Being Civil Does Not Mean Selling Out the Underprivileged

[Note: For an update, please see my followup post, Walking the Walk: In Which Tony Jones Makes Good.]

I’ve written before about the importance of civil discussion, and about reservations I have about the widespread use of shame as a tactic for effecting change. But just as abusive name calling is a problem, so too is relativism, especially when the rights and lives of underprivileged groups are at stake.

Let me give an example of what I’m talking about. Tony Jones is a progressive Christian blogger here at Patheos. He and I have had some interesting dialogue in homeschooling in the past. Anyway, he is currently at a conference in Malaysia and on Friday wrote a post about how he answered a Malaysian pastor’s questions about his views on homosexuality. After expressing concerns about the history of cultural imperialism in the American church, he finishes his post as follows:

After explaining that I am a strong advocate for full inclusion of all persons at all levels of church leadership, and that I also advocate for full, legal marriage for gay and lesbian couples, I said something else. I said that as an American Christian, I realize that this puts me at odds with much of the rest of the world. …

I think there’s no quick and easy remedy for this. Those of us in America who are allies are following out consciences and our best interpretations of the Bible and the Christian tradition, I said, and he is doing the same in his context. I asked him to afford me the benefit of the doubt, and I would do the same for him.

No one converted yesterday. I didn’t recant my stance on sexuality, and he didn’t become an ally. But he did pull up a chair next to me at lunch, and we sat together again at tea. He even intimated that if I come back, he might ask me to preach at his church. To be honest, I think that I made a friend yesterday. I hope that I did.

I understand Tony’s desire to avoid the cultural imperialism the American church has been so heavily tainted with in the past. He didn’t want to use his position as an American pastor to dictate to third world pastors as has been done so often in the past. I get that, and that’s extremely admirable.

But here’s the thing. Tony could only say what he did because he is straight. In his post he speaks glowingly about how he avoided American cultural imperialism and made a friend while in Malaysia sodomy is still punishable by twenty years in prison and whipping. He looked into the face of an anti-gay Malaysian pastor and said “I have my views, but you have yours.” If he had been gay, he would have had other things to worry about. If he had been gay, making that friend would not have been possible. And because of that, reading Tony’s post left a sour taste in my mouth.

It is absolutely true that making personal connections like this is critical in winning hearts and changing minds, and I definitely think saying things like “I understand that you are doing what you think is right” can be very productive. The thing is, you can’t stop there. The trouble is the “I’m doing what I think is right, you’re doing what you think is right, now let’s be friends” dance Tony describes above.

What if the issue had been slavery? What if Malaysia was a country with institutionalized slave labor? Would Tony have answered a question about his beliefs regarding slavery by saying “I have my views, but you have yours”? Somehow I think not. Or, what if women in Malaysia were considered legal property, and Tony had been asked about his views on that? Would he have fudged on that too? Again, I doubt it. So why here? Why tell anti-gay Malaysian Christian leaders “you believe your thing, I’ll believe mine” rather than taking an unequivocal stand for what is right?

Concern about perpetuating cultural hegemony should not stop us from being willing to unequivocally stand up for the weak, the persecuted, and the suffering. Human rights are universal. Should we be concerned about engaging in cultural hegemony? Of course! This is actually why I refrained from writing about the Indian rape protests as long as I did – their women’s movement must be their women’s movement, just as the movement for equality for women in Egypt must be led by Egyptian women, and so on. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see gender equality as a universal human right or that I don’t condemn patriarchy wherever it manifests itself.

What does this have to do with what I’ve written about civil discussion? Namely, I think that sometimes when a person argues in favor of civil discussion, just like when a person argues against cultural imperialism, that position can be interpreted as a sort of embrace of relativism. Or to put it another way, some people appear to think that adhering to civil discussion involves being willing to sell out the underprivileged. I don’t think that’s the case at all. Believing in civil discussion does not mean becoming mealy mouthed when it comes to what is right. It does not mean failing to call out and condemn evil and injustice. It does not mean fudging when it comes to the rights of the vulnerable and underprivileged. It does not mean embracing relativism at the expense of the rights of others. And I don’t think working to avoid cultural imperialism has to mean doing any of this either.

