A Parable on Privilege … and Perspective

So, I was reading some comments on Pharyngula, and this old “Privilege 101” post was referenced. It’s titled “Of Dogs and Lizards: A Parable of Privilege” and is essentially a thought experiment aimed at showing how the concept of “privilege” works and, presumably, why it’s a useful concept to bring to these discussions. But in reading it, it became clear that the parable worked better to demonstrate my idea of “perspective” than it did to demonstrate the idea of “privilege” … and, in fact, proved just how vacuous and harmful the idea of “privilege” really is in those sorts of circumstances.

Let’s start not with the meaty thought experiment, but instead the simple example that follows from the definition of “privilege” as per Google:

This is the basic heart of the idea. Privilege is an edge… a set of opportunities, benefits and advantages that some people get and others don’t. For example, if it’s raining in the morning, and you get up, get dressed, climb into the nice warm car in your garage, drive to the closed parking lot at work, and walk into the adjacent building, you don’t get wet. If you go outside and wait at the bus stop, then walk between busses for your transfer, then walk from the bus stop to work, you do get wet. Not getting wet, then, is a privilege afforded you by car and garage ownership. So far, so straightforward, right?

Well … no. Because we don’t particularly see that as any kind of edge, or anything at all to talk about. We might say that someone who had that sort of situation was “lucky”, but we wouldn’t look down on someone who didn’t have that — we’d just note that they happened to get wet, and maybe should think about, say, getting an umbrella — nor would we see that as any kind of big advantage that the “privileged” person was getting. And, more relevantly to this discussion, the “privileged” person would certainly see and understand the situation of the “less privileged” person. This is because the common case is the one where you don’t get that, and so we all clearly understand the differences here, which puts that case definitely in the realm of “perspective”, where the person who doesn’t have to get wet has a different perspective — read: different considerations — than the person who does, but everyone understands the perspective of the other (for the most part; there are issues with never actually going outside and those closed parking lots and garages that aren’t being considered here) and no one claims that the supposed benefits or advantages are unearned. In general, the concept of “privilege” is never used for cases like that.

Next, we get a real world similar example:

Some examples of social privilege work exactly the same way, and they’re the easy ones to understand. For instance, a young black male driver is much, much more likely to get pulled over by the cops in America than an old white woman. Getting pulled over less, then – being given the benefit of the doubt by an authority figure – is in this case, a privilege of being white. (I’m not getting into the gender factor here, intersectionality is a whole different post.)

It’s a very good thing that the author didn’t get into the gender issue, because it would have revealed how this specific example, in fact, totally demolishes the idea of “privilege” as it is commonly used, and even as it is used here: to talk about the privilege of being white. Because that old white woman is also going to get pulled over less often by the cops in America than a young white male driver, and in fact than an old white male driver will. A young white female driver will get pulled over less often than a young white male driver. And, in fact, it might be the case that a young black female driver will get pulled over less often than a young white male driver. Sure, a young white male driver is less likely to be pulled over than a young black male driver, but at this point talking about that as “white privilege” is rather odd given the starting point. A more reasonable example would be to point out that across the board, whites get pulled over less often than blacks, as long as all other factors are held to be identical. That might be true, but is rather hard to demonstrate. And most will accept that if that happens, it’s actually unfair, and it’s not the case that whites are privileged but instead is the case that blacks are treated incredibly unfairly.

So casting this example as an example of privilege doesn’t help. At best, it hides injustice under a banner of “they get things I don’t”, and at worst it devolves into a convoluted mess where each group has some sort of privilege over the other in the exact same example, rendering the assessment meaningless.

Let’s skip past the example of street harassment — I’ll come back to it later — and jump straight to the meaty thought experiment, which I’ll quote mostly in full:

Imagine, if you will, a small house, built someplace cool-ish but not cold, perhaps somewhere in Ohio, and inhabited by a dog and a lizard. The dog is a big dog, something shaggy and nordic, like a Husky or Lapphund – a sled dog, built for the snow. The lizard is small, a little gecko best adapted to living in a muggy rainforest somewhere. Neither have ever lived anywhere else, nor met any other creature; for the purposes of this exercise, this small house is the entirety of their universe.

