Privilege: Sometimes It’s Not the Devil You’re Advocating For

I’m not a fan of the word “privilege.” In some ideal world where arguments don’t happen, and confrontation doesn’t exist, and people only ever have the best, most benevolent intentions in mind, “privilege” would be a perfectly acceptable word. The term “check your privilege” would actually be helpful and informative. But in the real world, bringing up privilege is the intellectual’s way of shutting something down by telling someone else to STFU. “Privilege,” like “patriarchy” and “microagression” is just a buzzword. It’s a vacuous argument-ender less concerned with human empathy and constructive discussion and more concerned with making sure someone else feels bad for some unintentional, inherent transgression against some group of people you’re expected to pity on principle. You can say that that’s not what “privilege” is supposed to do, but you know that’s what it does–just like how a parent telling their socially awkward kid that they’re “special and unique” isn’t supposed to make them feel bad. But it does.

One of my main problems with liberal rhetoric is that it’s paradoxically separatist despite its insistence that humanity is one people and we should love each other and listen and blah blah blah, you’ve heard the spiel before. We’re all one people! Except when we’re talking about any social problem whatsoever, in which case, it’s totally an Us vs. Them scenario, with us not having to do anything because they need to learn. Because they are the ones who don’t get it. Even when they are on our side, they still need to be learned up good about how much they suck. And they should be proud if they do learn that, if they’re a good enough person to be willing to check their privilege and listen to the other voices for once. That’s why Cornel West (who I actually really like in certain other situations) can go in front of a lecture hall full of mainly white people and talk about how white people are still terrible and get a standing ovation.

Why am I talking about privilege? Why, because I’m going to respond to this article from feministing.com, of course, an article by the name of “An open letter to privileged people who play devil’s advocate.” Consider this an open letter to the open letter, then.

And remember, I’m a black woman, and the writer of this article looks white. So what I have to say is automatically fucking important.


 

Let’s begin!

You know who you are. You are that white guy in an Ethnic Studies class who’s exploring the idea that poor people might have babies to stay on welfare. Or some person arguing over drinks that maybe a lot of women do fake rape for attention. Or, recently, someone insisting that I consider the idea that Elliot Rodger could have been a madman and an anomaly, not at all a product of a white supremacist and misogynistic society.

 

Right out of the gate. Okay. I commend her for being upfront about it, at least. “Fuck white people with male genitalia. Fuck ’em!” I find it irritating that I have to say this and continue saying this in almost every social justice conversation I have: White men are human beings too, guys. I’m not going to sit here and whine about how people just won’t leave white guys alone. It’s like a Christian from Mississippi complaining about how he’s a victim of religious discrimination because a secular group got a billboard on the interstate. You’re not. You’re fine. Your got off easy as far as life is concerned. But at least the Mississippi Christian is complaining about a specific thing. The typical white man has it pretty okay, but that’s no reason to treat the group as whipping boys for everything just by default. That’s just not fair. Should I be the go-to whipping gal for race issues because I’m high yellow instead of dark-skinned and high yellow people back in the day were dicks? It’s funny how people who play the devil’s advocate are apparently never anything other than white men–because I never talk about unpopular opinions, amiright?

Not to mention the fact that those are indeed things that happen. Some poor people do have babies to stay on welfare (or have babies because they’re already on welfare), so women do cry wolf about sexual assault, and I’m not even going to talk about Elliot Roger (But seriously, he’s not even an anomaly according to you? Do people go on killing sprees all the time where you live?). So is just mentioning that humanity isn’t perfect–that not all poor people are trodden-upon angels and that not all women are victims–bad? Are we just supposed to act like X Group has never done anything wrong ever because Y Group was mean to them at one point in time and may or may not still be mean to them now? That’s dumb. What kind of constructive conversation are you having where bringing up actual issues is looked down upon? I have less than $3000 in my bank account and have the most money out of everyone in my entire immediate family; I’m in school on scholarship. I can acknowledge that some poor people are dicks. Why can’t she?

How is anything you say going to be in any way helpful if you aren’t even willing to address the full picture? How are we supposed to help the poor when people like you aren’t willing to acknowledge that some poor people take advantage of our faulty welfare system? The existence of opportunistic bastards is something that would need to be taken into account while trying to come up with an actual constructive way to deal with the problem. But I guess I’ve already talked about how you don’t actual want to deal with problems, you just want to complain about them.

Most of the time, it’s clear that you actually believe the arguments you claim to have just for the heck of it. However, you know that these beliefs are unpopular, largely because they make you sound selfish and privileged, so you blame them on the “devil.” Here’s the thing: the devil doesn’t need any more advocates. He’s got plenty of power without you helping him.

