Privilege Blindness and the Just World Theory

Written by August 24, 2011 2:23 pm 60 comments

Summary:

This article examines the link between privilege blindness – when people are unaware or unmindful of privilege – and the psychological phenomenon known as the Just World Theory, the perception that the world is essentially just and people deserve what they get. The article examines some well-intentioned but fallacious arguments that people make from positions of privilege, and posits that such arguments are based on a false premise of a “just world”.

 

1. What is Privilege?

“Check your privilege.”
“Your privilege is showing.”
You might have seen phrases like these being used in articles and debates about social justice. What does “privilege” mean exactly?

Privilege is an unearned advantage – an advantage that one has due to the circumstances of one’s birth, or by being a member of a certain social category. People who don’t have the right circumstances of birth, or such a group membership, lack the privileges conferred on those who do.

Here are some examples of the various types of privilege:

Class privilege or economic privilege: If you’re reading this, you’re a member of a select group of Indians – the 10% who can read and write English, and the 5% who have access to the internet. We like to think that our economic status is solely due to talent and hard work, but the truth is that for most of us, self-perpetuating circumstances of birth have given us a heavy advantage – having parents who are educated and employed, for example, or being of the “right” caste. For the 40% of Indians living below the poverty line, social mobility is a distant dream.

Caste privilege: This one needs little explanation. “Backward” caste is determined simply by being born, and with it comes horrific institutionalised oppression – from physical enslavement and torture to social exclusion and deprivation. Caste privilege in India typically intersects with class privilege – a pilot survey done in advance of the Below Poverty Line survey showed that Scheduled Castes and Tribes constitute half of India’s poor, deprived households.

Male privilege: We live in a patriarchal society, and while the status of women is better today than it was just a few generations ago, women are still very much a marginalised and oppressed group – while men are not. There is abundant evidence for this, from violence against women, to the corporate gender gap, to lack of legal rights and justice. Being born a man in today’s world immediately confers privilege – more access to education and employment, more human rights, not having to worry much about sexual harassment and sexual violence, and much more.

There are many more types of privilege – White privilege in Europe and America, for example. Heterosexual privilege. Cisgender privilege. Able-bodied privilege. Even religious privilege – the privilege that comes from belonging to a majority religion (or even any religion at all).  In addition to intersecting with other types of privilege, privilege can also be situational and relative – low-privilege groups might have certain privileges in specific situations, or in comparison to other even lesser-privileged groups.

So are people with privilege bad people? Are they protective of this privilege, and malicious towards people who lack it? Not necessarily. The nature of privilege is insidious, such that quite often people who have it don’t realise they have it. It takes an active effort to learn to recognise one’s own privilege – the default position is that of privilege blindness, or unexamined privilege. There are of course people who appear malicious, who actively seek to deny others the privileges they enjoy — not so much privilege blind as denying that they have privilege in the first place. This article will not focus on them. It will focus instead on largely well-meaning people who are simply unaware of their privilege – and what might be the reasons for this phenomenon. And this brings us to the Just World Theory.

2. The Just World Theory

The Just World Theory was first proposed by American social psychologists Melvin J. Lerner and Carolyn Simmons in 1966. In 1980, Lerner wrote the pioneering book on the subject: “The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion”. According to this theory, we are psychologically inclined to think that the world is fair, and that people deserve their happiness and their suffering:

People have a strong desire or need to believe that the world is an orderly, predictable, and just place, where people get what they deserve. Such a belief plays an important function in our lives since in order to plan our lives or achieve our goals we need to assume that our actions will have predictable consequences. Moreover, when we encounter evidence suggesting that the world is not just, we quickly act to restore justice by helping the victim or we persuade ourselves that no injustice has occurred. We either lend assistance or we decide that the rape victim must have asked for it, the homeless person is simply lazy, and the fallen star must be an adulterer. [1]

The belief in a just world is thought to play an important positive psychological function – it allows us to invest in long-term goals. This is a human instinct – during childhood development, our minds shift from a focus on instant gratification to long-term strategies. I.e., we progress from the “pleasure principle” to the “reality principle” [2]. We plan and act in ways such that our future lives might be better. In order for us to do this, we need to believe that our lives will indeed be happier if we act accordingly – that our goodness will bring reward, and that others’ wickedness will bring them punishment and suffering. Therefore, when we see people who are happy, as well as people who are suffering or wronged against, we think that they must have done something to deserve it.

There is experimental evidence to show that people have a fundamental belief in a just world. For example, Lerner and his colleagues did a study where

subjects watched a fellow student react with apparent pain to a series of supposed electric shocks. In one condition subjects had an opportunity to compensate the victim by voting to reassign her to a reward condition in which she would receive money rather than shocks.  Virtually all subjects availed themselves of this opportunity, and they were told that the victim would be reassigned. In this condition, then, subjects were able to restore “justice” to the situation.  In another condition, however, subjects could not reward the victim and were informed that the victim would continue to suffer. Subjects who knew that the victim would be compensated rated her more favourably than those who knew that her suffering was to continue. The ratings provided in the latter condition indicated considerable rejection of the victim, suggesting that she was seen as somehow deserving her fate. [2]

 

While this cognitive bias has the positive effect of giving us more confidence in our futures, it has a negative consequence in how we perceive injustice. The tendency to blame the victim is one of the most pernicious consequences of the belief in a just world. (Not only do people blame victims for their fate, but victims blame themselves too – “I must have done something wrong”.)

There is another field in social psychology called System Justification Theory, which could also explain such behaviours. This theory postulates that “people are motivated to bolster, defend, and justify the status quo – that is, the prevailing social, economic, and political arrangements. The system justification goal can be both conscious and nonconscious, vary according to situational and dispositional factors, and manifest itself in different forms, such as stereotyping, attribution, and ideology.” This article however focuses on the “justice motive” rather than system justification motives.

A belief in a just world can give rise – often unconsciously – to fallacious and unjust arguments from people with privilege. The next section shows how to detect privilege-blind arguments by presenting two case studies.

EU Gender Pay Gap

3. Case Studies

Privilege-blind arguments can be identified by examining the argument to see if a belief in a just world is present as a hidden or unstated premise. You will seldom see this premise called out explicitly – it needs to be discerned; one must “fill in the blanks” and then show that the argument is invalid because this fundamental premise is false. Two case studies of such arguments are presented below: the first an example of male privilege, the second an example of caste and class privilege.

Case Study #1: The “Elevator” Controversy

If you’re part of the freethought/atheist community, you will remember the Rebecca Watson-Richard Dawkins “Elevator” controversy. It began on a post by PZ Meyers of Pharyngula, about a video by Rebecca Watson where she relayed an incident where a man propositioned her in an elevator, and how it made her feel uncomfortable. In the comment thread that followed, Richard Dawkins wrote the following comment:

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.

Richard then followed up with another comment on a subsequent post:

Many people seem to think it obvious that my post was wrong and I should apologise. Very few people have bothered to explain exactly why. The nearest approach I have heard goes something like this.

I sarcastically compared Rebecca’s plight with that of women in Muslim countries or families dominated by Muslim men. Somebody made the worthwhile point (reiterated here by PZ) that it is no defence of something slightly bad to point to something worse. We should fight all bad things, the slightly bad as well as the very bad. Fair enough. But my point is that the ‘slightly bad thing’ suffered by Rebecca was not even slightly bad, it was zero bad. A man asked her back to his room for coffee. She said no. End of story.

But not everybody sees it as end of story. OK, let’s ask why not? The main reason seems to be that an elevator is a confined space from which there is no escape. This point has been made again and again in this thread, and the other one.

No escape? I am now really puzzled. Here’s how you escape from an elevator. You press any one of the buttons conveniently provided. The elevator will obligingly stop at a floor, the door will open and you will no longer be in a confined space but in a well-lit corridor in a crowded hotel in the centre of Dublin.

No, I obviously don’t get it. I will gladly apologise if somebody will calmly and politely, without using the word fuck in every sentence, explain to me what it is that I am not getting.

