Monday, 22 November 2010

Hello, you! Let's talk about privilege, shall we?

It seems, from reading my blog stats and other news that's came to my attention, as if this blog may recently have enjoyed something of an increase in reader numbers. Of course, in the great ocean of blogging these are little more than tiny droplets, but it's still nice to know how many of you lovely people are out there reading. Still, an increase in readers brings with it the responsibility of bringing said readers up to speed on what's going down.

It occurred to me that it might be worth doing a few introductory posts to allow these fresh and fragrant darlings the chance to understand exactly why I do go on so about the things I talk about herein. So settle in new readers, because today we're going to talk about the big one, the issue without which Wrestling Emily would be nothing more than a chronicle of the adventures of a slightly socially inept poet with a fondness for mascara and the films of Patrick Keiller. I speak, of course, of that most important issue in modern activism, privilege.

Privilege is one of those words which often gets misunderstood by the average, non-ofay cat when one describes another person - or even said cat themselves - as 'privileged', because the average person assumes that when I say 'person x is privileged' what I mean is 'person x lives in a giant castle made of Aztec gold and commands an army of zombie servants who constantly do their bidding.' This is, of course, a category error. Being wealthy is a form of privilege - and certainly, in a society as economically unequal as ours, an important one - but it isn't the only form of privilege by a long shot.

Privilege literally translates as 'private law' (you see, new readers? Not only do you get the ranting of a marginalised person, you get fascinating Latin trivia too! I'm too good to you, really I am.). A privileged group is a group which operates by a different set of laws to the rest of society - a law that exists for their benefit and to others' disadvantage. Of course, as a supposedly democratic society we theoretically no longer have laws which operate to advantage one group over another - though if you actually believe that, dear reader, I suggest that you pay a visit to an impoverished, largely black inner city area of London and ask some of the young men how they feel when they see a policeman. You may well be astonished to find that, unlike you, they do not immediately wonder whether they should ask him the time.

The fact is that there are shedloads of privileges which make it easier for some groups in our society to succeed than others. The classic work on privilege is 'Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack' by Peggy Mcintosh, which explores White Privilege - the vast and invisible network of privileges which accrue to caucasian people purely by virtue of our pallid complexion. And I say 'our' because I will willingly cop to the fact that I have caucasian privilege. I may lose out on the axes in a lot of other areas, but I do have the Great White Advantage. This even modifies how badly I feel the effects of other areas in which I'm not privileged: as a nonbinary trans person, I lose out in a lot of ways - but as a Caucasian trans person rather than a trans woman of colour, I have a much lower risk of being murdered or being forced to engage in survival sex work. White Privilege is one of the reasons I get really annoyed when white people accuse people from other races of 'playing the race card' - because white people, without realising it, play the race card every single day and get away with it.

Are you white, new readers? My sympathies. I am too. And I know how hard it can be to acknowledge the privilege you get just because you have a lack of melanin pigmentation. Deal with it. I do. Robert Jensen did too. Let his example school you.

We touched above on another form of privilege - cis privilege. Sorry. Am I going too fast for you? I forget how hard it can be to come to grips with all these strange new words. Of course that itself is another aspect of many forms of privilege - you assume you already know everything and thus resent it when marginalised people start talking about things about which you have never heard. But anyway: cis is essentially the opposite of trans, when it comes to gender. A cis person is someone whose gender identity is in accordance with the gender assigned to them at birth. And while it may not be immediately obvious to you - it often isn't - the fact is that being comfortable in your assigned gender identity brings with it a whole load of privileges. Check them out.

Hopefully you're getting the point at this stage. There are, as the Native American character in Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josie Wales might put it, 'all kindsa privileges' (and if you're a quick study you'll have twigged that there's a problem with the Native American character in that film, in that he is the creation of a writer with white privilege - the character is never given an inner life, he only exists to explain the mystical significance of Eastwood's character to Sondra Locke. And if you're a really, really quick study you'll also realise that the fact that a Mystical Native American is required to explained the mysteries of Outlaw Manhood to Sondra is an equally problematic example of male privilege - this is called mansplaining, and is a topic to which we shall return in later blogs which cater to you, the new reader).