So all the people who try to provide a contrary voice aren’t just doing it to facilitate conversation but because they actually are just jackasses on the inside? Okay, no bias there. It’s not like contrarian jerk-offs don’t exist. There are argumentative pricks in the world who just want to make other people mad by talking about an obviously terrible idea like it has some level of credence. But I highly doubt that that’s a description that can be applied to all devil’s advocates. I’m sure some of them actually do want to facilitate conversation and don’t actually believe or support the points they’re arguing. But if the points like the ones you brought up are what you label as “bad,” I don’t even see anything wrong with believing them. Those are legitimate things that should be brought up when talking about those topics. Believing that reality is the way it is apparently makes you a devil’s advocate by default and also an asshole. Pointing out that the world isn’t a black-and-white 1940’s propaganda cartoon with obvious good guys who can do no wrong and obvious bad guys who do nothing but wrong makes you the devil’s advocate now.

How is blaming anything on “the devil” any different than blaming something on “culture?” Both of them are vague and unhelpful and only serve to be ominous and pessimistic. Does she even understand what “playing the devil’s advocate” means? It’s about trying to empathize with a point you don’t agree with, which means the assholes she talks about who secretly hate poor people wouldn’t even technically be devils’s advocates. “The Devil” isn’t even always something inherently bad. It can be, but not always. I once wrote an entire op-ed article (that I won’t link to simply because my college shall remain anonymous) defending a couple who didn’t want to take pictures at a gay wedding and trying to explicate their reasoning not because I agreed with them but just because I’m against the idea of utterly demonizing people who you disagree with, even if the disagreement is something huge.

I’m still just really hung up on what she thinks being the devil’s advocate entails. If she would have just not listed examples of “unacceptably privileged behavior,” I would have liked this article way more. But she listed them, so I’m harping on them. “He’s got plenty of power without you helping him.” What does that mean? There are assholes who really do not get it and shouldn’t be talking–Glenn Beck talking about how poor people are just lazy bums who don’t want to pull themselves up by their bootstraps or Fox News watchers claiming that Elliot Roger wasn’t misogynistic just gay. But that doesn’t mean that the general sentiment that they’re failing to get across with anything resembling intelligence is wrong and has no merit. Idiotic people like that existing actually calls for the existence of a devil’s advocate, because idiots who just hate poor people contribute about as much to the conversation as people like this girl who want to treat poor people like faultless angels. Devil’s advocates bring nuance to a goddamn conversation. Is nuance the enemy now? Is trying to be realistic just playing into the Bad Man’s hands?

Once again, I know there are people who claim to be a devil’s advocate just to justify being a dick, but how does that apply to all instances of it? Does this girl write off all people who try to look at it from another perspective that she doesn’t like, or just privileged white guys?

 

These discussions may feel like “playing” to you, but to many people in the room, it’s their lives you are “playing” with. The reason it feels like a game to you is because these are issues that probably do not directly affect you. It doesn’t matter whether most mass shootings are targeted at women who rejected the gunman if you are a man – though it should, since misogyny kills men too. If you are white, it doesn’t matter whether people of color are being racially profiled or not. You can attach puppet strings to dialogues about real issues because at the end of the day, you can walk away from the tangled mess you’ve exacerbated.

 

This girl gives no fucks about “real issues.” She cares all about the pathos and not at all about the logos. She’s trying to be empathetic. She’s trying to be nice and understanding. I get it. I can even appreciate how her heart bleeds for those less fortunate than her. She’s probably a very nice girl, and she clearly cares. But she’s not being helpful. This kind of extreme empathy does as much good as the extreme apathy that she’s trying to fight against. I’m all for feelings–I’m a writer for heaven’s sake, feelings are my bread and butter. But you can’t just run into social issues gun ho’ with nothing but feelings. Overcompensating for past hurts done to a group of people by holding their hands and insisting that no one should be allowed to hurt their feelings anymore doesn’t help them. It just makes them feel good. And holding their hands makes her feel good. But that’s all it does. You have to have reason and logic and constructive ideas, not just vague calls to action for ending whatever -ism you don’t like. If the devil’s advocates are just “playing with” an idea, so is she. How many of these issues directly affect her, I wonder. And just because some people don’t look at it from such an emotional place, that doesn’t mean they’re helping out the Devil.

What would she have them do? If they’re just attaching puppet strings to a conversation about something that doesn’t affect them, what can they do to fix that? What can they do to prove that they aren’t bad people who don’t care because they’re not capable of human empathy apparently? Maybe she’ll get to that later.

To be fair, there are many privileged devil’s advocates out there who are truly trying to figure things out. I know people who think best out loud, throwing ideas at me to see which sticks to their “friendly neighborhood feminist.” Your kind like to come at a concept from every angle before deciding what you think. You ask those of us who are knowledgeable on the subject to explain it to you again and again because in this world it is harder for you to believe that maybe the deck is stacked in your favor than to think of us as lazy, whining, or liars.

