I’m sure the last thing anybody needs is some straight, white, cis, middle class, able-bodied male giving his opinion on this subject, but fuck it. Over the past few months I’ve seen friends deride the concept of privilege and the basic idea of checking it, and intersectionality, and I’ve watched various online communities who share 99% of the same goals tearing themselves to pieces for no obvious reason, and finally I think: fuck it. Might as well throw myself to the lions and give my opinion. It’s the last thing anybody needs. Here it is.
Let’s start with privilege. It seems a really useful and obvious concept to me. Men and women – say – experience the world differently. They have different options and limitations, some of them intrinsic and some of them socially constructed, and we have different expectations of men and women as a result of those things. We might fight against them as individuals while interacting with each other, but on the level of a society I think they’re obviously there.
In the context of a discussion about, say, abortion, a woman telling some blasé male commenter to check his privilege is understandable. A man’s who’s anti- (or even pro-) abortion may well be arguing in the abstract; whatever the outcome, he doesn’t have to carry the foetus to term, have his body and career impacted, and so on. Telling him to check his privilege is another way of saying show some fucking empathy. That’s what it boils down to. Appreciate that things might well affect other people in ways in which they don’t affect you. Privilege is being in a position to argue about the weight of a backpack you’ll never have to carry. I’m not sure what’s controversial about that.
Ah, people say, but the idea that women have it tougher than men is ridiculous because I work in a supermarket, and just look at Naomi Campbell and Kate Middleton. They’re right – and that’s intersectionality. It’s the idea that certain characteristics exist more-or-less on lines. Man/Woman. Straight/Gay. White/Minority. Cis/Trans. Able-bodied/Impaired. Rich/Poor. Etc. Taken individually, the further you are to the left of those definitions, the more positive the expectations, the more society is geared towards you, the easier your life will be. But it’s not as simple as saying “I am a woman, therefore I am more oppressed than you”. The different characteristics, with their benefits and defects, all intersect: the clue’s in the name. A black woman will face the same negative expectations as a white woman, but also the negative expectations associated with her colour. A gay disabled man faces additional difficulties to a gay able-bodied man. And so on.
That’s all intersectionality means, and – again – it strikes me as a really useful and interesting way of looking at the world. We all know those power differentials are there. It’s an imprecise model, to be sure, and also a simplistic one, but it’s certainly not a bad attempt. It feels like an approximation of the truth, or at least a genuine effort at moving towards one. I think that’s a good thing.
A lot of the recent online arguments have centred around cis/trans issues within feminism. For what it’s worth, I saw Suzanne Moore’s (now ancient) comments about transgender people, and then her double-down defence of those comments, and what I saw was someone being told to check their privilege and baulking at the idea of doing so. That’s more-or-less what I’ve seen since too. It’s a very human response, I think; not only have I seen men do it on feminist blogs, I’m sure I’ve done it myself. When you’re attacked, you huddle – and perhaps even more so when you’re attacked with artillery you’re more used to deploying than receiving. But it’s not rocket science; it’s just empathy and openness.
Of course, while I might have my own opinions about the debate, I also have the privilege of not being affected by the outcome. So it goes. And like I said, nobody’s waiting for my opinion there anyway.