Let’s break down Richard’s core argument into its premises and conclusion:

Premise #1: The man didn’t lay a finger on Rebecca. He propositioned her; she declined.

Premise #2: Women in Islamic countries suffer far worse atrocities than women in Europe and America.

Premise #3: Rebecca invites this behaviour by referring to herself as a “chick”.

Premise #4 (unstated): Women like Rebecca have no reason to be uncomfortable in situations like this.

Conclusion: Rebecca is over-reacting and making a fuss over nothing.

Is this argument valid? Premise #1 is true. Premise #2 is true as well (in general). But when we look at the third and fourth premises, using an awareness of male privilege and the Just World Theory, the argument falls apart. Premise #3 is false. Women are harassed by men regardless of what they call themselves or what they wear. To insinuate that she brought it on herself is a rather obvious piece of victim blaming (belief in a just world). Premise #4 is false as well. Women — even women in the first world — are in fact routinely sexually harassed and assaulted in situations just like this one. Not to mention the routine sexual harassment and objectification they suffer from men every day in public spaces, due to which even encounters which seem innocuous on the surface get charged with a feeling of threat. Richard genuinely seems to believe that women are not subjected to such treatment by men – or that they are, but are not harmed by it. This suggests that a belief in a just world is behind his unexamined male privilege.

Let’s do a little thought experiment, and imagine that we really did live in a just world, where there was no such thing as misogyny, sexism, and sexual harassment of women. In such a world, Premise #4 would be true. Unfortunately, we do not live in such a world.

Case Study #2: Objections to the Right to Education (RTE) Act

The Right to Education Act is an act passed in August 2009 that provides for free and compulsory education to all children in India of the age of six to fourteen years. When the act came into force in April 2010, India became one of 135 countries having such a constitutional provision. It also aligned Indian education policy with The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in Article 26 states that “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”

The act is of crucial importance in a country like ours, where

Of the nearly 200 million children in the 6 to 14 age group, more than half do not complete eight years of elementary education, as never enrolled or dropouts. Of those who do complete eight years of schooling, the achievement levels of a large percentage, in language and mathematics, is unacceptably low. It is no wonder that a majority of the excluded and non-achievers come from the most deprived sections of society – dalits, OBCs, adivasis, girls, Muslims and poor – precisely the people who are supposed to be empowered through education.[3]

One provision of the bill is a 25% reservation in private schools for underprivileged children, with the state and central governments sharing the financial burden. Private schools however have objected to the provision. One objection is that the compensation by the government is not sufficient. Some schools took a different approach however. In July 2010, the Deccan Herald broke a story where Bethany High School in Bangalore sent out a circular to the parents of its students, warning them of the dire consequences of the reservation:

In a circular to parents, the schools said: “Once this Act is enforced, a child could beat up your child, smoke on the campus, misbehave with a girl or a teacher and the school will have to watch helplessly.”

Schools have asked parents to give suggestions on the Act and how they feel its provisions would affect their children.

“Parents need to know with whom their children will be studying in future. Incidents mentioned in the circular about misbehaviour of the students have occurred in the past. But after the Act is in place, even if such incidents occur, we will not be in a position to take any action,” Akash Ryall, principal of Bethany High School, said.

 

Mohan Manghnani, president of ICSE schools in Karnataka and chairman of New Horizon Educational Institution, justified the stand of the schools, saying, “Free and compulsory education is a very good initiative from the government but not at the cost of children studying in private schools.”[4]

Others have made similar arguments:

Soon after, Ms. Singh visited the principal, Ms. Sharma. “If they want to do it to improve the country, fine,” Ms. Singh recalls saying. “But they should segregate the poor kids until they get up to par.”

Many parents have similar complaints. “I don’t blame them,” Ms. Sharma says. “There’s no denying the reality that their kids’ learning will be slowed.” [5]

Let’s repeat the exercise of breaking down the arguments above into their premises and conclusion:

Premise #1: 25% reservation will compromise discipline.

Premise #2: It will compromise quality (school results).

Premise #3: It will slow down other students.

Premise #4: Meritorious students will miss out.

Premise #5 (unstated): Lower castes and classes have equal access to education as higher castes and classes, as well as an equal chance of success.

Conclusion: There should be no 25% reservation.

Premises #1-4 are true to an extent – it should be no surprise if underprivileged children have more discipline and attention problems, and are more likely to be slower learners. And having a reservation will indeed deny some privileged children admission to the school, even though they meet its academic standard. (Note however that a moral argument could be made that the thing causing premises 1-3 is the very discrimination the act is trying to counter, and therefore a greater common good is being served by having a reservation. I.e., the conclusion might not follow even from premises 1-3 alone.)

Premise #5 is false however, and is indicative of a belief in a just world. Let’s perform a similar thought experiment as before, and imagine we lived in an India where there was no class and caste-based discrimination – where the underprivileged were welcomed with open arms into our educational institutions, offices and households, and where poverty did not drag them back and prevent them from succeeding. In such an India, Premise #5 would be true. Alas, India is not like that at all. The parents and teachers making these arguments have an unconscious belief in a just world – perhaps in order to believe in a happy future for their own children – which leads them to make such arguments.

In concluding, here are a few more commonly heard arguments which are based on a false, unstated premise of a just world:

  • “Africans are lazy.”
  • “Autorickshaw drivers fleece their passengers because they are thugs.”
  • “Women are bad drivers.”

The analysis of these arguments is left as an exercise for the reader.

References

[1] The Just World Theory – Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez

 

[2] Who Believes in a Just World? Zick Rubin and Letitia Annd Peplau

[3] What are the different strategies and approaches to realize Right to Education (RTE) in India? Shantanu Gupta

[4] Private schools dig in their elitism heels

[5] Class Struggle: India’s Experiment in Schooling Tests Rich and Poor

The Justice Motive in Everyday Life – Melvin J. Lerner, Michael Ross, Dale T. Miller http://books.google.com/books?id=6lJN8B2g7-UC&lpg=PP3&ots=ZriTvDllW_&dq=melvin%20lerner20%22a%20pioneer%20in%20the%20psychological%20study%20of%20justice%22&pg=PA3#v=onepage&q&f=false

Belief in a Just World and Commitment to Long-Term Deserved Outcomes – Carolyn L. Hafer, Laurent Begue, Becky L. Choma, Julie L. Dempsey http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2006-04129-004

The Justice Motive: Where Social Psychologists Found It, How they Lost It, and Why They May Not Find It Again – Melvin J. Lerner http://www.columbia.edu/~lbh3/Lerner_03.pdf

Observer’s reaction to the “innocent victim”: Compassion or rejection? Melvin J. Lerner; Carolyn H. Simmons http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/4/2/203/

A Decade of System Justification Theory: Accumulated Evidence of Conscious and Unconscious Bolstering of the Status Quo -  John T. Jost, Mahzarin R. Banaji, Brian A. Nosek http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9221.2004.00402.x/abstract

The psychology of system justification and the palliative function of ideology – John Jost, Orsolya Hunyady http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10463280240000046

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This post was written by:

- who has written 9 posts on Nirmukta.

Sunil D'Monte is a freethinker, feminist and secular humanist.

60 Comments

  • Thanks for a very well-written article. Till a while back, I wasn’t even aware of my caste privilege. The shift in perspective I’ve had since then is amazing.

  • Thanks Sunil for a very well composed article. The descriptions about different kind of widely seen privileges and the use cases are brilliantly explained.

  • Sunil D'Monte

    Here’s a bit of irony. While reviewing the article, one of the admins pointed out that even in writing an article about privilege, I’d unwittingly exercised some able-bodied privilege myself:

    ‘This is from a personal experience. The ease with which we use the term “blindness” and associate it with anything. This was at a rationalist meeting in Orissa, where someone from the “Andhashraddha nirmoolan samiti” kept using the words, “blind superstition, blind faith” like most rationalists/atheists often do. A person with visual impairment interposed and asked, “why do you keep insulting blind people? What is it that you imply when you keep using blind faith and blind superstition? I am an atheist and I am blind. And I do not have superstitions. It seems however that people with sight, do.”‘

    We decided to stick with the original title and point out my blunder here in the comments, to show how insidious unexamined privilege is. By the way, my argument for not using the word “blindness” in such contexts would be similar to Peter Singer’s argument for philanthropy (http://nirmukta.net/Thread-Philanthropy-and-Atheism-Freethinking?pid=3885#pid3885):

    P1: Using this word can cause a degree of harm.
    P2: I can refrain from using the word, without harming myself to the same degree.
    C: The moral thing to do is to not use the word.

