Some thoughts on ‘Privilege’

Warning – this has nothing to do with eating disorders or mental health, but everything to do with what is buzzing around my head at 4.30am.

As you know, I ponder a great deal on the good and bad of online communication – overall, am in favour, for a number of reasons, a) it’s fun, b) easy and c) it saved my life when my daughter became anorexic. Less flippantly, the facility for people to mobilise and communicate collectively must be a positive development. But less positive are the times when people put the mob into mobilise, when they collectively abuse, harangue and target someone who just doesn’t deserve it.

And so it is with online debates about ‘Privilege’, beautifully covered by @Glosswitch in her blog. Let me be really clear – when I think of privilege, I think of Gideon Osborne, George, to his subjects. Privately educated, without much of a dent in his family’s wealth, Oxford Bullingdon Club member, presumably initiated by one of their charming rites such as lighting a cigar with a £50 note in front of a homeless person and now Chancellor, lecturing us all on the need to tighten our belts, especially if we are disabled, female, unemployed or working in the public sector. He oozes privilege, from every pore of his pinky white skin, it greases down his bouffanted hair and puts extra curl into his plump, sneering lips.

On Twitter, however, privilege seems to mean something else. It means not being as discriminated against as other people. I am not sure how the points stack up on this; it feels as if some self appointed court has determined who are people of privilege in this context. These are some examples and my thoughts on them.

Being white – yep, I get this one.

Being educated – yes, I get this one too. Less so than being white, because education doesn’t just ‘happen’ to people, it takes work and commitment.

Being able bodied – Totally understand this, but as some readers will know I do wonder if there are different attitudes towards physical ill-health as compared to mental health. Would I say therefore that those with physical disability have privilege compared to those with mental illnesses? No, never.

Being ‘cis’ which essentially means that your gender has never been questioned or problematic in anyway – that is, you are born a woman and this is perfectly straightforward and comfortable, compared to those who feel they are born in the wrong gender and seek to change, or those who feel gender is constraining and struggle to identify with either. The most obvious example is a transgendered person, say, born male, but moving to a female gender later.

Does being ‘Cis’ and a woman make me more privileged than a transgendered woman? This question appears to have been raging due to some women, particularly some radical feminists,claiming that transgendered women are not really women, and do not share the experience of discrimination that women face. Most famously, this view was allegedly espoused by Suzanne Moore, resulting in a storm of abuse and violent threats, to which Moore robustly responded. Amongst the charges against her were that she was white, educated, middle class etc. Her ‘privilege’ was cited as her biggest crime, that she could not see beyond it.

I don’t agree with any view that sees a trans woman as less of a woman and therefore second class in either gender terms or as a feminist. But nor do I want to be in competition with her as to who gets the most discrimination points and therefore which one of us has a Get out of Jail Free card for whatever bile and hatred we spew, or which one of us has fewer points and therefore gets the privilege badge, which means we are probably automatically wrong or our views must be scrutinised by ourselves and others. Is it too much to believe in a feminism where we can have slightly different views and express them and to expect a response which might be that someone else doesn’t entirely agree and offers a different viewpoint and we listen respectfully, even if we disagree? Am I wrong to think that having fought for years for the right to express opinions as women, that we should not now be fearful of doing so, lest other women find us privileged and seek to tear us apart online? Meanwhile, the privileged politicians bring about changes which target women specifically, the privileged press publish articles by Richard Littlejohn which result in a trans woman’s suicide and day in, day out, men of all races hurt, humiliate and abuse women, while those who could provide a united voice against misogyny, bigotry and hatred are distracted hurling insults and threats at another online. Divided from each other and isolated, tapping messages on smartphones, iPads and laptops, becoming increasingly angry, because online communication doesn’t force us to see the hurt in another’s face as they read the hostile words. Ignoring the fact that in this context, we are all privileged, we are communicating in ways other women in developing countries would see as unimaginable, attacking each other from warm homes while our children sleep upstairs, well-fed.

