i didn’t say that. But we aren’t a telepathic species if someone wants to teach another about how their language was offensive or about their privilege then how else are they supposed to do it except by clear communication. I’d also add as a side note that listening is always a part of communication even if you are doing most of the talking.

        In no way should the oppressed person have to meet others expectations. However wanting other people to listen and learn and change is always hard and does imply some extra work on the speaker no matter who they are. It isn’t even about using terms that the oppressors like. While i think privilege is overused more original point is that it isn’t explained. While lots of us know what the word means and think it has a valid usage, others disagree or don’t know. When someone uses the words like privilege or racism or political correctness what are they actually referring to. Sometimes it is clear and sometimes it isn’t’. It gets back to what someone wants to accomplish in a conversation. If the intent is to teach someone who doesn’t understand the struggles of a transperson or another marginalized group then they are taking on the effort of teaching. Teaching is an effort and a skill. If they just want to tell someone to “F off” go for it, but don’t’ think that will change someones mind.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire in reply to veronica dire says:

        Okay, let us clear the air.

        Telling me it is prudent to communicate is condescending.

        Telling me this is not about oppression is staggeringly clueless. What do you think this is about? Simple rudeness? Minor misunderstandings?

        They seem like simple rudeness to you, the privileged. They seem mere misunderstandings, things minor that can be swept away, to you.

        To me it is my life.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to veronica dire says:

        @greginak

        My point is that the one can quickly become the other. Because the burden of communicating clearly is not shared by all. And the costs of being declared as communicating unclearly (whether or not one is actually unclear) is not a cost borne by all.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to veronica dire says:

        @kazzy- I can see that but it doesn’t change my point which was really that people should explain what they mean when they use controversial terms if they want to be understood and move a conversation forward so that the other person learns something. It is a burden for any oppressed group to want to change opinions. There is no way around that. Is that good: no, it would be better if there weren’t groups that are treated poorly, but there are. The question is how to help people who don’t understand the struggles of a person in an group that is treated poorly and why that is wrong. Nobody ever has to explain themselves if they don’t want, nobody is objective. Nobody has to listen and learn about the pain of a marginalized group either. Should they care, well i’d say yes of course they should care, but they don’t have to. Nobody has to care about anything actually, so how do we get them to care and to learn?Report

      • Avatar Patrick in reply to veronica dire says:

        I’ll just drop this side note:

        Most people on the planet really don’t care about you, for all generic you, regardless of whether or not you are marked or not marked, local, remote, of the same faith, of no faith, a good person, a bad person, or anywhere in-between. They don’t care if you are oppressed, or victimized, or being hacked to death by machete-wielding tribesmen of a competing group.

        They don’t care if you’re being bombed, or beaten, or starved, or raped.

        They will claim that they care. They will be properly horrified when told of the stories of those who are oppressed, and express disgust at those who are oppressing.

        And then a day later they will be arguing about some banality with the same passion that they used to discuss genocide or sex trafficking. Maybe they’ll drop a small donation. They’re not going to go to war for the oppressed others, elsewhere, almost always.

        They have shit to do. They have families and friends and an existence (virtually all of which is not concerned with justice) around which they’ve crafted meaning, and if you’re not a member of their family or their friends you get only so much of their time.

        If part of their existence is embedded in privilege of any sort, that doesn’t make it less of their existence. If their embedded privilege is part of an ethical shortcoming on society’s part, that doesn’t make it less of their existence.

        If someone is being a privileged jackass, then they are the jackass. I might explain why. I might not.

        And that’s totally your right, and it doesn’t excuse their behavior.

        But when people consistently take the side of the oppressor and encourage and increase the burdens on the victim

        The way this is phrased, I could see it as conflating indifference with endorsement.

        Oh, and playing the objective observer is itself an expression of privilege.

        Maybe. Not always.

        Look, I’m a white male nerd, someone you said up there a tad is “not marked”, but I went to an American high school in the late 80s and let me tell you, I got shat upon plenty. What that experience taught me was that if I wanted to get along in the world, I needed to make those who were not like me care about me. This is a lot of largely unrewarding work. Sometimes it was downright offensive.

