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Look – privilege!

Now that everybody’s good and riled up, let’s take a moment, by ourselves, to breathe and think.



Time out! – breathe, think, breathe.



You see? Nothing terrible can happen to you if you read the word. All the feels will wait patiently if you give yourself a second to collect them – no reason to go rushing into diatribes defining your place in the world here, no sir.

The reason I bring it up is because I think we’re not talking enough about it. No, seriously. This used to be a striking and powerful word. There used to be depth, and pain, and learning to it. Now, it’s bandied about as effortlessly as though it referred to staying up past one’s bedtime or getting extra time at recess – something nice and kind of paternal, accessible in the abstract.

It’s not surprising, I guess, when what we’re trying to discuss are institutionalized forces like racism, sexism, homophobia and the like. How do you talk about a system in a way that relates to the lived experience of actual people? This word, privilege, came about as an answer to that. The conversations that can happen because of this word are fundamentally personal, as they illustrate society-wide problems.

Are those the conversations you see happening around the word ‘privilege’? If not, my guess is that the word is being used too easily. It’s easy to talk about ‘your privilege’. It’s hard to talk about mine, about the ways that I benefit from systems that hurt others, and the ways that I am automatically part of the system, sometimes even while I struggle not to be. It’s hard to admit that, while I’m all totally for gay rights, my remarks about a bi-sexual pastor marrying a woman being like a hero (because he openly acknowledges gay fantasies as normal) reflect the privilege that I have in not having to take seriously the anti-gay voices that will point to him and say, ‘You see! Even if you’re gay, you don’t have to be!”

It hurts to talk about the ways we have benefited from and been useless in the face of and actively contributed to the systemic oppression of other people. It also hurts to talk about the ways the system works against us – the ways that we personally are vulnerable. None of it feels particularly heroic or brave – that useless, gross feeling is just about the hallmark of a genuine change for the better, as Arthur Chu eloquently points out. “As reviewers at the time pointed out, the important thing District 9 focused on is that being a human in a world where aliens are oppressed is actually pretty awesome. Giving that up wouldn’t be an act of liberation, it would be painful and terrifying and humiliating.” http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/06/24/who-died-and-made-you-khaleesi-privilege-white-saviors-and-the-elusive-male-feminist-who-doesn-t-suck.html

Chu stresses the importance of being willing to let others take the spotlight from us – having the capacity to fully listen when others open up to us, to acknowledge what they’ve experienced and sit with that knowledge as long as necessary for it to fully sink in, how different and alike this person may be from you.

The conversation in recent weeks between MIT professor Scott Aaronson and Laurie Penny as regards male nerds and privilege is a really good illustration for just how difficult these kinds of conversations are to pull off. There were some astoundingly courageous people involved, allowing themselves breathtaking levels of vulnerability and earnestness, and I believe the public conversation moved as a result. Still, there were snags that definitely show a wooden use of the word, a newness and tendency to fumble with it.

Initially what sparked it all was a comment on a blog post by a self-identified female nerd, who describes the awful reality of having been raped by a similarly-bookish and awkward male nerd. She spoke of the frustration of implications that male nerds lack male privilege. Ideally, this would be a good place for anyone reading the word ‘privilege’ to breathe, and think, and breathe again. Aaronson apparently did not, and his response was lacking an acknowledgement or direct empathy with the commenter’s experiences. What he wrote instead was a long refutation of male privilege, also in a very personal and vulnerable vein. He spoke of having grown up with a fear of being seen as a rapist or potential rapist for having a sex-drive directed at women, great enough that he contemplated suicide and asked a doctor to provide him with medicinal castration.

Writer Laurie Penny picks up the conversation from here in an article with the promising title, “Male Nerds Think They’re Victims Because They Have No Clue What Female Nerds Go Through.” http://www.newrepublic.com/article/120653/nerd-entitlement-lets-men-ignore-racism-and-sexism

Penny is more considerate of Aaronson’s feelings; she actively acknowledges his suffering, and describes her own feelings of awkwardness and inadequacy in kind. What is lacking from her article is what the title promises – an explanation of what it’s like to be a nerd with the added dimension of sexism thrown in. This is not something Penny describes on a personal level, and because of that, the conversation pretty much ends here – on a tit-for-tat expose of general adolescent angst suffering filled out with more general implications of a looming sexism machine. We don’t get a clear picture of what any individual female experiences differently from a male with similar attributes, and my sense is rather that Penny’s goal in speaking of her personal insecurities was not to illustrate anything systemic, but to return the conversation to the impersonal and academic. It’s as though Aaronson’s vulnerability were written off as a drunken TMI, and Penny responds, nicely, by admitting to her own awkwardness to even the emotional playing field.

Aaronson’s post could have been seen as dauntlessly progressive, were it not in response to an even-more-vulnerable comment that he actively avoids addressing. His TMI then can be seen in turn as attempting to level the playing field out of niceness and bring the crazy-personal back to the realm of the safely academic. It’s not by accident that he refers to the academically feminist articles he’d read in his youth. In a number of stable, gentle, graduated steps, the most sharply painful and courageous of the musings on privilege are sidestepped and in the end only faintly remembered.

I’m sure that privilege has more potential than that.

It’s going to take some practice. The word isn’t all that new, but we’ve been fumbling with it for a little while. Key to our success has to be what’s key to the success of our entire brilliant down-with-tyranny experiment in human history – the ability to speak honestly (and for ourselves), and to listen as deeply as human minds allow.

For my own personal take on male privilege in STEM fields, stay tuned for the next installment under Biography this week, where I will be outing myself as a victim of the patriarchy in another brazenly personal TMI ❤