Explaining Privilege

The word “privilege” has gotten to be a problem because, while it is a very good word for describing the status people receive for possessing certain labels — in my culture those labels are white, straight, cisgender, male, affluent — it is a terrible word for conversations in which a privileged person is having difficulty understanding the obstacles faced by people who are not like them.

Today in a discussion about lack of female representation at the upper ranks of most companies, I engaged in discussion with a guy who recognized that women are professionally underrepresented, but didn’t seem to think that anyone had a responsibility to change it through the deliberate recruitment and advancement of women. This is a valid position, although it’s one I disagree with. Failing to keep women out of leadership isn’t enough. Unprivileged classes of people need an extra boost to get the same opportunities that privilege people have.

There are systemic obstacles to female advancement in professional settings. One of these is the lack of qualified female professionals to begin with. Historically women have been shunted toward soft fields of study like literature, which provide extremely limited and low-paying career opportunities. (This is not to say that liberal arts don’t matter culturally, but rather that they are not economically valued and make for questionable educational investments in terms of payoff.) Economically valuable fields like law, medicine, and engineering are dominated by men, who go on to shape technology, politics, and corporate culture.

This is changing, and many companies are investing in programs that encourage girls to become engineers and scientists. But the payoff of these efforts won’t come for two decades, after these girls have finished their educations and entered the workplace. It’s going to take some serious changes in the short term to be sure that there is room for these women when they arrive and expect to be equally integrated. So yes, that means some affirmative action in the short term. A company that hasn’t bothered to put any women on its Board of Directors will not look attractive to a young female go-getter. It’s possible that a company with an all male board is not actively discriminatory; mere statistics should result in a few companies with mostly male or mostly female leadership from time to time. But the lack of women leaders and low female representation among the workforce means discrimination is a possibility. Women will naturally be drawn to companies that have offered hard proof of non-discrimination through proportional representation throughout the company. The same idea applies to other non-privileged people such as LGBT people and people of colour.

None of these ideas seemed to be familiar to the guy I was speaking to. I thought things were going so well. I didn’t think I would completely alter this person’s thinking because an intelligent person shouldn’t be easily swayed. But I did hope to plant some ideas.

I think my mistake came up when I tried to explain why it is difficult for some people in power to acknowledge difficulties they have never experienced. I said that white, straight men don’t often walk into an office and notice that almost everyone is different from them. It was at this point that he exploded with a canned diatribe about how all the feminists want to do is destroy white men and turn them into castrated slaves who are no longer allowed to contribute to society as retribution for millennia of perceived abuses.

Sigh.

Ten years ago when having conversations on feminist-related topics, the conversation usually quickly fell apart. The men in the room would begin making fun of the women, who usually had a valid point to make. The women would take offence at an ad hominem attack that had nothing do do with the material point of the discussion. The men would then accuse the women of being emotional (likely because we were all on our periods) and use this as evidence that we couldn’t be taken seriously to begin with. The ridiculousness of this logic shouldn’t require refutation, but it’s a battle that non-privileged people have to have every single time the issue comes up.

Happily men have really come a long way. Overt misogyny is getting rarer in my experience, at least among my circle of friends. The lingering problem is a lack of awareness of privilege and the resulting lack of understanding about how privilege perpetuates inequality in the workplace and in society. And it is oh, so, hard to have this conversation without having it all fall apart as it did today.

There has got to be a way to help privileged people (mostly white, straight, affluent, cisgender, heterosexual men) understand that by making room for others, they do not have to surrender anything for themselves. It’s not like there is a limited supply of happiness in this world, and elevating women to the status of men will somehow rob men of their happiness or relevance. White men aren’t the enemy; they are potential allies. Straight people don’t lose anything by accepting their LGBT brothers and sisters and non-gendered siblings. They gain a whole lot. Putting down privilege shouldn’t mean loss of advantage in life; it should mean gaining a whole lot of opportunities to network with all of humanity in all of its diversity. There’s nothing wrong with being white or male or straight, and don’t let anybody say otherwise.