The dog, much as you might expect, turns on the air conditioning. Really cranks it up, all the time – this dog was bred for hunting moose on the tundra, even the winter here in Ohio is a little warm for his taste. If he can get the house to fifty (that’s ten C, for all you weirdo metric users out there), he’s almost happy.

The gecko can’t do much to control the temperature – she’s got tiny little fingers, she can’t really work the thermostat or turn the dials on the A/C. Sometimes, when there’s an incandescent light nearby, she can curl up near it and pick up some heat that way, but for the most part, most of the time, she just has to live with what the dog chooses. This is, of course, much too cold for her – she’s a gecko. Not only does she have no fur, she’s cold-blooded! The temperature makes her sluggish and sick, and it permeates her entire universe. Maybe here and there she can find small spaces of warmth, but if she ever wants to actually do anything, to eat or watch TV or talk to the dog, she has to move through the cold house.

Now, remember, she’s never known anything else. This is just how the world is – cold and painful and unhealthy for her, even dangerous, and she copes as she knows how. But maybe some small part of her thinks, “hey, it shouldn’t be like this,” some tiny growing seed of rebellion that says who she is right next to a lamp is who she should be all the time. And she and the dog are partners, in a sense, right? They live in this house together, they affect each other, all they’ve got is each other. So one day, she sees the dog messing with the A/C again, and she says, “hey. Dog. Listen, it makes me really cold when you do that.”

The dog kind of looks at her, and shrugs, and keeps turning the dial.

This is not because the dog is a jerk.

This is because the dog has no fucking clue what the lizard even just said.

Consider: he’s a nordic dog in a temperate climate. The word “cold” is completely meaningless to him. He’s never been cold in his entire life. He lives in an environment that is perfectly suited to him, completely aligned with his comfort level, a world he grew up with the tools to survive and control, built right in to the way he was born.

So the lizard tries to explain it to him. She says, “well, hey, how would you like it if I turned the temperature down on you?”

The dog goes, “uh… sounds good to me.”

What she really means, of course, is “how would you like it if I made you cold.” But she can’t make him cold. She doesn’t have the tools, or the power, their shared world is not built in a way that allows it – she simply is not physically capable of doing the same harm to him that he’s doing to her. She could make him feel pain, probably, I’m sure she could stab him with a toothpick or put something nasty in his food or something, but this specific form of pain, he will never, ever understand – it’s not something that can be inflicted on him, given the nature of the world they live in and the way it’s slanted in his favor in this instance. So he doesn’t get what she’s saying to him, and keeps hurting her.

Most privilege is like this.

So, let’s look at this example, and see how the two of them should approach this situation to make it work out for each of them in the best possible way. Now, let’s presume that the dog really doesn’t know what the term “cold” means, so saying “I get cold when the temperature is that low” isn’t going to mean anything to the dog. What should the gecko do? Well, the gecko ought not use the line — from the street harassment example — of how the dog would feel if the gecko did that to him, nor should the gecko be looking for ways to make the dog feel her discomfort. What the gecko should simply do is, in fact, say that the temperature being that low makes them sick … with a description of the symptoms, if necessary. If the gecko did this, then they ought to very quickly be able to get to the root of the problem, as the dog would simply reply that if the temperature is set up any higher then the dog will feel sick. And they’d then realize that the issue is not with what they are doing but is instead with the fact that they have incompatible environmental needs, as the dog wants the temperature lower and the gecko wants it higher. And thus, since neither of them are jerks, they have to find a compromise solution, which could be them leaving the temperature at a compromise level where both are uncomfortable, segmenting themselves off with relatively equal amenities in their own rooms, and only having to enter the other areas when they wanted to interact, or even to them realizing that they can’t actually live in the same house with each other.

