Thursday, January 24, 2013

On Platforms, Privilege, Controversy and Conversation

CAUTION: Stream of consciousness.

I haven't written in a while, and it's not because I'm incredibly busy (although I am), and it's not that I don’t have anything to write about (because I do).

It’s because there are already too many voices, and so very many times, I feel like mine’s just adding to the noise.

So I’ve been trying to take more time to listen.

You see, you start a blog and a couple people like what you have to say (most of them family and close friends), and then those couple of people tell a couple of other people and the next thing you know you have a “platform” (bloggers love this word…I mean, like LOVE IT love it, to the point that when I read yet another post/tweet/status update about it I want to bash my head through the computer screen) Once you’ve got your “platform” (I will always use the uber-sarcastic scare-quotes when using that word in this context), blogging is really no different than stump speeches and political campaigning in a few key ways:
  1. You’re up on stage, saying important things that may or may not be followed by any kind of action. 
  2. Most of the people listening already agree with you anyway (or at least are inclined to do so). 
  3. You’re faced with the occasional heckler (though in the blog world, it’s that most courageous of souls, the anonymous internet commenter, or more affectionately: the troll).
Here’s the thing about a “platform” though: by definition, it elevates. It privileges the words of the speaker. It gives a sense of authority (whether or not it is deserved) to those who would stand upon it.

And like politicians, we bloggers tend to get a little too enamored with that authority (or maybe I’m just projecting here).

So let’s take a second to talk about privilege and why it matters in this conversation. 

First things first, what do I mean when I say privilege? Put simply, I mean it is the set of advantages that members of a particular gender/race/class/religion/etc enjoy in society simply for being a member of that particular gender/race/class/religion/etc in that society.

Privilege is, to put it bluntly, the lubrication on the gears of inequality.  

Someone once broke it down for me in perhaps the most relatable analogy ever (I can’t for the life of me remember who, maybe Danielle over at From Two to One?). [Edit: The analogy comes from John Scalzi's blog, the full text of which can be found here. Thanks to Jessica for the tip.]  Privilege operates like that option when you’re getting ready to play a video game:

Please select difficulty level:


It’s like this; for me as a white, straight, middle-class, Christian, able-bodied (mostly, anyway) dude, there should probably be another setting above “Easy” that says “seriously bro, you pretty much barely even have to try.”

The common objection to this characterization of privilege is the age-old “bootstrap” comeback that says, “I got everything I have by my own hard work.”

Respectfully: no, you didn’t.

I’m not devaluing your hard work at all, it certainly matters a great deal, but there are others who do not enjoy your privileged status in society that have worked both quantitatively and qualitatively harder than you have, yet still they are not successful. The opposite is also true: there are others who have put in virtually no work, but because they enjoy a more privileged position in society than you do, are more successful than you, despite your hard work.

Look, if “hard work” was actually the currency of success, women in sub-Saharan Africa would likely be the most successful, prosperous demographic in the world...

...and politicians would be the least successful.

Neither of those is the case.

That should tell us something about the interaction between hard work and privilege.

Why all of this matters is simple: blogging can easily become an echo-chamber of privilege, where we turn controversy into currency for the sake of building a constituency, and cash-in on tragedy for publicity. But the real question is, to what end? Or better yet, at what cost? 

So where am I going with all of this? To be honest: I really have no idea. All I know is that the blogosphere, and especially the Christian blogosphere, is saturated with privileged people. Now granted, any kind of analysis of bloggers is going to be skewed since it kind of presupposes a certain level of privilege. (I mean, if you have a computer, internet access, and enough spare time to crank out a couple of blog posts a week, chances are you’re not doing too terribly bad.)

But here’s the real rub: every time the controversy-of-the-day erupts and the interwebz go crazy talking about it, the voices of those who really need to be heard are drowned out by the voices of those who are yelling from their "platforms." The voices of those whose lives are actually affected by this latest controversy are lost in the din of those pontificating from their platforms of privilege (me, all too often, included). There is rarely an attempt to empathize with this Other in these conversations, but rather, the focus too often seems to be to use the Other as a means to achieving a particular political/theological end. It’s exploitative, and in the end, it just doesn’t do anyone any good, especially those most vulnerable, the ones we’ve effectively silenced by turning their struggles into a commodity to be exploited.

