Of Privilege, Offence, and Dog Analogies.

Since initiating my first serious explorations into the world of feminism after Elevatorgate or Rebeccapocalype, I have begun to learn more and more about the heterosexual male privilege I enjoy without even knowing it. It took me awhile before I could finally think of a way to feel the same thing a woman would feel being prepositioned by a person at 0400 hours in an elevator to coffee in his room or her room.

Over the past month, I have also tried to reshape my dialogue, and the way others conduct their dialogue to be less offensive to women. This means no longer using sexist jokes or insults – or rather no longer using jokes or remarks that are in the grey area of sexism as some close to me have pointed out when they disagree a joke is sexist.

To me, that sounds awfully similar to language that is in the grey area of racism. I doubt anyone would be able to use such language and call it only slightly possibly racist. But we don’t give enough due consideration to sexist language because it permeates our culture to such a degree, we accept it without being conscious of it.

A long while back, when I still read The Star regularly, I chanced upon the Mind your English column in regards to the use of pronouns when referring to a subject who had yet to be determined. It argued that people should be mature and realise when an article uses “he” to refer to unknown subjects that they of course mean he or she and that it is a nuisance to use he or she for the extra effort required to type.

For example, “submit your application to the officer assigned to you, and he will investigate the matter” instead of “submit your application to the officer assigned to you, and he or she [alternatively (s)he] will investigate the matter.”

Being of that delicate age where proclamations by authority figures are accepted with little question if one is not going to be affected by them, I bought into the argument that we as a society should be mature enough to continue the use of the male pronoun when referring to any unspecified subjects until their gender is known.

Still, something didn’t sit right with that idea so I started using he or she and their they (EDIT: I realised I was using the wrong equivalence thanks to Reddit) more frequently if I could reconstruct my sentence differently. It turns out in retrospect to be the right choice, as language informs and reinforces stereotypes. We get used to thinking that it is always the man in charge, that if I were to ask to meet the manager of a business, I will subconsciously or consciously assume it will be a man first.

Plus we haven’t even given due consideration to the GLBTQIA community, who may not wish to be identified either as male or female. But that is an argument for another time.

Privilege

What privileges do I enjoy as a heterosexual cis-male? Someone was nice enough to list all of them out in the context of the United States of America. I have made some slight editing (UK-English spellings, because that’s what we use here in Malaysia, substituting sex for gender because the possessive noun with the former is inelegant) that in no way effects the original meaning. Attribution is provided in the footnote at the end of the page[1].

