Wednesday, July 25, 2007

More Comments than Posts (turned into Post on Privilege)

Ok, I seem to be at it again, commenting more elsewhere than posting here. I still have a half-dozen things I have been thinking about and want to post about but haven't quite gotten around to. But here is an interesting discussion regarding privilege that was sparked by some discussion first here.

I won't add much to it except to say that it has crystalized in my mind that a lot of what bugs me about the claims of male privilege is that much of it is about things that are so trivial. Trivial complaints tend to distract away from the legitimate ones. This is particularly so if you spend a great deal of time complaining about the trivial - someone just tuning in will get the idea that what you are complaining about (privilege in this case) is not really legitimate because of all of the time spent complaining about something that is clearly not all that important. The line of reasoning would be, if THAT's what you are complaining about as "privilege" then "privilege" really doesn't mean much.

I think it would behoove those who are concerned with privilege to stick to the non-trivial. Things like sexual assault, not getting hired for a job, getting passed over for promotion, sexual harrassment at work, those are not trivial issues. Whether or not someone raises an eyebrow at you for how messy your house is a trivial issue, and one that you can easily ignore. (And one that can work as a woman's privilege if there is a man in the home that actually does all the housework and she gets all the credit for it). Truly, who cares what some neanderthal thinks about the cleanliness of your house? If people give my wife credit for my house cleaning, I really don't care - sure, it can suck to be unappreciated for what you do, but I certainly won't lose sleep over it. I have more important things to worry about, and so pretty much does everyone else on the planet. In fact, if you DON'T have more important things to worry about, I somehow doubt you are in a position to call others privileged over you. I wish I were in so privileged a position.

One last point (for now): One other big thing that annoys me about talk of male privilege is the almost universal failure to acknowledge female privilege. Yes, it exists. And no, just because you think there are more privileges for men than women that does not erase female privilege. If a woman can't let herself acknowledge female privilege exists, then why should any man acknowledge to her that male privilege exsts? I'm not claiming it would be even, but it is just so annoying to have ALL of the emphasis in such discussions always be about male privilege, as if female privilege does not exist. Just admit it. Just once. Then I'll be more than happy to talk about all the male privilege you want. But admit it. That's all I ask.

And also admit that privilege is context specific - in other words, what may be a privilege for one gender in one instance may actually be a privilege for the other gender in another instance. To use my trivial example from above - house cleaning. If the house is messy when the man does the cleaning, one could call it male privilege that the woman takes the blame for it. But on the other hand, if the house is spotless, then it becomes female privilege, because the woman then would get all the credit for work she did not do. That almost always gets left out of such discussions.

People have advantages and disadvantages for all sorts of different reasons. Which brings me to one last thing that bugs me about this privilege concept - that the whole thing is a big blanket sort of statement based solely on gender. There are plenty of women far more privileged than me. I'm sure I'm privileged more than many women and many men as well. Just trying to define 'X' as some sort of privilege that applies to all men or to all women is, I think, utterly ridiculous. So many other factors can trump gender. Speaking of trump, if your last name is Trump, and your father is a certain Trump, then regardless of your gender, you are going to be way ahead of me when it comes to privilege. If I'm applying to work at a law firm and then after I apply, one of the partner's daughters, fresh from law school, also applies to work there, which privilege do you think will win out - one based on gender or one based on nepotism? I think it would be safe to say that I would be needing to schedule interviews elsewhere.

And if I have a ton of disadvantages piled on top of me - if I were from a poor family, if I were born retarded, if I were born hideously ugly, I somehow don't think I'm going to be having a better life than most women do because I'm a man. Things like intelligence and wealth are far more important as privileges than gender.

I guess I lied, and I've got a few other things to say as well. I saw this post on RedJenny's blog, that was also related to this. In that post, a commenter named jeolimos made some interesting comments (marred by a rather hostile tone) and there were some responses to it. First, it was interesting to see how people were essentially talking past each other. But they really seemed to really miss his point entirely, not entirely unsurprising, given his tone - it is hard to listen to someone you are seeing as being a total ass. But nonetheless, they did miss his point. He pointed out that there are all sorts of factors that combine to determine a person's relative measure of privilege, such that using just gender or race as the measure of a person's privilege was oversimplifying. The response was basically that this is answered by saying that to understand how gender works as a privilege, you need to hold all else being equal - and it was left at that, as if that answered the point and settled the matter. But it did not.

To illustrate. All else being equal, a person with $20 in his or her pocket is privileged compared to a person with $19.50 in his or her pocket. But so what? The relative amount of privilege is obviously trivial. And if you instead change the scenario so the person with $20 is a mentally retarded man and the other person is Paris Hilton, it is clear who between them is the privileged one. Which is what jeo was getting at, I think, that you really need to look at the WHOLE picture before you can tell if someone is privileged or not. And also that some factors are more important than others, and can be totally eclipsed by other factors. Wealth trumps gender, for instance. So pointing out that "all other things being equal" a particular factor grants privilege simply does not address that at all. Further, it does not address the fact that based on context, a factor may be an advantage or a disadvantage (as I noted above with my trivial cleaning example). Thus, sometimes, all other things being equal, in a given situation, the woman is the privileged one over a man.

