Male Privilege, Discussion Derailments, and the Politics of Politeness


Yesterday I was in a conversation with a male colleague who supports violence and welfare reform in Nonhuman Animal rights efforts.  As an abolitionist, I reject these tactics as both ideologically flawed and counterproductive.  The violence/non-violence debate and the abolition/welfare debate have long histories in the movement, and debates over effectiveness are never ending.  Because I specialize in social movement theory in my academic life, I have some rather strong positions on these topics.  My colleague, however, is a non-academic and is not versed in the science of social movements, basing his position on the dominant (male-led) discourse of the movement.  As the conversation progressed and I continued to remain strong in my position, my colleague pointed out that he didn’t feel like he could talk to me without eventually being accused of sexism.  This may have been because I was using the language of privilege to discuss the dominance of welfarist organizations in the movement, or it may have been because I noted that violent tactics are patriarchal and tend to attract men.  Whatever the reason, I was being flagged for communicating my position within the framework of inequality.  I certainly never accused him of sexism. However, it soon occurred to me that my colleague was probably not making this claim out of true exasperation, but rather as a manipulative tool intended to derail the discussion and restore male supremacy.

Men tend to be socialized to expect domination in discourse.  They are socialized to believe they are right, that their opinions matter, and that these opinions are the most important.  This is not based on experience or expertise, rather, it is based on their privileged social status as a male.  Women, on the other hand, are socialized according to the politics of politeness.  We are taught to give men more room to talk, to value their opinions no matter how ridiculous or offensive, to soothe their egos, etc.  Decades of sociological research on talk, language, and social space regarding mixed gender interactions has confirmed that men talk more, they take up more space, they dictate the discussion, and their opinions are viewed as more credible and legitimate.  Women, on the other hand, speak less, support more, and take up less space.  Their opinions are also extremely devalued.

When men complain about not being able to say anything without being accused of sexism, what they are really saying is:

1.  I am used to having control over the conversation, your awareness of sexual politics makes it difficult for me to enact this invisible privilege smoothly.

2.  I am used to being able to speak about any topic without my authority being challenged, the possibility of being accused of sexism interferes with my authority.

3.  I am drawing on politics of politeness to shame you into putting my feelings and interests first.

4.  Feminist theory is a charade.  Sexism isn’t real, you’re just using that rhetoric as a way to win the argument.

This tactic is a variation of tone-policing. Rather than engaging the discourse, there is a derailment created by appealing to the bruised male ego, the woman’s character, and the authenticity of feminism.  Women are distracted from expressing their own authority on a subject when men exploit femininity and pressure women into paying deference to the patriarchal social structure.  The validity of my argument goes by the wayside, I have to put his feelings first.  Not putting the feelings of men first is a cardinal sin in the patriarchy.  Being a woman with an educated opinion seems to be a great offense as well.

Finally, it is extremely important to recognize that when we individualize oppression, we obscure its systemic nature.  If we can’t discuss systemic oppression because people of privilege prioritize their discomfort at what appears to be a personal attack, we will not be able to have the important conversations necessary for creating an egalitarian society.  Making it personal (“Hey, I’m not sexist!”; “Hey, are you calling me racist?!”) seriously derails the conversation.  Instead of challenging structural oppression, advocates find themselves tending to the feelings of people of privilege who are used to being shielded from discomfort. It becomes extremely wearisome for oppressed people to continuously pander to the feelings of privileged persons.  Doing so redirects attention from the oppressed to the oppressors.  It also shuts down the dialogue, interferes with critical thinking, and impedes social justice work.