  1. My odds of being hired for a job, when competing against female applicants, are probably skewed in my favour. The more prestigious the job, the larger the odds are skewed.
  2. I can be confident that my co-workers won’t think I got my job because of my sex – even though that might be true. (More).
  3. If I am never promoted, it’s not because of my sex.
  4. If I fail in my job or career, I can feel sure this won’t be seen as a black mark against my entire gender’s capabilities.
  5. I am far less likely to face sexual harassment at work than my female co-workers are. (More).
  6. If I do the same task as a woman, and if the measurement is at all subjective, chances are people will think I did a better job.
  7. If I’m a teen or adult, and if I can stay out of prison, my odds of being raped are relatively low. (More).
  8. On average, I am taught to fear walking alone after dark in average public spaces much less than my female counterparts are.
  9. If I choose not to have children, my masculinity will not be called into question.
  10. If I have children but do not provide primary care for them, my masculinity will not be called into question.
  11. If I have children and provide primary care for them, I’ll be praised for extraordinary parenting if I’m even marginally competent. (More).
  12. If I have children and a career, no one will think I’m selfish for not staying at home.
  13. If I seek political office, my relationship with my children, or who I hire to take care of them, will probably not be scrutinized by the press.
  14. My elected representatives are mostly people of my own sex. The more prestigious and powerful the elected position, the more this is true.
  15. When I ask to see “the person in charge,” odds are I will face a person of my own sex. The higher-up in the organization the person is, the surer I can be.
  16. As a child, chances are I was encouraged to be more active and outgoing than my sisters. (More).
  17. As a child, I could choose from an almost infinite variety of children’s media featuring positive, active, non-stereotyped heroes of my own sex. I never had to look for it; male protagonists were (and are) the default.
  18. As a child, chances are I got more teacher attention than girls who raised their hands just as often. (More).
  19. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether or not it has sexist overtones.
  20. I can turn on the television or glance at the front page of the newspaper and see people of my own sex widely represented.
  21. If I’m careless with my financial affairs it won’t be attributed to my sex.
  22. If I’m careless with my driving it won’t be attributed to my sex.
  23. I can speak in public to a large group without putting my sex on trial.
  24. Even if I sleep with a lot of women, there is no chance that I will be seriously labeled a “slut,” nor is there any male counterpart to “slut-bashing.” (More).
  25. I do not have to worry about the message my wardrobe sends about my sexual availability. (More).
  26. My clothing is typically less expensive and better-constructed than women’s clothing for the same social status. While I have fewer options, my clothes will probably fit better than a woman’s without tailoring. (More).
  27. The grooming regimen expected of me is relatively cheap and consumes little time. (More).
  28. If I buy a new car, chances are I’ll be offered a better price than a woman buying the same car. (More).
  29. If I’m not conventionally attractive, the disadvantages are relatively small and easy to ignore.
  30. I can be loud with no fear of being called a shrew. I can be aggressive with no fear of being called a bitch.
  31. I can ask for legal protection from violence that happens mostly to men without being seen as a selfish special interest, since that kind of violence is called “crime” and is a general social concern. (Violence that happens mostly to women is usually called “domestic violence” or “acquaintance rape,” and is seen as a special interest issue.)
  32. I can be confident that the ordinary language of day-to-day existence will always include my sex. “All men are created equal,” mailman, chairman, freshman, he.
  33. My ability to make important decisions and my capability in general will never be questioned depending on what time of the month it is.
  34. I will never be expected to change my name upon marriage or questioned if I don’t change my name.
  35. The decision to hire me will not be based on assumptions about whether or not I might choose to have a family sometime soon.
  36. Every major religion in the world is led primarily by people of my own sex. Even God, in most major religions, is pictured as male.
  37. Most major religions argue that I should be the head of my household, while my wife and children should be subservient to me.
  38. If I have a wife or live-in girlfriend, chances are we’ll divide up household chores so that she does most of the labor, and in particular the most repetitive and unrewarding tasks. (More).
  39. If I have children with my girlfriend or wife, I can expect her to do most of the basic childcare such as changing diapers and feeding.
  40. If I have children with my wife or girlfriend, and it turns out that one of us needs to make career sacrifices to raise the kids, chances are we’ll both assume the career sacrificed should be hers.
  41. Assuming I am heterosexual, magazines, billboards, television, movies, pornography, and virtually all of media is filled with images of scantily-clad women intended to appeal to me sexually. Such images of men exist, but are rarer.
  42. In general, I am under much less pressure to be thin than my female counterparts are. (More). If I am fat, I probably suffer fewer social and economic consequences for being fat than fat women do. (More).
  43. If I am heterosexual, it’s incredibly unlikely that I’ll ever be beaten up by a spouse or lover. (More).
  44. Complete strangers generally do not walk up to me on the street and tell me to “smile.” (More: 1 2).
  45. Sexual harassment on the street virtually never happens to me. I do not need to plot my movements through public space in order to avoid being sexually harassed, or to mitigate sexual harassment. (More.)
  46. On average, I am not interrupted by women as often as women are interrupted by men.
  47. I have the privilege of being unaware of my male privilege.

Have I safely established whether or not I have lost a lot of my very limited audience yet? It gets better if you are a heterosexual cis-male and decided this post is intriguing enough to warrant more reading time.

Offence

Until I read this article by Scott Madin, I had no idea that I was using the wrong word when describing why we should not use discriminatory language. Offence is an emotion you cannot control. Either you feel it or you do not. I had wrongly assumed the immediate basis of objection against sexist language was offence before leading to the enforcement of social stereotypes. My objection should have been that the harm from discriminatory language should have been the reason to avoid such speech.

He gives a pertinent example.

I actually don’t care whether anyone is offended. Offense is a vague, amorphous concept, and it is completely subjective, as my friend pointed out. Anyone can claim to be deeply, mortally offended by anything, and it may very well be true; even if it’s not, there’s no way to dispute it. “You don’t really feel what you claim you feel,” is a line of argumentation that doesn’t get anyone anywhere.

What I care about is harm. What I ultimately said in this other argument was:

“The problem with sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, ableist, etc., remarks and “jokes” is not that they’re offensive, but that by relying for their meaning on harmful cultural narratives about privileged and marginalized groups they reinforce those narratives, and the stronger those narratives are, the stronger the implicit biases with which people are indoctrinated are. That’s real harm, not just ‘offense.'”

This in itself has helped in resolving an internal dispute I have had in regards to offending people with stupid ideas. By thinking instead in terms of the harm the speech would cause, offending religious nutjobs fundamentalists (EDIT: I was inadvertently insulting people who had mental health issues) who base their policies on whom gets to enter their inter-dimensional sky kingdom may be as mortally offensive as using humour with a woman’s gender or reproductive organs as the butt of the tasteless joke; but the harm in offence would certainly be skewed towards the woman, as it perpetuates a narrative against an unprivileged minority.

Ergo, I too don’t care much about offence, but I care about the harm of my speech, and the speech of others.

Dogs

Having had to work with a deranged dog that was unwisely allowed to live in the SPCA-KK animal shelter I was volunteering at until mid-February this year, I had to contend myself with the very real odds of getting bitten every single time feeding time approached. In fact I was bitten rather severely, and the dog would not be euthanised until it was nearly dying of pain some time after I left. But that is a tale for another time.

