Friday, May 24, 2013

Amanda Marcotte Nails It

Last night, Amanda Marcotte published one of the most interesting meditations on privilege & the problem with the way it is applied that I've seen this week. It's been a busy week for that discussion, too, with Ron Lindsay's tone-deaf opening to Women in Secularism 2 and his subsequent comparison of blogger Rebecca Waton's criticism as being comparable to North Korean propaganda leading to an escalation of the feminist and secularist blogospheres' discussion about the way women are treated in the secular movement.

What I like about Amanda Marcotte's post from last night is that it isn't diving back into the drama from WiS2. Instead of going back over the details of the weekend's drama, she takes on some of the longer-term arguments commonly seen in comments and Twitter conversations about feminist issues, and she examines the term "privilege", which Dr. Lindsay had such problems with in his speech. Most notably, she brings up her own problem with the way the term is used and with what it implies:
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.
And this is the real problem with throwing the word "privilege" around. It too generously (and, I would argue, condescendingly) treats the bad actors in a given situation as if they are merely ignorant of their own situation in the world. I don't believe this to be true, at least not with the most intransigent cases, and it's obvious Ms. Marcotte does not either:
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.
Yes! And, in addition, her argument exposes the flaws in Dr. Lindsay's idea that checking someone's privilege or asking them to "shut up and listen" is the equivalent of silencing. It can only be silencing to be told that you should listen to an idea before you attempt to refute it if you are already in possession of the information that the refutation would give you and you have already rejected it. That is, if you're not willing to hear the other side's argument before you respond to it, then you've probably already examined it (or you're not willing to examine it). If that's the case, then of course you would view the other side trying to speak as "silencing". Unfortunately, you would also be guilty of arguing in bad faith and of attempting to preserve a social... let's use Ms. Marcotte's term "license"... that violates the rights of other people in the room.

Even in that case, most of the people who claim they are being "silenced" are conspicuously loud. You can find them all over comment threads on blog posts about feminism, including Ms. Marcotte's post from last night. You'll also find them crawling all over the Skepchick post linked above and both of Dr. Lindsay's posts. For people who are not being given any opportunity to share their views, they sure don't seem to get banned very often.

When Dr. Lindsay's conference speech was first being criticized last weekend, I didn't write about it. This was partly because I was not there and did not feel like piling onto something that happened at a conference that I was only able to follow via liveblog. It was also partly because I do see problems with the way "privilege" is thrown around, and being overly generous in my interpretations of other people's words, I wanted to see Dr. Lindsay's comments as poorly framed, poorly timed, and poorly worded, but in spirit with my own objections.

A week later, though, I find that Dr. Lindsay's follow-up posts and behavior subsequent to delivering his address are compelling me to be less generous. In the meanwhile though, Ms. Marcotte has articulated exactly the problem with the overuse of privilege-checking: It's only an effective exercise when you are dealing with people who are open to the idea that they should care whether their behavior takes advantage of others.