How can we improve the conversation? How can we help the privileged become aware of their privilege so that they can avoid stepping on others and make room for everyone? How can we discuss the abandonment of privilege as a freeing rather than limiting process? How can we do this in a way that doesn’t trigger a negative reaction or create the false perception of a personal attack?

The State of Mormon Feminism 2013

Mormon Feminism is still, predictably, a very unfunny joke. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Mormon Feminist blogosphere is its absolute state of unchanging. In this post your friendly apostate correspondent gives you a snapshot of the Mormon Feminist web as it stands.

Agitating Faithfully

Opened in 2011, as of publishing this site has managed to get fewer than 400 signatories to their list of people supporting the ordination of LDS women. Its primary contributor is a person with the surname “Wiener” (insert penis envy joke here). Most of the sparse, undated blog entries have no comments at all, and the ones that have something resembling a discussion going have usually been threadjacked by a mainstream LDS misogynist. Despite the best of intentions, it would seem that enthusiasm for faithful agitation for women’s ordination within Mormonism is about as lackluster as one would assume it to be.

LDS Wave

Whenever I need a convenient punching bag to present to friends trying to understand the level of smug delusion that affluent white anti-feminists are capable of, I send them to this site. They even present themselves as being guided by a “board” in an attempt to sound as if they were some proper public benefit foundation instead of just another bloody website that nobody pays attention to.

Reaching its apex when one of its contributors managed to get this piece of rubbish printed in the Guardian, LDSWAVE has since crashed and burned on the rocks of reality. Profiles of the so-called “board” haven’t been updated in years and the blog itself, confusingly divided into arbitrary sections, hasn’t been added to in months. With sparse comments and a stagnant community, this site, as it did when it was launched back in September 2010, still seems better at displaying stock imagery of thoughtful-looking white women than in presenting useful information, or any information, for that matter. Given the cheap cost of web hosting it seems unlikely that the site will simply pack it in, although that would be the most sensible and face-saving option at this point.

Daughters of Mormonism

This podcast site is a venue for women to bitch about patriarchy whilst simultaneously acknowledging that being a Mormon means you simply must submit to it. The backbone of the sight is a BLOODY FORTY-EIGHT PART podcast titled “The Pain of Patriarchy.” If you need a place to talk about yourself for hours on end, by George this is the place for you. If you don’t enjoy being depressed by the sound of women who are aware of the invisible chains that bind them but refuse to break them and walk away into a freer life, give this site a miss.

Feminist Mormon Housewives

The most significant thing to report in this standard-bearer of the Mormon Feminist blogosphere is a makeover. How . . . typical. After ditching its long-standing art deco theme the site is still hopelessly frilly and unironically pink. The content is still, after all these years, full of the sort of quibbling that proves the site is nothing more than a pressure release valve for the terrible cognitive dissonance that builds up in the mind of an intelligent woman trapped in the confines of Mormonism by marriage and motherhood. Desperate to make their lives have meaning underneath the layers upon layers of utter bollocks that Mormonism heaps upon their lives, the denizens of this community offer support to one another as they find ways to neurotically cope.

Zelophehad’s Daughters

Well, done, ladies. Nothing says Feminism like naming your site after a patriarchal figure and his nameless female offspring. The most positive and useful aspect of this site is that, unlike almost all of the rest of the so-called Feminist Mormon blogosphere, there is an active community composed of both men and women who discuss a variety of topics as if they were adults. If they could just shed the hand wringing and steering clear of upsetting any doctrinal apple carts they might actually get something done one day.

The Exponent

Out of the cast of surreal characters that colours the MoFem scene, The Exponent has remained the one that is easiest to take somewhat seriously, although given that the majority of its contributors are in varying degrees of apostasy the site should more properly be categorised as a post-Mormon site rather than something that could be accepted in the mainstream.

Its latest gem is a half-hearted defence of the bubbleheaded Mormon beauty queen whose brain seemed to have asphyxiated beneath too many layers of hairspray. News flash, Exponent: Eliza R. Snow would not have wasted precious cyberspace defending a woman who had dedicated her existence to the most shallow and narcissistic of professions who was then unable to answer a serious question regarding women and the economy put to her by an articulate black woman.