[Note: For an update, please see my followup post, Walking the Walk: In Which Tony Jones Makes Good.]

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • veganatheist01

    I think you’re demanding quite a lot from people there. I don’t know what circles Tony usually hangs out in or anything other than you quoted about the circumstances he made this friend in, but reading this post I transferred what you’re saying to vegans in company of carnists (meat-eaters) – we’re pretty much considered a wacky minority wherever we go, and quite frequently people get defensive even upon hearing that we’re vegans (because we might taint all their favorite animal products with details of their production, I guess). Not making it personal doesn’t really work either when the person you’re talking to is actively engaging in the harmful behavior (like a person preaching against homosexuality, or buying bacon, or whatever). So sometimes you’re really left with the option to compromise your own views (and in the process selling out the ones you want to help and protect) or sit alone a lot of the time.

    I’m not sure I said all this right, but I wanted to say something about it, so here you go.

    • Malitia

      I’m not against vegans but you sound like a douche. As civil behavior I wont eat meat around a vegan or detail my favorite recipes or go into the horrors of the food industry (hint: not only the production of meat related foodstuff can be disgusting). This is what tolerance means. Also everybody has the right to engage in behavior / think things others deem harmful (there are people who think vegan diet is unhealthy for example), as long (s)he doesn’t intrude in other peoples freedoms / life, like openly preaching hate against homosexuals, slut-shaming women, not putting out their cigarettes / away their bacon sandwiches if/when asked etc..

      • Rilian

        If you don’t like murder, don’t kill anyone.

      • Malitia

        Rilian. This is what I tried to say… I’m just not too coherent when angry and a non native speaker. :)

      • veganatheist01

        I don’t want to be a douche. What makes me sound like one and how can I change that?

        I’m not sure what you want to say in your post. If someone who knows I’m vegan refrains from eating meat around me so they don’t make me uncomfortable, that’s incredibly nice of them and I really appreciate it. I don’t routinely go into horrors of the food industry with anyone about anything, unless they ask and/or do it first – if it sounded like I do, that’s a misunderstanding.

        Regarding tolerance and the right to engage in harmful behavior: isn’t that what Libby’s post was all about? If you’re in the presence of someone with very different views, and they start talking about how homosexuality is sinful and vile and homosexuals should be locked up or whatever, and you just change the topic, nod and smile and at the end of the day say you made a friend – is that tolerance, or selling out?

      • Malitia

        This is what I meant:

        “engaging in the harmful behavior (like a person preaching against homosexuality, or buying bacon, whatever)”

        A) Someone preaching against homosexuality interfering (or encouraging others to interfere) on peoples rights that should be combated,
        B) Someone buying bacon isn’t engaging in any harmful behavior that should interest you. (Even if eating meat would somehow be harmful it is their health and conscience, they obviously don’t have your conviction and don’t force it on you or anybody else.)

        A != B

      • veganatheist01

        There’s no reply button right beneath Malitia’s last comment, but this comment is a response to hers:
        Someone buying bacon is spending money on meat, supporting an industry that slaughters (and very probably abuses) pigs. Buying bacon is indirectly but definitely harmful to pigs, and if you happen to care about pigs and/or believe they (should) have certain rights based on the fact that they are sentient creatures etc., the situation for you is no different from talking to someone who engages in behavior that denies a group of people rights that you believe they should have. (That sentence became very long and confusing. I hope you can understand it nonetheless.)
        You only believe A to be different from B because it is according to your views. A homophobic theist might make exactly the same analogy substituting B for the issue regarding homosexuals and A for, I don’t know, something controversial within homophobic theist circles.

    • Rilian

      I’ve been vegetarian since June 17th 2012, vegan since January 13th 2013.
      I think just knowing that I’m not eating animals is enough to get into people’s heads. I did it because my friend was doing it. And now my mom is, and we’ve got other friends who are cutting back on meat.
      But yeah, I’m not going to tell my friends every day at lunch that they are evil. And I think it’s purely selfish on my part — I just don’t want to lose my friends. The strange thing is that I encounter meat-eaters who have no problem with telling me how stupid and horrible I am for not eating animals.

