Sexism and ‘male white privilege’

Note – this post has been edited because the person mentioned later contacted me rather upset that her name had been used. I had no desire to cause anyone distress so I have removed her name.

This past couple of days has seen a minor shitstorm go down on a local Facebook group for teachers in the Changhua area, home to a couple of my friends. The kindling for the inferno was a post someone made about a Taiwanese woman looking for private English lessons and stating specifically that she would prefer a female teacher. This was a red rag to certain bulls and before long the thread was hijacked by allegations of sexism being thrown around with nary a thought for the woman’s thoughts and intentions. I disagree with the sexism label being used here.

For one thing it is overwhelmingly likely that since this is a request for private lessons then the woman is simply concerned with her safety and may also want to improve her conversational English to chat with other female friends. Stating that there is generally a massive difference between male and female topics and styles of conversation is not sexist, it’s merely pointing out a fact. Furthermore, even if it were purely a sexist remark then so what? There is no law against holding abhorrent views and unless you are an organisation or individual receiving taxpayer money for your endeavours then hire whoever you please.

This is all beside the point though. What really stoked some people’s fires was a statement by the woman who facilitated the initial request to the effect that this cannot be sexist because it is a woman making the request. This woman, going by the handle of ###, lambasted others for their lack of education and the fact that they hadn’t read enough Simone De Beauvoir (a good thing too, her writing style is dreadful) but went on to make the harmful, offensive and just reality-defying claim that sexism is a one-way street and that sexism towards men cannot exist because men haven’t had to endure millennia of instutionalised discrimination.

Not only does this fly in the face of every definition of sexism in dictionaries and encyclopaedias around the world (discrimination based on sex) but it contains a deeply disturbing underlying assumption, one more prevalent in fundamentalist sects of Abrahamic religions than anywhere else. Namely that the current generation of men trying to redress the age-old balance and institute some form of sexual and racial equality are somehow responsible for the uninformed and brutal behaviour of their ancestors and are therefore not deserving of the same protections they are attempting to provide others.

This is nothing but Bronze Age thinking transposed to the modern day and it simply doesn’t work. For starters it is based on nothing more than the ridiculous pre-genetic notion of bloodline and some manner of essence being passed down the generations. The simple fact is that I share around 50% of my genetic info with my father, 25% with my grandfather, 12.5% with my great-grandfather  and so on. Go back 10 generations and we’re as different as any two people on the planet. This great chain of sin simply doesn’t hold any water. By the same reasoning, if someone in Bulgaria returns a Transformers DVD late then everyone on Earth should be joining together to pay the fine.

Even if there were some great eternal chain joining me to those in my distant past, or even men in general, there still would be no grounds to hold me guilty of their crimes. The simple fact is that I am not them. I am not now and can never be responsible for the actions of another, neither my ancestors nor my offspring. As Sartre pointed out, the fundamental condition of humanity is that we are always responsible for our own actions and only our own actions. To imply otherwise, as ### did, is foolish and dangerous.

Now, in response to ###’s claims there were several angry replies, some implying that she was ‘crazy’ among other things. This provoked a backlash against the backlash (a frontlash?) and produced the usual excessively PC protestations one might expect when someone’s mental faculties have been questioned. This was amusing to me as clearly someone who is so detached from reality may well be described as ‘crazy’ or any equivalent yet mysteriously less offensive terms. What invoked my ire was the frontlasher playing one of the most misused and abused cards in modern debating history – Male White Privilege.

Now I believe I fully understand and appreciate the concept of MWP. By virtue of being born with white skin and a penis I have been almost assured an easier passage through life than many others. This isn’t due to some massive conspiracy or anything so sinister, it’s simply a result of history, the way the world is right now. MWP probably won’t exist in a few centuries but it does right now and the best that us white guys can do right now is to try to recognise it and be aware of it at all times.

However, that does NOT mean that non-whites and/or non-males have the right to use MWP as a sledgehammer in debates which aren’t going their way. This is how it was used on the conversation in question and how it is almost always employed in dialogue outside academic circles – as a tool of censorship. It essentially says “You were born with white skin and a dick so your opinion cannot carry any weight in situations regarding sex and/or race. Please be quiet and let us oppressed people get on with it.” A second’s consideration will reveal that this sentiment, while ostensibly well-meaning, is utterly vacuous and not in the slightest bit helpful.

Lets take it to its logical conclusion. I am a teacher. I teach English as a second language. I have never learned English as a second language. Therefore I am not qualified to teach it. Imagine I am a drug counsellor. I counsel addicts through their withdrawal and continued abstinence. Yet I have only personally been addicted to barbiturates so I cannot help those escaping heroin, cocaine, etc.

This is so obviously wrong yet it is the same mistake the abusers of the MWP card are making. I lack specific experience in a given situation so my opinions are rendered invalid. My right to engage in the debate is rescinded. Opinions are restricted to those already in the group and outside experience is neither desired nor required.

It saddens me that we still have to endure sexism, racism, homophobia (hey, why don’t they get an -ism?) and the like in the 21st century but that we do is a fact and we must deal with it and try to eradicate it as best we can. Attitudes like those above do not help this cause, they merely serve to frustrate those who would try to help and reduce the causes they are ostensibly promoting to warped caricatures, making it all the more difficult to engage with them productively. If people would stop being so over-sensitive, insanely PC and engaged in a little more rational analysis then perhaps we might work our way to a better world all the quicker.

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