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The Second Meditation on Privilege [Sep. 11th, 2012|03:17 pm]
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Read The First Meditation On Privilege before reading this, or else it won't make any sense and you will probably yell at me and I will be sad.

In the First Meditation, I tried to establish that I really do understand some of what women are going through regarding creepy guys by drawing a parallel to my own experience in India where everyone who talked to me seemed to be involved in a complicated plot to guilt or harass me into giving them money.

I think I did a pretty good job with the analogy. All aspects of the two situations line up in a nice parallel. However, some people criticized the analogy yesterday on the grounds that it seemed a bit offensive to call poor beggars "privileged" over rich tourists.

Yeah, that's not a bug, it's a feature.

One of the points I was trying to make with that analogy is that although the phenomenon of tourists being super uncomfortable exists and is very bad, the language of "privilege" with all its connotations is a uniquely bad set of terms with which to describe it. If I wanted to explain to Indian beggars why their behavior is hurtful - an explanation I think needs to be made and which is not necessarily destined to fail - I literally cannot think of any worse way to do it than by talking about "privilege".

Just to hammer the point in, here is a hypothetical dialogue between an oblivious version of me and the Indian beggar Ganaj from my visit to Varanasi.
Ganaj: Hey man! I will tell you your fortune for fifty rupees!

Oblivious Me: Check your privilege.

Ganaj: What?

Oblivious Me: Your privilege is showing. It's okay if you're oblivious to your privilege. Most poor people are. But you know how you can walk outside without being asked for money? You know how you never have to worry if all the people fawning on you and offering you favors are just looking for some cash? You know how you can walk outside at night without thinking about getting robbed? That's the poor privilege you benefit from every day.

Ganaj: I don't feel privileged.

Oblivious Me: I know! That's the most privileged thing of all! Part of poor privilege is never having to think about poor privilege, because it doesn't affect you!

Ganaj: I still don't really feel privileged. Then again, I don't really feel anything at all ever since all my fingers fell off from leprosy.

Oblivious Me: Hey now, cut it out! We're not holding an Oppression Olympics here!

So what am I not trying to say here? I'm not trying to trivialize the rich tourist's problems. The constant harassment throughout my trip to India really did make me feel uncomfortable and unsafe to the point where I had to cut my trip short, and I and other tourists shouldn't have to put up with that. I'm not even saying that everything I told Ganaj about "poor privilege" isn't entirely true. I am just saying, once again that the language of privilege is a uniquely terrible way to talk about these problems.

Right now Ganaj is probably acutely conscious of the fact that he is dependent on me. I can make his day awesome or ruin it completely on a whim. If I tell him "No", I'll probably go off and eat a three course meal at a fancy hotel restaurant without sparing him a second thought. He will go to the alley where he lives, look to see if there's anything in the trash heap the dogs and rats haven't reached first, and then go to bed hungry and cursing my name. If I told him I'd consider giving him money if he clucked like a chicken, he might well agree. Under these circumstances, to tell Ganaj "No" is harsh though often necessary. To tell him "No, and man you are sooo privileged even to ask that" is just cruel, even though it does point to a real and important problem.

Likewise, a socially awkward guy who has never had a girlfriend sits next to an attractive girl in chemistry class or something. For some reason he decides he has a chance with her and asks her out, probably in a socially awkward way. She says no. Then she goes out to party with her attractive friends and her attractive boyfriend, while he goes back home to cry in his room alone and unloved and worrying that no one will ever love him (think this is an exaggeration? I've been that socially awkward guy and done exactly that.) The girl's feelings of discomfort and constant harassment are just as real as the rich tourist's. But when she calls him from her exciting party with her attractive boyfriend on her arm and interrupts his crying-alone-in-his-dark-room to tell him how privileged he is, that is exactly 100% the most offensive possible term to use at that particular time in the same way it is when I give the same lecture to Ganaj.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: andrewducker
2012-09-11 11:23 pm (UTC)

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I get the feeling that we're going to end up here:
http://xkcd.com/592/
[User Picture]From: cartesiandaemon
2012-09-12 10:20 am (UTC)

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ROFL!
[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-09-12 01:03 pm (UTC)

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A wonderfully wise comic.
From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-11 11:42 pm (UTC)

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Interesting. The more you talk about the analogy, the more I like it.
[User Picture]From: cactus_rs
2012-09-12 12:29 am (UTC)