      • Jayn

        The internet probably isn’t helping you here. I knew a number of vegetarians in college, and they never bugged me about my diet–they just hit the salad bar much more than I did. But when it comes up online that someone is a vegetarian, it’s usually because they’re talking about why they’re vegetarian in some way, and articles and blog posts about it pretty much always have some ‘holier than thou’ feeling to them, even the most reasonable ones. I’ll admit to some awe over those of you who follow such a diet–I don’t think I could do it (I also don’t want to, and suspect that for me specifically it would be a bad idea). But I do feel a little reflexively defensive on the subject, possibly because I do understand why people choose that way of eating, those reasons just aren’t enough for me.

      • luckyducky

        I am vegetarian and avoid eggs and dairy. I am not motivated by animal rights — for me it started as an environmental decision and was strengthened by my spouse’s improved health. Though I’ve never, ever tried to guilt/persuade my parents and siblings to adopt my diet (my parents raise beef cattle and keep hogs so that would be a losing battle), they were defensive about it and found “vegetarianism” obnoxious. I think aside from an eye roll here and there about slightly more complicated menu planning, they’ve come around.

        This is because the first big wave of vegs and vegans (1970s era) were often obnoxious about it — I didn’t realize it until I made the switch by I have an aunt who is PETA-level in your face about her abstention and nearly PETA-level about her disdain about individual’s choice to eat meat in front of her (at large family gatherings that are manifestly NOT veg or even veg-friendly). I find her attitude obnoxious even though we share dietary preferences.

        But, again, because I am not an animal right’s person, I find the parallel between individual dietary choices (and by extension the treatment of animals) and the treatment of human beings both on an individual and institutional level less than useful. I accept that some people place a much high priority on protecting animals than I do and I do agree that the production of meat, and it will be always be part of the human diet,** should be done humanely for a number of reasons. However, I do not think those considerations carry anywhere near the moral weight as the treatment of human beings.

        ** I had to exercise restraint when a hard core animal rights acquaintance was infuriated about a local conservation area on the fringe of an urban area was closed for a bow hunt. You may disagree about the usefulness of hunting as a large-scale, long-term population control strategy but the near-term alternative is allowing the deer population to decimate the conservation area (white tail deer are efficient at reducing biodiversity through overgrazing in areas where they lack natural predators) and die from starvation or by being hit by a car. Hunting is about as humane and eco-friendly as meat production gets…

      • Carys Birch

        We share a birthday… in a way. :P

        /born 1/13/83

    • WMDKitty

      “Not making it personal doesn’t really work either when the person you’re talking to is actively engaging in the harmful behavior (like a person preaching against homosexuality, or buying bacon, or whatever).”

      You really might want to think that through again.

      My purchasing a meat product does not actively harm (or encourage others to harm) people.

      Preaching against homosexuality does in fact actively harm and encourage others to go out and harm other people, specifically, homosexuals.

      Not. Nearly. The. Same. Thing.

      PS: Equating a dietary choice with active and ongoing real-life persecution of a minority is really, really douchey behavior. Don’t do that.

      • veganatheist01

        Malitia already brought that up and I responded – it’s somewhere up in this thread, please look it up.

  • Chris Hallquist

    I’d be really uncomfortable about the idea of making a “friend” with an anti-gay pastor, but I’m not sure Tony was saying the other pastor’s views are “just as valid” as his–it reads to me more like, “well-intentioned if wrong.” Of course, I’d also disagree with Tony that “following your best interpretation of the Bible” is a good thing.

  • BabyRaptor

    This man needs a refresher in what being an ally means. He’s being more of a fair weather friend at the moment.

  • ako

    I’m really not clear on what you think civility does mean. There seems to be a specific line of acceptable behavior you’re drawing which is perfectly clear to you, but I can’t follow it.

