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Monday 11 November 2019

It Would Be My Privilege

Words are funny things. Those of us who write know this, especially when we see reactions to what we've written. It's often clear that the reactions aren't to what we've said, but only to some of the specific words we've used.

There's a well-understood psychological phenomenon underpinning this, and it forms the basis for all sorts of training programmes, especially where jobs are customer-facing. Customer service agents are trained to listen actively, to ensure that they've properly heard and understood the needs of the customer. This is because there's a dangerous trap lying in wait for any unsuspecting person unaware of the risks, and those risks are very real. Here's how it works in practice in such a setting.

A customer service agent working for, say, a large retailer, gets a phone call from a customer about a product that's been delivered. The agent diligently takes down all the details and proceeds to work on resolving the customer's issue. He puts a solution in place and the call is terminated. He takes another call, and it turns out to be the same issue. He proceeds with the same solution as previously. This starts to form a pattern.

By the time he's taken half a dozen calls regarding the same issue, he's fallen into a pattern, to the degree that he's stopped properly listening.

Then he takes another call. The customer opens by talking about the same product, having just had it delivered. Before he knows what's going on, the call goes completely sideways and ends in an escalation.

What happened?

This happens all the time in contact centres, but the call centre is merely a microcosm, and this is something that also happens out there in the wider world. His listening became passive, and he missed the bit where the customer was explaining that the issue they have with the product is a completely different issue than the one which formed the bulk of the calls he'd taken. He only heard the key words, and began formulating his response in his mind rather than paying attention to what was being said.

This is such a big problem that it makes for exceedingly difficult times in trying to explain some things. This is especially problematic when we're talking about the real impact of some things, and there's one instance of it that's causing huge problems out there in the world at the moment. It all hinges on a single word: privilege.

As I said, words are funny things. We all carry around little internal models of what words mean, and they inform the way we respond to those around us, all the while forgetting that our own internal model of a given word may be radically different to the internal model of the person we're conversing with. The public discussions regarding privilege are an especially important and telling instance of that, and many, many efforts to clarify have fallen on deaf ears, quite literally. The word is heard, the gorge rises, the scathing response formulated, and all listening has ceased, long before any of the attempted clarification can be uttered.

People hear 'privilege' and, before the sentence is even out, they're like "What the actual fuck are you talking about? My life is hard. The very last thing I feel is privileged!"

The last thing I... feel.

If anybody told me I was privileged, my first instinct would be to put them in their place. I'd want to explain just how bad my life has been and how could you say that and just how dare you assume!

And I know better.

It really is entirely unsurprising that this is a source of contention. We need to learn to think about the word in a different way.

Firstly, being privileged and feeling privileged are not the same thing. Indeed, much of what we feel when we're out in the world isn't a reflection of the world at all, only of our internal state. You really don't need to feel privileged to be privileged and, in all likelihood, you don't feel privileged regardless of whether you are or not. That's not really important for our purpose here. What matters is that we recognise what privilege is in this specific context.

When somebody talks about your privilege, they're not suggesting that you have some sort of charmed life. Nobody with a clue would ever suggest such a thing. None of us knows the pain of another, or has any real insight into their life journey beyond the very superficial.

In this context, privilege refers to something very specific. In particular, it refers to the fact that you are not subject to specific obstacles that form part of the lived experience of another. It doesn't mean that you aren't subject to specific obstacles that they are not, or that your life is necessarily easier, just that there are very specific obstacles that specific demographics are subject to that you are not.

I'm a member of the most privileged demographic of all of them. Does this mean that my life has been easy? No. I won't bore with details, but nobody who has even a cursory knowledge of my life journey would suggest that it's been anything but hard, nor that it continues to be so. And yet, there are very many obstacles faced by other demographics that I am not.

I'm not as likely to be subjected to rape or sexual harassment as a woman. I'm not as likely to be subjected to arrest/detention/murder by armed thugs in gang colours employed by the state as a black person. I'm not as likely to be raped, murdered or subjected to all sorts of abuse by society as a whole as is a transgender person.

I know several women who were subjected to horrific sexual abuse as children, to the point of having all sorts of psychological and emotional scars, such that nobody could suggest that their lives have been anything other than catastrophically horrible, yet they still recognise that they have privilege, because they don't fall into some of the demographics subjected to specific obstacles.

Of course, when I mean obstacles, I mean systemic oppressions that are reserved for those demographics. It doesn't mean that cisgendered women don't get raped and murdered, only that their occurrence is statistically less to a significant degree by comparison. That statistical difference is what we mean by privilege*.

It's also not binary. One can be a member of a recognisably privileged demographic while at the same time being a member of another that faces demographically-rooted obstacles. One can also be a member of more than one demographic, each of which is subject to specific obstacles. A woman is more likely to be subject to sexual assault than a man, which is not to say that men don't get sexually assaulted or even raped, only that it's statistically incomparable to the risk faced by a woman. A woman of colour is statistically more likely than a white woman to face some of the same obstacles. A transgender woman of colour is statistically more likely to suffer the same obstacles than either, and so on.

That, I think, is the real issue, namely that we're treating something as binary when it really isn't. Our internal model of privilege doesn't allow for the fact that the world rarely accedes to our wish to have it put in neat little boxes.

We really need to learn to think about this word better and, more importantly, to learn to listen actively to what's actually being said, rather than getting our panties in a bunch at individual words. Doing so deafens us to the plight of real people living real lives with real, statistically significant and systemic problems and, worse, prevents us from doing anything about them. Worst of all, it actively keeps systemic oppression alive, meaning that indignant responses aren't just part of the problem, they're the willing upholders of the problem, ensuring that it remains alive and well, even while the victims of such oppression are very much not.

Words matter, yes, but not nearly as much as how we respond to them.

I hope that this brings some clarity, though I'm fully aware that the passive-listening has likely gone on throughout, and that the comments, if there are any, are likely to be scathing attempts to refute the suggestion that some have it easy, a suggestion I have never, nor would I ever, make.

Either way, this has been my privilege.

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