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I'd point out that the concept of privilege isn't just limited to the context of romantic-business interactions like that, but rather the grand social scheme of things. The socially awkward guy doesn't have to worry to the same extent the girl does about things like: roofies; being coerced into unwanted sexual acts; getting fair pay; encountering chilly climates; I could go on. I assume you know this so I don't see what you're trying to accomplish here. If you mean to say that in this particular scenario beautiful and/or poor people experience something like ~temporary~ privilege, it should probably be qualified as such.
[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-09-12 02:36 am (UTC)

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In other words, it's a stick that can be used to beat any dog you feel like.
[User Picture]From: avanti_90
2012-09-12 02:53 am (UTC)

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I have to admit I still can't help laughing at you and Ganaj.

I think your analogy works so far, in that you've made clear there is 'privilege' and lack of privilege on both sides. I'm looking forward to seeing how you continue this.
[User Picture]From: st_rev
2012-09-12 06:21 am (UTC)

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Well-played.
From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-12 07:03 am (UTC)

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What I think you're getting out here is - apart from the idea that "privilege" is nearly exactly the wrong word if you're trying to get people to agree with you, though that fight has long since been lost - that power dynamics should be considered a two-way thing. A wants something from B; B may be in a completely different headspace where being asked is itself a problem.

I am convinced, before you even start to argue it, that no set of rules will be universally applicable (even if we assume the universe to be just one city, never mind "the west" as a whole)...

-- passing Firedrake
[User Picture]From: nancylebov
2012-09-12 07:54 am (UTC)

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Ragen Chastain has mentioned that she doesn't call people out on their privilege because she's found it doesn't work. However, she's also neutral about other people calling out on privilege.

If Ragen has a theory about why calling people out on their privilege doesn't work, she hasn't mentioned it.
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[User Picture]From: Anthony Giovannetti
2012-09-12 07:08 am (UTC)

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I am really enjoying this series so far.
From: (Anonymous)
2012-09-12 09:41 am (UTC)

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I'm not entirely sure what advertising in the papers or with signs is supposed to be analogous to.
[User Picture]From: alicorn24
2012-09-12 03:41 pm (UTC)

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Dating sites and classified ads.
[User Picture]From: twoswords
2012-09-12 10:38 am (UTC)

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By my understanding this is an incorrect reading of the concept of privilege. To me, privilege is more about the *response* to someone's complaints about unjust or unwelcome treatment. For example, with the sexism/creepiness issue, privilege isn't men behaving in a way that might be read as creepy (because yes, they range from just being naturally awkward, lacking knowledge of "baggage" that a woman is carrying, through to being sexist pigs), but privilege is related to the backlash that women often suffer when they've tried to address this creepy or intimidating behaviour as an institutional problem (who says you get to dictate who we're allowed to converse with, you're just being oversensitive, you should take the attention as a compliment, if you're that upset just don't participate, none of my female friends have ever had a problem). Privilege arises from not having been subject to such treatment, and manifests in minimizing or erasing wholesale the experiences of and their effects on those who have been.

Other examples are: "why don't you just lose weight", "you are allowed to get married, but it just has to be someone who's the opposite sex"/"homosexuality is a call to celibacy", "they should just get off their lazy arses and get a job", "if he wasn't guilty why did he run from the police". Ultimately privilege is about maintaining the status quo (that is, institutionalised discrimination, either in culture or social policy) by framing that bad treatment or discrimination as a fault in the victim's behaviour or expectations, and lack of understanding of why the victim *doesn't* behave in the prescribed manner.

Your post does suggest I might be preaching to the choir, just noone in my circles has an understanding in the way you seem to address. Maybe the circles you move in have overextended the concept, and as such I'm not your audience in this piece?

Edited at 2012-09-12 11:17 am (UTC)
[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-09-12 12:56 pm (UTC)

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It certainly matches the use of the term I've seen.
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[User Picture]From: cartesiandaemon
2012-09-12 10:54 am (UTC)

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ROFL. I love your dialogues.

Hm. That's a very interesting point about the example being backwards from the one usually used.

FWIW, my impression of the term "privilege" is that it identifies a very relevant concept, but not in the way most useful for getting people to understand it. I don't know about other people but it helps me a lot to mentally transpose "Group A has privilege X" to "Group A has privilege X compared to group B".

