The word has become such a contentious one, it is extremely difficult to talk about. Sure, people find their right audience who will nod along and voice their support, but on a national scale, the term “privilege” gets people angry. One half see the term as an umbrella, under which other elements of privilege typically gather: white privilege, male privilege, American privilege, class privilege, and a host of others that become buzzwords for any group or subgroup that has power or societal advantages over others. In today’s politics, however, it has also become a catch-all for any opinion liberals disagree with, and that misuse of the term (and our/liberals’ subsequent reactions) only drive the political wedge deeper, and give opportunists like Trump more supporters.
I am a straight, white, man.
I am an American.
I graduated from a college, so I’m slightly more educated and greatly more indebted than the average American.
For some of the people reading this, these (and I’m sure others) factors are why my opinion should be ignored. The thing is, they should be. None of what I say is going to change things. I’m nobody. I am a physical representation of the trifecta of historical oppressions in American society. I’m nobody. A blank face behind a keyboard, writing for some politically slanted website. Big whoop.
But for the rest of you, who are curious and open to a dialogue about privilege from the perspective of a liberal, I hope that this offers some insight; or if nothing else, a nice “Hmm, interesting,” social media re-share.
DISCUSSION 1: HOW WE (LIBERALS) USE THE TERM
Webster defines privilege as “a right or benefit that is given to some people and not others.” This makes sense, but the issue at the heart of the term is what are those rights or benefits? There is no set definition among liberals as to what privilege is, but it undoubtedly mentions that the person reading the definition should make sure to always “check” theirs. There is an antagonism and almost elitism when we liberals discuss the phrase. It almost causes a visceral reaction. We can’t discuss the phrase without getting emotionally invested in the implications of the word itself. This emotional connection to this word clouds our mind, and we put up walls to others who disagree. It becomes less of a dialogue and more of a debate, and chances of progress on the topic diminish significantly as a result. This leads to …….
DISCUSSION 2: HOW WE (LIBERALS) ABUSE THE TERM
The minute we inject emotion into a discussion, notions of reason, compromise, and dialogue seem to go out the window. We use the phrase privilege as a personal attack instead of a topic of discussion. Whenever we find someone we disagree with, we not only reject their competing worldview; we oftentimes seek to destroy, or at least diminish, their opinion and personhood altogether. We use the term as a way to “shut them down.” The headlines are full of these hyperbolic statements, especially when concerning politics.
“(Liberal person) EVISCERATES (Conservative person)!”
“(Liberal person) completely DESTROYS (Supporters of a conservative policy)!!”
“(Liberal TV personality) SHUTS (Supporters of a conservative policy/Conservative Person DOWN!”
Every interaction with opinions different from our own becomes a battle, and in battle, we only see winners and losers.
The inference from all of this is that liberals think that everyone else is stupid, and unworthy of having different opinions. That, by itself, is unfortunate, but we exacerbate that worldview further by engaging in Social Justice Warriorism (SJW).
As a person who is from a family of conservatives, few things anger them more than the SJW we often engage in. The collective fever…the rage…that turns good liberals…cruel….
We don’t merely want to publicly disagree with someone, we want to destroy them as human beings.
Social media has amplified our voices, and with it, the voices of those who disagree with. It takes almost no effort to anger someone, for that someone to build a coalition of other angry someones, who in turn go after the target of that anger. In this war of online aggression, all bets are off, and nobody is exempt. Jobs, spouses/partners, family members, and children are considered fair game for online attacks and even death threats. Now, it should be stated that the people who resort to death and rape threats CERTAINLY represent the fringe of liberalism, but with even just the angry re-shares of stories, SJW encourages outrage, and that collective outrage encourages a visceral reaction.
The most common result of things like this “going viral” is people losing their jobs, and among us liberals, there seems to be a certain joy associated with that. We often engage in downfall voyeurism, where we openly and loudly applaud someone getting taken down, especially if they said/believed something that didn’t fit with the mainstream liberal list of approved opinions. (One side-note about that list, it is NEVER consistent. It is constantly being edited and changed, so the instances of people running afoul of it is ever-growing.) This bloodlust for people we disagree with to fail and lose their lives is one of the biggest things hurting our movement.
Rather than focusing on building each other up, we take delight in destroying each other, and with every new story of some person saying something stupid and the Twitter-verse (ugh) blowing up to go after them, there is a network that will support them, nurture them, and garner even more support.
This goes even further on universities, where it is the fashion to deny people with differing ideologies and opinions from even being able to publicly discuss those ideologies and opinions. Every year, student protests in some college, somewhere in the US, are angry about some person who will be speaking at the school. Every year, administrators and professors are forced to choose between defending the first amendment and allowing thoughtful discussion, or satiating the rage-machine that seems to define the modern college student. President Obama has spoken out against this behavior, and a variety of talking heads have spoken about the “touchiness” of modern liberals. What often gets overlooked is how all of these behaviors invigorates conservatives and gives people like Trump the perfect boogeyman.
