Monday, August 18, 2014

Privilege and its technical failings

In my previous post, I discussed how different orientation labels not only have direct meanings, but also oppositional meanings.  For example, "straight" has the connotation of "as opposed to gay".

The inspiration for this topic was the concept of "privilege".  When we talk about White privilege, we're implicitly talking about White (as opposed to Black) privilege.  When we talk about male privilege, we're implicitly talking about male (as opposed to female) privilege.  When we talk about straight privilege, we're implicitly talking about straight (as opposed to gay) privilege.

In particular, the inspiration for this topic, was the concept of "allosexual privilege" (aka "sexual privilege" or "non-asexual privilege".  "Allosexual privilege" is a discredited concept, and has been since 2011.  When the idea was first proposed, it received a lot of pushback, and was the center of a lot of drama. By now, many problems have been identified,* and even its earlier proponents have long been disillusioned. However, I believe that people have so far missed the heart of the problem, which has to do with the technicalities of our language. 

*For example, people originally called it "sexual privilege", but it became clear that there are some justifiable complaints about the word "sexual".  This is basically the origin story of the word "allosexual".

"Privilege" is a way to talk about the minority group by talking about the majority group instead.  The minority group has certain problems that need attention.  That is to say, they need attention from people with power.  Often the people with the most power are people in the majority group.  So how do we make the minority group's problems relevant to the majority?  We reframe minority problems as majority privileges.

Crucial to the reframing tactic is that there are only two groups, the majority and the minority.  Privilege requires a majority/minority binary.  When there are two or more minority groups, the rhetoric falls apart.

When people tried to use "privilege" to talk about asexual problems, no one even thought to talk about "straight privilege".  Because "straight" means straight (as opposed to gay), not straight (as opposed to asexual).  Instead, people talked about "allosexual privilege".  The problem is that "allosexual" refers equally to straight, gay, lesbian, and bisexual orientations.  Many asexual problems are shared by gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.  Thus, a list of allosexual privileges risks erasing gay/lesbian/bisexual problems, despite no one intending to.

By all rights, people should have been talking about straight (as opposed to asexual) privileges.  But this is impossible, because there is no word for "straight" that connotes "as opposed to asexual".  If you look up lists of straight privileges, you will have trouble finding any items that address asexual-specific issues.

A corrolary: similar problems would arise if people attempt to apply "privilege" to other "secondary" minority groups such as Asian Americans, bisexuals, and possibly people with non-binary genders.  Of course, each case will be affected by its own particular details.


I do not mourn the loss of "privilege" as applied to asexuality.  The truth is, "privilege" is not a very good concept.  "Privilege" is supposed to be a billboard word, something you use in public outreach when there isn't room for more than a few words.  In practice, "privilege" requires so much more explanation.  When you tell someone they have privilege, people don't know what to do with that, and they often feel accused.  Often, I think we can do better by tabooing the word "privilege", to explain what we mean with different words.

Throughout this post, I referred to "privilege" as a framing device, or a public outreach tool.  I've noticed that many people who talk about privilege appear to take it more seriously, reifying it into a real thing.  That is to say, privilege is thought of as a mechanism for the oppression or marginalization of certain groups.  People acquire certain privileges, and through some unexplained process deprive others of those same privileges.  I explicitly reject this view of privilege as not just wrong, but not even wrong.  It's just unclear what any of it even means.  It could mean something completely vacuous, or something completely outrageous, and I think it's all a setup to equivocate between the two.

In this post, I've explained why "allosexual privilege" failed, and it had nothing to do with the particular problems of asexual people (except that these problems strongly overlap with LGB people).  It only had to do with language technicalities.  I believe this supports my view that "privilege" is merely an educational tool.  If privilege were "real", then it would be impossible to talk about the same problems without referencing the advantages gained by straight people.  In fact, people still talk about the same asexual problems, and have simply adopted different language to describe them, like "amatonormativity" or "compulsory sexuality".


miller said...

There are also a couple of other dimensions to privilege.

One dimension is "positive" vs. "negative" privilege. A positive privilege is, like being judged on one's merits, something that everyone ought to have, but only a few actually have. A negative privilege is, like being able to shoot people without going to prison, something that no one ought to have, but a few actually do have. There's also a gray area, such as class privilege: something that perhaps everyone ought to have in a perfect world, but economic limitations make impractical at least in the short term. Should I make (and spend) $250,000/year when it would be nice but is impractical under present economic circumstances for any but a small few to enjoy that standard of living?

