Friday, October 23, 2009

Privilege hand-wringing


Criticism of one’s privileged actions is an essential part of feminism. It’s an act of recognizing and owning up to privilege, which is essential to fighting privilege. Critiquing how one has transgressed against their stated intention of fighting privilege is similarly essential to understanding the nefarious, surreptitious ways in which it has wriggled its way into all of our brains. Such self-critique can be especially useful as a model for others overcoming privilege – it has certainly helped me to see the mistakes I can make, and largely avoid them.

However, it has a less selfless purpose. Self-reflection can pass into self-congratulation. Privilege hand-wringing is in service of cookies instead of trying to get better. Reflection on one’s trespasses against others could become overly self-indulgent, and center discussions of privilege around the privileged, while still silencing those that they’ve trespassed against. Posts that own up to something have the danger of only admitting those flaws that they see, while ignoring the feelings of the hurt party. It can be a cry for attention, rather than a humble apology.

Of course, this is not intentional. As I note below, most of us mean well. But privilege obscures how we mess up, and entitlement stemming from privilege leads us
Feminists who decided to devote posts to their fuckups confront the danger of sounding like televangelists who cheat on their wives or steal from the kitty, or politicians who’ve done much the same. It’s an opportunity to sneak in a “backdoor brag” (to steal a phrase from 30 Rock) to use a failing to highlight their accomplishments rather than fess up to their failings. They glorify the good things they’ve done by comparison, and almost act like their mistake itself is actually a virtue.

Privilege handwringing from feminists and other progressives reminds me somewhat of John McCain during the 2008 election directly after the economy crashed in late September (the moment I knew, incidentally, that the campaign was pretty much over). When that happened, he wrung his hands and said “we need to stop campaigning!”, changing course as he did so many times that year. He was pretending to be concerned about the little people, and I’m sure in a way he was. But the main objective was the presidency.

This is not a call-out or privilege check directed at any one feminist/progressive writer in particular. We all do this politicking – messing up, and trying to spin it and center it around us and not use it in search of the larger issues at hand. Sometimes it’s ceding to pressure, sometimes its guilt, sometimes it’s a lack of understanding of just what we did wrong. Usually it’s a little bit of all three, plus a dollop of privilege, on top of our ever-present desire to do good and effect change and be socially responsible.

Mistakes can be learning moments. In terms of feminists, these can be great moments for the realization of the depth of their own privilege– but it shouldn’t be focused on learning about how great the mistake-maker usually is. It should not be an excuse, and it should not be qualified. If a qualifications needs to be added to an apology, that is a sign that the apology is not true – it’s to you, maybe, the people watching whose opinions of the apologetic have been hurt, but perhaps not to the target of the original hurt. While a healing component can be helpful, fessing up to feminist fuckups should primarily seek to apologize humbly, recognize or point out their mistakes, and identify a flaw that needs to be fixed.

There’s no excusing mistakes. For teaching moments about how not to fuck up, readers/viewers should consider the original mistake more seriously than the apology – but an apology, and a sincere one, is necessary, as much to the transgressor as to those who might learn from it.

1 comment:

  1. Very well said! Also, those who use their apologies for self-aggrandizement need, not only to screw up, but also for certain people to have less privilege than they have in order to give themselves the opportunity to seem magnanimous.

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