    • Libby Anne

      I actually have the draft of a future post that uses something you said in an earlier comment. I don’t think it’s about “gentle” or “harsh” tactics, it’s about where to draw the line on either end. In that vein, I don’t think it’s either productive or ethical to engage in abusive name-calling, but I also don’t think it’s either productive or ethical to tell someone who is anti-gay, or misogynist, or what have you, that you just both have different opinions and that’s fine.

      • ako

        I’ll be interested to see that future post. Maybe I’ll have a clearer picture then.

      • Ibis3

        Every time you talk about this issue, Libby Anne, I get the impression that “productive” and “ethical” seem to be somewhat conflated (even though you do say “either”). Of course, the ideal is that our actions be both productive and ethical, but they ought to be treated separately because they require different evidence to establish the truth of each claim. In my experience, I don’t think anyone has given a shred of evidence* to support the former conclusion (i.e. that what we’re giving the label “harsh” tactics are not productive**). On the ethical side, I think one runs into questions of gradation (are all harsh tactics equally unethical–e.g. cf. slurs vs. directed insults; insulting ideas vs. insulting people who hold those ideas), and utilitarian concerns (e.g. is it more ethical to condone some harsh tactics if doing so allows marginalised classes greater freedom of expression or is it more ethical to condemn all harshness even if it means marginalised classes are further silenced; if it is granted that sometimes harsh tactics can be productive, is it more ethical to condone them or more ethical to condemn them for the sake of an ideal) .

        This topic really drives me crazy. I don’t know why advocates of a more gentle approach can’t just do what they want to do, what works for them, and leave the advocates of a harsher approach to do things their way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the firebrands trying to convince the diplomats to forego their gentle tactics. Perhaps you could do a post laying out the case for why you feel it necessary? I’d like to understand.

        *Yes, I’ve seen studies in which gentle tactics appear to be more useful, but those studies are flawed or insufficient (e.g. they only measure immediate, not long term effects).
        **This is a pretty absolute claim. Are there *no* situations or cases wherein harsh tactics have proven to be productive? I know for a fact that’s not the case.

      • Christine

        Ibis3 – the reason that people who advocate gentle tactics don’t like people using shame/force/intimidation/etc at the same time, is that they interfere with the gentle tactics. Since people who use the gentle tactics are obviously convinced that they work (I would, by the way, be interested in examples where harsh tactics had a better outcome than gentle ones would have. I have never learned them), of course they’re going to be upset when other people make them impossible to use. Imagine a world where Woodrow Wilson was able to overrule those who wanted to impose harsh penalties on Germany. Saying “well, we’ll treat them this way, and you impose your penalties” wouldn’t have worked either.

      • luckyducky

        I would argue that there is no one right approach — there are right times, places, and contexts for the whole spectrum. My mom always told me that you only make your work harder of convincing someone to change their mind by encouraging people to put up their defenses at the start. And you encourage people to put up their defenses by being harsh.

        This is not so say there isn’t a time or place to be harsh but it is important to recognize that you are unlikely to be successful at changing the mind of the target of such tactics in the near term unless you have laid substantial groundwork though you may have more impact on some observers. Harsh, well-delivered censure from someone I know well or respect will (hopefully) cause me to reconsider. Harsh censure, not matter the quality, from someone I do not know well, is more likely to just lead me to the conclusion that person is a jerk.

        Unfortunately, I think that harsh tactics indiscriminately employed serve more to help the advocate/ally maintain of sense of moral integrity (not insignificant but from a non-ally’s perspective it reads more like reinforcing a sense of moral superiority and/or personal gratification) rather than move people.

        I disagree with Libby Anne in her reading of this particular exchange. I read it more as the preacher acknowledging his counterpart was trying his best given his background and information up to this point without agreeing or accepting as equally valid his conclusions. And, given he is both rightfully conscious of the reality and perception of cultural imperialism and a guest, it seems like a more fruitful approach than being in-your-face about it. Had any of those things been different (exchange between people of more or less equivalent privilege in a neutral space), harsher tactics could have been appropriate. It doesn’t help him move the conversation along if he’s kicked out and not invited back.

