Thursday, May 29, 2014

Who Is Privileged: Part 2 (Gender Edition)

In the wake of the killing spree at UCSB, which was perpetrated by a young man who wanted "retribution" for all the girls who refused to date him and have sex with him, there have been numerous conversations about misogyny, fueled by the #yesallwomen trend on Twitter. There has, of course, also been the predictable backlash from the usual chorus of men who try to derail every discussion about the problems women face. What lies at the heart of these men's protests is a fundamental misunderstanding of what sexism, oppression, and privilege really are all about. In my last post I addressed some of these misconceptions, with a particular focus on race and class. Given the things I have heard some men say in the last day or two, I ought to give some attention to gender as well.

To start off, let me acknowledge the fact that, yes, there are aspects of being a man that are undesirable. Ask Jane Feminist and she might tell you that she is glad she can smile and wave at strangers' children without being perceived as a pedophile. She is glad that she looks less inherently suspicious to police or other authorities. She is glad she doesn't have to engage in idiotic displays of masculine bravado (which usually amount to dangerous dares), nor hide her admittedly irrational fear of spiders, if she doesn't want to. She is glad she has never felt compelled to spend lots of money buying things for her dates.

So men have it bad too, and that means feminists are wrong about all that male privilege stuff. ...right? Well, no. I explained in my last post how rough times and bad experiences don't equate to systemic inequality. This is true even when those bad experiences directly relate to one's membership in a specific demographic category. Privilege and oppression come into play only when that category is deemed inferior to or somehow "less than" the other. Furthermore, hierarchy of this sort always has its basis in institutionalized inequality.

If the hardships of being a man are on par with those of being a woman (and therefore a thing called "sexism" doesn't really exist) then why is it that Jane Feminist knew from the time she was a small child that there was something inferior about being a girl? Why did her brother and the neighbor boys with whom she played always place limits on what things she was "allowed" to participate in? Why were girls praised for doing things like boys, while boys were derogated by being compared to girls? Why did Jane feel, until she reached college, like she had to embrace the disadvantages of masculinity anyway (namely, hiding her emotions, acting tough, displaying physical strength) in order to prove that she really wasn't that inferior human being they thought she was? Why did she feel, even through the duration of college, that she always had to prove that she really was intelligent, and didn't get confused by math problems?

In creating a gendered hierarchy we have constructed the male-female divide in a way that is damaging to those at the bottom as well as the top of the hierarchy. Men feel pressure to be athletic, to be successful (in order to provide for a family), to place themselves in danger in times of crisis, and to hide all vulnerability, weaknesses, and emotions. Furthermore, in simultaneously constructing masculinity as inherently violent and aggressive, we urge men to act counter to our general sense of morality in order to "prove themselves." The result is that we cultivate a type of pathological consciousness that is responsible for such societal problems as rape and killing sprees. This is not good. But the reason why men are encouraged to be strong and successful and violent and hide vulnerabilities is because these are the things that required to maintain power in society. These are the things that are needed to uphold one's place at the top of the hierarchy. Therefore, we cannot deny that this hierarchy exists - e.g. that men are held ideologically and institutionally in a position of dominance over women - but we can also recognize that the "bad male experiences" are a form of blowback, which inevitably results from the exercise of power. It is possible to acknowledge that hierarchy exists, while also recognizing that dismantling the hierarchy may have positive consequences for oppressor and oppressed.

There is more to this, though. Men in higher social classes enjoy more freedom from traditional gender stereotypes. A wealthy man may express his enjoyment of the arts, and fail to express interest in beer and sports, more freely than a working-class man. There is a well-documented interplay of class and gender. Working class cultures of any race have been marked by hyper-masculinity (think about hard rock, metal, hip hop, etc.) - as well as, it should be mentioned, an intensification of sexist tropes. It is true that the genres I parenthetically referenced are diverse, and it is actually the specimens that are processed by the corporate world and thrown into the mainstream that most exemplify the hyper-masculinity and sexism. This indicates that the relationship between class and gender is in some degree shaped by corporate interests. There is another, complementary argument to be made that people who are subjugated on the basis of their race and/or class might cling on to the one form of power (masculinity) that is available to them, however superficially. Either way, it is clear that the men who are most burdened by the negative consequences of masculine stereotypes are those who are marginalized on a race or class basis.

