Friday, February 04, 2011

An alternative to sanctibullying

Britta writes:

What makes me sad is I AM a 20-something, leftist, politically aware woman in academia who I identifies as a feminist--I ought to be squarely in the main demographic of "young feminism" today, but instead I and every single other woman like me I know is completely alienated/disengaged from mainstream feminism, precisely because of the ridiculous sanctibullying.
Often enough, sanctibullying takes place within the context of a discussion about a legitimate issue. Some sanctibullying does not even pretend to be about any particular issue, but even your-privilege-is-showing for the sake of YPIS is ostensibly about income inequality, educational inequality, and so forth. As a rule, as I think has been established, sanctibullying is not what happens when have-nots hate the haves rather than the system. If someone who actually grew up poor is riled by the out-of-touch-ness of preppy college classmates, that's a different scenario than a preppy kid who's just taken a class on inequality getting all excited about how he can now tell others that their privilege is showing. The goal here is not to prevent underdogs from expressing frustration. It's about preventing the haves from posing as pseudo-have-nots in place of actually helping fix whatever problem they're ostensibly so concerned about.

Sanctibullying could be scrapped, or at least considerably lessened, if sites where it occurs took the same self-monitoring approach they already do on other matters (as with "body-snarking" and "triggering" on Jezebel) and ask that readers consider whether their goal is making yuppies blush in shame, or furthering discussion, maybe even action, on a given issue. The manifesto could go something like this:

Out-of-touch-ness in and of itself needs to stop being the primary target. We need to look beyond conversational aloofness and try to address the root of problems. The game needs to stop being about pointing out privilege not owned up to, and to start being about positive change. It needs to stop being about pointing out where specific individuals are ignorant, and to start making it a general rule to inform. Ignorance, then, will be indirectly combatted without making it personal.

For example, the food-movement wars. In a thread, someone will say something about how everyone should eat organic kale from the farmers' market. Someone else will point out that farmers' markets are expensive. Another commenter will point out that these markets accept food stamps and sometimes encourage their use. Yet another commenter will chime in that we have it all wrong, it's about having the time and energy to get to a farmers' market. Original Commenter show up again and counter that the time and money are there, it's just a matter of not getting cable.

Then it will be, whoosh, Original Commenter's privilege is showing! Doesn't Original Commenter know that cheeseburgers and "Real Housewives" are the only pleasure in hard-working, honest, poor people's lives? That the kale-and-legume diet, if undeniably affordable, is all and well if you have time to prepare it and peers who reward you for eating like that, but kind of unappealing without the cultural framework telling us it's virtuous? Ugh, it will be decided, people like Original Commenter should just STFU.

On the one hand, food deserts, cultural factors, these are real issues that are left out of the conversation when Original Commenter explains how a summer spent at a villa in Tuscany with Liv Tyler showed him what vegetables are supposed to taste like. On the other, it's unclear if these issues are addressed productively by throwing virtual (mealy American) tomatoes at Original Commenter. In a sense, they are, because the YPIS accusers are showing solidarity with a theoretical offended food-stamp-holder. But this is itself problematic, because, as with Caitlin Flanagan's imaginary Mexican laborer, it's putting words into people's mouths (although sometimes guessing right), and because, for every otherwise apathetic thread-reader who might now realize for the first time how unfair our food system is, another will be put off by all the energy that's been directed at making Original Commenter feel horrible, and stop reading. Original Commenter himself will be too put off by all of this to care to think about it further. A missed opportunity.

The main problem, though, is that making Original Commenter think he's a bad person accomplishes none of the ostensible goals of the discussion: fixing the food system, getting ambivalents like Original Commenter on board, or even giving the screwed-over a chance to express their frustration (because, again, the YPIS accusers have all the kale they could dream of, but want us to consider that not everyone is so lucky).

So rather than the approach being, 'You, Original Commenter, clearly never had to work a day in your life, clearly grew up on organic kale and feed the same to your elite-kindergarden-going children,' a concerned commenter might simply point out why the belief that kale is universally available or desirable is inaccurate. This should be plenty to cause Original Commenter to rethink his views, to see where his own privilege may have entered into it, but it still leaves things open for Original Commenter to stay in the conversation and maybe, you know, help.


K.Chen said...

"The goal here is not to prevent underdogs from expressing frustration. It's about preventing the haves from posing as pseudo-have-nots in place of actually helping fix whatever problem they're ostensibly so concerned about."

The people who are prone to YPIS as an attack are never going to wrap their head around that. The excuses come in several varieties here are a few off the top of my head:

*I am an underdog and have the right to express my frustration/who are you to say I don't have the right to be frustrated

*Showing privilege is a necessary step for [Social Justice Cause X]

*YPIS stops the non-white/female/transgendered/homosexual from having their feelings hurt.

and my personal favorite,

*Isn't it funny how the people most offended by my saying YPIS are white/male/cisgendered/heteronormative/middleclass/etc?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


You're right that there'd be backlash, but none of it terribly difficult to dismiss:

"I am an underdog and have the right to express my frustration/who are you to say I don't have the right to be frustrated"

YPIS accusers don't explicitly identify themselves as underdogs. The implication is if anything that they're just more enlightened fellow privilege-havers. They own their privilege, or don't let it show? Whichever it is they're supposed to do, that's what they do, but they typically won't admit to having privilege, either. But if they do outright say that they, personally, are offended as underdogs in whichever area, a simple 'you're right, I couldn't possibly understand,' followed by exiting the thread, is the way to go. Because a genuine have-not ranting against a have is not really a YPIS, nor is it so much about fixing a broader injustice as it is the pleasure of, if only temporarily, switching the balance of power.

