Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On 'male privilege'

Of course I profoundly disagree with the language of 'privilege' for reasons I've given many times before.  The discourse seems inadequate to the complex realities of racial, gender, and national inequalities for example.  It also tends, in concrete politics, toward an unhelpfully moralistic language - checking your privilege, and so on.  However, I don't think one should be afraid of it.  Not just for macho reasons - though it's true that I am quite a big boy now, and can stand to hear things I disagree with.  Rather, like many problematic-yet-persistent concepts, getting at something real.  And when 'male privilege' and its effects are raised in this context, to explain how implicitly sexist assumptions can be reproduced without much thought, it does seem to be addressing a real problem.  (This is not a comment on Owen Jones; I'm speaking generally). 

I am reminded of Stuart Hall's discussion of the implicit 'white eye' view in the media.  It is not that every white person equally shares in this point of view, or is equally responsible for it, or is equally implicated in it.  Far from it.  This implied perspective arises from complex sets of ideological representations that are largely produced in the ideological state apparatuses by the ruling class and its allies.  Naturally, since ideology is a field of struggle and contest, these ideological representations must also incorporate 'popular' elements if they are to be effective.  But the 'white eye' is not the 'eye' of an essential 'whiteness'; it is the 'eye' of an historically produced mode of domination from which a minority of ruling white men derive most of the benefit.  

The 'white eye' is not what is seen, moreover.  It is outside the frame, but seems to shape everything in it: a present-absent cause, it exerts a gravitational pull around which a discursive field of racist assumptions is organised.  The implied perspective, simply because it is implied and never explicated, forms a 'common sense' so that those articulating it speak with great assurance.  The onus is on those disputing it to disprove its assumptions - to prove that immigrants aren't deviants and leeches, the black families are not dysfunctional sources of crime, that 'Islam' is not a particular solvent of values or security menace, etc.

So it might be with 'male privilege' referred to in this sense.  Adapting Hall, one might speak of "those apparently naturalised representations of events and situations relating to sex and gender, whether 'factual' or 'fictional', which have sexist premisses and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions" and which "enable sexist statements to be formulated without ever bringing into awareness the sexist predicates on which the statements are grounded."  It is obviously not the case that this 'malestream' perspective is one simply shared by all men, and no women.  The 'male eye' view is one organised around gender stereotypes that subordinate women, the 'second sex', in a way that benefits a determinate class of men.

What is called 'rape culture', which has been the focus of the recent radicalisation of women's struggles, is but one particularly obnoxious variant of this phenomenon.  Take some of the usual tropes: "women ask for it sometimes"; "only bad girls get raped"; "women get raped because they get drunk and show off their bodies"; "women cry rape because they've been jilted, or have something to hide"; "women's bodies, if they genuinely don't want sex, shut down". Underlying these are various fundamental gender binaries: male activity vs female passivity; male rationality vs female hysteria; male seriousness vs female deviousness; and so on.

Notably, these tropes mostly don't explicitly condone rape.  Rather I think they can be related to the three categories of denial identified by Stan Cohen: 1) literal denial, wherein it is asserted that no such thing happened, and the woman must be a liar, a fantasist or unwell; 2) interpretive denial, wherein some of the facts are admitted, but it's suggested that in context it's not as bad as it seems, because the woman was drunk, or drugged, or is likely a prostitute, or was dressed provocatively; and 3) implicatory denial, where it's admitted that the facts are as they're said to be, and very bad indeed, but, well, there's nothing that can be done about it anyway, rape is just a part of life, the best thing is for women concerned is to dress down, not stay out late, not drink, etc.  Things are much worse overseas, anyway: you're lucky you don't live there.  The result of such strategies of denial is to mobilise implicit assumptions about women into a story, as narrated from a 'male eye' view, which normalises and naturalises rape, and blunts the force of any challenge to it.

It would be grotesque to say that enabling the perpetuation of rape thereby preserves or protects any 'privilege' for men.  But clearly the gendered tropes that are pressed into the service of rape culture are bound up with the ostensible compensations of 'maleness', this 'psychological wage' as Du Bois put it in a different context.  Of course, these compensations are not simply 'psychological'.  They are an iteration at the level of ideology of various realities - the wage gap, male household dominance, the orientation of mass culture toward encouraging women to be 'man-pleasing', and so on. In the total, longer-term view, all of these realities actually cost men.  The wage gap, for example, is part of maintaining a stratified labour system that undermines the bargaining strength and political cohesion of labour, and thus reduces the overall wage claims of both men and women.  But social interests are always construed through social representations, and one might say that the implied 'male eye' view of a great deal of mass media and academic output provides the appropriate grid through which these compensations can be perceived and lived as a real privilege.

This 'psychological wage', which some might still prefer to call 'male privilege', is necessary to explain the investment that too many people have in these strategies of denial, which otherwise serve to reinforce a deeply harmful pattern of sexual violence and hypocrisy, a combination of prurience and puritanism that leaves no one better off.  Necessary, I should add, but not sufficient.