    • That is insanely over-analytical. Ever heard of the term blind justice?

      I’d assert that he argument you present in defense is MORE privileged.

      Consider P1. By what “privilege” do you determine that the use of a word can cause harm? By judging that the blind will feel offended?

      Here’s something to consider: The blind are not reading your article, so concluding that they are harmed by a colloquial idiom used to indicate indifference to bias is presumptuous.

      Some may say that is privileged to assume that the blind are offended by “blind superstition” being considered as a pejorative.

      • “Here’s something to consider: The blind are not reading your article, so concluding that they are harmed by a colloquial idiom used to indicate indifference to bias is presumptuous.”

        The point is not just the use of the word in this article, but the popular use of blindness as a metaphor to signify a specific form of ignorance.

        “Some may say that is privileged to assume that the blind are offended by “blind superstition” being considered as a pejorative.”

        Firstly, the example Sunil provided is a real one that happened to someone we know. That is, we first came to think of this BECAUSE a blind person pointed it out to us. So, it certainly wasn’t presumptuous. Secondly, in this case it is those who are with sight who are privileged, because they shape the cultural narrative, popularizing such phrases as ‘blind belief’ to refer to belief without evidence (for example) or words such as ‘retarded’ to refer to someone who makes a mistake (for example), much more than those without sight or those who are mentally disabled.

        I also find this level of self-analysis disturbing, and even prohibitive of thought at a certain level. I have and still do use language that reflects my privilege, and my every day decisions are undoubtedly laced with privilege. But I still find such articles extremely valid and absolutely necessary. As Sunil makes clear, it is not having privilege that makes one a bad person, it is refusing to acknowledge that privilege that does.

        • Consider this: one blind person finds the phrase “blind justice” offensive.

          Do we eliminate it from our vocabulary because it has caused harm and following the argument to P2 and reaching C, we find that it is immoral?

          If I adopt the definition of privilege that is being suggested, I’d be significantly more immoral than I’m today.

          (Even as I wonder whether such is possible :-))

          Another example: consider someone who has been brought up in a religious household, rather sheltered from the skeptic world, taught to respect religion.

          You find him seriously at a disadvantage in the real world. Do you tell him that religion is a superstition? I suppose you have to, if your intent is to be moral and help him, you are privileged, he is not, and you are almost obligated to help the poor chap.

          What, if he objects to characterizing it as such, and technically he’d be right to do so, since you have the privilege (per your definition) of being well-educated, and he not?

          Do you stop because the phrase harms him (his psyche at least), or do you presumptuously dismiss that fleeting thought and conclude “it is really for his good, he’ll figure it out”?

          Allow me to explore the other possibility. You do tell him, but you sugarcoat it so that he is not offended by the thought. That clears the bar of your argument since you have not hurt him with your privilege, and therefore have not been immoral.

          But then you are guilty of being less than honest, which at least to some is immoral. How dare you presume what he should know and what he should not, and what pace? That is how the Catholic Church controlled the dark ages for, well, ages.

          Which is why I submit that “privilege” is being assigned far too negative and narrow a connotation to the point of making “unearned privilege” almost meaningless.

          Just a thought.

          • “Do we eliminate it from our vocabulary because it has caused harm and following the argument to P2 and reaching C, we find that it is immoral?”

            The first step is acknowledging the privilege. What you choose to do once you have identified a clear case of social privilege and its consequences is another discussion.

            You go on to present other cases (I do not want to go into them, but let’s assume for sake of argument that they are true) where it is more difficult to sort out the ethical issues based on the arguments made here. This is a standard appeal to the slippery slope, invoking cases where privilege and its expression are less clear or even less important, to avoid discussing the valid cases presented here. Male privilege exists and can be acknowledged. White privilege exists and can be acknowledged. In these cases privilege is a very powerful way of assessing social bias.

            The slippery slope fallacy is a particularly hard edged form of ‘whataboutery’ when used to derail ethical reasoning. Pretty much ALL ethical statements and theories can be derailed by applying such logic.

          • I am not arguing the slippery slope fallacy. I am simply stating that privilege somehow got conflated with ‘bad privilege’ automatically. I am saying that not all water in the Ganges is bad. At the source it is rather potable, and we need to be careful distinguishing that water.

            You are responding with either

            1. As long as we acknowledge that water can be undrinkable we are OK, or

            2. Potable water is no defense of polluted water.

            Neither of those changes what I said. Privilege when unearned is not justified, when earned, is.

            Religious privilege is unearned, the privilege to lead a movement with your tireless efforts, is.

          • //Privilege when unearned is not justified, when earned, is.//

            Unaccountable exercise of even legitimately earned privilege is not justified. The author of the article set the terms of reference very clear at the outset by limiting his treatment to ‘unearned advantage’. However, since you insist, let us stay with earned advantages for a second. Such earning is not one-shot or irrevocable and subject to withdrawal. This is especially true of privilege earned in a rationalist enterprise, and getting to keep the same, entails being subject to more exacting standards and not less.

          • “I am not arguing the slippery slope fallacy. I am simply stating that privilege somehow got conflated with ‘bad privilege’ automatically.”

            As the author makes clear, and I have stated in a previous comment, having privilege does not make one a bad person. It is refusing to recognize that privilege and its effects that does.

            I do not understand therefore what you mean by “bad privilege”.

            “Privilege when unearned is not justified, when earned, is.”

            The inferential/factual mistake contained in this statement was discussed a couple of days ago on a post on facebook, and I was hesitant to bring it up here. But I now have to. This is a copy paste of my own words:

            ///
            A complete account of the cognitive biases that we are subject to would necessarily involve a discussion on causality and extending that fundamental materialist perspective to ourselves. Such a discussion would ultimately come to rest on the ethical consequences of naturalism, challenging the idea that the ‘earned’ and the ‘unearned’ are causally distinct black and white opposites when it comes to the influence that the ego has in them, involving a discussion on the ethical implications of the lack of contra-causal free-will. http://www.naturalism.org/ethical_implications.htm
            That is a different level of discussion, however, and one that is a lot harder to stay with without resorting to slippery slopes that we can slide down on when the going gets tough.
            ///

          • Besides leading one to dispense with such ideas as justifying or not justifying privilege, awareness of the consequences of a purely materialistic view of the self, in conjunction with a little empathy, can only help us be more considerate in viewing our fellow human beings. Do most of us fail to live up to the standards that we hold ourselves to, despite awareness of such things as these? Sure. That is not the point. I am comfortable with not thinking of myself as having reached a point of perfection in moral development. I would like to think of myself as growing morally, being a more considerate person than our cave dwelling ancestors, given as it were that I have access to a lot more knowledge about things such as sentience, free-will and the capacity for suffering of our fellow humans. But surely in comparison to a future human society that has access to a lot more information than we do, it is extremely likely that I am a primitive being with a lot to learn. This exercise about evaluating privilege is one of those things that I find helps me grow morally. When moral growth is predicated upon reason rather than superstition, it is rather unfortunate when the instinct to justify moral stagnancy wins out.

          • The offensive part which quite evidently has slipped out of ‘vision’ is the conflation of blindness with stupidity. It is this interchangeability of terms that the person had objected to.

            I was present there, and his words were something to the effect of “I am an atheist and I am blind. And I do not have superstitions. It seems however that people with sight, do.” in response to our persistence in using “blind” as an adjective to qualify superstition (which in the way, we rationalists/ atheists/ skeptics use the word, means stupidity).

            As atheists who claim a higher level of critical thinking, we must examine the existence of our own social prejudices and biases.
            This particular form of social prejudice is called ableism – a world view that conflates physical disabilities with being somehow less than human.