Another dimension is "natural" privilege vs. socially constructed privilege. A natural privilege is one, such as being able to walk up stairs, that I have but others lack by virtue of my own or their physical/biological nature. In contrast, a socially constructed privilege has to do with, well, social constructions, not physics.

Yes, a very problematic term.

miller said...

"When people tried to use "privilege" to talk about
asexual problems, no one even thought to talk about "straight

This isn't totally true. People have said that aces are hurt by heteronormativity as are other minority sexual orientations, which I think amounts to the same thing. People have said that hetero privilege/heternormaitivity is what hurts aces.

" "Allosexual privilege" is a discredited concept,"

Sexualnormativity, however, is not. (And when these words 'allosexual privilege/sexualnormativity' mean such similiar things, and yet you can talk about one and not the other without upsetting the potentially "privileged" group in question, it does go to show how flawed and inflexible a concept such as priivlege is. Because sexualnormativity does exist, and it does hurt aces, and yet by using the term "allosexual privilege" the idea is dismissed because it carries with it the idea that one group (such as allosexual gay people) have it better than asexuals, which, of course is guaranteed to piss people off (rightfully so).

Privilege concept is too easily turned into a brownie-point/blaming system and that shuts down discussion and consideration of important issues (like sexualnormativity).

miller said...

I am in basic agreement with you.

miller said...

I've long had serious issues with the notion of "privilege" and it's almost entirely "as applied" objections. And I pretty much agree with almost everything that you say about the concept, with one quasi-exception. I'm not convinced that it's intended to be an educational tool (and even if that's the intention, I think the function is often quite different.)

In practice, it tends to be very alienating to the out-group (thus making them less likely to listen, rather than more likely), and so I doubt that its continued use is based on positive reinforcement from successful uses in an educational context. Rather, I think that it helps to reinforce in-group solidarity and to help reinforce various beliefs via a ready made ad hominem to dismiss arguments from people with "privilege." As an example that's long been rather salient in my mind, one time in a graduate level class, we were discussing a debate that the professor had asked us to watch online (the topic related to the highly charged topic of sex-differences in cognition). One of the (female) students completely dismissed a point made by the (male) presenter as being because of "male privilege." And yet the point he was making was nothing more than "Correlation does not imply causation."

miller said...

Shutting down certain discussions is certainly one of the functions of "privilege", and this function does not seem to translate over when we switch to "x-normativity" language. I say this as someone who thinks it's occasionally justified to shut down discussions, there's something funny going on there. People are clearly being influence by their language choices.

Although I can also think of another major use, which is when people list their own privileges. From a cynical point of view, the purpose here is signaling. From a less cynical point of view, the purpose is to acknowledge potential errors, like when people say, "I'm not an expert, but..."

miller said...

I suppose the real question is: what are people trying to do when they use the word "privilege"? What do they think they're doing? What is the actual effect? How well do they match up?

I have no idea about intent. The only "marginalized" group I belong to, atheists, tend to use "privilege" in a very restricted sense, i.e. the special place that religion has in our legal, political, and social systems. In my experience, we rarely talk about religious privilege at the personal level.

Of course, atheists are a very atypical group; our goals, strategies, tactics, and position in society is, I think, very different from that of other marginalized groups: people of color, women, LGBTQ-etc., immigrants (especially Hispanic), working-class, etc. So I really don't know what the goals are when people in these groups use the word "privilege".

miller said...

I'm glad you pointed out the different contexts here. My sense is that "privilege" is used much less often by atheists, and thus my image of how it is used is dominated by its use in relation POC, women, and queer people.

I think I don't have nearly as much of a problem with "privilege" as used by atheists. The idea of shutting people up because of who they are is anathema to the movement, so I don't usually see that particular function.

I should clarify that I don't have a problem with using the language of "privilege" in general. I use the language all the time to communicate with other people who use it. But I'm not attached to the language, and I think there are dangers in taking it too seriously.

miller said...

I would expect that almost anywhere that has community norms for communication will favor shutting down some conversations in some contexts, possibly because it's a conversation they think should never be had, and possibly because of more contextual issues (e.g. locking a thread to end a flame war.)