Well, I’m not quitting, if that’s what you’re wondering, although it’s certainly tempting (and that was pretty much my intention when I started writing this). I may slow down a bit, and change the tone, but the fact remains that all of the stuff that I hate most about the world of blogs and blogging and bloggers is the very same stuff that compels me to keep at it. There are so very few places where genuine dialogue might take place. There are so very few voices who speak for the most vulnerable.

Now I’m certainly not saying that I’ve got it all figured out by any means (seriously people, I’m a disaster), and I will probably continue to fail just as often as I succeed in my endeavor to start honest, safe conversations about the really important things.

But I will keep trying.
I hope you’ll continue to be a part of the conversation.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Let's try commenting with the right account this time...

    The video game analogy comes from this great post from John Scalzi's blog.

    For anyone looking for more on privilege, I've started a list of some of the best things I've read that helped explain the concept to me.

    1. Thanks so much for the tip, Jessica. I went ahead and put a link to John's post in.

      Thanks for the list as well. There's some great stuff in there!

  3. So many great points here, Luke. I especially appreciated your distinction of bloggers as a privileged group and how the voices that need to be heard are often drowned out by those who don't.

    1. Thanks, Leigh. It was a bit random and scattered, so I'm glad you were able to pull something out of it. :)

  4. Luke: How would you organize the many things that you placed under your definition for privilege? As you said it on Twitter, how is the sausage made?

    1. I think there a couple of ways that we could go about defining privilege. We could define it negatively (by what is absent from those lacking privilege) or positively (by what is present in those who are privileged), but I think in practice, we (or at least I) end up combining elements of both for a richer (even if a bit more complex) definition.

      It's also important to note that the list of things I mentioned as determinative factors in terms of privilege is in no way exhaustive, nor is it universally applicable. Since privilege is a social construct, its determinative elements can vary depending on the societal context it is constructed in.

      So, toward a constructive definition of privilege that can actually do the work we require it to...

      If we imagine an ideal state of affairs in this context, we'd probably call it something like "perfect equality." Given that ideal, it's tempting to define privilege fairly simply as variation from that ideal state, but the difficulty then is quantifying that variation. We touched on it on twitter, but I think the problem we face is that privilege isn't binary (either you have it or you don't), it's relative (you have it in relation to another). This is why I chose to define it positively (in "the set of advantages..."), because it's difficult to define the disadvantages of the marginalized without relating specifically to the advantages of the privileged.

      So, if our working definition of privilege is that it is a set of advantages that society conveys upon individuals because of their membership in a particular set, the question then is what happens when membership and non-membership in particular privileged sets overlaps? We end up with a kind of composite picture of privilege that isn't always easy to define, and I'm not sure that it can be defined objectively in a way that is universally applicable. We could try to "rack and stack" particular set memberships into a hierarchy that would provide us with some kind of framework for determining levels of privilege, but I've a strong inclination that such a framework would likely only be applicable within the narrow confines of our own societal context. [Really though, I guess I don't feel like it's my place to define the terms of my own privilege. I can't say objectively "All things being equal, it's harder to be a poor woman" than a disabled person of color", so I feel like it would be disingenuous for me to try.]

      So, to finally get around to your original question of how I organize the things I placed under my definition of privilege, I think I intuitively place class, race and gender "toward the top of the pile," because I think set membership in those categories has been, statistically speaking, demonstrated to be somewhat more determinative, but I think that's probably just the analyst in me who wants hard data..I don't really have a strong theoretical reason for weighting those categories more heavily.

      Sorry, this ended up being a lot longer than I intended, but I hope it at least gives a little bit of insight into where I'm coming from on this and provides some launching points for a conversation. :)

    2. Luke: I like your move to define it in relationships rather than in binary categories. I think that's helpful.

      A few more questions:

      1) "So, if our working definition of privilege is that it is a set of advantages that society conveys upon individuals because of their membership in a particular set..." If we are going to speak about privilege as a set of advantages, then can we talk about race/sex/class under the umbrella of privilege, or are we simply speaking of something that correlates to privilege? (For example, men generally make more money than women. Higher income is the privilege, maleness has a place in the cause of the privilege). I realize that this may sound like splitting hairs, but I think that it is important in the discussion to keep the terms clear. To me, maleness is privileged, but not the privilege itself.