Alrighty, at least she acknowledged that not all devil’s advocates are secret hell spawns just looking for opportunities to flout their privilege in people’s faces. But this isn’t much better. How condescending can you be? She’s treating these people like small curious children whose lust for life and asking questions is cute but still bad because it’s not sensitive enough, like a three-year-old asking a fat woman if she’s having a baby. And I’ll get to the “knowledgeable” thing and the idea of life as a game of cards once I summarize my thoughts on this. The idea of people having a difficult time making attributions about life is tied into the just world hypothesis (thinking that the world is fair and that people have the life that they deserve) and fundamental mis-attribution (blaming someone’s actions totally on their personal disposition instead of the circumstances that they’re in). And it’s something that everyone naturally indulges in, not just “privileged” people.

It is physically and emotionally draining to be called upon to prove that these systems of power exist. For many of us, just struggling against them is enough — now you want us to break them down for you? Imagine having weights tied to your feet and a gag around your mouth, and then being asked to explain why you think you are at an unfair disadvantage. Imagine watching a video where a young man promises to kill women who chose not to sleep with him and then being forced to engage with the idea that maybe you are just a hysterical feminist seeing misogyny where there is none. It is incredibly painful to feel that in order for you to care about my safety, I have to win this verbal contest you have constructed “for fun.”

 

Okay, either you want people to listen to you, or you don’t. If no one asked about the the disadvantaged person’s perspective in Ethnic Studies class, I’m quite sure she’d be complaining about how “the underprivileged voice is marginalized in spaces where it should be safe to give voice to their grievances” or something like that. This is something that really irritates me. Social justice warriors are constantly talking about how straight white people need to let the minorities speak up: they set up progressive stacks that make it impossible for “privileged” people to talk until all the minorities have had their turn, they constantly talk about how people need to STFU and listen to them if we ever want this terrible -ism to go away. But then they go around and bite the heads off of people who do what they asked because they’re “forcing people to represent and be the voice of the group of people they belong to.” Either their individual opinion provides insight into the minority voice and should be heard and regarded that way, or it doesn’t and it should just be treated like another opinion. If it’s just another personal, individual opinion that represents no one but the person who holds it, what makes that any different than the privileged kids’ opinions? What, the minority kids don’t represent their entire group with their opinions, but the privileged kids’ opinions are indicative of their entire culture? How does that work?

I personally think it’s unrealistic to describe the “underprivileged” experience as having “weights tied to your feet and a gag in your mouth.” You just have a different hand of cards. Once again, this is coming at the conversation from nothing but an emotional standpoint. How are the people who “just don’t get it” ever supposed to live up to your standards if not asking is marginalizing and asking is insensitive? You can’t have your cake and eat it too. People aren’t just going to magically understand your plight if you don’t put forth effort into helping them. It’s a two way street. It takes two to tango. All the other metaphors. It’s not just their job to understand while you sit at the sidelines adding nothing. if you chose the life of a social justice educator, you have to be a social justice educator.

 

So dearest devil’s advocates: speak for yourself, not for the “devil.” Teach yourself. Consider that people have been advocating for your cause for centuries, so take a seat. It’s our time to be heard.Some might challenge that I am shutting myself off to new ideas and censoring important opportunities for growth. But these ideas you are forcing me to consider are not new. They stem from centuries of inequality and your desperate desire to keep them relevant is based in the fact that you benefit from their existence. Let it go. You did NOT come up with these racist, misogynistic theories. We’ve heard them before and we are f*cking tired of being asked to consider them, just one. more. time.

I’m sure plenty of them are speaking for themselves. Once again, bringing up legitimate problems doesn’t make you an insensitive bastard. Then there’s more of this Us vs. Them. “It’s our time to be heard.” I’m all for letting people speak their minds and have their opinion be heard, especially if they have had an experience that let’s them bring something else to the table. But giving voice to other people shouldn’t come at the expense of taking it away from someone else. Opinions aren’t a limited resource. And yes, you are shutting yourself off because you are arbitrarily deciding who has something of worth to say. You’re arbitrarily telling some people to STFU, just because people who looked a bit like them have hogged the mic in the past.

Who are you to say that nothing they have to say is worth hearing? Daniel Dennet and Bill Gates and Chris Hitchens and Neil Gaiman? They’re all white guys, they don’t have anything useful to bring to the conversation. Nothing they’ve said is new or interesting or insightful. But that random black chick off the street who lives with her parents and refuses to get a job has all the relevant stuff to say, because she’s black and a woman. The merit of opinion is individual. It depends on background, but also on introspection and disposition that you have no way of assessing from the outside. You can’t just make assumptions about a person based upon fill-in-the-blank demographic information. And that’s what all this talk of “privilege” does. It makes assumptions, ironically reflecting the mentality that it’s trying to fight against.

