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.