But this mindset does not, in fact, in any way claim that one of them is “privileged”. It just presumes that they have differing perspectives, and note that it is equally important that the gecko understand the dog’s perspective here, or else the gecko will end up making the dog uncomfortable with her solution … and perhaps end up making the dog as uncomfortable as the dog made the gecko if the gecko simply takes her perspective and ideal solution as the actual answer.

To get this closer to the typical idea of “privilege”, let’s assume that the dog has moved in and the house is set exactly at the dog’s comfort level, and then the gecko moves in. Again, the dog knows how to change the temperature, but sees no need to. What should the gecko do? Again, the gecko should merely point out how the temperature affects her. She might get an initial response of “It’s always been this way and has worked”, but once the gecko manages to get across how things look from her perspective the dog — if it is not a jerk — ought to be able to realize the problem … which then puts us back in the original problem: if the dog raises the temperature to the level the gecko wants, then the dog will be uncomfortable, and if it stays where it is, the gecko will be uncomfortable. Thus, we need a compromise.

Again, claiming that the dog is “privileged” does nothing here. The gecko still needs to understand the dog’s perspective, even if it is the “privileged” one, in order to come up with a workable compromise. The only work that “privilege” can do here is to guilt the dog into accepting an inferior compromise where the dog ends up being less comfortable than the gecko to make up for that “privilege”. However, it invites arguments over “privilege” and if the dog really has it, and if the gecko needs to compromise to satisfy the “privileged”. Meanwhile, “perspective” quickly gets to the heart of the matter: things look very different from the dog’s and gecko’s views, both have valid perspectives, and both perspectives need to be given equal consideration to come up with a reasonable solution.

So now let’s look at street harassment:

A man has the privilege of walking past a group of strange women without worrying about being catcalled, or leered at, or having sexual suggestions tossed at him.

A pretty common male response to this point is “that’s a privilege? I would love if a group of women did that to me.”

And that response, right there, is a perfect shining example of male privilege.

Let’s apply “perspective” to that example. And the first thing to consider is why men would say that. And the reason is that men don’t get such obvious indications that women are, in fact, sexually interested in them. They instead can only find out if they are attractive by, well, getting sex with women. So having feedback both on their general attractiveness and on that specific women find them attractive seems like it would be a pretty good deal, and the argument here is that women ought to like that, too … and might miss it when it’s gone. So that’s roughly the male perspective.

But, of course, we’re not done. We need to consider this from the perspective of the women who are bothered by it, and find out why it does. And I can think of three possible reasons. The first is that they feel threatened by this: they worry that it will turn into something other than simply leering and catcalling, but will instead lead to groping and even to sexual assault. The second is that they feel “objectified”, treated and turned into nothing more than objects for sex rather than as real human beings. The third is that they find it intrusive: while being flirted with can be a thrill for them, they’d rather that happen in more appropriate circumstances and not when they are just trying to get to work or to the store.

And now … we still aren’t done. Because just because each side has a perspective doesn’t mean those perspectives are right, especially when it comes to the solution they propose. So we need to evaluate the perspectives to see if the claims and complaints and solutions are credible. I’m going to start with the female perspective here, for reasons that will become obvious later but relate to the name of the blog [grin]. So, with the first one, the link between catcalling and actual groping and sexual assault isn’t that clear. It seems likely that men who would grope or sexually assault will likely also be willing to catcall, but it isn’t clear that catcalling in and of itself leads to that. So the link between that and the actual threat of those things is not necessarily clear (anyone who has the evidence and disagrees, feel free to correct me. But it will’na matter in the end). So the first isn’t any kind of trumping argument. The second argument, however, is actually just a really bad one, because it seems clear that it isn’t just making sexual references that would be a problem here. After all, do you think those women would feel better about it if the men saw them reading a physics text and yelled “Hey, babe, work that relativity?”. I don’t find that likely, but if you think they would and have an argument for that, again, feel free. And from that, it does seem like the last argument is the better one: being thought of as sexually appealing isn’t bad, but catcalling is just too intrusive and is done in inappropriate contexts, which makes it, in general, really, really annoying.

