Monday, April 13, 2009

Why "male privilege" probably doesn't matter

I'm not claiming that "male privilege" (MP) does (or does not) exist. My claim is narrower: if MP exists, it has little normative significance. It does not give us reasons to do (or not do) things we had no reason to do (or not do) anyway.

A useful "checklist" of male privileges can be found here. As for a definition, I quote the following from the Feminist 101 FAQ:

Male privilege is a set of privileges that are given to men as a class due to their institutional power in relation to women as a class. While every man experiences privilege differently due to his own individual position in the social hierarchy, every man, by virtue of being read as male by society, benefits from male privilege
More generally, privilege is:
About how society accommodates you. It’s about advantages you have that you think are normal. It’s about you being normal, and others being the deviation from normal. It’s about fate dealing from the bottom of the deck on your behalf.
So, to summarize, male privilege involves a package of benefits men get for being men. They get the package from background institutions that systematically deprive women of the same privileges.

This definition is hopelessly incomplete without saying something about the term "benefit." Benefits come in objective and subjective forms. Person X is benefited objectively when he really is better off, according to the standards that matter, than he was prior to receiving the benefit. Person X is subjectively benefited when he only thinks he is better off after receiving the alleged benefit.

I think what feminists have in mind is objective benefit. Since men receive MP without even being aware of it, the kind of benefit they receive can't be subjective in the sense I defined. It has to be objective (objective benefit can include certain subjective states, insofar as having those subjective states is an objective benefit.)

MP thus involves men benefiting objectively from their status as men. And, furthermore, the benefits must somehow be withheld from women, in virtue of their status as women. Indeed, in the worst case, the benefits men receive must somehow be produced precisely by depriving women of similar benefits.

I think that's enough for the argument. What I'm responding to is the way some feminists seem to use privilege as an all purpose hammer. For example, Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon recently objected to the way some men assert that some women look better without makeup. In the comments, a man said he really didn't see the point of wearing makeup, and was attacked for showing male privilege. When a woman said the same thing, it was pointed out that this was permissible, since when she was saying it, it wasn't a demonstration of privilege.

For simple reasons, this use of the privilege card is pernicious and epistemologically dubious. If a person raises a valid concern -- points to a fact that provides a reason to do or feel a certain way -- then his privileged status doesn't undermine the validity of the concern. As I've said before, a valid argument is a valid argument. If a male makes a valid argument, the validity isn't undermined even if he is privileged viz-a-viz women.

So, in this sense, male privilege doesn't matter: it doesn't turn good arguments into bad ones.

Second, I'm not sure how much male privilege matters, morally speaking. Consider, again, the notion of a "benefit." I can think of think of very few things that qualify as benefits as such. Suppose background institutions were such that men were generally expected to fight in wars, and were the only people accorded the right to vote.

These background institutions would be objectionable. But not because one of their major benefits was only given to men. The institutions would be objectionable because, in this case, women should have the right to help determine the nature of government. If no one had the right to vote, the institutions would be even more objectionable. The fact that certain benefits are given solely to men doesn't make the background institutions objectionable. They're objectionable simply because they're not given to everyone.

Now look at it from the other side. Social institutions don't often give out benefits freely. Benefits always come with strings attached. In my example, a major string is the expectation that men should fight in wars. This imposes a major hardship. By referring to the package of benefits as a "privilege", feminist writers ignore the costs imposed on those who receive the benefits.

Am I saying that every privilege a male receives is offset by a cost? No. That would be ridiculous. Some men -- rich, politically connected -- are better able to shift the costs of their privilege on to others. But so are some women. The ability to shift the costs of privilege is itself a privilege -- I get this. But it makes it very hard to speak of "male privilege" per se, since those who bear the costs of the privilege of others are just as likely to be men as women.

Or, at least, I've never seen any argument that, in general, the costs associated with "male privilege" are shifted exclusively on to women. History doesn't support that contention. Rich men sent poor men to die in wars. They did not -- could not -- shift that cost on to women. The claim that women are generally less privileged viz-a-viz men needs more support. For every so-called privileged man, I can probably show another male who had costs shifted on to his life by other, even more privileged men. And I can probably show women who had costs shifted on to their lives by other women.