        It’s stupid and it’s tribal and it’s bullshit and the alternative is not to interact with the vast majority of people. (edited to add) And I will absolutely grant you that particularly as I’ve gotten older this has been relatively easy for me, in comparison to any one of a number of marked groups (/edited). It’s still stupid and tribal and bullshit, easier or not.

        Here is the thing: we marked people lack the privilege of individuality, as we will be judged as a class.

        Yes, and that’s bullshit. I categorically reject this as acceptable and I’m entirely on board with you fighting that, and I’ll help.

        It’s still true bullshit, though.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire in reply to veronica dire says:

        The concept of privilege can often be well used as a consciousness raising tool. But keep in mind that is not its only purpose. It also gives those of us oppressed a tool to understand our interactions with the broader culture. It explains their (which is perhaps your) sense of fathomless entitlement and power over the meaning of our lives; it explains their (your?) utter lack of curiosity about what we really experience; it explains their (your?) resistance to hear what we say about ourselves; and their (your?) pretense of objectivity — and so on and so on and so on.

        It can also be a tool of insight and activism for us.

        So when a privileged person says, “Privilege? Who me? No privilege here!” —

        Well, that is an expected response. Instead of banging our head against the wall, we can see clearly the forces at work.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to veronica dire says:

        Veronica Dire, who gets to determine whose oppressed? If a Jew starts complaining about goyish privilege than I imagine that a lot of the people that like using the term privilege are going to look at the Jew strangely. This is despite the fact that there are only fourteen million and our history isn’t great.

        I’m a short man, only 5’5″. There are lots of jokes directed at short men in our culture. Should I get to complain about the privilege enjoyed by tall men or does my privilege as “white man” make up for lack of privilege as a short man?Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to veronica dire says:

        @greginak

        I agree with your last comment to me, but will add one point: Often times, when challenged by a member of a disempowered group, members of the empowered group engage the meta conversation rather than the topic at hand. So rather than actually deal with privilege, we end up in a conversation about what privilege really means, even if all parties more or less have a clear enough understanding to move the conversation forward. Empowered folks can say, “I don’t like the language you’ve used so I’m going to step back,” and be done with it. They can — and often due — continually shift the terms of conversation precisely because they are in control of the terms of conversation.

        All that said, I don’t think you or @mark-thompson (the two folks I see primarily taking this line in this subthread) are such people; I think you are genuinely seeking and advocating clarity. I’m just attempting to give a bit of context for why demands of clarity can be interpreted as deliberate attempts to obfuscate dialogue.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to veronica dire says:

        Kazzy- I don’t disagree with any of that. There are all sorts of ways conversations can go awry or people can deflect.

        I’ve spent lots of time on feminist sites reading threads. There some really interesting stuff i learned about gender and privilege. I also saw many threads go straight into yelling mode for a variety of reasons. One of which was the one you noted, people with privilege not wanting to accept they had it. But there was also the intent of some just to “call out” that some one else was privileged, there was no attempt at dialogue, just calling someone privileged. While they were typically correct it still went straight to yelling match because there was no listening or desire to engage in a discussion. It was more about signaling. There was also the dynamic of someone calling someone privileged but not actually explaining what the issue was. While to some it was clear, to others it wasn’t. The fact that some people didn’t see the privilege was taken as a sign of privilege and being obtuse. This was pretty unfair but also led to more pointless shouting. It is actually because i think privilege is an important concept that i want it used well and clearly. There is also a tendency, as has been noted above, to drain the term privilege of any nuance or attempt to understand how it is very relative. People can have privilege in some ways yet be marginalized in others.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to veronica dire says:

        @greginak

        I’d be curious to learn the dynamics of the folks who use privilege in the various ways. In racial conversations, I’ve sometimes seemed people of color throw the word out with little conversation, but this is sometimes done more as a, “I’m tired of engaging. I’m just going to brand it and move on.” Which is admittedly stifling to dialogue, but understandable in some ways.

