Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Grass is Always Greener

In all of these discussions in various places about feminism, sexism, racism, privilege, and so forth, I'm starting to see a common theme, something I've seen before. Or maybe that's not the right way to describe it.

I am starting to wonder if part of what some call privilege is not really privilege, but just part of the misperception that someone else has things easier than they really do based on the perception fallacy encompased by the old saying that "the grass is always greener on the other side of the hill" or is that fence? Like how when you pick the line at the grocery store, only to see the other line move faster (or appear to) or when you pick one lane of traffic, and the other line seems to move faster. Or when you look at someone's life that seems so wonderful and wish you had their life (though I must admit, I'm pretty happy with my own).

Before I proceed further, let me first make clear that I'm not saying there aren't legimate examples of advantages - obviously, if you are not getting hired or you don't get a promotion because of your race/gender/etc. then that is significant and it isn't just about perceptions. I'm not talking about the big and obvious things here. I'm talking about the subtle things, the things that some would question whether they are even privileges at all. Like saying women are "privileged" in dating because they generally don't have to be the one to make the first move. Or that conversely, men are "privileged" because they can go to a bar and not be bothered and hit on when they just want to spend time with their friends.

I've often heard it said that as a man, I can't evaluate male privilege because I'm a man and I can't see it as easily. But of course if that is true, then the same is true for women not being able to see female privilege as well as a man. But what if what is "seen" by a man in terms of female privilege or a woman in terms of male privilege is really just a case of not having walked in the other's shoes so not really realizing that what is seen isn't a privilege at all. Maybe it is just seeing a difference, and then assuming that this difference favors the other party because "the grass is greener" over there in that other gender. Like my example above. It is two sides of the same coin. There are really pluses and minuses to both situations. Shy women have a massive advantage over shy men in the dating context because of the fact that women don't have to make the first move (generally speaking) while men do. But then the "price" for this is that women also have to deal with a lot of unwanted men making attempts at "first moves" with them. Which side really has it better? Truly, how can you say unless you've been both a man and a woman and experienced both and then could compare? And since really no one could really experience that (or very very few could) - how is one to really evaluate a claim that one is "privileged" over the other. And thus, "the grass is greener" seems to win out and you have both genders claiming the other side has it better. When in reality, who can really say? It is not like it is a mathematical equation you can balance out. There are advantages and disadvantages that vary greatly depending on one's other characteristics (like shyness or one's attractiveness).

I wonder if this is part of why in most discussions I've had about privilege, there seem to be some women who absolutely refuse to acknowledge even one single female privilege, though I suspect it is more complex than that. But it may partially explain the inability of some women to see it.

This phenomenon extends to more than just privilege discussions. I see it when discussing history, for instance, particularly with those of a right-wing bent, but not necessarily exclusively so. In that context, the grass is always greener in the past, better known as idealization of the past. As if we lived in this perfect world of harmony back in the 1950s or (pick your era) and how only today have things gotten bad or kids gotten out of control or whatever. And yet if you read newspapers going back 200 years, you see the same laments there as today - somehow the past is always better and things are always going bad today. And then you go back further, and find the same thing. You go back to Socrates and see him being accused of corrupting the youth. And then you realize that there was no ideal time, that sure, history has its ups and downs, but probably, by and large, things have gotten better in many parts of the world, not worse. At the very least, people are really no worse than we ever have been. People are people. And people apparently can't help but see the grass as greener on the other side of the fence known as the past. We do that with the future as well, imagining flying cars and so forth, though I suppose there are also those with a bleak view of the future - but I think that is just an extension of the past idealization - like taking the imagine graph of "ever worse" from the imagined past and extending it forward.

I don't pretend to claim that this perceptual phenomenon of seeing the greener grass explains a whole lot, but I think it is a factor one needs to keep in mind. I think that if we actually stepped into the shoes of those people we imagined to have life easier than us, we would find out that actually, it wasn't as easy or nice as it first appeared to be. That perhaps we only saw what we wanted to see - or only saw the positive, not the negative that went with it.