Privilege, it seems, is a slippery thing. Rich women were once expected to bear children: definitely a burden. But they had the privilege of shifting some of the costs of that burden on to other women. Meanwhile, poor men were expected and, indeed, legally required to fight in wars. Again, definitely a burden. And there was no one to whom they could shift that burden. Of course, poor men received a package of benefits, too: no question. Did those benefits outweigh their burdens? I have no idea, and no feminist knows either.

And this is why male privilege doesn't matter: for any "male privilege" I can show a male burden that comes as part of the package. Some men can shift that burden on to men or other women, true. But are men, in general, capable of fully sloughing off those burdens on to others? No one has shown that, and it's probably not true. Some men can do so. Others cannot. Some probably bear burdens that wholly outweigh whatever meager benefit they get from society.

Mutatis mutandis for women, of course.

But the idea that men generally receive benefits from society that outweigh whatever burdens society imposes on them is left un-argued for, and probably unarguable.

Finally, there is the problem that no singular, monistic, objective sense of "benefit" can plausibly be defined. To some men, having to fight in wars is probably a benefit, given their temperament, skills, etc. To others, having to fight is a major burden. Are men who enjoy the trials of war more privileged than the men who don't? Are the men who enjoy fulfilling the expectations society places on men more privileged than those who do not?

Perhaps. And that opens another can of worms. Feminists have proceeded as if the notion of "benefit" can be simply defined, and that men simply receive them, passively. But society's expectations can be interpreted as good or bad. If male privilege is supposed to matter, then it must be argued (a) that the benefits men receive viz-a-viz their privilege really are benefits, and not a complicated package deal with burdens attached that outweigh the benefits, and (b) that, when there are burdens attached to the benefits, men in general are able to slough the burdens off on other women.

If either (a) or (b) fail to obtain, then you don't have "male privilege": you just have some story about how society imposes different burdens and benefits on its members, and about how some of those members resent the imposition. Some people appreciate the package. Some people don't. Some people (usually rich) are able to shift some of their burdens on to others. Some people (usually poor) get the shaft.

But that's not as dramatic a story as the one about the eternal Patriarchy, so I can see why feminists avoid it.

But what follows from it? Something like this: people should have to bear the burdens associated with their benefits. And people who want a different deal (a different package of benefits and burdens) should be free to pursue that possibility with other like-minded individuals. This gives us a reason to: (a) not shift the burdens on to others, and (b) not take up a social benefit without being acknowledging the burdens that go along with it.

However, these are things we would have reason to do apart from the existence of male privilege. The general prohibition involves "burden shifting", or, more generally, receiving social benefits without acknowledging the costs. Since both men and women can do this, the reason applies to both.


Mike Brock said...


If I can be so bold the defend the feminists on this issue a little bit.

I agree that the term "male privilege" has been taken to extreme by many feminists, but I think you might be making the same mistake in criticizing the term, as they're making in overusing it.

I know many feminists (my wife included) who use the term male privilege, but also think that men are disadvantaged in much the same way women are. A great number of feminists have explored how sexism towards women is effectively sexism towards men simultaneously.

The prime example of this is that men are expected to be "strong', "not show emotion", etc. And men who do not fit into this archetype end up being called woman-like. The fact that being woman-like for a man is an insult, also reinforces the fact that women are the lesser sex, but also constrains men to a specific social expectation.

Male privilege however, speaks to certain social expectations of men and women, where-as men are permitted certain social behaviours, while women are denied the same.

An example is the common: A male boss who rules with an iron fist is called a: hardass. A women boss who does is called: a bitch.

The argument is, that women can't get away with as much.

Is it socially acceptable for a woman to go outside with hairy legs, hair messy, looking like a pile of shit? Not really.

But for men, such laziness is par for the course. Nobody does a double take when a man looks like that.

There is no doubt that certain, radical, feminists take some of their social theories to extremes; there's a lot of deconstructionist thought sloshing around feminist academics, so what do you expect?

That doesn't mean there isn't plenty of good cultural observations to be taken from feminists.

Terrence C. Watson said...


You've got a point, and I didn't mean to blast feminism in general. Actually, this whole post is too long and rambling, at least partially because I was trying to be fair.

