Privilege and the comments section

So, yesterday I watched and tweeted this video from ASAPThought on Youtube. (I adore their other channel ASAPScience, so this is a no-brainer.)

I thought it was a pretty thoughtful video that made privilege (which has become a new buzzword) a more accessible concept. It’s not even making a radical point, which is that Youtube is a diverse community (fact) and wouldn’t it be great if that diversity were reflected in the top Youtuber rankings. Pretty straightforward, right?

Then I read the comments section.

I know, I know. “Julia, why would you ever read the comments section?”

It’s actually a thing I do on a semi-regular basis. In a lot of ways, I’m an internet ghost, despite my blogs and overactive Twitter feed. I’m not really a content-creator or commenter and I don’t participate in many online communities. So for me, reading the comments feels relatively safe. Same thing with this blog. Sure, it’s public but it’s really just my tiny corner of the internet. If you find this and feel the need to chastise me about my bleeding-heart liberal ideals . . . I really wonder what you’re doing with your day.

The point being, while I typically don’t enjoy reading the comments section, I’m interested enough in what people think to brave them anyway. Because, as I’ve said ad nauseum, I’m a humanist. I believe we’re rational beings. I really, really do. Really.

Okay, it’s a difficult thing to espouse after reading the comments on the video. Maybe I’m feeling more like Spinoza today. “Sure, all human beings are rational creatures, but most of them will never ever exercise that rationality.” <—Spinoza paraphrase from the Theologico-Political Treatise.

I know the concept of privilege makes a lot of–mostly privileged people–angry. They look at the circumstances of their own lives and can only see their lack of privilege, i.e., the ways they have experienced disadvantages within the system. But privilege is so much more pervasive, insidious, and complicated than one instance or one set of experiences. And it’s not absolute. No one is saying that white men are literally handed two bags of money and a steady job when they’re born. It’s about patterns and inclinations and social norms. And it exists across multiple-demographics at a time even within the same person. E.g. You might be born a middle class white male in America and have all of the privilege that corresponds to those qualities, but if you’re gay, you lack straight privilege. That doesn’t erase all of your other privilege. It just means that in media and situations where straight privilege matters, you take no advantage.

It’s not an easy thing to wrap your head around and I’m still learning about it. And the idea of my own privilege (as a white, cisgender, middle-class American) definitely makes me feel guilty and uncomfortable. But rather than insist stubbornly that privilege doesn’t exist, I want to think more deeply about it and better understand how to adjust for it.

But there are few discussions to that point happening in the comments section of this video or others like it. And there are a whole host of “Debunking White Male Privilege” responses. Which makes me…sad.

There’s been a lot to be sad about on the internet lately. I won’t get into GamerGate, as I’m sure you’re all tired of it, too. But like I said, I’m a humanist. It’s naïve and overly idealistic to believe you can always have a rational conversation with people, but it’s really depressing to me to think of so many people as unreachable. Not in the evangelistic, “let me educate you” sense–because isn’t that the problem with the comments section to begin with?–but at least in a respectful way that leaves both parties more thoughtful.

A lot of this has made me think of my recent round of graduate school and the frustrations I had talking about race and gender within that context. I haven’t been writing on Dead White Guys, partly because writing about Plato is hard! But also because I still have a lot of negative emotions to work through on that score. I’m sick of feminism being a dirty word or inclusiveness being dismissed as the “liberal agenda.” I’m sick of feeling that I have to apologize for wanting things to be better and being told I should feel bad because I’m taking from another group when I want equality. And I’m tired of feeling like I’m talking to a wall when I want to engage people in discussion.

Plus, I have this feeling that all of this is just holding all of us back.


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