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The First Meditation on Privilege [Sep. 10th, 2012|06:35 pm]

So either it is "Talk about creepiness and gender relations week" and I was not invited, or just by a coincidence every blog I read and person I talk to has simultaneously decided to discuss issues of gender and creepiness and male privilege and female offendedness and so on.

There is much I have to say on this topic, all of which would earn my coveted "things i will regret writing" tag, but for now I would like to assert a right to talk about the topic at all. That despite privilege it is not totally impossible for me to understand where women are coming from even in principle. theferrett tried to draw a parallel to the female experience that would make sense for men, but I like both religious debate and free drinks, so it fell very flat. I have a better one anyway.

Four years ago I backpacked across India and recorded some of my experiences in Ten Short Scenes from India. I don't think I'd even heard of privilege or Creepiness when I recorded those scenes, which just makes it incredibly convenient that they included all the aspects I need to draw a perfect metaphor here.

The parts of India I passed through were dirt poor. A couple bucks from a tourist could mean the equivalent of a month's salary to some of the people I met there. I was warned that "white people are treated as walking vending machines." And sure enough, I estimate that in certain parts of town I could get four or five requests for money an hour.

Some of them were the traditional palm-placed-out begging. But most Indians had long since learned that didn't really work. More common was someone trying to be your friend for a little while before, like the hashish seller in the first story, then making a business proposal. More common still was somebody offering to do something nice and helpful for me, like the man who was going to show me the way to Glorious Services, and then tell me at the end that by the Universal Moral Law it was only right that I offer him some money to thank him for this kind deed he performed solely out of a sense of service.

(one particularly vile practice I fell for a few times was for groups of young kids to beg me to take their picture so they could see themselves in the camera's picture preview screen. I would almost always comply because I am a sucker for indulging children. After they saw it, they would demand money for serving as my photography model, no doubt having been put up to it by their parents. If you think you would have been wise to this scam, tell me whether you think these look like the faces of con artists.)

These sorts of strategies seem to me very similar to when feminists complain about "nice guys" who try to trick them into friendship just because they want sex with them. And they are indeed unpleasant; it takes an "exhaustible moral resource" to be able to reject people who are feigning niceness without feeling like a jerk. And I also point out the last scene in the article: "HEY EVERYONE! THIS IS BAD MAN!" To be honest, he did make me feel like a bad man, and he probably did convince the people around me that I was a bad man, just because I didn't want to pay him to see his dead body. This was an unfair social cost levied on me for refusing a transaction that I had every right to refuse.

And given the sketchiness involved here, I think refusing was not only my right but an excellent idea. For all I know, I might never have returned, and the guy's spiel the next day would be "Hey, wanna see two dead bodies?" In fact, this ties in to my next point. Going back to the Glorious Services story, I do not blame my past self for being afraid that this particular Indian beggar was going to rob me. It's not that I knew anything about him, and it has nothing to do with any kind of statistics about how many tourists were robbed in that particular city (which I don't know). It's just that me being a rich American tourist and him being a very poor Indian beggar makes the threat of robbery really salient, and even if he wasn't a criminal as most likely he was not, when I'm that vulnerable it's not unreasonable or racist for me to want to avoid even situations that remind me of a tiny possibility of being robbed. I hope that he was not offended by me considering him a potential criminal.

The application to feminist issues here should be too obvious to need spelling out. These sorts of considerations also informed my practice in some of the other cases; when the kids would demand money for "letting" me take their pictures, I complied a few times just because they were there in groups of ten or fifteen, and if they really wanted to they could probably knock me over and steal my camera and run away.