It should also be mentioned that, even in cases where the pressures are shared by men and women, there is still an inherent inequality. For example, both men and women are held to pretty narrow and unreasonable standards of how their bodies should look. Yet, there is still an idea, popularized in movies and tv shows, that even when men fail to meet those standards, ultimately they can still "get the girl" as long as they are a decent person (notice all the tv and movie couples where the woman is far more attractive than the man... and in my experience this holds in real life). On the other hand, the cinematic cliché for women is the awkward, nerdy girl who gets a makeover and then is able to get the guy (also, she just happened to have the perfect body from the beginning). We do hold women more strongly to our unreasonable standards than men, and the end result is the high incidence of eating disorders among young women.

Here's another example that relates more directly the UCSB killings. Both men and women experience rejection; they both get their hearts broken. When Jane Feminist is rejected, she kind of wonders why he wasn't interested, kind of tries to convince herself that it wouldn't have worked out anyway, but mostly spends her energy trying to "get over" him. She recognizes that she has not had a lot of successful relationships, and blames it on the fact that she has some emotional issues she needs to deal with. She notices, though, that she often hears men blame women for their lackluster dating record."Girls never go for the nice guys! Those sluts always pick the jerkiest guys and not me! Wahhh!" (And somehow, Jane notices, those self-proclaimed "nice guys" are always the creepiest of all.) Jane is also bothered by the frequency with which men don't take the "hint" (or, the blatant, direct message) and keep persisting, even, sometimes, to the point of stalking or harassing. They are no doubt harboring some false hope provided by all those romantic comedy films where the guy just keeps asking the girl out, and finally she caves in and they fall happily in love. Jane wonders, "Why can't they just accept the fact that we're not interested when we say we're not interested?"

The point is not some sort of contest of Who Has It The Worst. We should all be sympathetic to the things that men have to deal with. The point is that, if we want to make things better for men, it just so happens that our task is the same as if we want to make things better for women: eradicate patriarchy and sexism.

We will all be better off for it.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Who is Privileged?

Lately I have seen a number of discussions that reveal some confusion about the concept of “privilege.” Most commonly, privilege is equated with wealth. Then, there is also the notion, recently expressed by a Princeton undergraduate, that so long as you have a personal or family history that includes some rough times, you need not consider yourself “privileged” in any way, nor must you acknowledge that other people’s experiences are fundamentally different than yours.

The reason why some people are resistant to being characterized as “privileged,” as far as I can tell, is the implication that: a) they did not completely “earn” their successes and therefore do not have any more of a “right” to certain types of power, status, and/or wealth than others; and b) they ought to be more reflective about the assumptions they make as well as more attentive to the perspectives of others (when it’s so much easier not to be either of those things).

The misconception is that privilege is something you either have, or you don’t. People view privilege as a black-and-white, all-or-nothing phenomenon. However, such a narrow view of privilege does not reflect the complexity and multi-dimensionality of our social identities and personal histories. I will admit, without disclosing any information about myself, that there are certain areas where I enjoy a lot of privilege, and other areas where I have none at all.

But let’s back up for a second and look at what privilege actually is. First and foremost, privilege is a characteristic of relationships of inequality. Privilege is about being the beneficiary of such relationships. Privilege is about institutions - legal, educational, economic, political, medical, etc. - that may constrain the lives of certain people based on a group with which they are affiliated.

Most importantly, privilege relates to current conditions - existing inequalities and institutional constraints. History is only important in so far as it serves as the foundation for present-day conditions (as history so often is preserved in current social structures). Hence, personal or group history is not always or necessarily relevant in assessing a person’s privilege. I have often heard people of Irish background make the claim that the discrimination faced by their forebears somehow proves that we’ve all had some difficult times and have had to work to get where we are at, or even that there is nothing spectacularly different about the complaints made by other racial/ethnic groups (i.e. “they have no excuse!”). Likewise, Tal Fortgang insists that because his family endured the Holocaust and had to struggle to “make it” as immigrants, his presence at an elite academic institution is therefore attributable to his character and determination, and not at all to any sort of privilege.

