Saturday, January 5, 2008

A Flameout Attempt to Triangulate Between Feminists

I've been following the discussions here and here on Hugo Schwyzer's blog. Hugo is a male feminist, trying to persuade other feminists that Jessica Valenti's Yes means Yes project may have some value as part of a wider general discourse between feminists and what I'll call "normal people". The fundamental controversy is between WOC bloggers and Jessica, because WOC bloggers feel that Jessica's call for submissions trivializes their experiences. And marginalizes. And silences . . . blah, blah, blah.

Hugo tries to split the difference, saying that both points of view have some validity. Jessica is a "popularizer", WOC bloggers are "purists" - and both are needed. To ideologues, those are fighting words.

I don't really care about feminism, and I could care less what Jessica Valenti or the various WOC bloggers that are involved in this controversy think. What interests me is Hugo's attempt to add his voice to the mix, by trying to convince both sides that there is room for both in his big-tent view of feminism. And I care very much what Hugo thinks, because he is clearly a decent man, and a deep thinker. He is trying to blend Christianity and feminism, and I'm skeptical that such a blend is possible with the more ideological feminists.

Like all of these discussions, it always – always! - boils down to a matter of privilege. Privilege is the leftist counterpart to the Christian doctrine of original sin, absent its universality. Hugo, like many people that try and engage with feminists, falls for the bait-and-switch tactics that leftists use in privilege-based discourse. Ideologues claim that if privileged people acknowledge their privilege ("unpack it" in their parlance) they will then understand the revealed truth of feminism, or ableism or racism. . . whatever. Failure to understand the truth can only be because of the blinding, corrosive nature of privilege. Sound circular? It is – that’s why it takes an intellectual to believe it.

But when you see a controversy like this, where leftist ideologues have fundamental differences, then the real meaning of privilege analysis becomes clear.

Look at this comment thread. Hugo, claiming he has something of value to say, says things like:

I think Jaclyn and Jessica have done a really awesome job of hearing the criticisms of their original call for submissions; that’s a consequence of this dynamic process of having these various constituencies weighing in. The anthology will be better as a result.
And you’re absolutely right that the popularizer can be the purist of the reframing. As someone who teaches a survey course on women’s history, the only course on feminist history in the whole college, I have to monitor myself very carefully here to make sure I don’t slip into doing exactly that.

And he's met with responses like this:

Are you labeling concerns like the recognition that most people aren’t white and middle-class, are you casting that notion as a technical intricacy of interest only to purists?
And what kind of popularization is served by by selecting ideas that are targeted mainly at the wealthiest 5% of the world’s population?

So Hugo tries this tack:
On the other hand, a desire to be a successful, money-making writer doesn’t vitiate anyone’s progressive feminist credentials. It’s not a zero-sum game; a given feminist writer can make some money without automatically depriving other deserving folks. A rising tide really can lift all boats. (Damn, now you’ve made me sound like some hopeless supply-sider.)
And is met with this:
Spend some time outside of privileged spheres, read some Plato, read some Freire, do some listening to the experiences of the majority of the people on this planet, spend some time actually working with people in poverty, crisis, violence before crediting a blog or an ad campaign with the power to transform the world. Thousands of years of experience show effective social change is more complex than that. Basic social justice principles show that the same people saying the same things in the same way does not move us forward. Refresh yourself with what the legitimate criticisms of the call for submissions (not Jessica herself, regardless of your efforts to make it appear otherwise) were.
See – it always comes down to privilege! And Hugo takes the bait:
I don’t just pontificate in the classroom. I’ve done youth work for years and years — and not just with privileged white high schoolers. I’ve worked with pregnant teens in a variety of outreach programs in underprivileged areas. I’ve been to God knows how many clinics with scared young women. I’ve taught workshops on sexual harassment to sullen angry young men who call me “faggot” to my face over and over again. That volunteerism doesn’t make me a wonderful human being, and maybe it is just white guilt or noblesse oblige in your eyes — but I have lived out my values outside the confines of the classroom and the comforts of my home.
And this is the response:
And I cannot emphasize enough how unimpressed I am by you being called a fag. I mean you’re trying to claim that what? being called gay by a high school student is akin to the forced sterilization of native and black women or that it’s akin to seeing your friends and family arrested and thrown in prison because the police don’t care about being specific as long as they can arrest some black person.
You have not risked dying of dehydration crossing the border, you have not felt fear at the sound of police sirens despite your innocences, You have not wept at the stresses involved with tyring to pay for a court case, or suffered the symptoms of poisoning because your boss doesn’t follow enviromental health policies, you have not slept in a dirty alleyway with one eye open in case some random passerby takes it upon themselves to rape you, you have no fucking idea what hardship fucking is you little pissant.

