Of late I have noticed a disturbing trend in discussions where parties invoke privilege as a trump card which has the power to nullify the arguments of any person who doesn’t meet a certain criteria of disenfranchised pedigree.
“Here we go, another bitter men’s rights/white rights advocate.”
Sure, if you want to look at things reductively like that then so be it, but know that you are part of the problem I am trying to draw attention to.
The premise of privilege is that the straight, white, non-handicapped male…
…is the most heard from, listened to, demographic in the Western World and as such, he should shut up and give everyone else a chance to talk. Failing that, he should at least say things that don’t exacerbate the disenfranchisement of various minorities. At face value, this seems like an appreciably good idea; certainly I know a lot of people, many of whom are straight/white/male, who say shit that is limited by their own experiential biases and who don’t really try and empathize with those outside of their demographic. Could these people benefit from saying a little less? Well, yes of course, as much as anyone could, but I guess I’m dissatisfied with how this idea of privilege manifests on the back end.
You see by definition it takes someone without privilege or with less privilege to arbitrate what those with (more) privilege are tastefully allowed to say (because someone with privilege couldn’t possibly empathize with a fellow human being). And since the arbiters of what is PC/appropriate/sensitive are fallible human beings as well, there is far too much temptation to abuse the trump card that is privilege and thus void all the arguments of the person they are engaging with, no matter how logical those arguments, on the grounds of artificial constructs. This allows people to hold on to ideas past the point of reason simply because challenging said ideas becomes unpopular. It’s like an unlimited credit card for an intellectual materialist and frankly, it’s a little disingenuous.
Also, there is an explicit element of mystification in how I have seen the concept of privilege handled. Since as a straight, white, male (an identity which for the record I try to avoid claiming for myself because it separates me from other human beings) I simply “don’t get it,” and thus I am forced to rely on a priest-caste of “less-privileged” groups to reveal some arcane truth to me like in one of the great mystery religions. But like a Scientologist who has shelled out thousands of dollars and spent years of his life in study only to finally have the anti-climactic gospel (ALEINS! [sic.]) revealed to him, the truth is simple. Disappointingly so.
As a student of history (like, as in an actual degree holder…which is great in case I ever run out of TP), not only do I not deny atrocities and hardships faced by women, non-whites, etc. but I also try and view them in a broader sense as outgrowths of various socio-economic systems which were conducive to violence. And what was the common denominator in all socio-economic systems which predated our own? Scarcity, or at least the ever-present looming threat of it. Shit son, you don’t even gotta have an edumucation to see that; we have no record of a time when there was ever a universal, perpetual abundance for all. And in the current socio-economic model is it really so different? I’m not really a statistics guy, but its something like a billion people don’t have access to clean water and 3.5 billion (or half the world’s pop.) is living in poverty. So yeah, scarcity is still alive and kicking.
But what does economics have to do with privilege? Well, as I have maintained in the past, racial, sexual and gender and differences serve as convenient dotted lines to cut along when you want to divide people and consolidate power by creating an “other” to unite against in conditions of scarcity. Power consolidation, which is a required aspect of the gaming strategy integral to surviving in the competitive economy which rose up in conditions of scarcity, underlies all so-called “atrocities” which have been since painted with a thick veneer or racism, sexism, jingoism and others.
“War is merely the continuation of politics by other means”
-Carl von Clausewitz
“Politics is merely the continuation of economics by other means.”
-Michael C. Ruppert
And herein lies my biggest problem with the concept of privilege; in no way does it address the structural mechanisms which cause and exacerbate the historical violence which has been done to under-privileged groups. Rather, the privilege argument assumes scarcity as a pre-condition of existence and simply demands more for the historically maligned which necessarily equates to less for the historical “maligners.” An apt metaphor would be fighting for more scraps from the table rather than trying to create a seat at the table for all.
And I’m not even gonna get into the fact that in Eastern Europe, Russia and the United States, there are straight white males, ostensibly members of the privileged class, who are either starving or food insecure. We clearly need a solution which is inclusive of all people, rather than just assumes, “hey you look like an oppressor so surely you must be doing ok.”
Of course there is a caveat to what I am saying, and it is those situations where gender, race & sexuality expertise is completely valid. Example, this May I will be portraying a gay male drag queen in a web series. Great! I hope I yield a performance which the gay drag community approves of. But what the actual fuck do I know about being a drag queen? Not a damn thing. So I will be looking to find a drag queen to hang out with, and study from prior to the shoot. I acknowledge that this gay male drag queen is probably expert on the topic of being a drag queen, but I don’t think he will necessarily be more or less expert than me on the human experience based simply on his historically under-privileged sexuality. Nor will he, by virtue of the fact that he likes men and dresses like women have a grasp of the structural causes of violence inherent in our socio-economic system unless he has devoted some thought and study to it.
However, by hanging out with him a curious thing might happen: empathy.
MIND = BLOWN
Sure he’s just a hypothetical drag queen now and as such pretty hard to relate to, but as I get to know him a little better I’ll see commonality and similarity I never saw before and see him as more like me than a cursory, superficial glance might have indicated. Any constructed line drawn between his gayness and my straightness would dissolve and be seen for what it always was; an artificial boundary.
The privilege argument seeks to formalize boundaries and identities which only serve to obfuscate the truth about how similar we all are. By accepting identification as a member of a disenfranchised group, an individual accepts ownership of resentment and the honor neurosis, and is primed to become indignant due to perceived offences from those not identifiable as part of THEIR tribe.
“The things you own end up owning you.” -Tyler Durden, Fight Club
To me it’s simple: relinquish ownership of cultural, racial, and gender legacies which carry with them resentment that you don’t need in your life. It’s baggage you don’t need, like the hoarders on the reality tripe I don’t watch. If you must identify, choose an identity that is inclusive of all peoples. Personally, I opt to identify as a human being,** but certainly there are other identifiers which would function just as adequately.
Ultimately, it’s the othering we need to get away from; the othering that makes us clamor for retributive punishment for a transgressor, the othering that makes us cheer when we hear a “bad guy” got killed, the othering that makes brother kill brother in a civil war. Guess what?; they’re ALL ‘CIVIL’ WARS.
To be clear, I don’t deny that certain segments of the population have had a harder go at life than others, but I can’t co-sign issuing redress along the same bigoted lines that were used as avenues of disenfranchisement. Maybe that’s my privilege talking, but the handy thing my privilege has afforded me is that I don’t see any groups as my enemy. Rather we’re all brothers and sisters, human beings, living souls.
Let’s start acting like it.
*As a rule, I am against sensitivity and other people’s threshold for being offended being the limiter of what can be said.
Obviously this isn’t a license to be a complete dick and say things simply to offend, but if there is a point to be made, make it. Just be willing to stand by it and defend it, remaining open to the possibility that you might have to recant, modify or alter that point if new evidence is presented.
**I realize that this identification will prove to be limited once the ALEINS make first contact. Also, the film, Earthlings makes a compelling case for why identifying as a human being even at this point in time might be a little reductive, given all the different forms of life on this planet.