Personally, I have some serious issues with X-normativity, but these aren't nearly as strong as my issues with X privilege. My problems with X-normativity is that these categories tend to be rather moralistic constructs in which all sorts of things that the particular individual doesn't like get lumped together (and often reified) in order to have an (imagined) political opponent. If ones's goal is to genuinely understand social norms, this isn't a very good way to go. I have a general dislike for BS, feeling that in some contexts (e.g. political elections) its a necessary evil. But, at least in the context of asexual politics, I've not seen any justification for why it's necessary nor can I think of any. So it's not a necessary evil (which, I guess, makes it an evil?)

The problems with X-privilege tend to be much more severe in my experience. i.e. creating an epistemology in which the ad hominem fallacy is OK (or, rather, its OK for some groups but not for others). Also the double-standards (i.e. it's OK for "oppressed" people to do X, but very bad for those with "privilege" do to the same thing) is a serious problem for enabling constructive dialogue, and instead it promotes dogmatism and echo chambers.

miller said...

For some reasons (reasons that I don't fully understand, not having studied much anthropology), consensual sexual activity (or lack thereof) is a strongly moral issue in most societies, rather than an issue of individual orientation and preference. So the idea of hetero-normativity remains powerful. Especially in the past, but still in the present, it is an ethical good to be in a monogamous* heterosexual procreative relationship, and being in a different kind of relationship is less good or bad depending on how far away it is from the ethical ideal and whether or not it is on track toward the ideal (e.g. dating a person of the opposite sex is pretty good if it is on track to marriage).

*i.e. married to one person

Morality is instantiated in a society not in the realm of analysis, but the realm of emotion. When, for example, a society deprecates killing, individuals develop an emotional aversion to killing people, and an emotional aversion to people who don't have an emotional aversion to killing people. And not just killing; almost all social norms have a strong emotional component: just try to run a red light at 3:00 am - most people will feel bad about just thinking about it.

There's nothing particularly disreputable about this emotionalization of social norms. It's just how we human beings do the whole "being a good member of society" thing. I think this emotionalization should be taken into account when we're trying to change social norms. Because emotions are resistant to analysis, when we push directly against socialized ethical emotions, we can expect nothing but a reflexive defensiveness. This is true even if the emotion being defended is rationally insupportable, even if the defender knows the emotion is insupportable.

I suspect that charges of "privilege" might operate directly against emotions. Emotionally, people consider their unjust privilege to be in the same category as their "just" privilege (e.g. work-and-pay-my-bills privilege, obey-the-law privilege) and react emotionally. It might be the case that recasting the discussion to X-normativity more directly engages reason, which is, although indirect, an easier way to change a person's emotions.

There is also (a topic touched on recently here) the issue of what I call "moral purity": the point where a moral failing moves from a mistake to be corrected to an indication that a person is a bad person. When we explicitly or implicitly label someone (e.g. Feynman) as a bad person, we are saying they are irredeemable by virtue of their impurity. We are no longer trying to redeem the person; we are using their irredeemability as a deterrent: don't do X or you will be cast out of society. Because most human beings have a profound emotional need to be part of a social group, these charges can directly engage this emotion.

Very few want to be seen as irredeemably impure, as being unfit for society. When we impute certain kinds of moral failure (especially racism) to people, if they see that failing as rendering them outcast, they will defend their inclusion in society, usually by excusing or minimizing the magnitude of the failure. Again, it may not be the intention of the speaker to engage at this emotional level, but the point of emotional thinking is that we don't analytically consider intentions.

Of course, this emotional reasoning can go wrong on the listener's side as well. Even in the most obviously analytical context, people can let their emotions cloud or even suspend their reasoning.

I see very little ethical reasoning, even at the highest philosophical level, as taking this emotional context into account, which is one reason I've abandoned doing a lot of ethical philosophy. I'm enough of an anthropologist-sociologist-psychologist to dimly see there might be a problem, but not enough to block out even the outline of a solution.

miller said...

I really appreciate your thoughts on the emotional aspects of morality. Indeed I think it was you who convinced me (at an earlier point in time) that the emotional aspect is more or less the entire point of our moral system.

I think we're beginning to touch on the third major way that marginalized groups discuss their problems. We've discussed "privilege", "-normativity", and now we touch on "-ism" language, such as racism, sexism, or homophobia. The most notable feature of "-ism" language is that it seems to impute personal moral responsibility. This really puts people on the defensive, because as you say, people fear being cast out of society.

This has some interesting consequences in the case of "racism", because it's clear that anti-racist activists have a different standard of racism than the general public. The general public feels "racism" should be reserved for explicit slurs, or the KKK, whereas anti-racist activists wish to talk about problems that are more widespread.