            Also, since we claim to be more intelligent, can we not at the very least exercise some of that purported intelligence in coming up with better ways of interacting with our own allies who have clearly argued their case? Instead of hero-worship aka //Decrying people within their own movement in what is at best flimsy evidence, esp the leader who has shown us the way, in this fashion leads to what? //

            May I also point you towards, a brilliant clip by Stewart Lee on “political correctness gone mad” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jGAOCVwLrXo and to keep this particular excerpt in mind, “The problem is 84% of the people, apparently, of the public think that ‘political correctness’ has gone mad. Now, I don’t know if it has. People still get killed, for being of the wrong colour or wrong sexuality or what not. What is ‘political correctness’? It is an often clumsy negotiation towards a kind of formally inclusive language. It has all sorts of problems but it is better than what we had before.”

      • Satish Chandra

        The blind are not reading your article, so concluding that they are harmed by a colloquial idiom used to indicate indifference to bias is presumptuous.

        I’m not so sure of that. There are softwares for blind people that can read what is displayed on the screen. In the web design world, a good site design is one that, among other things, includes accessibility features.

        • OK, do you see any blind who have used these ‘softwares’ complain?

          • The question is whether we must give them occasion to, especially when we can help it.

          • That is your question. Mine is still unanswered. You made a claim that because of ‘softwares’ available, blind people read this article.

            Fine, did you see anyone complain about ‘blind justice’? It is a simple question.

            What’s next? If someone is called color-blind because he or she cannot distinguish between most of the primary colors, we end up offending two groups – the ones who cannot distinguish between brown and green, and the blind ones?

            Seriously, in the absence of at least a token complaint, you do not find it presumptuous to believe offense?

          • Did you just ask ‘who is complaining?’? For one, we are. You may wish to ‘let well alone’ when it comes to such phrases, but there may well be others who find cliches tiresome or find aesthetically distasteful the connotations of the cliche and in general may wish to keep their utterances devoid of any inadvertent insensitivity. Authors of posts like these are free to hold themselves up to standards you may find morbidly exacting, and the fastidiousness of the author about this stylistic choice is the author’s prerogative. Besides, as the Stewart Lee clip in this comment illustrates, these are more than matters of stylistic choice.

          • Well, then all that is needed is for one person to complain against anything, and conversation shuts down, right?

            Here, let me demonstrate. I complain against your privilege to insist that “For one, we are [complaining]” and then modifying it to “but there may well be others who find cliches tiresome or find aesthetically distasteful”

            Either it matters that the others find it distasteful, or it matters only if they are right.

            Which is it?

            I remind you again that I have complained against your privilege of using “we are” to make yourself an appointed representative of those who are not complaining.

            Now what?

          • Don’t you find these repeated complaints about ‘conversations shutting down’ somewhat misplaced, when this very comment-trail is proof that the conversation is ongoing…and interminable (though not altogether edifying now)?

            There was never any claim to speak for all objectors, just an acknowledgment that there are objections out there. That an objection is admissible only if it is ‘right’ in your views, is a view that it is inimical to free exchange in the marketplace of ideas.

          • “Here, let me demonstrate. I complain against your privilege to insist that…”

            How has the conversation been shut down by your complaint, as you claim to demonstrate? On the contrary, it is just beginning. It is refusing to have the conversation that is the problem. It is refusing to acknowledge privilege, and the tendency to attack all attempts to discuss it, that are barriers to conversation on the subject.

            Since the subject has come up, what is the privilege in insisting something? As it turns out, the privilege, in your example, is not so much the act of insisting something, but rather possessing the ability to insist something. That is, privilege is not the action itself, but a condition that relates to the causes of that action.

            “Either it matters that the others find it distasteful, or it matters only if they are right.
            Which is it?”

            This is a false dichotomy on multiple levels. The conversation is about the ethics of unexamined privilege. Whether one finds insensitivity caused by refusal to examine one’s privilege distasteful or not, is central to the question.
            a) Being right or wrong here directly relates to the question of whether privilege exists or not.
            b) Determining what matters involves normative preference, conferring moral value.
            The two are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, in this context they are inclusive.

          • “How has the conversation been shut down by your complaint, as you claim to demonstrate?”

            By your continuing to imply that my complaint is both valid and invalid.

            Look, either my complaint is genuine at which point you should cease to object to it, and agree that you have abused your privilege, or it is not, in which case you are right in dismissing it. (In case you are wondering, I advocate the latter)

            If the former, then my point that “privilege” is being mis-characterized should stand demonstrated — anyone simply complaining about it causes it to be true, and the conversation ends since we find the truth. If the latter, then, well, my point is shown, and the conversation ends.

            My definition of privilege comes from the dictionary.

            http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/privilege

            My point is UNEARNED privilege, not just privilege is an ill, and you folks are polluting privilege to mean unearned privilege, automatically.

            Is that too hard to accept?

            “This is a false dichotomy on multiple levels.”

            Explain, please. I am saying that something is either wrong just because it is distasteful (and not because it is wrong or right) or that it is wrong because it ISN’T right?

          • You quoted me and said:
            ///
            “How has the conversation been shut down by your complaint, as you claim to demonstrate?”
            By your continuing to imply that my complaint is both valid and invalid.
            ///

            Let’s see what the context of my statement was. You initially said:

            ///
            Well, then all that is needed is for one person to complain against anything, and conversation shuts down, right?
            Here, let me demonstrate. I complain against your privilege to insist that….”
            ///

            So your initial accusation was that “complaints” about privilege were being used to shut down conversation. This is patently false, since what Sunil and those of us in agreement with the point the article makes are actually calling for is a willingness to acknowledge that privilege exists, and to pay attention to its expression in society. What is being shut down is the impetus to ignore privilege and brush it under the rug, not the conversation on privilege itself.

            But now you are not claiming that the conversation is being shut off by the act of your “complaining” about my being privileged, but that it is being shut off because I supposedly think your “complaint” is both valid and invalid. This is nonsense. What you are doing here is resorting to diversionary red-herrings, and moving the goal posts.

            In any case, I have neither implied that your “complaint” is valid nor that it is invalid in terms of accepting or rejecting the idea that privilege deserves consideration when dealing with social groups. What I implied is that your “complaint” is beside the point in regards to the question at hand. Your “complaint” referred to a form of privilege that is clearly already implied, both in the article as well as in our comments. If you carefully read the article and many of the comments by myself and others here, you would see that we are not unaware of our privilege. What you are doing is not only refusing to acknowledge privilege, but also refusing to read.

            ///
            Look, either my complaint is genuine at which point you should cease to object to it, and agree that you have abused your privilege, or it is not, in which case you are right in dismissing it.
            ///

            Again, this is a false dichotomy, caused by your misunderstanding of what the argument is, and your adamant refusal to read what has been written multiple times already.
            No one has argued that having privilege is inherently a bad thing (this point has been made multiple times in the comments here, and you are simply refusing to acknowledge that it has). What the article and many of the comments here call for is a willingness to acknowledge privilege and its social effects.

            To use a clear example, having the ability to comment here in English is a privilege, as the article makes clear. But commenting here doesn’t automatically become an “abuse of privilege” as you falsely interpret “complaints” about privilege (BTW, we are using your language about this being “complaining”- what it really is is a call for introspection) as implying. Abuse of privilege starts with refusing to recognize that the ability to comment here is a privileged position. This is humanistic moral development founded on reason and facts. Some of us think developing such humanistic values is important. Sure, we are privileged to have the time and resources that allow us to think about such things, but recognition of that privilege is not a bad thing, as you seem to think. Such knowledge is a stepping stone to bettering ourselves and those around us.

            1. We know very well that we are privileged. Your “complaint” (which you obviously don’t really agree with) is genuine in that limited view, but adds nothing new to the actual conversation.
            2. Knowledge of privilege is good. Having privilege and expressing it is not inherently an “abuse” of privilege, it is refusing to acknowledge privilege that is bad.
            Therefore your argument is a false dichotomy. This is the second time I have presented my explanation, since your comment above is essentially a repetition of the same false dichotomy (based on misunderstanding the argument about privilege) that you presented in your first comment.

