What is Privilege? Not experiencing, and understanding with difficulty

What could have been a tweet is becoming a small post instead, because I found a discussion in the comment section so enlightening that I want to quote it here, along with some of the original content. The starting point is a story of sexual harassment at a (as far I understand) atheist or sceptic conference. Now, as some people said, the harassment was not „serious“: She was in the elevator back to her room after a party early in the morning, and a guy who got into the elevator with her asked her to have coffee in his room or something. She declined, end of story.

The case becomes interesting and even illustrative because it pits two camps against each other that I both subscribe to: open communication (and sexuality) advocates and feminists. And because the fascinating issue of „privilege“ (in this case the classic „male privilege“) comes in, which I’m starting to find a useful figure of thought in a number of social issues. To give my conclusion away: I’m siding with the feminist critique. And here’s why:

The woman who made public her complaint about the guy’s behavior is Rebecca Watson, and here’s her summary (quoted from an article of hers about the back-and-forth discussions):

You may recall that last week I posted this video, in which I describe an unpleasant encounter I had with a fellow atheist that I thought might serve as a good example of what men in our community should strive to avoid – basically, in an elevator in Dublin at 4AM I was invited back to the hotel room of a man I had never spoken to before and who was present to hear me say that I was exhausted and wanted to go to bed.

I unfortunately couldn’t watch the video (yay, developing world internet) but on second reading I find it noteworthy how much apologies she feels she has to offer for taking offense — „he heard me say I was tired before“!

A probably prototypical criticism of her complaint is this, quoted by Watson from Stef McGraw from UNI Freethinkers:

My concern is that she takes issue with a man showing interest in her. What’s wrong with that? How on earth does that justify him as creepy? Are we not sexual beings? Let’s review, it’s not as if he touched her or made an unsolicited sexual comment; he merely asked if she’d like to come back to his room. She easily could have said (and I’m assuming did say), “No thanks, I’m tired and would like to go to my room to sleep.”

Now, I see two criticisms here (without any claim to being exhaustive). The first is the one Watson makes herself, saying that the comment in its first sentence

[…] demonstrates an ignorance of Feminism 101 – in this case, the difference between sexual attraction and sexual objectification. The former is great – be attracted to people! Flirt, have fun, make friends, have sex, meet the love of your life, whatever floats your boat. But the latter involves dismissing a person’s feelings, desires, and identity, with a complete disinterest in how one’s actions will affect the “object” in question.

True, but the to me more relevant line of thought starts when rising numbers of (especially male) commentators weigh in, like it seems even Richard Dawkins did (quoted from a comment by Jen McCreight):

The man in the elevator didn’t physically touch her, didn’t attempt to bar her way out of the elevator, didn’t even use foul language at her. He spoke some words to her. Just words. She no doubt replied with words. That was that. Words. Only words, and apparently quite polite words at that.

If she felt his behaviour was creepy, that was her privilege, just as it was the Catholics‘ privilege to feel offended and hurt when PZ nailed the cracker. PZ didn’t physically strike any Catholics. All he did was nail a wafer, and he was absolutely right to do so because the heightened value of the wafer was a fantasy in the minds of the offended Catholics. Similarly, Rebecca’s feeling that the man’s proposition was ‚creepy‘ was her own interpretation of his behaviour, presumably not his. She was probably offended to about the same extent as I am offended if a man gets into an elevator with me chewing gum. But he does me no physical damage and I simply grin and bear it until either I or he gets out of the elevator. It would be different if he physically attacked me.

What he basically says is: it’s all in her head. She had the freedom to interpret the guy’s „only words“ and it’s her own fault she interpreted in a way that offended her. And he ignores there are certain interpretations delivered by the context and history of men and women interacting, which he can be (and is) oblivious of because he is on the happy side of the gender divide in this respect. As Jen McCreight elaborates:

Words matter. You don’t get that because you’ve never been called a cunt, a faggot, a nigger, a kike. You don’t have people constantly explaining that you’re subhuman, or have the intellect of an animal. You don’t have people saying you shouldn’t have rights. You don’t have people constantly sexually harassing you. You don’t live in fear of rape, knowing that one wrong misinterpretation of a couple words could lead down that road.

You don’t, because you have fucking privilege.

And she links to a „privilege 101″ that has a nice metaphor about a furry dog and a lizard living together in a house in a temperate area, where the dog controls the air conditioning to keep the temperature low and nice for him. Now, when the lizard complains about the cold, the dog has no clue what cold feels like, because being too cold is no experience in his life. That’s his privilege, which, as is explicitly pointed out, is not his fault. The problem (and his wrong behavior) arises when he denies the feeling of cold could exist because he doesn’t know it, and makes a „in your head“ argument similar to Dawkins.

