Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Marcotte Criticizes the Center for Inquiry

I know I never agree with Amanda Marcotte, but, so far as I can tell, she is mistaken again here.

I read the transcript of Ronald Lindsay's offending address, and I don't see anything wrong with it. Contra Marcotte, I certainly find nothing condescending about it.

But feminism of a certain fairly common type does not tolerate criticism, so I can't say that the dust-up surprises me.

The offending 'graphs:

This brings me to the concept of privilege, a concept much in use these days. Let me emphasize at the outset that I think it’s a concept that has some validity and utility; it’s also a concept that can be misused, misused as a way to try to silence critics. In what way does it have validity? I think there is sufficient evidence to indicate that there are socially embedded advantages that men have over women, in a very general sense. These advantages manifest in various ways, such as the persistent pay gap between men and women. Also, I’m not a believer in a priori arguments, but I will say that given the thousands of years that women were subordinated to men, it would be absolutely amazing if in the space of several decades all the social advantages that men had were promptly and completely eradicated. Legislation can be very effective for securing rights, but changing deeply engrained patterns of behavior can take some time.

That said, I am concerned the concept of privilege may be misapplied in some instances. First, some people think it has dispositive explanatory power in all situations, so, if for example, in a particular situation there are fewer women than men in a given managerial position, and intentional discrimination is ruled out, well, then privilege must be at work. But that’s not true; there may be other explanations. The concept of privilege can do some explanatory work at a general level, but in particular, individualized situations, other factors may be more significant. To bring this point home let’s consider an example of another broad generalization which is unquestionably true, namely that people with college degrees earn more over their lifetime than those who have only high school diplomas. As I said, as a general matter, this is unquestionably true as statistics have shown this to be the case. Nonetheless in any particular case, when comparing two individuals, one with a high school degree and one with a college degree, the generalization may not hold.
But it’s the second misapplication of the concept of privilege that troubles me most. I’m talking about the situation where the concept of privilege is used to try to silence others, as a justification for saying, “shut up and listen.” Shut up, because you’re a man and you cannot possibly know what it’s like to experience x, y, and z, and anything you say is bound to be mistaken in some way, but, of course, you’re too blinded by your privilege even to realize that.
This approach doesn’t work.  It certainly doesn’t work for me. It’s the approach that the dogmatist who wants to silence critics has always taken because it beats having to engage someone in a reasoned argument. It’s the approach that’s been taken by many religions. It’s the approach taken by ideologies such as Marxism. You pull your dogma off the shelf, take out the relevant category or classification, fit it snugly over the person you want to categorize, dismiss, and silence and ... poof, you’re done. End of discussion. You’re a heretic spreading the lies of Satan, and anything you say is wrong. You’re a member of the bourgeoisie, defending your ownership of the means of production, and everything you say is just a lie to justify your power. You’re a man; you have nothing to contribute to a discussion of how to achieve equality for women.
Now don’t get me wrong. I think the concept of privilege is useful; in fact it is too useful to have it ossified and turned into a dogma. 
 Lindsay is wrong here: the neveau lefty/Tumbleresque concept of privilege is deeply confused. It's a mess. As we've discussed before, the problems described as problems of privilege aren't problems of privilege at all. They are problems of discrimination. The old, standard, common-sense, liberal concept is better than the neveau lefty concept, yet again. The problem is not, for example, that cops treat white people with more respect than they deserve; the problem is that they often treat non-whites with less respect than they deserve. A problem of unearned privilege can be solved by taking away the privilege. But that's not true of the problems that the trendy left has begun describing as problems of privilege. We do not solve, say, voter discrimination problems by making it harder for whites to vote...

Anyway, though Lindsay is pretty clearly wrong on that point, he still doesn't live up to Marcottian standards of wrongness. It seems that he was wrong to point out that accusations of privilege are commonly used to dogmatically squash dissent. Which they are. Marcotte, however, didn't like his examples. They abound on the interwebs, though...they really aren't hard to find... Marcotte admits that "privilege" gets used that way, but denies that it is so used by "anyone with...real power in the world." Egad. Where to begin?...

Oh, hell, better to end it here. I've wasted too much time on this already...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marcotte does have a legitimate beef. Lindsay is running together use of the term "privileged" by the Tumblr crowd, who basically use it as a synonym for "shut up", and by anti-liberal, new left types who use it to presuppose their view of rights. He then attributes this confused view to "feminists" at large, a category into which his whole audience would presumably fall. That is rude, and it is condescending. The whole thing reads like Lindsey has a bad experience with the chat board sophomores and is taking revenge upon the people in the room.

This is doubly a shame, since an audience of mostly liberal feminists might have welcomed a discussion of the danger to women's rights posed by the proliferation of "privilege" talk, for the reasons that have been discussed here.

By the way, I ran across a rare example of correct use of "privileged" the other day (http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/04/22/elimination_communication_or_ec_parenting_lets_babies_go_diaperless.html) in an article about "Elimination Communication". Letting your baby shit on the street without living in dread of cholera is real example of a first world privilege, since the only reason it is possible is that only a few people do it and sanitation is generally available. Insofar as the distribution of this privileged is unfair (fortunately non-idiots are not clamoring for it) the solution would be for no one to be allowed to let their baby shit on the street. Hurray for correct concept application!

12:40 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I don't see this, A.

He actually seems to be talking about a relatively general way in which appeals to so-called "privilege" are made. I don't see him singling out feminists.

It seems to me that the form of his discussion is more like this:

Feminists have come to talk about privilege, and I'm on board with that. But the idea is sometimes misused in the following ways...

Now, all sorts of lefty types--feminists very much included--*are* throwing "privilege" around in the ways that Lindsay says they are.

But, instead of acknowledging that, Marcotte responds, in essence:

Oh, he couldn't come up with examples of *prominent* feminists doing this off the top of his head, so he's condescending.

The use of this crackpot term is very much in the water, and I think Lindsay is right to point it out--though I'm more worried about what he seems to think of as legitimate uses of the concept than with what he identifies as illegitimate ones...

And as for that crazy-ass baby thing... Jeez, I'm not even sure that provides a case for the legitimate application of the term. That's just what's known as "being an idiot and an asshole." Letting their children shit in the park in NYC probably contributes exactly as much to water quality there as it would in Kabul...

11:53 AM  

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