In comments to my statistical proof that Game of Thrones is misogynist, Jamie tells me that I am viewing the world through the lens of “privilege,” and thus unable to properly understand the seriousness of certain issues. There is of course a grain of truth to this idea, that living in a certain privileged environment can make one blind to the full nuances of life as someone else, and to the extent that the word “privilege” or phrases like “blinded by privilege” can be used to describe this situation, I think they are useful rhetorical devices. But scan any feminist blog today – Feministing, or Pandagon, or Shakesville, for example – and you’ll see lots of examples of arguments being shut down and opposing opinions invalidated through the invocation of “privilege.” For example, at the “feminism 101″ page on Shakesville, itself a loathsomely sexist blog (though the authors can’t see it) we get lots of invocation of privilege in quite negative and almost mystical terms. Consider “On Privilege Breeding Insecurity” (emphasis in the original):
Insight isn’t the only thing that undiluted privilege doesn’t freely give its members; it also robs them of an internal, dignified security that isn’t predicated on treating rights as a zero-sum game. Every layer of privilege serves as proxy for the self-assurance hard-won by struggling to be proud despite one’s marginalization. Privilege tells its members they need not reflect, or justify, or earn, or question. They needn’t even bother themselves with the business of being good, because unexamined privilege assures them they are good, by virtue of their privilege.
Not only is this a remorselessly negative view of modern men, but it clearly contains the germ of a rhetorical strategy of ignoring other people’s point of view and setting up levels of “privilege” that you can choose to ignore. Of course, it’s written by an American, which means it’s written by one of the most privileged people on earth, whose entire way of life depends on the huge economic inequality between her country and the rest of the world. Yet … I’m sure she’d object to being told that her “hard-won” self-assurance was actually a windfall due to an accident of her birth. It’s kind of like being a man, really, isn’t it? And see here’s the great thing about the argument from “privilege”: Shakesville’s author can claim that she understands the situation of people in the developing world – maybe she’ll even claim that her own underprivileged position gives her useful insights – and that her opinions about what people in the developing world should do and think are valid; but the child labourer from India can just tell her that she’s talking from a privileged position and doesn’t know anything, really. And what can she say back? It’s a perfect argument – if you want to stifle debate. Not so useful if you think that the free exchange of ideas might help everyone to progress to a world without inequality.
In my opinion, then, this concept of “privilege” as deployed in the feminist blogosphere is deeply counter-productive: it has limited analytical power; it reduces structural discrimination to simple personal politics; and it is founded on the gender essentialism that pervades radical feminism, which is itself a tactic aimed at establishing a new, privileged form of rhetoric.
The limited analytic power of “privilege” rhetoric
The very last time I involved myself in a political struggle was a student occupation a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I was not a student at the time – I had completed my Masters of Public Health and was working full time as a researcher in a health centre for extremely marginalized members of the community (who themselves could show astoundingly regressive racist and sexist beliefs). I just turned up with a few mates to help out with the occupation. More fool me. Near the end of my day of “helping,” as my stomach was sinking at the site of what a shambolic and useless demonstration it was turning into, I found myself standing in a ring of students, who were being given instructions by one of the demonstration’s organizers. At this time I was in my mid twenties, kickboxing maybe 2-3 times a week, and hadn’t yet discovered fashion. So there I was in a flannelette shirt and skintight black jeans, hair shaved, tanned from bike riding and generally in fairly good physical condition. The organizer went around the ring of students asking each in turn to go to their university and organize as many students as possible to come to the occupation. Then she came to me, took one look at me and said “I want you go to your technical college and see if you can get us any help.” That’s right, she thought simply by looking at my clothing that I was not a university student.
This woman was so “blinded” by her own “privilege” that she couldn’t comprehend that someone from a working class or lumpen proletarian background could even be at university. This is a remarkably naive attitude for a person in Australia in the 1990s, when lots of people from that background were easily able to get into university if they studied hard. But it showed what a bubble she lived in. So whose privilege was working against whose here, and which one trumps which in the woe is me stakes? Me the professional man still not yet out of my working class cultural heritage, or her the wealthy woman? Obviously I was no longer in the class of my origins – as a researcher I had moved up to middle class – but the attitude she was showing to me is exactly the attitude that now, as a professional adult, she will be showing to little 18 year old versions of me that she meets, working class men and women whose futures are extremely vulnerable to small flexings of the muscles of the privileged upper classes. So in amongst this complex mess of privilege – of age and wealth vs. masculinity – which one should we decide holds the whip hand? And in making that decision, have we actually added anything to our understanding of the best methods for undoing the inequality that plagues our societies?