        It wouldn’t shock me to learn that people engaging in flame wars over privilege tend to be people of greater relative privilege engaged in the sort of signaling you talk about. A white guy (like myself!) can start a flame war because, ultimately, the stakes are relatively low for me. And there is certainly a degree to which privilege has become a buzz word amongst a certain segment of white allies… many of whom I do think are well-intentioned but ultimately limited in their effectiveness. So, I get yours and others criticism of it. As I said elsewhere, I’d rather we not throw out the baby with the bath water. And will cop to making my share of dirty bath water. I’m trying to use the term more often in a, “Have you considered the ways in which your race/gender/sexual orientation/etc. have contributed to your perception here? If it has, what does that mean?” way than a “You damn dirty privileged ape” way.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to veronica dire says:

        kazzy- Agreed. ( terrorist fist bump at you)Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to veronica dire says:

        @greginak

        Two white guys agreeing we’re the right sort of white guys? That deserves a full on Tecmo Bowl jump five!Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to veronica dire says:

        Suddenly i’m hungry for some white bread. I already had some vanilla ice cream yesterday, but hey it was my birthday, i went wild.Report

      • Avatar Maribou in reply to veronica dire says:

        ““Have you considered the ways in which your race/gender/sexual orientation/etc. have contributed to your perception here? If it has, what does that mean?””

        @kazzy , I’m sorry to just come in and be all grumpy at you but I’ve been gnawing at this ever since your comment on David’s post a few days ago… so to me it doesn’t feel like it’s coming out of nowhere.

        Have you considered the ways in which your own privilege allows you to be convicted that that question is helpful, rather than condescending, because what matters is how you mean it rather than how it is received? That, even though as an ally you do have responsibilities to not shrug and look the other way, it is ALSO a function of privilege to feel comfortable presenting yourself as a moral guide on a regular basis, on any given topic where you have an opinion?

        I ask not just because I was frustrated with your comments on David’s post, but because those comments really resonated with a pattern that I have often observed in my own life. Speaking broadly, I have found that if someone seems to think that:

        a) I am trying to tell *them* what *they* should do (ie, offering general advice) when I am actually only talking about what “I” or “we” have experienced
        b) my life experiences, if shared, should be evaluated and critiqued “dispassionately” rather than valued, or, sometimes, confronted as seriously obnoxious – but, either way, the speaker’s intent is to help me or teach me, rather than to engage with me as an equal
        c) the next-best response to some story I just told, after trying to improve me through their reaction to it, is to explain how it is just like this thing that happened to them, even when to me the two stories seem to have little in common

        Well, most often, that person is probably a straight white guy, age and class background seemingly irrelevant. (Second most likely is that it’s an older person (either gender) who has a LOT more money and social status than I have, though obviously those two categories aren’t mutually exclusive.) I don’t assume, looking forward, that anyone fitting those labels is going to react that way – but, looking backward, the odds are really good.

        Your zeal for making this community welcoming and inclusive speaks well of you, and I value you for it, but I often wish you would take more care of other people’s tender parts while attempting to signal that this is a safe place to be. Personally, I would feel more comfortable, and more welcome, in this community if that were the case.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to veronica dire says:

        @maribou

        I thank you — intensely — for your honest and forthright feedback. I take seriously the role of being an ally, with one of the most pressing questions I am trying (and struggling) to answer being: What exactly does that mean? I have no doubt that some, perhaps many, of my attempts fall flat or even run counter to my stated aims. Feedback like what you’ve offered here helps me to reflect and reevaluate.

        With regards to David’s post, I struggled with whether to say something or not. In part because there are many ways in which I wholly agreed with what he said (as evidenced by my very first response on that thread). I should have been more transparent in noting that, as my reaction was fueled as much by my own considerations of my own privilege as speculation about David’s potential privilege. And I could have more carefully word it to reflect the inquiry I genuinely intended it to be than the accusation it seems to have come off as.

        I know I’ve stepped in it before and will likely step in it again. Which doesn’t excuse it, but does help me carve a better path going forward. Thank you again for this feedback.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to veronica dire says:

        @veronica-dire – I hesitate to do this, because I like the perspective you bring, and having been on the receiving end of a multi-pronged debate before I know it can be exhausting for someone else to jump in; but your most recent comment has been nagging at me.