DISCUSSION 3: ALLIES ON EDGE
I hate writing this section. I really do. It makes me sound pretentious. And whiny. And white. I can just SEE the posts about white tears and all that….. Ugh, okay.
Before I look at how conservatives respond to SJW, I think it could be beneficial to discuss how it affects white male liberals, a group I am a part of. Now, the first thing is many white male liberals are insecure and neurotic. While our actions and words express commitment to liberal causes and ideologies, our minds are in a constant state of panic that we’re going to say something that destroys our cred in the liberal community, makes us look ignorant or racist, or will be used against us in some way. When we are prompted with a question, the our response goes through a quick checklist or filter to ensure it is okay to say. It goes like this:
1. Step 1: Prompted with Question. Example: What are your thoughts on Cheetos?
2. Step 2: Brain breaks down the aspects of the question. Do you like Cheetos? They’re okay, I guess.
What does your like or dislike of Cheetos imply? That I like fatty foods.
Which ALSO implies? I’m fat.
How should you answer? Say no, and do it snottily. Or say yes, but be embarrassed or ashamed about it.
3. Step 3: Brain breaks down the questioner. Who is asking about your thoughts on Cheetos? Frank.
What does ______ look like? White dude. We look very similar, actually.
Why do you hang out with people who LOOK like you, huh?! Have a problem with people of color?! Why aren’t you hanging out with a WOMAN?! Answer! Answer, you bigot! You misogynist! Probably a homophobe, too! Ah, shit!
4. Step 4: Mouth and body work together to answer the question. What are your thoughts on Cheetos? *shrug shoulders* (mumble I don’t know) Whatever you want, man. (Think a second more.) Frank, I think we need to stop hanging out together. FIN.
So, we keep our guard up most times. We have learned about privilege, the histories of oppression, the fact that our very existence is the byproduct of a system in which our ancestors were rewarded while people of color, or people who didn’t “fit the mold” were neglected, ignored, abused, and worse. Words and phrasing must be chosen carefully to avoid offending the person you are speaking with. Basically, we’re on egg shells most of the time, worried that something is going to break through the filter and come out that is going to destroy us. We’re basically Wreck-it-Ralph.
We realize that in the overall narrative of our country, our society, we are the bad guys. We are the representation of privilege and we hate it. We cope with it in different ways, some more effective than others. We engage in SJW to redirect to others who we KNOW are voicing unpopular opinions, so we make ourselves look better. We change our profile pics and express outrage at some bad thing that happened in some place and a “can you believe this shit?!” post. We believe it, but at the same time, a lot of that belief comes from the aforementioned fear. There is an infamous account of Stalin, when he basically cleaned house and got rid of his top people that made his ascension to power possible. Friends became enemies, revolutionaries became threats, etc, but in the meeting of the Politboro, there was raucous applause. People were so afraid to be caught slipping, they overcompensated and clapped as loudly as they could.
No, liberals are not Stalin, but that fear of being on the wrong side of something in the PC war drives liberal allies to go to extraordinary lengths to make themselves look good.
One of the hip hop tracks that really spoke to me this year was Macklemore’s White Privilege II. (Wait for hatred of my choice to subside). As a straight, white guy, who also views himself as an ally, Macklemore’s discussion of insecurity and outrage, uncertainty and action, whiteness and responsibility is an internal struggle I’m very familiar with. I do what I can to help things improve, but its never good enough in my mind. I worry that anything I do is a drop in the bucket in terms of fixing shit, but more than that, that what I’m doing will seem like a cheap ploy to pander, or that it is inauthentic. Sometimes, my mind argues, its better to freeze up and do nothing than doing the WRONG thing.
I’m a child of divorce. I’m the oldest child. I’m a comedian. People-pleasing is what I’ve spent most of my life
doing trying to do, and with my newfound political voice, I constantly worry about fucking up. The comedians that are “edgy” are hack, but they shouldn’t be boycotted and punished for saying offensive things. We don’t need to prevent them from getting work at a place, or protesting comedy clubs or theatres that booked them, let the free market do that. If I have a comedian or performer I don’t like because of political beliefs, I don’t give them my money. I don’t spend my time with them, I don’t create a demand for them, and we all have the ability to do that exact same thing, but in modern liberalism, that’s not enough. If I don’t speak out against them, I am supporting them, supporting them, and I am doing everything because of my privilege. Despite Star Wars’ warning, we are creating a world of absolutes, where you either fit the mainstream, or you don’t and should be put down.
I can handle this. I know that any discomfort, white guilt, or insecurity I feel is nothing compared to the things that have happened to people throughout our nation’s history, so I have no reason to complain. The things of which I CAN complain are usually economic or class-oriented. SJW can create “victims,” but our supposed victimhood comes across as fake and forced. We see that we are the problem, but we hate that, and look for other areas where we can show that we TOO are oppressed. Its all very nasty, tacky, and frustrating business, but it is largely made possible by Social Justice Warriorism.