Last of all, I want to say how super uncomfortable all of this made me. It kind of comes out in the stories how I became hopelessly prejudiced against all Indians, to the point where any time an Indian came up to me, even with the stated intention of asking me some questions about America, I pretty much responded by screaming "NO! REALLY! I DON'T WANT TO BUY ANYTHING OR GIVE YOU ANYTHING! PLEASE! GO AWAY! I'M BEGGING YOU! JUST STOP!" It also kind of comes out that that was almost always the correct response. I can only think of one time on all of my travels through the Third World when my instincts told me to push someone away with extreme prejudice and they turned out to be an honest person who just wanted to talk - and it wasn't in India. Yet I couldn't just say "Look, I know you are just talking to me to get money, and I am not going to give it to you, so go away" because the people who were pretending not to want money would pretend to be offended, and if by chance there was the one person I was wrong about, I would be a horrible jerk. And because I was a foreigner there, being a horrible jerk was somewhat less palatable than if I'd been in a country surrounded by people I knew who would stand up for me.

I don't know how easy or hard this will be to understand. A single beggar is not a disaster. Even the amount of begging you encounter if you're in a poor American city is not a disaster. But the amount of begging you get when you're a white tourist in India and the beggars are so dense that there are multiple people begging from you at once and even crossing the street is likely to get you a couple of offers and demands and vows of friendship - yes, that's a disaster. Not so much if you're willing to become the sort of person who starts all conversations with "GO AWAY!" and makes sure to only stay in the rich Europeanized hotel district parts of town where no one will bother you. But if you wanted any kind of authenticity and getting to know real Indians, then yes, it's a disaster. It was why I cut my trip to India short before I even made it to Amritsar, which I still regret to this day.

I do not think the amount of attention the average woman gets is quite as much as the amount the average white tourist in India gets. But the average tourist in India can avoid poor Indian people (easier than you think if you stick to the Official Guided Tourist Circuit) and, if all else fails, can leave. I do not think an average woman can avoid all contact with men, and I do not know where they can leave to. So I sympathize with them.

Coming up: Predictably, The Second Meditation on Privilege.

[User Picture]From: cactus_rs
2012-09-11 03:29 am (UTC)
I like this. I don't have much to add otherwise, but I feel like this (and theferrett's) framing of privilege/social experience is pretty clear and cogent.

I look forward to The Second Meditation.
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[User Picture]From: avanti_90
2012-09-11 04:09 am (UTC)
I think the amount of attention the average woman gets is equal to that of the average white tourist - in some parts of India. For example, in the parts where women aren't supposed to leave their house unescorted, so if you do...

Oh dear, your tourist experiences! I feel a little guilty for laughing so much at them. It's a pity you didn't have a local guide or someone - I've seen that some of the (official) guides are pretty efficient at keeping beggars etc. away from their tourists, and anyway the kids are less likely to bother you if they see one or two people who know their game and can yell back at them in their own language.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-11 05:14 am (UTC)
Man, I just realized that between this and that one idiot doctor who happened to be Indian I must sound like I really hate your country. Actually it was a great experience and the overwhelming majority of (non-beggar) Indian people I've met have been awesome.
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[User Picture]From: ice_hesitant
2012-09-11 04:17 am (UTC)
The annoyance relationship is similar, but I think the power relationship is reversed in your analogy, in that you're the one with the power.
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[User Picture]From: sniffnoy
2012-09-11 04:37 am (UTC)
It's not clear to me what "power" in these cases consists of. Can you expand on what you meant?
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[User Picture]From: sniffnoy
2012-09-11 04:36 am (UTC)
What is the distinction being made here between Creepiness and creepiness?

Amusingly, there was some thing going around on the internet which I am too lazy to dig up right now which also made a money analogy, but this seems to be much better because it is something that actually happens.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-11 05:08 am (UTC)
I just mean that although of course I'd heard of the word "creepy", usually used to describe either Halloween specials or else some guy with no teeth who lives in a cabin in the woods and pees into bottles and talks to the walls, I'd never heard the current use where a man who gives a woman unwanted attention is Creepy.
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[User Picture]From: pktechgirl
2012-09-11 05:32 am (UTC)
I wonder why they bother with a social pretext to solicit money, rather than just the threatening. Does it work better, make them feel better, or something else?
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[User Picture]From: cactus_rs
2012-09-11 05:58 am (UTC)
I would imagine that most people would prefer to acquire money under a benign social pretext than to be a threatening lout.

