Tuesday, April 15, 2008


I read the responses to the recent Feministe Feedback question on Being a Feminist Boyfriend with a lot of interest, and I was surprised that Amanda at Pandagon took issue with the first comment, which suggested that "deference is a privileged person's best friend." I had actually thought that a really succinct way of putting my thoughts on the issue.

It turns out I was just mistaken on the definition of "deference." There are a couple different ones, but they all seem to hinge on being "courteous and respectful" in "submission," or "yielding," to another. Sounds a lot like chivalry, and I agree, totally inappropriate.

But I think there is a related attitude, on the part of anyone in a discussion with someone over whom they enjoy privilege, that it is important to have. And that's to never assume that "awareness" of the issue at hand can ever substitute for that issue as seen by someone who must experience it first-hand.

The flawed behavior the attitude addresses can manifest in two ways, dismissal and self-righteousness. The dismissive version is basically, "look, I know all about feminism, and you're overreacting." And the self-righteous version is some variation on "I know all about feminism and you're being a bad feminist." In either case, the privileged person is claiming that their theoretical knowledge of oppression should trump another's actual experience of that oppression.

(I'm sticking with gender and feminism here since that's the discussion that brought it up, but the same dynamic obviously applies to any sort of societal oppression.)

By dint of the very privilege that's at issue, the privileged person's voice is going to have more weight behind it, and so it is even more vital that the privileged person takes other voices seriously. Which is what I would have wanted to call "deference," since one "defers" to the relevant experience of another. But it's not really "deference" because you're not doing it out of "respect and courtesy," but because they are in a position where they are more likely to know what the fuck they are talking about.

It's like when you're trying to squeeze into a tight parking space and your friend hops out to help direct you in from the sidewalk. You don't follow their instructions out of "respect" or "courtesy," but because they are positioned such that their perspective is more likely correct. No matter how sure you are that you're about to scrape the car on your left, if they assure you that you have more room, then you trust them. Unless you have reason to think they're trying to make you crunch your fender, you have to acknowledge that they're in the best place to judge the relevant distances.

As someone who has read a little in feminism, and who tends to didacticism in all things (but who has lived not one second as a woman under patriarchy), my tendency is to err on the "self-righteous" side (though I have certainly had my share of dismissive moments as well). But obviously, whatever little use I may be lies in being able to speak about oppression to other privileged people, from a shared position of privilege. Discussion with others should not primarily be about making myself feel good about my "awareness"; rather, it is a good time to listen, and should be valued as the learning opportunity it is.

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