            ///
            If the former, then my point that “privilege” is being mis-characterized should stand demonstrated — anyone simply complaining about it causes it to be true, and the conversation ends since we find the truth. If the latter, then, well, my point is shown, and the conversation ends.
            ///

            Third time you present your false dichotomy, and based on the same misunderstanding of the argument. Furthermore there is another falsehood embedded here. Simply “complaining” about privilege doesn’t “cause it to be true” (seriously, what’s with you and “complaining”?). No one has made that argument here, so that is a straw man fallacy. If a rational conversation can be had, without opponents jumping from one topic to the other to avoid discussing the details of a particular claim about privilege, then clear evidence needs to be presented in order to confirm that claims of privilege are true. Assertions have been made, but instead of examining them in particular, the idea of recognizing privilege is itself being opposed using straw men.

            ///
            My point is UNEARNED privilege, not just privilege is an ill, and you folks are polluting privilege to mean unearned privilege, automatically.
            Is that too hard to accept?
            ///

            Is it too hard to read the article and the previous comments to it, before throwing around accusations?
            Firstly, Sunil’s article was about unearned privilege. Right in the definition he states “Privilege is an unearned advantage – an advantage that one has due to the circumstances of one’s birth, or by being a member of a certain social category.”
            Secondly, if you had carefully read my previous comments (some of which were responses to you!) you’d have seen this:
            “A complete account of the cognitive biases that we are subject to would necessarily involve a discussion on causality and extending that fundamental materialist perspective to ourselves. Such a discussion would ultimately come to rest on the ethical consequences of naturalism, challenging the idea that the ‘earned’ and the ‘unearned’ are causally distinct black and white opposites when it comes to the influence that the ego has in them, involving a discussion on the ethical implications of the lack of contra-causal free-will. http://www.naturalism.org/ethical_implications.htm
That is a different level of discussion, however, and one that is a lot harder to stay with without resorting to slippery slopes that we can slide down on when the going gets tough.”
            You’d also have seen this, which would have given you more thought before making your accusations:
            “Besides leading one to dispense with such ideas as justifying or not justifying privilege, awareness of the consequences of a purely materialistic view of the self, in conjunction with a little empathy, can only help us be more considerate in viewing our fellow human beings. Do most of us fail to live up to the standards that we hold ourselves to, despite awareness of such things as these? Sure. That is not the point. I am comfortable with not thinking of myself as having reached a point of perfection in moral development. I would like to think of myself as growing morally, being a more considerate person than our cave dwelling ancestors, given as it were that I have access to a lot more knowledge about things such as sentience, free-will and the capacity for suffering of our fellow humans. But surely in comparison to a future human society that has access to a lot more information than we do, it is extremely likely that I am a primitive being with a lot to learn. This exercise about evaluating privilege is one of those things that I find helps me grow morally. When moral growth is predicated upon reason rather than superstition, it is rather unfortunate when the instinct to justify moral stagnancy wins out.”

            ///
            “This is a false dichotomy on multiple levels.”
            Explain, please. I am saying that something is either wrong just because it is distasteful (and not because it is wrong or right) or that it is wrong because it ISN’T right?
            ///

            You have consistently refused to read the comments and replies of those you are responding to here. Not only did I present an explanation for my statement that yours is a false dichotomy (which you have conveniently omitted here), but you have made that same false dichotomy again here in multiple forms. Here is my explanation in the context from the previous comment, the part that you omitted and are now accusing me of not providing:

            “This is a false dichotomy on multiple levels. The conversation is about the ethics of unexamined privilege. Whether one finds insensitivity caused by refusal to examine one’s privilege distasteful or not, is central to the question.
a) Being right or wrong here directly relates to the question of whether privilege exists or not.
b) Determining what matters involves normative preference, conferring moral value.
The two are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, in this context they are inclusive.”

            Please stop wasting our time here if you are not interested in reading our comments. It takes time and effort to respond to your repetitive and redundant comments. I am not privileged in having enough of either.

  • First article that I find myself disagreeing with here.

    1. Privilege is not always an unearned advantage. I cut the notion some slack till you started with economic privilege or the ten percenters of people that speak English. Some have the unearned economic privilege perhaps, the ones to who won the womb lottery, simply inherited wealth and then held on to it. And not all English speakers are in that mold either. Some actually worked hard to earn it. I think you would have been better off had you been careful to distinguish unearned privilege (like religion enjoys) from earned privilege (like Mr. Narendra Nayak enjoys) for his work in combating superstition.

    2. You botched up Elevatorgate a bit. The woman in question *does* call herself skepchick, and Dawkins’ commentary was not targeted at her nom de plume. Dawkins was wrong to trivialize the angst and fear Rebecca felt, but it is not unusual to dismiss a lesser slight to focus on a larger one. It does not make it right, but it also does not make it irreparably wrong.

    Example: After a natural calamity, people in a city complain to their local government officials that their water supply has been irregular, and that they have not been getting water for 3 hours a day. The official chides them for it saying that the poor in the suburbs are lucky that they get water for 3 hours a week, and they need to let the officials handle that crisis first and not be so selfish. The point being that there is someone worse, and your problem is not all that bad when you put it in perspective. Of course, it is not that official’s business to evaluate the relative states of two groups of people, but it is hardly a gruesome “privilege” abuse.

    So while it is reasonable to call Dawkins on it, the argument you make is rather one-sided. Premise 3 and 4 are simply asserted without evidence.

    • The primary purpose of this article was to bring into focus the consequences of asserted privilege in terms of (i)distorting judgment regarding diversity requirements and fairness requirements in the public square and (ii) sometimes in an indirect way, abetting abuse or supplying alibis for the same. The origins of privilege may well be multifarious and not lend themselves to neat generalization, but the article was less about the origins of privilege than the exercise of privilege.

      Some forms of exercising privilege would be unacceptable even if the said privilege is ‘earned’ (A very laughably hypothetical example: Arbitrary no-reasons-given veto powers in publication decisions to editors of rationalist blogs who have earned credibility in the rationalist movement). Also some forms of exercising privilege maybe acceptable even if the privilege is ‘unearned’(eg. The most strong-bodied rower in a storm-tossed boat crew claiming a larger share of the dwindling supplies, on grounds that his full fitness is necessary so that the entire crew has the best chance of survival).

      Therefore belabouring the distinctions between ‘earned’ and ‘unearned’ aspects of existing privilege is somewhat of a distraction in this discussion whose main intent is to address privilege-induced errors in judgment and unacceptable behaviors.

    • Sunil D'Monte

      “1. Privilege is not always an unearned advantage [...]”

      Well there are exceptions, but the fact is that literacy and being on the internet are very much class signifiers in India. That was what I was trying to communicate there. With regards to earned privilege – things we earn and take credit for – while it’s not that straight-forward (as Michael Sandel shows in his eighth “Justice” lecture), I agree I should have made mention of it.

      “2. You botched up Elevatorgate a bit [...]”

      Nowhere do I say it’s “irreparably wrong” – I’ve made it quite clear that he’s simply unaware of his male privilege. Yes there will be situations where it’s not so clear. The “elevator” case was pretty clear however – he was wrong to diminish her point, as you yourself agree.

      W.r. to premises 3 and 4 being asserted without evidence. I based premise 3 on his inserting the remark ‘she calls herself Skep”chick”‘ into his argument. It sounds like he’s insinuating that she’s inviting these advances by calling herself a “chick”, which is victim blaming – it is quite common. He does have plausible deniability however, maybe he meant it only as an insult or snide remark – so it’s possible I’m wrong. As for premise 4, I based it on his comment “But my point is that the ’slightly bad thing’ suffered by Rebecca was not even slightly bad, it was zero bad.”. It is quite clear.

      If you’d like to discuss this further, are you okay with me creating a thread for it on the nirmukta.net forums — it’s easier to have discussions there.

