Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Addressing Privilege: "Acknowledge the distress while continuing to point out the difference in scale"

In this excellent, excellent piece on addressing privilege, Doug Muder goes beyond "Fuck privilege" to discuss how to effectively engage gatekeepers. His piece is itself a commentary on this (marginally less excellent) piece by Owldolatrous, which is a response to the recent kaffufle over the head of Chick-Fil-A's homophobic comments. Reading Muder's post, I felt like someone had clearly articulated something I've been trying to say for a long time.

Owldolatrous sets out a reasoned response to claims by homophobic Christians that they're not being "tolerated" by people who criticize their hostility toward e.g. gay marriage. The homophobic Christian complaint goes something like this: 'I don't hate gay people, but I do believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Can't we just agree to disagree? You're being bigoted toward me when you attack my moral convictions.' See for a real-world example Bristol Palin's comments:

In their simplistic minds, the fact that I’m a Christian, that I believe in God’s plan for marriage, means that I must hate gays and must hate to even be in their presence. 

 Part of the problem with this attitude, Owldolatrous explains, is that the injustice of homophobia doesn't exist solely at the level of individuals, but at the level of society. In a sense, you can't see it unless you take a bird's-eye view. So it doesn't make sense to compare homophobia to "intolerance" of homophobia on a purely person-to-person level: you have to appreciate the larger context.

And the job discrimination, violence, social and family ostracization, etc. that queer people face is qualitatively different from the social stigma or criticism that e.g. conservative Christians sometimes get. Muder and Owldolatrous don't simply write-off the latter stigma; social pressure against being openly Christian is real and merits compassion. But it's qualitatively different from the pressure applied against queer people. Muder illustrates this difference by comparing it to the pressure the feminist movement (and reactions against it) imposes on men and women, quoting one of our best living novelists:

Margaret Atwood is supposed to have summed up the gender power-differential like this: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.”

Part of what's going on in e.g. Palin's head, Owldolatrous explains, is supremacism, (which in this case is roughly synonymous with hetero-normativity). People with privilege (i.e. power which corresponds to someone else's disempowerment) can pretty easily slip into supremacist attitudes by thinking that because their privilege is real it is right. This slippery association between is and ought is built into our very language: "normal" can mean "usual," but it also refers to "norms." So for example white privilege takes the form of a print-, TV-, and internet-media using white actors to represent humans in general, while e.g. black actors are only representatives of black people in general. White is normal.

Muder's post does a great job of illustrating this with reference to a scene from the 1998 film Pleasantville. Mr. Parker returns home from work, calling out "Honey, I'm home" as he walks through the door. Every other time he's done this, a loving family and a warm meal have been waiting for him. This time, though, his wife, kids, and dinner are absent (elsewhere in the plot, his wife is getting Women's Lib'ed). Parker wanders around, confused and hurt by the sudden shift in power relations. Muder explains:

So I think it’s worthwhile to spend a minute or two looking at the world from George Parker’s point of view: He’s a good 1950s TV father. He never set out to be the bad guy. He never meant to stifle his wife’s humanity or enforce a dull conformity on his kids. Nobody ever asked him whether the world should be black-and-white; it just was. 

George never demanded a privileged role, he just uncritically accepted the role society assigned him and played it to the best of his ability. And now suddenly that society isn’t working for the people he loves, and they’re blaming him. 

It seems so unfair. He doesn’t want anybody to be unhappy. He just wants dinner.

Muder's empathy for the privileged, as embodied in George Parker, seems to me to be essential to any constructive critique of privilege. Muder uses this example to frame his summary and discussion of Owldolatrous' post. He concludes (my bold):

Once you grasp the concept of privileged distress, you’ll see it everywhere: the rich feel “punished” by taxes; whites believe they are the real victims of racism; employers’ religious freedom is threatened when they can’t deny contraception to their employees; English-speakers resent bilingualism — it goes on and on.

When people accustomed to privilege find that privilege threatened, they feel attacked. They tend not to see the deeper injustice which their critics are trying to address (part of having privilege is that you don't have to think about it). They just know that things used to be normal, and now things are changing and people are making apparently unfair demands on them.

And that feeling of being attacked they get, that's real. It's legitimately distressing to have one's privilege questioned (your author speaks from personal experience), and such distress deserves compassion. Muder laud's Owldolatrous' approach to this problem (my bold):

The Owldolatrous approach — acknowledging the distress while continuing to point out the difference in scale — is as good as I’ve seen.

Acknowledging the real distress of the privileged while continuing to point out the vast difference between their distress and the distress of the oppressed--this is a sentiment I applaud. This is a way to make real social change, rather than alienating and scapegoating. Please imagine me clapping right now, because I am.

Owldolatrous and Muder have provided me with a model which escapes the dilemma of assholery vs. dilettantism:

Confronting this distress is tricky, because neither acceptance nor rejection is quite right. The distress is usually very real, so rejecting it outright just marks you as closed-minded and unsympathetic. It never works to ask others for empathy without offering it back to them. 

At the same time, my straight-white-male sunburn can’t be allowed to compete on equal terms with your heart attack. To me, it may seem fair to flip a coin for the first available ambulance, but it really isn’t. Don’t try to tell me my burn doesn’t hurt, but don’t consent to the coin-flip.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link and for the analysis. Your blog is now in my newsfeed.

-Wayne Self (aka Owldolatrous)