Thursday, February 12, 2009

When Privilege is a Handicap

Many of the responses from male commenters on this post on Feministing got me thinking about privilege in a new way. Generally we talk about being aware of your privilege because it will help you be a better listener and ally, it will make you more sensitive to the life conditions of those who were born into a different demographic than you were, and it will help you fight the inequities that are built into our social institutions. Generally we think of privilege as an unearned advantage, and when people won’t acknowledge their privilege and adjust their worldview and behavior accordingly, it becomes a character flaw that causes us to question their commitment to social justice.

However, now it occurs to me that privilege can work as a handicap in some situations. For instance, many of the male commenters on feminist blogs seem to have good intentions. Many of them seem to be legitimately interested in the topic at hand and curious about the feminist perspective. But often the discussion will hit the roadblock of their privilege, in that their ability to engage in constructive dialogue is severely restricted by the way they’ve been socialized. Constructive dialogue requires that the participants carefully and thoughtfully listen to each other before responding. In my experience, this is something that men in a patriarchal culture have generally not been socialized to do, especially if the other speaker comes from a marginalized group. Because male (white, heterosexual) voices are so often privileged in our culture, most men have acquired very poor habits that prevent them from truly participating in fruitful discourse without undergoing some profound changes in their attitude and approach to dialogue. It’s like they need “participatory discourse rehabilitation” or something (maybe I’ll patent the term and build up a giant marketing machine around PDR). The question is, how do you point this out to a well-meaning man without making him feel like he’s under attack? After all, the fact that he was socialized this way really isn’t his fault. But the way he chooses to conduct himself now is his responsibility.

This also offers an answer to the perennial question of feminist mothers with little boys: how do we raise our boys to be feminists in such a patriarchal cultural context? One answer is “teach them how to really listen.” It's a place to start, anyway.


  1. Anonymous2/12/2009

    Yay! I love your new blog! Nice post. I just usually dismiss commenters who obviously don't read the comments they're responding to as trolls, but I think it is good to make this distinction.

  2. i have to admit it seems pretty bizarre to think of privilege as a handicap, but i've definitly experienced this in conversation with my male friends.

    the question is, how do you teach boys to really listen to women in a cultures where they're consistently given the message that they don't have to?

  3. Anonymous2/12/2009

    It would've been nice to actually have intelligent conversation about that post. I wouldn't try to argue with anyone who actually has mra in their name. I guess my question is in a perfectly equal world, do you think men and women would have orgasms an equal amount? I find that hard to imagine. There is nothing that will make me orgasm every single time. I don't think 80% compared to men in relationships is the best we can do but I can't imagine getting to 100%.

  4. @Sarah, I'm not sure, except to create an environment within your home where everyone's voice is equally respected. And as they get older you can talk about everything - point out instances where a marginalized person is silenced, and instances of bad listening in general. There are examples of this even in cartoons and other kids shows, so it's somewhere to start, anyway.

    @lyndorr, I'm not sure about this either. First, I don't think it's true that men always come, but it's kind of shameful to admit that, so I'm sure accurate stats are hard to find. Then there's the issue that women are different from each other, so some of them will come all the time (like me) and others will always struggle. I think there has to be some pretty fundamental cultural shifts before we could really know, but I agree that we could most likely do much better than 80%.

  5. 'their ability to engage in constructive dialogue is severely restricted by the way they’ve been socialized.'

    Jenny Teichman called this inability for constructive dialogue the 'rooster factor', the need to be defensive about the views that you have been identified with. But in a masculinist culture which values certainty over uncertainties, you could say women are socialized into the rooster factor too.

  6. Sounds like an issue where an important consideration is the way that intent plays into the morality of choices and actions. If someone doesn't know that what they're doing is morally wrong, is that decision still morally wrong? How do you reconcile fault and responsibility in a meaningful way?

    I probably can't even talk with you about this without the conversation reducing itself to our respective ontological positions regarding mind, materialism, and free will. I think that we're just collections of matter and energy reacting the way physics makes us, and no one is ultimately responsible for anything in any traditional sense, it's just prudentially necessary for us to pretend they are in order to make society function. Makes it hard to know where to start talking about stuff like this with someone else who can think about it on that level.

    P.S. this is doubleb from feministing. It's nice to see you've started your own blog.

  7. While I think you make some important points, I wonder about the use of the term "handicap". Though it is a technically accurate term, it's worth remembering that it's also a term used to describe disabilities which do cause significant difficulties for people in mainstream society that simply are not faced by people because of privilege.

  8. @ EKSwitaj

    Yeah, that's a good point. I think I chose "handicap" because I wanted to indicate that these communication habits are so deeply ingrained, since we're socialized into patriarchal behavior expectations from such a young age, that it's kind of a part of who they are, rather than a superficial characteristic that can be easily changed. But there's probably a better word for it.

  9. I wrote quite an extensive piece about this last summer on my own blog: Safe space and Competition.

    Basically, sometimes it's not about being conditioned by privilege, but rather being conditioned by competition for privilege. Here's the nub of what I wrote then:

    my experience of growing up as a boy being taught by society to be a "man", is not that I was taught to be "forthright in my opinions", or to be "confident to express what I think". I was taught that if I want to be heard, I must compete with other men. This means developing a surface-level confidence to battle over other people speaking, and forthrightness to be able to prevent others from speaking over me in turn. I know that there has been feminist commentary on the presentation of masculinity as a contest for alpha-male status, and the "confidence" and "forthright expression of opinions" referred to above is not a "privilege" but a perceived necessary defence against that enforced role of masculinity. It's almost a Mutual Assured Destruction of conversational style. While everyone else is projecting the confidence/forthrightness façade, nobody else can afford to drop their own. In men's conversations, frequently, there are no equals. There are only adversaries.

    Now, you take that into a situation where other people do not use those aggressive tactics, and suddenly you're a loud-mouthed boor who stifles everyone else's conversation. Sound familiar?

  10. @ Matthew

    Yeah, this is a bit complicated. I tend to be a compatibilist on this kind of topic, and think that materialism is an acceptable way to explain things in some contexts, but doesn't quite capture all that's going on with human interaction. Of course, this is a rather unpopular view in philosophy. But I think that different models are useful for explaining different aspects of the human experience, and in this way sometimes opposing explanations aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.

    Thanks for commenting!

  11. @Snowdropexplodes

    I do think that men are conditioned by competition between men, but I also think the privileging of their voices over the voices of marginalized individuals creates a sense of entitlement that they're often unaware of. And you're right, once you take the competitive behavior out of it's original context it's seen quite differently.