Tuesday, August 27, 2013

On The Concept of Privilege As A Tool in Social Justice Movements

Contents include rape and sexual harassment.

I've written about this before, but there's more I want to say about it, partly brought up by this quote from a post about the new supposedly feminist website called Bustle:

Based on his statements and interviews, it seems fair to say that Goldberg has, at best, a rudimentary understanding of the concept of feminism — while it's a broad and controversial term for sure, most people who have bothered to read up on the subject seem to agree that part of being a 21st-century feminist includes embracing intersectionality, questioning stereotypes, being aware of your privilege, and letting women speak for themselves.

Bolds are mine.

Being aware of your privilege is fine, and it as an excellent tool for introspection, for understanding what I don't have any lived-in experience about, for understanding that the world can treat other people quite differently, and for placing oneself at the beginning of some debate (do I know something worth sharing here?  do I make assumptions about what others know that are incorrect?)

But what about using the concept in other ways?  That's where I think the concept of privilege fails as a tool.  It's too blunt, too prone to being used as a shut-up in conversations, too prone for being used as a check on the ideological purity of someone to be in the room (which also turns lack of privilege into a certain type of odd privilege).  To give you an example, to tell someone his or her privilege is showing is a statement which both conveys certain information and argues that the person has committed a faux pas of a type, that the person probably should shut up and leave the conversation.

That doesn't matter, perhaps, except in the sense that one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar, though it does tend to stop any further attempts to increase mutual understanding.

 What matters much more is when privilege is used as an actual tool of theoretical analysis.

The reason for that, in my opinion, is that the concept of privilege is so stretching, so meaningless, so capable of inversions that we don't get anywhere by using it.  The bigger worry, by far, is the idea of starting to add up privileges, to decide who is the least privileged, and then to use that impossible summing to make conclusions about what one should do in a particular situation, whose position one should focus on, whose worries one should evaluate. 

That's partly because some things listed as privileges can depend on one's choice, partly, because many aspects of privilege focus the study of a societal problem on the relative position of different individuals with respect to that problem, and such focus then tends to blind us to the larger problem and concentrate on individuals and their lives rather than the wider problem.  But the different types of privileges are not commensurate and so trying to sum them up introduces pure subjectivity into the analysis.

To give you a more concrete example of some of the problems, I have urban East Coast "privilege".  But if I move to a bubolic area, because of my own choice, I lose that "privilege?"   I can now participate in discussions as a representative of rural people?  That doesn't make the best approach to the very real problems of the rural poor or the very real problems of how to provide, say, adequate media coverage of sparsely populated areas or how to make sure that feminism or other such movements aren't just bicoastal ones.  In a sense the concept of "privilege" is both too general, vague and too narrow, individualistic.

Here's what I really want to stress:  My criticism of the concept of "privilege" is not an argument for implying that one's race, gender, ethnicity and so on wouldn't place people into different boxes, with different access to the good things in life and with different levels of bad things happening to us.  It's crucial to be clear about that.  But when we lump all the different aspects of these and other concerns (social class, religion, sexual preference, gender identity, health etc.) together and throw them into one box marked "privilege" we don't really get very far in our analyses.

That's because different types of "privilege" have different underlying reasons, and a proper study of those reasons is imperative, in my view.  One way of doing that study is by looking at one particular question (say, race) first in isolation and then in how it interacts with other important questions (gender, income, etc.)  If we don't do that disaggregated analysis, we are stuck with a concept of "privilege" which tells us very little about what to do to make things better.

To apply all this to a particular problem, consider the recent media coverage of gang rapes and sexual harassment and the like in India.  Let's begin with a piece published at the CNN.com about the experiences of an American exchange student in India.   The story is an outpouring of pain and grief with very little analysis (which isn't necessarily required of such stories).  But it also equates the sexual harassment the writer had to undergo with the whole country of India in a way which might be essentializing, implying that India is somehow ineradicably a misogynist place which foreign women should avoid.

A companion piece at the CNN.com site provided a different narrative of the possible experiences of another exchange student on the same trip.  The author of that stressed the kindness and humanity of the Indian men she met and the fact that one shouldn't label a whole society based on what some individuals in it do.