The arguments that I am going to make in reference to Irish Americans will apply to any other similarly situated ethnic groups, but I will discuss American Jews separately as they have a unique history to consider. It is undoubtedly true that people of Irish descent experienced some genuine racism earlier in American history, in an era where Irish were not considered “white” like they are today (although one could argue that they were never treated as property, always had civil rights, and in fact 8 of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Irish). Yet the Irish are one group of people for whom changing social conditions (including new waves of immigration and recalibration of racial categories) actually served to radically alter their social position. It is clear that, despite the history of discrimination, today Irish Americans do not have to worry about educational achievement gaps, income gaps (in fact, according to the U.S. census bureau the median income of Irish headed households is higher than the national median), bias in the criminal justice system, or geographic segregation. The list of American presidents of Irish descent is quite long, and Irish Americans play a very prominent role in politics. It is clear that historical injustices do not have any bearing on the present-day relationships that Irish Americans have with social institutions and structural inequality.

It is also without question that Jews have faced a lot of discrimination throughout American history, and in contrast to the Irish, are still subject to many negative attitudes and prejudices. I frequently hear paranoid comments about Jews controlling the media or the international financial system, or the world. It is certain that Jews, as they go through their lives, will encounter many nasty comments and stereotypes (if they are particularly unlucky and happen into some White Supremacist Territory they may even fear for their safety), and this will surely impact their self identity and many of their attitudes. Therefore, yes, it is true that an American Jew will never have the same amount or type of privilege that other white Americans enjoy.

Yet, there is privilege nonetheless (for many Jews). However psychologically scarring the experience of prejudice may be, it does not seem to translate into widespread institutional discrimination of the sort that makes it so difficult for Americans of other racial/ethnic groups to attend a school like Princeton. American Jews are not disadvantaged by the educational system; they are not targeted by law enforcement; they are not subject to the type of economic exploitation that would leave a large percentage of them impoverished (to the contrary, the median income of American Jewish households is significantly higher than the national median); and they are not commonly mistaken for drug dealers and thugs. It is unlikely that Tal Fortgang, as he walks the halls of Princeton, will ever be mistaken for a janitor.

If you are a Jew, and grow up in an educated, middle or upper class family (as many, though certainly not all, American Jews do), your ability to achieve educational and economic success is not (normally) institutionally hindered solely by the fact that you are Jewish. Here is where privilege really comes in. Not only will you be starting out in a better place than all those Americans who lack basic economic and cultural resources, but if you happen to have friends and family who are well established in certain professions or educational institutions, your connections will certainly give you greater access to important opportunities than less fortunate Americans. It doesn’t even matter if your friends and family had to work really, really hard to get into that college or that profession. They may have had to work their asses off, but you will still reap the benefits of their success. That is privilege. It is entirely possible to be Jewish - even a Jew with immigrant parents or grandparents - and still have a certain amount of privilege.

Before I move on, I want to make a quick side comment about the Holocaust, only because Tal brought it up. It is undeniable that the Holocaust was an atrocity whose horror extends beyond human comprehension. No one should diminish that or ignore it. Undoubtedly, when one has family members who had to endure the worst that humans could possibly experience, it will leave a profound mark on how one views the world, and even on how one views one’s own existence. This is without question. However, in light of everything discussed above, it is clear that, apart from imparting a certain sort of consciousness, the history of the Holocaust is not embedded in American social institutions, nor does it shape one’s ability to move through various American social spaces. (It is an entirely different story in Europe, however, where neo-Nazi groups have persisted, recently resurged in many places, and even acquired political power in some cases.) To be honest, and as someone with some personal investment in the matter, I do not really appreciate people like Tal using such a horrific event to score points for an unrelated social/political agenda.

I think I’ve said enough about American Jews, though. The issue of privilege extends beyond ethnicity/race/religion, as many people on all sides of the debate have noted. For example, one should take into account social class. I mentioned above that privilege is often held to be synonymous with class or wealth. To this end, I have heard arguments that go something like this: “But, many white people are poor. Being white does not make you privileged.”

