Sunday, 29 December 2013

“We need to talk about privilege.” 25.12.13

I keep being told that “we need to talk about privilege” and I agree.  We do need to talk about it; it’s important; and I’ll get to it, by and by.  Privilege is all over the place.  There is white privilege, cis privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, able privilege, young privilege, thin privilege, pretty privilege, and probably a whole load more that I have yet to hear about.  Privileges result in people being marginalised, excluded, dismissed and oppressed; it is a critical issue in our society.

However, first and foremost I would like to talk about The Rise Of The Righteous Ass-Hat.  Righteous Ass-Hats are everywhere these days.  They are prominent, brash, and in some fields they appear to be taking over.  The internet seems to either breed them or at the very least encourage them to come out of their shells and congregate.  This results in displays of Synchronised Ass-Hattery that are enough to put the fear of the Inquisition in anyone with a smattering of historical knowledge.

“What is a Righteous Ass-Hat?” I hear you cry.  Well, their basic characteristic is an uncontrollable urge to break into vehement, superior, or downright hateful speech when exposed to certain triggers or situations.  The triggers are often imaginary or only imperceptibly connected to the situation.  The resulting speech is characteristically circular in nature, with certain phrases or words repeated compulsively.  These interjections, often inappropriate to the conversations in question and lacking in logic or factual accuracy, may baffle the onlookers who often become drawn into futile attempts at sensible debate. 

The speech of the Righteous Ass-Hat is not to be seen as a form of verbal communication as witnessed between regular humans.  The function of the words in question is similar to the aggressive territorial displays witnessed in many animal species.  Regardless of the particular “content” of the speech, its only intention is to make the person at the receiving end either submit to the local dominance of the Ass-Hat or leave the area altogether.

If their behaviour is not handled appropriately, Ass-Hats can mutate, Gremlin-like, into creatures almost impossible to handle.  When they reach this stage, they lose all human inhibitions and will attack violently and without constraints, becoming very dangerous to all in the area.  Furthermore, their mutation is contagious, potentially resulting in large mobs of Ass-Hats attacking at once.

It is believed that this condition is caused by a reduction in brain functions caused by an infestation of Ass-Umptions.  These Ass-Umptions clog up the sufferers’ brains in such a manner as to render them unable to connect to the reality most of us share.  Here, for your edification, is a list of the main Ass-Umptions you are likely to encounter:

1.       “You can’t possibly know anything about this issue.”
These Ass-Hats convince themselves that, although they don’t know anything about you, they can determine that you have not been affected by an issue, because it’s quite simply not an issue that affects “people like you”.
The classic manifestation of this Ass-Umption is women telling men that they cannot possibly know anything about rape, domestic abuse and prostitution, because they are “women’s issues”.  The fact that there is plenty of evidence out there proving that men do suffer from rape and abuse and sometimes work as prostitutes is somehow completely discounted.
I would like to take this opportunity for a shout-out to the lady who screeched to a male friend of mine that he couldn’t possibly know anything about rape.  As it turned out, she was not a rape victim.  He was.  I can only hope that him telling her his experience, in all its gory details, has cured her Ass-Umption for life.

2.       “Because you have not been personally affected by the issue, you have not been affected by it at all.”
These particular Ass-hats must use a different reproductive strategy from that commonly seen in humans.  Clearly they have no mothers, fathers, siblings or children; they are generated, grow and live in perfect isolation, completely independently of all other humans.  They never form close social groups.  They probably mate by post.  Therefore, they are incapable of comprehending that people are not only affected by their personal experiences, but also by the experiences of the people around them, and particularly their loved ones.
The strapping young friend of mine they accused of “able” privilege built half his muscles struggling to push his disable mother’s wheelchair in and out of buildings.  The straight boys they did not let participate in the gay marriages campaign[1] are the sons of a lesbian couple.  This doesn’t matter to these Ass-Hats – the concept of shared experience is entirely meaningless to them.

