Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Hello, privilege. It's not that nice to meet you.

First, "privilege" is a loaded and misunderstood term.  If you have never read it before, please take the time to read the very excellent Of Dogs and Lizards: A Parable of Privilege.  Seriously, read it and come back.  I'll wait.

Back?  Ok, awesome.  So the first time I noticed privilege was when I noticed it in other people who were in a majority about an issue that I was a minority on.  Privilege is rather easy to see from that side.  I was pagan at the time, and there was a local lawsuit regarding a high school graduation that was taking place at a local megachurch with an enormous cross in the background.  A non-Christian objected and filed suit.  The details of the case are not terribly important.  An electrical engineer that I worked with at the time commented that she thought the whole thing was ridiculous - what was the big deal about a cross?  I tried to get her to imagine what an uproar there would be if Christian parents had to take graduation pictures of the children in front of a 40-foot tall pentacle, but mostly my co-worker just couldn't imagine what it would be like to not belong to the mainstream belief system.  Those thorns were unknown to her, because she had never been pricked by them.

I didn't know it was called privilege back then, but this was the beginning of me realizing that people could act like assholes without meaning to, without realizing it, and with a surprising inability to even have it pointed out to them.  What is being said to them is just so far outside of their worldview that it can't be absorbed;  not easily, anyway.

Apart from the area of religious identity, I've been on the privileged side of privilege.  When Barack Obama was elected president, I was stunned by how emotional Black Americans became.  I knew that they would be excited, obviously, we were making history here, and an obvious stride towards equality.  Still, I was taken aback by the intensity of it.  I asked a black woman to give me some insight.  This is what she said:

"After this, I can tell my children that they can be anything they want to be in this country, and not be lying to them."

It was a glimpse of how little idea I had about what it is to be black in this country.  I still didn't know it was called privilege.

More recently, Elevatorgate broke out in the atheist community.  The setting is an atheist convention, 4a.m.  A female speaker, who had earlier during her talk said that she was uncomfortable with being sexualized at these conventions, was just leaving the bar.  She announced that she was tired, and heading to bed.  A man got on the elevator with her, expressed that she was interesting, that he would like to talk to her more, and asked if she would like to come up to his room for coffee.  She declined, he accepted that gracefully, and that was that.

Later, in a vlog entry, she described the incident and said "Guys, don't do this."  The comments became heated quickly, with women generally saying "Yes, don't do this." and men generally saying "Don't do what? Talk  to women we find interesting?" It became a thing and descended into a lot of name-calling, and I think contributed greatly to the forming of a schism within the atheist movement.  At the core of it all is privilege, or to use a clearer description, the issue is that women and men see this narrative completely differently.

In general, men see a guy who was polite, who asked a question, was told no, and accepted that no.  This is what we're supposed to do, right?  "No means no!"  Ok, got it.  But how do we know what her answer is if we don't ask?  What's wrong with asking a polite question?  And so on...

This was basically my view of the matter when I read about it.  It was expressed by Richard Dawkins, and many others.  Basically, "The guy did nothing wrong, he asked a question.  So what?"

Honestly, I would have dismissed the whole thing right there, except for some people who I trust to be fair-minded about these things blogging in support of the woman.  So I looked deeper.  I started by asking my partner, Aly, what she thought of the whole thing.  Her response was immediate, and echoed what many other women had said.  Basically, "Getting into an elevator with me at 4am and asking me back to your room is not ok." There was some room in Aly's view for context, body language, and so on, but clearly the issue was more complex than a simple invitation, and the elevator setting and late hour both had a lot to do with that.  She described for me what it is like to live in perpetual fear of being raped, which reduced me to tears.  Again, I had no idea that women are living like this.  I mean, was aware that they had to be cautious or something, but... what the fuck?  Ever Mainard illuminates some of this in her stand-up routine, Here's Your Rape:.  A Jezebel article described this routine as being within the realm of acceptable rape humor, for making fun of rape culture rather than rape victims, but I mostly found it horrifying because I've never before gotten to see this from a woman's perspective.
"The problem is that every woman in her entire life has that one moment when you think, 'Oh! Here's my rape!'"
Seriously, W.T.Fuck?  How do we accept a society where anyone has to live like that?

I knew by now that privilege was the label for why I couldn't perceive how painful and difficult it was to be not-me in this context.  It still baffled me some, and I still experience cognitive dissonance about it, but I believe her.  She would know what it's like to be a woman, after all, and I wouldn't.

Last night a friend sent me a link to Schrodinger's Rapist, another post that I really, really highly recommend.  Again, reading through this, I find myself thinking "Are you kidding me?  What's wrong with that?".  But then I scroll down, and I read the comments, and I see all of the women who strenuously agree that this is how they feel about it, and I doubt myself.  I still don't understand it all, and I still haven't reconciled my worldview with theirs, but...

I also know that they're not just being hysterical, or overreacting.  Their position seems foreign to me because they live in a different world than I do, but I believe them.  It contradicts my intuition that I should have the right to strike up a polite conversation with anyone, anywhere, at anytime.  Still, I can see that I'm in the position of "privilege" in this context, that there are thorns that have never pricked me, that I am unaware of some things that are very important to the people who are disagreeing with me.  It's cause to pause, to refrain from dismissing, and to really try to understand where they're coming from.

This is where it all starts.  I'm wrong about some things, after all.

1 comment:

  1. I realize that the Schrodinger's Rapist concept is well-intentioned, but it's "soft bigotry". To assume that more than three billion people think the same way about anything is absurd. It simply reinforces male privilege. It grants men the reality of the amazing variation of opinions that a human brain is capable of, but treats women as merely clones of an archetypal timorosity.

    Furthermore, the entire premise of Elevatorgate is based on a bigoted view of Skeptics. If this had happened anywhere else, the sheer improbability of someone giving a speech about a worldwide problem and then just the next morning facing such an exaggeratedly perfect example of it would make it obvious that the event is a parable. One likes to believe that telling parables is a sin Skeptics are too enlightened to commit, but that's bigotry. The foibles of human nature strike everyone with equal opportunity.