        I need to quote most of it:

        It explains their (which is perhaps your) sense of fathomless entitlement and power over the meaning of our lives; it explains their (your?) utter lack of curiosity about what we really experience; it explains their (your?) resistance to hear what we say about ourselves; and their (your?) pretense of objectivity — and so on and so on and so on.
        It can also be a tool of insight and activism for us.

        So when a privileged person says, “Privilege? Who me? No privilege here!” —

        Well, that is an expected response. Instead of banging our head against the wall, we can see clearly the forces at work.

        The reason this is nagging at me is because I think it explains a little bit why many people react dismissively to the concept (even though, as I have said elsewhere, I think it is a useful one). If you change a few words in your comment, it looks like standard boilerplate conspiracy theory. Illuminati stuff.

        Now, I realize that sounds inflammatory, so allow me a few disclaimers: 1. Conspiracies do in fact exist. That’s why we have RICO. 2. Any minority who has a much larger population either excluding them from full participation and/or actively working against them, is generally quite naturally correct in assuming conspiracy-like behavior on behalf of the system. That’s often what being in the minority means.

        But to return to my point, it’s the way in which some people view everything through any single lens, as an all-encompassing theory of everything, and moreover use any questioning of privilege’s impact in any given scenario as de facto proof that their interlocutor is in fact blinded by privilege: that turns people off.

        Imagine I said that there is a terrible disease called MixedUpmatosis. Up to 90% of the population has it.

        What’re its symptoms, you ask? Well, the main symptom is that you won’t feel any symptoms. Worse, it blinds you from seeing any symptoms in other sufferers of the disease.

        That is, if you don’t think you’ve got MixedUpmatosis, then you’ve got a terminal case. QED.

        Not only does that sound like conspiracy, pod-people-like stuff, (you, and only you, can see the nefarious “forces at work”), but it also looks to some like a sneaky cheap way of winning any “is it privilege” argument, “heads I win tails you lose” kind of stuff.

        That is: if you say something’s due to privilege, and I say no, it’s not, you can always say, well, you WOULD say that, you privileged bastard you!

        And QED again.

        Again, I think the concept’s useful, and I don’t think you’ve been using it like that. But that comment illuminates for me some of the challenges in using the concept too often, or too broadly.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to veronica dire says:

        Glyph, I don’t mean to jump in here, but that comment caught my eye. Here’s the issue your comment made me think of: He doesn’t believe here when she says “this is my life”.

        Personal lives and experiences are inaccessible to others by definition. The only way to convey them is via words and actions in appropriate situations. It seems to me that Veronica’s descriptions about her life aren’t that dissimilar to certain private experiences we’ve all had, so the plausibility of what she writes and argues doesn’t seem so far out of bounds that it seems alien (like a conspiracy!!).

        It seems to me, and I say this with some apprehension Glyph (since you’re strike me as a solid guy), that you doubt the sincerity or earnestness of her comments. Otherwise, why think that an honest expression of personal views isn’t sufficient to rise above the “conspiracy theory” requirement?Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to veronica dire says:

        @stillwater – I was very careful, I thought, to explain that it may *sound* like a conspiracy theory, and why it may do so.

        And that *resembling* a conspiracy theory – even superficially – will cause many people to dismiss it *as* a conspiracy theory.

        Clearer?Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to veronica dire says:

        To put it even more clearly, I in no way doubt her sincerity or earnestness.Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to veronica dire says:

        Though honesty compels me to add: sincerity and earnestness, and personal experiences shaping one’s gestalt worldview, are also extremely common features amongst conspiracy theorists; and in those cases, it is not their sincerity or earnestness or personal experiences we dismiss, it is the reliability and generalizability of their worldview.

        To whatever degree viewing anything and everything through the lens of “privilege” resembles viewing anything and everything through the lens of “aliens did it” or whatever, it seems to me that it can potentially bring about the same problems for both the believer (they will force everything to fit that paradigm) and for the nonbelievers (they will dismiss the believer and that paradigm).

