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Saturday, March 03, 2012

SF/F Rant of the Day: Privilege is Not Equal

You’re probably already familiar with the shitstorm that erupted on Peter Watts’ blog over acrackedmoon’s “review” of R. Scott Bakker’s novels.  If not, then you should glance through to see what has been going on (this is not the same as the other shitstorm which also involved acrackedmoon’s comments, though certainly the issues are related).

Here, I am interested in one particular issue:  the question of privilege.  But before I do that, I want to say a few quick things:

  1. I harbor no ill will towards Peter Watts, acrackedmoon, R. Scott Bakker, or any of the people involved in the comments.  I may not like some of the commentators, but that’s a separate issue.
  2. I think Watts makes some valid points.  I think acrackedmoon makes some valid points.  I think they both occasionally put their feet in their mouths and say things that are counterproductive to discussion and debate.  They are both human beings.
  3. I understand why acrackedmoon takes the approach that she does, and while I do not always agree with that approach (sometimes I think she shuts off debate by being overly aggressive when taking a step back might be more productive), I think many of the issues she attacks are ones we should be concerned about anyway.  I think it’s more pathetic that we don’t think about the problems she raises (such as the treatment of women in literature, racism, etc.) except when someone throws “a fit” and uses “bad words.”  For the record:  from what I know of Mr. Watts, he is concerned with many of the same issues and reflects that in his writing (this based on my friend’s obsession with him as a writer).
  4. I do not agree that the “tone argument” is invalid in all instances, as I’ve said before.  But I do not agree that responding to another’s “tone” with a similar “tone” makes you look any more “civilized” than the person you’re attempting to delegitimize.

Now that all of that is out of the way, I’d like to draw your attention to one problematic comment left on Peter Watts’ blog by someone calling himself Giorgio.
Who the hell do you think you are? Who the hell do _she_ think she is? What makes you think that she can arrogate herself any kind of representative role? Who the hell gave _you_ the right to decide who someone can or cannot represent? I’m _sure_ all those tormented people feel better now that someone finally can be obnoxious on the Internet in their place.
 Get down off your high horse, ACM is a privileged woman from a privileged background (a Thai Chinese!) who speaks a very good English and is completely steeped in North American culture in a country where only 10% of the population speaks any English at all, who has access to Internet in a country where only a quarter of the population has any kind of connection and apparently has a lot of free time she can spend reading fantasy books and maintaining a constant Internet presence.
 If _she_ can represent someone, I surely can decide that I’m the voice of billions of farmers and factory workers and as such I’m happy to tell her that she’s an obnoxious bourgeois and should start thinking about doing something productive and useful to make up for the history of prevarication and oppression who gave her her role in society.
There is one fundamental problem here:  the assumption that “shared privileges” are equal.  Let’s take as true that acrackedmoon is an upper class Thai woman and that a marker of that is the fact that she has apparently unfettered access to the Internet (the commenter’s statistic is wrong, by the way:  25.5% of Thais have Internet access, but another 66+ million and change use mobile phones – that’s practically the entire population of Thailand; determining how many of those mobile users also use their phones to access the Internet is a little difficult, but if Africa is any indication, phone-to-Internet access is likely more common than standard Internet in countries previously dubbed as “third world.”  You also have to take into account other forms of Internet access, such as cafes, etc. – basically, we need to seriously get beyond this “she’s got the Internet, so she must be totally privileged because Thailand is a backward bumfuck country where everyone lives in rice patties and huts” bullshit.  Backwards my ass.). 

What do these assumptions tell us about acrackedmoon?  That she has privilege within her country of residence.

One way to think of this is to use the Internet as an analogy:  if I have access to the Internet through broadband, but acrackedmoon only has dialup, could we reasonably suggest that our access is the same?  Are the privileges equal?  The answer:  no.  While we both benefit from having access, that does not mean we benefit in the same way, or that we have the same level of access.  The same is true if we think only in terms of nations.  A privileged woman in Thailand is certainly better off than lower class Thais, but is she better off than an American woman (or, as the comments seem to suggest, a white American male)?  If you think the answer to that question is “yes,” then you are naïve as best, or an utter idiot at worst.

Yes, acrackedmoon has privilege, but only within the context of her country of residence.  Compared to myself, a white, straight male living in Florida on a University stipend?  We might be more equal, but there are still things that I have which are not as easily accessible to her, and our relationships to our countries of residence are not the same.  I am not as privileged in America as acrackedmoon supposedly is privileged in Thailand, and yet in relating our positions it becomes clear that we are not equal from a socio-economic perspective.

I’m not saying this in order to speak down to acrackedmoon or Thais; rather, I’m bringing this up because it is important for all of us to understand where we are in relation to everyone else in the world.  This is why so much work went into fundraising for Charles Tan at Bibliophile Stalker so he could attend the 2011 WorldFantasy Convention.  Charles lives in the Philippines and writes on his blog about issues relevant to this post (currency conversions, book prices, flight costs, and how all these relate to on the-ground salaries).  I’m proud of my community for helping bring Charles to the States for WFA, and I hope we will do something like this for someone else in the future.

The point is this:  privilege is not equal.  It doesn’t matter that acrackedmoon has privilege in Thailand, because it does not mean that she is the same as privileged people elsewhere.  Using the privilege argument is little more than a delegitimizing tactic which only shows the impoverished state of one’s argument.  “She has privilege, so we don’t have to pay attention” is little more than a longwinded way of saying “whatever.”  Last time I checked, that was a rather childish way to get out of dealing with another’s argument.

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  1. Anonymous4:41 PM

    Have you taken leave of your senses?

    She's richer than most middle class white Americans if she can afford to attend school IN ENGLAND.
    Or she bagged one hell of a scholarship.
    Either way, her privilege puts the moral onus on her to better her country and poor. Not to sit on the internet all day and snipe at sheltered white people. None of your points absolve her of this.

  2. That she's richer than most middle class white Americans (I don't know that this is true, but whatever) doesn't change the socio-economic differences between nations. Rather, it points more clearly to the disparities between national socio-economic statuses, specifically as they relate to colonial territories or those nations impacted by imperialist ventures. A lot of people in very poor African countries get to go to fancy schools in England too; that doesn't mean they have the same socio-economic or social status as similarly rich people in England OR to average middle class people in the same region. That logic relies on a false even comparison between nations with vastly different contemporary situations and vastly different histories and relationship to other nations.

    Second, her privilege does mean she has _some_ responsibility to better her own country, but you are false to assume that that does not mean she cannot criticize "sheltered whites" from elsewhere. Here you've made another false assumption: that the conditions on the ground in Thailand are wholly the fault of people _in Thai_, and that there is no place for consideration of outside influences. The problem that acrackedmoon often tries to illuminate (albeit sometimes rather poorly, in my opinion) is the way ideology in the West influences the southeast (specifically, her country of origin). This is well documented in historical and cultural studies scholarship.

    So, yes, she does have some responsibility as a presumably upper class Thai (I'm not sure that she is, but whatever), but that doesn't invalidate her criticisms of the rest of us by virtue of the fact that what is often said and adopted in the West has an eventual influence on territories affected by Western ideology.

    Thanks for the comment, anonymous as it is.