Search This Blog

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Terms of engagement

A privilege is a special advantage available to some, and not to others. Having a privilege is not inherently bad or good. I love king cake, and had the privilege of being in New Orleans during king cake season (aka Mardi Gras). That privilege is inconsequential to some, and makes others a bit jealous. I'm not a bad person for being in New Orleans, or for loving king cake, or for eating it when I could, and those poor souls who love king cake, but couldn't get any, are not bad people because they missed out. Though they might be sad people. Sad, king-cake-less people. But some privileges are much more substantial than access to delicious baked goods. It may not be such a big deal if I joke about the fact that not everyone who wants king cake can have it, but shouldn't it be a big deal if I joke about the fact that one group has the special advantage of full human dignity, while another does not?

Of Dogs and Lizards: A Parable of Privilege is an excellent explanation of privilege, its perks, and its pitfalls. It's fairly brief, and also funny—if you haven't already read it, it’s worth checking out!

So, a person is not inherently good or bad because they have, or do not have, a privilege. But privilege is real, and it is relevant. And privilege does become a bad thing when we use it -- whether consciously or unconsciously -- to ignore real problems because they happen not to be problems for us. Here are a few real problems I've seen people (mostly men) ignore in the last few days:

Sexism is prejudice or discrimination based on sex or stereotypes based on sex. (Because of a traditional conflation of sex and gender, we also often use sexism to describe what might more accurately be called "genderism.") Sexism is also the network of behaviors and attitudes that encourage and protect sex and gender based stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination. "Small" examples of sexism -- which are usually only small to those who have the privilege of being unaffected by them -- are a part of that larger network of behaviors and attitudes. Sexism is not just prejudice, etc against women, but power is also real, and it is relevant: by and large, men continue to wield more power, to make more money (we're at about .80 on the dollar these days), and to exercise more influence than women in almost all spheres of American culture, despite the fact that women are just a teensy bit over half of the American population. Sexism doesn't just mean discrimination, etc. against women, but a very real power imbalance in favor of men means that the effects of sexism aimed at women (usually by men), have been magnified and institutionalized. Those effects are pervasive, and firmly entrenched. And they pose a real threat to real women's well being. Even so-called-small instances of sexism against women feed into this very large and very real problem.

Misogyny literally means "hatred of women," but is most often used to denote a negative attitude towards women as a group. It may include any number of negative attitudes or behaviors towards women -- from active discrimination against them, to actual aggression and violence towards them (in common usage, misogyny often suggests hostility, which may be more or less direct/overt), to glib dismissiveness of them (and their concerns, opinions, etc).

And, yes, there is a corollary (misandry), but again, power is real, and it is relevant.

If you have the privilege (see above) of being immune to the negative effects of misogyny, you're probably a man. It's not a bad thing that you're a man, and it's not really a bad thing that you're immune to those negative effects. But it is a bad thing when you refuse to hear and engage with the concerns of those who *are* negatively affected by misogyny. It is a bad thing when you refuse to acknowledge misogyny, or its negative effects, simply because misogyny does not negatively affect you.

Cultural hegemony is a form of domination in which a group imposes their norms on a wider society, making specific, culturally created, and avoidable thoughts and behaviors that benefit the dominant group seem universal, natural, and inevitable. One of many effects of cultural hegemony is that the group(s) being dominated internalize the values of the group doing the dominating. How does this relate to this discussion? Well, it means that "this woman laughed, so it must not be misogynist" is not actually a sound defense strategy.

An ally is one in helpful association or support with another. For example: men who think it's important to speak out against misogyny, or straight people who think it's important to speak out in favor of equal rights for LGBT people.

A bully is an aggressive or overbearing person who badgers, intimidates, browbeats, or otherwise attempts to overpower others, especially those perceived as weaker.

Bonus term: microaggressions. Microaggressions are the little everyday indignities that communicate and reinforce negative (derogatory, dismissive, hostile, discriminatory, etc) attitudes about a person or a group. Microaggressions are brief, casual interactions (comments, images, etc) that subtly remind someone that they are considered less-than. These are often unconsciously done -- the microaggressor may not intend to cause hurt, or to reinforce harmful ideas -- and an individual instance of microaggressions may seem to many like "no big deal." But imagine the effect of a pin-prick. Now imagine the effect of a dozen pin-pricks. Now imagine getting at least a dozen pin-pricks everyday, sometimes from a source you expect, sometimes from a source that you don't expect, sometimes from a stranger, sometimes from a friend...those pin-pricks add up. You can read more about microaggressions, and see more specific examples of them here --> The Microaggressions Project.

A couple of important side notes:
Human minds are fascinatingly complex. One can have a negative opinion of a larger group and still have positive interactions with particular people in that group. This is often, though not always, made possible by the feeling that a particular person is special, or somehow not like the larger group to which they belong -- smarter, stronger, better, prettier, etc. But, the fact that one does not *always* act in problematic ways does not mean that one *never* acts in problematic ways. And it doesn't mean that one's beliefs are never problematic. This is why it's important to listen when someone says that you've said or done something hurtful. You may not have meant to be hurtful, but that doesn't mean that you weren't.

It's also important to note that pointing out that someone has said or done something *-ist (sexist, misogynist, racist, etc) is not the same as saying that they are *-ist. (See Jay Smooth on "what you did" vs "what you are." He's talking about racism, but, as is often the case, the conversation is transferable. And intersectionality is also real, but that's a different post.) Again, human minds are fascinatingly complex, and *-ist attitudes can be unconscious, or accidental -- especially if you have the privilege of not being subject to the negative effects of the attitude in question. This means that you may say or do something *-ist, whether you meant to be *-ist or not.

But, I do think that it's also important to point out that, if you say sexist things and refuse to listen when someone tries to explain how the thing you've said was sexist, it's not unconscious anymore. When you repeatedly defend misogyny by downplaying it, by derailing attempts to discuss it, and by demeaning those who try to address it (by calling them weak, humorless, stupid, etc), it's not an accident anymore. And when you use your privilege to dismiss someone's attempt to tell you that a belief or a behavior -- a comment, a joke, etc -- is a real problem, and really does affect them, it's time to think long and hard about how what you say relates to what you are, and who you want to be.

1 comment:

  1. Well said! Couldn't agree more with that last line.