Privilege [priv-uh-lij, priv-lij] noun 1. A right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most: the privileges of the very rich.
I recently got into a discussion on a popular forum concerning Literary Chauvinism, which I called a bullshit feminism term. The premise of the article, was that there are a corps of men out there who read only male writers, deeming women writers inferior. This is why there are so few women writers in the cannon…blah blah blah. It’s bullshit and it’s an excuse for bad writing. I’m not saying there aren’t tremendously good female writers, there most certainly are. And I’m not saying they’ve gotten their due in the cannon, they have not. But it’s not just because men won’t read them. I do believe, though, that there is a small group of, and not only men as this isn’t a gender-specific issue, who will buy books they think will look good on their shelves, but never read them. Molly Fischer in her article goes after the David Foster Wallace fanboys specifically, but you know the type; great works on the bookshelf at home in pristine condition as the person has never really read them (maybe they saw the movie). I’ll even admit that I have DFW on my nightstand, but I keep taking breaks. That shit is hard to read. I find myself constantly stopping to review and ponder what I just read. I don’t entertain a lot, and least of all in my bedroom, to my chagrin, so I’m devoid of pretense in that arena. Ultimately, I think it’s a bullshit term. People don’t read books to support a gender. If they do read mostly male or female it’s either because that’s an issue for them (either way, they’re assholes if they pick books by gender of the author), or it’s coincidence due to taste. Doesn’t it make sense for a male reader to choose books written by men and gender is such a huge part of who we are and a male author would speak to that same experience?
So the person that commented back basically said I should back off the MRA a bit and basically asserted that it’s not a bullshit term because of “privilege.” This is, in my opinion, the concept that everything I have and am is because I was lucky enough to be born a white, straight male. Now, I do get the concept in general and yes, I understand that it’s much easier, still, to be a white, straight male in this society than every other race/gender/sexual orientation. And gladly, that is changing for the better. My problem is that I think it’s also bullshit. Not just from a personal standpoint, from which I responded because I’m a single-dad of three kids who has not only worked for everything I have (I’m not rich nor were my parents; my mom has a sixth grade education and immigrated here from Ireland), served my country (USN; First Gulf War), served my community (911 Operator/Dispatcher for my state’s police for a period of time), and just a generally good citizen. I realize that’s easier for me to do that even as US culture grows up and sheds some of these outdated values, but still, I don’t think “checking my privilege” is the answer. Just because I fit into a demographic is no reason to suggest I, or anyone else does not deserve an opinion.
But that led me down another path, because, even though it’s the internet, I feel a sense of obligation to constantly re-examine and educate myself. In doing so, I’ve come up with this, very high-level and source-lacking theory:
Privilege is Bullshit.
The premise is that white, straight patriarchal society is to blame for all the world’s ills right now, and anyone who is, actively or incidentally, a part of that demographic has no right to criticize anyone except those within that demographic. Kinda makes for one-sided arguments then doesn’t it? But that’s the beauty of the victim mentality; you’re always beyond reproach or criticism because anyone that would is attacking you and part of the problem. Like I said, “Bullshit.” But I’ll keep digging. Why is my demographic “privileged?” Because white, straight men ruled the Western World for so long on the backs of others. They conquered and enslaved the rest of the world and now owe it reparations. Let’s go with that. How then did they do that? The prevailing wisdom for centuries was because the white race was some how more advanced than all the others (ok, maybe not Asians, but let’s not talk about them all the way over there in the East and all). We know now that’s bullshit, though it was accepted all the way into the 20th-century (and I’ll wager there are far too many white people who still believe it; I’m not one of them, of course because that’s just silly).
Jared Diamond in his book and documentary “Guns, Germs and Steel” is the most famous anthropologist to research and come up with the most accessible theory on why race is not a factor in Western Civilizations domination of much of the world, and I’m going to rely on that…heavily. Dimon suggests that rather than race, climate and environment are the two key factors in European domination of much of, if not all of, the Western hemisphere and beyond. Europe was a temperate zone lending itself to the best growing conditions to build an agrarian society with, and it did so. The environment was also amenable to the best grain crops and livestock, allowing the perfect conditions for growing food with minimal effort compared to other temperate zones. So, Europeans grew crops and livestock (the most varied in the world; cows, pigs, goats, sheep, fowl, horses) allowing them to spend time advancing methods and technology, and the means to defend their territory. Animal husbandry on and expanded level in comparison with the rest of the world, exposed them to a variety of diseases building their immunity and making white people little bio-chemical weapons when they began exploring other lands. In this crucible arose a well-armed and infectious group of people with advanced technology, the means to travel to distant lands and a thirst for riches and land to add to a rapidly crowding, European continent. And when they got to these lands, they were at a great advantage to the native population who had not had the same advantages in climate and environment. Between the weapons and disease, they didn’t stand a chance. Tragic, truly, but, and this may sound callous, the way of Nature, no? Nature does not play favorite to the weak. Any animal that has an advantage, be it size, teeth, defenses, survives, and we are part of that Nature.
