I am delighted to welcome Kumar Ramanathan to NPS! His first guest post is a continuation of the ongoing discussion of privilege and marginalization taking place within atheist circles. As a student at Tufts, Kumar has been a vital leader on a variety of activist movements and brings a much needed perspective to this conversation.  -Stephen

At the Women In Secularism 2 conference last week, Center for Inquiry CEO Ron Lindsay opened the weekend’s proceedings with a controversial talk that featured a prolonged discussion on the concept of privilege, which he characterized as sometimes being used to silence men in conversations about feminism. A great deal of controversy erupted, most notably a back-and-forth with Rebecca Watson.

Much has been said about the incivility of Lindsay’s talk, the disrespect it demonstrated to its audience, and the unprofessionalism of his response to Watson. On those subjects, I defer to the more qualified critics linked here, but I’d like to address Lindsay’s misconception of the word privilege, as well as the broader discourse around this term. Often used in social justice activism, the concept of privilege is a primary tool of analysis in the vocabulary of intersectionality, which refers to the overlapping nature of different systems of oppression (race, gender, etc.)

The main issue Lindsay identifies is what he calls the “‘shut up and listen’ meme.” I quote from his original talk for proper context:

… I’m talking about the situation where the concept of privilege is used to try to silence others, as a justification for saying, “shut up and listen.” Shut up, because you’re a man and you cannot possibly know what it’s like to experience x, y, and z, and anything you say is bound to be mistaken in some way, but, of course, you’re too blinded by your privilege even to realize that.

This approach doesn’t work. It certainly doesn’t work for me. It’s the approach that the dogmatist who wants to silence critics has always taken because it beats having to engage someone in a reasoned argument. It’s the approach that’s been taken by many religions. It’s the approach taken by ideologies such as Marxism. You pull your dogma off the shelf, take out the relevant category or classification, fit it snugly over the person you want to categorize, dismiss, and silence and … poof, you’re done. End of discussion. … You’re a man; you have nothing to contribute to a discussion of how to achieve equality for women. …

By the way, with respect to the “Shut up and listen” meme, I hope it’s clear that it’s the “shut up” part that troubles me, not the “listen” part. Listening is good. People do have different life experiences, and many women have had experiences and perspectives from which men can and should learn. But having had certain experiences does not automatically turn one into an authority to whom others must defer. Listen, listen carefully, but where appropriate, question and engage.

Lindsay sees references to privilege as a means of curtailing certain voices and elevating others, serving as a threat to “reasoned argument.” But reasoned argument without good data is next to useless. In discussing identity and oppression, lived experiences are indispensable data that can only come from someone who possesses, or is seen as possessing, a marginalized identity.

Is Lindsay silenced by the assertion that he might not always have the relevant perspective? It’s certainly not his fault that he was born male, but his gender is inextricably part of his identity, as it is with mine. Neither Lindsay, nor I, nor any cisgendered man can claim expertise on the female experience. This is not to say that men have nothing to offer in a discussion about feminism (says the man discussing feminism), but rather that only women can share lived experience about what it means to be a woman.

This doesn’t mean that marginalized folk (of any kind) can’t make stupid or invalid arguments. It’s important that bad arguments are addressed when appropriate, but that does not justify denying or ignoring that you may be privileged—perhaps even directly in the kind of oppression being discussed. Amy Davis Roth of Skepchick addresses this eloquently in “Checking My Privilege and Still Speaking Out.”

“Listening is good,” Lindsay says, but he fails to understand that there is a connection between the (albeit crudely phrased) “shut up” component and listening. Certain voices tend to be privileged in certain conversations, and listening sometimes requires countering this structure through one’s action. How can one truly listen in these discussions if one doesn’t first step back and elevate the voices of the systematically marginalized?

Lindsay suggests that this elevation and negotiation of voices can be a “dogma” used to silence dissent, but recognition that lived experiences are important and ought to be shared by those who have lived them is not dogmatic. The concept of privilege being used here is part of a rational approach; it is an important tool with which to collect and share experiential information, not some kind of “you’ve got privilege!” card used to end any argument about oppression.

In his talk, rather than attempting to address the concept of privilege as it is commonly used in social justice activism or acknowledging his own privileged position and how it might skew his perception, Lindsay chooses to broadly equate the concept privilege with religious doctrine. Worse than this, however, is Lindsay’s response to Rebecca Watson’s tweet concerning his talk:

This is male privilege: Lindsay can afford to speak as if this dialogue occurs in a vacuum where structures of oppression and privilege don’t exist, and his own gender is irrelevant.

