We Don’t Need to Tell People “Check Your Privilege”. We Need to Have a Discussion.

This is a follow up to my recent post Misogynists, Islamophobes, and Self-Hating-Jews: Name-Calling and Tribalism. I am also writing in light of the recent Twitter Drama.

Last week, Richard Dawkins posted Tweets about gradations of “bad” acts, commenting on how many people assume if he says that one act is worse than the other that it’s an endorsement of the lesser of the two evils. The real controversy began, however, when he posted: “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.” This was upsetting to a lot of people, including me (well, for me it was slightly disconcerting– I tend to handle situations like this more rationally than most people). I, personally, felt uncomfortable with that statement because there is a pervasive myth that date rape isn’t “really” rape and also because many men are dismissive of women’s experiences of harassment (“Oh, guys just do that.”) and rape (“What were you wearing?”). I am confident that this wasn’t Dawkins’s intention. However, many people falsely assume that date rape isn’t as “bad” because the victim knows the person. But that’s precisely why it is often more traumatic than stranger rape. Whereas one might come away from stranger rape thinking, “There are a lot of assholes out there” or “I’m taking the long way home from now on”, a woman– or a man; they get raped too– might come away after a date rape thinking, “How can I trust anybody again?” My conclusion was that Dawkins simply hadn’t thought it through before he Tweeted, and he admitted as such on his forum. However, I also understand that whichever rape is worse than the other was not his point. I can understand, too, how frustrating it must get for him how often his Tweets are scrutinized and how often people try to shut down his usually very valid points by telling him, “Check your privilege”. He is, after all, a rich white man, making him an easy target for this expression.

It very well might be that Dawkins’s “privilege” made it more difficult for him to see why he had it backwards as to which type of rape is usually more traumatic, or why that using rape as an example was not a good idea for a 140-character Tweet. His subsequent blog post was an excellent follow up to the drama and, in my opinion, should have been the way to initially express his thoughts rather than a little blurb that is easily open to misinterpretation. But this post isn’t about Richard Dawkins. It’s not about rape, either. It’s about the expression “Check your privilege” and how it fails to solve anything.

“Check your privilege” is an expression that is used whenever someone seems to be speaking from a place of naivete, ignorance, or obliviousness about a certain topic. What I find interesting is that it is only used to address white men because people of all backgrounds can be naive, ignorant, or oblivious about different issues. I think a more appropriate response would be, “Well, have you ever thought about it this way? Or that way?” or “Well, it’s easy for you to say that because you’ve never been in this situation.” The problem is that many seem to think that the only people who are capable of this lapse in judgment are white men and that it only applies to issues that primarily affect women and ethnic minorities. I can think of many situations where people– including women (not ethnic minorities, but that’s mostly because I don’t have a lot of close relationships with people in those groups, not because I have anything against them but because I don’t have tons of friends to begin with anyway)– have made this lapse of judgment.

Growing up, I was horrendously bullied, emotionally and physically. Whenever I told my parents, they told me to “just ignore it” or “just let it roll off your back.” It took me fifteen years to get it through to them that these things do not work and that their suggestions that they gave me growing up had been dismissive and belittling of my experience. It was very easy for them to tell me to “just ignore it”, “just let it roll off your back” because they had never been bullied. It was only in the late 2000s that bullying started to make the news and be taken seriously as as genuine problem. For the most part, adults are starting to get it (except, of course, the idiots on Fox News who say that it’s part of life and to get over it). This had nothing to do with privilege on the part of my parents and other adults. They simply didn’t get it. Part of the problem is that they didn’t listen as well as they should have because they felt that their position of parents meant that they automatically “knew” more about life than I did.