      • But you did assert Premises 3 and 4 as if they were certainities, and gave the impression that no other premises were possible. They are just your simplistic guesses. I am pretty sure that some truly sexist people could have those premises. But whether those were the premises at work here is highly suspect. This is a subjective issue, and to actually figure out RD’s premises, one needs plenty of experience living and experiencing culture/subcultures of the West that RD lives in OR studying those. you cant just base it off of a couple of sentences with much confidence.

        Re: Premise 3, the usage of skep”chick” can also mean that: Hey, you have already accepted to live in and embrace a sex-positive (sub)culture, and when a proposition comes by that is
        not uncommon in such a culture (as revealed by plenty of people..Western Europe is way ahead. If all this had happened in India, then its a different issue..of course), crying foul to the extent (as done by PZ and co’s amplication of the issue) is just hypocrisy.

        Re: Premise 4, again no indication that its RDs premise. After all he clearly said in the other comment that:
        If she felt his behaviour was creepy, that was her privilege, just as it was the Catholics’ privilege to feel offended and hurt when PZ nailed the cracker
        Of course she can have her reasons to be offended.
        A parallel to how religious people are offended when atheists do plain-speaking was done beautifully by Paula Kirby here. The whole writeup is worth the read, but I quote just one portion: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/07/08/dublin-panel-women-atheist-activists/#comment-116920
        And the second is that I see a parallel here with one of the arguments we often have with the religious. Many of the religious don’t want to abandon belief in God because they find the thought of having to stand on their own two feet too daunting: they are afraid of having to take responsibility for themselves. And generally speaking, we atheists might have some sympathy with the fear, but we don’t accept it as a good reason for giving in to it: ‘Tough’, we say: ‘That’s just the way it is’. And that’s sort of what I’m saying here too. All of us have to take responsibility for ourselves, make things happen for ourselves, learn from our mistakes, brush up our skills, and stop waiting for other people to make things easy for us.

        Just because thousands of people at that shakespeare’s sisters blog felt that they had to change their lives, and effectively have a victimization complex doesnt mean they are in the right and others are blind to their own privilege. The larger issue of gender feminism vs equity feminism has been dragging on for well over a decade led by Christina Sommers (amongst others I guess).

        • Sunil D'Monte

          Let me repeat what I said earlier. It’s possible I’m wrong on no. 3. There is evidence for no. 4. It is not a simplistic guess, it is a reasonable conclusion drawn from RD’s words – drawn not just by me, but by people who have the experience you demand. RD is further wrong in saying she was “offended”. It is not hurt feelings that are at stake here – it is personal safety. As for your last comment about women who “felt” they had to change their lives and have a “victimization complex”, I have nothing to say other than I find it contemptible and disgusting.

          • Doesnt surprise me that you find it that way. You are not the first self-righteous neo-puritan we have encountered in this episode. As someone aptly said recently
            There is something so inherently pious and religious in morbidly dwelling on the perceived moral shortcomings of others.
            It is a rather unfortunate habit being picked up more and more by those I describe as the New, New Atheists – the unwashed masses that have ridden into town on the coattails of the New Atheist vanguard and have the newfound bravado of the herd, and consequent shamelessness in declaring their existence to the world. The unfortunate downside, as with any kind of populism, is that the bad usually equals or exceeds the good.

            You go your way, we go ours.

          • Sunil D'Monte

            Hilarious, and pathetic.

          • Three quick questions:

            1. How is this exercise a ‘morbid dwelling on the shortcomings of others when the tone of this article (and especially the comment withdrawing the title ‘privilege blindness’) is also adequately self-critical?

            2. How is this a kind of populism especially when it still remains a minority position with the majority either unconvinced or overtly hostile, as can be seen from the blowback here?

            3. Don’t dramatic rhetorical flourishes like “You go your way, we go ours” sound incongruous in what is a pluralistic enterprise? Who is we and who is you

          • Arvind,
            1 and 2)
            You will notice that I am quoting something that refers to the whole elevator gate episode, as played out on the internet. No need to rehash the whole thing here. It is a kind of populism (within the movement, not society at large) coz its based on ‘hundreds of letters of personal tales’ rather than considered analysis. The author’s quick resort to ‘disgust and contempt’ is a dwelling on the moral shortcoming of the others who disagree with him. Hence apt. ‘self-critical’ is hardly the term to be used for someone who insists that Premise4 is reasonable enough, inspite of the nagging counter-evidence. Its kinda like ‘I have this ideology, I will go ahead with it even in the face of signs of disproof’.

            3) Decrying people within their own movement in what is at best flimsy evidence, esp the leader who has shown us the way, in this fashion leads to what? its just that conversation has shut down, and people have to their separate ways.

          • Three more quick questions:

            1. How can we assume right off the bat that the moment an argument features a ‘personal tale’, it is automatically devoid of ‘considered analysis’?

            eg. A Sunita Krishnan or an Ayaan Hirsi Ali often relate ‘personal tales’ and can we say that those conclusions are unsupported by ‘considered analysis’?

            2. If ‘self-criticism’ isn’t a suitable term to characterize an exhortation to consistently examine oneself and check privilege, what is?

            3. In a setting where ‘separating people from ideas’ has always been emphasized, is it too much to expect of participants to make a distinction between ‘decrying a leader’s misstep‘ and ‘decrying the leader‘ ?

          • Arvind,
            3 more quick questions :-)
            This can devolve into longer and longer conversations with point by point rebuttal from each side. I have no wish to “win/be Right” on every one.. you could be right, I could be right. In the interest of staying on track, I will focus on #3. however one terms it.. one gets the idea. You didnt like something RD did. There’s just isnt enough evidence. Like I said and counter-argued, its flimsy. I referred to some pretty good analysis by Paula Kirby, and also the long debate on this victimhood complex by an expert and long-term feminist in the field Christina Sommers. You disagree. In keeping with nirmukta spirit, we could agree to disagree and leave it at that. I got off with “disgusting” and “contemptible” quite quick. No fucking big deal actually in the grand scheme of things on the internet. But I got to call a spade a spade. It’s neo-puritan.

          • The disagreement is on whether we would rather err on the side of caution (i.e. accept Rebecca Watson’s assessment of risk in the elevator) or grin and bear it (as Prof. Dawkins seemed to suggest). Let us wrap up by clearly stating the disagreement.

            The stance which is in line with the author’s position, and disagreeable to you is:
            -Male privilege is for real.
            -The overhead and additional effort of erring on the side of caution (eg. according benefit of doubt to the accuser) can justly be borne by those with privilege, here, men.
            -Since their privilege shields them from commonplace harassment risks, men cannot fairly ask women to ‘grin and bear’ risks which they are themselves not exposed to.

          • Arvind,
            Re 1: Of course I agree that male privilege is real. I just dont see this incident as supportive of that. There just isnt enough evidence in this incident to support that. Bringing in some other incidents as support (such as the shakespeare sister blog) larger issue of gender vs equity feminism issue. once again, an issue thats relevant primarily in the US. I hear Western Europe has moved past it, but I could be wrong.

            Re 3: Re: men cannot fairly ask women to ‘grin and bear’ risks which they are themselves not exposed to But its not just men’s opinions.. plenty of women’s opinions on this are also contra, and these are just as smart and experienced people as any. you must have seen those. some of them have been branded as “gender traitors”. And Re: grin and bear, we on this side of the argument see it as “toughen up, and there’s help” in some cases esp elevatorgate, not “grin and bear”. Remember the religion analogy by Paula Kirby?

            Re 2 and erring on the side of caution : I for one am willing to bear some overhead in general.. after all one does it in so many other fields. But there is a disagreement on the overhead (as played out in the international blogs) in this incident..If RW had asked “guys, dont do this to me“, I dont think people would have cared. Asking for the entire gender in the westis just unacceptable.. coz she cant speak for all women (as many have dissented as well), esp in the sex-positive sub-culture. Also Arvind, there is plenty of freaking hypocrisy and other sub-par behaviour on the part of RW in this overall episode which makes it all the more unpalatable.

            You can have the last word if you wish Arvind.