Conclusion?

It is terribly easy to be dismissive and simply say that the people who cling to these online communities are fooling themselves if they believe they can come up with a way to reconcile modern secular humanist principles of gender equality with the Victorian relic that is Mormonism.

It can take some people a very long time to admit this truth to themselves. Some people never can, for a variety of reasons. The primary reason Mormon “Feminists” force themselves into a soul-crushing compromise between equality and oppression is that they have simply come to a Feminist awareness too late in life to do anything about it. They are married. They have children. They occupy positions of relative importance within their petty, insular communities. Leaving Mormonism is about as easy as pulling your internal organs out through your nostrils, and about as painful. Once a Mormon, especially a woman, is locked into the system through her husband and children, leaving is nearly impossible. A couple would have to do it together, and that leaves them twice the number of siblings and parents and cousins to fight against in an effort for personal integrity.

So I get it. You people need these sites. Your family connections and social lives are being held hostage and will be promptly executed if you don’t obey the demands of the Church holding a gun to them. It’s also unbelievably traumatising to realise that you’ve wasted so much of your life on so much nonsense. Acknowledging that Mormonism is an evolutionary dead-end in human society is just too frightening. So you putter along trying to make the best of it, grumbling quietly under your doctrinal load because you are too smart to truly believe in it. This is not the place where you will be given patronising placations congratulating you on your impressive balancing act between reality and dogma. I have transitioned beyond that. All I can say is that I understand why people do this to themselves, although I think the amount of self-harm inflicted by forcing an uneasy compromise between Mormonism and Feminism is hardly worth it.

Q&A with Marilyn – Part One

Yesterday I had a chat with a BYU freshman who is living in the dorms and wanted to provide some insight into what it’s like to adjust to not just university but a religious dominated university. We plan on doing future sessions, so if any readers have questions for Marilyn, please post them in the comments below and I’ll put them into the next Q&A.

Molly: Thanks for doing this. I suppose we can’t use your real name. Do you have a preference for a nom de plume?

Marilyn: Hmm. I love Marilyn Monroe, but I don’t know if I should use that name.

Molly: No, it’s a good one. We can call you Marilyn.

Marilyn: She’s my favorite actress. She said a lot of deep shit and was hot as fuck. (Laughs) Make sure you use that exact wording when you say why I admire her.

Molly: I’ll do that. So for our first question. When you got to the dorms at BYU this year, what did you encounter that you least expected and felt unprepared for?

Marilyn: How hard the girls try here. Eighty to ninety percent are super skinny and fit. Perfect skin, hair always done, and huge flirts. Its ironic because even though the church is against being slutty, the girls still try so hard to get boys because they all have been taught that marriage comes in college. They wont admit it, but they’re here to get their BA and their MRS. I’m okay with wearing glasses and putting my unbrushed hair into a messy bun, while my roomate spends at least an hour a day on her hair alone. She changes her outfit, like, 5 times before she walks out the door and fixes her hair and makeup every time we’re about to go out.

Molly: Do you ever find that being surrounded by girls like that makes it hard for you to take your education seriously?

Marilyn: Yeah, sometimes. There are smart girls and they obviously have goals and stuff but there’s always that second thought of, “Yeah, I’ll pursue my dreams until I find a husband and have babies. Then I’ll just stay at home.”

Molly: Is it correct for me to say that BYU does not provide good support to women who want to have a career?

Marilyn: I don’t know. It’s mixed. It’s a fucked up blend of chivalry and sexism. Its like, they are supportive, but it seems like a facade at the same time. They say we should work hard but then your religion teacher talks about gender roles and it conflicts.

Molly: So it seems like they are okay with women going to college, as long as women don’t forget that their first priority should be to get married and have kids and stay at home.

Marilyn: Yeah. They’re not against women having a career. It’s just not the first thing they would say. That comes as a second thought because they realize how sexist it would be not to say having a career was okay too.

Molly: Did you feel this conflict at all when you were in high school?