I think the most important thing is to remind people to acknowledge someone else’s reality, no matter how unusual or idiosyncratic it is. And in the case of children, let’s listen to what they tell us. Remember that for years children who had difficulty reading were told that they were not trying and were lazy. Years later, these people learned that there was a name for this problem– dyslexia. Once again, it’s so easy for adults who never had difficulty reading to make an assessment of the situation and dismiss the children’s intellectual and emotional turmoil as “not trying”. How about transgender children? For decades, transgender children have tried to tell their parents that they were born in the wrong body. They were told to shut up, to grow up, and often were institutionalized. Only in 2007 have professionals and parents begun to take this issue seriously and realize that these children weren’t just trying to get attention and weren’t crazy, that they were actually born with a medical condition in which the brain structure doesn’t “match” their bodies. Again, how convenient that people who had never struggled with gender identity were able to tell these children that there was something wrong with them.

My parents– my mother, in particular– have said that they’ve learned from me about acknowledging somebody else’s unusual reality. My mother is a high school teacher. She had an FTM student who came out as transgender. This teen told my mother that he wanted to be called by the new male name that he had picked. My mother did that. She told me that some of the older teachers were rolling their eyes about it and saying, “Why does ‘she’ insist on using a boys’ name?” to which Mom responded, “Because that’s what he wants to be called.” Period. No further explanation needed. That is this teen’s reality. Twenty years ago, however, my mother might have dismissed this teen’s experience as a phase or as a “problem” (but without the ridiculing, of course). Again, this isn’t about privilege. It’s about her not getting it before and getting it now.

I admit that I have had my own lapses in judgment. When I was a teenager, I was watching a special about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). One woman was a compulsive hoarder. I said, “Well, I bet if she had a gun pointed to her head that she would be able to break this habit.” Yeah… that was a pretty stupid thing for me to say. And yes, she probably could have stopped had she had a gun pointed to her head. But that’s an impractical way to approach life. And I wasn’t acknowledging that certain brain chemistry made it difficult for her to break this habit (of course I was a teenager when I said this, but still). Again, not about privilege. About not having had the experience.

As a more recent example, I have a bisexual friend who is polyamorous– and polysexual, for that matter– and who regularly goes to what are euphemistically called “play parties” to have sex with more women. Although my friend’s girlfriend at the time had known that she was going to be in an open relationship with my friend, she eventually became jealous and it was affecting their relationship. I asked my friend, “Well, do you really need to have sex with that many people?” My friend said, “I don’t need to but I want to.”  I later realized it was a bit dismissive of me to say that. Obviously for the relationship to work, some compromise has to be made. But who am I to judge my friend’s reality as less valid as her girlfriend’s reality? Again, this has nothing to do with privilege! I could not see myself in anything but a monogamous relationship and so I simply didn’t get it!

I hope that I have shown that it is not just rich, white men who need to check their privilege question their perceptions. All of us have to. And here’s another striking example that occurred to me recently: the horrible situation in Israel/Palestine. While the Palestinians are no doubt the ones who are suffering the most, the situation is a lot more complex than one side being the good guys and the other side being the bad guys, and I’m not going to pretend, like many people do, to have the answers as to solve this conflict. Many left-leaning Jews that I know condemn Zionism. I personally have mixed feelings about it which I won’t get into here. But it isn’t it convenient that those who condemn it often don’t know the history that led up to its creation? Isn’t it convenient that many of these people who I know grew up in the 1990s, in the comparatively liberal northeastern United States without threats of antisemitism? What does that say about their privilege and having to check it? I have to admit, that was the one time where I employed the phrase “Check your privilege.” But again, reducing a conversation to three words still doesn’t help. In the case of Dawkins, he did not admit that he was misinformed because people attacked him and called him names, but because a (small, sadly) number of his readers gently pointed out to him his mistake.

People who attack Richard Dawkins and others for their opinions– which are sometimes misinformed– are not helping by saying, “Check your privilege.” They are using the expression as a conversation-stopper, as an ad hominem attack. It seems that they don’t want to have a conversation. They want to get offended and “other” the person into a “them” category, someone who “isn’t one of us and is a threat”. Instead of having a conversation about life and its nuances, they want to reduce everything to three simple words. Approaching people with six words– “we need to have a discussion”– is much more productive.

Let’s have that discussion.

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