A few months ago on Facebook, a friend of mine wrote of how one friend’s perspective “as a white male in a fraternity” seemed to guide his opinion about sexual assault policies at Brown. A couple days later, I saw one writer’s opinion explained away by another’s accusation that he was simply “bummed that his straightness, whiteness and dudeness got implicated in something negative.” I see this sort of posturing fairly often. In perennially sensitive debates about topics like race, sex, feminism or sexual assault, one participant, usually of a certain privileged status, brings up an opinion that goes against the grain, qualifies the question or challenges the conventional wisdom. And in response, he is often dismissed with some reference to his white, male or fill-in-the-blank privilege.
I do not like this trend. I find it to be a particularly unsavory, awful kind of identity politics, and I think it’s counterproductive.
I recently read a 1969 essay by feminist activist Carol Hanisch that I found helpful in deciphering this trend. The phrase “The Personal is Political” is both the title and the focus of her piece. In it, Hanisch writes that “personal problems are political problems,” and she encourages women and members of the women’s movement to recognize that the day-to-day injustices of their lives — such as men’s unwillingness to hire or date them unless they “look pretty and giggle” or perceptions of them as “sensitive, emotional … (or) dumb” — are personal injustices that proceed from larger systems of power and control. It is worth organizing and acting against these systems of oppression, the sources of those original misdeeds.
To invert “The Personal is Political” is to say that the political — anything that comments on larger power relations — is personal. This is where the Facebook posts come in. From this inverse angle, anything from a rape joke to an online opinion can be deemed a result of the speaker’s own privilege. So, when a friend of mine expresses an opinion about Brown’s sexual assault policies, it is safe to say, if one follows this line of reasoning, that his political speech is formed by his personal experience within a larger system. It is fair to chalk up his opinion to his privileged identity “as a white male in a fraternity.” It is not ridiculous to see others as shaped by social processes and to see their opinions as evidence of that influence. It is not ridiculous — but it is detrimental.
When we discount people’s opinions by saying they are shaped by privilege, we don’t actually win the argument. The opinions they expound, regardless of how correct or incorrect they are, still stand. If a white guy posting on Facebook presents a rape myth, we should not expect to prove him wrong by saying he is posting such a thing because of his white male privilege. We should expect to prove him wrong when we prove the myth wrong. Ideas don’t leave the public sphere because they get kicked out. They leave because they are incorrect.
Likewise, this practice discourages people who might otherwise be involved supporters. When we tell others their speech results from their privileged circumstances, we send two messages. On one level is the implicit idea that one cannot break free from those circumstances. Inevitably, we say, opinions will always be shaped by identity. On another level, we say the opinion in question, and accordingly the speaker of that opinion, is not welcome. Shaped by a privilege he cannot seem to escape, the speaker is not a part of this movement, of this concept or of this conversation.
Lastly, by dismissing an opinion because of the unchosen identity of the person who gives that opinion, we do something that is antithetical to the spirit of just about every social liberation movement. These movements — whether a feminist movement, civil rights movement or gay liberation movement — each gain great strength from their abilities to speak to persons as distinct individuals rather than indistinguishable representatives of groups. The freedom to be seen as a unique being, filled with agency and originality, released from the burden of gender roles, racial stereotypes or heteronormativity, is a freedom for which each one of these movements strives. When we discard someone else’s opinion because of his privileged identity, we ignore this ideal. We see people as automatons, built by and trapped within a repressive system, rather than individuals. There is a serious moral failing within that judgement. It is not fair, and it is not reflective of the countless differences and nuances that reside within each one of us, whether we are influenced by privilege or by oppression.
Most of the time that we see this bit of identity politics, it surrounds a difficult debate. But when we call out others’ privileges and discount opinions in the process, we tend to make those debates even more difficult. So the next time a socially privileged person comments on a sensitive topic, think before you attribute his opinion to that which he cannot change.
Kevin Carty ’15 is a political science concentrator from Washington, D.C. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed @Politicarty.