3.       “Because you are not affected by this issue now, you obviously never were.”
One of my friends was given a “medical deadline” by his doctor due to the health complications resulting from his excess weight.  He managed to completely change his lifestyle in under five year.  He’s now not only the fittest person I know, but he works as a personal trainer.  He knows the practical, clinical, and emotional implications of being overweight and how to best manage that condition.  He can also give people useful pointers on how to try and resolve it if they so wish.  But no – he now has “thin privilege”, so he is obviously no longer entitled to express or even have an opinion on weight issues.  This makes as much sense as telling a blind person who has recently received a successful eye transplant that they are no longer allowed to engaged in conversations about disabilities.
You may think this Ass-Umption is purely the result of hasty profiling.  However, this is not the case.  Mentioning that you were once affected by an issue but have overcome it, rather than causing these Ass-Hats to back down, generally results in them going completely rabid and jumping right to the next Ass-Umption.

4.       “Because you overcame an issue, you are shaming/blaming those who haven’t.”
There is an issue.  The issue is serious enough that it is responsible for the marginalisation, victimisation and general sufferings of those that it affects; it is serious enough, at any rate, for people to feel the need to engage in fearsome debate about it.  The issue is a problem, affecting lives.  It was affecting yours.  You managed to do something about it.  How very dare you!
Apparently, the moment you overcome an issue you instantly become part of the problem.  You are no longer one of the good people, the marginalised minority; you are now one of “them”.  This is not necessarily linked to the fact that the solution is a limited resource – say, there is only so much money, and in order to gain “rich privilege” you are forcing us all to stay poor.  The “fact” is that your triumph, rather than being encouraging or aspirational, is casting blame and shame, probably with a side dish of worms, upon those who are still suffering.  You should not be proud, or at least relieved, for what you have accomplished.  You should skulk in the shadows forever so that nobody can be oppressed by your success.

5.       “Because you have not affected by an issue, you cannot begin to guess how it feels.”
Let me be lazy, and let Wikipedia do my work for me:
“Empathy is the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions, and direct experience of others. It goes beyond sympathy, which is a feeling of care and understanding for the "feelings" of others.”[2]
Empathy is a key human trait.  In fact, it is so important that lack of empathy is considered both a symptom and a serious difficulty in some individuals on the autistic spectrum or those with certain personality or psychological disorders.  Yet these Ass-Hats completely discount it; does that indicate that they are incapable of it?  If that is the case, I find it worrying.
A corollary of this is “because you have not been affected specifically by this very issue, you cannot transfer your experience of other issues to inform your opinion on it”.  For instance, I have never pushed a wheelchair.  However, I have pushed a double pram.  I have no experience of the access issues that apply to people using wheelchairs; however, I have a ton of experience of the access issues suffered by a ridiculously small and feeble woman trying to push a pram loaded with chubby kids.  Some practical experiences allow us to extrapolate.

6.       “Because you have not affected by an issue, you have nothing useful to say on the subject.”
By this token, doctors should not be able to have an opinion on any disease or conditions that they have not personally suffered from.  Anyone who has a purely technical, professional or rational understanding of a subject without being personally affected by it should shut up and go away.  This has the brilliant result of excluding from debates a whole host of people who may be able to make suggestions on how to make things better.  Apparently to the Ass-Hat that is not a significant problem.

7.       “Because you have not been affected by an issue, you do not care about it.”
Let us talk about me, for a little while.  I am not gay.  I have never been gay.  I do not plan to be gay.  However, I feel passionately about the right of gay people to get married.  Whether they can or can’t does not affect my life at all.  However, just thinking about the fact that people who love each other being prevented from celebrating their love upsets and disgusts me more than I can begin to tell you.  To be brutally honest, it tends to make me cry.
Why do I care so much about gay rights?  I don’t – not a bit.  In fact, I don’t believe there is such a thing as gay rights – we have collectively forgotten that this expression is nothing but shorthand for “human rights that are being denied to gay people”.  This is also true of women rights, racial rights, and the rights of any other group that is being in any way excluded.
I’m a human.  I care about human rights.  I hate to see them denied in any way, shape or form.  If you can’t grasp that concept, I am sorry but there is no help for you.  YOU are the one who believes that the differences created by our gender, sexuality, age, ethnicity, size, etc. are more significant that our common bond as human beings.