Another example of this is the gender/income divide. On the one hand, the higher paying professions seem to be more stocked with men than women. Men making more than women, bad for women, right, good for men? But part of this, perhaps most of this, is from men selecting professions based on income over other considerations, like whether they find the work fulfilling. And I see that as really a detriment for men, who often feel tremendous pressure to make money, sacrificing those things in life that I think matter more, like time with your family. I'd much rather make less money and see my daughter grow up than make millions and miss her childhood and have her be a stranger to me. So who really is privileged from that situation, men or women? Or neither?

In thinking on this, an old SNL sketch came to mind with Eddie Murphy. In it, he did an "experiment" where he put on makeup to look like a white man, then went out in the world and "acted white" and saw the reactions he got. In the first scene, he goes into a store, and everything is normal, until some African-Americans leave, then the white storekeeper just hands him some free merchandise and tells him to take it and go. And so on it goes, all sorts of wonderful things that apparently only white people get that he now gets too because of the disguise. It was funny. It ended on an even funnier and actually somewhat enlightening note - after showing all of the great things white people gave only to other white people, he then showed a long line of African-Americans getting made up in chairs to be white just like he was, with the warning that those perks now could be given to non-whites, so better think about that when giving them out. (Ok, it would be easier just to do a youTUBE link of this than try to describe this all from memory, but hopefully you get the idea).

What made me think of that was the notion that the sketch implied that there are all sorts of benefits that white people get that others aren't aware of - but the reality of it is, they don't; at least, not the perks shown in the sketch. But I wondered if non-white people imagined that there was some sort of equivalent thing going on out there. It would be all too easy, as a minority, to blame discrimination for every thing you failed to get in life. Perhaps it was discrimination in some instances, but what if it was not? I'm white. I have not gotten every job I've ever applied for. I've actually tended to strike out more often than not. There are plenty of other things I've not gotten as well. Were I a minority (which in one sense at least I am), but were I a racial minority, how likely would I right now be attributing all of those failures to my race as opposed to something else? If you are predisposed to see racism everywhere, guess what, that's what you'll see. Even if it isn't really empirically there.

I've often seen it said that certain privileges are "subtle" and unspoken, and that's why you don't see them, but really, how do you know you are really discerning a subtle privilege as opposed to just imagining one because that's what you expect to see? Unless all white men are supposed to be perpetually unemployed, then you can't attribute racism and sexism to all employed white men just for being employed - even absent discrimination of any sort, white men will still get hired for work and promoted and so on.

Ok, now I've wandered all over the place and must get my daughter now. But one last thought, only somewhat related. I've seen it repeated again, on the Alas discussion, how other factors don't matter with "privilege" because all things being equal, a disabled, dumb, or otherwise disadvantaged white man will be in a better position than an African-American with the same characteristics. But again, that misses the point. Some characteristics simply matter far more. For instance, even if you accept for the sake of argument that to be the case, such that a transgendered white man is better off than a transgendered African-American man, odds are, in most job interviews, if the transgender part is obvious, then that is what will make or break the interview, not race. In that case, race would probably often be made totally irrelevant, having been totally crowded out by the much larger factor.

In the end, I think we all need to realize that no matter how good we think someone may have things, unless we walk in his or her shoes, we really don't know what his or her life is like. It may be far worse than we think, and even far worse than our own life. What seems like a great perk may, in actual practice, be a penalty or a detriment. Or may at the very least have other side-effects you don't consider unless you have that particular attribute. That's why I try to take everyone as an individual and why I get so annoyed when I see people taken more for their demographics than for who they are as individuals. I'm sorry, you can't just look at a person and decide whether or not they are privileged knowing only their sex or their race. You need to know a lot more about them. To reduce someone to just their gender or their race is the problem. No amount of fancy redefinition of words can change that.

Oops, I'm late.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

only a man swimming in male privilege could of written that! ;P

DBB said...

Wow, I made a BLOG POST. I must be privileged. Everyone knows only white men are allowed to make blog posts. So doing so is a sign of PRIVILEGE.

