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The Distress of the Privileged
knows there is no spoon
Picture of The Wanderer
(Not quite the same thing as first world problems. Razz )

So, this is an little (well, not so little) blog post I came across on another board in a politics thread. Mainly it's about exploring why, say, a straight heterosexual Christian in America can claim that they're being oppressed by calls for gay rights and such.

It's a pretty well written and thought out examination of unconscious/uncritical bias, and the role it plays in why people act as they do when suddenly minority groups that have never been on their radar before suddenly step forward to demand justice and equality.

Lastly, I also take it as a good reminder about keeping an open mind to changing times and societal tides, and both one's own privilege and the lack thereof for others. And even if you don't consider yourself to be overly privileged, it pays to keep in mind the limits of your own point of view, and all the points of view you can't even imagine. (Lordy knows I've made enough mistakes and stepped on enough toes in my life for reasons similar to those.)

The Distress of the Priviliged

In a memorable scene from the 1998 film Pleasantville (in which two 1998 teen-agers are transported into the black-and-white world of a 1950s TV show), the father of the TV-perfect Parker family returns from work and says the magic words “Honey, I’m home!”, expecting them to conjure up a smiling wife, adorable children, and dinner on the table.

This time, though, it doesn’t work. No wife, no kids, no food. Confused, he repeats the invocation, as if he must have said it wrong. After searching the house, he wanders out into the rain and plaintively questions this strangely malfunctioning Universe: “Where’s my dinner?”

I’m not bringing this up just to discuss old movies. As the culture evolves, people who benefitted from the old ways invariably see themselves as victims of change. The world used to fit them like a glove, but it no longer does. Increasingly, they find themselves in unfamiliar situations that feel unfair or even unsafe. Their concerns used to take center stage, but now they must compete with the formerly invisible concerns of others.


So I think it’s worthwhile to spend a minute or two looking at the world from George Parker’s point of view: He’s a good 1950s TV father. He never set out to be the bad guy. He never meant to stifle his wife’s humanity or enforce a dull conformity on his kids. Nobody ever asked him whether the world should be black-and-white; it just was.

George never demanded a privileged role, he just uncritically accepted the role society assigned him and played it to the best of his ability. And now suddenly that society isn’t working for the people he loves, and they’re blaming him.

It seems so unfair. He doesn’t want anybody to be unhappy. He just wants dinner.

Levels of distress. But even as we accept the reality of George’s privileged-white-male distress, we need to hold on to the understanding that the less privileged citizens of Pleasantville are distressed in an entirely different way. (Margaret Atwood is supposed to have summed up the gender power-differential like this: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.”)

George deserves compassion, but his until-recently-ideal housewife Betty Parker (and the other characters assigned subservient roles) deserves justice. George and Betty’s claims are not equivalent, and if we treat them the same way, we do Betty an injustice.


Now let’s look at a more recent case from real life.

One of the best things to come out of July’s Chick-fil-A brouhaha was a series of posts on the Owldolatrous blog, in which a gay man (Wayne Self) did his best to wrangle the distress of the privileged.

The privileged in this case are represented by Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy, who stirred up a hornet’s nest when he denounced the “prideful, arrogant attitude” of those who support same-sex marriage, saying that they “are inviting God’s judgment on our nation”.

His comments drew attention to the millions that Chick-fil-A’s founding family has contributed to anti-gay organizations, and led to calls for a boycott of their restaurants.

To which his defenders responded: Is tolerance a one-way street? Cathy was just expressing the genuine beliefs of his faith. As an American, he has freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Why can’t gays and their supporters respect that?

“Nothing mutual about it.” Self starts his post by acknowledging Cathy’s distress, but refusing to accept it as equivalent to his own. Cathy is suffering because people are saying bad things about him and refusing to buy his sandwiches. Meanwhile, 29 states (including Self’s home state of Louisiana) let employers fire gays for being gay. There are 75 countries Self and his partner can’t safely visit, because homosexuality is illegal and (in some of them) punishable by death.

The Cathy family has given $5 million to organizations that work to maintain this state of oppression. Self comments:

"This isn’t about mutual tolerance because there’s nothing mutual about it. If we agree to disagree on this issue, you walk away a full member of this society and I don’t. There is no “live and let live” on this issue because Dan Cathy is spending millions to very specifically NOT let me live. I’m not trying to do that to him."


You can’t be fired for Christianity. Christians may feel bashed by criticism, but gays get literally bashed by hate crimes. Christians may feel like people are trying to silence them, but the Tennessee legislature debated a bill making it illegal to say the word gay in public schools. (The senate passed it.)

I don’t think you hate me. I certainly don’t think you’re afraid of me. Neither is Bristol Palin. She probably even has LGBT people she calls friends. She just disagrees with them about whether they should be invited to the party (the party, in this case, being marriage).

But here’s the problem: the basis of that disagreement is her belief that her relationships are intrinsically better than ours.

There’s a word for this type of statement: supremacist. Supremacy is the habit of believing or acting as if your life, your love, your culture, your self has more intrinsic worth than those of people who differ from you.

The lesson: Supremacy itself isn’t hate. You may even have affection for the person you feel superior to. But supremacy contains the seeds of hate.

"Supremacy turns to hate when the feeling of innate superiority is openly challenged. … Supremacy is why you and Bristol Palin have more outrage at your own inconvenience than at the legitimate oppression of others."

We can talk about the subjugation of women later, honey. Where’s my dinner?

Sorry it's so long, although this is till not nearly everything said in the article. I just wanted to give enough in this post so that people have a pretty good sense of it, although there is a lot more information to digest in the original post itself.


Wandering, but not lost.

"You are a Knight Errant. All of the fun of rescuing damsels, and none of the paperwork." - Royko
Posts: 8394 | Location: New York | Registered: July 26, 2002Reply With QuoteReport This Post
Goofy Beast
Picture of Thirith & His Enormous Tibia
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Thanks for posting this, Wanderer. It's definitely an interesting topic, but it's also one that I find is very difficult to discuss. People who for one reason or another are in a more privileged position tend to see the discussion as belittling their own achievements, along the lines of "Are you saying that I only got to where I am because I'm white/male/heterosexual/Christian?" People get very defensive and by and large they're not willing or able to look beyond their own individual experience - when privilege is about societal tendencies and the concept is in no way countered by saying, "Well, *I* had to fight to get to where I'm at even though I'm white, male, straight and sort-of-Christian!"

We scraped along like rats, but now we will soar like eagles... eagles on pogo sticks!
Posts: 10887 | Location: Switzerland | Registered: September 05, 2001Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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