Monday, August 25, 2014

Evaluating privilege, -normativity, and -ism as language

My post "Privilege and its technical failings" was really just about one particular failing of the the concept of "privilege".  But in the comments, people took the opportunity to discuss other failings of the concept of "privilege".  We also touched on alternatives, such as "-normativity" and "-ism".  These are basically three different frameworks for people to talk about the same thing: Certain groups of people have systemic problems.  We want to solve those problems.

Examples: White privilege, male privilege, straight privilege
Privilege reframes the problems of the marginalized group as advantages of the majority group.

Examples: heteronormativity, patriarchy (maybe), sexualnormativity
"-Normativity" language blames the problems on a society which sees certain groups as "normal" or "default", or perhaps just inherently superior.

Examples: racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia
"-Ism" language blames the problems on certain emotions, attitudes or actions which are wrong.

There are also a few oddballs.  "Erasure" as in "bisexual erasure" appears to be in a category all to its own.  "Cissexism" looks like an -ism, but is often used to talk about how cisgender is the societal default, so it's halfway to "-normativity" language.  And I'm sure readers can think of other oddballs.

I was really gratified by the commenter discussion analyzing the advantages and disadvantages of the above sets of language.  I am used to this language, and comfortable using it to communicate, but sometimes I feel a disconnect with other people who use the language.  It's as if other people think of the language not just as language, but as a real thing.  Whereas I see it as merely a tool for communication.  I am gratified to see that I am not the only one who thinks this way.

To explain my view, I am a nominalist.  That is, I do not believe that categories are real.  Tables are not real.  I'm sitting at a table, and that table is real.  But the general category of tables is not real.  So if we have disagreements on whether it's really a table (some people might say that desks don't count as tables), then we're disagreeing on a question that isn't real.  Another example: gender.  Male and female do not exist.  There are lots of people that seem to fit neatly into those categories, but if people don't fit into the categories that's fine because the categories are not real.

Privilege, -normativity, and -ism are not real.  That's not a sleight against those concepts.  Most things are not real.

But there are consequences to seeing things this way.  The language we use can have advantages or disadvantages.  If a particular piece of language has too many disadvantages, and if there is a better alternative, then that language should be discarded.  People still have systemic problems, and we still want to solve those problems, but there's no sense in getting attached to any particular language if it's not effective at solving those problems.

If you look at the examples I provided, you'll notice different contexts seem to favor different language.  For instance, nobody seems to talk about "White normativity".  Is this because "-normativity" language simply isn't useful in the context of race?  I'm sure the costs and benefits of our language are very context-dependent.  However, sometimes the biggest benefit of a particular piece of language is simply that it's already in the language.  Perhaps the only reason "White normativity" isn't discussed much is because it hasn't been discussed much before.

Thus, it could be useful to think directly about the question, to evaluate our language.  For example, is "homophobia" effective?  How do people respond to it?  Is there a better alternative? Or is it context dependent?

I'm thinking of writing a (mini?) series of posts analyzing the costs and benefits of our choice of language.  I've addressed this before in a few posts, but a devoted series could be nice.  I'm not sure what to cover though.  Are there any particular topics you'd like me to cover?