But there are two ways male privilege was invoked I was attacking:

1. When it's used as a reason to dismiss an argument. I think we both agree that this is not a legitimate move. And, to be fair, not all feminists make that move (a lot of the ones I read do, though.)

2. When it's used to make the case that men, in general, receive more undeserved benefits from "background institutions" than women.

You're right that men get some undeserved benefits. The example of the male hardass vs. the female bitch is a good one.

But the privilege of being able to act like a hardass is part of a package deal. It comes with costs, too. For the benefit of that privilege, you're also expected to fight in wars, perform dangerous tasks, support your spouse financially at all times, even if you're sick, etc.

I've never seen an argument that the package deal works out in favor of men generally. It sure works out in favor of the corporate executive, who won't ever need to fight in a war. But for poor men, I need to be convinced that the benefits of "privilege" are worth the costs, if I am to take seriously the idea that male privilege has unique normative implications.

And I know feminists do emphasize the costs to men... sometimes. But what I'd really like them to admit is that, nowadays, the package the rich white woman gets is quite a bit better than the package that (for example) the poor black man gets.

But admitting that would require us to talk about the problem of unearned privilege in general. It might require us to admit that there is nothing uniquely problematic about male privilege.

"Male privilege" might matter, but it doesn't matter all that much, relative to all the other forms of privilege out there.

Thanks for your response. I think we see pretty eye to eye on this. I'm sorry this post, in particular, was so rambling. It certainly didn't come out the way I wanted it.

Some of my other posts are a bit more concise :-)

Colin said...

Mike, I find your argument about the male "hardass" and female "bitch" a little weak. I myself would definitely refer to the male as an asshole or dick. I think a lot of people would.

Your statement about men who go out in public looking rough being acceptable I also disagree with. I think a lot of people would be skeptical of anyone who presented themself in public in a messy fashion.

BigFred said...

Hi Terrence!

I found this post very enlightening. If you don't mind I'd like to use it for one of my posts on my blog?


Terrence C. Watson said...


Sure. Why not?

Anonymous said...

The idea of being a victim has become quite appealing, whether one is black, a woman, jewish or a homosexual. And when speaking about being a victim there is a tendency to have simplistic victim (all and wholly good) and victimizer (all and wholly bad) type over generalizations. It is appealing because one can feel good about oneself by being a victim and one can get privileges given to one by the State by making it illegal to question any of my assertions.

Danny said...

Hi Terrence I made my way over from a link by BigFred and I have to say that this post helps get to the center of privilege arguments.

Far too many times have I seen feminists dismiss someone's argument as privilege in much the same you you mention Pandagon and the makeup.

Privilege, it seems, is a slippery thing. Rich women were once expected to bear children: definitely a burden. But they had the privilege of shifting some of the costs of that burden on to other women. Meanwhile, poor men were expected and, indeed, legally required to fight in wars. Again, definitely a burden. And there was no one to whom they could shift that burden. Of course, poor men received a package of benefits, too: no question.I have to say that one way some feminists would address the situation you mention here is to try their hardest to assert the cultural differences of the poor men you mention here which may or may not be an intentional effort to divert away from the gender issue at hand. Those poor men are being sent to die because of their gender as much as their economic status.

An example is the common: A male boss who rules with an iron fist is called a: hardass. A women boss who does is called: a bitch.I have to say that this is a pretty weak argument as Collin said. The male boss with the iron fist is called a dick or an asshole. Yes the woman with an iron fist is called a bitch but her gender does not give her the monopoly on being called mean names.

AlekNovi said...

""Actually, this whole post is too long and rambling, at least partially because I was trying to be fair.""

Terrence, I liked your post, and I think it would have been much more effective if you were single-minded.

One thing I've noticed is that the more you try to be "fair", the more your message gets diluted, and the more you are criticized by the people you actually tried to be FAIR to!!

Going too one-dimensional is bad too... I think 1-2 words here and there to clear up that you're taking all dimensions into account is good enough... any more and you start rambling.

There will always be radicals who will completely distort what you're saying, no matter how fair you are. There is no point trying to appease them as your messaged gets diluted in the process.

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