Rethinking Privilege

A new study has come out of the University of New Hampshire showing that about 70% of New Hampshire men have been physically assaulted, and about 1 in 20 have been sexually assaulted. The results are probably approximately representative of the general U.S. population.

As an anti-violence educator, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find ways to explain patriarchy, male privilege, and violent masculinity to guys who haven’t been exposed to a critique of those things… ever. Of course there are a host of challenges that come with trying to take on such a Quixotic task, and this study underscores one of them.

Patriarchy, as it is actually lived by men, sucks.

Patriarchy, as lived, doesn’t feel like privilege. It feels mostly like getting beat up, and always fighting for status—always trying to live up to some insane, ever-shifting masculine ideal. Men don’t feel like they are in a better position than women. In truth, no one in a hierarchical society, not even at the top, feels like they’ve “won,” or like they’re the in-crowd. Pretty much everyone feels like they’re struggling.

And, as this study shows, everyone in a culture of violent masculinity suffers, because violent men and boys are violent toward both women and men. The violence takes different forms for different groups, and women/gender non-conforming people face specific and often more deeply emotionally destructive violence, but no one really escapes it.

So how can we honestly articulate the realities of “privilege” that isn’t privilege? Sure, in some ways men do a bit better than women and others within the closed system of patriarchy, but overall they are being harmed, and overall they (rightly) don’t feel like life is a bowl of cherries. If we tell men (especially men oppressed on the basis of other aspects of their identity) that they have “privilege,” their usual response will be to look at their legitimately difficult lives and tell us we’re full of it.

I’ve been trying to find a more specific word for privilege–one that will address the fact that within the context of a kyriarchical system, people gain measurable benefits like resources, personal safety, etc. simply by being part of a group favored by kyriarchy, but that will also recognize the fact that if we consider the possibility of a world without oppression, kyriarchy actually offers no real benefit. To anyone. It is a system of oppression, and it oppresses everyone.

I think that clearer words regarding privilege will be helpful in discussions of oppression, but I don’t think that’s all we need. In order to really reach those benefiting from various “privileges” of oppression and enlist them to help in movements against oppression, we need a way of speaking about privilege that addresses the real lived (and shitty) experience of those in positions of power, without falling into the obvious traps of minimizing the reality of privilege or centering discussion of oppression on the experience of dominant groups.

So I’ll get right on that. Should be done by Tuesday.

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