Women and people of color are routinely forced to think about their gender and race, as do other marginalized groups about their particular oppression. Stephanie Zvan has a fantastic piece on her Almost Diamonds blog about how this applies in this exact instance. Thinking more broadly, our culture’s basic humor is peppered with insults against women and femininity, women are held to higher standards of appearance at every corner, women face much more harassment on the basis of their gender when they speak out about their experiences. These are troubles Lindsay is lucky enough to not face, and that colors his perception of reality.

So far from being irrelevant, Lindsay’s gender, especially as a speaker on the topic of gender, is crucial, since it reflects the hidden assumptions that he lives with each day. Lindsay, or any other male secularist—myself included—might collect all the data we can about women’s experiences at secular conferences, but we can never live the experience of a woman in such a situation. And that’s fine! We don’t need to be able to perfectly represent those experiences; our role can be to elevate the voices of women who can represent them.

In a sense, I can sympathize with Lindsay’s frustration—I too want to live in a world where our opinions are judged purely on their merits. But simply wishing for such a world does not make it so. Nor does explicitly examining our gender mean we must be judged on it. Rather, actively identifying and exposing the unfair advantages we experience can help us construct that better world, by heightening our collective understanding of how structural oppression works.

As a male-bodied person active within feminist circles in my community, I am continually confronted with questions of how to address my own privileged position. In a group of activists discussing rape culture, my privilege as a male and a non-survivor kicks in when topics become increasingly detailed or uncomfortable: I don’t have to worry about traumatic experiences being triggered, nor do I have to re-live constant thoughts about the dangers of walking outside alone at night or accepting a drink at a party. Because I have the privilege of not facing these emotional triggers, it’s much easier for me to voice my thoughts about them. It’s obvious, then, how this can be a problem, since I am not the primary subject of this discussion. And it is exactly for that reason that I ought to step back and, yes, shut up in such situations.

It is naïve, to say the least, to suppose that “reasoned arguments” might stand completely independent from experience. And yes, that includes experiences of gender, race, and the like. In any discussion about identity and oppression, our experience colors even our ability to speak, let alone the content of our opinion. Rather than ignoring the experience of privilege, we should actively work to expose it and counter it. That is what it means to “check your privilege.”

This is the challenge of an intersectional approach, and atheists, skeptics, and freethinkers are not exempt from that challenge. Simply because we tend to embrace rational argument as a core tenet, in fact perhaps because of it, we do not get to live in an alternate world where lived experiences are ultimately irrelevant and our identity does not affect the weight of our opinions. Rather than wishing away the existence of identity-based oppression, we ought to counter it by recognizing and using the approach of identifying and examining privilege.

kumar

Born and raised in various pockets of Asia, Kumar is now a sophomore at Tufts University. He cares about storytelling, politics, and humanism. Growing up with his ears glued to the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe and Douglas Adams audiobooks, he is now the Public Relations officer for the Tufts Freethought Society, and is involved in feminist, interfaith, and other social justice activism. Within academia, he acts the part of a Philosophy major and Urban Studies minor. Someday, he hopes the world will suffer his presence as a political journalist. Find him on twitter here.
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  • J. J. Ramsey

    “In his talk, … , Lindsay chooses to broadly equate the concept [of] privilege with religious doctrine.”

    It’s pretty clear from the talk that this is not true. As he put it, “This brings me to the concept of privilege, a concept much in use these
    days. Let me emphasize at the outset that I think it’s a concept that
    has some validity and utility; it’s also a concept that can be misused,
    misused as a way to try to silence critics.” It’s a particular misuse of privilege that he likens to the use of dogma to attempt to silence an opponent.

    • http://natehevens.wordpress.com/ Nathan Hevenstone

      And yet that that so-called “silencing” simply isn’t happening. That’s the point. No one is silencing anyone. Lindsay argued against a straw feminist, not an actual thing. “Shut up and listen” is not a silencing tactic because “shut up” isn’t permanent. It’s temporary. Silencing tactics are generally meant to be permanent.

      I again go to my favorite metaphor for this: theistsplaining.

      I went into this at length on my blog, but the bottom line here is this:

      When theists try to lecture us atheists about our lived experiences, including who we are and what atheism is, it is annoying and silencing. It erases us and our experiences by assuming y know more about us than we do.

      It is right for an atheist to tell that theist to “shut up and listen”. Theists are using/abusing their privilege to silence us atheists and erase us. So why not tell them to shut up and listen?

      Obviously there’s no such thing as a perfect analogy (otherwise it wouldn’t be an analogy; it’d be exactly the same thing), but basically what Lindsay did at the convention is analogous to theistsplaining.

