Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Why It’s Time To Bring An End To Terms Like ‘White Privilege’, ‘Male Privilege’ & ‘The Patriarchy’


London is caught up in fractious Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations, and social media is awash with people targeting what they call 'white privilege', 'male privilege' and the 'patriarchy'. It's almost impossible to turn on the TV or have an account on social media and to not have encountered some hysterical assertion that if you're white and male you somehow have an advantage to laud over minorities. Just this week, in the midst of BLM taking to the streets in mob-like fashion, I've had 3 white friends message me privately and tell me that right now they are feeling judged for the colour of their skin even though they have always tried to be kind, tolerant and opposed to all forms of racial hatred.

Instead of using terms like 'white privilege', 'male privilege' and the 'patriarchy', here, I think, is a better way to look at this situation. I hate racism as much as the next person, so I hope you'll hear my good intentions when I tell you that I don't think looking at individuals through the lens of the particular group identity you perceive them to be part of (white, black, male, female, straight, gay) over and above their identity as an individual is the best way to treat humans. I don't think we are at our best when we engage in identity politics. In a world of 7.5 billion unique people, the primary consideration of any person has to be at the individual level above all else. Groups of people of any category are a diverse set of individuals far more than they are a group, and people who see the world through the hostile lens of identity politics can't easily love people as individuals, because they see the individuals through the lens of the perceived in-group or out-group, not the group as being comprised of individuals worthy of love and self-determination.

Even if you're right that someone has 'privilege' because they are white or male, or even if it's true that they are part of an ethnic group that historically committed acts that contemporary folk rightly find abhorrent, there is still, I think, a better way to treat them than to lump them into an artificially constructed 'out-group' where their individuality gets diluted in the collective wash. The idea of using the term 'privilege' as a weapon against someone being white or male or part of a patriarchy is actually deluded and reprehensible - it comes right up from the bowels of critical incompetence, and it will turn us into rogues if we are not careful.

Instead of 'privilege', I think using the term 'advantage' is better - it's less emotionally connotative. It is an advantage being born in London, comparatively to Mogadishu. It is a disadvantage being born severely disabled in England comparatively to able-bodied in England. If you are born in Mogadishu and born severely disabled, that's a double disadvantage. But the upshot is, there are actually countless (literally countless) ways to measure advantage in the human species, because everyone perceives the world differently enough for those differences to matter, and similarly enough for the similarities to matter - and there are an infinite number of ways to perceive reality and all its complexity. The differences between women and men are such that both males and females will have advantages over the other - but the intra-differentials between the set of all women, or all men, or all white people, or all black people, or all gay people, or all straight people, or all bisexual people is going to be far greater than any kind of group identity differential. It’s time we saw the cessation of toxic terms like ‘White Privilege’, ‘Male Privilege’ & ‘The Patriarchy’, and I will now take each one in turn, and show why I think it is an unhelpful term.

Why 'male privilege' is an unhelpful term
Humanness is a ravine of interconnected complexity, about which 'privilege' comes in unisexual, multi-dimensional aspects of personhood: everything from intelligence, attractiveness, temperament, health, athleticism, genes, region of birth and many more factors - and those are just the attributes that are not based on the decisions we make. Both males and females have comparative and absolute advantages in each of these categories, and the further differentiations in the diverse and assorted ways to perceive the world only add to the complexity. Furthermore, in terms of the slog against natural forces, males and females have astronomically more similarities than they do differences - and by and large, despite being a highly flawed species, have worked on the same side symbiotically in pair-bonding relationships to look after one another to climb out of the quagmire together into a relatively stable and peaceable co-existence. Men have suffered, women have suffered; women have helped create a better world, and men have helped create a better world. Both are evolutionarily primed to make different decisions, have different priorities, and play different roles in support of the family unit. For most of our 200,000 year history, life has been 'Nasty, brutish and short' for both men and women - disease-ridden, in poverty, in war, in hardship, in laborious working conditions - and we have almost always got through it together; men and women by and large pulling in the same direction.