Yes, you are (almost, sort of) correct - but not completely correct. It is true that a wealthy white person is far more privileged than an indigent white person. This is obvious (hopefully). However, that does not mean that race is irrelevant. There are many types of privilege that come solely from being identified as “white.” A poor white person may not be treated the same as a wealthy white person by our criminal justice system; but just the same, that poor white person will treated a heck of a lot better than a black or latino person of any income level (just look at stats relating to the proportions of different races in prison, in conjunction with the types of crimes committed, as well as the racial disparities in law enforcement targeting and sentencing for similar types of crimes). Black and latino men are routinely followed and stopped by police and security guards, even when they belong to the upper class. Throughout their lives, poor white people will face fewer negative attitudes and assumptions about their character and intellectual abilities, fewer lowered expectations, than many people of color - from the classroom to the courtroom to the workplace. If a white person of a working-class background is able to work her way into a professional workplace - a gateway into the middle class - she will not be denied promotions and raises, she will not make less per hour, on the basis of the color of her skin, like a person of color very well could.

What all of this amount to is one fact, which really should not be so hard to grasp (and yet it is). Social identities are multifaceted, and people’s relations to different social institutions vary considerably according to which aspects of their identity are important in different situations. Alternatively, one could look at it this way: people take part in a multitude of social relationships, each one of which emphasizes a different aspect of their social identity and, altogether, may place them in completely different positions vis a vis other people or groups. Because privilege is based on these complex and context-dependent relationships, privilege is not an enduring personal trait, but rather a context-specific, heterogenous and malleable indicator of one’s relationship to society.

To be aware of one’s privilege simply means to take account of one’s relationship to society - to social institutions and other people. To “check your privilege” (a phrase which, actually, I do not believe I have ever used and have rarely heard) means to have some awareness of how these social relationships function - to acknowledge how or when you benefit from systems of inequality; to recognize the importance of learning about other people’s experiences; and to understand how, in instances in which an aspect of your identity is tied to a particular power structure, the ideologies and patterns of consciousness that are deployed to sustain that power structure become in embedded in your own thought processes. People on the other side of the inequality are particularly willing and able to assist you with the last two items.

Don’t take offense; be appreciative.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Book Review: Debt: The First 5000 Years

The book Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber was given to me by someone kind of on a whim. Neither of us had any idea what it was. At first glance, it seemed like a very detailed historical account of debt, which might be somewhat interesting, but probably also very dry.

Actually, it is a very detailed history of debt. And the book is very long. However, it turned out to be a book that I could not put down, and the length was well worth the read. The historical detail was interesting and novel. Furthermore, the historical evidence was supplemented by anthropological research (which always makes for a great analysis). Graeber challenged so much conventional wisdom that in 300 and whatever pages, I never found myself thinking, "Yup, read this before" (well, aside from some anthropological concepts/studies that I happen to already be familiar with).

Some common assumptions that Graeber refutes with historical and anthropological evidence:

1. Money has it origins in barter (and debt was the last to appear)

Actually, the real historical sequence (at least so far as the evidence points us) is the reverse. Complicated system for managing debt arose before the existence of any currency. Furthermore, each stage of this "evolution" was accompanied by a profoundly new order of violence. For example, debt arose out of "human economies" (or ritual spheres of exchange) that highlight the incalculability of human life, and serve to create or strengthen social bonds through marriage, exchange of ceremonial objects, and the like. When violence rips people out of their social context (say, through a murder or kidnapping) then the ritual means of payment are used "compensate" the family/village for the loss, even while the use of such payment simultaneously serves as a reminder that the loss can never be repaid, as ritual exchange objects signify the incommensurability of human life rather than serve as its equivalent. Thus, something quite like "debt" emerges.

In the history that Graeber delineates, the development of the phenomenon of debt is inseparable from this type of violence, as well as the history of slavery. In some sense, Graeber sees debt as a perversion of a more fundamental human mentality: I will give things to people in need when I have the means, in the expectation that others will provide for me when I am in need. The nature of the perversion is to remove the expectation from the context of a social bond. Rather than a relation of equality - that of mutual aid - it is an inequality in which one party has recourse to the violence necessary to force the other party reciprocate (even if that "reciprocation" takes the form of slavery).

Similarly, the rise of currency is tied to creation of large state militaries and the building of empires. The return to reliance on metallic currencies, in the early era of capitalism, was also inextricably linked to the slave trade. Graeber also notes that periods where currency predominates are characterized by increased warfare and general social instability. Debt requires a minimum amount of trust and faith in others in order to function. When no such trust exists, one has no choice to but to rely on currency.