        Again, this is a meta-point, not intended to address the concept of privilege itself, which I have personally found thought-provoking in a number of ways, even as I have sometimes been disappointed by its deployment in some discussions.Report

      • Avatar Maribou in reply to veronica dire says:

        @glyph – I feel a bit about engaging you in the kind of multiprong discussion you just apologized for engaging @veronica-dire in, but:

        “Though honesty compels me to add: sincerity and earnestness, and personal experiences shaping one’s gestalt worldview, are also extremely common features amongst conspiracy theorists; and in those cases, it is not their sincerity or earnestness or personal experiences we dismiss, it is the reliability and generalizability of their worldview.”

        “Though honesty compels me to add: sincerity and earnestness, and personal experiences shaping one’s gestalt worldview, are also extremely common features amongst human beings with whom we disagree about anything important; and in those cases, it is not their sincerity or earnestness or personal experiences we dismiss, it is the reliability and generalizability of their worldview.”

        There, fixed that for you. Took out the unnecessarily reductive metaphor. (I contemplated doing the same thing to your longer comment, but that seemed a bit repetitive.)

        Do you see what I’m saying here?Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to veronica dire says:

        @maribou – I see what you are saying; but the whole point of the (admittedly) unnecessarily-reductive metaphor (“privilege theory”:”conspiracy theory”) was to point out that the way in which the concept of privilege is often deployed (particularly in its single-word form in online debate) can *itself* appear unnecessarily-reductive.

        If I say I have a theory that purportedly explains all of human interaction (it’s called The System); and every time any topic or phenomena is being debated, I bring it all back around to The System; and any time someone disagrees with my interpretation of that topic or phenomena, I take it as proof that The System is working on them; people will probably say I am being unnecessarily-reductive. If I’m lucky.

        It’s not a point about privilege *itself* (which clearly exists); it’s a point about the way relying too much on any single interpretation or explanatory theory of the world can cause problems for the believer, and those around them. A concept can be a good tool, without also being a perfect tool applicable to all situations.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire in reply to veronica dire says:

        @glyph — Sooner or later we get weary and need to step back, to be among our own. From time to time. Finding the perfect way to communicate is not my goal. Finding some way to be happy is.

        If people want to dismiss us as conspiratorial — then they will do that.

        But unlike secret government bases hidden underground (or whatever), I am here in the room (so to speak).Report

  9. Avatar Kolohe says:

    I don’t find this an example of privilege per se as just an example of garden variety hypocrisy.

    I mean, another issue should only be discussed within a family, if discussed at all, is the status of one member of a husband and wife team as a CIA agent.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Kolohe says:

      Heh. But he knew he could get away with it. And he only had to sacrifice one little lamb along the way. Being that particular kind of dick is pretty consistent with privilegism. (Privilegosity?)Report

  10. Avatar Damon says:

    “Privilege”

    Is on my list of words I use to determine whether or not to dismiss people out of hand, because if you’re using it, you’re more than likely insulting me or my heritage, aka the cudgel, and not trying to sway me to your point of view, but accuse me of something I’m most likely not.Report

  11. Avatar rexknobus says:

    Taking this back to the original post — how is it possible to think of Dick Cheney’s daughter (either one) as anything but “privileged”?Report

    • Avatar Philip H in reply to rexknobus says:

      I think you can argue they are economically privileged; you could potentially argue they were politically privileged up to a certain point in their lives. But I also think that a strong case can be made that Mary has had significant parts of that privilege stripped over time by being an open – if not really “Out” – lesbian, now married, and with a kid. Even rich, well healed lesbians from politically well connected families face discrimination once their sexual orientation comes out. Would that it weren’t so for anyone – queer, gender non-conforming, same gender loving, – but that’s how we roll in “murica” these days.Report

  12. Avatar Roger says:

    I don’t want to get in this debate again, but will just say that things would be much clearer if we quit trying to use privilege in two or three ways.

    1). The person was advantaged with no harm given to another
    2). The person was given an unfair systemic advantage by authorities or institutions at the expense of someone else
    3) the person oppressed someone of their own action

    I would use 1) advantaged, 2) privileged, 3) oppressor.

    The trouble with the word is people jump back and forth between all three usages. I find this bad rhetoric.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Roger says:

      I think that you have the terms parsed pretty well here, which takes us as far as clear terminology ever does, which can be quite far.