The concept of 'male privilege' comes from agenda-driven minds that don't really care much about men or women. It's just not a term that an intelligent, balanced person who understands history and science would ever utter. Those who believe in 'male privilege' believe that males have most of the advantages when it comes to social, economic, and political situations or rights - that this advantage is afforded to them solely on the basis of their sex. It's an absurd idea, and factually wrong. It's a philosophically intractable proposition because maleness is a narrow category of determination - far less important than the traits I mentioned based on the individual over and above the group. Males have some advantages, so do females, so do tall people, intelligent people, hard-working people, educated people, good looking people, healthy people, people born in geographically favourable areas - there are just too many factors to this equation for success or advantage to be solely or even primarily about maleness. No group identity is representative of its constituent parts - there is a wide-ranging diversity in every group identity we could list, and therefore no individual in that group is ever going to be wholly representative of the group, because there are too many ways for a group with one shared trait to be different in so many other ways. Where there are instances of unfair discrimination against women or men, we should, of course, do all we can to address them.

Why 'white privilege' is an unhelpful term
A similar thing can be said about 'white privilege' - it may be tempting to say that history has shown a demonstrable advantage of being a white person from a Western nation - and there's no denying that in several important senses that is true. But I don't believe the human race will progress on the basis of love and kindness and empathy while people insist on playing identity politics with people's 'whiteness' and try to make them feel morally ashamed of their ancestral associations. Not only does that rob them of the most important element of their selfhood - their individuality and autonomous agency - it seeks to divide people by trying to make them morally culpable for the terrible things their ancestors of hundreds of years ago did.

The human race is complex, and because there are all sorts of advantages and disadvantages based on countless criteria - intelligence, sex, geography, personality, size, looks, genes, age, and several more - I think humans do each other a grave disservice when they talk of 'white privilege' and try to make white people feel uneasy about their whiteness on the basis that racism exists. Tell the white boy who is currently under 25, lives with his parents, anxious, unemployed, depressed, addicted to porn and in an abject state of inertia that he has white privilege - I'm sure he can feel it really acutely right now. Tell the thousands of white Christians being persecuted in Muslim countries that they enjoy white privilege. The truth is, when any tribalistic force gravitates together, the humans involved have been pretty dreadful to each other - white on white, white on black, black on black and black on white - there have been European atrocities, American atrocities, Mongol atrocities, Ottoman atrocities, Persian atrocities, Arab atrocities, Ancient Egyptian atrocities, the list goes on. The biggest truth here is that, except for certain biological limitations, there are no good or bad qualities that are uniquely attributable to any group identity - be they male, female, black, white, European, African, Asian, or any other - and it is ignoble to try to tar any group with any kind of collective guilt.

It is shameful to pick on people because they have, say, male genitalia (or indeed female genitalia) or white skin (or indeed black skin), and to try to get white people to apologise by renouncing their whiteness, as several videos have shown happening recently. The Black Lives Matter folk that are demanding this are acting in a way that mirrors the racism they are trying to stamp out. Because the reality is, around the globe, every category of person is full of members having a hard time of it somewhere in the world. And even in places like the UK where it seems that a great majority of people have it easy compared to the minority of 'disadvantaged' people, I don't think 'them vs. us' is ever the best way to look at things. I think it's far more accurate (and enlightened) to think of us all as being involved in many struggles that are shared by just about all fellow humans, and realise that we all have our problems and our hardships, however well we seem to be doing on the outside.