2. The state are the market are two independent, often even oppositional, forces.

Graeber's historical evidence indicates that, quite to the contrary, markets actually originated in the state. Throughout history, states have created markets for strategic purposes - for example, as a means of provisioning a large standing army. Only in the Middle East during the Islamic Golden Age were markets able to develop relatively independent of the state. Very precise historical circumstances (conquest of state power by an external nomadic tribe, distance between state centers and commercial fringes, etc.) allowed this to occur. Interestingly, Graeber supplies compelling evidence that the writings and ideas of Adam Smith can be traced back to Middle Eastern scholars of that time period (some of his examples are nearly word-for-word identical to theirs). However, Adam Smith attempts to universalize based on the experiences of a particular group of people whose social life is shaped by very singular historical/social forces.

3. Capitalism is characterized by free markets.

Actually, I have already attacked this idea at length. David Graeber simply provides additional support to the contention that capitalism has, more than anything, limited the freedom of the market.

4. Debt is a sign of moral failing, for states or individuals

On the individual level, Graeber notes that debt is part of the very fabric of our social relationships, for better or worse.. For better, when it exists as an expectation of mutual aid; for worse, when it is backed up by violence.

On the state level, Graeber argues that entire currency systems are literally based on debt (say, the loan made by the Bank of London to the British monarchy). If this debt were ever repaid, the entire system would crumble. For the United States, government debt serves to maintain a vast imperial tribute system, where client states buy U.S. debt, and then wealth is transferred to the U.S. (who remains in possession of a large portion of the world's gold) when the value of the U.S. dollar falls in comparison to gold.

Thus, according to Graeber, debt is not the result of individual or national moral failings, or lack of fiscal responsibility. It is built in to the way our society functions, by which relationships are maintained and managed.

Nevertheless, Graber insists that we are in need of a Jubilee. He says that now is the time to erase all debts, wipe the slate clean, and determine on what sort of moral foundation we would like to rebuild our society.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Men as Rape Victims

I came across this article on Slate today. The subject is a new study that shows that men are victims of rape about as often as women. Even when one factors in all of the rape that occurs in prison, apparently a substantial amount is woman-against-man violence.

I will admit, I have not looked at the study itself in great detail, and I perhaps do not have the skill required to evaluate its merits. Furthermore, I have not found any reporting on the study beyond this Slate article. So there is a possibility that it is flawed.

I do think it is important to consider the results seriously, though. Regardless of what the evidence shows, it is important to have an accurate understanding of the circumstances under which rape occurs (if one wishes to stop it).

That said, I am a little concerned about how the results of this study may be used by those who like to claim that feminists make things up and resort to wild exaggerations to maintain their "victim" status.

Let's ask ourselves: do the results of this study, if true, really prove that men have it "just as bad" as women? That patriarchy is a figment of feminists' imaginations?

Well, first of all, your conclusions will depend on how you understand rape. If rape is merely an outgrowth of uncontrollable sexual desires, then the results of this study indicate that a not-insignificant portion of humanity, male and female alike, is so unable to control its sexual appetites that it cannot but help inflicting violence on fellow humans in order to satisfy primal urges.

Some people do hold such a view of humanity and I don't know that there is anything I can do to convince them (on a blog, at least) otherwise. I have written previously, however, in opposition to the idea of an innate, unchangeable "human nature" that is ultimately unaffected by the forces of society and history.

A more sociologically informed view of rape sees it as an instrument of domination, a manifestation of hierarchy, rather than simply a means of obtaining sexual pleasure. From this perspective, what the results of the recent study would mean is that there are forms of subjugation other than those based on male domination of females, which may be carried out, on a micro level, through sexual assault.

The discussion in the Slate article fails to address any social dimensions other than gender. What we don't know is how class, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other social realities factor into this. There is, however, evidence that the oppressed among all of these categories are far more likely to be subject to sexual violence. Therefore, it should not be so shocking that men are raped very often too.

But it should also not be overlooked that this study (once again, if true) undermines some of the key arguments of feminism's detractors. Namely:

1. There's not much we can do about rape, because men just can't control their sexual desires
2. There's not much we can do about rape unless women change the way they dress or how they act at parties
3. There are fundamental, biological differences between men and women
 3.a. Men are naturally aggressive
 3.b. Women are naturally passive, helpless

Obviously, women are just as capable of perpetrating acts of violence and men are just as capable of falling victim to them.

It will be interesting to see what information further research provides.