The Power of Privilege

The concept of Privilege (in the modern social justice sense) was coined by Peggy McIntosh in 1988 in her essay White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies, and was intended as a new way of looking at social inequality. At its core, the concept is very simple- we are all born with certain social advantages and disadvantages and we should be mindful of this fact when dealing with/judging other people. It is meant (in its original academic intent) as a lens through which to view society and how people treat each other.

This sounds like a great idea for reducing inequality, and it can be- it’s a tool for encouraging empathy and sympathy with others through self-reflection. We definitely need more empathy in this world, as people all too often get locked into their own little bubbles of “reality” and generally don’t think a lot about the situations and perspectives of others. The philosophy that’s come up to surround the concept of Privilege is that we should be mindful of the advantages we have in life, and be using those advantages to help those around us who are less fortunate. Whether it’s being mindful of the challenges faced by women in a sexist environment, the struggles faced by the LGBTQI community, or even the advantages that being of the dominant social group in a society (white in the United States, for example), using the concept of Privilege to encourage empathy, equal media representation, and equality has the potential to make the world a better place for everyone.

Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, it hasn’t quite worked out that way.

While those passionate about social justice and inequality have been fast to see the benefits of using the concept of Privilege in a positive way, by in large, it has also come to be used in a number of negative ways as well.

1) As a way to force others to do your work for you while feeling you’ve accomplished something.

While the concept of Privilege should be used to further equality, instead it’s become a way to try to guilt people into following your own social agendas while doing as little yourself as possible. This happens time and time again in discussion of the arts and issues of Privilege, where those advocating social justice talk about diversity and the need for more viewpoints to be represented. Of course, this isn’t a bad thing, and diversity of viewpoints is good, but the problem is how and why they’re doing it.

Time and time again on Social Media, I see the same pattern. A discussion thread starts on the topic of inequality in the media or arts, or veers in that direction, and it turns into a giant debate about the representation of minorities in writing, audio drama, comics, film, etc. Okay, that’s fine, we’ve all seen discussions like this and it’s a good and healthy debate to have, but here’s where things will get sneaky.

Next time you see one of these debates, start to count the number of times words like “you” and “you should” and similar statements pop up. Then, for fun, try counting the number of “I” and “we” based statements. You’ll find that “you”-based statements will outnumber “I”-based statements in those discussions almost 10-1.

Why is this significant?

Well, you see, the point of the thread isn’t to talk about how WE are going to make media more equal, it is about how YOU are going to make media more equal. See the difference? It’s a pile of social justice believers trying to guilt each other (and the many more liberal minded people in the audience) into doing their work for them so that they can accomplish their goals while doing as little work as possible themselves. On top of that, it lets those with the social justice agenda feel they have accomplished something (slacktivism) while actually doing very little. I’ve seen countless threads where people will endlessly argue about how YOU should change your art to support their ideas of social justice, but for some reason they never get around to talking about how they are doing it. It’s a game as old as time- why do the work when you can get someone else to do it for you? And Privilege has turned into a big ole stick they can use to force you into it.

The concept of Privilege should be a way to help people reflect on how they can improve their work and themselves, but instead it’s all too often become a tool by which those with social justice agendas push others into furthering those agendas. And, of course, if people try to stand up those foisting their agendas on others, they’re told to “check their Privilege”…

2) To shut down conversation.

Sadly, while Privilege as a concept is meant to encourage discussion and exploration, in reality is it most often used to do the exact opposite. Wielding the word “Privilege” like a club, those in the pursuit of social justice often use it to silence the voices of those that they don’t agree with (because if you don’t agree with their ideas social justice, you’re evil, right?) and if someone says something or argues against them in a public forum the phrase “check your Privilege” is whipped out like a trump card to end the conversation.

  • “But, what if Venusians are partially responsible for their own economic situation and need to find new ways to rethink their lifestyles?”
  • “Check your Privilege! Venusian economics are the result of years of oppression by the Martians! How dare you sit there in your middle class Martian house with your middle class Martian job and suggest that there could be more complex causes to the situation than Martians being evil!”
  • “This was a show written by cats about feline life in the feline community, of course there aren’t any non-felines.”
  • “Check your Privilege! There should be more dog characters, or are you just racist?”

And if you try to argue against those who have slapped down the Privilege card, you are by default perceived to be siding with the status quo/oppressors, and are thus a Cat sympathizer/Martian supremacist who should no longer to be listened to by the community by virtue of your wrong-ness. You have offended the social justice/social media status quo that all right-thinking people should be following, and if you continue to argue you will be unfriended, blacklisted, and no longer welcome at significant social events.