So I could completely understand the connection as soon as I read Greg Laden’s post on separate instances of inappropriate male behaviour to female acquaintances, in which he detailed how he had to deal with a potentially dangerous dog which may or may not have had rabies, or may or may not have wanted to attack him.

So the other day, I walked outside and found myself utterly alone. Surrounded by garage doors and closed windows in a sort of cul-du-sac, I knew that you could probably pop someone with a small caliber handgun and no one would hear it or see it. I wasn’t thinking that exactly at the time, but I could sense the loneliness and remoteness as I closed my garage door behind me, heading for the mail box, with the medium-term intent of hopping in my car (which was not in the garage) to head off and pick up Huxley from daycare.

That’s when the dog showed up. It was a pit-bull like dog, though I have no idea what the actual breeding history of this animal was. It was tall, almost as tall as a Dane, but had the pit-bull head and a boxer-like body. Some sort of Frankendogish mastiff derivative, perhaps.

The dog was un-chained and frenetic. The first thing it did was to run at me and bump its head into my leg. Then it ran around in the cul-de-sac, running up to doorways and then turning instantly away each time. When I say running I mean mainly walking very fast. The dog was only bounding into the air now and then. It came towards me a couple of times but almost as though I wasn’t there, it would just pass me. Instinctively, I employed the usual voice and hand gestures one employs to bring a dog to a spot and have it sit, so I could look for ID on its collar, but it would have none of that. This dog was not receiving any of my signals.

That, and the fact that it was foaming at the mouth, gave me pause.

Different instincts suddenly kicked in. I’ve had encounters with dangerous dogs, and if you’ve read the Lost Congo Memoirs you’ll know that I’ve had dealings with rabid dogs as well. After the fourth or fifth time that the frenetic zombie-like (but fast-style zombie, not slow-style zombie) frothing beast passed by, having made my way to the car, I quickly unlocked the door, hopped in, and slammed it shut.

That is when I noticed that my heart was racing and my adrenalin was pumping. I had just encountered a rabid dog that, once it freed itself from whatever trance state the brain-eating disease hat put it in, was going to turn on me and bite me in the face (last place you want to get bit by a rabid dog).

Or not. Probably not. The foam was surely just drool. Its frenetic behavior was probably just because it was lost. Its failure to understand my commands was probably … whatever. The dog was probably just confused. I suppose. Maybe.

His blog post actually addresses more issues than that, which I also recommend reading, this one just stuck with me because I can think of no better way to get heterosexual cis-males to think what it is like to be propositioned for coffee in his room or mine (if I were Rebecca Watson) at 0400 hours by a male who may or may not be drunk, who may or may not be thinking of rape – in an elevator.

I had to do dog rescues sometimes. This meant approaching an unknown element. The dog I am suppose to rescue may carry diseases transmittable to humans that could be fatal or debilitating, or simply be a specimen of good health. I would not know, and that’s why dog catchers use the tools they use as a precaution. We would not presume the dog to be friendly and come bounding towards us unless we were acquainted with that stray.

Either way, there are few things you can find commonly in life that are more stressful or frightening than an unfamiliar dog running towards you. Does it want a pat, or is it looking to defend its territory? When I was biking back home through a part of the neighbourhood from university, I would sometimes choose an unfamiliar road that would lead back to my abode. I discovered one of them to be full of dogs which were either strays or pets irresponsibly left to roam freely. They would bark and run along my bicycle while doing so.

That’s the same level of fear women like Watson probably feel if an unknown guy approaches them when they are alone and isolated from a protective group.

He could be genuine about wanting to have a drink, or he could be a rapist. The fear is rational, and speaking as a privileged male, I can virtually guarantee that’s a fear I don’t have to consider constantly while I am travelling alone.

Conclusion

I don’t doubt there are still nuances to the discussions I have yet to settle. Being a community organiser for Malaysian Atheists, I have to come to grips with the subtle balancing required in a community of atheists where freedom of speech is practised, but not to the point where we hurt and harm those whom should be protected from such harm that may arise from uncivil tongues. Basically, one should not be forced to tolerate harmful language to gain access to knowledge privileged to those who do not feel such harm.

This post is a culmination of a month’s worth of research into Elevatorgate/Rebeccapocalype, and while there are many previous articles to consider, I think these would do well to summarise why I behave the way I do today.

If perchance you read through this all the way to the end, I can do no more than offer you my gratitude for sticking with me this far. As usual, comment boxes are available below for further clarification or questions.

Update

  1. I have been made aware through a sudden spike in web traffic to this page from Reddit that someone thought kindly enough of what I wrote here to submit this article to the atheismplus subreddit page. I have made some slight but noticeable changes from input given there.

Footnote

[1] Note from original post: Compiled by Barry Deutsch, aka “Ampersand.” Permission is granted to reproduce this list in any way, for any purpose, so long as the acknowledgment of Peggy McIntosh’s work is not removed. If possible, I’d appreciate it if folks who use it would tell me how they used it; my email is barry-at-amptoons-dot-com.

 

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