Nice to see you have the courage of your convictions, anonymous.

See, this is why it is hard to take any claim of privilege by certain people very seriously at all - they cry "privilege" for every single thing to the point that I could take a breath and I would be accused of male privilege for enjoying the oxygen in the air.

Anonymous said...

twas a joke but nevermind..

DBB said...

Sorry, it is hard to discern tone online... (coupled with the fact that I've on more than one occasion been accused of being 'privileged' simply because I made a post or comment. That tends to get old really fast.

ballgame said...

Good post, dbb.

Another example of this is the gender/income divide. On the one hand, the higher paying professions seem to be more stocked with men than women. Men making more than women, bad for women, right, good for men? But part of this, perhaps most of this, is from men selecting professions based on income over other considerations, like whether they find the work fulfilling. And I see that as really a detriment for men, who often feel tremendous pressure to make money, sacrificing those things in life that I think matter more, like time with your family.

Sounds like you read Warren Farrell's Why Men Earn More. He makes exactly those points and backs it up with a number of interesting studies and statistics, such as men and women doctors making exactly the same earnings once all factors are taken into account (subspecialty, hours worked, etc.).

Ashi said...

The question of whether men or women have it better in dating (and similar questions) can pretty much be answered by what people say about the LSAT writing portion - neither choice is perfect, each has advantages and disadvantages so just pick one and run with it. Granted, sex is pre-determined but yeah you get the idea.

As far as race goes, I'm kind of fascinated by the whole Asian-American paradigm - Minority, yet statistically just as privileged as whites. That's not to say racism or privilege don't exist, but rather that you can ultimately overcome obstacles and rise up.

leta said...

Ashi what annoys me most about that is advantage men are perceived to have is a given and no one is allowed to debate that without being accused of being a conservative bible basher. Yet as soon as a guy says women have advantage its treated as "its not a competition" or "theres advantages and disadvantages to both positions".

hedera said...

Edwin Arlington Robinson said it for you almost a hundred years ago, DBB. Check out Richard Corey, at bartleby.com...

DBB said...

Leta - that may be the way discussion goes in some circles, but I think ultimately that is the accurate conclusion - that men and women have advantages and disadvantages for their gender that vary based on the circumstances.

Hedera - Thanks for the poem - it seems vaguely familiar to me - perhaps from high school - and is a good, poetic point. I'm impressed you found it and applied it - I can never remember things like that.

hedera said...

DBB, what I actually remembered was Paul Simon's rock version, same title. Simon being a poet himself, he revised the wording slightly and added a chorus, and the whole thing is very impressive. I might add it's been running through my head ever since I posted this! It's on Simon and Garfunkel's Sounds of Silence album.

Anonymous said...

I remember that Eddie Murphy sketch – “White Like Me,” a parody of the classic sociological study “Black Like Me,” in which John Howard Griffin disguised himself as a black man in 1950s New Orleans and described what he experienced.

When people complain that some other demographic group enjoys a “privilege,” are they merely complaining that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence? I suspect there’s some merit in that. I also suspect that that’s not the whole story.

“It would be all too easy, as a minority, to blame discrimination for every thing you failed to get in life. Perhaps it was discrimination in some instances, but what if it was not? I'm white. I have not gotten every job I've ever applied for. I've actually tended to strike out more often than not. There are plenty of other things I've not gotten as well. Were I a minority (which in one sense at least I am), but were I a racial minority, how likely would I right now be attributing all of those failures to my race as opposed to something else? If you are predisposed to see racism everywhere, guess what, that's what you'll see.”

I find merit in this argument. Absent some overt action by the employer, it is generally impossible to demonstrate that the employer’s behavior IN ANY GIVEN INSTANCE was motivated by race. And because people who are aggrieved are typically aggrieved about A SPECIFIC INSTANCE, I lack much basis to evaluate their claims.

But when hiring and promotional practices differ IN AGGREGATE from what you’d expect to see in a race-blind context, then allegations of racism are warranted. There are reams of econometric studies attempting to explain disparities in employment outcomes based on controlling for all kinds of variables. Mostly, these studies find some level of disparity that cannot be explained by rational means. To me, THAT is the definition of racism.