      2) "Really though, I guess I don't feel like it's my place to define the terms of my own privilege" If this is the case, do you think that the only person that can speak about privilege is the one who lacks a privilege in a relationships? For instance, is a woman who makes less money than a man in the same job the only one that can dialogue about that privilege? And, if your answer to this is yes, can a person from a group that is not privileged whose individual experience is contrary to the norm continue to speak about privilege (i.e., in the previous example, if a woman makes more than a man in the same position, does she lose her voice or retain it?).

      3) "a set of advantages that society conveys upon individuals because of their membership in a particular set" Finally, how do you conceptualize society? If you think that society is the will of a conglomerate of individuals, then are we simply speaking of individuals conveying privilege onto other individuals? Or, does society have its own being, making it other than a group of individuals (their values, actions, etc)?

      So that I'm not only asking questions, I will show my hand a bit. I am trying to clarify these three questions because:

      1) I am clarifying terminology because I think that the word 'privilege' is oft used and little understood. When certain moves begin within a culture, their terms begin to become sloppy (I'm not accusing you of this...have just noticed it in many forums over the past few years). Being white is not in itself a privilege in our culture, it is a privileged position. Thus, to speak of "white privilege" is speaking of the privileges themselves associated with a certain factor, and not necessarily whiteness. In certain areas of the US, privilege is associated with other cultures. All this is to say that, if we are not quite careful with what we say things can quickly devolve into subjective moves toward fuzzy goals.

      2) If I am reading you correctly, then I think that privileging the one who is not privileged within a conversation may not be the best direction to go. In a relationship between two people where one has a privilege that the other does not, it seems as if it is missing the point to add a privilege to the other person. I am probably a bit gun shy about this in light of what happened with Christianity in the 4th c. It began the century as the persecuted, and became the persecutor under Theodosian. Class warfare seems reminiscent of this (not physical, of course) in our contemporary political setting. I'm not a Marxist, but I think that his understanding of power relationships is a significant part of a very complex situation.

      3) My final question is there because I think that society is the composite of individuals. I think that is scary for us because, if that is the case, we are the bad guys (and we don't like to be the bad guys...we like to have an "other" upon which we can lay blame).

      My apologies, Luke, for writing so much. I understand if you don't have time to read all of this. If you do, I look forward to your thoughts.

    3. 1) I tend to view privilege instrumentally, as the mechanism itself, whereas the benefits of that privilege (such as the income gap) are a distinct result of privilege. I think it's about drawing a distinction between privilege and privileges. Does that make sense? And I'd certainly agree with you that maleness is not the privilege, I think the privilege lies in the normative claims that our society/ies make about maleness.

      2) It's not that I don't think that I can talk about privilege, it's more like I feel like there are more than enough people who come from privileged backgrounds trying to define privilege on their own terms, and the conversation wouldn't necessarily be helped along by adding my voice as it would by adding someone else's, that's all. I certainly wouldn't mind being a part of a conversation, but I don't think that I'm necessarily the best judge of what it means to be structurally marginalized. More importantly, this isn't a normative claim about how we should talk about privilege, just my approach to it. :)

      3) From an ontological perspective, I'm torn as far as the categorical status of society. I tend to see the individualistic reading, where society is simply an aggregation of individual behaviors, as overly-simplistic, and lacking in explanatory value when it comes to mob rule and collective action problems. However, I also tend to see a wholly collectivist reading of society as overly-determinative. From a theological perspective, I tend to see society as one of the "powers and principalities" the author of Ephesians tells us we're fighting against (a la Walter Wink), but at the structural level of analysis, that sort of interpretation can get pretty sticky (what if there are "good" parts of society?). So yeah, no definite answer on that one. :/


      1) I think you're drawing the distinction between privilege and privileges nicely in this paragraph, so I think we might be pretty close to agreeing in terms of how we see privilege. I wholeheartedly agree that we get sloppy with words. One of my favorite admonitions is "Words have meanings!" and I try to remember that when I write, but as you know, attention spans are only so long when it comes to blog posts. :)

      2) I'm not suggesting "adding a privilege" to the other person. Since I see privilege as a structural societal construct, I'm not sure it would be coherent to talk about "adding privilege" in a strictly binary relationship (though I'm not necessarily married to that position). Rather, it's a kind of abdication. Some might consider that to be condescending and patronizing (and I think it is if it only happens at the individual level and never at the organizational and structural levels), but to me, it's the only way to "eve the playing field," so to speak.