As I've said for years, the big impediments to sound reasoning and honest truthseeking in a complex world are over-simplicity, lazy thinking and perverse incentives. To get anywhere in any complex subject, you have to start with the humility to say "I don't understand this as well as I need to", and if you're on really good form, "I don't even know some of the ways that I don't understand this". When you do this, two important things happen. The first is that you begin to act with more humility as you adopt a more circumspect attitude towards 'doing something' - realising that many of your suggestions are contributing more to the problems than the solutions. You get to see that almost all the suggested solutions to the world's problems, and the low-resolution beliefs about high-resolution scenarios, are woefully inadequate to the reality of the situation. And from that level of humility - both humility about how inadequate your understanding about complex reality is and how little you know in the grand scheme of things (epistemic humility), and humility towards others (empathy) - you get to the see world more like it actually is. You get to see that if you really want to understand a situation competently you are going to have to expend a lot of cognitive effort in focusing on a diverse range of considerations

The problem with over-simplistic responses to complex problems is that to the beholder those responses look like they offer a sufficient analysis of the problem and the obvious solution: a young black man tragically loses his life under the knee of a racist cop and there is racist behaviour showing up on social media so we should take to the streets and demand that there is a systematic redress; there is inequality, therefore the rich must be hoarding the lion's share of the wealth conspiratorially against the rest; women earn less than men on average so there must be systematic unfair discrimination against women; some negative things are happening to the climate, therefore what the world needs is the decimation of the market system; there are lots more men in CEO roles than women so we must therefore be living under a patriarchal system; there are a lot of people on low-paid jobs so we need a socialist revolution to topple the greedy bosses at the top; people seem a lot more sensitive to offence themselves, so we should silence people we don't like, rewrite history, retard debate, and censor and retard free expression - the list goes on. 

The trouble is, once you dig deeper into these things, you find layer upon layer of causal complexity, and the deeper you dig, the less information you can compute in one hit, and the greater your margin for error. There are dozens of reasons why black people show up as statistically disadvantaged, there are dozens of reasons why men earn more than women on average, there are dozens of factors to consider when we talk about trade-offs between economic growth and sustainability, there are dozens of reasons why some people are poorer than others. And then if you combine any of those factors and start to engage in multi-factorial analyses, you hit a nexus of complexity, with every single element requiring careful thought and competence-based, time-consuming assimilation of facts and reasoning.

Whenever you think you’re trying to solve one big problem, you’re probably actually dealing with hundreds of other elements sitting under the surface. The very first question you should ask yourself, before you start anything else, is “What the heck makes me think I have the first clue about what I’m doing here?” To construct the framework of a worldview to encapsulate that many complex factors is not just a difficult task that requires lots of effort, it's actually a task that few can manage. So instead, people tend to default to a simplistic heuristic - an ideology, an in-group mentality, a tribal affiliation - to shelter them from the storm of chaos that comes with multivariate analyses, where it's easy to get overwhelmed with how ignorant we are and how much effort it's going to take to get to even a reasonable level of competence on just one of those elements of consideration, let alone many of them. Social justice warriors think that if only they come together as one tribal group - black, female, gay, straight, feminist, socialist, working class, or whatever - that it's the only way we can see change, by teaming up to fight our oppressors. But not only does that seem to be false, it actually seems to be backwards - the real changes for the good almost always happen organically, by focusing more on individuals, on liberty, on kindness, on love, on encouraging people to reach their potential - that's how you get genuine advancement, that's how you get a more realistic equality of opportunity.

For that reason, I'd encourage us to refer to someone's group identity as infrequently as it is possible to do. BLM do the opposite - they make a big thing of skin colour, when the vast majority of people who are the side of progress are simply seeking to love them as individuals for who they are. By wedding themselves to a tribe that increases focus on group identity they are accentuating the division and making a big thing out of the very categorisations that love for individuals seeks to deracinate. Look at the results of taking to the streets - the hostility, the volatility, the shouting through each other - you can see the 'them vs. us' effects with your own eyes every day. 