Here's where the concept of privilege enters all this:  A post on Ms Magazine site discusses these two essays from the point of view of a professor of gender studies. The post makes a complicated argument:

So RoseChasm is not incorrect to feel hunted, but her words unfortunately line up with global power grids. She depicts India as irredeemably patriarchal, with no nod to the long history of Indian feminists protesting against sexual violence in public spaces, homes and by police and military. By default, the U.S. gets seen as a haven of gender equity. We forget that U.S. campuses have four times the number of sexual assaults that off-campus sites do, that domestic violence kills in record numbers and that the U.S. military commits rapes in huge numbers with little impunity. RoseChasm’s testimony may be a terrified survivor’s account, but it reinforces ideas of places like India as primitive frontiers, desensitizing us to violence launched against other countries with the alibi of culture.
RoseChasm wants to be invisible, neutral, “just a person” in India, but the very fact of her presence on a study abroad trip underlines a one-sided privilege: Students on such programs can travel to others’ lives, gawk at them and pretend to live their lives for a brief moment, with little recognition that people may be looking or talking back, sometimes in violent ways. For women on these trips, this becomes a violent, gendered difference from men in their programs, to be sure, but for all it’s a reminder that global inequalities often provoke vicious backlash. And RoseChasm’s U.S. privilege doesn’t protect her from the everyday violence Indian women negotiate. A return to the U.S. provides no protection from gendered violence, either—it only compounds the complete lack of safe havens for women.

The bolds are mine.

My beef isn't with the author, Srimati Basu, pointing out the global power grids or the fact that American tourists in India are privileged in many ways over the general Indian population.  My beef has to do with the idea that the modern concept of privilege benefits the analysis here.  The older one, based on income, education and social class, might have been more useful.

Basu's two points in that context are contradictory.  She both argues that the US and India are not that different* when it comes to gendered violence AND that the author of the initial essay, RoseChasm, is privileged** because she can move from one of these countries to the other, whereas Indian women cannot do so.   But if that is so, then Basu herself, say, is privileged when it comes to the US, compared to poor American women.  Basu can leave the country, they cannot.

That's nit-picking, sure, and a bit stupid.   My point may become clearer when we introduce to this discussion the most recent gang-rape case from India:

Out on an assignment, the photojournalist was raped in a deserted textile mill in central Mumbai on Thursday evening after the five accused assaulted and tied her male colleague.
Twenty police teams, including 10 from the crime branch, are tracking their three other accomplices, all of whom have been identified and are aged between 18 and 20.
On Friday afternoon, the police had arrested Chand Abdul Sattar who lives at Dhobi Ghat, close to the mill. The accused later confessed to the crime.
"We have arrested one of the suspects who has named the others involved in the incident. The suspect has also confessed to the crime," Mumbai police commissioner Satyapal Singh had said in a press conference on Friday.
The five men, all school dropouts, were jobless and visited the mill often. Two even have robbery cases registered against them.
If we apply the privilege concept to this story, it might be necessary to point out that the victim comes across as probably of a higher social class than the perpetrators, who are school dropouts and unemployed.  From this it's not a terribly big step to discussing which rapes are in some sense more understandable than other rapes and so on.   I don't want to go there.

This is what I see as a big problem with the simultaneous discussion of different types of privileges and attempts to compare them or to add them up or to subtract from them.  I don't see how that approach would diminish any of the underlying problems.  The tools for fighting poverty and global inequalities are different from the tools for fighting rape, in general, and I don't think that conflating the two increases our analytical abilities.  This doesn't mean that an understanding of the variables which make rape more likely on the perpetrators' part isn't useful.  But that's something different altogether.

To conclude, I want to reiterate that this post is about the concept of privilege as an analytical tool, not an argument for the absence of what the concept attempts to capture,  and certainly not an argument against using it as a device for introspection.

* The discussion of gender violence in different countries often concludes with the argument that gender violence exists everywhere.  This is correct, of course.  But it's still important to study different cultures, the way they handle rape and sexual harassment, whether the authorities take them seriously or not, whether the victim-blaming and shame associated with being a victim is identical and so on.  It's also important to try to get good international figures of actual rapes and to understand the reasons for any differences that are found.  Those reasons include several possibilities:  For example, women have different "rights" to go out alone or unattended by a male relative, and how the society views those "rights" determines the incidence of rapes in complicated ways.  Then the rate at which women report rapes can differ because of the cultural incentives or disincentives for doing so.  And so on.  To give one extra flavor of the complications in this, it's possible that a country which experiences an upsurge of attention aimed at rapes (such as India) may, in fact, be improving its actual hidden statistics if those rapes in the past went unreported and even hidden.

Such international comparisons should avoid the kind of approach that Basu warns us about.  But the comparisons are necessary for both learning what works in the prevention of gender violence and for measuring improvements.

**That RoseCharm tells us she suffers from PTSD and was admitted to a psychiatric ward for some time and is now on mental disability leave from college further complicates the analysis if we use being able-bodied or able-minded as yet another form of privilege.