      3) Oh yes, the Other is always a convenient scapegoat. And I certainly agree that society is made up of individuals, but as I alluded to before, I think a solely individualistic reading tends to deny the synergistic effects of societal pressure, so that's where I tend to get stuck.

      Thank you so much for the input! I hope to keep the conversation going!

    4. Luke: thanks for taking time to respond. I have a much better
      understanding of what you are saying now.

      Concerning the first point, I think that we agree conceptually, if we
      do apply the words a tad differently.

      Concerning the second, I had simply misunderstood your position.
      You're right that there are an excess of voices at the table defending
      the privileged. My only worry would be that, if those of us who are
      thoughtful abdicate out voices, then the dialogue tends to become a
      screaming match between polarized positions on each side (see
      contemporary politics and the shrinking middle).

      On the last point, as you noted this is quite complex. Further, I
      don't think we have determined as a society how to deal with
      individual sins within a group mentality. When we are involved, we
      want mercy. When it is others, we want blood (see our lack of patience
      for Nazis who participated in genocide and then claimed that they were
      simply following the chain of command/contemporary ethos/et al).
      Perhaps it is this last part that makes us naturally place ourselves
      outside of such groups. At the same time that we were condemning Nazi
      groupthink we were also participating in horrendous racial injustices
      in our own country. Today we look back on that as something we would
      never do (Harper's Weekly, I believe, ran a great piece about how the
      movie The Help allows white people to continue to think of racial
      injustice as "other" by supplying a white protagonist with
      contemporary values for them to self-project upon).

      This has been a fruitful discussion, Luke. Thank you for your time. I
      am adding your blog to my reader and look forward to your future
      posts. I also typed this on my phone...please forgive any blatant
      spelling/grammatical errors.

  5. Your stream of consciousness was definitely on track and on point. Great points here. I too enjoyed the way you described bloggers as a privileged group whose voices drown the voices of the most vulnerable we are trying to represent. It's kind of like politicians really, who have a constituency they represent, but rarely actually listen to their voices to effect change in Congress. Ideally, that's how it should work. The privileged listen to the vulnerable, know their struggles, empathize with their pain, and use their "platform" to effect change. It's important to keep our motives in check though, as you pointed out, so that we won't be using that "platform" for selfish reasons. Thank you for this post.

    1. Thanks for reading, and you're absolutely right: motives are important! Outrage is easy, empathy is hard. I also think there's considerable difficulty in terms of "professional advocacy/activism" in the world of blogging. When your "platform" is your means of making a living, your advocacy/activism is necesarily commoditized, and those you're advocating for tend to become products instead of people.

  6. good stuff here, especially with regard to platform, "authority", and the privilege of education/internet/etc. it's a huge responsibility to attempt to communicate a christian perspective on anything, and we all could stand to take a posture of listening and humility more.

    not to hate on george w bush, but without acknowledging privilege, how else does one explain how a goof-off, poor student, and former drug user becomes president of the united states of america?? i read this book once called The Working Poor (so good), and what stayed with me is the idea that poverty is a mixture of bad "luck" (/inequality) *and* bad choices, but that some of us are considerably more insulated from the ramifications of bad choices. some mistakes are one and done, depending on who/where you are, but others get chance after chance to try again and turn things around--and that's privilege.

    1. Listening and humility, yes, and I'm not even saying we shouldn't speak, but when we do, I think we have to be so careful we're on the right side of the conversation. It's so easy to think you're being helpful and just end up looking like a patronizing, colonial ass (I've been there many, many times).

      Also, I think you'd have to qualify "bad choices." It's important to point out that from a privileged perspective, we could look at a marginalized person and say that virtually none of the choices within the domain of options available to them is a good one, so they're destined to make a "bad choice" even if it's the "least bad."

      Oh, and Bush hating is always welcome as long as it's principled. :)

  7. hey luke. i don't want you to stop writing, but i am becoming convinced that blogs maybe are the least helpful "platform" for AUTHORS. just because of all the things you pointed out.

    i would say to lean into the tension, and then go write a smashing book.

    great stuff.

    1. I think you're probably right about the usefulness of blogs. I think there might be some redeeming value in blogging communities that have a clear mission and vision (and I swear I'm not just saying that because I write for one).

      As far as writing a book, I honestly wouldn't even know where to begin. :)


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