Saturday, 26 June 2010

On privilege

I’m a big fan of the theory of privilege (if you don’t know what it is, look it up. And this may still not be the post for you). As a model, it makes a lot of sense. I see it playing out in the real world all the time. It gives a direction with which everyone- privileged and unprivileged, can start to understand why we’re not a fair society.

However, I’m also a big fan of the meta-theory that models can never be true, only useful. The privilege model is an incredibly useful model. But I see problems when it is seen as not just useful, but true.

I’ll list some examples so we’re not just into theoretics. Bisexual people often experience various shades of biphobia from gay people. Often, this is justified by privilege. Bisexual people have straight privilege, therefore it’s impossible for them to need the protection of their identity that gay people need, goes the theory. I’ve heard something similar happens between Asian and black people in Usian racial dynamics, but couldn’t comment from personal experience.
It gets even more muddy when you rigidly apply the privilege criteria to transpeople. Especially transwomen, here are women who’s privilege (as biologically men) was the very cause of their non-privilege (as trans-people). Ensue not just transphobia but also transmisogyny. I believe it also works the other way, with transmen being disapproved of by some feminists (as well as the status quo) by trying to ‘claim privilege’ that is outside of their rights.

So these examples, as you can tell, are all very much from what I’ve read on the internet, and little from personal experience. Sorry if I’ve oversimplified (which I undoubtedly have) or got anything wrong. The main example I can see in my own life, as a male feminist, is the way the model of privilege is (ab)used in feminism. To an extent, it is incredibly useful. There’s a whole range of privileges men have that need to be recognised as privilege. I’m thinking higher wages, the right to a reasonably unjudged, autonomous sexuality and appearance, the right to see themselves in the media not as clichéd stereotypes, the right to basically assume you’re not going to give up your job to look after your children, the list goes on and on. But this creates a very gender essentialist outlook. Feminism can and should be incredibly useful for men, too. Not just pulling them down, but broadening their prospects, too. And when it becomes a case of beating the nasty men, well, do you really think you’re going to win? Remember all that privilege they have. All you’re doing is pointing at the nasty men and saying “That’s what all men are. Nasty!” And then more men are nasty because it is seen as one of the defining things of being a man, and then you really are stuck in a war against lots of nasty men, and you will lose! And they will lose!
When what men really needed was the freedom to break the bounds, to be whatever they wanted to be within their gender. When you’re busy breaking down gender stereotypes for women and building them up for men, the net result is just more gender stereotypes.
The idea that men are nothing more than walking bags of privilege, when applied universally and without discrimination, ignores the very real gender stereotypes that men, too, are forced into, the very real harms that are persecuted against men by the patriarchy.

So, yeah. Privilege. That’s what I was meant to be writing about. It annoys me when ideas of privilege are taken as if they were laws of physics, like the laws of thermodynamics. So you have rules like “An unprivileged person cannot have privilege against a privileged person,” a rule which is true, but misleading. Particularly annoying when you assume that there are no closed systems. As in, when one person would have privilege globally, that person automatically always has privilege, even if they’re in a country, room, or other closed system where they might seem (if replicated on a global scale) non-privileged. To take a fictitious (and thus hopefully non-divisive) example, the Ancient Greek men who lived in fear of abduction and torture by the Amazons* probably weren’t especially pleased because, in terms of the world or country as a whole, men had privilege. They lived in a closed system where men very much didn’t have privilege. In fact, the very fact that they were in the privileged group probably added to their lack of privilege, making people simultaneously believe that they were too weak to be men and strong enough that they could never be truly victimised because, well, they’re privileged.

Ok, ignore the complicated mythological situation for a moment and look at the sentence before. The one that starts “When one person would have privilege...” That’s what’s wrong with the way the notion of privilege is used. That it forces otherwise reasonable people to use sentences like that. I’ve seen people having whole arguments in which both sides have to refer some holy ‘Laws of Privilege’ to make a point.

This is sociology, people! It’s not physics. Physics can be neat and mathematical and logical, but this is the way people live. It needs common sense. It needs analysis that can be, if it needs to be, truly independent of the buzz-words. It doesn’t obey rules and is dirty and messy and incomprehensible. Remember what we were searching for when we started using the word privilege? Remember why we like it so much? It was a quest for empathy, for new ways of looking at things. Sometimes, we need empathy, new ways of looking at things. Sometimes, the model of privilege just gets in the way of that, and that’s when we should quietly put it on one side for later, not try to force it in a space it won’t go.

So this wasn’t a discussion of a/sexuality and gender, as I promised you in a side-bar that is, as you read this, probably way up above you. It’s something that’s been cooped up inside me, as I read various things, for a while. Judging by the effortless length, I didn’t realise how much this did mean to me.
But this is one of those things that I really want to say before we get into the proper discussions of sexuality and gender. As a person who’s basically privileged in every way, I want to articulate this as pure theory, because I’m going to need it if I ever take that step to call someone out on it. I needed to write this before too long, because I thought it needed to be said. In the space in my own head, at least, and I tend to think of this blog as an extension of that.

More flippant asexy posts soon? I hope so too.

*a mythical tribe of women in Ancient Greece who abducted, tortured and often killed (as far as I can remember, I may have my fake facts completely wrong) the menfolk near them.


  1. Interesting read even though I didn't entirely get all of it -that's not you though, I'm just tired.

    I wasn't entirely clear on the priveleged transwomen bit - I tried to reread it a couple of times but I feel a bit dense. Can anyone explain that to me more simply?

    Also, I wanted to draw attention to a series of videos on YouTube by a 'masculinist' from the father's rights movement, talking about female privilege and misandry, he goes by the username manwomanmyth (I think he has a website under the same name), and be interested to know what other people think about his arguments - I thought he made some valid points at first but then I started to see what I thought was a biological essentialism in those arguments (men ARE this or that, women ARE this or that other thing). I'd love to hear your thoughts on it :D


  2. I think the idea behind the privileged transwoman bit was that transwoman are born in bodies which are recognized as male, and thus male privilege is conferred onto them, but because they're women being recognized as men is not actually beneficial.

  3. @ Rebekah

    Ahhh, ok, now I get it. Cheers for that :)

  4. liminalD, yeah, basically, what Rebekah said.

    Masculinism is something I avoid at all costs. I've not seen the guy you're referring to, but he sounds incredibly typical.
    The problem is that there are an awful lot of problems for men in the current system. Some of these are problems that feminism is dealing with, some that I wish it took more seriously ('father's rights' and gendered parenting being one example). Masculinism has a theoretical place. But in the same way that, say, the transgender rights movement tries to work with the gay rights movement, men's rights movements need to work with women's rights movements, when they just seem to be trying to drag them down, often working on a 'tit for tat' system where they assume that they need to destroy the work of feminism (ie. restore things to the good old days). In fact, if you go to the blog I've linked to in the above post, you'll find whole lists of ways in which men's rights activists make things worse for men, as well as women, in doing nothing more than encouraging the old stereotypes.

    That's (sorry, but you did ask) my short view of MRAs. My longer view of MRAs is much longer, more fun, and has more expletives.