Perspective and Privilege

Let’s put the subject of this post up front and center:

We're 1% somewhere...

A less crass example:

If you are able to read this, stop complaining!

This post is about how to discredit protests against unjust power and privilege by exploiting the troubles of people even worse off than the protestors. One could say that this is the archetypical defense of privilege.

Now, let’s put aside factual nitpicking about whether any of the OWS protestors are in the “global 1%”1 and acknowledge the kernel of truth that makes these kinds of sentiments so noxious: the wealth disparity between the First and Third Worlds is huge, the plight of the poor in the most destitute parts of the world is horrifying, and it’s worth keeping that in mind in any movement for positive change. Now, why this is so noxious: it’s very unlikely that those producing images like this would support policies to address the plight of the world’s poorest people, much less likely than the protestors they deride. Remember that caring about the poor in the Third World used to be the kind of “bleeding heart liberal guilt” conservatives scoffed at. Now that people in the U.S. are forming a serious movement against the transformation of our country into a dysfunctional oligarchy, there’s a whole lot of concern about hunger in Africa from unlikely corners.2

So, in the clearest terms: images like this are not made out of any actual sense of concern for anyone’s well-being. They are made to allow their target audience to feel secure in ignoring social and economic injustice. They are about exploiting the worst off to dismiss the concerns of those who, while better off, still have legitimate grievances. Generally speaking, concern over the negative effects of wealth disparity in the U.S. does not preclude concern about global inequality.

It’s worth considering this as a general pattern. Let’s take the example of Richard Dawkins and elevator propositions. This was a small-scale internet drama-bomb in the atheist community revolving around one Rebecca Watson’s complaints about sexism within that community. Check here for a summary and then examine Dawkins’ words:

Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.


From a comment on Pharyngula.

Now, is there any actual relationship between accusations of inappropriate sexual propositions in the U.S. and female genital mutilation? Does anyone actually have to choose between concern over one or the other? Was Watson making the her issue out to be anywhere near as serious as the plight of women in Muslim fundamentalist nations?

Of course not. The function of Dawkins’ comment is to shut down discussion about whether there is a sexism problem in the atheist community or whether the behavior Watson complained about is inappropriate. It’s the most ugly defense of privilege possible, as if women facing sexism in countries enforcing strict fundamentalist controls over them are an appropriate tool to make a point.

For an example that I think will hit the point home, consider a comment on this Canadian news story about the shutdown of Occupy Vancouver:

If you went to the American Occupy Wall Street movements told them..

“ok you win… we will give you guys if you just stop occupying
1) Universal Health Care
2) A progressive tax system in which the rich will pay 29% of their income to FEDERAL taxes ALONE.
3) A very regulated banking system that is the envy of the world
4) Take back all those bank bail outs
5) Only bail out is to auto-industry to protect union workers, which has been paid back
6) Plenty of social services…
7) A government who thinks of other solutions besides spending their way out of trouble/

Basically will give you what the Canadians have.”

Then the American Occupy movement would declare victory and go home with a smile on their face!!

The Canadian occupy are just making a mockery of real American problems.

Just as one man’s trash is another’s treasure, one man’s pampered elite is another’s poor unfortunate souls.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention one of my favorite examples of this kind of dismissal: Outrage at comparing Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring.

It’s hard to imagine a comparison more trite than that made between the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York. The former involves millions in the Muslim world revolting against dictators and autocrats. For decades, police states have squashed dissent and violated human rights.

The latter is a small protest against consumer capitalism. The Wall Street protesters don’t like executive salaries, industrial agriculture, drug patents and personal debt. They’re annoyed with corporate influence on politics and society.

The Occupy Wall Street protest has spread to 100 American cities. It seems no press report on it is complete without reference to events in the Middle East.

On ABC’s Q&A last Monday, journalist Mona Eltahawy said the American movement was directly inspired by the Arab revolts. That’s not just trite; it’s insulting.

From an editorial by Chris Berg.

Another example:

Last week, I bumped into one of my students on her way to the “Occupy America” protest near Wall Street. I told her I was glad she was participating in the most exciting political development I’d seen in years. “You’re right,” she replied cheerily. “It’s like our own Arab Spring.”

No, it isn’t. Such analogies demean demonstrators in the Middle East, who have risked torture and death. And they discount America’s rich tradition of free speech, which has been on vibrant display since the Occupy America movement began.

Calling it that insults the martyrs of the Middle East and gives too much credit to the American demonstrators. Most of all, it papers over the key distinction between democracy and autocracy: one allows citizens to criticize their leaders, and the other doesn’t.

From an editorial by Jonathan Zimmerman.

Why do I like these examples so much? Because there is serious cause for doubt that the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring feel the need for anyone to defend them from these “insults.”

To all those across the world currently occupying parks, squares and other spaces, your comrades in Cairo are watching you in solidarity. Having received so much advice from you about transitioning to democracy, we thought it’s our turn to pass on some advice.

Indeed, we are now in many ways involved in the same struggle. What most pundits call “the Arab spring” has its roots in the demonstrations, riots, strikes and occupations taking place all around the world, its foundations lie in years-long struggles by people and popular movements. The moment that we find ourselves in is nothing new, as we in Egypt and others have been fighting against systems of repression, disenfranchisement and the unchecked ravages of global capitalism (yes, we said it, capitalism): a system that has made a world that is dangerous and cruel to its inhabitants. As the interests of government increasingly cater to the interests and comforts of private, transnational capital, our cities and homes have become progressively more abstract and violent places, subject to the casual ravages of the next economic development or urban renewal scheme.

Nor is this an isolated case of solidarity between the Arab Spring movement and American movements for economic and social justice:

Egypt supports Wisconsin workers, one world, one pain.

1. The U.S. and Canada combined make up 5% of the global population and possess between 25% and 35% of global wealth depending on how it is measured. “The 1%” in the U.S. possess around 35% of national wealth. White male protestors of college age in America might plausibly be in the “global 1%” if you broke down these numbers by specific demographics.
2. This is a sort of “strange bedfellows” situation that puts American conservatives in league with modernday Maoists.