          • I am not seeking the last word. It’s just that I have developed a liking for asking questions…in threes :-)

            1. Since there could well be women critics for supposed feminist stances and no claim was made here in the first place to ‘speak for all women’ or for that matter, ‘speak for all feminists’, how do instances of assorted women-bloggers at variance with the well-argued stance here seen as counting against the validity of the stance?

            2. How can a condescending assurance of ‘toughen up, there’s help’ be taken seriously, when there seem to be signals from the very quarters that help is expected from, denials that help needs to be sought at all in certain concern-causing situations and excuses that the elevator-gate-like encounters are to be ‘laughed off’, ‘lived with’ and ‘cannot be helped at all’?

            3. Even in the so-called ‘sex-positive’ cultures, doesn’t it go without saying that it is a consensual-sex-positive culture, and isn’t the very voluntariness of consent somewhat compromised when it is demanded in claustrophobic confines?

          • Sunil D'Monte

            This is in response to astrokid.nj’s post that begins “Re 1: Of course I agree that male privilege is real..”.

            What you’re forgetting is that we live in not just a sex-positive culture – it is also a culture in which men rape and sexually assault women. If that were not the case (i.e. if it were a just world), your “sex-positive” argument might have some merit. It is evidently not the case. Even amongst sex-positive feminists, there are guidelines about boundaries and consent (e.g. http://campus.feministing.com/2010/10/27/on-the-critical-hotness-of-enthusiastic-consent/). When it comes to strange men in public spaces, women have no way of knowing whether a man is safe or not, and which encounter is going to escalate into something more – physically entering one’s personal space, bumping, touching, groping, grabbing, assault, rape. This is why I said in my article, even innocuous encounters are charged with a sense of threat. This is not because of a “victimisation complex”, it is a justified fear. And the solution to is not for women to grow thicker skin – the solution is for men to understand the problem and use better judgement. Here’s an article that explains this well (I share it for anyone else who might be reading, as I suspect you will dismiss this too).

            Schrödinger’s Rapist: A Guy’s Guide to Approaching Strange Women Without Being Maced
            http://kateharding.net/2009/10/08/guest-blogger-starling-schrodinger%E2%80%99s-rapist-or-a-guy%E2%80%99s-guide-to-approaching-strange-women-without-being-maced/

            Also, since you keep bringing it up – Cristina Hoff Sommers is not a feminist expert, she is anti-feminist. Yes, really. Here’s an explanation of why her “gender/equity” dichotomy is bogus, from the same blog whose domain name you have a fondness for typing out:

            http://shakespearessister.blogspot.com/2007/12/explainer-what-are-gender-feminists-and.html

          • Sunil D'Monte

            My disgust and contempt is not directed at a “moral shortcoming of the others who disagree with [me]” – it is directed at a moral shortcoming, period. Sexual harassment is a serious problem, and your dismissal of it *causes harm*.

            As for “‘hundreds of letters of personal tales’ rather than considered analysis”, here you go:

            http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/resources/statistics/statistics-academic-studies/
            http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/resources/statistics/sshstudies/
            http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/resources/online/
            http://www.ihollaback.org/resources/myths/

            Also have a look at the map on the home page of http://www.ihollaback.org, which shows clickable links of incidents women have reported from all over the world.

        • Well said astrokid.nj
          Another difference between New Atheists and the “New New Atheists” is that the former relish a good debate, face argument with argument and resist the easy route of emotional outbursts and rhetorical flourishes.
          The latter don’t hesitate to take the easy route of emotional outbursts with words like disgusting, pathetic, contemptible, etc.

          • Sunil D'Monte

            It is a common tactic in debates to portray yourself as “rational” and your opponent as “emotional”. This reasoning might be valid if emotion is the only thing your opponent is offering. It is not valid here. I *have* argued my case in the comments here.

            Coming to my anger. Anger is a perfectly *rational* and *justified* response when one is speaking out against injustice. In this case, astrokid chose to mock the very serious problem of sexual harassment as well as blame its victims. He/she did this in response to a link that contained a whole host of personal accounts of harassment – so we can rule out lack of awareness as an excuse. Therefore, I treated his/her argument with the contempt it deserves.

          • Well done, sir! If reason worked on the religious, there would be no religious people left.

          • If only irreligion were sufficient immunity against unreason…

          • I personally do not hesitate to identify myself as an Atheist, and at times have associated myself with the New Atheism movement. But such categorizations become red herrings when used to avoid discussion while reversing the charge.
            In this thread, the author wasn’t the first to resort to personal attacks such as “self-righteous” or “neo-puritan”. What is unfortunate is that after disregarding the arguments proposed quite rationally and with evidence, you claim that the use of “emotional outbursts” disqualifies the author and those Atheists who see his point of view from being identified as New Atheists, and agree with the previous comment in placing them (us) in a pejorative, ill-defined category. Let’s just take the one word that Sunil used (after being dismissed rather callously despite his reasonable and rational argument), ‘pathetic’. Let’s take two of the well-known representatives of the New Atheism movement, Hitchens and Dawkins:

            “Anti-evolution propaganda is full of alleged examples of complex systems that ‘could not possibly’ have passed through a gradual series of intermediates. This is often just another case of the rather pathetic ‘Argument from Personal Incredulity’ that we met in Chapter 2″
            ~Dawkins, in The Blind Watchmaker.

            “I would have to say grow up, don’t be so pathetic, stop whining.”
            ~Dawkins, in response to those protesting the NO God bus campaign in New Zealand.

            “In ridiculing a pathetic human fallacy, which seeks explanation where none need be sought and which multiplies unnecessary assumptions, one should not mimic primitive ontology in order to challenge it.”
            ~Christopher Hitchens

            “The administration’s pathetic, dithering response to the Arab uprisings has been both cynical and naive.”
            ~Christopher Hitchens, in the subtitle to an article on Slate.

            Those damn “New New Atheists”!
            To be clear, I’m not at all suggesting that Dawkins and Hitchens are always right or are authority figures to be emulated by all New Atheists. What I’m saying is that such arbitrary categorizations, based on ideological lines conveniently drawn for sake of winning online debates, are prohibitive of meaningful conversation. Of course, there are other things such as cognitive bias that are as prohibitive of conversation on ethical issues, leading otherwise rational people to dismiss moral reasoning as an unhealthy obsession while missing the irony that this dismissal is exercised by the force of their own moral judgements (which remain unexamined), but that is why we need articles like these.

          • In this thread, the author wasn’t the first to resort to personal attacks such as “self-righteous” or “neo-puritan”
            Just so you know, thats factually incorrect. The below precedes it.
            As for your last comment about women who “felt” they had to change their lives and have a “victimization complex”, I have nothing to say other than I find it contemptible and disgusting.
            Now dont get started that “its not directed at the person, its directed at the idea…”.

          • “Now dont get started that “its not directed at the person, its directed at the idea…”.”

            Sunil was clearly referring to “your last comment” with those rather benign words, and you were clearly referring to him with your moral condemnation (which you seemed to think was not morally motivated). So his was not a “personal attack”, which was the focus of the argument. The fact that you see where your logic fails is commendable, but that recognition doesn’t translate to a defense of the faulty logic itself.

      • “Nowhere do I say it’s “irreparably wrong” – I’ve made it quite clear that he’s simply unaware of his male privilege”

        Well, he has not changed his position, so he is right now? How will this wrong be repaired?

        ‘“But my point is that the ’slightly bad thing’ suffered by Rebecca was not even slightly bad, it was zero bad.”. It is quite clear.’

        Correct, zero bad is why I still blame him. What I do not understand is the overwhelming condemnation for his motives and ‘wealthy old man privilege’, which is squeezing far too much paste out of the tube.

        You cannot put it back, and pretending that all is now OK with Dr. Dawkins is simply air-brushing a serious difference. Either Dawkins was wrong and until he corrects it, he is to be shunned, at least as strongly as the condemnations that followed were, or he was not so wrong, just made a bad mistake in overstating the case.

        Which is it going to be? Elevator-gate? Or a bad f***-up by an otherwise rational human?

