SOME THOUGHTS ON PRIVILEGE
Okay, this is a long post.
You don’t have to read it.
It’s about my thoughts on empathy and privilege and what we are allowed to discuss and not discuss, and whether – in certain cases – political correctness has – against all odds – gone a little mad, if that is possible.
It might be controversial, but I hope it isn’t. I’m aiming for questioning. I’m aiming for that feeling I like happening in my own mind, of an established thought being illuminated in a slightly different way. The opening of a mind.
I have thought a lot about privilege this year. My own, and other peoples. Partly this is because earlier this year I proposed a book on masculinity and how fixed concepts of gender harm men, and got a lot of quite brutal animosity from a lot of people for even suggesting that men might have it hard in certain ways. The kind of animosity that gets covered in The Guardian and The Independent and gets people to still post me about it months later.
While the patriarchy benefits men economically and socially, there may be some kind of emotional fallout.
In one sense, this controversy ‘worked’ in my favour. I got offered three big book deals in a week and lots of publicity. I even trended on Twitter for a minute or two. Whoo. Some saw it as part of a master plan. Others, less ridiculously, saw the furore itself as an example of male privilege in action.
Anyway, after much deliberation, I can safely say that book won’t be written, because I really can’t be doing with the grief. But it is still an issue close to my heart. And it is not an issue close to my heart because I care about men more than women, or that I don’t believe in privilege, but because I believe that the concept of masculinity as taught to men by men and by women and by everything from the Army through to Toys R Us, is a damaging and ridiculous thing that hurts women as much as men.
The idea of the strong, silent, providing male is the reason why the gender pay gap exists. It is also, in my view, the reason why more men kill themselves. The issue of masculinity is tied intrinsically with the problems of femininity. And I know that feminism has to be led by women, and I am not trying to be John Stuart Mill here, but as ‘lived experience’ seems to be a key criteria to writing about sensitive issues I do believe my lived experience of being a man who never fit into the right masculine box, has something to offer. I also believe it is impossible to talk about gender in isolation.
Anyway, instead of a book here are some thoughts on how the current discussion of privilege can itself have dehumanising effects:
1. We live in a patriarchy. Most human societies on Earth have been shown to be patriarchal and have patriarchal origins. This means men have traditionally had the roles of power and provision, while women have been subjugated by society towards a more domestic and nurturing role. Maybe ‘subjugated’ is the wrong word. We must be careful to not view gender equality in masculine terms. Maybe the traditionally ‘feminine’ roles of parenthood and nurturing should be valued as much, if not more, than the ‘masculine’ values of work and provision. But there are large inequalities and uneven expectations which patriarchal values continue to inflict. For instance, the gender pay gap means that women still earn nearly 20% less than men. And you only have to look at the ratio of male:female ratio of CEOs to see the shine in the glass ceiling. I think by broadening the idea of masculinity to the extent that those roles previously perceived as ‘feminine’ are never seen as demeaning would lead to happier more equal homes AND workplaces.
2. Even in a patriarchy men can have problems. Indeed, as someone who believes true individual happiness depends on other people being happy oppression of 51% of the population is going to have knock-on effects on the other 49%. Men and women are not separate species. But aside from that, there are other ways society harms men. For instance, four times as many men as women kill themselves. Nine out of ten homeless people are men. Men still die younger than women. Men are more likely to be addicts. 79% of murder victims are male. Men are more likely to end up in prison. Many of these things change widely between countries and eras, so they are CULTURAL. So to shrug and just say, as many have said to me, ‘men kill themselves more because they choose more violent methods’ seems a bit of an empathy and sympathy failure. Especially when, in the UK of thirty years ago the numbers of suicides between genders was roughly equal. We can therefore do massive amounts to stop the main cause of death for men under 50, yet we don’t, for fear of looking sexist.
3. I am a heterosexual white male. I am dripping in privilege.
4. And yet I have still recognised privileges even greater than mine. For instance, a heterosexual white male going to Eton might have more privilege than one going to the failing comp in Nottinghamshire that I went to, where there was very little expectation on any of us to go to university. Maybe a woman or person-of-colour going to Eton has more privileges, on balance, than a soft white boy amid the downwardly mobile school I went to. (One of the comments I got on Twitter was: ‘fuck off back to Eton white boy’.) But then, going to a better school than I did does not make you immune to problems either. I think we should always see the human first. As scary as it might sound, even Donald Trump is a human being capable of feeling pain and hurt. That doesn’t mean he won’t inflict pain and hurt. But if we insist on seeing the human in everyone, always, even while condemning their actions, the human might shine back. And maybe if Donald Trump had been given a more flexible idea of what being a man is – one that isn’t about earning money and objectifying women – maybe his attitudes would be a little warmer and saner.
5. The first time Hitler wrote about the Jews, in a letter from 1919, he used the word ‘privilege’. We need to be careful of that word. It has dehumanising effects. That is not to say we shouldn’t recognise it and see the harm it causes, just that we shouldn’t use it as a shortcut to not caring about any group of humans (the posh, the male, the literate, whatever).
6. Caring about one thing (say, the number of male suicides) does not automatically mean you can’t care about another thing (say, the number of female victims of rape). We don’t have to wall off our empathy.
7. Men indisputably belong to the more violent gender. But how do we stop that violence? Yes, violence can be a product of power structures but it can also be a product of impotence and frustration. Happy men are not violent men. Working on ways to improve men’s mental health will surely improve a lot of the issues that women have to deal with. This was the most explosive thing I ever pointed out on Twitter, but I stand by it.
8. We must never break down groups of humans into competing teams. I think the main problems of being human – that we can become ill, that we can experience pain and loss, that we are going to die – are utterly universal. We all deserve massive sympathy and love and congratulations simply for the privilege of being alive.
9. If you are connected to the internet and if you can read this you are privileged. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a problem that needs addressing. We all need love, we can all feel pain, especially in tough social and economic times, but we should always try to resist becoming the monster even as we fight the monster (sorry Nietzsche). We are all good and all evil. The entire human race is all of us. As Philip K Dick said ‘we are all stations in the same mind’. Let’s see us all as one. Let’s try and understand before we hate. Let’s try a little love.
10. That’s it.