This is illustrated for human life with a (sadly commonplace) exchange about leering:

A man has the privilege of walking past a group of strange women without worrying about being catcalled, or leered at, or having sexual suggestions tossed at him.

A pretty common male response to this point is “that’s a privilege? I would love if a group of women did that to me.”

And that response, right there, is a perfect shining example of male privilege. [emphasis in the original]

Back to the dog and lizard, it looks like this:

So one day, she sees the dog messing with the A/C again, and she says, “hey. Dog. Listen, it makes me really cold when you do that.”

The dog kind of looks at her, and shrugs, and keeps turning the dial.

This is not because the dog is a jerk.

This is because the dog has no fucking clue what the lizard even just said.

Consider: he’s a nordic dog in a temperate climate. The word “cold” is completely meaningless to him. He’s never been cold in his entire life. He lives in an environment that is perfectly suited to him, completely aligned with his comfort level, a world he grew up with the tools to survive and control, built right in to the way he was born.

So the lizard tries to explain it to him. She says, “well, hey, how would you like it if I turned the temperature down on you?”

The dog goes, “uh… sounds good to me.” [emphasis in the original]

Back to humans, the relevant male privilege in a nutshell: „you don’t ever have to be wary of sexual interest“ [emphasis in the original].

This, as some commenters have rightfully pointed out, is of course not true, and that’s the twist in the privilege argument that I’m happy I found brought up and answered in the comments. Men do have to be wary of sexual interest in some circumstances, and not in all of them the perpetrator is another men (which isn’t even relevant to the argument, but an important point in its own right). In addition to that, one could talk about the (female) privilege of receiving sexual interest in the first place, the lack of which seems to be the reason why some men react so dismissingly to complaints about sexual harassment in the form of leering etc. The problem lies in the perspectives, as commentator LoneLobo sums up:

The parable is self-refuting because it both claims to offer knowledge of the subjective states of the dog and the lizard, then claims that precisely the reason privilege is incomprehensible to many dogs is because this sort of knowledge is impossible. That’s a big contradiction.

The practical effects on the parable are obvious: we have no way of knowing if the dog would not suffer equally by any change in temperature, or even if the dog also currently suffers as much or more than the lizard in the situation he is in. Thus, it is impossible to establish who has privilege in a situation, because that would require one of them or a third party knowing what both of them feel (which the parable says is impossible). It’s a logical contradiction. So the parable may be a fine illustration of the concept of privilege, but what it reveals is that this concept is severely flawed.

Which sounds reasonable, and can throw you into the abyss of relativism and so on. But got very wisely answered by a lauraT, thank you:

Listen, one thing. No the Lizard does not share some absolute knowledge of the Dog’s subjective existence, but he does have a better grasp on it than vice versa. Why? Because he lives in the Dog’s world, interacting with all of the structures that benefit the Dog and impede the Lizard.

This is like saying that any minority can’t possibly understand the majority world because they aren’t the majority, when the majority dominates almost every aspect of our shared culture and society except in the tiny niches said minority may have carved out as places to share their common aspect.

This minority, which doesn’t actually have to be a minority for this to be true, usually understands the dominant group better because they have to, they are constantly exposed to it and subjected to and often to exist on its terms.

The Other is not unfathomable, there is no “absolute otherness” in play here. We observe each other constantly, and part of the process of rectifying privilege is actually paying attention to the realness of the other persons experience, and that they may not have the option to conduct themselves on the same terms as you.

So, as always, a sound relativism or perspectivism is — relative. No side can objectively judge what the other side feels, nor is either side forever barred from learning and empathizing. But the starting point is obviously better (in terms of understanding the other’s life) for the party that has to live their life in the other’s world, so to speak, and has to do a lot of learning to get along.

But this is only a starting point, and in the knowledge of it we have to find ways of negotiating „privilege“, which so often finds the typical „but I am disadvantaged in this other area“ response (see my comment on Oppression Olympics if you haven’t already). We need to find a way to answer sentiments like increasing numbers of white people in the US feeling on the worse side of racism now [!], as indicated in a study also quoted by that same critical commentator. Again, this will have to be somewhere between objective and subjective. What in qualitative social research is called inter-subjective…

Datum: Sonntag, 3. Juli 2011 17:32
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