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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: cactus_rs
2012-09-13 02:22 am (UTC)

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I'm not sure what you're referring to when you say "these reasons" or "the other uses" (uses of what?). Since the topic at hand is concept of "privilege" and the deployment of its usage in discussions about gender, sexuality, race, etc, I will assume you're asking me: why do the objections I raised to Scott's example not apply to other times when people use the word "privilege"? I like twoswords's answer the best:

I find the concept (as I've described it) really really useful for explaining to people that they have a blind spot in discussions of controversial issues that don't directly affect them (not to mention it's been much easier to identify my own blind spots) - especially people that have used the phrase "I don't understand why they don't just...".

People don't notice the lack of experience in their lives (look at any programmer in their first job), just as some cultural practices are so embedded that people don't notice their presence. I've found the term "privilege" a really useful way to start a discussion - to denote that this is an actual thing - trying to explain why the complaints that a lot of people have about some of those practices, or more pertinently the social infrastructure that supports them, are legitimate.


Hopefully that answers your question.
[User Picture]From: squid314
2012-09-13 06:59 am (UTC)

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If "privilege" is being used as a prelude to explaining someone has a blind spot, why don't they just say that person has a blind spot?

I find the phrase "a male blind spot" much less objectionable than "male privilege". For the same reason, I would feel much less bad accusing Ganaj of having a "poor person blind spot" rather than "benefitting from poor privilege", and I would expect I could convince a female that she has a "female blind spot" with less offense taken than if I tried to claim she had "female privilege".
[User Picture]From: cactus_rs
2012-09-13 07:39 am (UTC)

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If "privilege" is being used as a prelude to explaining someone has a blind spot, why don't they just say that person has a blind spot?

I can't give a "speaking for the ~whatever~ community" answer, but I venture to guess that part of the reason the word "privilege" rather than "blind spot" is used is that the things the person is ignorant of confer them an advantage of some sort in the world at large. "Blind spot" doesn't touch on that power difference. It denotes ignorance in general, not necessarily ignorance of a greater range of abilities/rights/etc. (Think of privileged users within an operating system.)

Bear in mind, that's just a guess.

This desire to be linguistically and conceptually precise, I'll admit, doesn't help a lot when conversing with someone not hip to the jargon (re: another point downthread). "Blind spots" is probably (definitely) better to use in casual conversation, but I can see why people within in-groups or academic circles would prefer "privilege" or something similar.

That's my 200 won, anyway.
[User Picture]From: marycatelli
2012-09-13 12:27 pm (UTC)

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Except that privilege does not convey the notion of "blindness" at all, and so using it instead of "blind spot" you are moving from a less precise meaning to a still less precise one.