Again, this was a tool for creating conversation and exploring the deeply nuanced nature of society, but now it’s become a tool for those in pursuit of social justice to shut down discussion and free speech with which they disagree- thus accomplishing the exact opposite. Speaking of nuance, this is another problem with wielding Privilege as it is all too often used in social media today…

3) Its very use in debate creates an automatic oppressor/oppressed dynamic

The moment the word “Privilege” enters a conversation, the person using that word is automatically labeling the person they’re using it against as siding with “the oppressor” against whatever minority viewpoint they support, and labeling themselves as a member of (or ally of) “the oppressed”. From the moment the word enters the conversation in a debate context, the person using it is claiming the moral high ground and framing the whole conversation around a struggle for equality that they support. Even if the person they’re using it against has valid points or arguments, it doesn’t matter- they’re automatically on the defensive and perceived by the audience to be supporting the “wrong” position and must now fight to justify themselves and their argument. (Something the person who just whipped out the word “Privilege” no longer needs to do because now they’re standing up against a bully, and who doesn’t want to side with the underdog?)

Going back to the previous point, the word “Privilege” has turned into a conversation killer than automatically gets all “right thinking” people to rally behind you. It biases the conversation, and poisons the whole debate by attacking the character of the person who is arguing against whatever position the social justice advocate is advocating. In a lot of ways, it’s indirectly calling anyone who argues against the social justice stance a “Nazi” and making them argue their way out of being a Nazi in the audience’s minds. (And who listens to Nazis? Other Nazis! That’s who!) This makes the whole argument a losing struggle, and one which will almost certainly end in a meaningless mess, which is natural because…

4) The whole concept of Privilege as used on Social Media is largely meaningless anyways.

The truth is, the whole way people use Privilege in online debate is pretty much a joke. To claim someone has Privilege over others is already a racist/classist/culture-ist statement, after all, we’re all individuals with different life experiences. The first rule of respecting others is recognizing that we all (rich, poor, black, brown, white, purple, polka-dotted, etc.) have our own unique experiences that come from our unique upbringings and that we shouldn’t be trying to label people or lump them into groups. When one person whips out the “Privilege” card, they have no way to knowing what the life is like of the person they’re arguing with, and even if they do know that person, there are so many things about ourselves that we hide from those around us. Taking a stance against “Privilege” is automatically attempting to label and classify others who you don’t know, and don’t have the right to classify. (Or, if you do, they get the right to label and classify you too!)

On top of that, anyone on the internet is automatically Privileged, since most of the world barely has TV, much less internet access. So it’s already a bunch of Privileged people arguing over who is more or less Privileged, which is pretty silly, when you think about it.

Like I said, meaningless.

Final Thoughts

So, after all this, should we stop using the word Privilege and throw out the whole idea? I mean, if it’s doing as much harm as it is good, is it worth keeping around? Like anything, the answer is- it depends. As a lens for viewing society and encouraging self-reflection, I think Privilege is a pretty good tool. It really could help us to make society better by making people think about things outside of their own little Monkey Sphere.

That said, the way people are using Privilege in the social media world has to change. Using it as a tool to beat others into submission to your personal social-political agendas is just wrong, and produces the opposite of conversation and diversity. Change comes from ourselves, and being leaders, not from pushing our beliefs on others and using social peer-pressure to force them to do what we want them to do. True diversity comes from free speech, and people being allowed to say and express things that you may not agree with. While everyone has the right to comment on what others do, and should discuss issues of inequality and social justice, shutting down voices doesn’t accomplish that goal and only breeds anger and resentment.

It’s a complex issue, and I don’t claim to have the answer, but the next time someone whips out the word Privilege in a conversation, think about what effect it has and why they’re really using it. Are they using it to really promote actual discussion of inequality, or just to promote themselves?




Why Feminists Need to Stop Using “Misogyny”

Words have power. Power given to them by their social and cultural context.

Different words have different strengths and will produce different reactions from people; for example, if I call someone a “dummy” they generally won’t get too upset, but if I call them a “f*cking idiot” there’s going to be a strong reaction from most people. The reason these two words produce different results is because of how often they’re used and when they’re used. The receiver understands the weight these words carry, and reacts according to that weight.