It seems like lots of people would accept that, eg. the ability to walk or drive down a street without being hassled by the police is one some people have through no fault of their own and some people don't through no fault of their own. And that it fits the traditional meaning of "privilege" that A has a privilege denied to B.

But it seems like it you describe it absolute terms, "A has a privilege" without saying "compared to B", then B people immediately agree: obviously their experience is baseline, and A people have a privilege they don't. Whereas A people vociferously disagree: surely their experience is "normal", and they don't have a privilege, B people have a disadvantage?

This inevitably produces a giant flamewar. And there's some content to that, in that if people are better off (either "ok middle class" or "superrich"), it is a problem that they see themselves as "normal", or that society sometimes sees men as "normal" and women as "minority" even though the numbers are about equal. But that's never brought up explicitly, it's just that group B people get used to using the language of privilege about group A people, which group A people then massively resent.

And I think it's fair to say that group B people should be able to examine their experiences in whatever language they find most useful. But it's prudent to recognise when you're using language which is normal to you, but to someone else sounds like a heated attack if it's possible.

For instance, every primer on "privilege" stresses that it's not supposed to be a criticism: you should be aware of your privilege, but it's not something you are at blame for. And yet, most people who use the language would instinctively want to deny that an on-average less-privileged group had any privileges compared to the everyone else, even small ones, which sort of contradicts what is supposedly the basic idea.
[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-09-12 12:55 pm (UTC)

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The purpose of language is to communicate. A word that needs as many disclaimers as are listed here is not communicating, especially since people don't spiel them all off when using the term -- and indeed, often don't mention them at all unless they get called on how they sound by people who naturally assume that English words are used in their normal meaning. Then they backpedal with these disclaimers pretty damned.
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[User Picture]From: st_rev
2012-09-12 11:27 am (UTC)

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Interesting to see all the different formulations of 'privilege'.

Today I'm tentatively framing 'privilege' as a flag that determines whether human suffering is socially acceptable, i.e. 'suffering + privilege = good, lol white woman tears' vs. 'suffering - privilege = evil, let's all come together to fight this'. But I have a headache, and this is an uncharitable interpretation.

It is strange, though, that such an important and popular concept seems so difficult to frame in an analytically useful way.

Edited at 2012-09-12 12:11 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-09-12 12:49 pm (UTC)

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It is, in fact, charitable to speak the truth to the deluded, however painful the experience.
From: siodine
2012-09-12 01:34 pm (UTC)

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As someone that's privileged, I'm having a hard time caring about that fact. I guess that means I'm an asshole, but then I'm happy to be an asshole. As for all these beggars/propositioners, I would have either ignored them or told them to fuck off -- walking on eggshells is no fun.

This position only becomes complicated once you throw a naive utilitarianism into the mix. Luckily I'm not a naive utilitarian.
[User Picture]From: lpetrazickis
2012-09-12 01:58 pm (UTC)

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Your last example is utopian. There is a saying: perfect is the enemy of good. Setting aside something that's a constructive step forward because it's not perfect is not necessarily beneficial to anyone.

Also, I believe advocates of privilege criticism would call yours a tone argument.
[User Picture]From: lonelyantisheep
2012-09-12 05:20 pm (UTC)

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Tone is important.
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[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-13 07:03 am (UTC)

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"Also, I believe advocates of privilege criticism would call yours a tone argument."

Is a tone argument supposed to be bad?

Suppose Alice calls bad drivers "Hitlers". Bob says "Although I agree bad driving is a problem, isn't 'Hitler' a terrible word to use to describe them? It not only is likely to offend them, but it also suggests an incorrect diagnosis of the problem."

As far as I can tell Bob is both making a tone argument, and totally correct.
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[User Picture]From: hentaikid
2012-09-12 08:10 pm (UTC)

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>If all the cooperative fortune-tellers agree not to accost tourists the defecting fortune-tellers will have the tourists all to themselves.

It's a point I've often wondered about in relation to these kinds of stories of harrassment, the fact is the kind of men who read and absorb the "don't accost women" message are probably not largely overlapping with the demographic who will cheerfully continue to impose themselves on any passing female that catches his eye.

It's partly because of this that I've made a point to approach more women regularly, because despite the fact I play a creep online, IRL I'm fairly polite and clean cut and if anything I find myself surprised with how trusting women can be with strangers such as myself. Anyway, I hope to increase the pool of non-creepy male-female encounters.
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