  • Even if we all agreed that Dawkins’s comments in elevatorgate were in bad taste, “Male privilege” would n’t be an explanation.
    If his male privilege prevented him from understanding women’s concerns, he would not have explained severe problems faced by women in the very comments cited here.

    • Sunil D'Monte

      He’s aware of *some* aspects of male privilege for sure – but not this one. In yet another comment by him (http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/07/always_name_names.php#comment-4295668) – which I sadly missed – there was even more evidence of how unaware he is, when he said “[s]he was probably offended to about the same extent as I am offended if a man gets into an elevator with me chewing gum. But he does me no physical damage and I simply grin and bear it until either I or he gets out of the elevator. It would be different if he physically attacked me.”

      He could learn from a discussion like this on a feminist blog, which asked the question “In what ways has the idea of sexual assault and/or street harassment affected your daily movements?” Read the 400+ responses, it was an eye-opener for me:

      http://shakespearessister.blogspot.com/2008/10/feminism-101.html

  • Bobby Krishna

    Sunil, superb article mate!

    What I am writing may not be directly relevant to what you were saying, but these are things that came to my mind when I read the article.
    I still remember my first day in Sainik School. We were about 90 new students, all of the same age (10). The school entry was subject to reservation policy of India and because of that many lesser privileged children get a chance to attend the school with govt scholarship. Apart from this, we also had children from schools where the medium of learning was Malayalam and not English. The school allows each student to fail once in either 6th or 7 th standard and not after that. The drop out rates were extremely high among children who came in from the extremely remote tribal areas of Kerala. Many of them are forced to leave within 2 years. While we can say that even those two years would have given the children some learning that would help the next generation, the policy certainly needs some review ( providing allowance for a prep school before moving into a highly competitive environment?) . One of our teachers used to voluntarily help these children after school hours, helping them with English classes and learning assistance. But, this was not an official program. Many students benefited from his help. I wish that was a government policy.
    This is an article that was written by one of my school types who is a quadriplegic. ttp://matterofchoice.blogspot.com/2005/11/india-empowered.html

  • Yes, we all are discriminated against.., and have our privileges too.. While i am allowed to comment here, there are many a things i dare not write, otherwise a hoard of trolls may start hounding me..

    • What are your criteria and standards to distinguish between (i) a hoard of trolls hounding a commenter and (ii) careful readers raising legitimate objections vociferously about a comment ?

      There are many things one dare not write here (hate speech is an example) and someone vigorously decrying that would not be a troll.
      There are many things one is welcome to write here and that may nevertheless be subject to heckling.

      You won’t know just by calling all your prospective objectors trolls and assuming all your ideas to be automatically sanctified just because you hold. You won’t know until you first write. What scares you?

  • For a Layman like me the whole thing was a futile exercise.So many were tearing at a well-intensionend article by Mr.Dmonte. In our context, the Hindu Holy-book is a”System-justfying-Theory”. It justified genocide. It gives Devine Mandate for exclusiveness, and Privileges for Brahmins and the Ruling Classes, and declares their supiriority and Purity.The rest were made to feel psychologically that they are Impure. This exists even today.

  • Case study 1, premise 3 and 4 are not necessarily correct. For assumption number 3, it is simply true that women (and men) who do unusual things (funny names, exaggerated dress, etc.) get more attention than people who do not. Thus, including her name can simply mean that should expect (though not necessarily appreciate) extra attention. I wear a hat that says “FairTax”. Would it make sense for me to be bothered about people asking me about the FairTax, or related concepts?
    For point number 4, let’s imagine that a powerfully built man with a odd fetish propositions a elderly, defenselessness woman in an elevator. She says no, continues on her way, any nothing ever comes of it. Her Life, her Liberty, and her Property were in no way violated. Thus, your premise number 4 is incorrect.
    If, however, that man in either case made any move, whatsoever, to constrain, to force, to apply his will over the woman without her consent, then her Liberty, her Property, and her Life would be infringed upon- and so his action would be immoral and wrong.

    • Her Life, her Liberty, and her Property were in no way violated.

      And aren’t we glad? But can we be so sure? What we are concerned about is allaying the threat that was perceived, and not altogether unfoundedly, by her to her Life, Liberty and Property. That this threat perception is by no means unfounded has been explained in this comment right below, and this one too should you care to read. That allaying this threat perception is something that is not overly demanding of men, and hence incumbent upon men, does not at all then seem an overstated case. And as for her Liberty not being violated in the elevator, it is still not adequately respected. Quoting from this comment, again below should you care to read,

      Even in the so-called ’sex-positive’ cultures, doesn’t it go without saying that it is a consensual-sex-positive culture, and isn’t the very voluntariness of consent somewhat compromised when it is demanded in claustrophobic confines?

  • Aargh! I hate this place. I hate the Nirmukta forums/posts. For its extraordinary capacity to annoy me to the core. For making me question every action of mine and making me realize how ignorant I have been of reality. I hate it for making me feel helpless, as I am too confused to make the right decision. And in a way it is coercive, since the site is so addictive.

    I can’t leave it. If I stay, I am too depressed of all the mistakes I made ignorantly (especially on feminist/class issues!).

    The annoying thing is now I am too worried to ask any girl out, since I am not sure if I am oppressing them in some way. I was unaware of the whole elevator issue and similarly I might be unaware of so many other things. To think a simple act of asking a woman out on an elevator threatens them never occurred to me. This certainly seems like a privilege. And if by exercising it, I am oppressing them, I am worried. I did not have any intentions of oppressing them, yet I feel bad.

    The class issue is worse. At least I can try to avoid all women. But the class issue seems inescapable, as long as I am living.

    I certainly wish there was a handbook of don’ts which I agreed with.

    • Satish Chandra

      I don’t think it’s as simple as having a handbook. One thing you could do is first listen when someone who doesn’t have the privileges you do speaks up. All too often we have people who outright dismiss the views of people who speakup. (“What? Bitch is such a cool word! You must be wrong in your head to be offended by it”). So listening is a good start. Once that becomes a habit, you don’t have to worry much about being oppressive. We all make mistakes. But it’s the willingness to correct the mistakes that matters more than just refusing to even consider that a mistake might have been made.

      • ‘We all make mistakes. But it’s the willingness to correct the mistakes that matters more than just refusing to even consider that a mistake might have been made’

        I know and I agree with you completely. The natural threatening bias women have against men is clearly justified by http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/resources/online/

        I just feel overwhelmingly sad that I am assumed to be a Schrodinger-rapist, but then as the data shouts at my face, I clearly see the feminist position too. My meager concerns for a perceived good image is definitely trumped by their perceived threat, I accept and standby the feminist conclusion here.

        But this not take away my melancholy that I am perceived as a threat, while I really am not! It is hard to reconcile around it somehow. Perhaps with time, I will get used to it.

        ‘All too often we have people who outright dismiss the views of people who speakup. (“What? Bitch is such a cool word! You must be wrong in your head to be offended by it”).’

        I have said this before. Perhaps you are rubbing it in my face. And I am guilty as charged. I was insensitive and I am sorry for that.

        • Satish Chandra

          Sometimes getting a perspective can really help when faced with reality which is unforgiving. The amount of money I burn on fuel can prevent a certain number of people from dying of starvation. But I don’t give up that money. ‘Cause I am too conditioned to give up enjoying the thrill the burning gives me. We make choices like that all the time. Is it good on our empathy circuits? No. We use other brain circuits to drown out such surges. But the least we can do, a thing which costs us little to nothing is to not impede such surges in other people. Then it doesn’t become a matter of feeling melancholic that we could be the rapist, but rather it becomes a matter of doing the least we can to be emphatic. The way to look at it is we are not losing anything significant, to the extent to be sad, but by doing so we are gaining a lot by increasing empathy.

          And I didn’t mean to rub it on you at all. I didn’t even remember the exchange involving you on the other article until you mentioned the rubbing-in-your-face part.

          PS: The value premises involved in the above also mean that I should be extremely sympathetic to certain religious positions which call for complete renunciation in order to achieve better empathy. However, I can find justification in my opposition to religion from the real world evidence of what kind of societies religions have fostered.

    • Your comment made my day.

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