Privilege is Contextual

I was recently listening to The Ezra Klein Show episode featuring Jonathan Haidt:

Throughout the conversation is the idea that modern outrage culture is heavily centered on liberal and elite college campuses, and often discusses questions of privilege and sociocultural aggressions.

This provoked a thought from me: no one at elite liberal universities is oppressed. The students who are able to gain admittance to the top universities in the US are not victims; they are amongst the most elite and privileged individuals in the country. They occupy spots that millions of Americans would sacrifice immensely to attain. These are people who will go on to be corporate leaders, politicians, academics, media personalities. These are people who will occupy top slots in American sociocultural and socioeconomic hierarchies.

And yet many of these students come from low income backgrounds. Many of them are from historically marginalized groups: racial, sexual, or religious minorities, and indeed women, all of whom are now struggling (with my full support)  in many domains of life for real and lasting recognition and treatment as equals of Straight White (Post-)Christian Men. These are groups that struggle with problems such as lower average incomes, or legal exclusions, or dis-preference for jobs or promotions, or sociocultural pigeonholes; these are peoples who are in many respects victims, and oppressed.

So how do we square these two different conceptions? Are these groups oppressed or are they not? Are these not contradictions?

The resolution of this dilemma is the idea that Privilege is Contextual. A general sociocultural privilege that one may enjoy as a member of a broad group does not mean that in the workplace or classroom that it is impossible to be oppressed; likewise, a general state of sociocultural oppression does not prevent one from carrying out one’s own oppression against someone who is in other contexts “higher in the hierarchy”. For a more in-depth discussion of this, see my post “On Privilege“.

It is important to note that just because someone is underprivileged in one context does not mean that they are always and everywhere free to “punch up” at relatively privileged groups, because in some contexts these groups are not “up”, and the noble fight to “punch up” the oppressors comes to create a type of oppression.

To illustrate this point, I recently responded to a post on SlateStarCodex.

If you find it too long, the summary is this (and ample evidence of these claims are provided in the article): feminism is generally good and necessary, but some leading self-described feminists are accused of being, but deny that they can be, oppressive in ways that cause pain and trauma. Whenever the pained and traumatized groups, in this case some nerds, find the courage to genuinely respond, they are told in various ways that their pain and trauma is not real and is just privilege because they are not the victims of structural oppression. This makes the pain and trauma worse. The author then gives various arguments and evidence of why structural oppression of groups like nerds is very real, and how many feminists seem to actively encourage the furthering of the oppression.

This is not representative of most of my lived experience of growing up a (not by choice) nerd. Nor is it representative of the feminist views I hold nor most of the feminists I have known. But it is true to a few experiences I have had and people I have known on both sides of this issue. The capstone (with which I agree) of the article is this:

“I see a vision here of everybody, nerdy men, nerdy women, feminists, the media, whoever – cooperating to solve our mutual problems and treat each other with respect. Of course I am on board with this vision. As Scott Aaronson would put it, I am 97% on board. What keeps me from being 100% on board right now is the feeling that the other side still doesn’t get it.”

A friend responded the following:

If the “genuine response” from nerds is the extreme misogyny I described above, then forget the rest of this response because all that’s needed is this: the argument provided here is incel-sympathizing misogyny.

I responded as follows: I think an interpretation that “the ‘genuine response’ from nerds is the extreme misogyny” is a misreading of the whole argument. I’m not claiming that, nor, I think, is the author, and at no point does misogyny or the aggressively misogynistic “incelism” become a justifiable response. As I see it, the crux of the argument is this: if some influential feminist writers and mainstream newssources are actively discounting the stories of suffering in some of the (albeit unrepresentative) “nerds” as privileged whining, and actively contributing to the stereotypes of what these men want and what their “real” thought processes are, at what point *does* that become a kind of oppression? To generalize it, at what point can voices who are or were oppressed and underprivileged in some dimensions become oppressive in another dimension?

Further, the accusation that a rational, well-documented criticism of the extremism of a group is somehow “misogyny” is self-defeating; what movement that cannot tolerate rational criticism can thrive? (For discussion on the relationship between “explaining” and “excusing”, see my post here).

And most importantly, does whether or not it’s narrowly-defined “oppression” determine whether or not it’s harmful and needs to stop?

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