Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Talking While Privileged - A continuing series

I write a lot about privilege and I have a lot of privilege. I've long argued that it's important to be very thoughtful when writing about academic labor while tenured, gender while male, race while white, disability while able-bodied, and so forth.

When writing about a given power dynamic, I often have the power by virtue of my race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc. And yet, I really do want to engage on these important issues. What to do?

My response was to come up with some guidelines, writing first about gender (my rules for male feminist discourse) then academic privilege. In the wake of #UCSB, I've been watching men talk, even men who take the label of feminist, perhaps especially men who call themselves feminists, who could really use these rules.

For example, here are two posts on Charles Clymer, who has said some amazingly offensive things in pursuit of his perfect male feminism. Some of the issues here aren't new, but they have re-emerged in recent days. Here's one particularly telling quote:
"Stephanie, I'm going to let you in on a little secret that, apparently, no one has had the guts to tell you up to this point in your life: having a vagina does not grant you magical powers of perception and nuance anymore than my penis magically blinds me from the horrors of the world.
This may, I guess, have some truth in it. Our genitalia does not necessarily determine our degree of knowledge. And yet, our gender identity does position us on various power spectra that come into play here.

So for Mr. Clymer and anyone else who need it, it feels like it might be a good time to revisit my rules, with a few revisions.
  1. Don't talk at all. Listen for awhile. 
  2. It's not about you (it's about the people with less privilege)
  3. It's sometimes about you (i.e. it's very important that men talk to men about rape)
  4. It's always about them, so amplify their voices.
  5. When you speak, don't expect gratitude and take criticism graciously.
Make sure, throughout the process, that the people with less privilege, with less power, have their voices at the center of the discussion. For example, I never publish about feminism or gender, or really just about anything, without linking to articles written by women, usually women of color, and preferably naming them and their expertise in public. 

I do this for two reasons: One, rule #4. 

Two, these people are brilliant. And while folks such as Amanda Marcotte, Brittany Cooper, Jessica Valenti, Soraya Chemaly, Melissa McEwan, Tressie McMillan Cottom, just to name a few who I read and from whom I learn, don't especially need me to amplify their voices, they lead me to lesser known feminist writers who do.
Men have a crucial place in this conversation. But instead of asserting it, I try to ask those who are disadvantaged by the power dynamics what would they like from me? Sometimes, I get told to listen. Sometimes, I get told to call out sexism when I see it. Sometimes, I get told there is in fact no place for me in this conversation. I think that's wrong, but by understanding the privilege at play, thinking about my rules, I let such things go.

My advice for Mr. Clymer, which is clearly too late, is this - When you have privilege, sometimes people will get angry at you, be rude to you. It will feel unfair. It may be unfair. Be gracious. If you are a male feminist, there will be women who are deeply angry at men, who just want men to shut up, or more reasonably want men to allow women to have their own conversation without you. And you will REALLY REALLY want to insert yourself into the conversation, to show that you are a great ally, that you really get it, that not all men are bad, and that maybe you even understand feminism better than lots of other women!

Instead, please revisit rule #1.


JManna said...

Clymer's comment is even more damming in that it is cis biased, assuming only people with a vagina are women.

David Perry said...

Yeah, I thought about taking it apart, but ... the posts to which I linked do a good job I thought, and lead to a bigger rabbit hole of criticism.

lexica510 said...

I haven't read the linked posts yet (about to), but one thing that struck me is that to me as a woman, it absolutely feels like an act of aggression when a man takes a discussion about gender, sexism, representation, or anything like that and instead starts talking about vaginas. "Gender is not about genitalia" is a discussion of gender. What he wrote to Stephanie is not a discussion of gender, it's a veiled way of saying "I am thinking about your vagina, right now." That is creepy as hell.

*pause to read linked posts*

Oh hell no. What he wrote is unbelievably aggressive and inappropriate, with no room for quibbling or equivocation. Ugh.

David Perry said...

Oh yes. So many problems.

Michael Price said...

"My advice for Mr. Clymer, which is clearly too late, is this - When you have privilege, sometimes people will get angry at you, be rude to you. It will feel unfair. It may be unfair. Be gracious. If you are a male feminist, there will be women who are deeply angry at men, who just want men to shut up, or more reasonably want men to allow women to have their own conversation without you."
So if you're actively helping people who are need help and they're angry at you and rude, unfairly, you have to be "gracious"? Why the fuck would you have to be that? If someone has a legitimate reason to be mad at you, or legitimately believes they do, be gracious. If they're being unfair, on a blog you write, that you put effort into, that is done for the benefit of a group you're not even part of, no you don't have to be gracious. You can tell them they're being unfair and they they should play "hide and fuck off" as he put it.

Why does being "less privileged" mean that you can behave badly? Yes I get that people apply standards to the less privileged that that they don't apply to the privileged, but you're not talking about that. You specifically mention them not being fair, i.e. not adhering to reasonable, rational standards. To allow the "less privileged" to violate those standards is simply a new privilege, and it's incredibly patronizing. You're saying "Those less privileged people can't be expected to obey basic moral rules. They're angry, they have legitimate reasons to be angry, therefore they can get go off on anyone, whether that person did anything or not.". Yeah that's what Elliot Rodger thought was OK.

I'm not saying that the less privileged should be given the occasional break. If you're been given shit ever since you got to your formerly segregated school, dumping some chili on someone's head should be treated as an understandable reaction not a fucking felony. But advancing the idea that anyone not white, male, rich, straight and cis is held to another standard just tells white, male, rich, cis and straight people that you're not interested in justice. You just want shit. Why would anyone in these groups help the 'less privileged' if it isn't a fight for justice? You're just trying to set up a situation where we get strong-armed, not them. It's not moral, it's not fair, it's not rational, it's not interesting and it's not going to work.

David Perry said...

Hi Michael. As it says on the comment policy, posts that are older than a week get moderated. I do this because otherwise my posts get flooded with spam. It's frustrating, but the compromise I've got to live with.

Thanks for the comment. Developing anger is often a necessary part of the cultural shift required for weaker groups to coordinate and organize to overthrow oppression.