But this leads to a cascade of unfortunate dynamics:

1. Black people are mad as hell about racism, and with very good cause. But any given black person will be mad as hell about a perceived instance of racism, but often with less than good cause.

2. Consequently some people becoming like a cloud in a thunderstorm, full if negative charge but deprived of a legitimate target upon which to discharge it. It is hardly surprising, then, that when someone does transgress some racial boundary, he becomes a lightning rod for pent-up frustrations all out of proportion to the transgression.

3. White people learn to be extremely cautious around discussions of race. While people in the US feel no shame about acknowledging a lack of math acumen, they are reluctant to acknowledge that race (and other categories) influences their behavior – despite widespread evidence that observable data (that is, data regarding race, gender, social class, age, physical disability) influences people all the time.

Elsewhere you’ve discussed what is the “real” definition of racism and racist. You’ve accurately noted that in some contexts racist is merely used as an emotionally-charged epithet, and in other contexts it is used as a dispassionate descriptor. And often by the same person.

On Alas, a Blog, I concede that I lack the capacity to take in all the world’s complexity. I need shorthand heuristics to help me process the world and make predictions. Accurate predictions would be nice, but even inaccurate predictions would help reduce the anxiety I feel when confronted with more information than I can process. Thus, I take easily-obtained information and use it as a basis for forecasting. When I meet a person, what info do I get easily? Gender, race, age, social class, physical disability. I take this information and run with it. Is it coincidence that we have words such as “racism,” “sexism,” “agism,” “classism,” “ablism,” but not “blood-type-ism”?

Consequently a simple human dynamic – the tendency to act on the basis of easily-obtained but inadequate information – is transformed into a mark of shame, our contemporary version of leprosy. The justifiable anger focused on the isms stigmatizes the problem and makes candid discussions and solutions more difficult.

Who am I? I’m a white, male, middle-class, (mostly) able-bodied agnostic lawyer. I find this stuff deeply frustrating. And when I’m attacked for my isms – as we all are at some point – I try, really try to understand the perspective that my attacker brings. No, I don’t have to agree. But I also don’t have to be defensive. I can recognize my attacker’s irrational, if justified, frustrations. And hopefully, just before I open my mouth, I can recognize my own, too.

nobody.really

Anonymous said...

As an aside:

“I've often heard it said that as a man, I can't evaluate male privilege because I'm a man and I can't see it as easily. But of course if that is true, then the same is true for women not being able to see female privilege as well as a man.”

I think this is accurate. Yet I’d urge caution with this line of reasoning.

While the Ups cannot fully understand the life of the Downs and vice vera, it must be acknowledged that popular culture is filled with accounts of the Ups, not the Downs. So it is only reasonable to expect the Downs to know more about Ups than vice versa. That is, I expect a higher percentage of Angolans to be able to name the leader of the US than I would expect US citizens to be able to name the leader of Angola. I expect more gays know the conventions for heterosexual relationships than straights know the conventions for homosexual ones. I expect more Jehovah’s Witnesses could name the head of the Roman Catholic Church than Catholics could name the head of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (if there is one; I don’t know). And I would expect women to better appreciate men’s perspectives than I would expect men to appreciate women’s – simply because EVERYONE has heard more stories told from men’s perspectives than from women’s.

Does that mean that women have as great an appreciation of the lives of men as men do? No, nor would I suggest that Angolans have as great an appreciation for the lives of Americans as Americans do. Each is to some extent ignorant of the other. But they may not be equally so.

I’m an Up. I’ve been married 15 years, and I’m still ignorant of the full range of feminine hygiene products my wife uses. Because she does most of the shopping, and I’ve been privileged not to have to worry about it. There’s really no moral judgment in this fact; that’s just the way it is in my household. If I can avoid being ashamed of my privilege, and my ignorance, I can avoid being defensive about these issues when they arise. That’s the best outcome for everyone.

nobody.really

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