The Real Problem With “Check Your Privilege”: It’s Too Generous

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, May 23, 2013 9:34 EDT
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In the comments of this post and on Twitter two days ago, I laid down a gauntlet: Since so many anti-feminist “skeptics” (I refuse to acknowledge the skepticism of someone who won’t apply it to gender roles and patriarchy, when these are major societal issues) were having multi-year meltdowns of tone policing feminists, I just wanted to know why. Over and over, I kept seeing the phrase: “You shouldn’t be able to call me privileged/misogynist/asshole/bigot just because I disagree with you!” This phrase is meant to force the conversation into more tone policing and rules-lawyering about how one is allowed to express disagreement, a debate that is set up so that progressives just give up and go home since any expression of displeasure at reactionary sentiments is considered “intolerant”, no matter how mild, as I noted yesterday.

So, I had one question. Okay, you “disagree”. About what, exactly?

After all, the answer to that question determines the validity of the whine. They know this, which is why they reference their disagreements ellipitcally. If you come right and say what your real problems with feminism are, you out yourself not as a reasonable person who has reasonable disagreements with those hysterical bitches, but someone who openly holds anti-woman positions that just so happen to conflict with what a rigorous examination of scientific fact and skepticism about appeals to tradition would lead one to believe. My belief was that the feminist detractors would not be, despite calling themselves “brave heroes”, brave enough to articulate the actual meat of their objections, but would fall back on the not-talking-about-the-thing-we’re-talking-about strategy of tone policing. I was correct. Almost no one produced a substantive complaint about the actual ideas feminism brings to the table.

I tried! I gave them a list of things that feminists support, so they could argue against them. Things like the right to choose, the right to live free of violence, equal pay, or hell, even the expansion of the social safety net. I pointed out that there were many feminists who spoke and brought actual arguments and evidence to the table at Women in Secularism, and they could argue with any of them! I got crickets. Just kidding! I got more tone policing, but no substantive arguments. It’s definitely not because of previous rounds of bans of people for harassing me and commenters drained the numbers, either, because this time around another dozen people got banned for inability to follow this most basic rule.

But one middle-aged gentleman on Twitter, a man who at his age should really know better, finally came up with something that he believes feminists are wrong about: sexual harassment. Of course, in the grand tradition of creepy dudes everywhere, he was still arguing in bad faith, and pretended that sexually harassing women is sincere, if clueless flirting. He stood up for the male….wait for it….privilege to say whatever you want to any woman and have it interpreted, no matter how obviously it was creepy, as generously as possible. The right to corner women in elevators to creep them out, which is apparently the most sacred right ever concocted by a non-existent god to show how much he loved men more than women, is and always will be about what this multi-year meltdown of misogynists in the skeptic movement will be about. That, and really nothing else.

Which puts into perspective how bananas all this is, because even those people who have more substantive disagreements with feminists on issues like violence, reproductive rights, equality in the workplace, etc. tend to think that it’s bad form to be rude to other conference-goers at conferences. I’ve been in conservative spaces and don’t generally feel they’re more or less safe than skeptic/geek spaces. Just on the grounds of politeness, this battle should have been decided in favor of the feminists a long time ago. Regardless of gender ideology, it’s considered bad form to use physical space and exploitative interpretations of social rules to make other people feel creeped out, to get the momentary thrill of power over them. Duh.

Of course, all this really exposes one fundamental thing that makes this entire shitstorm over the P-word (privilege) even more terrible. Like Ron Lindsay, I’m none too happy with the explosion of the word “privilege” all over progressive freethought blogs. However, my reasons are, I would argue, exactly the opposite of his. I don’t like the P-word because I think it’s far too generous to the opposition.

As astute commenter YamaraTheGod noted, people tend to say “privilege” as a shorthand for “unexamined privilege”. It’s a useful concept in social justice, this notion that sometimes people behave in unjust ways because they don’t actually know how the other half lives. For instance, we all share the privilege of being able to buy cheap clothes because of unjust labor standards in overseas factories, but only some of us are aware of that fact. Those of us who are, however, don’t really benefit from being told to “check our privilege”, even if we’re saying things that support the system. For instance, if you shrugged off the Bangladesh factory collapse with “thems the breaks”, you’re just being a jerk right now, and you really ought to know better. In what case, being told to check your privilege is meaningless. You know you have unfair privileges. You just don’t give a fuck. In other words, I find the concept of examining your privilege to be limited, because it assumes that the only problem that those fighting for social justice face is one of education.

That’s what bothers me in the end the most. The feminist freethinkers who use the word “privilege” a lot aren’t being bullying or silencing. The opposite. They are being generous. They see a bunch of dudes screaming about elevators and say, “Clearly, you are a well-meaning person who is simply being blinded by unexamined privilege. Why not take the time to check that and listen to another person’s point of view?”

Unfortunately, what we’ve learned is you don’t get brownie points from reactionaries with this kind of good faith interpretation of their behavior. There’s another possibility besides unexamined privilege, usually just shortened to “privilege”. It could be that they have looked at their privileges, find them appealing, and would like to preserve them at the expense of basic decency and keeping the peace. Or, to be more blunt, it’s possible that when you tell people not to sexually harass other people, people who like harassing others—or those who haven’t tried it yet but like to keep their options open—will throw a fit and try to preserve their social license to harass without facing pushback. The people who threw a fit over sexual harassment policies did so by employing every bullying, harassing, and abusive social manipulation under the sun, after all. That evidence suggests, in fact, that simply just being into harassment is their thing, and they don’t like people threatening to take that from them.

Frankly, the notion that people defend and minimize sexual harassment because they’re privileged twits living in a bubble and it’s never occurred to them that being creepy is wrong doesn’t pass the sniff test. Prior to the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill showdown, okay. But it’s been twenty years. Anyone who is trotting the same lines out now is being disingenuous.

If it seems baffling to you that people are “into” harassment, I don’t know what to tell you. Why else would people harass? (Don’t say autism, for the love of god. People on the spectrum struggle to interpret social signals. Harassers, on the other hand, are masters at manipulating social rules and actual physical space to creep people out as much as they can get away with. It requires careful study of social signaling, not the opposite.) I got harassed on the sidewalk the other day, because that’s just part of the atmosphere of being female. I didn’t catch exactly what the guy said, because he muttered it, but what he wanted out of the situation couldn’t have been clearer. He had that sly smile, that glint in his eye that harassers get when they manage to capture their target’s attention and make them uncomfortable. It’s the feeling of power they have over you, the little jolt they get from putting a bitch in her place. Why people harass is not a mystery. It makes them feel good to exert power. This motivation is all over the Twitter rampage from the pro-harassment forces. They love drowning out useful tweets about real information with their anti-feminist garbage and ranting. It makes them feel good, like they have power. They can harass you and get under your skin and make you write blog posts about them, and then they feel powerful. It’s all of one cloth, and it’s not about unexamined privilege. It’s about being an asshole. We’re asking them to give up this jolt of feeling powerful they get from making other people sad or angry. No wonder they resent us.

Incidentally, to bring it back to the top of the post, I suspect the reason that the feminist detractors didn’t just trot out the same pro-harassment excuses that they have in the past is that we’ve gone a few rounds with them here, so they know I’m not particularly interested in giving them the benefit of the doubt. I love the good-heartedness that makes other people that generous, but it’s just not how we roll here. Just a thought.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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