Now, let’s turn to the male perspective. And … there isn’t really one here. There’s no real reason I can think of for men to want to catcall or be bothered if they can’t do it. “Leering” is a little more problematic — because looking at an attractive women walking by ought not really be a problem — but for the most part the more rude and egregious forms of street harassment are things that men ought to have no real problem stopping. The argument I presented above is one based on arguing for what women ought to want, but such arguments tend to fall by the wayside when those in that perspective say they don’t want that, unless you have a really strong objective argument for why they ought to. We don’t have that here. So there’s no real argument from the male perspective for keeping street harassment and an actual not unreasonable argument for stopping it. So, from the “perspective” approach, street harassment should be stopped.

Now, does anyone really think that the “privilege” argument, even as outlined in the post, gets to that point anywhere near as well? All of my points are even thing that can be challenged if someone has better arguments. Either the “privilege” argument will do the same thing as “perspective” and merely take the long way around, or it won’t be considering all the relevant viewpoints and so will be vacuous, and be more likely to lead to a long drawn out fight than any kind of reasonable discussion.

We can also see this when we consider the last set of examples:

So, quite simply: don’t be that dog. If you’re straight and a queer person says “do not title your book ‘Beautiful Cocksucker,’ that’s stupid and offensive,” listen and believe him. If you’re white and a black person says “really, now, we’re all getting a little tired of that What These People Need Is A Honky trope, please write a better movie,” listen and believe her. If you’re male and a woman says “this maquette is a perfect example of why women don’t read comics,” listen and believe her. Maybe you don’t see anything wrong with it, maybe you think it’s oh-so-perfect to your artistic vision, maybe it seems like an oversensitive big deal over nothing to you. WELL OF COURSE IT DOES, YOU HAVE FUR. Nevertheless, just because you personally can’t feel that hurt, doesn’t mean it’s not real. All it means is you have privilege.

These examples are set as being absolute stipulations, where the right thing to do for the “privileged” is to accept not only the perspective of the “unprivileged”, but also the proposed solutions without the “unprivileged” having to care, at all, about the perspective of the “privileged”. But why can’t we ask the queer person what the problem they have with my naming the book that, if it really does work for my artistic vision better? Why can’t we ask what’s wrong with it if we don’t see what’s wrong with it? Maybe the “unprivileged” person is just plain wrong: they are misinterpreting how things are being used in those cases, they’re missing the point, they’ve read in an intent that isn’t there, the context of the work makes it clear, or maybe they are just being oversensitive. Or maybe they aren’t. But the only way to settle that is for both sides to give their perspectives and their facts and then we see who is right. Maybe they both are. Maybe they’re both wrong. But until we sit down and hash it out, we can’t know that. To return to the thought experiment, the dog believing the gecko does not and cannot mean that the dog is therefore forced to agree to turn the temperature up to the gecko’s preferred temperature, because that would really hurt the dog. By the same token, believing that someone feels a certain way does not in any way force me to think that they’re right nor that their preferred solution is the right one. Two well-meaning people of differing perspectives ought to be able to share those perspectives and come to a reasonable compromise, or be able to convince the other that their view is right. That the “perspective” model forces this is one of its greatest strengths. Plus, it has the benefit that no one will be fighting to avoid the “privileged” label, and so we won’t get into contortions like we saw in the “pulled over by the cops” example.

There is nothing that the “privilege” concept does better than the “perspective” concept, and it does a lot of things worse, as the thought experiment clearly demonstrates. In creating that thought experiment, the author has instead provided the best possible example of how the “privilege” concept fails.

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