White people have privilege over black people, men have privilege over women, straight people have privilege over gay people, cis people have privilege over trans people, abled people have privilege over disabled people - there are, indeed, many kinds of privilege and they all intersect. The new reader may at this point be suspicious that this blog is moving in the direction of political correctness - and I would not disabuse said reader of this opinion, because I don't think there is anything wrong with political correctness. As Stewart Lee has pointed out, all political correctness consists of is 'treating people fairly'. What a sickening idea.

The vast and interlocking tapestry of privilege is called the Kyriarchy by those of us who strive to dismantle it and create a world in which its toxic effects will not ruin life for generations the way it has so far. Kyriarchy is a word invented by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, who realised that the traditional feminist characterisation of society as a patriarchy simplified things too much by reducing things to a (cis) male/female binary.

You should care about kyriarchy because it's a web in which all of us are caught. Unless I've badly misjudged my new readers and this blog is now being followed by Donald Trump, I'm going to assume that you, like me, benefit from some axes of privilege while losing out on others. So what's the right thing to do about this kind of tapestry of evil?

That depends. It depends on whether all you care about is your own advancement or you genuinely want to make a fairer world. If all you're interested in is advancing your own shallow interests, then you'd follow the 'kiss up, kick down' strategy: kowtow to people above you in the kyriarchal pyramid, while ruthlessly suppressing those below you to curry favour with your superiors and show off your aggressive, dominant kyrio-cojones. But that way doesn't work in the long run.  The annals of Greek tragedy and the crime columns of tabloid newspapers are full of people who have licked the ass above and kicked the ass below until they reached some supposedly comfortable point in the hierarchy, only to have it brutally taken out from under them by someone who lacked their advantages. Remember the end of Carlito's Way, where Al Pacino survives the climactic shootout only to be murdered out of the blue by John Leguizamo's character?  That's the logical end-point of that strategy. But there is another way.

The path to making a fairer world is no less risky and a lot less comfortable than the path of mud-wrestling the marginalised for relative advantage. You'll face bigger obstacles, greater hardship, more humiliating losses and ultimately run a greater risk of dying early than the kiss-up, kick-down scum. But you have one advantage. And that is that, because you yourself are opposing the web in which everyone else is trapped, you show that, in the ancient activist proverb, another world is possible. You show that we don't have to buy in to a never-ending battle royale in which no-one ever ultimately wins. You show that it's possible to imagine a world where, pace Marcus Aurelius, life is more like dancing than wrestling. And, even if the worst happens, if you lose out on your position in a hierarchy - if you die - then you don't lose or die like Al P in Carlito's Way; you lose or die like Alec Guinness playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: if your enemies kill you, they make you more powerful than they can possibly imagine; because the fact they've had to kill you shows that the one thing they fear more than anything else is someone who doesn't fit into their sad little world. And that example, and that reminder of what they truly fear, serves as an inspiration to the rebels who'll come after you; and eventually, through your taking a stand, a better world might be created and, in the immortal words of Bill Hicks, something like heaven might dawn.

It's up to you really, readers. Maybe, as my analytics tell me, you googled this site using the disturbing phrase 'women pee after wrestling' and stuck around because you were trying to work out if I could possibly be for real; maybe you saw me at a gig, explaining why I apparently switch genders in poems describing my adolescent years, and were intrigued enough to look me up; maybe you encountered me in some other, more everyday context, and something about me intrigued you enough that you decided to go looking for my online presence. Who knows? All I know is you're reading this, you haven't been here since the get-go and, like those who have, it's time for you to make the choice. Do you want your actions to drive the world further to the brink; or do you want to join me in trying, in our fumbling and ineffective way, to make a better world?

The choice is yours. I hope you make the right one.

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