I had a curious experience this week; in a discussion about who should be invited to be on a particular panel discussion, it was suggested that we try to avoid having “old white men” on there. The particulars of the discussion aren’t relevant – it’s the bit about not having people on the panel due to what they are.
This is something I’ve seen a lot over the last few years, especially among those who claim to be progressive of some flavour. You can see it if you follow Richard Dawkins on twitter, where barely a week goes past without him being attacked for having an opinion while being white and male (his age seems to escape for the time being).
Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane. We’ve two places to visit; the first is a high school in a small town some years ago (give me a moment to suppress my instinctive urge to flee screaming). Back then I was a skinny bespectacled nerd who didn’t talk back to the teachers and didn’t keep pace with the growth spurts of my peers until I hit 16. Back then I still laboured under the delusion of heterosexuality – and I was alone in that delusion; my friends today assure me that they knew from the moment I walked into the room; apparently with some people “you can just tell, you know?” It was not a pleasant time (in fact, I can recall more than one instance when jack-knifing off a bridge sounded fantastic), and the recovery was a long and hard road.
I recall being silenced, mocked, ostracised, and vilified for things I couldn’t help. Being slight. Being gay. Wearing glasses to read. An aversion to sports (caused by said eyesight; can’t kick a ball you can’t see properly). What can I say? Kids can be really cruel.
My default response was to try and let it just slide past, to passively ignore it – if you didn’t respond, they got bored and let you be. It wasn’t easy; my natural inclination was to retaliate, but when you’re 15, under five foot, and so skinny you don’t cast a shadow when you turn sideways, self-preservation trips you up.
But the thing is I remember how that made me feel; how painful it was to be excluded, not on the basis of anything I’d done, but for what I was. The worst part was internalising it; one of my biggest fears as a teen was that if they were right and I actually was gay, then what else were they right about when they said those horrible things?
The second place is a little further back. When I was around six or seven, I had the misfortune of nearly faceplanting onto a barbeque hotplate – instead, one of my hands made contact and saved me from something far less pleasant. I can still remember the sound and the smell and the ache. Give me a pen and I will be able to trace exactly where the blisters were on my hand. The burn healed in a month, and I was lucky that there was no severe scarring or loss of dexterity.
I’m all grown up now, and that all is in the past (which is another country), but the memory of the pain persists; but even now I still suppress a shudder when I’m near one of those hotplates. Sometimes the fingers of that hand curl into a fist before I’m aware I’ve done it.
Likewise, I still remember the isolation, how it felt to be belittled and mocked and ridiculed and ignored based on what I was. Isolation and exclusion and silencing based on attributes that are innate; things that weren’t caused by anything I did, and that could never, ever, change.
This pain is like that of the burn; a ghost that can’t hurt me now, but that will be forever etched into my memory.
Now, in the name of “progress” I’m seeing the same thing being inflicted on others; people being shamed and hated and ridiculed not for what they say or do, but for what they are. This is usually tied up in notions of “privilege”, which can be a useful concept when used to encourage people to think about how lucky they have it and how that may affect their views, but is more and more being used as a cudgel to silence people.
Indeed, from my experiences and observations of the past few years, I can even list the kinds of “privilege” used in that way, the personal attributes used to silence people on the grounds of what they are:
- Heterosexual; and
- Cisgendered (your gender identity and your biological sex match).
I have seen them all used in lieu of conversation to shut down a discussion – not on the basis of the merits of an argument, but on the basis that one or more of those personal attributes applies to the participant being silenced. They are employed in varying combinations; a ladder of “privilege” if you will, although the order of the rungs changes.
These four things are innate. Your ethnicity, your sexuality, your gender identity, and your sex; baby, you were born that way.
Occasionally the tactic will be employed against people who are not disabled or if they are not fat, but this is only something I’ve seen a few times or heard second-hand. It is those four innate characteristics that are, in my observations, the go-to cudgels.
More and more I’m seeing them used to silence people, to shut them down, to dismiss their arguments, or deny them the chance to speak. In extreme cases it becomes ostracism and isolation on the basis of those characteristics; even in the most moderate cases it’s done with sneering derision. And it’s done regardless of the merits of the argument itself.
Chillingly, this is not just directed at people who are making the conservative case in an argument or hold conservative beliefs or views. It is directed, as noted above, against Professor Dawkins when he notes the indisputable fact that Islam is not a race. It is directed at those who vary from a hardline progressive stance, like Dr Christina Hoff Sommers. It is directed against artists who use their works to promote causes commonly thought of as progressive. It is directed against politicians who are, frankly, the best hope for addressing the concerns of the silencers. It is directed against anyone who is considered to have committed the sin of saying something about social issues in public (and currently it seems as though anything can count for that) while being at least one of those things; may the Flying Spaghetti Monster help you if you have all four.
This cudgelling is used against such people without regard for their views, their actions, their philosophies, or their arguments. The only thing that matters is what you are.
In the main, I do not think that the individuals being so dismissed are, individually, hated by their detractors (outside of a few big names such as Professor Dawkins). From what I can see, the people dismissed are instead dismissed as being in a group based on having one or more of the four traits. When you are dismissed on the basis of what you are, not who you are or what you’ve done, it’s the act of someone who despises you. This is not merely the “intense dislike” of hate, it is contempt as well, based on what you are.
A contemptuous dismissal, an attempt to ostracise and exclude someone, an utter contempt, on the basis of an innate trait? Why is that familiar?
I remember what it felt like to be on the receiving end of that; now perhaps this makes me a traitor to the Left (pretending for a moment that it’s a single monolithic entity), especially given what I wrote some years ago, but there is no way I am OK with this.
No-one should have that sort of contemptuous exclusion inflicted on them for what they are. And I would hope that those of us who have suffered this in the past would remember what it felt like, and stay our hands before we inflict it on another human being.
I am thankful that I have not turned into one of the people who hated and dismissed me for what I am. Do you want to be like them?
If what I’ve written above doesn’t sway you, then consider this; dismissing, excluding, or otherwise discounting someone simply because they happen to be straight, white, male, or not transgender (or any combination thereof) is attacking a person’s character or personal traits instead of their argument. There is a term for that.
A person’s sex, sexuality, gender identity, or ethnicity and whatever advantages those confer, do not and should not matter to the merits of their argument. Such things are irrelevant. Dismissing that person simply because they have “privilege” on one or more of those grounds is playing the man, not the ball, and is a sure sign that you can’t play the game at the adult level.
If you do this, and make it your default stance, then you have abandoned logic and reason, and there is no need for a rational person to take you seriously.
So don’t be surprised if you are dismissed out of hand by others.
As an aside; conspicuous by its absence from the list of “privileges” is the privilege of economic class.
I have a dark suspicion as to why that is.