I read a Facebook post which got me thinking. (I know, that was probably my first mistake) But this one had substance. The writer was a white male, a veteran, a husband and father, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and someone familiar with rigorous hard work. This particular individual expressed in very elegant language a sharp contention with one of the less documented side-effects of nation-wide conversations about privilege, that being the silencing of the white males.
At first I was unsure if I would write about this. Also, I chided myself for getting as caught up in a stranger’s online testimony as I did. And yet I did, and now I’ve taken you along for the ride.
I have mixed feelings about this idea of silencing the white males, as well as a jumble of thoughts.
On the one hand, I am unabashedly a firm believer in systemic privilege, in all its commonly recognized forms, and a few less common ones. White privilege. Male Privilege. Straight privilege. Cisgender privilege. Money privilege. Privileges related to being educated, young, slender, attractive, able-bodied, free of legal entanglement, living in-doors, being American, being (at least in name) a Christian in America. I absolutely believe that society tends to favor certain people groups over others, giving certain groups disproportionate advantages that they do not have to do much to earn.
On the other hand, there are individuals. Best I can tell, this seems to be where the conversations about privilege break down, and perhaps part of why the conversation is often so unpalatable to those holding multiple privileges.
The privilege conversation is about systems and patterns on a culture level. Systems always run the risk of forfeiting the individuals within them. Individuals, rightly so, recognize the extinguishing of their voice and protest. But when this happens, individuals always run the risk of prioritizing their individual voice at the expense of the larger systemic patterns in which they find themselves. Systems forget how they impact individuals and individuals are not able to see how they impact the system.
Wide-scale empathy fail.
Conflict, tension, and more conflict.
To expand this idea further…
The individual whose story I read talked about his individual pain, and talked about how he felt silenced as an individual by a societal force. Here, I can see the tension and I can see the problem.
Conversations about privilege are really conversations about systems. Granted those systems are made up of individuals, but these systems are as big as culture and as pervasive as an airborne toxin. The fiber of our nation favors some groups over others. The very texture of our culture is comforting to some populations and abrasive toward others. Systemic, traditional, cultural mindsets, assumptions and instincts held by one demographic cause problems for whole other demographics.
Males as a group tend to have more advantages than Females. White people as a group tend to be treated with more instinctive respect than Black people. Straight and Cis people tend to find societal structures that cater to their needs and interests more than gender non-conformists. These are patterns and tendencies and they are strong, but they are not rules, nor are they quite as constant as we might think.
Within the systems dwell the individuals. Each individual person has their own individual experience. No individual experience can be divorced from their cultural context, but, pending factors, any individual’s experience may or may not be bound to their cultural patterns to the same degree.
Individuals can be exceptions to the rules. Deviations and anomalies can exist in the patterns.
This is why there are those individuals who would typically hold all the privileges, like the individual whose story I read, who still experience tremendous pain. And of course their pain is legitimate, and of course they abuse they suffer is unjust and terrible. And no, we ought to never take this individual’s voice away or delegitimize their pain.
This is also why there are those individuals who typically lack all the privileges(say a queer woman of color) who are able to transcend their cultural patterns, overcome obstacles and attain to the advantages of their privileges counterparts.
There is no accurate way to compare two people’s experience.
Every individual feels pain. Every individual is vulnerable somewhere. Every individual, regardless of their privilege, has a most painful, most terrible, fearful experience. On this, we could probably agree. And if we pull together a group of individuals, we could hear all of their stories, and give all of them voice.
But the individual conversation is different than the systemic conversation.
When we add in the systems and cultures in which dwell the individuals, there are additional factors to consider.
I read a story about an individual who experienced the (truly legitimately) horrible pain of childhood sexual abuse. This is a pain no child should ever feel, no matter their privilege status, and a pain that all too many children feel, regardless of their privilege status. And when a straight while male person wants to stand up and tell their story, we should listen.
However, that conversation is not about privilege, nor about culture, nor about society. That story is about one individual violating another.
The privilege conversation addresses how individuals within a group are consistently and systemically wounded by an entire other demographic, specifically because they are that people group. In other words, Black people being mistreated by a White society, specifically because they are Black. Women being disrespected by Men because they are Women.
As legitimate as the pain of a straight white male person is, the larger majority of straight white male persons do not experience their pain because their demographic is consistently the target of a systemic trend to oppress or wound them. The straight white male group is not a vulnerable group. Individuals within the group, yes, but the entire group? The entire group is the top of the food chain. Factions of this group have been the systemic oppressors of other groups, of women, of people of color, of queer people. If a straight white male wants to speak up and have their story heard, they will encounter far fewer barriers than would a woman or person of color.
There has long been a severe imbalance of influence in our society, and this is why the voices of women, of people of color, of gender non-conforming individuals, of the poor and disabled people must be given priority. Never at the exclusion of the straight white males, and we would be taking this trend too far if we completely erased voices of the people group that once held all the power. But for now, we are still correcting an imbalance.
So then, to the straight white males who have experienced legitimate pain, I am sad for you. I am angry at your abusers. What happened to you was unjust and you have a right to your feelings about the events. You also, then, ought to be able to more easily empathize with those who experience pain, not as an anomaly within their demographic, but as the typical, even unbreakable pattern within that demographic. You who have experienced pain because another individual violated you ought to be able to more easily understand those who have experienced pain because an entire society violated them.
The true privilege of being strong is to lay yourself down for the weak. The true measure of a strong man is how well he cares for those around him who may be less capable, have fewer opportunities than he. In the case of stories about pain, this sometimes means allowing your story to take a back seat until the stories lacking your same opportunity have been told and heard and believed.
We must correct our deep assumptions that one perspective or experience is worth more than another. All people have worth, all stories deserve to be told. When systemic patterns favor one type of story over another, that pattern must be challenged, but only insofar as the unfavored experience gets to be heard. No person’s experience should be able to be told only at the expense of another’s, unless that other voluntarily lays down their right to be heard.
And that may be what is required to heal the rifts in our society. Individuals from any side of any argument who voluntarily forfeit their right to be heard, in support of allowing someone else’s experience to be known. To allow one’s self to become invisible so that another may be seen, is one of the most powerful expressions of love our society may ever see. The only greater demonstration of love would be to bodily lay down one’s life for another. And who among us is really willing to undertake that challenge?