  • HelenaTheGrey

    Not to come off as harsh, but sometimes I really feel like you have quite a bit of that evangelical spirit left in you, and not in a good way. Sometimes your posts read as if you are writing from a pedestal, looking down upon and judging everyone who can’t live up to your perfect standards. I know that coming from a privileged status holds certain responsibilities, but sometimes, when you are trying to do the right thing, it feels like it isn’t even worth trying. Every time you mess up, swarms of people come to beat you up for not understanding the other side. It sounds to me like this Tony guy was trying very hard to do what was right, and here you swoop in to give him the beat down for not being perfect. Sounds pretty much like the Christian right to me. I really enjoy reading your posts and having my eyes opened to things I haven’t considered before, but this really irks me sometimes with some of your posts. It’s important to show grace, love, and forgiveness to everyone…not just those who are being oppressed. Especially when they are attempting to change the world for the better.

    • Nea

      I disagree. There is no reason to show grace, love, or forgiveness to people who are actually aiding oppression, no matter how good their intent. Intent is never more important than results – after all, nobody intended for the Titanic to sink! Furthermore, people will not understand the bad results of their well-meaning actions unless someone calls them out on it and explains the problem.

      • HelenaTheGrey

        That’s a street that works both ways. If you shame people who are trying to help, then people who would be aids stop being so. They become afraid to do anything. Your “intent” may be to correct them into doing the right thing, but in most cases your “result” is that people just give up and decide they can’t win, so they just don’t do anything. Then you shame them further for not taking a stand. See, both ways. There is a gracious and loving way to reproach someone or to correct their behavior. Shame isn’t on that list.

      • Nea

        in most cases your “result” is that people just give up

        Statistics, please. I would like to know the numbers that determine who have tried, and moreso, who has been put off because they were disagreed with. Otherwise, I see the word “most” as an attempt to shame those who disagree with you, not as a statement of fact.

        Then you shame them further for not taking a stand

        Statistics, please. Who has been shamed, by name, for *not* taking a stand? Especially on this blog? It’s not how Libby Anne rolls. Again, you are policing the tone, not bringing facts to the argument.

        Certainly I feel that your comment was an attempt to shame Libby Anne into silence, no matter how graciously and kindly it was put.

        I should probably note at this point that my personal experience in making the world a better place involves my putting myself physically between protesters and the people being protested against. So I really don’t have a lot of patience for the idea that things have to be “nice” for the people doing the world-changing to actually be bothered to put forth the effort to change the world. The President specifically name-checked Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall as touchstones for civil rights in this country. There wasn’t a lot of grace, love, and forgiveness given to the women who protested, the people who marched, or the men who fought police brutality. Instead, immense amounts of shame were heaped on them to “correct” their behavior back to the status quo.

        If you want things to be nice, that’s great – but you’re only going to get that if you sit down, be quiet, and stay with the flow. If you want to change the world, you’re going to have to deal with the fact that the people you are pushing against aren’t going to be gracious or loving, and that your allies don’t have to be gracious or loving either, especially if you are helping the oppressor instead of the cause. The response from someone who really cares about a cause to “you’re doing it wrong and here’s why” is “I agree, I will change” or “I disagree because…” but never “Well, if you’re going to be THAT way, I’m going to flounce out of this whole effort!”

    • BabyRaptor

      People who are actively oppressing and hurting others deserve no grace. Claiming that they do is taking their side, and aiding in their hurting of the victims. Please quit this. There is nothing anymore okay about it than there is about the oppressor’s actions.

      Every time someone says “Oh, they deserve grace and tolerance too!” they spit in the faces of the victims. And frankly, I’m tired of being spit on.