Also, benign social pretexts don't send you to jail as much as beating the shit out of people does, I'm going to assume.
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[User Picture]From: celandine13
2012-09-11 11:23 am (UTC)
I think the frustration that (resistant) men have about the whole "don't be creepy" discourse is pretty easy to understand: not being creepy is *work.* It's social-skills work that has to do with being alert to modulating your voice, body language, attitude, etc. to avoid making women uncomfortable. And it's a responsibility that falls on straight men but not on straight women. In modern egalitarian societies, people are really uncomfortable with claims that "You MUST do this because of the way you were born." Why do I have to? Why can't I opt out somehow? How can I carry an obligation in my chromosomes, without ever being consulted about whether I want it or not?

Before you can be on board with the "don't be creepy" stuff, you have to share the assumptions that
1.) Your actions *can* affect other people's feelings; it's not their responsibility to not be bothered by your behavior.
2.) You actually want to optimize your actions for not upsetting and disturbing people (e.g. women.)
3.) You're okay with the fact that contingent circumstances (like being a man) can cause you to have more responsibilities towards other people's states of mind.

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[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-09-11 01:31 pm (UTC)
I've met a number of women who have really fallen down on the job to not be creepy around me. (And straight women, too, from all evidence.)
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[User Picture]From: cartesiandaemon
2012-09-11 11:39 am (UTC)
I think the metaphor between people accosting you in India and creepy people may have the potential for unfortunate overtones (I know you don't mean that, but it might be prudent to avoid it :)), but the basic analogy of feeling intimidated by superficially reasonable requests is a very good one, as far as I understand the concept.
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[User Picture]From: cousin_it
2012-09-11 12:56 pm (UTC)
Your post contradicts PUA dogma.

Look at a group of people. Which guy has privilege and high status? The alpha. Which guy is creepy and pathetic, like the beggars in your analogy? The omega. They're not the same guy.
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[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-09-11 02:04 pm (UTC)
It also contradicts feminist dogma.

This is not even evidence, let alone proof, of falsity.
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-11 01:04 pm (UTC)
Please don't go there. While I may agree with feminism's social aims, the feminist community and the vocabulary that has grown around it is the most pervasively un-Rational I have ever seen. You'd be better off just rampaging through the terms pointing out which biases they happen to tick.
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[User Picture]From: xuenay
2012-09-11 06:15 pm (UTC)
Some of it is, some of it isn't. I for one welcome the chance to have more rationalist feminists.
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[User Picture]From: 17catherines
2012-09-11 01:13 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure your analogy is perfect, but I do think you've hit on the heart of how it feels, at least in my (thankfully long ago) experience. Certainly the part where your actions start being controlled by the behaviour of other people which is, on the surface of it, unthreatening, but one still feels forced to make concessions that one would rather not is quite familiar.
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[User Picture]From: mangosorbet007
2012-09-11 04:36 pm (UTC)
And now imagine being a white *female* traveling solo in India.
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[User Picture]From: kittles
2012-09-12 01:54 am (UTC)
I'm new to reading your livejournal, and in (partial) keeping with the theme at hand, I hope it's not creepy to say I'm already a huge fan. :p
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[User Picture]From: grognor
2012-09-12 05:07 am (UTC)
I think we all have some experience of this, with the onslaught of advertisements we all must endure, all the time.

I would like to see a calculation done, on just how many thought-hours have been wasted making and looking at advertisements. I wouldn't know where to start, but I'd guess the number would shock most folks.

Advertisements are the worst thing about modern life.

So I sympathize as well.

Edit: I am referring mostly to spam. Sometimes 'regular' advertisements are tolerable.

Edited at 2012-09-12 10:45 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: torekp
2012-09-12 02:44 pm (UTC)
Enlightening analogy, thanks.
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