Here is what is happening. In the view of ideological leftists, the sin of privilege - particularly that of a white, heterosexual American male - can never be washed away. It is a permanent defect of your soul. It means - to ideologues - that you have no moral worth. Despite what they say, no amount of “unpacking”, no amount of insight, no amount of loyal "ally work" can regain your humanity. In their eyes, your privilege means that - now and forever - you have nothing of value to say. Your experiences are of no consequence. Your views are always empty. While you might be trotted out on occasion as part of a show-trial illustration of remorse, once that is done you need to shut up and move to the background. Once you are privileged, you are free only to agree.

So as a privileged person, Hugo has no basis from which to persuade feminists about anything.

And to me, this is the danger of these ideologies. They make fundamental claims about the relative moral value of people. Sadly, we've long done this on the basis of race, class and gender. The new, modern ideologies want to do the same exact thing, but based on the "privilege" aspects of race, class and gender. Ain’t no difference. The only sort of justice that will result from this new twist will be the type of justice Stalin doled out to the privileged Kulaks.

The only analysis of privilege I accept is the Christian one. “It is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get to Heaven.” Christ offered the tiny, but redemptive, possibility of forgiveness – to everyone. Ideologues do not.


Hugo Schwyzer said...

You know, STF, I really really needed to read this. Thank you.

Sweating Through fog said...

Glad it helped, Hugo :) Keep the faith, and have a good trip

the bewilderness said...

"The fundamental controversy is between WOC bloggers and Jessica, because WOC bloggers feel that Jessica's call for submission trivializes their experiences."

You are incorrect. That is not what the fundamental controversy was at all.

Sylvia/M said...

Saying someone has privilege != saying someone hasn't faced bad shit in their lives or aren't doing good work.

Privilege is a blind spot that most people do not have the luxury of having and often the privilege holders cannot, do not, and will not acknowledge they have it.

With that said, the bewilderness is right -- you have no fucking idea what you're talking about, and it's probably exacerbated by the fact that you don't care about the context of what you're talking about and are only entering to save your good friend's ass. Not only that, but you're doing so in a way that demonstrates you're entering the conversation ass-backwards.

Sweating Through fog said...


You'll have better luck starting the 'ol privilege shell game with someone that buys into it.

As far as entering the conversation on the underlying issue, and somehow getting it right in your eyes and bewilderess's. I thought I made it perfectly clear that I don't care about it.

Sylvia/M said...

Oh, no; it's evident. Just that "I don't care" doesn't really do much since starting your analysis from that point makes you look like a git.

I think you'll have a better time commenting on the privilege bit once you understand it. I don't know if anyone told you -- and most likely they did and you swiped your "I Don't Care" card and bumbled on anyway -- whining is not thinking. I mean, seriously. "Once you are privileged, you are only free to agree?" Are you serious? Agreeing implies you're listening in the first place. And from a person claiming he doesn't care about half of what's said in the first place, I doubt you're an expert in deciding when and how privilege is important.

Hugo, wow. Yeah. Sometimes I do find things I like about you, but this really isn't one of them. You take scraps where you find them, don't you?

ilyka said...

You'll have better luck starting the 'ol privilege shell game with someone that buys into it.

This has always confused me: Game? Okay, let's pretend that you're right: It's a game, and every leftist ideologue who is not a beleaguered and underappreciated white Christian male enjoys playing it.

Then answer me this:

1. What is the point of playing this game? What's the prize? What do players potentially win?

2. Given that the price of attempting to play this game is running into a few stouthearted men like yourself who will recognize it as such and refuse to play, who on earth would find this game enjoyable?

3. Following from 1 and 2: Do you really think there are whole swaths of society with nothing better to do than to play games with people who are up-front about their ignorance and apathy? Because if you do, you're saying whole swaths of society are at best very poor at time management, and at worst, completely barking mad.

Do you see what I'm saying? Calling it "the ol' privilege shell game" MAKES NO SENSE. Sylvia gets nothing out of engaging you but rudeness. I get nothing out of engaging you but carpal tunnel exacerbation. NO ONE is getting anything out of engaging Hugo. No one engages for kicks or for fun because engagement of this sort provides neither.

Care or don't care, but your premise is provably wrong, and you don't look too smart at this point for sticking it to it.

Sweating Through fog said...


Regarding your motivations for engaging with someone who considers privilege discussions a shell game - only you can speak to that. There are lots of people that take these discussions quite seriously, and no doubt you'll find fertile ground for engagement with them.

the bewilderness said...

"As far as entering the conversation on the underlying issue, and somehow getting it right in your eyes and bewilderess's. I thought I made it perfectly clear that I don't care about it."

I don't care if you enter the conversation on the underlying issue either. I just think it is rather stupid of you to lie about it, and then declare that you don't care that you lied about it.

conato said...

You nailed it STF.