      • Pjay (Patti) Pender

        The hell it isn’t happening. It happens to me all the time. I found Dr. Lindsay’s talk very reassuring because the very group who is raising hell about it has told me on numerous occasions to “check my privilege” as regards women’s and/or gay rights, because my position often differs from theirs. As it happens, I’m a lesbian. That my experience and/or resulting opinions are not the same as theirs does not make mine invalid, nor does it make me “privileged.”

        What Dr. Lindsay did was not “theistsplaining” or even “mansplaining.” It was to make it clear that these people cannot use this privilege concept in an attempt to silence anyone who has the audacity to disagree with them.

        • http://natehevens.wordpress.com/ Nathan Hevenstone

          As evidenced by the fact that you’re talking about it now, it’s quite clear that you’ve not actually been silenced.

          Do the people who’ve told you to “check your privilege” on women and/or gay rights know who you are? You certainly don’t need to check any privilege seeing as you are a woman and a lesbian. I would certainly defer to you in discussions of either and both as I’m both a cis-gendered man and straight.

          What, exactly, do you disagree with them about? If it’s FTB vs the Slymepit and harassment within the secular/atheist movement, hyperskepticism is not welcome in this discussion. Considering the ample evidence provided (Rebecca Watson has amply demonstrated the kind and amount of abuse she receives on a daily basis, as have the women [and men] who post at Freethought Blogs), denying that the harassment is a problem looks a lot to us like denying Global Warming or Evolution.

          That you are not personally getting any (I’m assuming this is the main issue being debated, here, and those on your side seem to be in denial that any harassment is occurring at all) doesn’t mean Rebecca and Ophelia and Amy and Jennifer and Greta and Stephanie and everyone else talking about it and showing the evidence for it are lying; it means you’ve so far been lucky.

          • spookiewon

            Yeah, because I’m NOT a victim. I keep hearing how Jen McCreight has been “silenced.” No she has not. She’s chosen to stop speaking. Rebecca Watson asserts she is “threatened” with rape, yet she doesn’t call the police. Believe me, if someone threatens to rape me and it’s a credible threat, I’ll be calling the police. If it’s not credible, I’ll ignore it. You don’t empower people by teaching that they re victims, and that’s what the current crop of “feminists” are doing.

            There is no need for you to defer to me on lesbianism, since you don’t have any compunctions about telling me my experience as such is not valid because you have chosen to label me as “lucky.”

          • http://natehevens.wordpress.com/ Nathan Hevenstone

            WHAT?!? Did you even read what I wrote? Where in the hell did I call you a victim, or “icky”?

            Have you been reading blogs lately? I’ve read dozens, if not hundreds, of posts and articles by women basically showing why going to the police is a damn bad idea.

    • Guest

      Nathan pretty much covered it, but I would add the following: Lindsay did say that he was referring to what he saw as a misuse of the concept of privilege, but I’m arguing that he has misconceived what the concept of privilege is entirely. “Shut up and listen” is a very crude way to phrase it, but the negotiation and elevation of voices in order to highlight marginalized experiences is *not* a misuse of privilege; it’s a powerful tool that allows us to counter structural oppression when used well.

      • Kumar Ramanathan

        This was by me; Disqus didn’t register that I’d logged in for some reason!

      • J. J. Ramsey

        “I’m arguing that he has misconceived what the concept of privilege”

        If you wanted to argue that, then you should have quoted the paragraph of his talk where he presents a rough-and-ready description of what privilege is, i.e. where he discusses “socially embedded advantages that men have over women,” etc., and then showed how it demonstrates his misconception. As it stands, what you’ve done is quote a part of Lindsay’s talk and then interpreted that quote in a way that is on its face inconsistent with the parts of the talk that you didn’t quote. Not helpful, and not convincing.

        “the negotiation and elevation of voices in order to highlight marginalized experiences is *not* …”

        … something that Lindsay argued against or equated with “shut up and listen.” Again, you come off as someone making a strawman of Lindsay’s talk. You need to construct your arguments with more care.

      • Pjay (Patti) Pender

        What makes one person marginalized and another not? I am sick to death of having other women’s voices “elevated” by my supposed “privilege” simply because my experience and opinion differs from theirs. WHY is one woman “marginalized” while another is not? If their arguments are actually good and valid, they would not have to be “elevated” above other women’s to be accepted.

  • Ahriman

    It seems strange that a writer on a blog that is focused on making atheism inclusive and warm and fuzzy and all that good stuff is focused on emulating people who manifestly do no such thing.

    Take this for instance:

    http://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/freethoughtblogs.com

    FTB is steadily losing all its traffic because they are run like a cult and aim to purge all those who are not “true believers”.

    I have no particular desire to join a cult.

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