In my estimation, we’re much better off ignoring people’s origins, and talking about the structural factors that determine inequality. As someone from a working class family who found out what university was at the age of 16, moved to his university with precisely $300 to his name ($250 for student fees!) and has never received a cent from either of his parents since he turned 16, but who watches his friends have their houses bought for them by rich parents, I feel that the inequality in access to capital is a much, much more serious factor in determining life futures than, say, the fact that one of those friends had never had a friend who paid their own fees before he met me. How does discussion of the role of people’s privilege in personal interactions change anything for people from my background? Reducing political disagreements to nasty personal judgments about your interlocutor’s emotional attitude to you won’t help working class women get access to childcare, but it will distract everyone from the structural factors that govern inequality.
The reduction of structural discrimination to personal politics
This concept of “privilege” also enables “anti-racists” and feminists to be self-congratulatory even as they’re saying or doing enormously racist and sexist things – because they themselves aren’t from a background of “privilege” so everything they do must obviously be in solidarity with the world’s victims. Right? Try telling yourself that next time you drink a cup of coffee during a debate about inequality, and think about where that coffee came from. The best example of this that I can think of is Pandagon, which is a nest of accusations and co-accusations of privilege. I was banned from Pandagon for challenging one of the team’s racist assumptions about Japanese Otaku culture. The very next comment after my banning was a crude joke by that same team member about the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. I guess, if you’re a black man from the wrong side of the tracks, your lack of “privilege” means you can make cruel jokes about a whole race of people that your country once nuked. Pandagon also used to host a commenter called Gilmar, who was a soldier who spent several years in Iraq. She was very fond of throwing out accusations of privilege, but the sparks really would fly if you pointed out the hypocrisy of a member of an occupying army complaining about their own oppression. Now, it may be that she thinks the war in Iraq is justified, but there are about 2 million Iraqi refugees (and a million dead) who might like to disagree; by her own lights, rather than engaging with her in a debate about the relative merits of liberal interventionism, they can just say “you’re blinded by privilege!” and there goes the argument. Unless she wants to claim that a female soldier in the US army from a poor background has less privilege than one of the civilian victims of that army. And maybe she could – some of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib were gang leaders, no doubt, or colonels in a sexist society, etc. So the argument cycles back to a debate about who is blinder to whose circumstances, while the war grinds on and grinds over the little people.
I think identity politics has its place in political discourse and can form an important narrative tool, as well as a rallying point in struggles for equality. For example, if your inequality exists purely because of some identifiable aspect of who you are – your skin colour or sexuality – then solutions to that problem must necessarily distinguish between people on the basis of that identity. But that doesn’t mean identity politics is always and everywhere right or useful, and the big problem of modern identity politics American-style is that it reduces every political discussion to a debate about individuals’ characteristics and problems and conflicts, rather than to a discussion of the social and structural determinants of inequality. I don’t care how blind person X is to the problems of person Y, if person X doesn’t engage in or facilitate structural barriers to person Y living their life as they want. Sure, it might mean that person X doesn’t understand person Y’s predicament, but who cares, so long as person Y’s predicament gets fixed?
There are issues of course where individuals react against perceived reverse discrimination, where this blindness may have political consequences (e.g. backlashes against positive discrimination). But responding to that by accusations of “privilege” blinding the objector isn’t going to work: not only will they object to their own compassion being questioned, but it’s likely that they have their own experience of discrimination and barriers, and this will lead to the unedifying prospect of mud being slung between the people at the bottom. This is why conservative campaigns against things like positive discrimination and welfare tend to be aimed at the Tory working class – because they are going to be least favourable to others getting a leg up, through their own experience of discrimination. Telling them they don’t get it because their experience is just not so bad both impugns their compassion, undermines any class solidarity one might be aiming to try and achieve, and just generally sets them on edge. Better than saying “you don’t get it because you’re more privileged than me” is to explain your program to them. And if you can’t convince them of the merits of your program, then maybe your program isn’t good for them, in which case regardless of your relative degrees of privilege, they will oppose it.