Here's something important that you might have missed. When people in the quagmire of racism, bigotry and intolerance are fighting for rights, tolerance, respect and opportunity, think about what they are actually fighting for: they are fighting to be treated as an individual worthy of love because they are a unique person of value. They are fighting (rightly) to get that job based on merit, to be able to vote, sit where they like, marry whomever they choose - they are fighting so the group identity part of their identity is given a secondary place behind their talents, personality, character, competence and numerous other qualities as an individual.Of course, BLM folk will say something like. "It's alright for privileged white men to be saying this, but our black causes need to be fought for, and how else but coming together in solidarity and unity are we going to do that?" It's a popular response, but like many popular responses, it neglects not just all the important points we’ve covered thus far, but also perhaps the most important point of all: by perpetuating the desire to categorise themselves according to group identity (however noble they think the cause, or however right about the anti-racism sentiments they clearly are) they are artificially fostering a climate in which they are being asked to be seen through their group identity first, and their individual self second. 

The best way to advance and progress is to view everyone through the lens of their individuality, judge each other according to our beliefs, views, actions and attitudes, relate to each other through our kindness and grace, employ each other through our competencies, and regard each other on our merits, allowing room to give a helping hand to the poor and vulnerable in society whenever it is needed. That is the kind of society Christ teaches us to aspire to. Where there are instances of racism and bigotry, we should, of course, do all we can to combat them.

Why the 'patriarchy' is an unhelpful term
As with ‘male privilege’ and ‘white privilege’, this is why we also need to repudiate the widespread and hasty assumption so many people make that we live in some kind of oppressive patriarchy. As in the above cases, people who peddle the patriarchy-narrative are confused about how complex the world is, how multifaceted and diverse human behaviour is, and how to properly analyse an epistemologically intractable social environment. To cherry pick a few isolated examples of where men have the edge in society, and ignore all the contra-evidence and declare 'patriarchy', is a bit like surveying people in their 40s inside a job centre and claiming that most of the people in their 40s in the UK are unemployed. Most people in their 40s in the UK are not unemployed, but if you cherry pick that sample group from only inside a job centre, it's going to look like they are unemployed. The UK may look like a patriarchy if you only look at the Catholic and Anglican churches, or if you only look at male CEOs, or if you only sample garage mechanics, or if you fall for the bogus 'gender pay gap' canard (see my side bar for articles on the ‘unfair gender pay gap’ myth). But it doesn't look very much like a patriarchy if you only sample primary school teachers, or if you look at the number of male suicides compared to females, or if you look at the ratio of men to women who have died fighting in wars or doing risky jobs. The world can be a far more kind and loving and unifying place when we treat each other as valuable individuals over and above our group identity.

Society as a whole is not accurately represented when seen through cherry-picked data analyses that are sought to corroborate the bogus arguments of people trying to score points with their identity political. Society is much more complex than that, and the reality is, there are many ways in which men have the comparative advantage over women, many ways in which women have the comparative advantage over men, but where in most cases of human living, men and women cooperate together to work, to survive, to love, have friendships, to pay their taxes, to bring up families, to fight against nature's hardships, and to make each other's lives better (either directly or indirectly). The church probably is, in several ways, too patriarchal in its ethos - failing to capitalise on the immense benefits and diverse duality of perspective within the two sexes, as are most religions and institutions that are built on status-driven hierarchies. But to claim the whole of society is an oppressive patriarchy is to be guilty of misrepresenting the reality of how men and women really operate in a relationship symbiosis, in mutually beneficial synergies, and in reciprocal encouragement against the vicissitudes of nature's hardships and challenges.

Final word
I've said all this not to perpetuate further division, but to explain that I think anyone who sees the world narrowly in terms of group identity and seeks to pit one against the other or foster resentment towards other groups is missing the most rewarding element of being human - the sovereignty and worth of the individual as an agent of value. When I think about all the elements that make up my self-identity, I find that I am numerous things all at once: I'm a man, a son, a Christian, a manager, an employee, a writer, a weight trainer, a cousin, a libertarian, a Darwinian, a Humean, a Jungian, an egalitarian, a white person, a tall person, the list goes on. Unless we treat each other as though our individuality, our feelings and our unique personhood take primacy over any shared characteristics we share with others, we are not being fully appreciated for the whole essence of our distinct self, and we can't thrive as well as uniquely created people with a distinct purpose and an exceptional individuality.

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