If that was an accurate way of viewing the world, Bill Gates would suck as a person and Wiz Kalifah would be the utmost voice of wisdom. Obviously, that’s not the case.


 

I’m going to repeat something from that last paragraph:

They stem from centuries of inequality and your desperate desire to keep them relevant is based in the fact that you benefit from their existence. Let it go. You did NOT come up with these racist, misogynistic theories.

Is this girl a behaviorist? She’s acting like cognition isn’t a thing, like a person’s actions and thoughts are dependent entirely upon the environment they were raised in and absolutely nothing else. How the hell does she know where and how people got the opinions that they have? Once again, pointing out that minority groups can *gasp* do wrong sometimes doesn’t mean that their opinion is based in white male privilege. And I doubt any of them are making the claim that they came up with a new theory on social relations, but nothing this girl is saying is new or original either, so that’s obviously not an indication of the quality or validity of an idea.

I’d like to ask a question: What makes an underprivileged person more knowledgeable? This entire idea runs on that one questionable premise. They have experiences that another person might not have, but what about that indicates that they’d have anything intelligent to say? Old people have more experience, but I’ve met plenty of sixty-year-olds who were utter morons. Having an experience is not commensurate with having something to say. For all their talk about how the Magic Negro trope is racist, a lot of liberals seem to ascribe to the idea that all black people just inherently have insightful ideas about life.

Some black people are idiots. Some gay people are idiots. Some disabled people are idiots. Some women are idiots. Some transgender pansexual bi-racial depressed people in wheelchairs are idiots. And yes, some white men are idiots too. Let’s say there’s a Latino woman who has spent her entire life living in her parents’ basement, failing online community college, mooching off of her parents’ goodwill, and getting knocked up by her deadbeat boyfriend just to convince her mom not to kick her out because working in fast food is lame and she doesn’t want to do it. Let’s say there’s white guy who specializes in America’s relationship with Mexico and has written multiple books on the subject. When it comes to asking about race relations between Mexican immigrants and Texan business owners, I’m going to trust the opinion of the white guy. If you switch the character profiles around, I’d trust the opinion of the Latina. It’s not reasonable to say that one of them should hold precedence over the other solely because white guys were dicks in the past yada yada yada. If you truly value equality, you’d stop focusing so much on what background information makes a person’s opinion less valid and start focusing on their actual opinion.

Sometimes a privileged person has a lot of useful things to say. Telling someone to shut the fuck up because they’re wrong, and you’re right, and they should listen to you, because their opinion is dumb by default, because you know so much better than them, because you went to college and/or you’re {insert minority group here} does nothing to help. It doesn’t build understanding. It doesn’t fix any problems. It just makes you feel good because you got to tell someone who you arbitrarily decided was the Them in the Us vs. Them situation to STFU. Making someone a representative of the group of people who you don’t like and then making that person feel bad is cathartic, but don’t act like it’s useful.


It’s not like privilege doesn’t exist, but why is that a bad thing? It kind of just seems to me like something neutral. The way the world works. Some people are born into good situations and some people are born into not so good ones. Lamenting that fact does nothing. Making the people who just so happened to have an okay life feel bad about it does nothing. Trying to “fix” the people with privilege isn’t going to help. You’ve got to focus on the ones who could use a leg-up.

How about the life as a game of cards metaphor? Everyone has a different hand, and it’s random. No one chose what hand they got. There are good hands and bad hands and ones in between. There’s really no point in complaining about it–the game has started and there’s no going back. The person with the bad hand doesn’t have everyone lay down their cards so they can see who has the best then insist that the people with good cards go easy on everyone else or else get kicked out of the game. Keeping that rule up just slows the game down for everyone. In the end of the day, you have to play with the cards you’ve been dealt. A bad hand doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to lose, and a good hand doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to win. It all just depends on how well you’re able to play the game. Some make the best out of the cards they’ve been dealt, and some don’t. Some can’t because they were never taught how to. The best we can do is teach everyone how to play poker and make sure no one cheats.

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6 thoughts on “Privilege: Sometimes It’s Not the Devil You’re Advocating For

  1. Ufo says:

    thank you for this! You write really well about this, and have articulated some things that I have struggled to put into words for quite some time.

  2. J. Morales says:

    Gotta say, I’m loving this blog. I don’t agree with you on everything, (an anti-theist, really?? 🙂 ) but it is refreshing to see someone take on touchy subjects with some actual nuance and critical thinking. Far too much of what many “feminist” writers out there are taught is actually ideology and completely antithetical to critical thinking and/or true tolerance. It’s a sad thing to see and I only hope some of them stumble across articles like yours and realize how close-minded they’re being. We don’t all have to agree on everything but we can certainly have discussions without constantly villifying each other.

  3. Thank you, thank you thank you. I’d really like to share it in a place I got accused of tone policing except by doing so I would be accused of tone policing.

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