"Showing privilege is a necessary step for [Social Justice Cause X]"

This I think I address in the post. Alienating potential supporters - ones with money, at that! - is counterproductive. And it's possible to point out ignorance through spreading knowledge, as opposed to demonizing individuals for having revealed their ignorance.

"YPIS stops the non-white/female/transgendered/homosexual from having their feelings hurt."

Here, one might point out that these individuals are not even present for the discussion, that the offendedness is theoretical, and that it's offensive in its own way to claim what some Other you're not would or would not find offensive.

"Isn't it funny how the people most offended by my saying YPIS are white/male/cisgendered/heteronormative/middleclass/etc?"

Funnier still that those saying YPIS the most are themselves people who are privileged.

I'm reminded that sometimes YPIS expresses itself as the accuser highlighting some objectively underdog position his identity puts him in, while conveniently glossing over his privilege in other arenas. So maybe I dismissed scrappiness oneupmanship too quickly. But I still think, as a rule, the accuser keeps his own position in the relevant hierarchy intentionally vague.

K.Chen said...

I guess I'm more used to YPIS in arenas where the speakers are identified as non-privileged on some identifier. Its also entirely possible I'm just jaded, bitter or plain silly beyond being reasonable.

But the whole idea of privilege, at least in the circles where it has that special jargon definition, is to raise a particular kind of self-awareness, and the people who are flinging around YPIS are way more interested in inflicting awareness on others. Not unlike the difference between humility and humiliation.

YPIS feeds a need to burnish the feeling of being self-aware without actually being self aware as well as giving you an ad hominem that people who should know better will let you get away with, along with all sorts of fun side benefits, but I think its really the emotional high that it gives people. Like how That Person At Church prays loudly about helping you overcome your sin, if you'll pardon the American Christian culture reference.

I'm biased. I thought privilege speak was dumb when I learned about it in teacher's college and it seemed then not only the most useless sort of language to talk about inequality I had learned yet, but the most harmful. My interactions with Social Justice Types in person and on the net have not made me reconsider my position. So, maybe there is a lot more going on then I give it credit.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I think both happen - the accuser highlights one area where he lacks privilege, or he never spells out who he is/where he's coming from. In real life, I've more experienced the latter - someone (I'm thinking in high school) would give me a hard time about being a doctor's daughter from the Upper East Side, say, only for me to discover after the fact that I was speaking to, for example, a lawyer's son from the Upper West, i.e., precise same milieu, and if in a two-professional-income household, quite possibly twice as wealthy. But that's not to say the other way doesn't happen as well.

But I really do think part of the answer is to distinguish between on the one hand, the genuine frustration people feel when privilege that they lack is comfortably expressed by those who can't even imagine that someone they'd be speaking to didn't summer in the Hamptons, can't afford to go abroad on vacation, never had to worry about weight, and so on, and on the other, a kind of ambient awareness-raising that's about at most theoretical hurt feelings. It is my experience that those who lack whichever form of privilege it's assumed they'd be in on tend precisely not to draw attention to that in conversation, out of shame or habit. (This is also my own response, generally speaking, when around those far more privileged in some arena than myself, to think about the aloofness but not call anyone out on it.) Whereas those who do speak out, even if they in fact lack the specific privilege that's being discussed, tend to have the confidence that comes from having every possible other privilege, and are more interested in making a point than in righting a wrong they feel has been done to them.

So (apologies for being so long-winded in my answer!) on the rare occasions when the scholarship kid at prep school has the disinhibition to point out that not everyone can afford the planned weekend yachting trip, nor does everyone own a yacht, I don't think we should be telling that kid - or a grown-up version thereof - not to toss out a YPIS born of genuine personal anguish. And insofar as seemingly minor situations, over time, do cause anguish, the theory behind YPIS is sound. To a degree. (In the prep-school example, the kid on scholarship can always reassure himself that he got to the school without the boost of a yachtish upbringing, and may in time, if not in the moment, see himself as superior on account of that.)

I think the problem comes when those who are not in fact being wronged use YPIS as a way to, well, sanctibully. When it becomes about the fun of pointing out aloofness, not the hurt this aloofness can cause. When the hurt aloofness can cause gets confused with the far more important structural reasons behind the fact that one kid grew up among yachts, another in squalor. When all who oppose these inequalities (i.e. who are concerned with social justice) are wary of speaking out against sanctibullying, because they see it as people's hearts being in the right place.

But yes, I think with some self-awareness, blogs where YPIS has gotten out of hand could make it a policy not to encourage such comments, and could easily enough explain why.

Britta said...

One part that bothers me about the YPIS claim is that it immediately seeks out the most extreme case to invalidate an entire conversation, and therefore elide any sort of actual discussion. Like, unless what you are talking about is relevant to a quadriplegic manic depressive person living in a room with no electricity or running water in the middle of a giant food desert with no access to transportation, then clearly your point is completely out of touch, and YPIS.

Another thing that bothers me is that pretty much everything can become indicative of YPIS. Drive a car? YPIS. Take public transit? YPIS. Ride a bike? YPIS. Walk? YPIS. Live in a city? YPIS. Suburb? YPIS. Country? etc... Basically, *anything* is privileged, because someone, somewhere, might not be able to do so. (I keep waiting for the argument that breathing is privileged, because people on respirators aren't able to do so.) At this point, it's not about raising *anything* or having any sort of conversation.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"Another thing that bothers me is that pretty much everything can become indicative of YPIS."

So true. There's also the fact that a lack of privilege that doesn't fall into a broad, generally-accepted category is just the sort of thing individuals will be reluctant to bring up, online or off, because it's too personal. Let's say someone was abused or seriously ill growing up - these topics won't come up, and they'll just have to say, yes, that's true, I've had every possible bit of good fortune come my way. Which is precisely why, even though there of course are broad categories of people screwed over by society, making it about individuals and their presumed idyllic life experiences is a problem.