      • HelenaTheGrey

        Look, I am not attempting to spit in your or anyone’s face. The Mark Driscoll’s of the world, yeah, they deserve a good dose of the crap they dole out. I would never argue to the contrary, though I would argue it won’t change them. But honestly, I doubt God himself could come down and change Mark Driscoll’s attitude because that guy is a real piece of work. But that is NOT who I am saying deserves some grace. This guy, Tony, is trying to do the right thing. I think it is over-stretching to say he is actively oppressing and hurting people. And yeah, I think he deserves a little grace. Maybe he didn’t do things perfectly, but he is trying. You are of course welcome to disagree with me, but from personal experience, if someone is on my side, I try and give them the benefit of the doubt and when I feel they are doing something wrong, I approach them about it civilly, not using shame. When someone is clearly not on my side and being a complete and utter ass…well that is another story entirely. I’ve been known to lay my own personally brand of beat down on people like that before. But I had no delusions that I was winning them over to my side by doing so either. Of course, that wasn’t my intent.

    • Kate

      “It’s important to show grace, love, and forgiveness to everyone…”


  • Rilian

    I have some casual friends who think gayness is “gross” or whatever, but at least they don’t want to kill or imprison gay people. Oh, and I’ve actually met people who said that they are ok with same-sex couples getting married and having all the exact same rights as other married couples, just as long as they don’t use the word “marriage”. Buh. I don’t get it. Do they think that words are like magic spells or something? That it’s literally the sounds that matter and not the meaning?

    • Malitia

      Well. There is an old magical thinking superstition that you can have power over a thing through it’s name, or if it doesn’t have one naming it makes it yours…
      Also by keeping the name “marriage” while granting the rights by a different name they can compromise and feel progressive while pretending not to to the more rigidly conservative (or to their own hypocrisy).

    • Ken L.

      The best explanation that I can offer is that marriage is frequently viewed as a “sacrament” which is a somewhat nebulous term but in general can be considered a rite or ritual in which God is uniquely present. Here’s wikipedia’s article if you want it: For your average layperson it can frequently be considered “magic” if you want, but it would be rather uncouth to say that.

      Oddly enough, most of the typical fundagelical denominations consider themselves non-sacremental or only recognize Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as sacraments, not Marriage. In most cases they’re still going to treat it like one anyway.

      Tony (the blogger we are discussing) has an entry here which might help understand the issue in general and his views as well:

      • Carys Birch

        It’s only uncouth to say it because Christianity has framed the debate on its own terms for so long. “Magic = bad bad very bad unless it’s our god that does it… then it’s uh, uh, a SACRAMENT!”

        Call a spade a spade.

  • Christine

    I think that Tony dealt with it fairly well. I think that there are better ways to have done so, but it’s important not to let perfect be the enemy of good. What the conflict studies department* here teaches is basically “I disagree with you, but that’s not a reason we can’t talk about what each of us believes”. I don’t think that Tony was saying anything that justified hate, and he did a good job of saying “you believe something, and you have reasons for believing it”. It really depends on what the goals you have are. An ideological position, where it’s more important to communicate that gays should have the same rights as everyone else, and that restricting them is Bad, will have different methods to use than one where the goal is just to get more rights (and eventually equal rights) for gays.

    *the department offers majors, although very few people take them up on it. I don’t know what the split in their students between full-time students and community members going for conflict resolution diplomas is, but they focus on the practical, with a long-term goal of lasting, positive peace. I have only taken courses in this one department, so I don’t know if other groups have different philosophies, although as far as I know the field does tend to be dominated by pacifists.

  • Amazing Sandwich
  • Charlotte

    See, the problem I have with what are called “tone arguments” (criticizing someone because their tone was “mean”) is that it’s most often used as a way to dismiss what people are actually saying. Requesting people be polite and nice while being ignorant and generally obnoxious is a tried and true way of completely derailing constructive discussion, and I personally have no problem with people being “mean” when they encounter prejudice and hate. It’s not their job to educate people and it’s certainly not a right to request that they do.

    • Amazing Sandwich


    • Paula G V aka Yukimi

      When someone is personally affected (like a POC by a racist comment), they are less likely to be able to be calm because it is personal for them. They can’t be as detached as the offender and they may get angry and in our current society losing your temper, getting emotional or not being civil seems like the awfullest of crimes in conversation or debate (worst than being a sexist or a racist) and their arguments get dismissed because of tone and what not. So the people with the real experiences who know what is to suffer systematic oppression get silenced and that sucks. I value civil discussions but this is a real problem.