In fact, the premise for Diamond’s research is that without those advantages and due to the limitations of their own climate and environment, natives of Papua New Guinea never developed past the Neolithic age. They had very little opportunity to develop agriculture or technology, remaining trapped in a hunter/gatherer stone age. It had nothing to do with their race and any sort of anthropological difference impacting their development.
So my first contention is that, had any other continent enjoyed the same advantages, would they have not used them in the same manner. Maybe not, but I doubt it. Once the population started bursting the seams of their homeland, Africans, South Americans, North Americans, South Asians, Arabs…any of these civilization could have (and have in some cases), looked to and coveted their lesser equipped neighbors. It could just as easily been Africa that dominated the world given the same advantages in climate and environment. Certainly Africans, within the parameters of their own environment, did not lack in ambition to conquer each other and other lands (ever heard of Egypt?).
My second contention is similar; it’s purely evolutionary happenstance that men ruled for so many centuries. These roles were determined by physiology. Males were the hunters and defenders of the hearth because female were designed to carry children to ensure the proliferation of the species. There was no caveman convention to intentionally keep cavewomen barefoot and pregnant, the roles organically happened over a great deal of time. Should we evolve past that? YES! Will it happen overnight? NO! Maybe those roles, based on millions of years of evolution, will reverse and women will have their day ruling the earth? I would love to be the guy woken up after thousands of years of sleep into a world run by women that is on the verge of the same role reversal. Groups of men, feeling subjugated and marginalized fighting for their place in society and a shot at running the show again and go “AHA! I was right!” Likely gender will no longer be a thing. Maybe we’ll evolve into a species devoid of sexuality or gender? Or even race. Everyone will just be human; a mix of all humanity and these concepts will be laughed at.
Until then, though, you can only point the “male privilege” finger at those who purposefully advocate it. It’s incidental to who were are and only culture has made this an issue. To argue that I, as a white, straight male owe anyone anything or that I have no right to an opinion is as ludicrous as those Neanderthals (and I’ apologize to any Neanderthals who do not share the stereotype) who suggest women are the “fairer sex,” (purely from an aesthetic viewpoint, though, women are prettier…for the most part).
Finally, sexual orientation; the straight, white male has privilege over all other sexual orientations. While this is also true, from a historical and, until very recently, cultural standpoint, it’s also incidental. No one chooses their sexual orientation. It’s who we are as much as race and gender. How then, unless, once again, a person advocates one over all others, can you assume a white, straight male is privileged?
I can hear the dull roar of righteous indignation as I typed those words. “But that is exactly what ‘privilege’ is and you as a straight, white male benefitted from it.” This is true and where my argument becomes dicey. Yes, race, gender and sexual orientation have historically played into the favor of white, straight males, but do they now and have they really in my lifetime? How can you say that I have benefitted now when I am not even allowed to take credit for what I’ve earned through hard work in my lifetime? LGBT Pride parades have been happening for decades. Same Sex Marriage has finally been recognized by the law of the land, the Supreme Court and there is a public outcry against the Religious Freedom Act, which would guarantee the right of anyone to discriminate based on their religious beliefs. The tide has turned in my lifetime. Am I fighting against that? NO! I embrace it. I long for it. It breaks down all the barriers and proves that this society has a chance at succeeding where so many others failed. If you looked at it purely from the standpoint of advantage, why would I support any movement that seeks to reduce my benefits? I would be on the side of those that seek to limit or eliminate those rights and go back to the straight, white patriarchy that would guarantee my “privilege.” And I am truly not alone. The majority of straight, white men in this country are on the side of change. They long to see these changes and right wrongs. If that were not true, then where would these causes be? If the majority of my societal niche were against Same Sex Marriage, do you really think it would have had a chance?
In a nutshell, here is why I think Privilege is bullshit:
1 – Guns, Germs and Steel: As Diamond proved, there is no racial advantage to being white. It’s purely luck that white Europeans were in a position to rule the world for the length that they have. Any other society would most likely have done the same if they’d had those same advantages of environment and climate.
2 – Gender Roles: These were not invented by men to subjugate women. These were imposed on us by Nature; or the nature of gender with regard to biology. They are also incidental. I did nothing to “earn” my maleness, but then again, I had no control over it.
3 – Sexual Orientation: As it is not a choice, the same argument as before; it’s incidental. Furthermore, if the majority of society were for the continued characterization of any sexual orientation other than CIS, all others would continue to be marginalized.
Privilege is bullshit! The concept not only hurts those that don’t benefit from it, but those that do. Espousing the idea that if you have benefitted in any way from incidental characteristics you had no control over, in some way invalidates your viewpoints or means you should handicap yourself in everything you do, is just as ridiculous as thinking your race, gender or sexual orientation entitles you to something you don’t deserve. I did not get my job because of privilege. In fact, when it comes to privilege, I’m a liability. Wouldn’t it have been so much better for my company to hire a female or non-white person? Diversity is key, especially in the corporate world, and I am at the bottom of that list.
Think for a minute. If all of us (and by us I mean the multitude that do NOT create policy or ensure that they remain in the seat of privilege; the 1%, the rich, the powerful) stopped vying for the winning ticket in the victim status lottery, what we could accomplish.