Thursday, April 16, 2009

A deconstruction of "male privilege"

We start with the following, admittedly vague assumption: "background institutions" tend to fail in ensuring that people get what they deserve. Some people get too much; other people don't get enough. Call this the initial assumption.

(I will not address the question of whether it is the role of these "background institutions" to ensure that people get what they deserve.)

Since background institutions fail to give people what they deserve, and people should get what they deserve, our initial assumption may imply that (a) background institutions should be restructured, or (b) people living under the auspices of these background institutions (that would be all of us) have obligations to "make up" for the deficiencies of the background institutions.

Or, possibly, both (a) and (b). These are the normative implications of our initial assumption.

As I understand it, male privilege (MP) is the idea that men, as a class, get more than what they deserve from background institutions. Furthermore, it is the idea that much of what men get from these institutions comes at the expense of women. In short, men get more than what they deserve, and women get less.

Notice that the idea of MP does not differ terribly from our initial assumption. The difference is that MP is focused on the undeserved advantages of men and the undeserved disadvantages of women. MP may also have similar normative implications: (a) background institutions should be restructured, and (b) Men, in general, may owe obligations to women to make up for the differences in what they get versus what women get.

However, I do not think MP has these unique normative implications. Here is why:

Given the initial assumption, men -- as a class -- can be divided into two groups. In the first group are men who get more than they deserve. In the second group are men who get less than what they deserve. Furthermore, the first group of men can be further subdivided: there are men who get more than they deserve, primarily at the expense of other men. And there are men who get more than they deserve, primarily at the expense of women. MP only has unique normative implications if most men fall into this latter sub-group.

For suppose that most men get less than what they deserve. In this case, most men would not owe any special obligations to anyone. Rather, other people -- both men and women -- would owe obligations to them. Consider, for example, a true patriarchy: the king is in charge and his subjects, men and women, are used merely as means to his ends. In other words, the king exploits everyone.

In this situation, every man but the king would likely get less than he deserves. Only the king would get more than he deserves, and he would get it at the expense of everyone else. The king, I think, owes something to everyone else, men and women.

It might be argued that, even in this situation, men as a class would owe something: after all, one of "their own" is in charge. But this makes no sense. In this example, the king doesn't use his power to benefit men as a class; he merely uses it to benefit himself.

Now suppose there are many kings, all of them men, all of them in a position to exploit everyone else for their own benefit. Each of these kings gets more than what he deserves. Perhaps the kings even get together to coordinate their activities, to maximize their exploitative effectiveness as a class.

Obviously, there is something unjust about this situation. The kings owe us something, because they are getting more than they deserve, and they are getting it at our expense. But do exploited men owe women anything, just because the kings happen to be men? Why?

The example deserves to be continued (pun intended, of course.) Suppose that there is a ruling class, made up of men and women (but still mostly men.) Each person in this class gets more than he or she deserves. Each gets it at the expense of people who aren't in the ruling classes. Perhaps, sometimes, people in the ruling class find ways to exploit each other. For example, a male "king" might find ways to exploit a female "queen." In fact, perhaps this is the rule.

In this case, those in the ruling class get more than they deserve. Men in the ruling class exploit those in the lower class. They also sometimes exploit women in who happen to be in the ruling class. We might even say: on the whole, women are more exploited than men.

Do the men in the lower class owe anything to women? No! The men in the lower class are still getting less than they deserve. The women in the ruling class are getting more than they deserve, even if they are sometimes exploited. Men, except for those in the ruling class, do not have any privilege to speak of: they are, if anything, owed something by those in the ruling class. Men, as a class, owe nothing to women, as a class.

Now I think that this example has reached a point where it can touch the real world. Are there men who get more than they deserve? Absolutely. Are there women who get more than they deserve? Of course (pace some feminists who seem to think this is logically impossible.) The male corporate executive might get more than he deserves. The male worker gets sent to die in wars.

Do men get more than they deserve more often than women? Sure. Probably. But what's the normative significance? Turn back to (a) and (b), and consider the latter first. The men who get more than they deserve owe something to those who get less than they deserve. But "those" include men and women. The obligation on these men is not to women as such but to everyone in the "lower" class. Do women who get more than they deserve owe something to men? Yes, by the same logic.

And so we have deflated the idea of MP: it turns out to be not very important, as it simply reiterates the idea that those who get more than they deserve owe something to those who get less, especially if the former get what they have at the expense of the latter.

Now turn to (a), what we can call the broader normative implication. How should we restructure background institutions? They should be restructured so that they are better able to give people, men and women, what they deserve. This means that some men will get less. It also means some women will get less. What it does not require is that background institutions give women more than men generally, since both fill the roles of the exploited class.


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