Marilyn: Nnnnnnoooo! Well, maybe at church. But never at school.

Molly: Do you feel that your high school gave equal support to the personal goals of boys and girls?

Marilyn: Yes. Of course. My math teacher had two kids and she still worked. There were lots of brilliant women that worked there that were moms.

Molly: Did you ever feel conflict over the gender roles taught at church, or were you able to push it to the back of your mind because you spent most of your time at a secular public school, interacting with non-Mormons?

Marilyn: Yeah. Because my guy friends didn’t think that way. I didn’t realize how sexist Mormonism was until I explained it out loud to my friend once. It never really affected me like this before, because I was in high school. The church’s teachings didn’t really apply to me to the way they do now.

Molly: Do you feel that moving to BYU, where everything is somehow connected to Mormonism, has forced you to really think about these issues for the first time in your life?

Marilyn: It’s not the first time. But I don’t like being at a school where my First Amendment rights are seriously limited. College is supposed to be an environment for free thinking and progress. I shouldn’t feel uncomfortable saying that I support gay marriage, that I’m pro-choice, and other crap like that. I shouldn’t be in fear of a sermon from a 19-year-old who grew up in conservative cow country

Molly: How often do you censor yourself in order to prevent others from noticing that you are more liberal than the average Mormon?

Marilyn: I have a small group of friends who are okay with it. I haven’t really gotten into any arguments with other people, although my roommate did the other day over gay marriage. This guy was just being an asshole and she was pissed.

Molly: So your roommate is pro-gay?

Marilyn: I think so . . . I don’t know. She was using the “hate the sin not the sinner” argument with him. So I’m not really sure if she just toned it down for him or what.

Molly: Do you think she might be pro-gay but afraid to be too open about it?

Marilyn: Yeah maybe. Her parents are super conservative too, so I think she’s in the same boat as I am.

Molly: If you were the ruler of BYU for one day, what advice would you give every student?

Marilyn: And have them actually follow it? Hmm. (Pause) I’d tell the girls to wear whatever the fuck they want and see if the campus breaks out into hell like the authorities think it will. I’d also tell the super Mormon students to sit down and talk with a super liberal person without judging them or cutting them off. Let them explain their views, because that’s something they have never heard. College is supposed to expand your mind to at least understand all views of the world.

Molly: Do you think there is an inherent conflict in a university that is controlled by one religion?

Marilyn: Yes. How can you learn in a box when the point of learning to think outside the box? There is no progress with limitations.

Molly: That was pretty deep.

Marilyn: Aww yee! Come at me smart people!

Molly: (Laughs) Okay, I’d better let you get to class. But that was brilliant. We should do this again.

Marilyn: Okie dokie!

Feminist Fail: PETA and Santorum

I never thought that I would say that Rick Santorum had anything in common with PETA, but I guess anything is possible. Today’s feminist fail is brought to you by Frothy Mix and the Darwin Award Diet, who both hate women:

Brilliant move, hippies and neocons. Because women don’t already know what it’s like to feel caught in the middle of culture wars.

Feminist Fail: Barbie Mum

Open thread for today: Mum of the year buys her child a 7,000 quid voucher for breast augmentation.

My two cents: This woman can be admired for her frankness about sexuality and her idea that there is nothing wrong with an adult choosing to look however she pleases. But this woman is an utter failure as a mum for encouraging hypersexual appearance in a child that is far too impressionable to make her own unbiased choice at this point in life.

Feminist Fail: PETA

This week’s Feminist Fail is brought to you by hypocritical wankers PETA, who have decided to target his Royal Gingerness Prince Harry whilst he’s in America for military training. A flock of naked scrawny vegan birds was dispatched in an attempt to persuade him to go meat free by using women as pieces of meat:

Well done, PETA. You’ve reminded us that although you’ve got the hots for animals, you clearly care nothing for humanity and women in particular. This isn’t the first time they’ve utilised the Hot Chick approach to marketing, and sadly I’m guessing it won’t be the last.

Regardless of how you feel about the validity of veganism as a lifestyle choice, please give the bird to PETA’s disgraceful use of birds.