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.