Everything in the previous section is just one of the many ways people can respond to privilege. The other, is a bit less appealing, but exponentially more confident.
Say “fuck that shit.”
This group either acknowledges their privilege and just doesn’t give a shit or denies it’s existence altogether. There is a great piece that discusses what “white privilege” means to poor whites. It’s here. I highly recommend you read it, but the overarching argument is that it is difficult for people who are struggling to see the benefits they are afforded; and even more, to think that they somehow are better off than other Americans in some way. They don’t believe it, because they can only focus on what is front of them, because of their own circumstances. In fact, the very process of stepping back and trying to look at a “bigger picture” is privileged, because it is in many ways, a luxury. It is hard to tell people who are struggling that they better off than their neighbors because of the color of their skin; and by extension, that their fears and concerns are invalid. Their opinions are invalid. THEY are invalid.
This disparity in understanding, coupled with witnessing the effects of SJW does not an ally make. As soon as something is considered “backwards,” people feel like they are next. That if they don’t modernize and do it quickly, that they are going to lose everything if the rest of the world finds out. This kills discourse, and it creates an environment ripe for the picking…. and Trump, and Republicans, and Fox News are those pickers. They tell people that their opinions aren’t out of touch, that society has just gotten “too PC,” or godless, and it is society that is messed up and backwards. This makes for a very enticing option. They aren’t ridiculed as backwards, or racists, or bigots, or homophobes; instead, they are celebrated in a way. They feel validation and not under attack.
I listened to a Trump speech recently, because I think it is important to hear the other sides of things. I want to remain informed about the race, and where we are at. He was speaking in Atlanta shortly after the massacre in Orlando, and the thing that unsettled me the most was how….supportive the crowd was. For over a year, Trump has fear-mongered and bloviated on various topics, but they were finite arguments. Every speech was the same, and the (at the time) encouraging point was that he kept getting interrupted by protesters. He had to keep stopping, being shouted over by someone in the crowd, and a huge to-do as he ordered security to get them out. It was a very regular show.
After Pulse, however, those protests were remarkably absent. The lines that were getting the biggest responses were ones targeting Muslims, ones that played into the narrative that we are at war with the religion, and that he is comfortable with that. A nation of immigrants and religiously persecuted minorities turning on immigrants and religiously persecuted minorities? It hurt, but with nobody calling him out, or shouting him down, the movement he had acquired was/is terrifying. He wasn’t being questioned, he was being supported for his rhetoric.
I started looking at who Trump supporters actually are. Yes, they are generally white. Yes, they are generally male. Yes, they are generally more uneducated, but the concerns from intellectuals was that he WAS/IS speaking to real issues. There is a reason the RNC is trying to court Bernie supporters, both he and Trump are viewed as political outsiders who acknowledge that the current system doesn’t work, that it leaves too many people out of the process. They both speak to those angers and frustrations about the state of affairs, but they offer dramatically different responses to them. As exciting as Bernie was to so many white, college-educated males, he was brought to prominence by making emotional appeals to the people. Trump is making pure emotional appeals to the people, and he is trying to mobilize them to take it out on minorities.
A number of interviews with Trump supporters include the term “PC police.” They are vocalizing the fact that they feel like they are being policed, and when a snake oil salesman like Trump comes along, he nurtures them, and tells them that what ails them isn’t the wealthy, or powerful, but minorities, immigrants, and Muslims. They eat it up, and they love him in return.
So, what is the point? Why should anyone give a shit about this?
If we want to get support, if we want to create more informed allies, we need to stop dealing in such absolute terms of right/wrong. We need to end the vitriolic attacks on everyday people that speak without thinking. We need to engage them, not enrage them. It does nothing to change people’s minds when you call them ignorant or racist (even if they are.) At the very least that sort of absolutism doesn’t look good, and makes our group look like a bunch of bullies. We should encourage discussion and quite trying to shut people down, and engaging in this rampant hyperbole that has become so prevalent. Treat those everyday people like you would a parent or loved one. Try to get to the root of what their reasons for being angry are, then put it through the better filter.
Do they like you enough to hear a competing opinion?
Is their opinion based out of fear?
What are they afraid of?
What are you able to offer them to change their mind?
What do you bring to the table that would be appealing?
At the end of the discussion, have they listened to what you had to say? Have you listened to them?
It isn’t revolutionary. It isn’t unique. It’s the golden rule. Treat others with respect, even those you disagree with; and as a liberal, see if you can engage them in a discussion. The best way to create and strengthen a belief is to have to defend it. Defend away, but also be open and hear what the other side is saying; because while it may be convenient to dismiss people because of their gender, the color of their skin, or their sexual preference, keep in mind that people like Trump are beating you to that. You have the moral high ground, so use it, respectfully.