But, what if I call my friend a “f*cking idiot” all the time? Eventually, that term will lose its strong meaning and come to have a weaker meaning similar to “dummy”. This is just human nature- we get used to hearing something and slowly it becomes part of the normal background noise of life. It loses power, and even its meaning.

This is bad because it means when I need to use the stronger term to emphasize that something important is happening or to really make myself understood it isn’t there anymore. I’ve used it. Just like The Boy Who Cried Wolf- when he sounded the alarm too many times, people stopped coming or caring, and when he really needed it, it was too late.

And this is what’s happened to the word “misogyny”.

Misogyny, which literally means “hatred of women”, used to be a very powerful word in the feminist arsenal. And rightly so- it was used to describe cases of extreme sexism where the hatred of women was so strong it was violent or abusive. To call someone a misogynist was equal to calling them a Nazi, and saying they were the lowest type of human being, bordering on evil. If a woman cried “misogyny!” and pointed at something, other women listened, and it was like a battle cry for the feminist cause.

It was a rare word, a powerful word, and one which drew attention to great injustice.

Sadly, that is no longer the case.

Today on my social media pages, it’s almost a strange day when I don’t see the word “misogyny” somewhere in my feed. My more feminist friends are constantly linking to articles with that word liberally used within them, and the internet is filled with articles using it. (1.3 million hits on Google, and counting!) As a result, the word is very rapidly going from “hatred of women” to mean “stuff some women don’t like” in the popular internet consciousness.

We have a whole generation of young women growing up thinking the words Sexism (favouritism or preference towards one sex) and Misogyny are the same words, when they’re not at all. The majority of the discrimination women face is Sexist, not Misogynist, because it’s not coming from a place of hatred so much as a place of unfair attitudes towards gender roles in society. A toy maker or TV show producer who chooses only to target a male audience is being sexist, they’re giving preference to one sex, they’re not being misogynist. (Unless you can show they have made clear statements that they in some way actively hate or dislike women or girls.) And, calling them Misogynist does more harm than good because it dilutes the meaning of the word even further.

But, who cares, right? They’re being unfair, and it doesn’t matter what word we use to target them!

The problem is, it does matter.

The more you use it, the more it fades into the background, and the easier it becomes for people to just ignore. It takes on a cultural meaning of “noisy feminist stuff” and no longer gains the attention it deserves when it’s used in a proper context. And this is a shame, because it’s a strong word and a good word to have when fighting for social justice, but only if it’s properly used.

After all, when it loses all meaning, who will come when the cry is made?


Who was the rhetorical worst person in history before Hitler?

Today, the Führer is universally recognized as the embodiment of evil and the most convenient example of a truly terrible human being. Before World War II, who was the rhetorical worst person in history?


The Pharoah.

via Hank Williams Jr. firing: Who was the rhetorical worst person in history before Hitler? – Slate Magazine.

Written Chinese (full)

Yesterday during my Chinese Language class an interesting topic came up: why do the Chinese people keep using their traditional writing system. Currently, as I’m sure almost all of you know, the Chinese use a system based on writing picture symbols (although the picture element has become extremely abstract) where each Chinese Character (called HanZi in Chinese) represents both an idea and a sound. Unlike English, Greek, Arabic or any of the other phonetic writing systems used by most of the world where each symbol represents a sound, HanZi have no inherent sound beside the one that people memorize to go with it. If you study English alphabet and pronunciation for a week, you can read almost anything ever written in English, your pronunciation might be off and you won’t understand what you’re reading, but you will be able to read it because it’s just codified pieces of sound. If you know the code, you can read it, it’s that simple, and on top of that it ties the written language and the spoken language deeply together.

In Chinese, this connection is made more difficult because with HanZi, you either know them or you don’t, and if you don’t you have almost no hope of pronouncing them. (There are a few tricks that can allow a native speaker to guess, but it’s nothing certain.) This makes learning to write Chinese infinitely more difficult than learning to write English, and creates a situation where people who study Chinese for years still cannot read a book if they haven’t been also memorizing the HanZi as they go.

And, there are over 50,000 HanZi! Of them roughly 10,000 being in common use, and roughly 3000 being essential to handling a general language text like a newspaper. This means that while growing up Chinese children are spending huge amounts of academic time just memorizing HanZi through rote memorization. And that’s just the individual HanZi, they’re usually used in combinations of 2 to 4 characters which can change the meaning completely so they also have to be memorized. Quite the feat, actually, maybe they really are smarter than us!