I think that is what ultimately bugged me the most about the various discussions on privilege I've seen - the lumping together of everyone by gender (or even by race) as opposed to looking at each person as an individual and determining, really, if it would even be appropriate to call that person privileged or not. Thus, I see it as troubling to see someone labeled as 'privileged' based upon knowing only one data point about them - like their gender. I see that as totally unfounded because so many other factors are more important when it comes to determining a person's overall relative privilege. And even that can change depending upon context and circumstances.

I have more to say, including an somewhat related but separate post, but that will have to wait.


Maya's Granny said...

Such a good post!!! I am thinking of two things:
1. As a 65 year-old fat woman of colonial descent with a MEd, who has been a single mother, always worked in non-profit settings, and was unable to start saving for retirement until I was 51, I have a mix of privilege. The white, MEd, colonial descent, having a strong work history are all privileges. The woman, 65, fat, single without much money, not so much. Still, I'm much better off than most people of color, people with less education, illegal immigrants and even legal immigrants who don't speak English yet.

2. I have a friend, also of colonial descent, who married an Hispanic man. I once heard him tell her she had to do what he said because he is the man, and she responded, "Well, why don't we consider that I'm white and descended from two American presidents? Seems to me that about offsets it."

leta said...

Reading that post and comments is making my head explode. How can intelligent people suddenly be so illogical? Its like talking to people who believe in intelligent design.

leta said...

Also don't confuse intelligence with an ability to do a difficult task. You can have a massive I.Q. and attention deficit disorder at the same time.

Erin said...

Other forms of "female privelege": when you get a flat tire on the highway, somebody will stop to help you. (Just have your husband/boyfriend hide in the back seat.) Ready-made excuse to buy something you want but don't need. Greater variety of shoes. Having your own boobs. Getting the final say in decorating decisions. Being able to pitch a giant, immature fit, bordering on an outright temper tantrum, in order to get your way. PMS: three days a month to be as mean and petty as you want. Temper tantrum not getting you what you want? Just withold sex.
And, finally, what I like to call "Playing the Dumb Cute Girl Card." At the hardware store, auto mechanic's, car dealership, or when anyone points out your glaring lack of knowledge about a topic, all you have to do is twirl a lock of hair around your finger and giggle, and someone will just do or decide for you.
With all this at our disposal, it's amazing we find the time to be snarky about things like who gets the blame for a messy house. Then again, it could just be a temper tantrum.

The Barefoot Bum said...

On the one hand, I take your point, and I'm sympathetic. On the other hand, it seems a bit trivial itself to complain about the triviality of others' complaints.

DBB said...

BB - point taken, but then this isn't just about the trivial claims, this is about the whole concept of privilege in general. And the privilege concept appears to me to be one of the central pillars of feminism, so in that respect, I think it is not trivial to address it.

Maya's granny - forgive my ignorance, but what is an MEd? And you forgot to list one of your assets - Maya. ;)

Erin - I have trouble discerning if you are being sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek, or serious - or perhaps all three... but such is the limit of the medium... but I definitely can't argue with you about your first point - it seems a woman is far more likely to get helped out in many situations than a man is.

Leta - it is true there is more to abiilty than just raw intelligence - one would hope part of having high intelligence is realizing the need to apply it consistently to actually get things done...

The Barefoot Bum said...

But I don't think that privilege—or at least the sort of trivial privilege you describe—really is the cornerstone of feminism. I think there are no small few self-described feminists who do concern themselves with trivialities, but I think the cornerstone of feminism is equal rights for women.

I submit that concern for triviality is a symptom of feminism's success: Women are not, at least as a matter of explicit or tolerant institutional authority, routinely raped, murdered, disenfranchised, and economically disempowered: Compare and contrast Western society with Islamic society.

This is not, of course, to say that women have achieved anywhere near full equality, but the institutional barriers to women's equality have been substantively weakened. (Of course, the recent trend of the Supreme Court to gut women's reproductive rights is a chilling step backward.)

DBB said...

BB - I included in the category of 'privilege' things like sexual harrasment at work, failure to get a job/promotion for gender, and things like that which are not trivial. Though it is true that a lot of those problems are less prevalent than before (and in some sectors of the economy they have been eliminated almost entirely), there is still enough of it out there that it makes sense to discuss it under the umbrella of privilege.

But I think you may be right - that discussing trivialities is a sign of success. I somehow think in the nations where women are genitally mutilated, sold as slaves, and raped by maurading armies that who gets credit for housecleaning is much of a concern. The fact that I've seen so many women cite it as a concern in the United States is probably a pretty strong indicator that a great deal of gender inequality has been eliminated or reduced.