I don’t hide my views about the concept of privilege. I believe it indeed does exist in quantifiable and demonstrative ways. I can point to cultural trends, statistics and personal anecdotes that all support the concept of privilege for white people, men, certain classes and even certain careers. I’ve been critical of it being used in ways to describe any quality someone has that another person does not. I don’t believe in things like “driver’s privilege,” “tall privilege,” “fertility privilege” or “clean and sober privilege.” Those things either don’t account for a person’s agency or doesn’t restrict them from upward mobility in education or career. So I’m skeptical of it being used as broadly as it has been for some, but I am very glad we are at least talking about it.
My own first encounter with the concept of privilege was a sociology class in college. It was a small, succinct and compelling handout of the essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, by Peggy McIntosh. Another important explanation can be found in this video by Tim Wise. Even more important, though, are the countless anecdotes by Black friends and acquaintances who describe situations with police, employers, landlords and business owners that I could never imagine happening to me. I have never been afraid to call the police. I have never wondered if I didn’t get a job because of my skin color. I’ve never been turned down for an apartment and I’ve never been followed in a department store. Anecdotes don’t prove the rule, but these examples are still a lot more helpful at conceptualizing privilege as an action upon a group than all the statistics and numbers one could give me. This is how I address privilege with people who “don’t believe in it” or don’t understand it.
That being said, I don’t think it’s any surprise that I whole-heartedly agree with Ronald Lindsay’s opening statements at WIS2. When the concept of privilege is used to shut another person down rather than educate them, we all lose. The concept itself is watered down and thrown out the window every time we attack someone for having privilege rather than addressing their arguments. I’ve said it a thousand times, “Check your privilege” has got to go. Lindsay says:
But it’s the second misapplication of the concept of privilege that troubles me most. I’m talking about the situation where the concept of privilege is used to try to silence others, as a justification for saying, “shut up and listen.” Shut up, because you’re a man and you cannot possibly know what it’s like to experience x, y, and z, and anything you say is bound to be mistaken in some way, but, of course, you’re too blinded by your privilege even to realize that.
This approach doesn’t work. It certainly doesn’t work for me. It’s the approach that the dogmatist who wants to silence critics has always taken because it beats having to engage someone in a reasoned argument. It’s the approach that’s been taken by many religions. It’s the approach taken by ideologies such as Marxism. You pull your dogma off the shelf, take out the relevant category or classification, fit it snugly over the person you want to categorize, dismiss, and silence and … poof, you’re done. End of discussion. You’re a heretic spreading the lies of Satan, and anything you say is wrong. You’re a member of the bourgeoisie, defending your ownership of the means of production, and everything you say is just a lie to justify your power. You’re a man; you have nothing to contribute to a discussion of how to achieve equality for women.
I agree with Lindsay about the need for secularism when it comes to how we treat women. Secularism, the exclusion of religion, removes the kinds of “rules” found in the bible that Lindsay quoted:
[1 Timothy 2:12-15]
“Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. 12: I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. 13: For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14: and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15: Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty”
There are other cultural pressures on gender roles that don’t have anything to do with religion. Also, these rules were likely made to codify behavior that was already normalized in the culture that wrote this passage. Lindsay’s talk did well to address this fact, I thought. He addresses the need for feminism but also asks the tough questions about feminism that people have been asking. Some feminists (the organization Secular Women, for one) have said that feminism isn’t up for debate. Ronald Lindsay says:
This leads me to another set of questions. What is feminism and what are the aims of the feminist movement? There’s a definition that I’m sure many of you are familiar with, a definition supplied by bell hooks, and that is the feminist movement is a movement that seeks to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. In the abstract, that seems about right. But the problem with this definition is it just pushes our questions back further. What is sexism? What actions constitute sexist exploitation? I don’t think you’re going to find unanimity of opinion on the answers to those questions even within the feminist movement.
I would love to see discussion about these questions at a WIS con. I’ve love to see women discussing them rather than falling into “check your privilege” or calling each other “chill girls” and “sister punishers.” I, personally, despise the kind of radical feminism that assumes all men are rapists and that go around bashing transfolk. They deny the existence of gender and only include women born with the “right parts.” I’d like to see gender identity and expression discussed through the lens of secularism. These topics should be up for discussion, especially at a Women in Secularism conference.
Ronald Lindsay was accused of “mansplaining.” His arguments were not addressed by certain conference attendees, but he was simply written off as a “white man” whose arguments aren’t worth addressing simply because of how he was born. This was the very attitude he addressed in his talk, which doesn’t automatically prove he was right, but it is kind of telling that he hasn’t been able to engage the people who disagreed with him without getting a barrage of personal attacks upon his race and sex. So, since they won’t listen to a man, how about a woman saying the same thing?