Your critics often insist that the privileged should shut up and listen but the lurker/poster ratio never occurs to them and, as such, neither does the impression they make on themselves and their causes. Hugo said it best some time ago when he declared that the only people who would object to Marcotte's potty mouth are people who wouldn't vote for Edwards, anyway. Really?!?

Hugo made a little fluff post about purists and whateverwhocares and for that he's "raping mexicans" [sic] and it goes on and on. To the lurker, this whole matter appears to take place in a single nursery with multiple cribs.

These folks talk about the "intersectionality" of privilege but are very careful to choose the intersections. Consider all of the possible intersections of privilege and you reduce the analysis to the fractional individual. Of course class analysis of privilege is valuable for understanding how the world works so why are it's most passionate proponents the first to fling the P Word at individuals?

You got it right, STF, but you didn't quite make it to the core. If a leftist's lips are moving go "all in" that she is asserting her own moral superiority. It's how they self-actualize (note how Ilyka wonders "what's the point of playing..." then takes the matter to her own crib for 46 more diaper-slingin' comments). It's why leftists are ineffective. It's unfortunate.

Sweating Through fog said...


Thanks for stopping by.

You see the dynamics I pointed out all over the net. Since you like to lurk, you might find this Ally 101 thread amusing. This isn't one of those "comment nurseries" you and I love to lurk in. Rather it's a privilege flaggelation temple. Where they all wait for the enlightened, unprivileged ones to drop in and teach them about new privileges they can beat themselves with. Waiting for the enlightened unprivileged ones to teach them the secret ways of spotting latent privileges in others. And this flagellation, this school of privilege checking, makes them feel so damn good about themselves, because in doing so they gain some small measure of the glory of the unprivileged ones.

I keep hoping that some ally might dare to criticize one of the unprivileged ones on even the most minor point. At 200+ comments, I'm doubtful it will happen.

And the sad thing is, there was some insight in the original discovery of how privilege blinds us. It does. But it has become just an empty tool - just rhetoric.

conato said...

“Privilege flagellation temple” is an excellent way to put it. The original poster asked for ideas that are “concrete” and “useful” and after over 200 posts of narcissistic repentance (and, of course, a lengthy meta-conversation – the conversation about the conversation – you can never have too much navel-gazing) the only concrete idea they’ve come up with is…drums…trumpets…….LISTEN.

About listening, some time ago I purchased “Killing Rage” by bell hooks, a feminist “WOC.” A reviewer at Amazon did an excellent job:

Let it be said that BELL HOOKS is a pampered uber-bourgie prima donna nutcase. Consider the anecdotal source of HOOK's titular "killing rage": she and a friend are on an airliner, sitting in the first class section, of course. (What radical superstar ever flew coach?). Anyway, it transpires that HOOK's traveling companion does not have legitimate title to her first class seat. Another passenger carrying a bona fide ticket for that seat appears and asks for it. HOOK's companion is requested to relocate to coach. Apologies are offered and spurned. Tellingly, Princess BELL does not opt to join her friend in coach. Instead, she stays up in first class and harangues the poor soul whose misfortune it was to end up sitting next to BELL HOOKS. Because, wouldn't you know it, the passenger in question is a WHITE MALE. Golly gee, the galling bitter injustice of it drives BELL HOOKS into a KILLING RAGE, and she bravely lets the whole plane know it. In time, Mr White Male gets tired of defending his right to oxygen, and begs BELL HOOKS to please get out of his face. Whereupon BELL HOOKS --she will not be silenced!-- gets out a pad of paper and a pen and begins taking notes for another incisive diagnostic essay on our incorrigibly racist American society. On top of the first page, she angrily writes in block capitals, "KILLING RAGE," just in case Mr. White Male has yet to get the message. The bottom line: BELL HOOKS is a narcissistic loon.

After reading the opening anecdote I tossed the book in the kitchen trash. Why? Because I want to listen and I want to believe. You’re absolutely right about them failing to question even one of the “unprivileged.” Goshdarn, I can listen all I want but does that accomplish anything if it’s nothing but garbage in, garbage in? Isn’t this a two-way street? Where’s the accountability?

April said...

I'm incredibly late to this conversation, but I wanted to comment, anyway.

While I, too, find many of the "checklists" enlightening and useful in a number of ways, I am incredibly frustrated at the seeming permanence of the negative aspects of being privileged. Because I'm white, the negative experiences I have as a female are often "called out" by other feminists on online forums, because of my ethnic background being on the "privileged" side, or my economic class (broke, but apparently not broke enough to count) being better than others'.

There are many ways in which privilege can be quite damning, even oppressive, but their counterparts have already taken the sole "victim" category, so I'm relegated to the place where I'm told to "shut up and listen." This is also a form of silencing that I'm fed up with. Lately, I've chalked it up to: Teh Interwebz SUCK.