      But I actually think that this whole discussion is much less of a terminological one than this whole discussion has suggested so far. The issue really I think, Roger, is that the facts on the ground themselves are hard to nail down. 1) and 2) can be very hard to distinguish from one another even just for one person trying to look at things accurately, and then it can become nigh impossible to reconcile attempts to do it that are done from different perspectives, particularly ones that are advantaged (or even privileged!) to different degrees.

      Rarely for me, here I think the issue really is one of substance and perception of actual facts (and others’ perceptions and experiences), not (as much as I often think is the case, anyway) of confusion that stems from a failure to define terms.

      All that being said, even with the issues of substance being very real, I do think that the invocation of this term has become too often an effective dodging tactic for people looking to avoid having to confront issues put to them bib people they feel don’t have the standing to do so. That’s unfortunate, because when the term is used that way, it’s usually done by one person to discredit the arguments of another person of roughly equal levels of advantage/privilege. This both hiders discourse and dilutes and clouds up the actual important facts the term “privilege” used in this way was initially intended to point out. I expect some here will disagree that such uses have diluted the term power or been used to describe anything but what the terms was meant to describe when it came into this usage, however.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Wouldn’t you say that the burden is on the speaker to determine if the person is a 2 or 3? They are disparaging terms.

        As it is, you can use one term, and if pressed deny the disparaging connotations.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

        s much as I think the distinction you draw is a justifiable one, I don’t think everyone carries it around in their head. People conflate the ides and some would even dispute the distinction you draw even in theory, and, as I say, the facts of these matters are usually pretty muddy. So basically, no, not really. I think people have the burden to try to call it as they see it in a good-faith way using the concepts and terms they are working with, and if someone (maybe with good reason) wants to insist on particular distinctions that others haven’t thought to make, it’s on them to respond with that distinction and their account of how it applies to others’ good-faith characterisations or assertions.Report

    • Avatar j r in reply to Roger says:

      I agree with most of what you’ve written. I’ll just add that this is, in fact, very good rhetoric if your goal is to obliterate all the meaningful distinctions between those three categories.Report

  13. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    O/T FYI to all, my laptop got dropped, and about a tenth of the keys aren’t working anymore, so my typo rate is going to be even higher than usual until some type of higher power intervenes on my behalf or something similarly unlikely happens. In particular, the “A” key doesn’t respond, so all “a”s you see are copy-pasted, at least on comments written when I haven’t gotten ahold of my girlfriend’s laptop. 🙁

    It’s a MacBook from 2008 – if anyone has a sense of if/how it might be fixable, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Basically, the leftest letter/# column, 1 down to z, doesn’t work, and then a cluster of keys in the top right – Delete and the volume up and down keys – don’t either. If people have thoughts, perhaps it would be all right to leave them here (Tod?), or you can email me – drew [dot] mike at gmail [dot] com. Thanks, everyone[exclamation mark]Report

  14. Avatar Stillwater says:

    More and more, I keep coming around to the conclusion that one of the responsibilities that needs to come with being a part of the majority is the cultivation of empathy.

    Why, tho? People who are – and advocate for! – Privilege could be realized as a majority, yes? Some might say it actually has. What does being a majority have to do with empathy?

    maybe you mean the comment the other way: that one of the responsibilities of people is a cultivation of empathy and that should be a condition for becoming a majority?Report

    • Avatar kenB in reply to Stillwater says:

      What does being a majority have to do with empathy?

      Without meaning to speak for Tod, I’d answer that in a democracy, any given majority has more political power than the corresponding minority (broadly speaking). If the members of a given majority don’t have empathy for the members of the minority, then they’re more apt to push for laws and policies that disadvantage the minority, even without intending to cause any harm. The minority may not have any more empathy than the majority, but they’re less likely to be in a political position where that lack of empathy leads to harm.Report

  15. Avatar ScarletNumbers says:

    The meme of the shrill feminist with the caption “check your privilege” has caused me to not take the term seriously.

    Although I am confused about the use of the word “check”. Do they mean like checking your oil or like checking your coat? #confusedReport

  16. Avatar veronica dire says:

    I’ll try this with an (imperfect) analogy.

    So by now it is cliché to say “The fish doesn’t know it is wet.” On the other hand, that phrase is amazingly illustrative of a subtle concept.