8.       “Because you benefit from an unfairness, you are in favour of it and wish to exploit it.”
Just right off the bat, this flies in the face of actual history.  The fact is that most inequalities and discriminations were not overturned by bloody battle.  The oppressed minority did not fight its way to success despite the nasty, mean, oppressive majority.  The suffragettes campaigned, but it was men who voted to give women the vote – women, back then, couldn’t vote to give themselves the vote, because, well, they didn’t have the vote.  Suffrage was entirely enacted by men.  Women could have railed in the streets forever and nobody had to do anything beyond going “yes, dear, that’s lovely.  Please try not to get arrested until after you’ve made my tea.”
Just because someone belongs to a majority, it does not mean that they support the oppression of a minority.  Just because someone is, for whatever reasons, better off than you, it does not mean that they want to use that fact to hurt you.

9.       “Because you truly do not understand a single thing about this issue, you should be excluded from conversations about it.”
“Let them eat cake” is the sentence commonly misattributed to Marie Antoinette, Queen of France[3].  Regardless of its historical accuracy, it is the perfect example of clueless privilege – a privilege so big that the person enjoying it has no understanding of what “real life” is like.
This sort of people can be very frustrating to deal with, that’s undeniable.  Having a notorious lack of patience, I am routinely tempted to whack their heads into the nearest hard object just to see if I can knock some sense into them.  However, being clueless does not mean that the person is unwilling or incapable of learning about the subject.  In fact, they may want to know more about it – maybe, just maybe, that is why they have entered the conversation in the first place.  Telling them to shut up and go away is unlikely to make them more informed.  And maybe, just maybe, the result of our education will be that they will be on our side.  Can we afford to waste allies?

10.   “You are guilty of everything that anyone “like you” ever did.”
Under this Ass-Umption, anyone born within a certain group, with certain privileges, is guilty of the past, present and future sins of the entire group.
For instance, you happen to be born a man.  You have had absolutely no say in this.  You have also have absolutely no say in what other men have done in the past, are doing in the present, and will do in the future.  The only actions you can control are your own.  None of those facts matters in the least to this breed of Ass-Hat - you are male, hence you are guilty, by birth, of every bad thing every bad man ever did.
The extreme form of Ass-Umption causes the sufferer to spout broad-sweeping, factually incorrect, and deeply offensive statements, such as “all men are rapists”.  I do not know if this is a reflection of a severe and possibly incurable case of rectocranial inversion, or whether it is a true reflection of these people’s situation.  If the latter, hell, they are welcome to stay at my place as long as they need to; wherever it is that they live, that place really sucks.[4]
-          -      -

“We need to talk about privilege”.  Yes, we do.  Privilege causes people to be marginalised, excluded, dismissed and oppressed, because people use the word as a weapon.  Claim that someone has a “privilege” that affects a certain issue, and you are apparently given the power to take away their right to state an opinion on that issue, or even to have an opinion on that issue.  You give yourself the right to shut them up and shut them out.  If they do not comply, you give yourself the right to accuse and vilify them.

The bottom line is that discounting someone’s argument purely “because it is them saying it”, which is the operative system here, is neither big nor clever.  It does not show discernment.  It is frankly irrational, as well as rather uncivil.  You are purely suffering from a bad case of ad hominem fallacy, and it’s showing.[5]  I’m sorry to say it, but you are being a Righteous Ass-Hat.

Now, if you are involved in a private or restricted conversation and someone tries to butt in, by all means let them know that they are not welcome.  Whether at a coffee house or on a specific internet forum, you have the right to restrict who you want to talk to.  In a public setting, however, people have a right to state their opinion.  If you give yourself the right to shut someone up “because they have privilege”, what you are doing is giving yourself a privilege – that of controlling participation in a public dialogue on the basis of arbitrary standards and often a heap of assumptions.  The definition of privilege is “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.”[6]  Its origin is from the Latin “privilegium”, essentially meaning “private law”.  It is beyond the ironic that a concept originally designed to highlight existing discriminations for the purpose of helping to fight them should be used to create a whole new one. 

[1] And were called “breeders”, which, in the context of a campaign against discrimination on the basis of sexual preferences, is just peachy.
[4] As an aside, if you are prone to making such accusations and find yourself less than popular with the group you are accusing, you might need to do some thinking.  You may want to ponder the possibility that their behaviour towards you is a function of the way you are treating them, rather than proof that they are mean, nasty people.


Parker Westbrook said...

This is a great post.

draspirinkid said...

For me, your best blog to date. Sublime.

Denton said...

And people wonder why I pray for an asteroid strike...