    • luckyducky

      I don’t disagree with you in general — in day-to-day social interaction, it is not an individual’s job to educate others about how they are discriminated against and how not to.

      However, in this particular instance, the individual in question is a member of the clergy and an avowed LGBT ally at a conference — in other words his purpose both professionally and in this particular context is to educate. It arguably serves his purpose best in this particular context to be less confrontational than some wish he would be and certainly than an LGBT person should be expected be if they just met this person in passing.

  • Christine

    Just because a certain method of argument can only be used by those with privilege, it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to use that method of argument. Privilege isn’t something that we can get rid of, nor is there a need to try. Yes, it’s important to recognise that not everyone can use the same tactics, but refusing to use tools you have, just because someone else doesn’t have them, isn’t productive either.

    • WMDKitty

      “Privilege isn’t something that we can get rid of, nor is there a need to try.”

      What a crock. I suppose you’d have been okay with, oh, women not getting the right to vote or own land, because “there’s no need to try and get rid of male privilege”. You’re probably also okay with slavery, and the subsequent Jim Crow laws, too, because “there’s no need to challenge white privilege”. Oh, and how about the ADA? Us disabled folks don’t need access to grocery stores, shopping malls, transit, or schools, or anything, nope, that’s a privilege reserved for the able-bodied!

      • Kate

        No, you see, people who make arguments like Christine made here believe that because women now have suffrage, and because slavery (at least, the slavery we learned about in school) and Jim Crow laws have been abolished, and because people with disabilities now have more recourse we actually live in a world mostly free from sexism, racism, ableism, etc. and it’s no longer necessary to fight against those things; things that (incidentally, I’m sure) don’t personally affect them.

      • luckyducky

        I don’t know if you are being entirely fair here. There is a gray distinction to be made here. Conventional use of privilege is that it is something extra, above and beyond, and relative. A person could be privileged 100 years ago relative to the rest of society but that same bundle of social and economic privileges would deprived now.

        Privilege used in this context often means an absolute bundle of social goods (for lack of a better term) that we actually want to expect as the norm. And as such, there has been a critique of the use of the word “privilege” for this. We don’t want “privileged” groups to give up those “privileges” but expand them so they are the norm.

        I can’t say for sure what Christine meant here but my college freshmen really struggled with this because they perceived identifying them as “privileged” by virtue of having quality k-12 education, good nutrition, a good relationship with law enforcement in their communities, etc. was some sort of indictment along the lines calling the those who eat gourmet hamburgers laced with gold leaf privileged. It took a lot of work to get them to understand that acknowledging that privilege was not about giving it up (unlearn calculus… well, I’ve done a decent job of it but don’t recommend it) or apologizing for it but it does infer the responsibility to work to expanding that source of privilege to others.

      • Christine

        Thank you luckyducky, that is pretty much what I was trying to express. The language I grew up with says that living in solidarity with the poor does not require that we live in poverty ourselves. Yes, buying organic produce is something that not everyone can afford, but if I deny myself that chance because it’s using the privilege of wealth, then I’m missing an opportunity to help the workers. I could go get a job that doesn’t require my education, or I can make sure that the infrastructure I help to build doesn’t disadvantage those who have less even further.

        One of the reasons to have allies in a fight to dismantle privilege is that those who do have privilege can make different arguments, be heard by different people, and generally increase the effectiveness (by increasing diversity) of the argument. There is no way I can rid myself of my privilege. Even were I to try and place myself in a position of not privilege (I really don’t have any, my circumstances pretty much cancel out any disadvantage from being a woman I might have), being able to choose to be in a position of privilege or not is an aspect of privilege. So instead of wasting my efforts on something which cannot be done (getting rid of my privilege), I’d rather use them more productively – being aware of my privilege, and of the fact that I have tactics available to me that a lot of people don’t, and using those tactics.