Nailed it! Warning- Lots of swearing.
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.
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?
One topic which has been ripping its way across Social Media recently is the issue of “The Friend Zone”, which is a hard concept to explain because there are are so many definitions of it out there. The one which is making the rounds on social media, however, looks like this:
- Person A likes Person B.
- Person B thinks Person A is a nice person, but not relationship material for them.
- Person A does lots of nice things for Person B to try and get them into a relationship.
- Person A eventually gets frustrated when Person B still isn’t interested, despite their efforts.
- Person A declares that Person B has “friend zoned” them and blames them for Person A not getting what they want.
(If you want a slightly more colourful version, check out Chuck Wendig’s blog entry here.)
I have to say I’m torn on the whole Friend-Zone issue. People and relationships are complicated things, and simple absolute terms rarely apply across all situations. Yeah, being nice to someone because you want something from them (money, help, or sex) is a selfish and prickish thing to do, and if you use the whole “friend-zone” thing as an excuse to blame them for not doing what you want you’re definitely a jerk. On the other hand, people often (but not always) do know (consciously or unconsciously) of another’s intentions and then string them along to get what THEY want by giving hints but never promising anything.
So that’s (one) of the issues with the whole “friend-zone” thing- sometimes the person complaining really was a jerk, sometimes they were a victim, and sometimes both people were jerks. (And note, women do this crap all the time too, even if men all-too-often are the ones you hear complaining about it, so it’s mostly a male thing.)
This is one of the most fascinating discussions I’ve listened to in a while, and also one of the most sobering. Take the time to listen to this episode of the Cracked podcast, it’s 100% worth it, although a little unsettling in its conclusions. You don’t expect to get something this deep and thoughtful from a “comedy” podcast, but here it is…
Listened to it? (Really, go listen to it, it’s worth the time.)
Okay, now my own thoughts.
I think Jason’s pretty much 100% right, and while I wouldn’t quite call it a “hive mind”, I do think that societies function as organisms on a greater level than the individual which have their own goals and responses. The idea that societies produce the kinds of people they “need” makes sense if you look at it from this perspective and the children of each generation are shaped to suit the needs of that society by social forces.
Of course, his conclusions are pretty uncomfortable. When I first heard what he said, all I could think of was Mega-City One from the old Judge Dredd comics. Despite how the city is often portrayed post-1980’s in the comics, the original idea behind the city was that it was a city where everyone’s basic needs were taken care of by the state, and so the whole population existed in this everlasting condition of slight boredom. The city was essentially a warehouse of people who existed to exist, and this produced bizarre social trends and cultural movements which the comic played for darkly humourous social commentary.
However, looking at it with a more logical eye, I think the society he proposes might not be the worst option. Heck, as he says we pretty much do this already, we just call it something else. Those with ambition work, while those without ambition would just spend their time doing whatever it was they enjoyed and keeping out of trouble. Here in Canada we almost do this already with our extensive Welfare system, which many Conservatives harp on all the time and say we need to be rid of to “force them to work”. But the truth is we already have an “official” unemployment rate hovering around 7%, and the true rate is probably much much higher (the government manipulates the numbers so they don’t look bad), so if we were to force all those “welfare bums” out onto the street what work would there be for them? Do you want hundreds of thousands (or possibly millions) of unemployed, starving and desperate people dumped out into our society? How’s that going to benefit social stability?
Meanwhile, as he says, all those “welfare bums” put 100% of what the government gives them back into society and keep our economy going, so why should we begrudge giving them what they need to survive? If anything, it’s the rich people who hoard their money that actually take money from the system and work against the economy by not putting most of what they make back into circulation.
What’s the alternative anyways? We either give people what they need to live, and let them choose what to do with their lives, or we have a large excess population that is poor, increasingly desperate, and progressively on the verge of social unrest until revolution finally does happen. And when it does, everyone will lose- rich and poor.
Then again, it would solve some of the overpopulation problem. As Jason says, society has a way of correcting these things on its own.
I often think that we are merely becoming mobile data terminals, sub-cells of a greater internet brain that exist more in the virtual world more than we do the actual real and physical world. Perhaps this is irreverable and our destiny as a species, but it’s still sad to watch sometimes.
I’m as big a technology nerd as anyone, and I love my iPhone too, but there are times when I wonder if I’m not spending too much time interacting with media instead of people. What am I losing by putting my phone away and actually enjoying the company of those around me? Why do I always have to be entertained or occupied? Is it so hard to exist in the moment?
I grew up half of my life without the internet, but now it’s almost unfathomable for me to think about living without it. I can only imagine what it’s like for those who have grown up with it their whole lives, and in a personable and portable form that lets it be with them constantly in an everpresent way.
Some people in the comments on that video say that Google Glass will solve the problem, but I suspect its upcoming release will make things so much worse. Right now our phones are at least something that we physically have to take out and manipulate, but Google Glass will be always there, handsfree, and omnipresent.
For now, I do what I can. I try to do things in the real world when possible, and not always be listening or interacting with my phone. I try to enjoy the peace and quiet, and I try to be with the people I’m with. I don’t always succeed, but I feel I have to try. My technology should be something that I use as a tool, something that services me, not something I’m a slave to.
Balance in all things.
If I had to pick three words to describe this interview with Jeremy Rifkin, they would be terrifying, informative, and uplifting.
Why? Watch it and find out. A great interview.
Mind you, if you pay attention, he also says we’re about to be hit by another financial crisis. Sadly I think he’s right on the money, and this time Canada won’t be safe.
I’m for gun control. I have been for a long time, it’s probably just a natural part of being Canadian. I don’t think we need to carry around handguns to be safe in our country, and I have been all for the idea of restricting access to firearms as much as humanly possible because I believe it’s a heck of a lot harder to kill 40 people with a kitchen knife.
That is, until I listened to the most recent episode of Dan Carlin’s Common Sense podcast. (Which is one of the best shows Dan has ever done.) After which, an odd thing happened. I realized that my outlook on gun control has very likely been completely wrong. I mean, I try to keep an open mind about things, but Dan actually really changed my perspective, at least in regards to the United States. I still think gun control in Canada is a good idea but as far as gun control in the United States, it’s a lost cause and there are much better ways for anti-gun people to spend their time and resources. Guns are here to stay, and trying to take them away is stupid and unproductive for the most part.
So, what should be done?
The answer, as Dan rightly points out, is social programs.
Is it any co-incidence that Switzerland (4th most guns per person in the world), has 68 firearm crimes a year, in comparison with 9,369 in the USA (Number 1 in gun ownership)? I have always said I don’t mind the idea of paying more tax for people to be on welfare because I know that guaranteeing those people a minimum level of income reduces the crime in Canada quite a bit. In fact, the current government’s focus on cutting welfare/health has been one of the most worrying things about its policies.
I think if we take care of each other properly, the amount of crime (and the need for guns) naturally takes care of itself. I believe that the countries with the most social programs tend to have the least amount of violent crime because there are less desperate/alienated/sick people without options who commit those crimes.
As Dan says in the show, and I think even the most hardened pro-gun supporter could agree with, America needs to stop wasting time on anti-gun law, and start pushing for better mental health care for its people. There are a lot of poor, sick, desperate people out there afflicted with problems that can be solved (or at least alliviated) by modern medicine and treatments, and letting them and guns mix is a bad idea. Since guns are here to stay, people should focus on what they can change- helping their fellow man.
Then maybe there won’t be such a need for guns after all.