So, we come to my classmate’s question: “Isn’t that a huge waste of time? Wouldn’t the children and society be better served by using a phonetic writing system like English and spending that memorization time on arts, history, music, physical education, science or any number of other subjects or activities?”

The Japanese, Koreans and even the Taiwanese realized this to a degree, all of them developing phonetic writing systems to use alongside the HanZi in varying degrees. The Taiwanese just use their phonetic system as a stepping stone for children to learn first before they learn HanZi, the Japanese use a hybrid of HanZi mixed with phonetics and the Koreans do the same as the Japanese but use the least number of HanZi of all three in their writing system. Both the Japanese and Koreans are actively trying to remove the HanZi from their writing systems, but finding it difficult for the same reason the Chinese are reluctant to remove them: homonyms.

For those who slept through grammar (I know I did, and now I teach it! O_o! Ironic!) a homonym is a word that is pronounced the same as another word so they share the same sound but have different meanings. Well, these asian languages are filled with Homonyms, especially Chinese which has an almost horrific number of them. In speaking, they tell them apart by pronunciation tone and context, but in writing the only way they could come up with to tell them apart was to create separate characters to represent them.

Now, I do have to admit, HanZi are pretty useful once you get used to them, and in fact during Chinese class there are often times when I wish I was looking at the HanZi so I knew which Chinese word written in PinYin the teacher had just written on the board. While PinYin does use Tone Markers to distinguish between words with the same basic sound, I find it’s often not enough to be sure which word you are looking at since often several homonyms can also be pronounced with the same tone.

Also, HanZi, as some have pointed out, are the spirit and culture of the Chinese people. Those symbols represent a way of thinking different from western thought (so different they use the other side of the human brain when decoding them) and contain deep meanings that often go beyond simple sound. When a Chinese person reads a poem they are not just reading the sound, but looking at a piece of artwork as the HanZi are also carefully chosen to elicit certain ideas or feelings on a level beyond simple phonetic communication. Of course, through word choice an English poet can do the same thing to a degree, how big a degree I don’t know because I’m not bilingual enough to compare the two. Nor am I likely to be for a long time, thanks to the degree of difficulty in learning the HanZi system.

Newsweek and Time have both recently had cover stories questioning Does the Future Belong to China? and as someone who is sitting on China’s doorstep I have often asked myself the same question. Having a neighborly view into China’s windows I have been watching the giant carefully as it moves and deals with an exploding economy and world class status in it’s higher levels of society. I often ponder China’s future in the world, and consider where it will go from here and if it can overcome the numerous obstacles it faces.

One of those obstacles I can clearly see hindering them is their language, specifically the writing system I am talking about in this journal. As someone who has studied both Mandarin Chinese and Japanese (both touted at times to be the “language of the future”) I can’t help but notice how few people (foreigners) actually manage to stick with and learn these languages to any real degree of proficiency. Most get as far as “survival” level, and then tend to quickly give up anything more simply because it’s just too hard, and one of the major obstacles I’ve noticed kills most of their enthusiasm is learning to read and write.

If I were to study Spanish, as soon as I began to master the spoken language I could begin putting the written language to work, and the same is true for almost any other phonetic language. This would let me practice and work in that language; improving my skills even if I didn’t have a person who spoke the language to practice with. Yes, each phonetic language has it’s quirks, and sometimes languages vary in their spoken and written forms, but for the most part phonetic languages are intimately tied with their written forms. And, it’s the very discontinuity between spoken and written Mandarin (and Japanese and to a lesser extent Korean) that makes them not only hard to learn but will prevent them from becoming global languages.

When you couple this with the simple point that it’s hell to program a computer in Chinese, which means that programmers learn how to program in English, and the languages of business and science are still English, you see why Chinese learn English and not the other way around. I’m not complaining, it means more work for me, but since my classmate brought up the above point I have been thinking about this a lot. Wouldn’t the people of China be better served by creating and using a new written language based on phonetics instead of symbols? I’m not saying they should use the English system like PinYin, but even that would be better than being stuck with a language that is both impractical and in the long term limits their ability to compete on a global cultural scale.

And any language which can’t compete will eventually die off, no matter how many poor people speak it. Like a corporation, if a language is not expanding, it’s dying because another language will be expanding around it.

I know it won’t happen, but if Chinese is to be around for another 6000 years, there’s going to need to be a few changes made, because they’re not isolated anymore and they can’t afford to be sentimental if they want their culture and language to survive.