The complexities of privilege and language
There has always been a bit of a stir about the idea of privilege. People do not like to acknowledge when they have it. Perhaps it’s because then they have to admit that they don’t deserve it anymore than anybody else. Or maybe it’s because then they have to accept that they shouldn’t have as much power as they do over others. It always takes a bit of personal growth to admit you have privilege. It’s like when a parent told you that you should not hit other children. First, you tried to defend yourself and your actions. It’s hard to admit when we’re wrong. But eventually you acknowledged that some behaviours are unacceptable. It’s the same with recognizing privilege.
Privilege is not synonymous with evil. Almost everybody has a form of privilege, whether it’s able-bodied privilege (you have power and privilege over disabled people), heterosexual privilege, white privilege, male privilege, cis* privilege, etc. Anybody who is not part of a marginalized class of people can have privilege.
A marginalized class is a class of people who are marginalized and oppressed on a societal scale. This doesn’t include white people who go to a primarily black school, or straight people at a Gay Pride parade. The societal scale is what makes all the difference. It has noted and observable effects on human psychology.
I am not upset when people tell me I have privilege. What upsets me is the fact that I have it. Not the fact that I have to ACKNOWLEDGE that I have it, but the fact that I have been born with undeserved advantages and power over other people, people who are just as good as me.
I am heterosexual, I am white, I am able-bodied, I am thin, I am middle-class, and I am cissexual and cisgender. Those are the areas where I have privilege. I am female, which is the main area where I am marginalized. I am also Jewish, which is a sticky subject which I tackle here. There are other things like mental health privilege, which is far more personal.
The power of language
This is where language comes in. Language is one of the most powerful tools that humans have. We use it to start wars, to start revolutions, to brainwash people, to fuel imagination, to break and mend hearts. Its psychological effects are also scientifically known. Cyber-bullying has become a recent epidemic, where kids are driven to suicide because of – you guessed it – language. But there are some things that at first may seem subtler than cyber-bullying that also have long-lasting effects. They are due to a lifelong accumulation of slurs, threats, and insults directed at marginalized people.
For example, the use of the term “gay” or “faggot,” to mean stupid or bad, is harmful. It is not harmful to straight people; if somebody called me a faggot, I wouldn’t bat an eye…at least not for myself. But I would be concerned about that person’s probable behaviour around gay people. In every country in the world, non-heterosexual people are treated like second-class citizens (to varying degrees, depending on the country). They are bullied, abused, and tortured even in so-called First World nations. People who choose to be open about their sexuality (or those who have been forcefully “outed”) sometimes get verbal abuse on a daily basis.
It is this accumulation of slurs that causes psychological harm. That is where the damage comes from. It is a socially ingrained belief that feminine men are disgusting or weak, that all gay men are feminine, that all gay women are either ugly and can’t get a man, or having sex with each other directly for men’s pleasure. They should stay in the closet; nobody should have to see that shit; they are unnatural, obscene, an abomination – that is what they are told every day by people, their governments, and the media. If heterosexuals can do anything to lessen that blow, then we should. We have no right to laugh off their objections; to silence their voices; or even to silence those who speak up for them.
The same goes with women. If I object to sexist language, do not mock me or shrug it off. Listen. Women are not listened to as much as men, and do not speak as much[pdf] (this goes against the pop-psych crap we’re fed about how women speak more than men and are more verbal; that simply isn’t true). In fact, even if we are made aware of our gender, our cognitive functions are decreased. This is a concept known as stereotype threat. It is a problem for people of colour as well, and probably all marginalized groups. So if, during a conversation, I become quieter and less able to think just because you casually mention my being female, imagine what telling rape jokes or calling me a “stupid bitch” would do. Imagine what seeing women objectified all over my environment would do.
I do not understand why people to this day still fail to see that, and cry “freedom of speech” every time somebody tells them that their language is unacceptable. Freedom of speech is a legal term. It does not protect you from criticism. It does not protect you from social pressures to behave decently.
Oppressive language within marginalized groups
I do not believe it is acceptable to police marginalized people’s language about themselves. This is not the same as saying I don’t think it can be problematic.
For example, if a gay person (or anybody not on the heterosexual end of the spectrm) makes a “faggot” joke, other gay people can deal with it. It is not my place, as a heterosexual who has rarely ever had to personally deal with homophobia, to tell that person what words they can use regarding his own sexuality.
It is not a double-standard to say that privileged people cannot use oppressive language but marginalized people can use and reclaim it. They are two entirely different things. Marginalized people need to feel safe to let off steam, joke about and reclaim oppressive language. They do not need their discussions to be nit-picked and berated for every time they use a word that the poor, helpless privileged folk aren’t allowed to use.
And it is not oppressive to tell, or even pressure people into using non-oppressive language. The n-word is finally being accepted by a majority as being too horrible for a white person to use. Now let’s treat other words the same way.
*The asterisk after trans includes both transsexual and transgender people. Cis* refers to people who are both cissexual and cisgender – the opposite of trans*.
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~ by owlcat on 20 March, 2012.