Male Privilege II

There are some perceptive comments in the thread on Male Privilege I. I hope to return to these in a later post. I still do not know whether all of the comments, or all of my own ideas and examples, address male privilege specifically, or rather, patriarchy, gender discrimination, sexism, mysogyny. Nor is it entirely clear to me when those distinctions do and do not matter.

Years ago, I was discussing the political situation in my academic department with a woman friend. I was very frustrated because departmental politics can be very bizarre, and are often not about getting the job done. My friend said, but Z, do you not secretly enjoy finding ways to get these guys to do what you want them to do?

I was amazed at the question. I wanted to do my job without interference, and I could not imagine wanting to interfere in someone else’s job. I had been complaining to my friend about male condescension. I expected equality. But my friend seemed to have completely internalized a hierarchical structure which she accepted as natural. Men are the bosses, and women are undervalued. Women know this, but find ways to influence the men anyway, for the good of the institution.

Yesterday I was discussing the question of male privilege with a man, who shifted center of the discussion to affirmative action. This is not illegitimate in and of itself, but it is interesting how men tend to shift discussions towards topics on which they are well informed, so that they can feel confident. This enables them to stay at the center of the conversation, and to make their knowledge central in it. Perhaps this is a kind of survival strategy. Perhaps it works to keep in place the blinders men need to keep up their own self-image as central. Perhaps this then enables them to do what they must, in order to keep themselves at the top of the social pyramid.

I notice that many men really do seem to believe they are brighter than women, and that their perceptions are more important than womens’. A conversation I have had many times with one male friend, goes like this: Z: Please do not do [X], because it causes [Y]. MF: I do not intend it to do so. Z: Well, it does, so could you please stop? MF: It should not have this effect, because I do not intend this. Z: Once again, it does have this effect, so would you please stop? MF: If you understand that this effect is not my intention, why can you not just ignore it? Z: Because it is the effect, not your intention, which concerns me. MF: Let me explain once again what my intention is, so that you can better prepare yourself to ignore the effects of my actions.

What fascinates me about the above conversation is not only that my friend tries to keep all of his privileges around [X] (doing what he wants, having me be ‘understanding’). He also tries to engage me in this circular discussion, whose purpose seems to be some form of intellectual dominance. And he really seems to expect that I would consider understanding his intentions more important than the effect of his actions upon me. He expects me to keep him central.

Many of the women professors with whom I have worked, have precisely the attitude towards men, MF has tried to instill in me. I constantly hear these women say of male colleagues who are systematically causing trouble, ‘but his intentions are benign’. Alternatively, they ask, ‘is he doing this consciously, or unconsciously?’ They can spend hours discussing these matters. I do not understand why these women are so shocked when I say that I am far less concerned with intentions than with actions. By trying to live inside their male colleagues’ minds, rather than simply looking at their output, these women are handing out male privilege on the daily. They give these men the special treatment normally reserved for the ill and infirm, the very old, the very young–that is to say, for those not fully able to care for themselves, or not fully able to speak. Men get special consideration: this is male privilege.

And many men are convinced that we ‘need’ their presence to legitimate us as people. This has always been a great mystery to me. There is one in my building who keeps saying, mais comment est-ce possible? comment est-ce possible qu’une femme comme vous, belle, intelligente, bonne professionelle, n’est pas mariée? I think he is wearing rose-colored glasses.

Male privilege works as well as it does, when people do not see it. It is very important to note that men, when they glimpse it, or if they see that they may stand to lose any of it, feel terribly attacked. They are not aware of their privilege when it is there, but they will fight viscerally, tooth and nail to keep it in place, even when (or perhaps, precisely because) they cannot name clearly, what it is they wish to preserve.

Men expect complicity in the maintenance of male privilege. If complicity is not granted, they will attempt to extract it outright. They will turn any intellectual and emotional tool available to this purpose. Some of these tools, although they are presented as neutral and universal, and can be used, by many different people, for a variety of purposes, may have in fact been designed with this violent purpose as one of their available attributes.



~ by Z on August 14, 2006.

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