The most obvious example of this is the inequality between nations. It’s in the best interests of the majority of the developing world to see major changes in the way the world order works. If these changes were implemented fully, the readers of Pandagon would have to pay considerably more for many of the resources they take for granted. Strangely enough, they seem to be more focused on domestic issues. One could claim that this is because they are blind to the suffering of the developing world, but more likely it’s because they don’t particularly want to overturn a world order that works just fine for them… but by ranting on about the privilege of white upper class cisgenders they can escape the extra bit of self-reflection required to at least have the decency to feel guilty about posting blog comments on a phone made at FoxConn.
Gender essentialism and the language of “privilege”
A more sinister aspect of this concept of “privilege” that I find annoying is its assumption of some heirarchy of troubles, and its lack of interest in the overlapping problems of class, culture, gender and sexual identity. Thus we find ourselves trapped in fine-grained debate about who is more privileged – a straight-acting white gay male or a working class white woman vs. a wealthy lesbian professional vs. a rich, white, heterosexual female student. But underlying a lot of this debate in the feminist blogosphere is the idea that gender trumps the lot and sexism lies at the base of all the other forms of discrimination. There’s a strong streak of gender essentialism in this notion that we can boil down all inequalities and social conflicts to a root cause of discrimination against women, and whether it’s expressed in the astringent language of radical feminism or the more eloquent and allegorical just-so stories of ecofeminism, we still end up with this unknowable and unchangeable root-causes theory driving our understanding of who is in a worse situation than who. Alternatively, unable to comprehend the complexities of intersectoral discrimination, these bloggers find themselves constantly treading on each other’s toes: in this debate you can’t disagree with my opinion because you aren’t disabled; in this debate the key dimension of privilege is gender, so how much really would race or class affect that fundamental dimension? Of course, women are always and everywhere discriminated against, so they can always defend themselves against claims of privilege.
We see this at its most unedifying in two issues: whether to include transgender women in safe spaces; and how to respond politically to lesbian B&D. The latter has received some awful criticism from radical feminists, which makes it clear how uninterested they are in including certain forms of sexual identity in their big tent. It’s okay to be asexual, apparently, but not to be a masochist lest you reproduce patriarchal relations in your lesbian bedroom. And transgenders retain the privileged perspective of men, because women have a special, innate experience that no one else can understand. This kind of logic is poisonous for any shared understanding of the human condition, and destructive of attempts to find shared ground.
Talking about “privilege” as a reason why people disagree with you or don’t understand you doesn’t get you anywhere. At best, it reduces argument to a debate about lifestyles and identities – the Americanization of political debate. At worst, it alienates your interlocutor and blinds both you and them to the very real common ground you might be able to find in the struggle to make the world a better place. Political disempowerment and inequality is as much about structural causes and social constructions that we have no choice but to participate in as it is about individual reactions to “the other,” and reducing all disagreements and social conflicts to the latter leaves us trapped in an essentialist bind – we’re all caught up in our own identities, which are at war with each other. In fact those socio-cultural and economic causes can be changed, if we work together and try to understand each other. But the language of “privilege” assumes that we can’t – that a rich boy can’t conceive of how terrible it can be to be raped, or that a poor white woman will never understand that fat black lesbian’s struggle, no matter how much she tries. It’s prescriptive in that it fixes our response to discrimination in our identity, and restrictive in that it doesn’t give credit to the ability of our common human condition to overwhelm our differences, even where those differences are manufactured and enforced by potentially monolithic structural power relations. Bashing identities together atomizes and disrupts the struggle; seeking common ground and solutions that don’t rely on breaking down other people’s identities is much more likely to work. So ditch the language of “privilege” – if someone disagrees with you, it’s probably because they’ve thought about your position and they think you’re wrong, not because they can’t see things your way because they aren’t a transgender Vampire:The Masquerade player.
fn1: Yeah, this was an “organizer” of this demonstration, didn’t even have contact details for other university unions when they decided to get physical with their own university’s property. How would that work out if you did it in latin America in the 80s?