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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Please, sir -- could I have some more equality?

On FB, my friend K. linked to an interesting piece called "The Distress of the Privileged." My initial reaction was to roll my eyes at the title, but I read it, knowing that this friend is not usually on the side of the assholes. It turned out to be a thoughtful take on responding to those feeling what the author calls "privileged distress." Muder's piece is an attempt to articulate how one might deal compassionately with those reeling from the loss (or, more often, the questioning) of their privilege, without lessening the importance of the justice due those harmed by the privilege in question. "Confronting this distress is tricky," writes Muder, "because neither acceptance nor rejection is quite right." It is, as I said, a thoughtful piece, perhaps insightful on the mental state of those thrown of balance by the tectonic shifts of the world around them, or the shaking up of the things they thought were solid ground.

It took me a while to figure out what it was about the piece that made me uncomfortable, but I eventually did. It is thoughtful and it is generous: to be honest, I feel like the generosity is at least a little bit misguided.

At the very least, there's a distinction that needs to be made, between those who "uncritically accept" their privileged role, and those who actively work to maintain it. In the former case, I am more than willing to espouse the virtues of dialogue, and the attempt to reason. If someone simply hasn't thought things through in a careful way, I think it is crucial to try to help them do so. Ignorance is not a character flaw. But, if you refuse to think critically, to listen, to engage, then you have actively refused to participate in dialogue, or to reason. Ignorance may not be a character flaw, but I believe that willful ignorance is.

Muder speaks of the danger of an implacable resentment on the part of the dis-privileged, but says nothing of even the possibility of an implacable sense of entitlement on the part of the privileged. He writes that "it never works to ask others for empathy without offering it back to them," but he seems only to be writing that to those he sees as needing to "win over" the privileged. The message seems to be that the dis-privileged must meet the privileged in the proverbial middle, taking care to coax them gently into non-hegemony in a way that makes them comfortable and soothes their wounded psyches. 

Now, one problem here is that meeting in the middle only works if the middle is actually where we should be. Consider the current national discourses on climate change and evolution. If what you're saying is counter-factual, meeting you halfway is a mistake. In terms of privilege, if I say "we need to level the playing field," and you say, "I'm used to being at the top of a mountain -- how about we just make it a smaller mountain," then you're still privileged, and I'm still fighting an uphill battle. That may be an example of compromise, but it's not really justice, which, as Muder points out, is what's at stake.

But, even more than this, I believe that there is a real and significant injustice in expecting people to ask nicely that someone stop hating, oppressing, or otherwise mistreating them.

As someone in the comments pointed out, "allies" (those invited to the Muder's proverbial party, but sympathetic to the concerns of those excluded from it) may be able to ask nicely, to supportively validate the good-personhood of those peers they hope to persuade to more enlightened treatment of their friends outside. But they're able to do that because they're at the party. They stand shoulder to shoulder with the privileged group -- they're not being directly threatened or hurt by the inequality in question. The fact that they're on the same level makes them well-placed to offer a supportive shoulder to those for whom the world seems suddenly incoherent or antagonistic, even as they attempt to persuade them of the error of their ways. But, while those struggling to gain full recognition of their human dignity *may* be generous enough to attempt to rehabilitate those who have denied it, to insist that they must be, or even always *can* be, is to claim yet another unwarranted privilege.

If you refuse to acknowledge an inequality that diminishes my personhood, it is not my job to preserve your positive self-image. If you are working to maintain a status quo that denies my full and foundational human dignity or threatens my well being, I shouldn't be expected to care about winning you over, or to try and lessen your feelings of disorientation when I defend myself. I should only be expected to care that you immediately stop diminishing my personhood, denying my dignity, or threatening my well being, regardless of whether or not you've been won over or convinced of my full humanity. If we're all at the party, and we're standing side by side, perhaps we can have a mutually open-minded and sympathetic conversation. But, if you've got your foot on my neck, you can't reasonably expect me to care if my throwing you off upsets your balance.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, this. It's really the tone argument, which is an absurd thing and very much the assertion of privilege in itself. (Which is something I hadn't quite articulated, so thank you.)