Just think of the strength we could have if we actually said “Some of what you say worries me, and I’d like to debate more, possibly in a place where we aren’t constrained by 140 characters, and most of all I think we are on the same side, and if we can accept some of our differences, perhaps we could work together in a way that makes us stronger”. Because, how can we expect to create a society that accepts people for all their differences, their weaknesses as well as strengths if we continue knocking crap out of each other like this? This isn’t a competition as to who gets the most Disadvantage Card points and while some treat it as such, the truly privileged will continue to wage war on all of us.

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4 responses to “Some thoughts on ‘Privilege’

  1. And just to clarify, none of the above means I don’t have a duty to exercise some humility when listening to others with lived experiences that I don’t have and to learn from that rather than telling them that they are wrong to feel a certain way. I get as enraged as others when a man tells me something just isn’t sexism, but because I genuinely want him to change his views, I try and explain calmly, because I am interested in the world changing, not in solely being right. I think privilege is a provocative word that, to me, automatically implies the privileged person is the enemy.

  2. Thanks for your articulate thoughts so early in the morning… You have got me thinking :-) I agree that privilage doesn’t automatically indicate enemy as, you rightly point out, we are all privilaged in different ways. Which leads me to move towards a politicts where the privilage/ power dynamics and how they operate locally and globally is the target. We are all screwed over by the hegemonic normativity of whiteness, ability, maleness etc etc. A critique of the ways in which these are reproduced repeatedly through global capitalism as it is manifested in the media, government policy, institutional practices is perhaps where we need to turn our attention rather than towads each other (as enemies rather than allies). And perhaps being able to critically understand the position from which we speak along the way and, therefore, as you point out, what we are able to perceive and not, would surely be helpful in developing a collective politics that can speak back to these processes which continue to advantage some and exclude others (but different some and others depending on the issue/ situation). I’m waffling and better go make breakfast before there is marital discord here ;-)

  3. Can one resist? I think not!

    If we met, you would think me “George” typed privileged – white – tick. Cut glass accent – tick. Nice house – tick. Nodding acquaintance with the great and the good – tick. Politics – Conservative – tick. 2 labradors, 2 children in private education – tick.

    Education? I’ve got an A level and a nice qualification in shorthand and typing?

    Able bodied? Not at the moment – cancer does that too you.

    Definitely CIS.

    As you know, eating disorders is my speciality. We have the same problems and the same politics. There are ALWAYS exceptions to the rules.

    The dilemma is whether you do the best for the majority, which in ED terms is saving lives, or whether you hang on for the “cure all”.

    Twitter is not the place to have this debate! Probably the internet isn’t either. However, we have got a method of communicating and challenging and debating at our fingertips that puts us in contact with people we would never have met under any other circumstances and the ability to learn and grow from the experience.

    Communication via the written word is always open to misinterpretation. I am convinced that Shakespeare didn’t spend years agonising over his water metaphors – just wrote what seemed right. However, over the centuries, metaphors in Shakespearian works have been argued and wrangled and hotly debated. Communication over the internet has meant I have had to develop a second skin and resilience, because I have a purpose – reaching out to people with Evidence Based information and trying very hard to empathise and sympathise with those going through the hell that I have been through. If I upset people from time to time, I am truly sorry. I have been pretty badly bashed around too.

    I am one of your biggest fans – my secret pastime is following you on Twitter. If not for the internet, we would have never have crossed paths and my life, for one, would have been a lot duller…..

  4. Dear Charlotte and Laura, thank you so much for letting me know that my early hours ranting and rambling made some kind of sense. I think you both make the best points – that life is about seeking solutions and making things better now and celebrating the things that divide us, not building fences between us and shouting over them! And yes, any medium that uses 140 characters is doomed.

    Am now going to take my sleep deprived self out to the shops, buy a Hoover, pick up the boy from school and get on with all the drudgery that makes life just normal. Xxx

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