    But let us twist it a bit and ask, “How has living in water affected the fish’s life?”

    Well, it almost seems a silly question. If we ask the fish it will probably give us a puzzled look, blow a bubble, and them swim away. (The analogy gets a bit flimsy here. Bear with me.) But seriously, it is clear that living in water affects the fish in every possible way, even if it has no tools to see this.

    Now each of you, ask yourself the question, “How has being cisgendered affected my life?”

    A fair number of you are no doubt unaware that you are cisgendered. I mean, did you even know the word? How often do you think about the fact you are not trans? Is it ever in the foreground of your mind? (Maybe sometimes, but for most of you hardly ever.)

    That said, and trust me on this, it has affected your life in every possible way. Each interaction, no matter how small, with someone sexually compatible has been shaped by the fact you are cis. In fact, every interaction with a stranger. Little things. Tons of them. Tons and tons and tons.

    Every time you answer the phone. Every time you pee.

    All of which is entirely hidden from you — this effect.

    (Experiment, as you go through your day and meet strangers, notice this: how quickly do you assign each person a gender? How does that effect how you treat them? What if their gender was strange/ambiguous/weird? Now imagine being on the other end of that. That’s my life.)

    Being a member of a dominant, normative group is a profound and hidden experience. Not being a member of such a group is a constant, grinding horror.

    Understand the difference and you understand privilege. Privilege names this fact.

    So what are its effects?

    Two big ones. The first, the dominant, normative group usually has tremendous social power over we marked people. And they are (collectively) very ignorant of us. And thus we have to fight against tremendous inertia just to get heard, to fight and fight and fight for our basic dignity.

    Blacks were forced to debate their very humanity. This really happened. (It still happens.) That must be draining in ways we fishes swimming in water do not easily see.

    (I’m white. I have white privilege.)

    Second are the microagressions, all the little things that add up, each dirty look in a public restroom, each sudden silence when I board the train.

    But that stuff is just garden variety bigotry. “Privilege” comes in when we try to communicate our experiences to cisgendered people, and we discover that they have already decided what it is like to be trans — they saw a documentary or read a wiki. And then they explain it to us.

    Or they explain the way things are to us, as if we haven’t figure that out already.

    (If we could fuel our cars with privileged condescension — well, never mind.)

    On and on, every flavor of *-splaining.

    This is where “Check your privilege” gets deployed. And indeed, sometimes it is intended to shut someone up.Report

    • Avatar Glyph in reply to veronica dire says:

      @veronica-dire – if I haven’t said it before, let me say it now – you are a first-rate commenter and this place is better for you being around, even if it sometimes gets frustrating for you. Thanks for bringing your perspective. This is thought-provoking, powerful stuff for me.Report

    • “Privilege” comes in when we try to communicate our experiences to cisgendered people, and we discover that they have already decided what it is like to be trans — they saw a documentary or read a wiki. And then they explain it to us.

      That’s why I prefer to ask, and then to listen. Listening is hard to do when you already know the all the answers. It also runs the risk of having to give someone else the last word, so there’s a double whammy to the ego.

      But I’ll indulge in this bit of condescension nonetheless: the phrase “the fish doesn’t know it’s wet” may seem trite to @veronica-dire but that seems likely to be because she has often been put in circumstances where she’s had to rely on that concept. Lots of people haven’t heard it or considered these ideas before, ever. That which is trite and cliché to you may well be novel and eye-opening to me. Hopefully most of our regular readers have come across this notion before, here and elsewhere. Still, there’s a reason the “usual arguments” get recited in a lot of discussions.Report

      • Avatar Philip H in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Agreed. This whole thread – one of Ordinary Times’ better ones in a long time IMHO – is the very embodyment of the concept. While these discussions no doubt grate on @veronica-dire because of her daily experience, I can see many, many of my other friends and colleagues who need our gentle tet-a-tet to get to a point where they can even deploy a question, much less an argument.

        I would also add that the triteness @burt-likko condescends to is really in the response of the cisgendered to Veronica, not Veronica’s sincere desire to connect as a dignified person to another dignified person. Which is probably why the two Cheney sisters are at crossed swords.Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *